The Physiology of Heartbreak
A nna had been asked to bring wine. It was what she did, after all. Each day. She brought wine and greeted customers. And came to their tables. And if she was moved, she spoke at length and if she was not, she just flashed a smile, warm as she could make it, genuine as she could make it. There were only so many genuine smiles before smiles became forced — a person has a kind of quota — but she would think of that fact that these people, grumpy, unpleasant though they might be, were spending money, were here to have a good time.
She tried not to think in terms of dollar signs. And she looked and waited and almost everyone had a spark of good humor or liked something or were pleased by something and then she could smile because she was smiling back. And what about the regulars? The Piedmonts — who came, year after year — old Mr. Piedmont, well, old, she could remember when he was not so old, for they had been in business a little while.
And Schmidt, Schmidt was after all a genius. The same golden boy she had married but a better and more innovative cook each year. There would never be a hamburger on the menu — there would never need to be — because he could make an amuse-bouche out of pulled pork as easily as satiny haddock or flavorful bisque. She had not imagined or maybe she had how good he would be.
But it was his father now dying and Schmidt was away from the Inn for a week and she too would have to be away, but for less time because, oddly enough, he could be replaced but she couldn’t. His skills were translatable, but not hers.
And what after all were her skills? Smiling. She was good at smiling. Watching. Watching for that moment when a glass got too empty — knowing whether or not a silence was actually a silence or was just a pause that could be helped — ameliorated — by a visit from the hostess. How this was a talent, she did not know. But she knew that the place only truly hummed when she was there. And maybe the additional truth was she only really hummed when she was there too, in this place where she could control everything.
When Schmidt called, she was just contemplating the menu. What you could serve on a Wednesday in the summer, to tourists, specifically. Food, as a form of love, was so curiously frontloaded — beautiful when it appeared on the plate, and then in bites, like little kisses, like touches, like steps on the way to bliss. She didn’t like to go as far as to compare it to that because it seemed wrong somehow, oversimplified, like it shouldn’t be related, but it was. Like foreplay, and so, similarly if you thought of what was to come while you were eating what was already there, neither the individual experience nor the payoff would be enhanced. Sequence, utterly and crucially, mattered with a capital M.
Was it right? Would the tastings amuse? Did it all fit together? How did the menu look? The flowers? The tablecloths? The waitresses? Would they put her in the mood? That au fond was the question, wasn’t it? She blushed and shivered and hoped no one noticed. Which was when she remembered he wasn’t there, but already ahead of her, in Boston, visiting his father, in the hospital where he lay dying.
“He wants you to bring him some wine,” is what he had said.
She brightened, thinking there must be something to celebrate.
“He wants to get drunk,” he explained, and went silent. He did not, after all, have the language for this kind of thing. The language is what she provided. That was her department.
* * *
The thing that had grabbed him, put him here, had visited him once before, before the thought of death had seemed like anything other than a premature lullaby, and had meant, simply, less of his beloved coffee, a steak less or two a month.
He had stopped short of becoming a vegetarian, though he was tempted, because he was afraid that allowing himself to be influenced by the image of lines upon lines of animals waiting penitently to be cut up and eaten would lead to his never being able to enjoy eating again. So he put them out of his mind.
He had been impressed with the comparative confidence and cool of the specialists he was sent to as the significance of the outlying test was probed; they grew increasingly confident and seemed to have so much more time than the harried general practitioner with whom he regularly dealt and eventually one had decisively defused the alarm. Closed the gate, ended the panic. Put him back behind the regular nervous gatekeeper again.
But now he was back through the gate and down the road again, wasn’t he? The gatekeeper had been caught sleeping. The way they described his veins reminded him of traffic jams along I-95 going out of Boston with cars going up on the median strips and into the breakdown lane to get through. In recent years, there had been few things in his life so succulent as steaks but had the steaks been worth it?
He did not want to live in this green sad place, in this body he could not use. He had been vain of his body. His sexual powers. The way his jeans fit. His capacity with drink. Not so long ago, he had been able to down three martinis, was still peering at young women through his half glasses with practiced acumen. Perhaps it made him look like a leering librarian. But now, here.
The doctors would keep him going. Maintain his capacity to watch television. To send emails. But this was not living. Living was a certain matrix of decisions. A control of one’s circumstances. Flair. There were those who, through the force of their minds, could cast away this green morgue, but he was not one of them. Instead, he would regulate how it would go. He would get drunk.
