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Sympathy Notes


ISSUE:  Spring 1984

I first noticed the tent in early fall, about the time Mrs. Murchis received a note from the family of Henry Fonda acknowledging her letter of condolence. A fog from Cook Inlet had rolled over Anchorage. As it met the cold pavement, the mist turned to ice, forcing morning traffic to a crawl and leaving plenty of time to look around. The tent was orange and dome-shaped, a second sun pushing up through the pine trees. It was like the one Wade and I had given our son, Jay, for his 18th birthday. I thought without much hope Jay had come to take me home. I did not believe I could get through another Alaskan winter, and even if I could, when it ended Larry and I might not be together. He was tired of my punishing him for the cold and darkness, which he hardly noticed and which was not his fault.

The tent was in a small park I pass on my way to the library where I work. Although I told myself it could be anyone’s son, that thousands of people come to Alaska eager for the wilderness or the lack of civilization, I looked expectantly each day for some sign of the occupant. The end of the second week I saw a figure piling wood beside the tent. It was not Jay.

The library is in the small village where Larry and I live. The village, more outpost than suburb, is in the foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains about 20 minutes beyond Anchorage. We have a lot of timber hippies living here in shacks left behind by prospectors. They are like beautiful horses with their long manes and skittish ways, nibbling on grains. They come into the library and take out books on drying food and midwifery. There are fundamentalists here, too, who keep an eye on our bookshelves for salacious literature. Their children, who are optimistic and courteous, check out catalogs for Bob Jones and Oral Roberts universities. The fundamentalists have their own local radio station, and driving to work I sometimes hear them asking of their listeners impossible things.

Mrs. Murchis comes to the library nearly every day looking up addresses in Who’s Who. When John Wayne died, she sent a note of condolence to his wife and in return received a handwritten reply. Since then, she has made a practice of writing to the families of famous people who have suffered a loss. She tells me she often stays up late into the night searching the Bible for a comforting phrase. Her pride and joy is a card bordered in black bearing the crest of the Grimaldi family. The solemnity of the envelope, also bordered in black, is broken by one of Monaco’s brightly colored stamps. Mrs. Murchis has received invitations to speak to local organizations about her hobby and to exhibit her scrapbooks which are filled with acknowledgements from the grieving families of stricken celebrities. The deaths of these strangers have changed her life.

The first frost came early this year. The leaves fell off the trees suddenly and with much effect, shoving the distant mountains closer like a mother giving a push to a reluctant child. In the park a light dusting of snow lay on the orange tent. A thin glaze of ice would form over the tent flap in the mornings. Each new day would begin for the owner of the tent with the breaking of a seal.

The afternoon of the first fall storm the boy in the tent appeared at our library. Bess Truman had died the day before, and as he walked in I was on the phone giving Mrs. Murchis Margaret Truman’s address. Mrs. Murchis was apologetic, “I would have come in myself, Liz, but the man who shovels my driveway hasn’t turned up yet.” Larry had been out at six clearing our driveway. He regards the Alaskan winters as a challenge. He comes in from chopping wood or shoveling snow to collapse happily onto a chair and say, “This beats being a CPA in the big city.” He is still a CPA, but instead of filling out tax forms for lawyers and doctors he works for the native tribes. Because of the pipeline, many of the Indians and Eskimos in Alaska are wealthy, but it doesn’t seem to matter to them. They regard the modern office buildings and hotels that have been erected with their money as a kind of conjuring trick, less real than the specters that appeared to their forebears as they walked across the endless and empty miles of ice.

Like my son, Jay, the boy was in his early twenties, but Jay is dark, average height, and rather compact. He holds down any room he walks into. This boy was slim and rangy with narrow shoulders and thin, bony wrists. His unexpectedly lavish red beard was grizzled with snow. He might have been a Scotish chieftain leading ragged troops over Ben Nevis or Barbarossa tramping across the Alps. Obviously well brought up, he stood on the mat inside the doorway, carefully brushing off his jacket and stamping the snow from his boots. The table he chose was on the opposite side of the room from my desk. He extracted a jumble of papers arranged like a clumsily put together pack of cards and spread them out in front of him. As he warmed up, he shed his jacket and down vest. His clothes were L.L. Bean or Eddie Bauer. They were the kind of things we used to give Jay for Christmas and birthdays. Jay has left law school and is in Texas now, working on the oil rigs. He has let us know he has no further need for our gifts.

