Mr. Owen is reading Emma, his favorite book. He has, in fact, been reviewing it for several days so that the details will be fresh in his mind for this afternoon’s meeting. He has laid the book open on the kitchen table, and when he runs across a passage he thinks his wife would like, he reads it aloud.
“”Human nature is so well disposed toward those who are in interesting situations,”” he says, “”that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure to be kindly spoken of.” You remember this now, don’t you, Alma? Mr. Elton is going to marry Augusta Hawkins, and she’ll become Mrs. Elton. I know you’ll remember her—the odious Mrs. Elton?”
Alma looks at him for a moment, sets her mouth in a tiny O, then looks away.
“She’s the one like Mrs. Salesby,” Mr. Owen says. “Remember Mrs. Salesby?”
Mrs. Salesby was a neighbor of theirs years ago, whom Alma one day had decided was Mrs. Elton in the flesh. A vulgar woman, contemptuous of everyone except her family, she possessed a wealthy sister, whom no one ever saw but about whom she talked constantly. “The people she has working for her,” she would say. “Why, I really don’t think she knows how many there are, exactly: oh, not that they’re numberless, of course. You shouldn’t think that” (with a laugh) “but there are some—in the nether regions, so to speak—whom she has never seen. “They also serve who only stand” as Shakes peare said.” And Alma’s eyes would widen with amusement as she listened, standing there on the front steps of the house and pulling her sweater tightly around her, and in the evenings—after their daughters were asleep and they had finished the dishes and done whatever reading they had—she would sometimes imitate Mrs. Salesby: “But my dear, so much money, and all inherited, of course. Her husband’s never earned a penny of it, not he!” The odious Mrs. Salesby.
Mr. Owen looks at his wife: her eyes appear dilated, and there is no clear separation between the blue and the white. Her eyes are the colors of the Dutch tiles lined up on the shelf behind her head, and her white hair—chopped short and in straight bangs—makes her look like a little Dutch girl grown suddenly old.
Mrs. Armstrong, who has been putting dishes in the cabinet, comes and stands at the table and holds out three pills: one round and white, one white with a red band, one orange (shaped, Dr. Sandys observed, like a tiny football). Mr. Owen takes the white pill and holds it to Alma’s mouth, which opens instantly in a way which reminds him of the games they played when their daughters were children. (Here comes the airplane, he or Alma would say. Zoom, zoom! Where is the airport? Where is the hangar? And Randall, or Eleanor, would open her mouth and receive the Cream of Wheat, or the single green bean stuck to the prongs of a tiny fork.) He places the pill on Alma’s tongue and holds the glass of water to her lips, and before she drinks, her eyes almost focus on him, but then her face goes blank again and she swallows. He gives her the red and white pill and, as Mrs. Armstrong turns away, puts the orange one in his shirt pocket. When he touches his wife, she seems to understand who he is.
“Good girl,” Mrs. Armstrong says when she turns back to them. (“So well named,” Mr. Owen told Alma when they hired Mrs. Armstrong and Alma could still appreciate some of what he said. “I imagine her in front of mirrors, grimace and groan, admiring her own biceps.”) Now she is a necessary third in their household and no longer anyone to laugh at.
“”The charming Augusta Hawkins,”” he continues, “”in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten.” “The usual advantages,”” he repeats. “A- wonderful touch. I’ve never noticed it before.”
Later that morning, Mr. Owen sits at the desk in the living room, writing a letter to Randall and Eleanor. He writes the same message to both, copying each paragraph, as he finishes it, from one sheet of stationery to another. “I think your mother still enjoys the reading at breakfast: I’m not so sure about Mrs. Armstrong. I thought she would leave us over Proust, such clearing of throat and heaving of shoulders. I do skip passages until I find something your mother might enjoy. Perhaps that disturbs Mrs. Armstrong’s natural sense of continuity, or perhaps it’s just impatience. She is truly wonderful for us, though. She cooks, cleans, even handles your mother’s medicine to make certain I don’t forget. Dr. Sandys insisted on that when she came to us. She hoards it up and parcels it out like candy.”
He wants to avoid writing about their mother’s condition. He wants Randall and Eleanor to feel cheered by everything he has to say, as if he were telling them an interesting story.
