I had over-prepared the event,
that much was ominous.
Villanelle: the psychological hour
My mother had little to add. She sat with her coffee after dinner and stared toward the plate-glass window which faced the front yard. The porch light was on outside, and I could see the dead spring grass and the stark branches alive with buds in the warm and misted night air. At the same time, my mother’s reflection shimmered in the dark window: shadowy confused color, mixed with details of the yard beyond. From her expression I could not tell whether she were gauging herself in the glass or merely thinking. She had been in fine health all her life, and she looked it. Her complexion was still smooth and her eyes clear. Her long hair had grayed, but was streaked with rich brown. Yet at that moment I thought she looked tired, as though the news Allison had given her had made her suddenly and irrevocably old.
Allison had gone upstairs to feed Livingston and to put Tricia to bed, and my mother had fallen into some dark memory, as she did sometimes when she came to visit and was reminded of my father. Finally she turned away from the window. “Is it really such a disaster?” she asked.
“Well, it’s not divorce, if that’s what you mean.”
“I should think you’d be proud.”
“There’s nothing to be proud of yet,” I said. “Anyway, if she wants graduate school, she could go to Penn in the city.”
“But just the idea of history!” my mother said. She paused. “Perhaps she won’t be admitted, is that what you mean? I suppose age is something they consider.”
We were caught by loud, rapid footsteps upstairs. Hillary had slammed the bathroom door, and Allison yelled at her. The house seemed still for a moment, as it had often been lately, just a pause, barely noticeable, like a sigh between one word and another. Then Tricia appeared, modeling the new nightgown my mother had brought her.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Hillary talked back,” Tricia said. “She said she was not going to any party with Freeny Lewis.”
“What’s Livy doing?”
“Nothing, as usual.”
“Did you sing him a song?”
“Mom wants me to go to bed.”
Tricia whirled around so that the nightgown flowed away from her thin legs. At seven she was already gangly, thin as a rail, and sensitive. She read too much, if that were possible, and was so quiet we had been afraid that when Livingston was born she would disappear altogether.
I drew her toward me and hugged her. “You tell your mother I said you could sing him one song.”
“Okay.” She whirled away again. “Do you like it, Nanoo?”
“On you it shines,” my mother said.
“Do I have to go to bed?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Can I read?”
“Kiss your old Nanoo,” I said. “One song. No reading.”
Tricia climbed the stairs, pausing upon each step as though to catch our secrets.
“Tell your mother we’re talking about her,” I called up.
We waited a little longer until Tricia had padded down the hall. A breeze blew across the yard, stirring branches and telephone wires, but the room was still. “It’s not as though we were starting out in life,” I said.
My mother looked back toward the window. “You said she hasn’t told any of her friends?”
“No, but she wanted to tell you.”
“Why would she do that?”
I had no answer. Allison and my mother had never been particularly close, and while Allison was always cordial, I had felt in her a certain critical attitude about the way my parents lived their lives. Allison had always been reluctant to visit them in Bryn Mawr, even when my father was alive.
“Perhaps to enlist your sympathy,” I said finally.
“But you don’t object to school.”
“It’s partly the timing,” I said casually. “The children. . . .”
“You know what I mean.”
I stood up and went to the window. A dog passed through the edge of the light near the street, his legs clicking and his head down upon some scent. “The kitchen was just remodeled four months ago because Allison thought we needed more space. And we got a station wagon last year, trading in Dad’s good Buick. I agreed to those things—now and then we have to accommodate others.”
I turned when I caught movement in the glass. Allison was leaning against the jamb in the doorway.
“Go on,” she said easily, without malice. She looked at me in a straightforward way. “say what you think.”
“It just isn’t the time to be liberated.”
“Not the time for her or for you?” my mother asked.
Allison smiled briefly. She was not a beautiful woman—her mouth was too large and her skin sagged along her jaw and her curly hair was forever matted in sweat or flying out of some loose pin—but at that moment, as she moved into the center of the room, she looked so composed, so certain, that I felt a chill run across my shoulders.
“But I’m not trying to be liberated,” she said, turning to my mother. “I’m trying to live my life.”
