On a Tuesday morning in February he is working out in the yard, sinking a shovel into the damp soil where he plans to make a border of small stones. These gray, polished rocks are waiting in an expectant line in the tool shed. When the digging is done he will place these stones in the earth, using his bare hands to arrange them. Within this border his wife's vegetable garden will grow. He expects that tomatoes grown in a small backyard will lack the robust taste of those from the country – the startled, grateful feeling on the tongue when it tastes something fresh.
He wipes his forehead and pulls his shirt away from his lower back, where a thin film of sweat has gathered. He leans the shovel against the wooden fence – which he built himself, though he never got around to painting it – and listens to his daughter's bath running inside the house. The air smells like turned earth.
Behind him he hears a car pulling into the driveway, tires crunching and spitting gravel. Before turning around he tries to guess who it is – Dan, maybe, with that kiddie pool he promised to Cherie after his own girls outgrew it. The car sits for a while, purring, before the engine shuts off and his oldest daughter emerges. "Hello," he calls out, and waves his hat at her.
Her face is drawn; there's no lipstick on her mouth. Ordinarily she wears a crimson color, the shade of oxidized blood. Without this thread of violence she looks helpless. She raises a hand to remove her sunglasses, and though she looks directly at him, she moves no closer as she says, "Mom died yesterday."
They stand fifteen feet apart and stare at each other. A memory pops into his head, or a composite of many memories – Margaret with one leg in the car, hanging out of the driver's side door, yelling at the girls still inside the house to get out here before they made everybody late. Once she got to work she was the image of a professional woman, calm and competent in her heels and silken blouse, but most mornings she was harried with the effort of herding their two children.
Before she pulled out of the drive he always gave her a kiss through the car window, being careful not to muss her makeup. Over time these kisses grew more mechanical, performed like a duty rather than a pleasure, but he felt that some affection persisted in them until they ceased to happen altogether.
This memory is three decades old, and he hasn't recalled it in nearly as many years. It floats now to the surface of his mind unbidden, a pebble falling loose at random from a mountain.
"I'm sorry," he says.
Anna nods. "I am too."
Silence. He has no idea what to do. The dried sweat on his skin makes him feel unclean, unfit to be here in the presence of death. He wonders how he will tell his wife.
"Do you want to come inside? Let me get you something to drink. I know you must be feeling terribly." He takes a step toward the screen door but Anna shakes her head.
"I can't. I have to catch a flight to Ashland in an hour. I'm going to – to help."
He would feel hurt by her refusal, but he knows she's not prepared to speak to Cherie. They have never been enemies; nor are they family. She will leave him the burden of breaking the news. He doesn't begrudge that.
When Anna leaves he looks down at his handiwork. The tiny holes seem like graves, but he keeps digging.
The last time he saw Margaret was five years ago, at his father's funeral. The word "last" gains a double meaning that makes him shift his shoulders in discomfort as he works: no longer just the most recent time, but the final time as well.
He would have acted differently had he known it was his last opportunity to leave a dignified mark on Margaret's memories of him. He would have drunk less. He wouldn't have pulled out pictures of his daughter to prove how unaffected he was by the past.
Margaret attended his father's burial with a serene assurance, as if she did not notice – or did not care about – the stares of his family members. They had heard only his side of the divorce story, his harangues and complaints, and with a filial devotion they didn't question his depiction of Margaret as a heartless bitch.
During the service he was acutely aware of her in his peripheral vision, sitting in the pew in front of him, wearing a pillbox hat with a veil over her face. Had he not felt so guilty, he might have seen her motives differently – as a tenacious bloody-mindedness instead of nobility. But when she told him later that his father had been a good man, and no personal qualms could have persudaded her not to pay her respects, a lump rose in his throat. He wanted to pour out his forgiveness, to emit it like light from his body and have her accept it with both hands.
Margaret had the tact not to surprise him. She sent word through Chelsea, their younger daughter. "Mom is coming to the funeral," she told him over dinner when Cherie left the room to fetch the dessert. It was one of their Sunday night dinners, when they ate in the dining room and used the good silverware.
Chelsea incorporated this ritual into her life though Anna could never stomach it. The chandelier light glinted on her glasses and she tucked her hair behind her ears, looking down at her half-eaten plate as she waited for his answer.
"Is that so?" he said, and brandished a tray of asparagus at her. "Here, have some more."
"Are you okay with that?" Chelsea propped her chin in her hand and stared at him, forcing him to hold her gaze so he couldn't equivocate.
"Why, yes," he said. "It's none of my business anyhow. I didn't write the invitations."
"She doesn't want to make it unpleasant for you. She knows it's hard."
He wanted to scoff at this. Margaret never knew her father, and had been estranged from her mother for years when they received notice that she had died alone in a hospice in Kansas. What Margaret "knew" about losing a parent was surely limited. Instead he said, "I appreciate that. Your mother is a good woman."
He wouldn't start an argument. For one, he didn't want the sound of raised voices to bring Cherie running. Moreover he was exhausted. He was an orphan at the age of fifty-four, and he felt unmoored.
His father's health had declined for a grueling decade prior to his death, and shortly after his mother's passing the family physician called him with the not unexpected information that his father had Alzheimer's. He had been diagnosed for three years by the time his wife died but she had neglected to share it with any of their five children.
Similarly, she had told no one about the several mornings on which she vomited blood and felt a terrible pain in her stomach. She had tied her apron about her waist, pinned her wig into place with her daily army of bobby pins, and gone about her household duties. Her bewildered husband found her unconscious in the flower garden with a spilled bag of birdseed at her side, and the sparrows were singing blithely, stuffing themselves as she lay among her prize-winning camellias.
He'd made the six-hour drive up to his parents' house in the mountains as soon as he got the phone call. His sister wouldn't admit, in so many words, that their mother was about to die – as if by saying that aloud, she would grant nature permission to take its course. Instead she said quietly, "It's bad."
They set her up comfortably at home with a hospice worker, so she could die amongst the things she loved. He isn't sure he would prefer going out in his own bed. At least in a hospital he could look around and think, well, this isn't much worth missing.
He sat in the den with a few cousins and recalled a memory for each of the well-worn pieces of furniture. The mahogany table that once broke his toe when he kicked it in frustration. The red brocade chair in which he'd put his hand up several girls' sweaters in high school. The beautiful rug on which his mother's awful poodles had fervently loved to piss.
He wondered what would happen to it all when both of his parents were gone. Divvied up among their children, he supposed, but each room had existed in its present form for what seemed an eternity. He imagined each object heaving a sigh and crumbling into dust, glad for its work to be over.
He wanted the red chair, for sentimental reasons.
Why hadn't his mother told anyone she was ill? He wondered as she lay dying in the next room. He felt angry at her silence, her old-fashioned refusal to be honest about the indelicacies of a living body, but beneath that he was simply angry at her for dying. The experience of losing his father was as merciful as it was sad, for the mind he'd known as his father's had already been lost.
But his mother was still a vital force. When she passed away that evening he'd locked himself in the guest bedroom to cry. Perhaps he can't blame her for clinging to dated ideas, since he maintained some of his own – he couldn't bear to let anyone see him, a grown man, grieving.
When his siblings were told about their father's diagnosis there were several tense discussions – should he move in with one of them? Should they find a good nursing home? They'd decided on a live-in nurse, the option that caused them the least guilt. None of them were ready to take him in, but neither were they prepared to risk it with one of those assisted living places, haunted as they were by rumors of bedsores, sadistic nurses, bad food.
Three years later his father died in his sleep. He regretted not having the opportunity to say goodbye but remembered the uncomfortable predatory feeling of waiting for the end at his mother's passing. He had felt like one of a flock of vultures. He imagined looking down to see talons slicing open his patent leather shoes.
He had little to do with the preparations for the funeral. He lived the furthest away of all his siblings and had no talent for planning. Margaret's invitation to the funeral had been a technicality – Anna and Chelsea had been welcomed to attend with "family members," and extended a welcome to their mother as a matter of politeness.
