Authors: Suzanne Berne
“Well, I hope we'll all survive until then,” said Mrs. Beale aloud.
“Do you think we will?” The woman in the turban gave a gap-toothed smile.
“I suppose.” Mrs. Beale felt dizzy again. “I don't know.” She closed her eyes. And yet it was true that when she opened them she found that she was still in her metal folding chair and everything was very much as it had been.
r. Watkins was making progress in getting
to know the inhabitants of Littlefield, as she had written to Dr. Awolowo. In addition to her observations of the Downing family, she had met quite a few residents at hearings at the town hall, which she attended weekly, including hearings on the school budget and most recently a hearing on what was now referred to as “the situation” at the park. As a result of attending so many hearings, she had been invited to join a Save the Park task force and to attend a planning meeting of Celebrate Your Heritage Day (“We're especially interested in tribal cuisine,” the chairwoman had told her). Most recently she had accompanied Margaret Downing to a cocktail party reception at the home of Dr. Naomi Melman, who lived in a brown-shingled Dutch colonial behind an octopus-like forsythia bush on Ballard Street.
For the last four years Dr. Melman, a family therapist at the Jewish Community Center, had given a popular once-a-month lecture on improving personal happiness, advertised in the
Community Center Bulletin
as the Live & Love series. These lectures had just been collected in a self-published book with a matte pink cover titled
The Bright Side: Feeling Better About Bad Things,
the letters picked out in scarlet, available at each lecture, $17.95 apiece, and on sale at the reception, twenty percent of the proceeds going to Walk for a Cure. A crowd of well-wishers and friends pressed into the dining room, where Dr. Melman sat at a table covered with a pink cloth and stacked with her books. Beneath her black, frizzy mane, her long, sallow face appeared and disappeared as she signed copies and accepted personal checks, each time dropping them into what looked like a metal tackle box and closing it with a snap.
When Dr. Watkins held out her copy to be signed, Dr. Melman looked up briefly and gave her a thin-lipped smile. “Life Is Good,” she wrote across the title page. “Cheers, Naomi.”
The living room was decorated with pink balloons and six small, round, pink-draped tables. Pink pillar candles flickered on each table, set with a bouquet of small pink roses and sparkly pink swizzle sticks, plastic champagne glasses, a bottle of pink champagne, and a tray of crackers topped with salmon paste. Margaret had found two seats at a table with a broad-faced social worker named Sharon, who had a pink blaze in the front of her short gray hair.
Sharon began talking about town budget cuts as soon as they sat down, especially cuts to the elementary school budget, which had wiped out all kindergarten field trips along with the third-grade recorder concert. “I usually
look on the bright side,” she insisted, making the flame of the pillar candle sputter. But it was getting impossible these days. So much wasteful spending. Take, for instance, the lavish new high school and the school superintendent's exorbitant salary. And look at the epidemic of pulled fire alarms at the middle schoolâsix hundred bucks every time the fire department had to be dispatched, because some kid wanted to get out of a math test.
“But what if that's not it?” Margaret was toying with the candle, dipping a swizzle stick into the pooling wax surrounding the wick. She'd drunk two glasses of champagne while Sharon was talking, and now her hand seemed a little unsteady. “What if they're pulling alarms because they really are alarmed about something?”
Just then her swizzle stick caught on fire, blazing up with an acrid stink and almost singeing her fingers before Sharon doused it with what was left in the champagne bottle.
“Sorry,” said Margaret, looking at her fingers. “I don't know what I was thinking.”
Added to these concerns, the weather. Cold temperatures had arrived in New England earlier than usual. A few nights after Dr. Melman's reception, a storm rushed through the village, hurling rain against windows like handfuls of gravel; the next morning almost every yard was covered in a sodden, half-frozen mat of brown leaves. What leaves remained on tree branches rattled in the breeze with a ghostly sound in the evenings when Dr. Watkins walked Aggie down Rutherford Road toward the village, peering into the lit windows of houses as she passed by. Such unremarkable houses during the day, sunlight falling flatly against painted front doors, raked lawns, empty driveways. But at night the same houses floated behind their shadowy shrubs and walkways, hushed, battened, as mysterious and provisional as ships moored in a dark harbor.
Sinister shapes loomed up at her only to be revealed the next morning as rhododendron bushes, garden sheds, bicycles. Why were the suburbs felt to be safe? They seemed more unsettling, at least at night, than any Chicago neighborhood, where at least there were streetlights.
Never trust a place without sidewalks,
her mother always said.
One night Dr. Watkins passed a parked car, and there was Margaret Downing, kissing a man who was not her husband.
The following week, out with Aggie later than usual after typing up her notes, Dr. Watkins spotted Bill Downing in a dark overcoat and a black wool cap on Ballard Street.
He was standing with his big black dog in front of the Melman house, just beyond the reach of yellow light thrown by their windows. But his face was visible to Dr. Watkins as she approached in the darknessâand on it she perceived a look of such monstrous suffering, as if it were not a man who stood there but something that had consumed the man and now occupied his body. A look of wooden self-consciousness, fraudulence, vacancy, a kind of flat-line anguish that was almost frightening. Even when he turned, startled, to say good evening to her, that look did not quite leave his face.
e recognized her from his mornings at
the park: the owner of Boris the sheepdog. She was standing with a little boy on the sidewalk outside of the Forge CafÃ©, the dog with them. George stopped to pat Boris's shaggy head, wondering, as people always do with English sheepdogs, how Boris could see anything.