The whole muddle had begun two weeks after Livingston was born, when Allison had announced she was applying to graduate schools at Stanford and Harvard. That had been in November, and I had dismissed the idea out of hand. Given Allison’s history, it was unlikely she truly wanted to study again after a 14-year hiatus, and even less likely that she would leave a small infant. The doctor, of course, had warned both of us about postpartum depression. A woman’s body restructured itself after pregnancy and new hormones created havoc with the emotions. The additional burden of fatigue could overwhelm the unsuspecting. I assumed Allison’s inspiration was in large measure a fantasy of escape.
If anything, she seemed happier and more dutiful than ever. She carried on about Livy to friends, nursed him cautiously (though more privately), and spoke even to me of her guilt at feeling so much love for her son. The only difference, really, between her reactions to Hillary’s and Tricia’s births and to Livy’s was that with Livy she seemed more intense.
In December she took the Graduate Record Examinations. She had been bright in college—Phi Beta Kappa at Mt. Holyoke, in fact—though she admitted her grades had been predicated more upon her acute memory than upon curiosity or ambition. She had said then, when we met, that she detested the deadlines and confining minutiae of college life so much that she could not even consider going on to an advanced degree. And in the 12 years of our marriage, I had never heard her voice a desire for a career.
“Just how do you propose to implement this dream?” I asked her one evening after the exams. I had prepared myself with a couple of Scotches.
“I will go to Palo Alto or Cambridge, and you will stay here.”
“The logistics, I mean.”
“We have enough money, don’t we?”
“We are a family,” I said rather harshly. “Perhaps not a glamorous family, maybe too serious on the whole, but steadfast and bright. Hillary vacillates between enthusiasm and silence, but she has not given us too much trouble. And Tricia has been mercilessly indulgent with Livy. She sings to him by the hour.”
“Hillary and Tricia are in school,” Allison said. “You may have to arrange Tricia’s afternoons for recreation, but Hillary is older enough to and would rather fend for herself. You can either stay home with Livingston or hire someone to come in.”
“Just like that?”
“I will think of you all the time.”
“No emotion, though. You will go off, no muss or fuss, and never look back.”
Allison turned away as though she did not want to think of it.
“You don’t think Livy needs you?” I asked impatiently. “You don’t think Tricia will miss you terribly?”
She turned around and her cheeks were wet with tears.
“We just can’t get along without you,” I said more softly.
“Certainly you can,” She whispered. “What would you do if I died?”
Hypothetical questions have always irritated the hell out of me. I didn’t know what I would do if she were to die, but she was not about to. I would not know what to do if my law practice suddenly evaporated, or if Allison were miraculously beautiful, or if Hillary were taking cocaine. I only know what I do at the moment, in response to a real event or a real threat. And I began to consider Allison’s scheme a threat.
My mother was no help. She seemed to side with Allison, not outwardly, but in subtle ways, as though she were the apologist for Allison’s plan. “She has not confided in me,” my mother said over the telephone one day. “I’m certain she has not told me anything she has not told you.”
“But I know she’s called you.”
“Yes, that’s different.”
“Does she feel guilty? Do you sense that?”
“She wants me to know she still cares about you and the family.”
“What do you think? You must have some feel for it.”
My mother paused on the line.
“What has changed her?” I went on. “I can’t think of anything except Livy’s birth that might have been traumatic, and why would she react to that? She loves him. I mean, why after all these years, does she want to go away to graduate school?”
“There’s the obvious,” my mother said slowly, “that for her it’s now or not at all.”
“But she’s never wanted a job or a career.”
“Then she wants something else,” my mother said quietly.
One Saturday in April we drove to Bryn Mawr at Allison’s urging to wish my mother a happy birthday, her 63rd. Hillary complained that she had promised friends she would jog with them, and when that excuse failed, that she had homework.
“Bring your homework with you,” I said. “Your cousin Rob will be there to help you.”
“That creep?” Hillary said. “That’s another reason not to go.”
“Can I play in the gazebo?” Tricia asked.
“You can ask Nanoo.”
“Why don’t you invite her here?” Hillary asked.
“Because your mother wants to go there.”
“I thought Mom didn’t like to go to Nanoo’s.”
“Apparently she’s changed her mind.”
“And Aunt Tillie always talks about Grandpa. It’s dull and Mom hates it.”
“It’s not dull,” Tricia said. “There’s the gazebo and the woods.”
“It’s dull,” Hillary said.
Allison came downstairs with Livy in one arm and a large package in the other. “Can you get the port-a-crib?” she asked.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to the package.
“What present? I already got the bracelet you picked out for her.”