Chelsea was started when Margaret accepted, though Anna later confided – leaning over with the smell of booze of her breath and a thin sheen of sweat melting into her hairline – that it was "just like her, to enjoy doing whatever other people won't expect." It was true. He had many memories of Margaret telling dirty jokes at bars in college, and laughing harder than anyone else. Such was the glee she took from people's surprise at hearing such vulgarity from the mouth of a small woman whose bobbed hair tucked tastefully behind her ears.
Cherie didn't go with him. She said she was sorry but she had to stay – the sitter was out of town, and they couldn't leave the baby with a stranger, surely? He agreed, of course, though he knew she was relieved to have an excuse to stay home. She had met his father only once and got the cold shoulder from two of his siblings, who had remained staunch Catholics after most of the family drifted into murky religious indifference.
Many times he'd told them, "But Margaret left me! What did you want me to do, become a monk?" Perhaps they'd rather he locked up Margaret in the basement until she changed her mind. Fat chance. That woman had a pair of lungs. If nobody answered her clarion call she'd bring the building down with the force of the sound waves.
As he left for the train station Cherie flitted around him in the doorway. "Did you pack your umbrella? It's supposed to rain on Sunday. I packed an extra pair of good shoes for you. Don't look at me that way, you never know what you'll need."
He had leaned in to kiss the top of her head, aiming for the peach-colored birthmark that could barely be seen through her hair. But she tilted her face upward and looked at him with imploring eyes. "Are you sure you'll be alright? I can always call Connie and see if –"
He shook his head. He felt touched by the conflict playing over his wife's face, her eyebrows furrowed with concern and her parted lips beseeching him wordlessly to say yes, he'll be fine, goodbye.
For decades he has loved the train ride from the coast to the mountains. One of his earliest memories recalls him standing at the window of his family's compartment as they traveled to visit his aunt. He had placed his cheek against the glass so he could have one eye on the interior of the train, all burnished metal and beige cloth, and the other on the summer morning swirling past outside.
It was July, or perhaps August, and all the mountain brush was yellow and parched. Eddies of dust and pollen drifted past and crept through the corners of the windowpane. A grove of eucalyptus trees, their boughs trailing the earth like the limbs of a body bent double in the heat, grew along the crest of the ravine. The dusty air softened the sunlight, and the canyon looked like a glowing bowl scooped out of the earth. He remembers the helpless, aching feeling this sight gave him, the impression that such beautiful things existed only in the distance, as seen through a window.
In the compartment's reflection he could see his mother. She sat with perfect posture, her skirt smoothly arrayed over her knees. Her oft repeated advice to his sisters was to sit as if they had a dime held between their thighs which they dared not drop.
As a young man he had dismissed his mother as a kindly but small-brained woman, a cheerful person content to wile life away with word searches and sewing machines. Now he remembers that reflection of his mother's face – the elegant lines, the careful makeup that allowed her to appear present while her eyes searched for another place entirely.
Several years later he took the same train to and from university. Though the landscape outside remained the same, what occurred inside was quite different; simultaneously he recalls a game of cards with his father and an occasion on which he drunkenly put his hand between his girlfriend's legs without remembering to close the compartment door. He winced at the juxtaposition and thought instead of what he would say to Margaret.
He didn't want to approach her, but neither did he want to make an ass of himself by ignoring her. He would limit himself to condolences, he decided, only what decorum required. He wasn't sure what else he had left to say to Margaret anyway.
He pulled up to his parents' house around sunset. His sister greeted him and showed him to the couch in the den where he would stay the night. He liked this room, with its dim lighting and subterranean air. It was dominated by an enormous pool table, the green felt worn thin in places.
He spent many hours down here as a teenager, sometimes showing off to friends, but more often alone. He remembers his father's mantras – left foot forward, don't abuse the corner pocket, set your stance before you bend to the shot. His father would let up difficult shots for himself and solve him like a chess problem.
He'd never taken it that seriously himself. As far as his adolescent self was concerned, its main benefit was impressing girls. But he recalls with reverence his father's face hovering low above the table, glasses gleaming in the murky light, shuttling a cigarette to the side of his mouth as he explained some technique.
If he didn't understand his father would get impatient and take his arm; bending the elbow, or place the toe of his shoe in the crook of his son's knee, nudging until his leg assumed the proper stance. As he fell asleep he heard the sounds of pool balls clinking together and his father clearing his throat, the sound he made when he was pleased.
While dressing in the morning he debated whether to wear the suit he had inherited from his father. He wanted to pay tribute, but equally pressing was the fact that his other tuxedo had grown snug. He hoped no one would notice.
As he stood before the mirror knotting his tie, he tried to parse how he felt. Saddened, of course. A bit relieved that his father no longer had to exist as a shadow, feeble and clutching the coattails of his former self. And lost – set adrift now that his old man had died, now that he'd become an old man himself.
The service was held at the Presbyterian church his parents belonged to. They rarely attended services, but they donated a sizable sum at Christmas every year and their names remained in the registry. He sat next to his elder brother Thomas in the backseat at the funeral procession. They spoke little. Thomas was the most ebullient of all his siblings, but in that thin morning light he looked stricken. The lines at the corners of his mouth were trembling. He cleared his throat and pretended to brush dust from the cuffs of his sleeves.
He looked out through the smudged window. The drivers in passing cars looked at the procession with furrowed eyebrows, nervousness or solemnity, he can't tell which. He thinks of the afternoon thirty years ago when he and Margaret drove home from the airport after their honeymoon. He was sunburned and rapturous to have his wife (his wife! He sings it over and over in his head) in the seat beside him.
He glanced over at her, at the flush of pink skin over her collarbones, descending the slope of her breasts, turning alabaster white below her neckline. He felt a shiver of desire pulse in his stomach and his sunburn prickled. It seemed like every nerve in his body stood on end. His sight had a shine to it, everything somehow golden, everything conspiring with him in his joy.
"Michael, that's our exit," she had said. He flicked on the turn signal and glided onto the ramp, sliding between cars that seemed to graciously part for him. He felt so pleased that Margaret's laughter took several seconds to make sense.
"Oh, god! What are you doing? We're in the middle of a funeral procession!" She covered her eyes with both hands, with a laugh that sounded like choking.
A few years later this would have been fuel for an argument. He would feel humiliated, attacked, and as he raised his voice hers would turn strident. But that day nothing could touch him. They laughed until their eyes watered; he prayed no one saw him as he pulled over, taking a minute to catch his breath.
"Jesus christ," he said, wiping his eyes, "what a dumbass, huh?" But he felt too good to believe what he said.
God knows the people must have been furious – some idiot blithely speeding, blind to their grief, the somber pall of their faces. But his happiness was unassailable. Death, with its specters and sorrows, was like something that happened in novels, on television. He had no room in his head for thoughts of endings as he embarked on this incomprehensible great beginning.
In the backseat with his brother, he realizes he is looking forward to seeing Margaret. Perhaps it will make him feel younger. He wonders if her smile has changed.
Despite the black that everyone wore, and the darkness that lapped at the corners of the church where the dimmed light couldn't reach, when he remembers his father's funeral he thinks of the color blue. The windows were covered with heavy curtains that draped the pews with a shade like the sky at five o'clock in winter. From where he sat at the end of the pew he could stare at the cerulean cloth that masked the coffin and wonder whether the body would still be there if he whisked the fabric away. A morbid magician's trick: now you see him, now you don't.
In the pew in front of him he saw a woman with a pillbox hat dabbing her eyes with a tissue. There was a veil obscuring her eyes, but when she turned her head – revealing a finely bridged nose and dimpled chin – he knew it was Margaret. The little veiled hat was absurd.
He felt a laugh bubbling up in his chest but somewhere in his trachea it became a sob. His shoulders rose and fell while he cried. He managed to muffle the sound, but even though Margaret didn't turn around he could tell she recognized him from the nervous way she ran her fingertips along her ear and jaw. When she was anxious she always touched her face, as if to reassure herself it hadn't abandoned her. After they divorced this was one of many things he sought to forget, not because it caused him any pain, but because it seemed inappropriate to know so intimately this person he no longer loved.