* * *
S he didn’t recognize him, which was frightening enough. She was used to the way he looked — tall, a little burly — but now he looked nothing like that. Who was this man? What did he want? What would he require?
“I want to get drunk,” Schmidt’s father said and stared into space.
He was gaunt and tired and unshaven. His skin was pale. His hands and forearms appeared to be pinned to the bed by the covers, which were perfectly flat and tightly tucked. His bed table was empty except for a lamp and a telephone. The blinds were drawn on the gray day.
She had the bottle with her, along with a corkscrew, and a glass. She put her other package on the floor for a minute and took the glass out and set it on the bedside table. Schmidt said something. She cut away the wrapping and injected the tip of the corkscrew, turning it briskly. She stopped herself from commenting on the wine, which was one of their best sellers, a favorite at the Inn. How macabre it would sound. The preferred wine at deathbeds the world over.
* * *
They would say that he had a weak heart. That would be what he could not abide. It wasn’t just the semantic difference. “Weak heart”/”Strong stomach.” It was that he knew it wasn’t weak. At least in terms of how he’d used it. This was the problem with metaphors of course. And talking about what they’d say, anyway — this ubiquitous, disembodied they —what did it matter?
But he had not had a weak heart.
They had not always had a perfect arrangement. She had changed, grown impatient. It was unreasonable to expect anyone in a relationship not to have frustrations, to hide sacrifices. Towards the end, she had gone away for a time. She did not say where. He had lived alone. Visited their son and daughter-in-law at the Inn. Staying for free. She had not understood the Inn, hadn’t wanted to visit. Did not want to feel like a tourist. There was something in what she said. Their son never really came out of the kitchen during his visits.
But the daughter-in-law, she was a trooper. Someone worth knowing. Someone who stood up. He appreciated that on behalf of his son. Wanted her to know. Felt a kind of duty in their formal roles, in the dining room, pleasant strangers discussing the weather.
Anyway, he had held things together. He had withstood it. His wife had come back. And they had not discussed where she had been. And he continued to visit their son and daughter-in-law on his own, having set the stage. His heart had been strong, strong enough to withstand what she had done, but afterwards it had been weakened. By her going and then returning and then her dying first. He did not know how he could be expected to carry on like this. To carry on at all.
He had been proud of their comparative longevity. Although she rarely got sick, she began to tire easily and was susceptible to bruises. Not from him, no never, but from the most innocuous of collisions, with table legs, door jams. He did his best not to notice this nor to attribute it to the relationship. He imagined them occupying their relationship like a horseshoe crab. To himself, he had maintained, incongruously, that at some point, later, he might leave it — one last tour of the world of free single sex, a blameless visit to his past.
But that harmless yet disconcerting episode in the season of his turning 50 — the test followed by a stress test, so ironically named — had made his morbidity specific. The longevity of his heart would be to blame. The week had passed anxiously and his heart had turned out to be fine, if curious, if unusual. She had rallied him and he had sworn to deepen his life, to turn away from that former fantasy of separateness, and come to terms with the conclusion that he would die first. He did not tell her this. Which made doubly idiotic his resenting her death to this extent.
* * *
She did not know very much about her father-in-law. This was the way sometimes. You knew little bits and pieces. Fragments. You knew habits — a person appeared and did certain things. And that was who that person was.
She too was expected to do certain things and so she did them. Breakfast was brought a certain way, the paper just so. She treated him as she would any other VIP and the only difference was, he didn’t pay. They would discuss the news or the weather. Their conversation barely skirted the personal. He appreciated what she did and she in turn did it, lightly, freely. He was always gone before they became what she would call friends.
In her mother-in-law’s case, she had less to go on. Maybe it was because they had avoided the family place where she was willing to see them. The family home on a street in Cambridge, on which the land seemed to have bunched up, lifting the houses onto little hillocks. They were always served peas, roast beef and apple crisp in precious rooms that smelled of bourbon and were filled with books. Schmidt was an only child. But it could not be confirmed, at least not visually, that there had ever been any children in the house at all. She did not expect toys or some other shrine to the milestones of his youth, but something or other out of place — an aged dog, faint lines recording a child’s increasing height. But if there had been any such evidence, it had been removed.
Schmidt spoke rarely of his parents. She was not surprised. When they visited the Cambridge house, it was as if they were distant relatives rather than only son and daughter in law. The peas, crisp and roast would certainly be made, but beyond that, it did not seem as if his parents were particularly interested. On occasion they were as brazen as to discuss in their hearing the list of weekend guests for the rest of the month. She wondered generously if Schmidt’s parents simply needed other people in the room to talk.