“We are thriving,” he writes. “Your mother and I have lived together for 40 years with very little to vex or disturb us.” He knows Eleanor will hear the echo from Emma— Randall will merely think the words sound old-fashioned— but he doesn’t write it just to give his younger daughter the pleasure of recognition. He always tries to think of his life that way. He and Alma have had no serious problems—minor illnesses, both theirs and their daughters, financial problems in the early 1950’s when he decided to return to college—but nothing until now has been more than temporarily perturbing. “I can still manage,” he writes. “I have a firm grip on everything. I manage to keep myself occupied.”
He hesitates to mention the Society. To his daughters and their husbands—Randall in California, Eleanor north and east of there near Helena, Montana—the Society seems like very little. “I wish you hadn’t given up golf,” Randall said recently. “There are people in Richmond who golf, I know.” Her voice over the phone is always strident, as if she can’t accept the 3000 miles between her father and herself and wants the fervor of her words to pull him closer. And even Eleanor, witty like her mother and yet mild and preoccupied, wrote in a letter recently that she was happy he enjoyed the Society but didn’t he think he should get away more? “Once every other month,” she said, and he could feel her attention wandering even on the blue note paper. “Only six times a year. That’s hardly enough to say it’s anything.”
He can’t think how to tell them that the Society is all he wants now, how to confide in them at all, to tell them how the diminishing of everything seems right to him. Whenever he thinks of his daughters, in fact, he is reminded how distant, how unreal, their lives are to him, how much more vivid the two of them are in photographs, Randall behind a huge bouquet of roses at the Academy graduation, Eleanor posed over the piano keyboard in the den of the house they sold 15 years ago.
He looks at the two pieces of stationery on the desk top. He has written less than half a page, but he can think of nothing more to say. He decides that he will have more to tell them in the evening, and he folds both sheets of paper and slips them into one of the pigeon holes at the back of the desk.
After lunch, when he is sure Alma is safely in bed, he leaves the apartment and walks the three blocks to the bus stop. The last block lies beyond the area he is familiar with, but he has the bus schedule in his pocket and knows exactly when he can board and where he will get off, so he is not anxious. Once he gets to the Club, he will again be on familiar ground. He thinks of himself as moving from island to island, the bus like a benign ship over which he has to exercise no control.
At the stop a large unpleasant-looking woman is already sitting on the bench. Mr. Owen prepares to speak to her, but she glances at him and then shuts her eyes. She is wearing a black straw hat and a purple dress with a slip strap white against her arm, and she is apparently living out an interior scene of some consequence to herself, even of some violence, for she occasionally bites her lip and sits forward as if she wants to say something. Once she speaks—”And I’d just like him to try!“—but catches herself before saying more, then turns her massive back to Mr. Owen.
When the bus pulls to the curb, he isn’t surprised that the woman shoves ahead, grabs both metal bars, and then heaves herself up the steps as if no one else is waiting to board. He tries to think of the name of the woman in Persuasion whose substantial size (he can almost quote the description) makes her comic even when she is weeping for her scapegrace son, but the name will not come to him.
There are two black boys on the bus, young men really. One is wearing a cap, and the other is wearing a felt hat with the front brim turned up. They are sitting on the back seat with their radio, a large silver and grey box with two round speakers like saucers, between them. The volume is so high that the bus seems to have room for nothing besides the sound. Mr. Owen can tell by the stiff set of the driver’s back that he will not do anything about the noise. The other people on the bus—the fat woman, two younger women, a man who looks disreputable despite his coat and tie (an unsuccessful salesman, Mr. Owen guesses)—cluster near the front. Everyone seems determined to pretend the music isn’t there.
Seated, Mr. Owen unfolds the notice of today’s meeting: it is. printed on heavy cream paper with Anna Lefroy’s drawing of Chawton Cottage at the top. “At October’s meeting,” he reads, “we’ll enjoy something different, a general discussion of Emma. Come prepared to speak about any of the characters. We want a lively discussion.” The notice says that Professor Mary Sturm from the University will read a paper. He has never heard of Professor Mary Sturm, but he has hopes despite her name. Her paper is entitled “A Defense of Mrs. Elton.” Mr. Owen enjoys irony, and he looks forward to Professor Sturm’s brand.