It was not surprising that the boy would come to the library for comfort. His mother would have taken him to a library as I took Jay when he was five or six so that he might have his own card. Later he would have walked over from school with his class to learn about the Readers Guide and the card catalog. “Let’s have the little redheaded boy in the back row tell us what he’s interested in. The stars? We’ll pull out the drawer that says AM to AY. Now step up here in front.” We librarians who give the impression that everything can be known have much to answer for.

When I left my husband and son and came with Larry to Alaska, the first summer was all I hoped it would be. We found a small house with a view of the mountains and a new wood stove. We decorated it with Eskimo carvings and Indian prints. We went hiking in the mountains. I froze berries, and Larry caught salmon. We congratulated ourselves for staying away from the sons and daughters of Philadelphia lawyers and New York stockbrokers who build contemporary homes in the expensive Anchorage suburbs and furnish them with family heirlooms: Chinese export punch bowls with hairline cracks and threadbare oriental rugs. They fly to San Francisco in the fall for clothes and Hawaii in the winter for vacations and subscribe to the Sunday New York Times, which arrives on Wednesdays in Alaska, giving the soothing impression it is just a little too late to do anything about the problems of the world.

From the beginning Larry loved Alaska while I kept feeling I had forgotten something. When the winter came, I stayed home making innumerable cups of tea and writing long letters to Jay explaining why I had left his father. Sometimes I simply stood at the window wondering how far the weather would go. There were spectacular things to see. One morning the hoarfrost bunched on all the tree branches like thousands of crystal knives. By February I was visiting the supermarket every day for the bright colors of the fruits and vegetables flown up from California like planeloads of tourists improbably dressed for summer.

I would call Larry in the late afternoon and suggest meeting at the Captain Cook Hotel for a drink. Sitting in the lounge it was possible to imagine I was back in the city we had left. But when we walked out of the lounge there would be a stuffed bear in the lobby and only a block or two from the modern buildings on the main street—log cabins and stores with wooden fronts selling prospecting supplies. When Larry told me I ought to find something to do, I remembered Simone de Beauvoir had said, “Books saved my life.” I applied for a job here at our local library, which is nothing more than a storefront. My masters degree in communications won out over someone with a Ph. D. in farm management.

The boy came to the library every day. I discovered his name was Eric. He seemed to want someone to talk with. He leaned on the counter and pushed around paper clips or used my date stamp to decorate the back of his hand. He asked my advice about inexpensive places to eat, and I suggested the college cafeteria. I allowed him to talk me into giving him a library card. Under address he wrote: orange tent in the park. To protect the books from snow and sleet, he carried them inside his jacket. When he handed them to me, the warm books felt as though they were alive. Eric took out novels by contemporary writers from Germany and South America. I tried to read them, but even when you get to the last chapter everything remains jumbled and unresolved. They are too much like life. I like 19th-century English novels, stories in which the life of the heroine rests safely in the author’s hands.

After Eric warmed up, he disappeared into our restroom for a bath. I could tell what he was doing from the water all over the floor. It was hard to imagine his tall frame cracked into grasshopper bends as he lifted his feet to the washbowl. The bath took at least ten minutes. If no one else happened to be in the library, I looked through his things. Even without his permission I was anxious to know the boy. He would write furiously, erase, and rewrite. Sometimes he would sit idly staring out the window at the distant mountains as if the right words might come trooping in proper order over the snow-covered peaks. I couldn’t help being curious about what he was working on.

I found a budget among his things with alarmingly little alloted for food. There was also a package of unopened letters from a woman in La Jolla, The papers he was working on appeared to be a novel. I was startled to find the novel was my life. The son in the novel could have been my son, the man might have been the man who had been my husband, the suburb the one I had left so eagerly a year and a half before and whose tame streets were constantly in my mind like an errand you are trying not to forget.