Mercifully he had stopped crying before the pastor finished speaking. Outside the light was so strong and relentless that he stumbled in the doorway, startled. He decided to write in his will that he wanted the church windows open at his funeral; no point in reminding everyone in attendance of a tomb, dark and cold. Let the living keep living.
In the parking lot he heard quickening steps behind him and felt a small hand touch his shoulder, its grip more tight than you would expect from such delicate bones. He turned to see Margaret, her veil raised, her eyes pinning him in place. She'd aged better than he had. Few of the hairs on her head had gone gray. Her crow's feet wrinkles served to deepen rather than obscure her expression.
"I'm sorry if my being here made you angry," she said, "but your father was a good man and I felt like I needed to come."
He nodded automatically. To his surprise he found no sense of resentment. Maybe it had finally been too long to keep dragging that around behind him.
"Are you coming to the house for dinner?" he asked. "I'm sure everyone would welcome you." It was a lie, but she was merciful and didn't correct him. "I'd like for you to go," he added.
"At your parents' house?" she asked. "Or I suppose it's your house now."
The thought startled him. He was the oldest child but he'd given no thought to his father's will. He wasn't sure he wanted the place, so old and full of ghosts that it was like a specter itself. The idea of a stranger living there should have offended him, he thought, but instead it was simply unfathomable.
Margaret was looking at him carefully, judging the set of his shoulders to determine how to act. "Are you hurting," she said, "or are you relieved he's not in pain anymore?"
"Both," he answered. "It seems like pain is conserved. Just because he no longer feels it doesn't mean we can't inherit it."
"There's no escape," she said, almost breezily.
He was grateful for Margaret in this moment, for what was either her inability to respect sadness or her refusal to bend under its weight. He felt the urge to forgive her, to extend a hand with good faith and accept the apology she didn't owe him and wasn't making.
She hadn't wronged him, really. Contrary to his angry, endless, spiraling thoughts after she left him, for years before their divorce there had been a slow dissolution, a dull ache beneath his breastbone and in the joints of his fingers. It had been twenty years since he'd taken off his wedding ring for the last time, and twenty years before that he was a teenager loitering in parking lots, trying to remember what that girl's lips tasted like when she gave him his third – and, he began to fear, perhaps his last – open mouthed kiss. That fifteen year old incarnation of himself was a stranger. So was, he suspected, this middle aged Margaret.
"Can I give you a ride there?" she asked. "I'm afraid I"ll have to insist on driving."
He laughed, but quieted himself quickly, not wanting to appear mirthful at a funeral. He'd always felt uncomfortable letting a woman drive him around. Margaret would tease him about it. Even now her face was lit with a faintly malicious joy.
He doesn't answer aloud but allows Margaret to take his arm and steer him through the parking lot. At another time he would have felt emasculated to lean on a woman's shoulder, a perversion of the role he wanted – and expected himself – to play. But his feeling of being cast off, a boat with its moorings unraveled and the deep water lapping with greed at his belly, had grown unabated. He was grateful for the musty smell of her hair entwined with the fading perfume on her neck.
At her car she doesn't open the passenger door for him; she remembers him well enough to know his limits. The drive is silent and comfortable. He looks into the rearview mirror and watches the road recede in their wake. Margaret's hands look competent on the steering wheel, her manicured nails glinting in the sun diffracted through the windshield. One of the acrylics has come off; the natural thumbnail is bitten to the quick, the skin around it pink and inflamed, as if she had missed the pleasure of biting her nails and did it with enthusiasm after the opportunity arose.
He thinks of Margaret watching him in the car one night, before things went sour, coming home from the girls' ballet class. Both of the children had fallen asleep in the backseat. He turned while stopped at a red light and saw Anna's head drooping to the side, her face pressed against the window and her nose pushed upward into a pixie-like point by the glass.
It had been raining a few minutes before, and the water trails on the windshield were drying into streaks. A thin fog clustered around streetlights, casting a murky yellow light that struggled against the darkness. The moon was only a suggestion of a white gleam behind the clouds.
Margaret's voice broke the silence. "You look sexy when you drive," she said.
"You look like you know exactly what you're doing," she said.
In tenser times he had looked back at this comment with bitterness- the implication being, he supposed, that most of the time he had no idea how to behave. But they had been married for only five years then, early enough that he had taken a moment to turn his head and smile at her, earning them an angry honk from the truck behind them when he failed to see the light had changed.
They had lived in a city for most of their married life. Both of them had grown up in rural towns, and as adults felt stifled if there were not at least one store that stayed open all night. As Margaret drives him through town to his parents' house for the funeral reception there is little traffic. It is Sunday afternoon after most people have gone home from church. Now they sit in their living rooms, sleeping on the recliner or watching old television shows.
The children, if his own youth lends any power of prediction, will be taking advantage of their parents' lethargy to slip out the back door, careful not to let the screen door slam, and stealing down to the creek bed which is mostly dry at this time of year. There they'll be catching tadpoles in glass jars – they make easy targets when they're confined to shallow puddles – and trying to blow all the dust off a dandelion with one big breath.
"Do they still roll up the streets at night?" Margaret asks him.
That was one of his father's favorite lines, although his father had never lived in a place big enough to warrant leaving the streets unfurled all the time.
They are one of the first cars to arrive. He wonders whether he violated the social protocol by not staying behind to engage in quiet conversations and condolences with the other mourners. They won't judge him, he decides. Grief is an all-encompassing excuse.
"What will they think when they see me?" Margaret wonders. He opens his mouth to lie again about how glad they'll be, then decides against it. She respected him enough to let him open his own car door, so he won't insult her intelligence.
It's his own fault for fostering those feelings. But maybe she won't hold it against him. He's never found a graceful way to tell them that his post-divorce harangues were based less on events as they transpired than on a searing sense of embarrassed loss, the sensation that she had tricked him by no longer allowing herself to be taken for granted.
"We don't have to stay long. You don't have to go, if you don't want."
"No," she says, "I'll go. They all saw me at the funeral. If I don't show up to the dinner they'll say I was only there for appearances." This is exactly what would be said. He shifts his weight beneath the confines of the seatbelt and thinks of how strange it is that this woman has existed somewhere far away for every moment of the last twenty-five years, carrying around a whole world of knowledge about him despite rarely having a conscious thought of the life they no longer inhabit.
They sit listening to the cicadas starting up in the side yard, where the grass is in dire need of cutting. A few at first, then the whole choir, the buzzing sound swelling like an old lawnmower that's slow to start. A breeze scoops up a few dead leaves and skitters them across the roof of Margaret's car.
"Shall we?" She opens her door. She's inviting him into his own childhood home. Well, let her. He barely had the courage to wrap his fingers around the door handle.
His brother Thomas answers the door. Along with his strained facial expression- startled, displeased, and trying not to show it- they are greeted by a burnt smell. Tom's fingertips run nervous circles around the doorknob.
"Hello, Tom," Margaret says. "It's been a long time. Please accept my condolences. Your father was a good man."
She's used this phrase to describe his father several times already. He agrees that his father was a friendly man, one who spent time with his children and loved his wife. He knows that every morning for several months he will forget while sleeping that he is an orphan now, and the knowledge will hit him while he puts a filter in the coffee pot or while he is shaving, meeting his own eyes in the mirror as the razor nicks his skin and the shaving cream turns pink with blood.
"Good," however, is a word not spoken but intoned. If he heard people describing him that way from his perch in the afterlife, he would resent the imposition.
"Thank you, Margaret," Tom says. "I'm glad you're here. Would you like to come inside?"
The burning smell is wafting out of the beleaguered oven. His aunt is flapping her hands before it. "I bet Frank hasn't used this thing since your mother died," she tells him, using the present tense, like his father is still in the next room over and just deaf enough not to hear the comment. "Three years since it's been cleaned, too. Whatever's burning has had a long time to get settled."
