What happened to my earlier first chapter?? I ditched it–too confusing and kind of boring. This writing life is a real adventure.
NEW YEAR’S 1980-1981
The conversations that sear your soul happen in ordinary places. In public spots, at normal times—in an office on a Tuesday, outside the grocery store late one morning –but off at the side of the action, in a space that for some moments feels like a blister on the surface of the world. The conversations that change things are rarely really private. Once people are in business or in bed, decisions have already been made.
I ran into Randall Kirchner in a cruise ship gym. “Randall, is that you?” I said, watching as he sat down one weight and, with an exploratory jerk, picked up one that was heavier.
He turned. “Barbara? Barbara!”
The gym was an inside room no bigger than a trailer. Behind Randall, a muscular man grunted as he lifted weights above his head. Beside us, a young lady upped her treadmill speed in grim determination.
Randall dropped his dumbbell back on the rack. “Give me a hug.”
His tall frame was hunched, the gleam in his eye dulled. His chest when we hugged was softer than I remembered. Still, the warmth of him felt wonderful. It had been years since I’d held anyone so long.
We had met in the early fifties back in Midburg. I was a Boy Scout mother and he was a Boy Scout uncle. He was married without children–nothing rare or suspect in those days. I was cheerful, Randall was charming: both social virtues, both choices. We were workers in the same field. Once in a while we spotted each other across the teaming grains and waved. Then things got serious. Something of the predator, perhaps, in him. Something of the coy victim in me. Male and female, embracing their traditional roles. That little flutter in my chest, my quick breath. The boys would return from clambering up some obstacle, shirts off, foreheads gleaming, and I might have envied their energy and youth, but Randall made me feel like them.
Now, in the gym of the Northern Star, Randall and I stepped back from each other, eyes down, and started talking about our former Scouts–my kids, his nephews–then moved on to fellow Scout leaders and places weʼd had campouts. Finally I blurted, “Howʼs Linda?”
“Fine. We just had our fiftieth anniversary. Weʼre on the Promenade Deck.” Speaking very quickly.
“Fifty years, oh my. So when we were wandering around Red Hawk Gorge it must have been, what… twenty-seven-eight years ago?”
Then, heʼd been married over twenty years. He was the plant manager for a hardware manufacturer and was friendly with the plant manager of Humm Industries, my husband’s family firm, although he’d never met my husband . I said, “Glenn and I only made it thirty-six years. Heart attack. He keeled over one morning in the bathroom. Twelve years I’ve been alone.”
“Iʼm sorry,” Randall said. “Are you cruising by yourself?”
I ignored the quiver in his voice. “Iʼm with Neil’s family. My grandsons and I are sharing an inside cabin. We donʼt even have a porthole.”
Randall’s forehead twitched. “Itʼs a celebration trip for me and Linda.”
Fifty years. I wondered if he and his wife were sharing a bed. They didnʼt way back when–or so he said.
Once Iʼd seen Randall at a picnic scooping potato salad onto his paper plate. Already his chin was slackening and his belly growing. But I absolutely ached for him. When he wrapped his arms around me, I felt as if nothing could hurt me. “Iʼve always wondered, thinking back,” Randall said with sudden resolve, “Iʼve always wondered if you really would have…”
I glanced at the weight Randall had set on the rack. Eight pounds. I could lift that much. “What?” I said, more sharply than I intended. The floor beneath us seemed to shift, and I wondered about the ship and its famous stabilizers. I said, “I read everything I could about San Antonio.”
“Barbara.” Randall’s company had opened a new plant in Texas, and he had moved to run it . At the time, I thought there would never be better time for the boys and me to part from Glenn. Neil was heading to college and Geoffrey wanted to change high schools. Randall said, “But you had the boys.”
“I would have gotten custody.” Because—not at first, but after the stillbirth and my broken arm–Glenn’s mother was on my side.
Randall’s gaze shifted. The treadmill stopped. Randall held out his hands, palms down. “You would have gotten tired of me, see? I have a tremor.”
The lady jogger excused herself to step between us and out the gym door.
Randall slapped his face with his hand. “I have spasms! Iʼm a mess!”
I placed a foot on the edge of the empty treadmill. The man with the weights was grunting. “I guess it all worked out. I can’t imagine Geoffrey in Texas. Heʼs a confirmed bachelor.”
Now Randallʼs hands were really shaking, and I imagined them breaking off and flapping around the room like giant bats.
“You know, I think Iʼll walk outside. Iʼm glad I saw you.” I removed my foot from the treadmill and opened the door to the corridor, realizing belatedly that the Promenade Deck—Randall’s deck—would no longer be a safe place for my strolls. “Iʼm glad youʼre well.” Although we hadnʼt spoken of his health at all.
Our evening family dinner in the Kismet Room. “You saw Mr. Kircher? Neil said. “On this ship? Neat.” Neil explained to his sons and Natalie who Randall was. “Great guy. I used to think he had a crush on you, Baba.”
Carl smiled. He was only fourteen, but he paid attention.