Eric described homes that were French provincial chateaus or Georgian colonials, a yacht club modeled after a Venetian palazzo, an early American high school. He rather heavy-handedly contrasted this sampler of Western civilization with the falling apart of families—of one particular family. I read hungrily about cocktail parties, needlepoint and gourmet shops, stylish clothes. It was exactly what Larry and I had wanted to escape. I now found their description so strangely exciting I was upset by Eric’s dismissiveness. I recalled the things Jay used to enjoy doing and I wrote Eric a note:

Dear Eric: Please forgive me but I can’t help commenting. Aren’t you being a little one-sided? You must have a few pleasant memories. Don’t you remember what it was like on summer afternoons? You probably worked on your car in the driveway and the girls in their tennis dresses stopped by on the way to the club. Don’t you remember coming home late on a summer night when the bulky shadows of the trees fell across the road and everyone was sleeping and you had all the streets and houses for yourself?

Eric gave me a killing look when he had read the note and spent the next hour staring out at the mountains. Midwesterners consider mountains an aberration and are always waiting, even hoping, for them to disappear so everything can get back to normal. He left that afternoon without a word to me.

Early in November Brezhnev died, and Mrs. Murchis came to the library to copy out the official title of the Soviet Union. It excited her to write to a Communist country, but she worried about being disloyal. That same week a moose ate the azalea bushes I had planted on the side of our house; our pipes froze flooding our kitchen, and Larry, who had begun flying lessons as soon as we arrived in Alaska, bought a quarter interest in a plane and began flying up to Kotzebul and Tununak and Kwigllingok on business. I had thought we were coming to Alaska so that in the midst of emptiness we would stay close to one another; instead Larry was gone several days each month to places in which I could not believe. To keep myself from merging with the emptiness, which seemed all around me when Larry was gone, or • thinking too much about Jay, I sometimes spent the evenings wandering through a large shopping mall which might, except for the usual stuffed bear, have been a shopping mall anywhere. Sometimes I went to a movie, particularly if it were about a large city. One evening on my way to see a Woody Allen film at the university I stopped in the student cafeteria for dinner. To be honest, I thought I might run into Eric, who hadn’t spoken to me since the day I wrote him the note. The cafeteria is a handsome room with a fireplace and a reflecting pool surrounded by greenery and windows three stories high looking out on the Chugach Mountains. Eric was sitting alone at a table. Remembering his skimpy budget, I filled my tray with more than I could eat and headed in his direction. He immediately got up and hurried away leaving a bowl of soup half finished. Instead of feeding him, I had sent him away hungry.

He was growing thinner. I worried that he was running out of money and took to bringing fruit and the granola bars Jay used to like to the library. At first I left them near his table as you might attract shy birds. When I saw he was eating the food, I moved it closer to my desk. When he stopped by to scoop up an apple in his long, thin, freckled fingers, I said, “Isn’t it getting a little cold in your tent?” I tried not to sound worried. Somewhere out there he had escaped a mother.

He looked at me as though a statue had come to life—Don Carlos or the friendly giant. Eric fled to his table and would not approach the feeding tray until I returned it to his side of the room.

I was wrong about his escaping from his mother. It was his mother who had left him. I told you the novel was the story of my life. Eric described a garden party given by the parents. There were candles in little paper bags outlining beds of roses and delphinium. A bar was set up in front of a dark green yew hedge. The bartender knew everyone and just what they liked to drink. Wade and I had employed such a bartender. He appeared at all our friend’s parties, dispensing drinks like an indulgent parent. There was a couple in the novel who was especially close to the boy’s parents. The boy’s mother was having an affair with the man. Eric had made both the mother and her lover hateful. I wrote a note to Eric while he was washing his clothes in the restroom. He had taken to leaving laundry draped over the fixtures just before the library closed. In the morning he was there early to gather it up. Once I found the toilet bowl full of soapy water tinted an inky blue. The basin must have been too small for his jeans.