“This is another one,” Allison said blithely, and she breezed out the door.
The day was warm and sunny, and after lunch I took Tricia into the woods behind the house to explore with her the places I remembered from my own childhood. A dark stream ran through the woodland, and leaves were yellow-green against the fast-moving clouds and blue sky. I pointed out, as my father had to me, the warblers darting among the oaks and maples. The stream swirled lazily over rocks and sodden logs, and for a while we sat upon a boulder and watched the water flow.
“Did you know there are tiny creatures in that water?” I asked. “Animals that you can’t see?”
Tricia lowered her face toward the pool beneath us. “Are there?”
My father had demonstrated the existence of the invisible teeming life by taking a sample of creek water and showing me slides under a microscope. I remembered the elaborate bulbous forms of protozoa and the bizarre wriggling cilia which waved in the droplets of water.
“How do you suppose we could tell whether such creatures were there?” I asked.
Tricia continued to stare into the water. “By the fish,” she said.
“I can see fish, and the fish have to eat something smaller than they are, and those things must eat something smaller. . . .”
I nodded and laughed at what seemed so logical, and at myself for thinking I should believe only what I could see with my own eyes.
The birthday party went well enough. My divorced sister, Tillie-the-Hun, came over for dessert with her children, Rob and Virginia, and when my mother was ready to open her presents, we had to drag Hillary and Rob from the porch.
“What’s in the big box?” my mother asked the smaller children. “Should I open it first or last?”
“Last,” Tricia said. She liked surprises.
I expected Tillie to begin her neurotic melancholy spiel about our father’s absence, but she sat stoically with Allison on the sofa. My mother liked the housecoat Tillie gave her, and both Virginia and Tricia had made ceramic dishes in school. When she opened the bracelet, my mother uttered the appropriate words of joy and thanks.
Then she settled back in her flower-print chair amidst the explosion of colorful blue and white wrapping paper. The children crowded around the last big present which Allison had kept hidden from me.
To heighten the children’s eagerness, my mother spoke in an exaggerated whisper as she slowly pulled the ribbon. “Now what do you suppose this could be? It’s such a big package! What do you imagine is in it?”
“A stuffed animal,” Virginia giggled. “No, you wouldn’t get that!”
“What does Nanoo need?” Tricia asked.
I turned, feeling an uncomfortable sensation, and Allison was staring at me with a studied air, as though measuring me. Her eyes were relaxed, her mouth slack, in a half-expectant smile. I noticed for the first time that she had recently cut her hair, and though it was still unkempt, it no longer covered a childhood scar at her temple.
Inside the large box was a smaller one, also wrapped, and inside that, yet another. The children clapped and pressed closer.
Inside the third box was an envelope, and my mother raised her eyes at the children and held it up with two fingers.
“An envelope?” Tricia asked. “It’s a ticket to Greece,” Hillary guessed.
My mother slipped open the flap and before drawing out its contents, she paused and looked at Allison. In that simple moment there was a sigh in the room, as though my mother and Allison shared some silent pleasure. I knew too well, then, what was in the envelope, and I turned away.
The drive home to Haddonfield over the Schuylkill Expressway and the Walt Whitman Bridge was tedious, nerve-wrenching. Livingston cried half the way, and Allison sat in the back seat and fed him. I did not want to argue in front of the children, but when Tricia had lain down in the far back, and Livy was asleep in the infant seat, I could restrain myself no longer.
“At least tell me why you would tell her before you told me.”
“I told you both at the same time.”
“But why not give me advance warning?”
“I knew she would be glad for me.”
“And I’m made to look ridiculous!”
“To whom? Tillie?” Allison smiled at the thought.
“I’m glad for you, too.”
“Tom, I didn’t mean to hurt you, but you aren’t exactly sympathetic.”
“Not exactly,” I said. “I wish I could go back to school.”
“Then go ahead.”
I ran down a list of the responsibilities we had acquired together, in case they had escaped Allison’s notice.
“You’re driving 40,” she said.
“I have to earn a living,” I said. I looked in the rearview and saw the cars piling up behind me on the bridge.
“You’re doing what you have to do,” she said, “and I’m doing what I have to.”
Allison’s acceptances to Stanford and Harvard made the situation quite different. The issue was no longer theoretical. For Allison, it was no longer whether she would be able to go, but where she would go.