He himself has thought of some interesting things to say about Mrs. Elton. She has long been a favorite villainess of his. When he tries to imagine her now, he sees Mrs. Salesby again, and he remembers when Alma first saw the resemblance: “I think she must have read the book,” Alma said. “I think she models herself after Mrs. Elton on purpose. She has some devious purpose in mind we can’t begin to guess at.” Mr. Owen decides the other members of the Society would like to hear about Mrs. Salesby.
As the bus gets closer to the University, several more people get on, but no one gets off. Outside, through the windows, the houses grow larger and statelier, and he sees people walking, singly or in twos or threes, along the sidewalks, in a way they never do around his apartment building. Because of the loud music in the bus, he imagines the people outside walking in silence, or whispering to one another. The bus passes the Museum, and he begins to look for the Civil War monuments which tell him he is near the University. After that, he will be at the Club. He thinks of how quiet it will be there.
When the two boys exit, suddenly and jerkily, disturbing the old men and the pigeons in the tiny park which stretches out from the bus door, the bus seems empty and hollow. The boys were not so bad, he decides—silly and thoughtless, but not bad. He watches them, shoving at each other and laughing, until the bus moves forward and leaves them behind.
As he expected, the Club meeting room is quiet. He takes a seat on the second row. Only a few members are here before him, and he recognizes them all. The only other man is Mr. Asquith, whose wife leads him into and out of every meeting like a sad, obedient dog. Mr. Owen has never heard him speak—though Mrs. Asquith is quite vocal—but there is always in his face a look of resigned disagreement with everything anyone says. Mr. Owen nods to Mrs. Beatty, tightly done up today in brown wool with what looks like a cameo at her throat, and to Mrs. McAteer, who wiggles her fingers beside her cheek in response. He remembers that the fat woman in Persuasion is Mrs. Musgrove.
At the front of the paneled room are a long table and a lectern, from the top of which an empty microphone holder hooks meaninglessly into the air. Mrs. Arnold, the day’s moderator, comes in a side door with a thin woman in red, obviously Professor Mary Sturm, and the two of them stand talking at the table while Mrs. Arnold eyes the flexible microphone neck with disapproval and Professor Sturm glances down at the notebook she has placed on the table top.
As he looks at Professor Sturm, his enthusiasm for the discussion wanes. She is a tall woman with a protruding chin. Her dress looks too big for her, and her black hair is already falling from the loose twist on the back of her head. She looks like someone who wouldn’t enjoy reading Jane Austen, let alone talking about her.
Most of the other people who begin to fill up the room are familiar to him, the sort of people who relish the novels they’re here to discuss. He wonders what Alma would say about Professor Sturm: We should really give her a chance, don’t you think? Still. . .. For the first few months of his membership he brought Alma to the meetings and she was able to understand some of what was said. There followed several months when, although Alma stayed home, he took notes to share with her in the evening. Now he doesn’t do that.
Mrs. Arnold introduces Professor Sturm. “A wonderful opportunity,” she says, “to hear a true scholar share with us her interesting—and I think you will find “provocative”— ideas about Miss Austen.” Mrs. Arnold clears her throat, as if she wants to say more, then pulls the offending neck of the microphone stand down and forward. “I know you’ll listen eagerly to what she has to say.” Mr. Owen is reminded of a teacher telling her children to be polite.
When she begins to speak, Professor Sturm pitches her voice so low that Mr. Owen has to lean forward and cup his hand behind his ear to make out the words. She is so clearly uncomfortable that Mr. Owen begins to feel sorry for her. He tries to catch her eye so that he can nod reassuringly, but she fixes her gaze on the paper she is reading.
As she reads, though, she grows calmer. After some introductory comments—how critics have responded to Emma— she begins summarizing the plot, and Mr. Owen sits back. The material is so familiar to him that he needn’t pay close attention; he enjoys the sensation of being reminded of what he already knows, and he begins to feel grateful to the speaker and sorry for his first reaction to her. Then, however, without any warning, she begins speaking nonsense: “And it is this Mrs. Elton who has been universally despised by Austen’s critics. But is there really any difference in the final analysis between Mrs. Elton and any other character in the novel? Is she really worse than the heroine, in fact? If she violates the norms of the society depicted in the novel, isn’t it possible that the norms, indeed the society, are corrupt and her violence against them—despite her own lack of self-knowledge—is justified?”