“He worked with the Scouts to help out his sister with her sons,” I explained, “because their father was a drunk.”
“Mr. Staub was a drunk?” Neil looked surprised.
“A crush on you?” Angus said. Angus was my older grandson. Despite his being the laziest of students, it appeared he would indeed at least start college.
Carl said, “Angus, men can have crushes on Baba.”
“I wasnʼt old then, Angus.” Some of the Scout fathers used to call me “Mrs. Dish.”
“Remember…?” Neil crossed his eyes and exposed his bottom teeth,
an expression that Randall pulled when the Scouts got too much for him. The face pierced me. My sons had never imitated any face of their father’s.
“Baba was married then,” Natalie pointed out. “A crush wouldnʼt have mattered.”
“It could have mattered,” Carl said, and I tried to hide my smile. From the time he was a baby, Carl’s head had made me think of a doll’s: perfectly round, button-nosed, with a small mouth and shapely pink lips. As he got older, his body stretched and thinned but, still, his head was perfect. I touched it as often as I could for reassurance, like patting a Buddha’s belly.
On the cruise, I never saw Randall again. As if the sight of me had made him jump ship. The next evening Neil bought a bottle of wine for the whole family, and, after dessert, Natalie headed off to a juggling show with the boys, leaving Neil and me alone at the table.
Neil waved his hand at the dark window. “You think Geoff’s having a good time, out there on some island pansying around?”
Geoffrey, Neil’s big brother, indeed was travelling with his chorus friends, but pansying, like Liberace? Geoffrey left the room whenever Liberace swanned onto TV. I said, “Your brother has his own life to lead.”
“I just wanted him with us.” Neil poured me a slug of wine. “Listen, Geoff and I have a plan. We want to expand the solenoid business. All youʼd have to do is sell some land. Thereʼs over a hundred acres you never see. And real estate is going now and Geoff and I will get the place anyway when you…”
I glanced at the mauve carpet, and for an instant I fantasized about curling up under the table. Of course, that would be the moment Randall walked in. “I wish Geoffrey were here,” I said.
“Baba, I begged him to come. You know how he is.”
“I know,” I said, wincing at the sadness in my voice. The day of his father’s funeral, Geoffrey had locked himself in his apartment. Too weird for me, he said.
“Baba. Geoff and I are responsible.” A five year plan. Expansion. Infusion of capital.
I said nothing, staring at the window. Such small windows on a boat! I had no idea where we were. The wine and the absent wife and sons must be part of the plan. And here I’d believed Geoffrey and Neil understood.
My husband was not a gentle man. Not that the boysʼ misdeeds were major—not that Glenn would have killed them–but there were times that Glenn did not hold back, and I knew what he could do. Once, it took me almost a month to turn my head. Not infrequently, I had to take to bed. Once, a dreadful woman at the club said I was the sickest person she knew. And then there was my arm. But Glenn’s and my life together was prosperous and the envy of many, and I wanted my sons to join their father in Humm Industries. A family business was secure. A family business tolerated oddness. If the Midburg symphony had been a family business, dear Kevin would still be on the podium, his too-small tuxedo jacket stretched taut over his right shoulder, and the orchestra board would not have been horrified—horrified—at the news of his body wedged between logs and branches in the sluiceway of the Midburg dam.
I said, “Don’t ask me to give up a hundred acres.” A waiter poured more water in my glass. Glenn had left the business to Geoffrey and Neil and the lake and land to me. Justice for all. Payment for my years of silent service. Once, when Glenn and I were lying in bed after intercourse, the time when it was safest for me to speak, I mentioned how beautiful the lake had been that afternoon, how it surprised me that his mother, who stayed in the cabin all summer, spent all her days inside. “For crying out loud,” Glenn said, “it’s not Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. Itʼs just Lake Humm.”
That was a typical conversation between us: my statement, his correction. But at that moment I understood that I loved Lake Humm more than Glenn did. And now Lake Humm was mine.
“Ask me to sell stock, not land,” I said to Neil. I had plenty of stock. The boys bragged about me at Rotary—my research at the library, my watching Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser, my selling and buying timed to technical factors Mr. Rukeyser called The Elves.
Someone tapped Neil on the shoulder. “Could you get all our picture?”
“Of course,” Neil said, standing, and the family he took photos of was delighted with him, they thanked him so so much.
“The stocks are for your future, Baba,” Neil said as he sat back down. “The land you can give up. That whole area south of the county road: how long since youʼve been there?”
Sometimes, Neil sounded like his father. “I visit the trilliums every spring,” I said. “They canʼt grow anywhere. You put houses on that land, itʼs bye-bye trilliums.”
“Baba, do you know how many family shops are left in Midburg? Itʼs down to Humm Industries and the Goebbels, and Junior Goebbel’s driving around with a bumper sticker that says My other car is up my nose.”
“Why do you think they call it real estate? Itʼs dirt, itʼs trees, itʼs water, itʼs ten thousand bulbs Iʼve planted. It may be play money to you, but itʼs real estate to me.”