He smiles. His father had only one sibling, a sister fifteen years younger than him. This was an accident that, according to his father, was the only thing that saved his parents' marriage from its final disintegration into a swamp of mutual, despondent ill-will.
"They would fight every night before she was born," his father told him. "But once they had a baby sleeping in the cradle at the foot of their bed they'd be damned if they'd make a sound to wake her up. And once they stopped fighting I suppose realized that a few of the good things they remembered about each other were still there."
He wonders what his aunt feels now that her brother is dead. His father was so much older that they were never playmates, and he had moved out and gotten married before she was old enough to hold a conversation with him. But then, he and his father also had a slim record of good conversations, and he still feels like he's closed inside a glass box. Everything looks the same, but when he tries to touch something, it's always hovering just beyond the brush of his fingertips.
His aunt's eyes light on Margaret for the first time. She squints, like she can't be certain that it's his ex-wife for all the smoke in the room. He thinks she would have squinted even if the oven hadn't been catching fire. He understands her doubt; he can't believe it either.
"Well," his aunt says, "hello to you. It's been a long time."
"Yes," Margaret says in a measured voice, "it certainly has. I hope you've been well. I'm very sorry for your loss."
His aunt nods and sets her mouth in a tight line, measuring how to respond. "It is sad," she says, "but it was even sadder to watch him wandering around wondering who the hell he was."
The rest of the evening is less tense than he expected. Nobody reacts to Margaret with overt hostility, though they sometimes whisper to each other and frown with narrow eyes when she's turned the other way. They don't bother to hide it from him, and they give him a questioning look.
They must assume that she strong-armed her way in here for some insensitive purpose. They're wrong, he thinks. Margaret used to be one of his anchors and he's glad she's reprising her youthful role. She's a counterbalance to the feeling that he has been abandoned. Her presence is like having weights tied to his shoes so he doesn't rise in the air and disappear into space.
It occurs to him that she consoles him more than Cherie could, were she here. Is he a traitor for having this thought? Well, it's foolish to expect him to ignore the past when it's standing right in front of him, suddenly transposed into the present tense. Cherie had never been married before they met; she had a fifteen-year, successful career as a paralegal and had never felt terribly concerned about finding a husband. He still feels a certain pleasure as he remembers this, a feeling of conquest that makes his hands tingle – a feeling opposite to his anxiety as Margaret insisted upon driving her own car.
Why does he need to be bolstered? No one's questioning him but himself.
He manages not to cry for the entire evening. He can contain himself except for when he sees something that makes a pang of loss throb in his stomach. His father's recliner, its arms tattered, the fabric faded into a vague blue. His mother's set of good kitchen knives in their rack on the wall. The set of World Book encyclopedias on the bottom shelf of a bookcase, the pages well thumbed, "C" and "R" both missing.
When they say their farewells and head for Margaret's car, she asks if he wants to go to the train station. "No," he says, "my ticket's for tomorrow afternoon. I was going to get a room at the hotel."
"I'm staying there too," she says. "Do you want dinner?"
He shakes his head. "I couldn't eat."
"Do you want a drink, then?"
He pauses. "Several, maybe."
They had spent a few afternoons in the dingy bar on the main street when they were married. It had served as an escape from interminable family dinners. "Getting this drunk at three o' clock," Margaret would laugh every time. "What must they think of us?"
And every time, deriving great pleasure from delivering his line on cue, he would bark "Who gives a damn?"
The kids were left with his father's sister, who couldn't have children and enjoyed pretending to have two daughters from time to time. She would be an awful mother, he knew, but in the role of indulgent aunt she performed with gusto.
In that bar they had been like newlyweds again, like their twenty-four year old selves with no one to feed or tuck into bed. He enjoyed his life, loved his intelligent children and his pretty wife, but the game of trying on different costumes never lost its allure.
He wonders whether it will look the same. He half expects the same barman to be swirling a dirty hand towel on the sticky counter, though two decades have passed. "I don't mind it," he says. "I would love to."
In her youth Margaret had been a beer drinker, downing even the cheapest swill with good cheer. Tonight she ordered a brandy.
"Is that your drink of choice now?" he asks.
In this dim light, he can't make out the feathered lines that radiate from the corners of her smile, or the way the skin over her collarbone is dimpled from too much time in the sun. She looks the same as he remembers her and there is little to distinguish this moment from ones that happened years ago. He has already had a gin and tonic and though he holds his liquor well, tonight he feels drunk already.
The contours of her body look gentle and blurred; the gold flecks in her eyes are shimmering. She looks beautiful in the thick yellow light that drifts down from the bare-bones fixture hanging three feet above the table. But not as beautiful as Cherie, who is only thirty-six, who does exercises every morning that a women's magazine told her will keep her breasts pert, who spends an hour every morning at her vanity mirror, putting on her face.
Funny that she's fond of that phrase. It's matronly. It sounds foreign in her mouth, a put-on by someone who is very conscious that her husband is fifty-two and graduated from college the same year she started kindergarten. He tells himself he's not rich enough for Cherie to be a trophy-wife. It's a farce that he plays out for himself, probably, but he loves her and he doesn't want to cheapen her.
He's never cheated on Cherie. Years ago when he and Margaret started drifting apart he slept with a girl from his office. It was unpleasant; she was one of the company secretaries and she lay down without a word when they stepped into her bedroom. Now he realizes she was fulfilling the duty she thought he expected of her.
It was sad. He was a senior partner in the firm yet he pursued her not out of a desire to yield power, but a genuine entrancement with her small wrists and the pencil tucked behind her ear that she absentmindedly toyed with as she thought. He wonders why he never told her this.
He confessed it to Margaret in a particularly vicious fight, wanting to hurt her; when he has this memory he squirms with shame. But she had stared at him and rather than screaming, let out a single, disbelieving laugh. "Do you think you're the only one who's fucked around?" she asked. "Trust me, I was ahead of you right out of the gate in that race. Try to catch up."
She had stormed out of the room. Maybe she really had been hurt, despite her own infidelity, multiplied several times compared to his. (Can he perform that kind of moral calculus? Can a betrayal that profound be deepened just because it's repeated?)
He's not sure what it means, the fact that he was willing to cheat on Margaret and can't fathom doing it now. Maybe because he and Cherie have a daughter that's still young. Maybe because he's older and can't imagine how he'd go out and get into a bed with a woman without paying for it. He certainly didn't love Margaret any less. But he had sought ways to escape without having to be the one who delivered the final blow. It was cowardly. They had both been cowards.
"I'm fond of brandy," Margaret says, dipping her pinkie finger into the water ring left by the cold glass, dragging the moisture across the stained wood. "It makes me feel warm. And it's never made me sick." When she was young Margaret drank a lot, and fast. The moment it hit her she would collapse over the nearest trashcan and retch.
He had worried sometimes that that made her an alcoholic. He had decided that it didn't matter what mental perversions you could be convicted of if your life was something that could be respected. But he doesn't believe this anymore. It lets people off too easily.
"How is Rhode Island?" he asked. He assumed that was where she still lived. Anna and Chelsea mentioned their mother as little as possible when he was around. He appreciated the tactful overtures, but even after two decades of separation they handled Margaret's name as if it were a bomb. Maybe it was for Cherie's benefit.
Or, neither of them having been married, they couldn't imagine what it was like to hear about someone you promised and failed to spend a lifetime with; when he attended weddings he did greet the phrase "till death do you part" with a skeptical smile. Mark your aims that high, he thought, and you're setting yourself up for failure. "They ought to promise 'until boredom, infidelity or erectile dysfunction do you part,'" he often joked, "but it doesn't have the same ring."
"It's beautiful," Margaret had said. "It's kind of a joke. You can drive through it in forty minutes. But it's a very pretty joke."