I still resisted with as many rational arguments as I could make, but even my skills as a lawyer were no match for her determination. She weighed the merits of the two history departments, the climates, distances from home. She preferred palm trees to the harsh winter of Boston, and the strengths of the departments were close; but the determining factor was that Harvard was closer. I felt mildly appeased.
That summer we drove to Boston to scout a place for her to live. I had called ahead for a real estate agent to show us apartments—a place with large windows and bright walls was what Allison would like, and it should be close enough to walk to the Square.
“Who is going to live here?” Allison asked, standing in the middle of a sunny room overlooking the Charles.
“I don’t want it.”
The real estate agent showed the children around while we talked it over.
“It’s convenient. It’s modern. There is good fire protection and adequate security. Think about. . . .”
“I’m thinking about my mental health.”
She refused to make a decision and then the next weekend went back to Cambridge alone. When she returned home, she said she had found a place.
“How did you manage with the children?” she asked.
“What’s the place like?”
“Did Livingston take his bottle? Did he wake up at night?”
“Yes and yes.”
“Were you able to get to work on Friday?”
“The children aren’t in school,” I said. “It wasn’t too bad.”
“You didn’t call your mother for help?”
“You told me not to.”
“Good. Well, the apartment is small. You won’t approve, but I like it well enough.”
She hurried up the stairs to see Livy.
The next week Allison went through the usual ritual of buying clothes for the girls for school. Hillary had grown three inches in one year, and none of her jeans and blouses fit. Tricia wanted to be a newly polished silver star.
“What about you, Mom?” Hillary asked before they left. “Do you get clothes?”
“She doesn’t grow,” Tricia said. “That must be awful.”
“But I can keep longer the things I have,” Allison said cheerfully.
“Aren’t you worried at all?” Hillary asked.
“Yes, I’m worried.”
“You can always come home if you don’t like it,” Tricia said.
“I’m worried it’s the right thing,” Allison said. She smiled and then added, “But I will need your help.”
“We’ll be good,” Tricia promised.
“Not that so much. I know you’ll be all right.” Again she stopped, and her voice quieted. “But I want you to be new. Be new every single day.”
We had a party for friends—the Saxes and the Gerards and the Hamiltons—and then the summer was over. The children started school, and we had an anxious two weeks before Allison actually went off to Cambridge.
I was cynical, suspicious, even jealous. I had perhaps been too supportive, too willing to let her try her experiment. Perhaps she had only meant to test me, to see whether I would comply or resist. Yes, I was sympathetic to her wanting to do something more than volunteer work and child care. But she had chosen that herself. And I could not just shrug my shoulders the way Phil Sax had when his wife had started a dress shop and had an affair with a seller from New York. Nor could I be so analytical as Harry Gerard. “Economically you might be better off,” he said. “And perhaps psychologically, too, in the long run.”
I was not convinced. Allison had some other motive, I was certain, some demon as invisible as the protozoa in that dark stream behind my mother’s house. But what could I do to learn what it was?
We drove two cars to Cambridge—the BMW, which I had jammed full of clothes and boxes, and the station wagon packed with furniture. Allison thought it better to leave the older children with the Gerards next door, and we brought Livingston.
The apartment was exactly what I feared. It was a one-bed-room place in an old converted clapboard house on one of the back streets of North Cambridge. We climbed to the second floor, turned on the timed light, and climbed to the third. The place was not even clean. The previous tenant had departed hurriedly, leaving newspapers and bottles in the pantry and grease in the oven. The landlord had not fixed the light in the ancient refrigerator, and the widows above the kitchen sink were streaked with city grime. The whole place smelled of wax and acrid smoke.
We unloaded the furniture, and Allison went off in the station wagon to buy a bed. I carried in the boxes from the BMW, cleaned up as best I could, and began to assemble the metal bookcase we had brought. I was sitting on the floor, swearing at screws and angle joints, when suddenly I turned and Allison was there. Sweat glinted from her forehead, and she looked terribly sad. I don’t know how long she had stood there before I noticed her.
“I got the bed,” she said.
“Are you all right?”
“I will be.”
“I’ll bring up the bed when I finish this.”
She paused in the doorway and looked around the room, as if grasping the full measure of her choice. Finally she said, “Can I have the key to the BMW? I’ll go get some Chinese food.”
“I thought we’d go out. Sort of a celebration.”
“There’s too much to do,” she answered slowly, “if you’re going to go back. I’d rather you did.”