Dear Eric: I know you’re angry because I’ve read your novel, but believe me, I have my reasons. I know we disagree about style so I won’t say anything about that but why assume the affair is the couple’s fault? Why not have them reacting to an affair the father and the friend’s wife have had? The mother and her lover might simply be out in the cold and warming themselves against one another. If something happens, they are not entirely to blame. I suggest this because the novel needs complexity, underlying currents, reverberations. You have made the mother and her lover villains when they might be more interesting as victims.

Larry and I had watched his wife, Maria, and my husband, Wade, begin their affair. Although they were unusually tender and considerate toward us, we were children left out of a game. My first luncheon with Larry was to talk over what was going on between Wade and Maria. Larry wanted to divorce Maria. I felt he was being hasty. I wasn’t sure how much of his impatience was anger over Maria’s unfaithfulness and how much was boredom with its yearning for a crisis however painful. Even then Larry was talking about getting away and starting over.

In the luncheons that followed—and they were nothing more than luncheons—we entertained ourselves by pretending we could go anywhere we wished, that Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there were no second acts in American lives. Larry told me how he dreamed about going to Alaska. He was drawn by the idea of adventure. To me, it seemed a blank page.

Wade and Maria stopped seeing one another, but we had made their rules our rules. Many secret clubs are started because people have found themselves excluded from someone else’s secret club. After the divorce, we came to Alaska, and we both found what we expected.

Early in December Marty Feldman died, and Mrs. Murchis came to the library for his address. I could only find the address of his agent, but I assured her sending condolences there would be appropriate. By now I was not alone in my concern over Eric. When the weather was bad, the sheriff made a point of driving by and checking the boy’s tent. People wondered how much longer he would hold out. It was now late morning before he warmed up enough to remove his jacket. He often skipped his bath so there were fewer opportunities for me to read his novel. Still, I saw enough to know the parents were divorced and the mother had left for La Jolla. I thought of her there in a house on one of the hills outside the city. She would have a view of the Pacific and a garden in which even at this final time of year, flowers bloom. But the view and the flowers are nothing to her, something invented too soon or too late to be useful. Her son is in Alaska. The letters she writes to him are unopened. Reading Eric’s novel was like looking down a long hallway of mirrors. I wondered if there weren’t some way to bring Eric and his mother together.

Dear Eric: You are writing around the strongest scene. This is the mark of an amateur. The scenes a writer avoids because they seem too difficult often turn out, when written, to be the writer’s best work. Why not have the son visit his mother, even if it means a quarrel? Wouldn’t it make your novel more exciting?

Jay under my roof denouncing me would be better than no Jay at all.

Each day Eric looked paler and thinner as though he were erasing himself along with the words he wrote and rewrote. His eyes were watery, and he had a hacking cough that disturbed the readers in the library. He was writing less, and some mornings he would cross his arms and put his head down. Was there ever a time in your life when you were more protected than when you and your classmates had your heads down on your crossed arms and were watched over by a teacher?

When I saw he was no longer restocking his woodpile, I was afraid he would be leaving soon. I would drive by the park one morning and find the tent gone. I decided I would risk asking him to have dinner with me. It would give me a chance to plead my case. I thought if he forgave me, it would be almost like Jay forgiving me.

I was right about his taking off. He said he would have dinner with me and that he was leaving the next morning. I suppose he thought now that he was going away, it was safe to be with me. We left the library together. Eric folded himself awkwardly into my small Japanese car. He watched me shift gears and move through traffic with the same combination of superiority and impatience I remembered on Jay’s face when he watched me drive.

“What kind of mileage do you get?” Eric asked.

“Thirty-five, somewhere around there.” We talked about the car until we settled in a high-backed booth at the restaurant, where we had a little too much privacy. I ordered wine, a crabmeat frittata, and a spinach salad. Eric asked for beer and a hamburger. He was trying not to be an expensive guest. He wanted to owe me as little as possible.