The mother of the family Neil had photographed tapped him on the shoulder and waved. “Thank you again!”
“Forget it,” Neil said. “Iʼm sorry I brought it up.” And the cruise went on, and the band played, and I got back to my condo in town and the phone rang. “Barbara?” Randall said, and I hung up.
I got in my car and drove myself to the cabin, a place I’d never stepped inside in January. The lake was the lifeless grey of a cookie sheet. Inside the cabin I made enough noise to scare off any snakes, then lay on the sofa in my coat and boots and looked up at the beams and log ceiling and across the room to the two windows set high in the wall. Black limbs crossed the grey sky. It was five in the afternoon and almost dark. I thought of things I hadn’t thought about in years. The empty bottles Iʼd buried, the fender I told Glenn that I had dented. How Geoffrey, after Iʼd bailed him out, stared at the kitchen floor of our big house as I suggested better spots to meet his friends. Near the stream at the back of our property. At the club in the woods near the seventh tee.
A more dignified time. Men wore brimmed hats, not caps emblazoned with the names of sports teams. Even close friends kept some things private. There were things you might suspect all someoneʼs life, yet never know for sure.
“Mrs. Humm,” Randall used to say, nodding.
He and I would never have been happy together. The guilt. And, if I had run off with the boys to Texas, Glenn would not have trusted them in the business. I pulled over me the cloth quilt my mother-in-law had made, thinking how the dampness never left it, and after a few moments I roused myself and started a fire in the fireplace and scared the mice out of the nest theyʼd made from toilet paper under the bathroom sink. I used a pail to tinkle in, because the water was turned off. I got back under the quilt. Soon, there was nothing coherent in my head: Glenn’s big fist above me; tropical drinks served on a tray; road signs. The pillow under my head had the comforting smell of mildew and a nubby texture not unlike the airplane seat Iʼd sat in earlier that day. The fire was warming up. Oysters being gently, gently steamed.
When I woke, the light through the windows was bright and the fire was out. I got up, used the pail again, and re-lit the fire with old magazines. Back under the quilt, I debated about taking off my shoes. It must be mid-morning. Twenty-four hours before Iʼd been playing yahtzee with my grandsons at an airport gate in Florida. I wondered why I wasn’t hungry. The crisscrosses of branches outside the window were beautifully the same. Why should I have to change? If Neil pressured me again about selling land, I’d refuse. If Randall tried to contact me, I’d hang up. Simple. I switched on the light and climbed the plank steps to the bedroom, then pulled down the bearskin nailed to the wall. Downstairs, I laid the furry skin on top of my mother-in-law’s quilt and slipped myself back into my sleeping cavity, still slightly warm.
I dreamed. I was twelve years old again, sitting with my parents at dinner at a resort hotel in Saratoga, and the beautiful lady from the next table was approaching me, her long fingers fiddling with the clasp of the starburst brooch pinned to her dress’s wide collar. I knew what she was going to say (such a lovely girl you are, it was my grandmother’s) and I smiled as she drew closer, but something in my smile was off, and instead of attaching the brooch to my dress the lady poked its pin into my chest.
I woke up in the dark, my hair sweaty and matted. I threw my covers on the floor and sat up, uncertain for a moment where I was.
The boys were long gone from our big house in town when a heart attack knocked Glenn over. I was fixing breakfast when I heard the crash above me. Glenn’s body seemed to take up every inch of the bathroom floor. His razor, bristling with cut hairs, perched at the edge of the sink.
There had to have been a better way for him to end. He had to have hoped to die in bed, head on his own pillow, maybe even me beside him. As a toddler, his mother told me, Glenn liked to suck on the knob of flesh at the end of her elbow. “Glenn?” I’d said. “Glenn did that?”
At the winter cabin the next morning I stepped out into a quiet world sheeted with snow. I scooped up some to melt on my tongue. There was no food in the cabin, and I was finally hungry.
The four other Merry Widows talked about their health; I didnʼt. They talked about men; I didnʼt. They worried out loud about their children and grandchildren, but I kept my worries private. The Merry Widows would have been startled to learn that on our cruise Neil had found me difficult. To them I was the content one, the calm one, the one who had it all together.
Iʼd tell the Merry Widows that Iʼd gotten home and slept for thirty-six hours. W wouldn’t mention Randall Kircher or Neil asking me to sell my land. I must pass along that brooch. My final encumberment. How much longer did I have? Five years? Ten? I was almost sixty-six. I was healthy and physically fit, but neither of my parents had made it past seventy.
Inside, the fire was out. I folded up the quilt and draped the bearskin over the sofa. I closed and locked the front door. Brushing the snow off my car, it hit me that Randall was a coward. Phoning when he was back in Texas and not when I was three decks down. The wavering, the qualms, the hesitation–what kind of man was that? Glenn, for all his faults, had known what he wanted and gone after it. He had shot the bear in Alaska, back when the place was still a territory. I could still feel its skin on top of me–heavy, warm, oppressive. A bearskin let you know that you were covered.