I nodded and threw her the keys.
She took nearly an hour. I finished setting up the bookcase and went downstairs to get the bed. I opened the hatch of the station wagon, and I knew why she had looked so sad, why she was taking a long time to get the food: she had bought a single bed.
In the first two years of our marriage, and before that, we had slept in a single bed, sometimes illicitly in dorm rooms, sometimes at friends’ places, and even after we had bought the house in Haddonfield, while I was getting my law practice started. We had pressed together in the narrow space, holding each other in sleep, while the night unraveled beyond our walls.
Later our lives changed: we moved along in our world, with our children, new furnishings, new friends. Sometimes, long after we had acquired a big brass double bed, we had occasion to sleep upon a sofa or, skiing in Vermont, in a friend’s small guest room with a single bed. We laughed, wondering how we had got through years in a small bed when, now, twisted and cramped, we could not endure even one night.
Allison came back with the Chinese food, and I said nothing about the bed. The bookcase was against the wall beside her desk, and the bed was pushed into the corner near the lone window. We ate the Chinese food sitting on the floor, without speaking much, and later I drove home in the station wagon.
Hillary was either kind or mutinous, but overall she was helpful. Tricia had a toothache one morning, and I rushed her to the dentist. And Livingston’s nurse walked out after a fight with her boyfriend, so I stayed home from work one day, then prevailed upon Angie Hamilton to babysit until I found someone else to come in.
We survived. Livy cried at night, and I got up to confort him, heat his bottle, and pat him back to sleep. With Allison gone, Hillary became slightly more responsible, certainly more independent, and Tricia more silent. Sometimes there were moments when the four of us sat around the table in uneasy truce, and I felt near tears and proud for having put in a day’s work and got dinner on the table.
Yet I missed Allison terribly. At first I called her often to complain about the small details I did not know, and about the dilemmas that constantly recurred. Where were the winter sweaters? What was I supposed to do about the new drapes she had ordered? Did Tricia need shots? I told her how Livingston was faring, about Hillary’s 98 in algebra, what Tricia was reading.
“It takes some time to adjust,” Allison said.
“I don’t want to adjust.”
There was a moment’s pause, and I felt we had nothing more to say. I was bitter; she was far away.
“Allison, listen to me. . . .”
“No I can’t now, I love you, and I have to go.”
The next time I called, two days later, her telephone had been disconnected.
The telephone company could give me no satisfactory answers, and the police refused to look for someone who was not officially missing. The history department kept no records of who attended classes and who did not.
I began to think perverse thoughts. Perhaps it had been Allison’s intention all along to deceive me. She wanted adventure, to test herself with other men, and graduate school was a believable ruse. Why else had she given only vague reasons for her decision? And she knew, once her flight was under way, she could still choose whether to soar higher or to come home again.
Yet I did not believe those things about her. Allison was not the kind of woman for whom such excitement was alluring. She would have been more tempted by a brazen fling than by a drawn-out subterfuge, and I could more easily have imagined her desire to see Europe or the Far East than her desire to be with another man.
I wrestled with the issue of her privacy—whether, for the good of all of us, I had a right to know her intentions. I wanted to know the future of the family, whether I would have to begin the subtle explanations to Tricia and to Hillary.
By the weekend I resolved to confront her: I would drive up unannounced and would not leave until I had answers.
“I want to see where Mom lives,” Tricia said when I told her I was going.
“You can’t, honey. There’s no room to stay.”
“Why are you taking Livingston?”
“Because I have to. I think your mother would want me to because he’s changing so fast.”
“Are you getting divorced?”
“Not that I know of.”
I drove all afternoon, stopping once to change Livy and again to buy more milk at a Howard Johnson’s. I prepared a self-righteous speech: “All the sacrifices, the willingness to give free rein. . . . I’m sorry I was not the man you wanted. . . .” It sounded maudlin, impossible. “What do you think, Livy?” I asked.
I took a wrong turn at the traffic circle on Route 2 and ended up on Memorial Drive. Darkness was settling in, and with the sun behind me, the river looked icy, bleak against the far bank and the burgeoning skyline of Boston in the distance. I weaved through Harvard Square and west again on Massachusetts Avenue. When I found her house not far from Proter Square, Allison was not there. The BMW was parked out front, collecting soot and leaves, but her window was dark. I rang the bell anyway, but no one answered.