He wasn't sure what to ask next. The obvious pleasantry was to ask about her husband, but she didn't remarry. With some women an ex-husband might consider that a victory, deriving from it a belief in his irreplaceability. But in Margaret's case their marriage had been a long deviation from the plan she set out for herself at seventeen, and he was sure that she relished finding her way back to the trail.
He couldn't ask about her kids, since they were his too. He was sure he could learn a lot if Margaret was willing to confess the things that his daughters failed to tell him. But Margaret and his daughters had always conversed in a language he couldn't speak. Even as babies she would lift them out of the crib, bury her face in their convex tummies, and whisper to them until they smiled. Those enormous, stupid baby smiles, the eyelids sliding half closed over blue irises, the soft coo of inarticulate bliss bubbling in their throats, spit pooling in the corners of their mouths as if joy itself was leaking out.
He wasn't fair; he was only bitter because he could never pull off the same trick. As an infant Anna would grumble and sometimes cry if he approached her too suddenly. Chelsea would silently allow him to engage in his nuzzlings, but when he saw her little features they were appraising him with a look of profound distrust that he hasn't seen on an infant before or since.
"How is your work?" Margaret had asked, cutting into his tipsy sulking. He wasn't sure how long he'd been frowning into his empty glass and he felt embarrassed.
"Fine," he had said. "I practice out of a neighborhood clinic now. It's the same few dozen people in and out. I know the names of all the old ladies' grandchildren. Or their cats, if the sons and daughters refused to spawn for grandma."
Margaret snorted into her brandy.
"I mean, it's nice in a way," he said. "Downtown I'd get five new patients every day and never see any of them again. It felt like a vending machine. They had this infection or that ache, and they'd take their prescription and vanish, you know, into the ether. Not that I had much time to learn their life histories in a twenty-minute slot. I ought to be a house nurse. Call on rich women and invalids. Charge them extra for gas."
"Do you still like what you do?" she asked.
"I always liked what I was supposed to be doing," he said, "but the stars haven't aligned for me. Colicky baby, guy who barfs whenever he tries to swallow a pill, a middle-aged woman who's sure she has such and such an ailment that she read about on her computer. You know. People you can't help no matter what you do. Doctors get all the good stuff. Nurses end up with the basket cases."
Margaret had looked doubtful. The slight pout she wore reminded him of how it used to drive her nuts when he talked about his job like this. She had remained enthused with her career, spilling the details of whatever heartwrenching case that Brooks-and-Thompson (she said it like they were one being) had on the table this week. Their firm operated out of a converted country house just outside the city limits, with a wrap-around porch and four trees drawing lines on the dusty ground with their drooping limbs. The house had a bevy of big windows, glittering in the light that found its way through the serrated willow leaves.
It looked like an estate, not a business. That was a cultivated image: Brooks-or-Thompson (they were interchangeable, fat and bespectacled) once whispered to him at an office party that they picked a place as far removed from the bus line as possible. But Margaret wouldn't hear of it when he derided them as old vultures feeding on the carrion of disinherited sons and contested wills. "We're still trying to do right by people," she had said once, "which is more than I can say for you and all your speeches making fun of people who are sick and lonely."
"Oh, yes," he answered, "how noble you are to comfort a man who's so torn up by his father's death that the very first thing he does once the coffin is shut is to run to your Tooks-and-Brompson and try to get his hooks in a bigger chunk of the gold that daddy left behind. A lot of good all that money does a dead guy, and it'll do his asshole children even less."
Tears had swelled along the rims of her eyes as he mocked her, and he repented. He ironed her clothes for her after she went to bed and had a pot of coffee ready for her when she woke up. She knew he was sitting at the kitchen table, not because she looked at him but because she made a careful effort not to. She poured a mug, took a sip of it black, nodded at the coffee pot and shuffled back out of the room. She had forgiven him.
"Well," Margaret had said that evening in the bar, "at least the nutty ones are interesting."
He nodded. "Sure, there's the word."
She lifted her glass to her mouth and evaluated him over the rim. The upward glance of her eyes, with dark lashes dipping down into the familiar green-and-gold pools beneath, reminded him of driving home from the airport after their honeymoon- the discomfiting spool of desire unwinding in his stomach as he looked at Margaret's sunburned breasts in the rearview mirror, wondering whether he had made a conquest or been captured.
His mind kept flitting back to things he hadn't recalled, or wanted to recall, in years. Every small movement of her hands or tilt of her head seemed to throw a door open somewhere in his brain.
"So what fine gentlemen do you work for now?" he asked. She waited until he smiled to determine whether he wanted an answer or wanted to tease her.
"It's a woman, actually," Margaret had answered. "She's set up her own shop. No partners. She's got two paralegals and we're both women. So is the secretary, the mailcarrier, even the janitor. It's paradise. You'd hate it."
He had spent enough time in his life torturing Margaret, with or without humor behind it, that he'd felt he owed her a laugh in response. "You'd be surprised," he said. "I have made my peace with women. It's much easier when you're old and your dick is worn out, so you don't spend your time looking for places to put it. It's hard to respect someone when you think of them as a receptacle."
He expected her to cringe, but she nodded instead.
"I don't know whether Anna ever told you," Margaret said, taking hold of the glass ashtray with her thumb and forefinger, turning it in slow elliptical shapes. "But she got married to a man three months ago and left him last week."
"She didn't tell me," he said. He didn't feel startled. Not enough to raise an eyebrow. Maybe he had been drunker than he thought. Or Anna had defied all reason so many times that he was numb to his reaction- having built up a tolerance to the way his brain would stutter for a moment and scramble to catch up.
"He was a good person," she said. "If anybody she ever dated was marriage material, he was the best approximation. But she got bored." Margaret paused and dragged her finger across the bed of the ashtray, accumulating chalky dust on the edge of her nail. "As a mother I shouldn't admit to this, but I'm glad she left him. I don't think anybody deserves to be married to a person who can't stand to be stuck in one place for more than a week."
"Why do you think she wanted to get married?" he had asked.
She shrugged. "It was something she hadn't tried."
Margaret lifted her glass and turned toward the door, looking for the surly bartender. In profile her features were sharp and unambiguous. The underside of her chin was beginning to weaken and droop, but the fine bridge of her nose had retained its form. At that angle he could see where her makeup pencil had strayed above the brow line, a small smudge of golden-brown, and he remembered all the mornings watching her pull out of the driveway while looking into the rearview mirror to put on her mascara.
When things got bad he picked a fight about it. "Is that worth it, Margaret?" he'd asked. "You've got two little girls in the backseat, your own kids, and you're going to let yourself get T-boned at an intersection one of these days because you need to do your lipstick?"
In arguments she had often reacted with an icy staccato. "Do you think they're going to keep me around that firm if I go in with my face bare?" she said quietly, every word clipped. "Do you think they hired me because I was talented? I am talented, but that's not why a woman catches a man's eye when he's got a business and needs a secretary."
"Is that so? Gee, what torture it must be to have those two fat fucks chase you around your desk. Maybe if you didn't put on two coats of that red light lipstick they wouldn't be imagining it leaving a ring around their dicks once you're finished with your implied duties."
"Don't be crude," she'd answered. "Luckily for you, they haven't asked me to take my clothes off yet. I'll cross that bridge when it comes."
The barman took Margaret's glass and trundled away to refill it. "We're the only business he's had all afternoon, you'd think he could pick his feet up off the ground when he walks," Margaret said. He had smiled, but it was a wan expression. He was preoccupied with remembering the sickening things he used to say to Margaret and the way she never took the bait, his efforts growing in intensity over time as he struggled to make her blanch, just once.
His reflection in the gleaming table was scarred by cigarette burns in the wood. He looked sweaty, a little ill, but in light of the fact that he'd just watched his father have six feet of soil shoveled on top of him, he didn't feel as close to death as he'd expected. The agony would come later, he thought.
"How are you doing?" Margaret asked. He was startled, as if she'd read his mind, then remembered she'd spent two decades learning to analyze the clench of his jaw and what it meant when his eyes narrowed at nothing.