We had been in one another’s company for weeks. I had read his novel and cleaned up his bath water, but shut into the booth with him I was self-conscious. In awkward situations I am appalled to find myself saying things that are too personal. It is why we talk so much when we are with others, knowing what confidences silence brings out. “I couldn’t help reading your novel,” I said. “It was so much like my own life. I have a son your age. He’s working on the oil rigs in Texas. I suppose it’s like your coming here to Alaska?”

“I came to Alaska because I wanted to get as far away as I could. Everyone was talking about what my mother did. People felt sorry for me. Everyone in the family, her side too, was having dad and me over for dinner and sympathy. They sat around all evening trying to figure out why my mother would do something like that. I didn’t want to live there anymore. I didn’t want to be where things like that happened. Suppose I got married and settled down there where everyone’s breaking up. What are your chances in a place like that?”

“Don’t make a mistake. I’m not nurturing any grudges. Absolute freedom for everybody. That’s what I’m for. Just go off and do your own thing. But I’m no shrink. I don’t want to hear anyone’s sad story—my dad’s or my mother’s or, excuse me, yours either.

“I don’t know why you read those Victorian novels where anyone who steps out of line gets clobbered. You’re just punishing yourself. You can stop worrying about me, too. I’m fine. I don’t need anyone. All I need is a little money to get by until I finish my novel.”

“Your mother is in California. You could go there. I’m sure she’d be glad to see you.” Of all the things I wanted to say to him this was the most important.

“I’m not going there. She’s got someone else.”

“How do you know they’re still together?”

“I don’t know. I don’t read her letters.”

“You’re being damn unforgiving. She’s your mother.” I was pleading with Jay, not Eric.

“That’s why, because she’s my mother.”

“I could loan you some money,” I said. “You could stay here in Anchorage. My husband, Larry, could help you find a job.” If his mother could not have him, perhaps I could, but even as I made the offer I felt I was asking for something belonging to someone else.

“No,” he said. “I’m going to New Mexico. I’ve got a friend there I can stay with.”

Evidently there was no question of my being a friend.

“He raises German shepherds. His kennel’s out in the middle of nowhere. I could get a lot of writing done. While I’m waiting for my novel to get published, I might train dogs for the movies. I have a lot of patience with dogs. I thought I could be on my own here but it didn’t work out.”

Did he mean me? Not only my son but the sons of other women wanted to elude me. “You couldn’t have camped out all winter. Your tent would have been buried under snow.”

He shrugged. It wasn’t bravado. He didn’t care if the snow covered his tent. Somewhere on the top of an oil rig in Texas was Jay shrugging at a chance he was taking. “Why don’t you care?” I asked full of sudden anger.

His smile suggested there was no point in trying to explain to me. He would shut me up like his mother’s unopened letters. I wouldn’t be shut up. “It’s not up to you to punish her.” I must have been talking too loudly because he looked around to see if anyone were listening. “Who are you to judge,” I said. “You don’t know the facts. People are entitled to their happiness.”

“Listen,” he said nervously, “Thanks for the dinner. I have to go now and get my things together. I’m getting an early flight out.”

He refused my offer of a ride back to the park. He wanted to say good-bye to a friend in the bookstore down the street. The bookstores in Anchorage are excellent. There is plenty of time to read. I watched Eric leave the restaurant. I saw that Jay and Eric formed a consensus. I paid the bill and walked out of the restaurant by myself. In the sky, bands of color were expanding and contracting in heavy breaths. I hurried to my car to get out of the cold, but once inside, I stayed parked, watching the northern lights form a frigid rainbow. What kind of peace could come from a sign like that?

On my way to the library the next morning, I tried not to look at the empty space in the park where Eric’s tent had been. Mrs. Murchis came in very excited. She had an acknowledgement from Mrs. Brezhnev. It was in Russian on paper a strange shade of gray. We studied the undecipherable alphabet. It seemed right that the message should be mysterious. After she left, I addressed an envelope to Eric’s mother. I remembered her address from the unopened letters. I wrote that her son had been working each day at my library, that he was fine and leaving the cold Alaskan winter to be with a friend in New Mexico. They were going into business together. I said I knew how forgetful sons that age could be about writing. He had mentioned her to me, and so I had taken the liberty of sending a few lines.

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