Mr. Owen thinks he has misunderstood, for no one else looks disturbed. Mrs. Arnold has her eyes fixed on something in the back of the room which she seems to find mildly hypnotic. To the left of him Mrs. Beatty plays absent-mindedly with her cameo; to his right Mrs. McAteer is looking at her hands folded in her lap.
Professor Sturm talks about each character in the novel. Everyone, according to her, is caught in a vile world whose standards of order and taste corrupt and dehumanize. The things she says seem so wrong to Mr. Owen that he tries not to listen: he tries to think of something else instead. But her voice, which has grown louder, is as insistent as the music on the bus.
“And so Mrs. Elton only seems vulgar to a reader who identifies him/herself with a landed gentry—and perhaps to that part of Austen attached through rudimentary longing to such a world. But Mrs. Elton’s vulgarity is, in fact, the energetic challenge to the complacency which lulls, which in fact deadens, the other characters. She is Austen’s clearer self attacking a world Austen herself could no longer embrace: a world smug and decadent, ripe for change or death, no longer attached to any reality outside the minds of snobs.” Mr. Owen feels as if the woman has walked directly up to him and spat in his face.
When she sits down, there is applause, but when Mrs. Arnold asks for questions, no one responds. “No questions?” she says. “I can’t believe it.” She turns to Professor Sturm. “They’re usually very talkative,” she says, as if she were discussing a classroom of children. “You’ve given us a lot to think about.” Professor Sturm smiles in a way which shows she agrees.
Because someone has to reply, Mr. Owen stands up. “I have a question,” he says, but he cannot think yet exactly what it is. Everyone watches him, and Mr. Asquith, still the only other man in the room, smiles—surprisingly—as if something pleasant has happened.
“I don’t see how you can believe any of that,” Mr. Owen thinks at last to say. “We knew someone just like Mrs. Elton, and she was rude and loud-mouthed. A braggart, that’s what she really was. She always had to tell us how much better she was than anyone else, when all along we knew we were—I know it sounds wrong to say this—better than she. I can’t describe her manners.” He pauses, and everyone in the room looks at him. He knows they expect a question, but he cannot attach his indignation to any idea. His mind will not connect anything. “I just wish my wife could be here to show you how vulgar she was and how. . . . The point is she was just like Mrs. Elton and it matters that she not be. . . .” But what should she not be? Accepted? Defended? He hasn’t said what he wants to say. It is something else that matters, something entirely different.
“I’m not sure what your question is,” Professor Sturm says, “but I am sure that vulgarity isn’t as bad as it’s cracked up to be.” She pauses for the laughter her remark calls forth, and Mr. Owen realizes everyone is grateful to her for relieving the embarrassment he has caused. “I’m also sure a life spent merely avoiding vulgarity isn’t good enough. I think Austen would agree with me.”
When he fails to sit down, Mrs. Arnold tells him that she has asked for questions and if he has one, she’s certain Professor Sturm will be happy to respond. She adds that Professor Sturm has to leave in a few minutes and then the Society members will have a general discussion. “Perhaps,” she says, “you could save your own comments for then.”
“You don’t know, do you?” he says. He is speaking to Professor Sturm. “You don’t know how anything you say touches something else, do you? In what other people care about? That’s my question.” Professor Sturm’s face has grown blank, as if he has committed a blunder she chooses to ignore, and, when he looks all around him, the faces of the people he knows grow blank also. Their expressions erased, they hold their heads still in the neutral air, waiting.
The bus ride home is uneventful, and he thinks, not about the Society meeting, but about something else, like a page from a novel:
“There’s nothing we can do,” Dr. Sandys told him. “I could send you somewhere, to a neurosurgeon or the University hospital, but there’s nothing anyone can do. She’ll get worse, more and more confused. There’s just nothing. Look,” he said. He held a book open and showed Mr. Owen a picture. “It’s what happens in the brain. Here, the synapses allow connections: little electrical impulses jump back and forth and carry signals. Here they can’t do that. You can see why.”