He straightened up, smiling guiltily. She smiled back, understandingly.
“Yes, of course.”
Christmas lights were blinking from a few store windows though it was still a week before Thanksgiving. A cardboard turkey with a burnt-orange, accordion-pleated tail had replaced the basket of daisies atop the anvil in the cafÃ©'s window. Soon enough the turkey itself would be replaced by a white plastic Christmas tree sprayed with glitter and decorated with frayed green and red silk balls, but for now the turkey kept a beady vigil as passersby walked back and forth. Door chimes tinkled, while in the distance the trolley rattled. It was just past four thirty, but already the trolley lights were on and shop windows were lit; the sky had a dull rosy-amber tint above the rooftops, and the air smelled fresh and cold and watery, as it does just before snow. Here and there the sidewalks were rimed with ice.
Emily wore a long black wool coat that blew about the tops of her black boots; long blond curls blew about her face and small pink nose, catching on her little round gold-rimmed glasses.
“And this is my son,” she was saying, “Nicholas.”
Nicholas was in a red parka, a red fireman's hat, and blue sweatpants tucked into a pair of yellow rubber boots. “Ready for any emergency,” said Emily. “Right, Nicky?” Nicholas nodded solemnly.
“And where are you off to, George?”
He was on his way to meet Margaret for coffee at the Forge. She had requested this meeting. Her e-mail had read:
We should talk
. One of the worst sentences in the English language, in his opinion. Second only to
Who do you think you are?
Always followed by what someone else thought you were, rarely a happy definition.
He hadn't seen Margaret since the evening of the town hall hearing, when she'd thrown herself at him in his car. He had kissed her back. They'd sat kissing in his car at the bottom of her driveway for maybe five minutes. He'd tried to be muscular and commanding with his tongue, as he imagined her investment-planner husband must be. Then they'd broken apart and driven to the town hall in silence. She was trembling hard, pulling at the fingertips of her leather gloves. He figured she felt guilty about kissing him, and after the hearing, as he drove her home, he resolved to let her make the next move. In the car she began talking in an unnaturally high voice, reviewing what had been said at the hearing, and marveling at how, after so much discussion and event, nothing had been accomplished. It had started to rain.
“Politics.” George was looking at the road through his windshield wipers, trying to decide whether to forget about his strategy and kiss her again.
He understood she was rattling on because she was nervous, because she was waiting for him to say something about their kiss in the car. Maybe he'd made a mistake by waiting for her to explain why she had kissed him. She must be hoping for some kind of declaration. But what could he say? Love me? Save me? Feed me olives? At the very least, could you call my wife and tell her I'm not such a bad guy?
Her face was turned toward her window, as if she were searching for something in the dark. By now she must be desperate to be rid of him, already picturing herself safe at home with her husband and daughter: her husband who worked “downtown” and her oboe-playing daughter. Back in her house, where the laundry was folded, the bills paid, extra toilet paper stocked in the cabinet. A palace of order and solvency.
As they pulled into her driveway, light from the house's tall front windows spilled onto the wet front steps and the privet hedge, illuminating pale tombstones on the lawn and the skeleton hanging from a dark tree. He could already see her hurrying up the front steps. She would shut the front door behind her, take off her coat, and hang it neatly in the closet. Walk down the polished floorboards of the echoing hall, set her purse on the kitchen island, where the last olives would be in their bowl and the plate of Brie and crackers not put away, and two empty wineglasses still on the granite counter by the sink. Call out that she was home and lean down to pat her black dog as he ran at her legs. Tomorrow morning she would sit at her piano, reassured that no real harm had been done by her drunken impulse to kiss a man two inches shorter than herself, who needed a haircut, and a new pair of shoes, and whose novel, which took five years to write, had earned less than what her husband must make in three weeks.
All of this was so plainly before him that George was almost surprised to find Margaret still in his car, her profile softly blurred against the rain-streaked glass, the pine-tree air freshener dangling between them.
“About what happened earlier,” she said.
He said curtly, “What happened?”
They sat for several minutes listening to the rain on the roof of the car.
“Nothing. Never mind.” Her voice was shaking. “Thank you for the ride.”
Then she got out of the car and slammed the door, hurrying up her shining driveway, lit up by his headlights, before vanishing around the side of the house into a pocket of darkness.
What an ass he'd been. Now whenever he thought of that evening, she seemed lovelier than he'd first realized. More perceptive and intelligent. There was something about herâa kind of awareness, a responsivenessâthat might leap out, suddenly, right at you. And yet, there was something depressing about her, too. Nervous. That shriek in the car, for instance, had been very strange. She had kissed him. No denying that. But then he'd behaved like an ass, let her go running back to her house when she'd clearly wanted to talk.
We should talk
And so he was standing outside the Forge CafÃ© on a cold afternoon, under the skeptical eye of a cardboard turkey. But he was early, and in no hurry to sit at a table by himself, drinking bad coffee, waiting to be told probably that he was an ass, so when Emily said that she and Nicholas were on their way to the Dairy Barn for an ice cream cone, he fell into step beside her. Boris shambled between them, tugging at his leash.