"Holding it together," he had answered. "I don't know if it'll be good to go home, or if it'll just make him seem further away. Not that you can get much further than hell or wherever it was he ended up."
"Do you think he was that much of a sinner?" she asked.
He couldn't tell if she was serious. "No," he said, "but I still don't believe in any of that. I don't see why god should be capable of sorting people into two categories based on a list of sins. If there is another life, I expect some saints end up in hell just like they do on earth."
Margaret frowned at him and took the fresh brandy from the barman without looking at him. "You sound as angry as ever," she said, "I still can't tell if you're really bitter or you just like to fend off messy situations by sounding fed up."
"It's both," he said curtly, and felt out of line. "Sorry. It is both. But I shouldn't make it sound like it's your fault."
She laughed. "I think it's time to waive old debts. Grant each other amnesty."
He smiled and hoped that it conveyed warmth. "How is Chelsea's program coming along?"
Margaret had looked surprised. "How much do they hide from you?" she asked.
"They're not keeping secrets. I think they assume that I have a new wife and a new daughter and wouldn't care about their lives," he'd said. "She and Anna are wrong about that, except if I correct them, they'll feel obligated to come over more often and we'll suffer through those awful dinners. I can't stand the feeling of being unable to reconcile my children with my life as it is now. There's no place for them on that shelf. And it's not Cherie's fault. She's been lovely. It's my own doing."
"You should have taken a leaf from my book and embraced being an old maid," Margaret smiled. He was glad she didn't give him a searching look or try to get him to keep talking about the girls. He didn't mind confessions of emotion, as long as he got to dictate their depth.
"It's going well," she continued. "She's got three months left. She has a job lined up at the museum down the road from us. I know it'll kill her to spend forty hours a week just a stone's throw from her mother. She loves me, and she loves you, but she likes to love with some distance."
He marveled at Margaret's ability to pry her daughters' brains open and articulate what she found there, even if they fought to keep it to themselves.
"Her thesis is on containment theory," Margaret said. "Remember that?"
"Dimly," he'd answered. "What was it- put up a wall of guns around anything that smells like communists? And shoot to kill if they tried to spread the gospel to any third worlders?"
Margaret nodded. "Yeah. Countries collapsing like dominoes, except instead of black spots on the pieces you'd have tiny cameos of Stalin and Mao. Real nightmare, the way Chelsea's stuff makes it sound," she said, taking a sip of brandy that, compared to her old methods, seemed prim.
"I thought the grade school bomb drills were fun," he said. "I would've opted for a nuclear winter if it meant no more long division."
She had smiled, and her eyes lingered on him for a few extra moments. "Lingered" wasn't the best word, implying as it did a subtle sensuality, a gaze like being wrapped in silk sheets. Call it "evaluated" or "sized up." But he wouldn't have minded some lingering.
"So far as Chelsea's concerned it was a total wash," Margaret had said, tucking her hair behind her ears where he spied, for a moment, a silvery lock that flashed and disappeared. He wondered if she would dye her hair once it all started turning gray. "Her thesis, as far as I pretend to understand it, says the problem with beliefs is you can't draw borders around them. I guess I agree with her. But I could be wrong. I don't subscribe to a single newspaper anymore. It's wicked of me."
He turned the word over in his head, containment, examined it from all sides. Then he wondered, how did they manage to raise a daughter that was doing so well? Anna, though he loved her deeply, was the kind of person he would have expected to emerge from so thorough a mess.
Another memory stumbled to the surface of his brain, the details assembling chunk by chunk, a clumsy process. Margaret standing in the foyer of their house after a fight, not a very bad one considering that they were less than a month from giving up on their long, failed experiment. Outside it was raining, but she either hadn't known or hadn't cared when she stomped out into the yard a few moments earlier, barefooted, her ragged hair escaping its ponytail. She was wearing a yellow skirt that he was once fond of for the way it clung to the contours of her hips, but now the color seemed garish.
He watched her through the glass door. She raised her hands to her temples, then let her arms cover her head, twisting the limbs about each other, her mouth slack as if she were sleepwalking. Margaret crouched to the ground and mangled the soaking grass with her hands, sinking her trembling fingers into the soil. She came up with two fistfuls of earth. She let it some of it crumble out of her grip and then, composing herself with a single jerk of the head, threw the clumps at the birdbath where a sparrow was frittering in the water. The bird alighted and vanished so quickly that he was hard pressed to believe it had ever been there.
He was watching the birdbath teeter, wondering if he would have to clean it up if it fell and broke. Margaret would let it sit there forever, not giving a shit about whether one of the kids would cut themselves on it. He felt angry at this imagined injustice and didn't realize that Margaret was careening back through the doorway until her clammy, tense body brushed past him.
"What were you doing?" he asked.
"I don't know."
"You tore up the sod we put in just a week ago. Why? What were you doing?"
"I don't know. I don't know what I'm doing."
He exhaled sharply and squeezed the doorknob until his fingers turned white and bloodless. "I understand there's been a fight," he said, "and you have to understand I would like to go out and do tear things up as well, but you don't see me-"
"Michael, I don't care. I don't care what you do. Do whatever you like." Her voice was not shrill with false dismissal. Instead it was very soft. She sounded as if she had experienced part of a revelation which refused to reveal the rest of itself. "What you want to do is not my business anymore. We've been locking ourselves up in the same house out of sheer spite for one another and I can leave whenever I like."
Margaret wiped a raindrop from where it matted her eyelashes and left behind a smear of dirt from her hands, filthy with flecks of sediment still adhering to her skin. He felt a wave of revulsion for her haggard, soiled face, for the eyes that looked white and depthless as they reflected the steely, rainclouded sky.
"Don't bullshit me, Margaret, I haven't kept you locked up anywhere. I've been waiting to see if we could come to our senses. I hoped you were doing the same."
"No," she mumbled. "I had learned how to be contained and I liked it better that way even when I hated you. I could have left you, but I didn't."
"Contained? Like I kept you locked up in a trunk?"
"Yes," Margaret said, "but I had the keys all along. I just forgot them. Or I liked being trapped. I don't know. It doesn't matter. Don't listen to me. Nothing I say should matter to you."
He stared at Margaret and realized that even his old familiar lust for her, the turgid feeling he could always summon up from his guts with little effort, had vanished. He had expected to hate her eventually, but at that moment she looked like a stranger.
"Contained," he sneered again. "That's good. You are really unrivaled in your talent to twist shit around and convince yourself to believe it."
There is a prolonged pause before she meets his eyes. They listen to the rain pattering on the driveway, the metallic ping of water dripping into the gutters from the roof. When she looks at him she smiles. Her mouth is trembling as if she's freezing to death.
"It's a gift," Margaret had said.
In the bar he avoids thinking of his father ensconced in his coffin, sealed up for good, and nodded down at his glass, now refilled for the fourth time. "Well, I'm happy for Chelsea," he had said. "I'm very proud of her. I want Anna to be happy, and she would hate to have a life like Chelsea's. But it's good to have a daughter I can talk about when people ask how my kids are doing."
Margaret shrugged. "It depends on who asks me," she said. "Chelsea makes me feel like a good mother, but Anna is more interesting."
"If we knew about what she was studying we'd have more to talk about. She brought her classmate to dinner-" (it was her girlfriend, but Chelsea didn't openly acknowledge that, so he didn't either) "-and afterward they sat there drinking wine and talking about this king of Sweden, Charles something, I don't remember the number, and they knew all of these little tidbits, and they laughed so often that I felt like an idiot because I didn't understand the factual stuff, never mind the jokes."
He smiled as he took a drink and a rivulet of pine smelling gin escaped his mouth, running down a wrinkle in his sun-weathered cheek before dissipating into his dress shirt. "It's admirable, she knows more about my lifetime than I do. I don't remember much. I've lived through the last half century but I was drunk or unhappy for most of it. I was the one who signed up for the newspaper subscriptions but you were the one who read them."