The door dawnstairs was open, so I took Livingston in and waited at the landing outside her door. I was not by nature a prying person, but in these circumstances when Allison herself was so secretive, I felt justified in trying to get into the apartment. When I couldn’t jimmy the lock, I snooped under her door. There was a note there, just a corner visible.
Then the light went off, and Livy cried until I could find the switch.
A person with no telephone received notes. I tried to scrape the piece of paper from beneath the door, but my fingers were too thick and the penknife I had too short. “Wait here,” I said to Livy. “I’ll get something from the car.”
I raced down the stairs. In the car I searched through the jumble that had accumulated in the cargo space and found the cross-beam of an old kite.
Livingston screamed when the light went out again.
I tore the shreds of the kite away and was about to sprint back to the house when a woman turned the corner and came ahead. She was about Allison’s height, but her hair was very short and she was quite thin. I hid the stick along my body.
I stopped and turned back. “Is that you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you. Hurry, Livy is crying.”
I went in and turned on the light from below, and the wailing stopped. Allison took the stairs by twos. She snatched Livy from his seat and held him close, tight enough to smother him.
“I would have called,” I said vaguely.
“Is anything wrong?”
Suddenly I felt crazy, stupid, as though, having believed a burglar were rummaging through the house, I had found only the family cat. “Nothing is wrong.”
“Can you find the keys in my purse?” she asked. “What were you doing with that stick?”
I threw down the cross-beam of the kite and found the keys.
The notes—two of them—lay on the floor, and I picked them up and examined the handwriting. One was a woman’s the other a man’s. Allison pushed past me, still hugging Livy.
“Did you bring diapers?” she asked, laying him on the bed.
I put the two notes on the table and went into the hallway to get the diapers. The apartment was bleak: nothing on the walls, the bed unmade, books and papers scattered across the desk and piled on the floor. In the small kitchen, a few dishes were stacked carelessly in the sink.
After she had changed Livy, Allison opened the notes. One was from a woman inviting her to a breakfast conference; the other, she said, was from a man who had found some sources of Russian history she had wanted.
That night, sleeping on the edge of the narrow bed, I understood less than ever.
By Thanksgiving little had changed. Allison came home for the holiday, and we went to my mother’s house for dinner. Tillie had a thousand questions about how Allison was faring, how much she had to study, where she did her laundry. It was curious that Tillie seemed so interested until I realized how much Tillie and I were alike. Anything in the world outside seemed to her a subject of wonder.
“What do you do with history?” Tillie asked.
“You make it,” Allison answered, perhaps too blithely.
“I mean, are there careers?”
“Teaching, government, politics. If you want, there are lots of fields which might use the discipline of study.”
The children had gone out to play in the yard, and we sat at the table littered with empty glasses and plates and used napkins.
“Boston is a lovely city.” my mother said. “Don’t you ever get a free moment?”
Allison nodded. “I’ve been to the museum several times, and once to the symphony. But I’m afraid I’ve spent most of my time reading.”
“The work must be quite hard,” my mother said.
“Novels,” Allison went on. “I’ve never had such luxury.”
I thought of her apartment, the unmade bed and the dirty dishes.
“Particularly Russian novels. The slant of fiction upon history has fascinated me. Chekhov; of course, Dostoevsky, Kuprin. . . .”
“Dostoevsky is so gloomy,” Tillie said.
“But haunting,” Allison said wistfully. “And I admire Tolstoy.”
We went on to other topics, and as often happened when Tillie was there, the conversation drifted toward my father.
“He would have lived ten more years,” Tillie said, “if he had kept working.”
“He had cancer of the colon,” I said calmly, stating the facts as we all knew them. “His life would not have been pleasant.”
“But he wouldn’t have had cancer.”
I tried to soothe Tillie, who had begun to cry. Allison excused herself and went to the kitchen with some plates. I heard dishes clattering, and my mother got up to help.
Tillie had dwelled upon our father’s death. He had died two years after retiring from a lifelong career in the trust department of the City Bank of Philadelphia, and she saw no reason for him to die when he was on the brink of enjoying his life for the first time. I explained to her again that no logical connection existed between his retirement and his contracting cancer.
“We don’t plan those things,” I said, getting up to look out the window.
“But it’s so unfair!”