To Mr. Owen both pictures looked like nothing which could be important to him or Alma. They were black and white and they depicted what looked like coral or fungus, nothing that either he or Alma could care about. He could not imagine the picture having anything to do with Alma’s brain. He could not understand how the shredded fungus in the picture could mean anything.
“Here,” Dr. Sandys continued. “I’m giving her three prescriptions and some samples. First, a tranquilizer, very mild. This second one is mostly phenobarbitol, to prevent seizures. And this is amitriptyline. It’s an anti-depressant. Make certain she only has one each day: they’re very powerful!” He held his palm open so that Mr. Owen could look at the oddly shaped pill. “Doesn’t it remind you of a little orange football?”
Mr. Owen drove Alma into the city. There was a drugstore which had been there when they were children and which had been restored to look the way it had then. They sat in wirebacked chairs at a small marble topped table and ate ice cream. The smell of the drugstore was disinfectant and alcohol, like the doctor’s office.
“I’m sorry,” Alma said. “I feel as if I’m moving in and out of the sunlight. It’s hard sometimes to remember what things are and what I should do with them.”
She held up her spoon. “Fork,” she said. And they both laughed as if she had never in her life said anything more clever.
“She had a restless afternoon,” Mrs. Armstrong says. “I think she knew you were gone.” She puts Alma to bed at 8:00 and then goes to her own room, and Mr. Owen can hear the sound of her television set through the wall.
When he thinks it is safe, he opens the drawer of the sideboard. Under the linen tablecloths, which they no longer use, is a small mahogany box, divided into two sections, for two decks of cards. Only one side, however, contains cards: in the other are several orange pills—he counts 22. He has averaged keeping one out of every three Mrs. Armstrong has given him, and he has been building the collection for two months, ever since he decided what to do. He drops in the 23rd pill: in less than two more months, before Christmas, he will have 40, 20 for Alma and 20 for himself.
He is tired but wants to finish his letter before he goes to bed.
“I had an interesting day,” he writes. “I rode the bus to the Society meeting: that always makes me feel like someone on a boat being taken somewhere nice. There was a woman—a large woman, all wrapped up in purple like Lent—who reminded me of Mrs. Musgrove in Persuasion: I suppose I had Jane Austen on my mind. There were two boys on the bus who were more active than the rest of us could live up to. They reminded me of you girls as children, full of noise and mischief. At the meeting a woman from the University said some outrageous things, but I think I set her straight (not as well as your mother would have done, of course). I told her about Mrs. Salesby—do you remember our old neighbor?— and I explained how she was like the characters Jane Austen clearly despises. I think the University woman saw my point, though maybe she was too much like Mrs. Salesby herself. Both very vulgar women.”
He hears the footsteps before Alma appears at the entrance to the living room. He watches her as she goes to the mirror and looks at herself. Then he gets up and walks to her side. The two of them in the mirror, with the single lamp burning, look very old, older than they are. Alma’s face is puzzled, and she starts making little whimpering noises as she stares at her reflection.
He takes her arm and, when she tries to pull away from him, grasps her by the elbow and begins to guide her around the room. In a few minutes, he knows, she will grow calm and he can take her back to her bed.
He imagines they are strolling along a sidewalk, passing other couples. The sun is shining, but there is a cool breeze. Something significant has happened which they do not yet understand, and the two of them are enjoying a well-deserved rest. They lean towards each other and whisper. Their conversation probes the meaning of whatever it is they have experienced, and through their talk they begin to see the pattern in what has occurred. When they tire of walking, they will go into one of the stately houses set back from the street on green lawns. He imagines that the rooms will be white with high ceilings: he cannot imagine any furniture, or any sound. The rooms will be very quiet, empty like the pages at the ends of all the books they have ever read. He realizes that he yearns for the emptiness.
As Alma’s restlessness subsides, she begins touching everything they pass—the roll-top desk, the back of the wing chair, the arms of the sofa. Then, as he leads her out of the room, she opens and closes her hand along the smooth wall, as if there might be something there to clutch.