When Margaret laughed at his joke he felt a sense of camaraderie, the weight of a shared past. It was similar to how he felt when he saw his brother. They didn't talk often, but they were close, unavoidably so, because few other people remembered what it was like when they were children. They were pressed together by time.
Another flash of memory, his body on top of Margaret's in a room lit only by a moth-ridden streetlight outside the window, half of her face illuminated by that sickly yellow and the other half dark against the pillow. When they had sex she always maneuvered him into this position, on his side of the bed. Now he wondered if she was making sure she wouldn't have to deal with the mess left on the sheets when it was over.
Most of his sexual memories about Margaret have compounded into an amalgam, all from the same vantage point with the same bedside table moving in and out of his peripheral vision. She was usually too shy if he asked her to get on top. She was a loudmouth in public but she was tormented with an array of embarrassments when she was naked. She could bluff her way through anything if she needed to convince someone, but she was so hampered by her own exposed body that she was incapable of manipulating it during sex, the way she could fluster someone with words until they were charmed or defeated.
In this memory the distinction is the ending. After he came Margaret closed her eyes and kept them shut. They didn't often hold each other afterward and he doubted that she kept her legs crossed behind his back out of a desire to keep him close to her. Her face was marble still, aside from a faint vibration of the eyelids, and her expression didn't change as he moved to climb off of her. She unclasped her legs but said nothing. He stood naked next to the side of the bed, hoping nobody walking on the street would look inside. He waited for Margaret to roll over to her side. But she stayed there.
As he fell asleep in her normal place he didn't think she seemed angry, but her silence and her stone-still face were inscrutable to him. It reminded him of the first few times they slept together, when he found it hard to distinguish her expressions of pleasure from that of pain- the noises and the shape of her open mouth were the same. But he enjoyed himself, even when he wasn't sure if Margaret concurred. It made him wonder whether he was a sadist. He doesn't think so now. He views himself as a cruel man in many ways but the vulnerability of Margaret's naked body, the pale pink stretch marks on the inside of her thighs and the softness of the downy blonde hair at the nape of her neck, made some kinder part of his heart swell.
There's a soft spot in it somewhere, like the delicate depression on the top of his babies' skulls when they were newborns, the place he was scared to touch when he brushed their hair. He never laid a hand on them, not even a half-hearted swat on the butt when they were being horrors. He had no moral compunction about another person spanking their kid but he didn't trust himself to do it. Even on those occasions when he later admitted that they might have needed it, he was afraid he didn't understand himself well enough to decide what was stern and what was hateful.
He wondered why he could go from thinking of making love to his ex-wife to a memory of brushing his tiny daughter's hair. They were connected by biological progression, but more than that they were both permeated with a sense of unease: did Margaret enjoy it when they went to bed? Did he avoid asking her because he was selfish or because he was scared of it would mean if she said no? Why was he so afraid that he would fuck up as a father? Did all that trembling matter when in the end he had two kids who didn't trust him enough to tell him anything about who they were now that they had their own lives?
He had felt guilty all evening in the bar as he sat across from Margaret, smiling and talking like old friends, while in his head swam memories of their arguments and malevolent uncertainties. Why did he think of the bitter moments and not the good ones? More of the time they spent together was content than angry; it was the depth and shock of the anger that made it override the rest.
Remarkably those old grievances had no bearing on how he felt when he shook himself out of his internal monologue and looked at Margaret across from him, listening to her talk about a contractor for her house in Rhode Island that managed to install a staircase facing the wrong way. He laughed at her jokes without worrying that she was trying to outdo him. He enjoyed watching her pretty face without wondering whether he was too good-looking for her, or she for him. It was much easier to feel in love with Margaret when he wasn't obligated to love her forever.
Would it be more respectful to their past together or would it be wrong, to dredge up a memory of the times Margaret smiled at him after sex, bending her mouth to blow the sweaty strands of hair out of her eyes? He felt guilty for imagining how her body now looked underneath her black mourning clothes, what parts of its topography had changed. How would Cherie feel if she knew? He guesses his body looks decrepit compared to a man Cherie's age, so he doesn't hold her presumed fantasies against her. But that doesn't stop him from feeling ashamed.
Perhaps he should have given himself more credit. Even after he found his life with Margaret insufferable he had retained, to both of their surprise, an seething appetite for her body even as he recoiled from the rest of her. That he now spent hours in her polite company before wishing he could be in bed with her instead was remarkable given his track record. Maybe the reptile part of his brain that controlled sexual desire was too primitive to recognize this as the same woman whom he once loved, despised and lusted after; he thought of these emotions in no particular order, since there wasn't one.
But she was the same. He had hesitated before asking Margaret, wondering if it reeked of insecurity or self-absorption, "Am I how you expected me to be after all that time?"
"You're just like I remembered you," she answered, "and that was a surprise. I don't buy into the idea of personality much. I don't think it makes sense that a woman will be the same person when she's seven as when she's eighty. I think people don't realize they change because it's continuous from your own perspective- there are no gaps in your life when you look back on it. It's one smooth upward slope, or downward as the case may be. So I would have expected you to be another man by now." Margaret paused. "You look older. But you aren't a different person. Whereas I can't imagine you feel like you're sitting across from the same person you used to know."
He laughed. "I'm pretty bad at distinguishing the past from the present. And I have a shitty memory. But you seem like the same lady."
"I'm different to myself, but the changes are so deep in my brain that no one else would notice," she said. "And maybe someone who's closer to me knows a Margaret that's very different from the one you're having drinks with. Everybody has a set of different faces to wear. Maybe I'm putting on my old one for you."
"Or," he said, "I still remember a certain Margaret so well that I could sit with you for a year and the image in my brain would still be you in the past."
He was startled when her face crumpled with sadness. She put an elbow on the table and held her head with a flattened palm.
"But isn't it sad," Margaret said, "to think you can never see me clearly again? Is that what happens to people in love? They hate it when the present grinds up against the past that they're trying to drag along with them."
In the midst of speaking her voice descended from an affronted ring to a tone that was deadened and grinding. At the final words she sounded consigned to something that was unfair. He sensed that he had voiced a thought she'd had before and rejected, and now she tried to wade through it again but found it solid.
Should he take her seriously? he wondered. They were drunk. Alcohol made him more brusque with his opinions, but Margaret used to tell outlandish lies to strangers when they went out to bars together. He would sit a few seats down, pretending not to know her, and keep a tally on a napkin for who believed her and who sallied away looking skeptical.
Maybe she was getting sad for no good reason. He wondered why he was feeling pangs of desire for a woman he had so failed to make a life with.
"So was it a waste, Margaret?" He meant to use her name tenderly, but it came out as a challenge.
She looked startled. He frowned. Surely she had asked herself that question many times.
"No," Margaret said. "Just because something turns out badly doesn't mean the good parts didn't happen."
"Yeah, but what if I'd left you the hell alone and you'd met a guy who you could spend your whole life with, and be happy the whole time? Don't you think about that?"
"I think that's pointless," she said tersely, pushing the ashtray away. "We had a good marriage for years longer than most people we knew. I won't act spoiled by fantasizing about some mythical man who could have improved upon my life with you." She gave her glass to the barman and shook her head when he offered another drink. "And who knows? Maybe I'll meet my soulmate tomorrow, and you were a test run so I knew what not to do when it really mattered."
He felt offended for a moment- as if twenty years couldn't matter, however happy or dismal- then surprised that Margaret had made an admission of guilt.
"I don't want to think that time was a waste," he said. "But it's hard. You've only got so many years, you know. That's a long experiment just to fail in the end. I won't sit here and tell you I regret being with you. I do regret that it ended. Even though a few more months of that would have killed me, assuming I didn't take matters into my own hands first."
Margaret smiled. She couldn't resist bitter jokes. They were her favorite kind.
She said, "I didn't miss you after I left. I missed the feeling of being a family together with the girls, that was it. And I haven't ever wished you would touch me again. But now that I see you my brain's falling back into old patterns." She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. It was damp from the sweat glistening on her forehead. "Of course I won't try anything. It'd be wrong even if you weren't married."