I watched the children running in their good clothes across the lawn, the woods beyond, and their joy in the face of Tillie’s tiresome sorrow made me feel as though I were detached, suspended forever in the role of the one who comforted and provided. I was about to deliver my speech about fairness when a taxi pulled up outside the front door.
Allison came out from the kitchen. “I’m sorry,” she said politely and without rancor. “I have to leave.”
“Allison. . . .”
“I have work to do,” she said. “Your mother understands. Will you bring the children?”
She smiled at Tillie and went to the door, pausing a moment to look at me closely before she went out.
I considered taking a leave of absence from the firm. Allison needed help, and I thought the family’s moving to Cambridge might be the answer. The children would have lived through the trauma, adjusted, as Allison might have said. We could have closed up the house or rented it. But for three years, maybe four? We were such a part of the town. The children had their friends. We knew the Saxes and the Gerards, the streets, the names of the shopkeepers. Allison and I had fought to save the sycamores along Kings’ Highway, and the children’s summer camp existed only because Harry Gerard and I canvased the neighborhood for the cause.
Besides, I have never understood how people just pulled up stakes. How did they leave their homes and homelands and strike out into the void? They were not like the Portuguese or Columbus, or searchers of riches like Cortez, or dreamers of glory. They were people who had too little, who clung to a tiny speck of hope. They were cursed by their pasts and were willing to give up friends, family, and familiar surroundings, even their countries, for some tenuous vision of survival.
No, I would not move. And so I waited.
Allison called the children every week from a pay telephone, and it made me anxious to think of her upon some sidewalk or street comer, gazing into the reflection of herself in the glass case. I could hear the traffic beyond her, the horns of cars, voices.
Once I asked her,” Is someone waiting for you?”
“I can only do this if you tell the truth.”
“No one is waiting,” she said. “You can believe what you wish.”
I did not know what to believe.
Christmas, I hoped would be better. Allison insisted we go to my mother’s again, this time for two days.
“Are you sure you want us?” I asked my mother on the telephone.
“Of course. Allison wrote me a letter saying she’s looking forward to it.”
“I hope she apologized,” I said.
“I wish she would explain to me.”
My mother hesitated. “But mostly she wrote about her studies and how much she likes what she is doing.”
I nodded, though I knew my mother could not see me. “If only we all did.”
The day we drove to my mother’s, December 20th, was gray and cold. Low clouds moved slowly across the Delaware River and, as we headed for Bryn Mawr, I sensed a new mood in Allison.
“At least Tillie won’t be there,” I said, as though my sister’s presence had somehow been the catalyst for Allison’s behavior.
Allison looked at me, that subtle glance, but I kept my eyes on the road.
“It wasn’t Tillie,” she said.
“You know how she gets.”
“I’m used to Tillie’s problems.”
Tricia put her head over the back of the seat and rested her chin upon my shoulder. “Is it going to snow?” she asked.
“It’s supposed to.”
“What happened to the little things in the creek when it freezes?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do they hibernate?”
“What do fish do?” I asked.
“Do you know, Mom?” Tricia asked.
Allison shook her head. “No, what?”
At my mother’s we got settled in the various rooms. Livy was crawling and pulling himself up beside tables and chairs, so we cleared the low places of vases and glass figurines. Hillary disappeared into the attic, her place of refuge, while Tricia went into the backyard to look into the barren woodland.
I started a fire in the grate, and Allison made hot buttered rum. We had a couple of these, and I joked about Allison’s running away at Thanksgiving. “She won’t do it again.”
“I can’t promise,” she said, smiling.
“There is no need to promise anything,” my mother said.
“Tillie should learn,” I went on. “I thought perhaps her. . . .”
“It was Tolstoy,” Allison said.
“Tolstoy?” Even my mother seemed surprised.
“I had been reading him—we were talking about it casually—reading the way he lived, what he wrote. Dostoevsky, too. What energy they had! Tolstoy never stopped questioning for his whole life. Did you know that when he was 88 he tried to leave his wife?”
Neither my mother nor I could answer.
“He may have been terrible in some ways, but imagine living every day wondering whether you had done the right thing, whether you ought to strike out for some new place, whether you still loved your wife. . . .” Allison paused and drew a deep breath.
We were silent a moment, watching Livy pull himself up beside Allison on the sofa. She picked him up and set him on her lap.
Then Tricia came in from the veranda and shouted, “It’s snowing! Look!”