"No, that would be no fun," he laughed, "though you have stayed beautiful. And I've enjoyed having a drink with you. For reasons aside from the good conversation."
"Was it good conversation?"
"It was illuminating." He took the last swig of his drink and pondered the blurry distance between their table and the bar. Good thing the town was small and they didn't have to drive to the motel. "I'm getting sleepy," he said. "Want to walk together?"
After a few hours of talking, the walk was mostly silent. Their rooms were a few doors apart in the motel hallway. "Good night," Margaret told him, then shut herself inside her room before he could reply. And in the morning he left without telling her goodbye.
After Anna leaves, leaving the news of Margaret's death echoing behind her, he goes inside. He doesn't feel like working anymore. Cherie notices that he's listless, wandering from place to place and touching certain objects- a book, the television remote, the knob of the front door. But she senses that she shouldn't ask him why. He cries for half a minute with the top of his head pressed against the bathroom mirror, his gratitude for Cherie's tact having broken him down, though he had told himself not to cry over Margaret dying like she was someone who still mattered to him.
For the rest of the day the thought of his own mortality follows him around, skulking behind picture frames and inside of air vents. It has a smell like a refrigerator that needs cleaning. He's only fifty-five and hasn't worried about it much so far.
He still has a tiny daughter, after all. When he parks outside of Jess's preschool and watches all the thirty year-olds picking up their children, he doesn't feel estranged from them. He notices the differences- how the men don't have to comb their hair to cover a bald spot, and how the women can still wear skirts above their knees without worrying about broken veins making thin trails in their calves. But when he and Cherie go to parent-teacher functions, all the fathers two decades younger than he seem to gravitate toward him, asking about his job and proffering small, nervous details about their own lives, making comparisons while drinking from a paper cup full of punch.
At two-thirty he picks Jess up from school and listens to her talk about arts and crafts. He marvels at her tiny hands tracing lines in the air as she describes the shape of her artwork, made of yarn and glitter.
He stops the car at a red traffic light. The motions of driving and Jess's twittering voice had taken up just enough room in his brain for him to forget the morning's news, but now it comes back to him. It's not a tidal wave, the way that profound grief knocks you off your feet, but a seeping that starts with a cold sensation at the back of his head then swells along his lower eyelids.
"Daddy, are you crying?" Jess asks.
"Yes," he says.
"Are you sad?"
"Yes, a little."
"That's okay," she says, reaching from the backseat to pat his shoulder. He feels a scratch beneath his ear; Cherie will trim Jess's fingernails tonight, though he wonders why she bothers, when every part of his baby's body seems to grow at an inhuman rate. Yesterday she only existed in the form of Cherie making happy, purposeful coos at the sight of babies ("Isn't it sweet to see a man taking care of his kids?" Cherie would sigh) and now she's too heavy to carry without his back aching.
When he was small, it didn't scare him to see a grownup cry, unless they made those helpless, staccato gulping sounds. So he bites his lip to keep quiet, and feels grateful when the light turns green.
"Jess," he says, "can we have a secret?"
He watches her grin and squirm in her carseat. She loves to be in conspiracy with an adult, he knows; it means they think she's important.
"Let's not tell Mommy that Daddy is sad, okay?" he asks. "I don't want Mommy to be sad too. Then you would have two sad parents and that would be no fun."
Jess nods with vigor. "I know," she says. "When Mom cries she just makes hot dogs for my dinner and goes to bed."
He snorts, but thanks to the sad lump in his throat it sounds strangled. He coughs to cover it up. "How about pizza tonight, then?" he asks. "You deserve a reward for being a big girl."
Her eyes grow wide with pleasure. Maybe that was too much, he thinks. The shared secret was a present of itself, and the beneficence of pizza might make her suspicious.
"Can I pick the toppings?" she cries, almost shrieking, flapping her legs into the back of his seat.
"Of course," he says. He pulls into the driveway and gets out to unbuckle Jess. He avoids looking at the holes he dug this morning and wonders when he'll be able to face them again without thinking of bodies in the ground- Margaret's, his mother's, his father's. When Jess is free from her carseat she slithers into his arms and sighs with bliss into his collar.
"I love you," she says.
"Is that all you love me for?" he teases. "Pizza?" It makes him feel good, with the thought of death slapping him in the face, to be with someone just starting in life, who doesn't even know what dying means. (Not that he's sure what it entails, either.)
"No!" Jess squeals, and jumps down to run to her mother. Soon the contents of her backpack will be dumped on the floor so she can show Cherie her sheet full of addition problems with an encouraging sticker affixed to the top, and the four snail shells (a record number) she found and lovingly stowed in her pencil case.
When will he tell Cherie? he wonders. They won't tell Jess; she never met Margaret and that's a conversation that neither of them will want to negotiate ("Where does she go now? What will happen to her when they put the dirt on her? What if they made a mistake like in that Halloween movie and she wasn't really dead?")
As he steps through the foyer he feels Cherie's eyes on him before he even looks up. She's sitting sideways on the sofa, her lip compressed by her prominent teeth, with the cute little gap in the middle that she often threatens to get fixed. Her eyes are searching. She's wondering if it's true.
"Jess, will you go check if Big Cat is in your bedroom?" Cherie says. Jess runs in search of their fat, half blind tabby.
He sits next to her on the couch. Not too close; he doesn't want her to think she has to comfort him. It must be awkward for her. He refuses to mourn in front of her, to show any solemnity beyond what's expected for the loss of a human life.
But she shows a grace that makes him feel somehow ashamed. "I'm so sorry, Michael," she whispers, and moves closer to cradle his head against her chest. He shuts his eyes and feels her pulse beating under her breast, making the fine hairs along his cheekbone stand on end.
Cherie's first instinct for sadness is to pull the person close, enveloping them with warmth. She was made to be a mother, he thinks. He's glad he changed his mind and gave her a baby. Cherie once described to him the feeling of going home after giving birth, laying naked on their bed after he went back to work. She said her body felt foreign for a while, like something battered and hollow, and it was better when there weren't clothes keeping her contained.
She held Jess on her stomach while the baby slept, ten pounds of warm, soft, sacred matter (Jess was a fat baby, to Cherie's delight). "There's no feeling like it," Cherie had said. "You feel like you've gone ten rounds in a boxing ring, and you're not sure why it had to be so grueling, but then you've got your daughter's skin touching yours and you don't care."
It strikes him that there are certain experiences and feelings which Margaret and Cherie might have had in common, things which he couldn't have understood. They were very different people and yet they had continuities, these two women who never met but devoted long stretches of their lives attached to the same man. If he'd asked each of them to describe him, would they be talking about the same person?
"Who told you?" he asks her.
"Chelsea," she answers. "It was so thoughtful of her. She said you wouldn't know how to tell anyone." She states this weakness with such understanding that he feels his eyes stinging again. He prays he won't leave tear spots on her shirt.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I know this is weird for you. I don't know how to feel. It's so strange. Where are the self-help books for this, huh? How to cope when your ex-wife dies."
"You'll feel whatever you have to," Cherie says. "Don't worry about me."
Jess comes back with the tabby in her arms and patters jealously toward them. She feels entitled to a portion of any affection they show toward each other, meaning that any embrace even slightly intimate has to happen behind closed doors. (A few months ago she woke up at midnight to use the bathroom after he and Cherie had gone to bed together, and heard the creaking noises despite how quiet they kept. They froze as both of her fists assailed the locked door. "Hey!" she demanded. "What are you doing? Why aren't you asleep? Do you know what time it is?")
Jess drops the tabby on his lap and climbs over the back of the couch to plop herself into the gap between them. She takes a hand to each of their heads, ruffling his hair and tugging Cherie's hair out of its well-coiffed ponytail. "Big cat and me are here," she explains.
The tabby wiggles against his stomach and rolls onto its back. It stares at him and waits to be appreciated. He obeys, and it settles in, heavy as a month-old baby on his lap.
to be continued