Gray flakes swirled across the dark woodland and onto bare yellow lawn. Hillary, having apparently noticed, too, rushed down the stairs.
“Will you come?” Tricia asked me.
I got up and stood by the window. Hillary and Tricia ran across the lawn, trying to catch snowflakes in their mouths.
I turned back toward the room. The fire had ebbed, and the room seemed dark compared to the gray light outside.
My mother got up to put another piece of oak on the fire.
“Do you still remember what you felt when he died?” Allison asked.
My mother moved away from the fireplace and stood for a moment, visibly caught by the question. She seemed to know Allison spoke to her.
“It’s strange that I have forgotten him,” she said. “He determined so much of my life, but. . . I don’t mean that cruelly.” Her voice trailed away.
“Do you miss him?” Allison went on.
The question shocked me—so tactless and direct—and yet, voiced as it was in the silence, with the low fire and the gray snowlight beyond the room, it did not seem so much an intrusion as a reaching out.
Livingston was still, and even the children outside had tired and ceased their joyful yelling. My mother hesitated.
“I think of his carrying his case, as he called it, to the car, getting into the car, and driving to the station. I know that ritual is not uncommon—Tom probably does it, too—but I wondered sometimes what he thought as he went through these motions, whether he ever thought of me, whether he thought different things from day to day. He came home, kissed me, and never talked of his work, which took most of his conscious time. Did he care about it? Was there any satisfaction? Sometimes he would speak of the people he worked with or about some incident which happened on the train. But in a way he was like a man who never spoke about his dreams because he never dreamed.”
My mother’s soft tone ebbed, and I wanted to argue with her, but I could not bring myself to disagree. Words came to my lips and dissipated like wisps of children’s breaths in the cold air outside.
“No, I don’t miss him,” my mother went on. “I know that sounds ungrateful after all he did for me for so many years. I don’t know what I mean exactly. I don’t mean it as it sounds,. . . .” She looked at Allison. “I knew everything about him, but at the same time, nothing. He always did what he thought he should do. He was that kind of man.”
That night I got up with Tricia when she cried out in the darkness of the strange house. I held her and smoothed her hair. Hillary stirred in the next bed but did not wake. When Tricia slept again, I went to look in on Livy, who had thrown off his blankets. I tucked him in and gazed at him. Even in sleep he did not look peaceful.
For a long time I stood at the window of my old room, looking toward the woods. As a child I used to imagine people roaming those woods at night, eyes sharp as owls’, intent upon some vague and nameless evil. Those men had nothing better to do than to creep through the darkness, and more than once I was certain I had seen a shadow lurking at the edge of the lawn. I would rush to my father’s room, just short of screaming, and he would take me by the hand and lead me into the backyard.
“Now what do you think you see?” he asked, shining the flashlight into the woods.
“Men who can find me in the dark.”
“And do you see them now?”
“Then we shall all be able to sleep.”
But the trees seemed closer now, as I stood and listened to Livy’s even breathing. The rough, curved horizon was dark against the dim gray sky. Snow fell invisibly through the air, filling the woods, covering the lawn with gray.
In the morning I dressed warmly and put on my boots in the vestibule before anyone else was up.
“Where are you going?” Tricia asked, surprising me, barefooted, on the kitchen steps.
“For a walk.”
“Can I come?”
“You may come after breakfast. Will you tell your mother where I’ve gone?”
“Why can’t I come now?”
“There will be tracks in the snow.”
The snow had stopped and low clouds hung along the flanks of the hills. I plodded straight across the white lawn and near the gazebo, crossed the tracks of two deer. Beyond that, at the edge of the yard where the tall dead grass replaced the manicured lawn, I found the wing prints of quail.
A slight breeze stirred snow from the trees, and it trickled down through the branches onto my face. My footsteps crackled leaves beneath the snow, and once out of sight of the house, I paused and listened. Far away a truck’s engine whined, spinning wheels, and when that stopped, the whole world was silent, and the gray trees and spiny limbs and the whiteness filled me. My father had often taken me here, even in winter, pointing out small details—woodpeckers’ holes or the tracks of mice. The stream swirled lazily over rocks and sodden logs, and I sat upon a snowy boulder and watched the water flow. Not much had changed, except the trails had grown over and the water in the stream was low. I sat for a long time, watching the slow current curl among the rocks, wondering what did happen to the invisible creatures in the water, waiting for Tricia to come to me.