It was also possible that their memories were faulty. She did not want to think ill of them. And yet she felt — her mother-in-law in particular — was never very happy to see her. How many times had she resisted an inner voice urging her to say something, anything?
“Not everyone has the talent you do,” Schmidt said, when after one particularly frigid visit, she had burst into tears.
“Talent?” she had asked, not immediately comprehending.
“For making people feel welcome.”
She had never imagined this to be a talent.
Schmidt was quiet in the car after that. He had solved her problem, she couldn’t help thinking, requited her need for appreciation. But what about his? What about the after-effects of a childhood with these people? Could she help him with that?
* * *
Even as a young man, he had never loved to dance. He had avoided dancing occasions, clinging desperately, vine-like, to whatever walls presented themselves. But in his new incarnation, he found he had the impulse to dance all the time and regularly gave in to it. On the sidewalk, in a parking lot, on his lawn. He bought a stereo and played Fred Astaire, The Beatles, the Stones. Motown. Anything that had ever been defined as dance music.
Did he have time for a radical redefinition? Was there time to work on that which he had perhaps not done so well? Death loomed. The horizon was limited. Perhaps his dancing was on the head of a pin.
A neighbor came over to complain about the loudness of the music but when he saw how old his new neighbor was, he seemed unable to go through with it and so instead welcomed him somewhat tersely to the neighborhood. He went along with the neighbor’s confusion. Why would he, an aging widower, be up late playing music and dancing? It felt strangely refreshing to lie. To use the trappings of age in the service of refusing to grow old. It felt deliciously illicit. Until now, the closest he had come to illicit was pornography. It had been his guilty passion for much of his life — perhaps more guilty than passion. It was a sad truth that pornography was what passed for an inner life in most men. Really it was quelling inner life, or the need for more of one.
But now he would be all inner life: now he would shout his inner life from the rooftops. Now —
A memory: the day his son was born, he had been on the telephone, even the beginning of the memory made him cringe. He had not been paying attention at the moment it happened. The sound of crying had somehow entered his consciousness very slowly. A crying sound that it took him way too long to associate with himself. Who was he talking to? He couldn’t remember. Someone — but whom? Where had his attention gone? Could he still retrieve it?
Someone on a street corner on the way back to the office, following a lunch meeting. There had been a baby passing, wailing, and he had realized that it was probably happening right then. She was at the hospital giving birth. And for a moment, just for a moment, he had felt the urge to cry himself.
He had missed that moment. It had not been expected in those days and so he had not been there. And she had not asked it of him. For a time he had thought that the thing to do about it was to become better acquainted with his son. Still this seemed mawkish and rather obvious. Something more complete was wanted. He wanted to begin again. Completely change his memories. Without her? Without her? But without her, he would not have had him. Couldn’t have produced a child. Or at least not this child. He was, after all, happy to have had this child. Or at least he thought he was.
So very mawkish. Perhaps he would adopt the simple goal of not being mawkish. He would like to be drained of mawkishness. Demawked. He observed that while he was thinking like this, time did not seem to pass.
There had been a point when, all of a sudden everyone they knew was on the damned slide: the slide down which every human being must eventually go. It was at this time that he began to notice how the weakness of others made him feel. How she, tired, frightened him. He worried about her and then resented that she worried him. He missed her in advance then pitied himself for doing so. Friends were no help, for they were also already looking into the abyss. It was little comfort to look into the abyss together. It did nothing to lessen it. He did not want to die. There were those who accepted it, welcomed its inevitability. He was not one of them.
But she was. She had been a realist. “If you are lucky enough to be given, in life, a significant other with whom you enjoy spending time, then you must understand that your time is limited and you must appreciate the gift,” that is what she had said. “You must spend the time. To not do so is the ultimate waste. Nature abhors waste.”
* * *
Her own experience was so significantly different. And this is why, she understood, she had to be careful. She had only had her own parents for so short a time. Her chronology of feelings on this subject had been what had prompted her not to want to have kids. Or at least that’s what she told herself when she asked herself why it had never happened; an increasingly difficult conversation with herself she now tried to avoid. It wasn’t that she missed having children, only that she was less sure than she once had been about why they hadn’t. They were married to the Inn, for sure. But what else had happened? It had been fine — their life had been lovely. The thing that was hardest to accept was that so much of life had already been. But how was it beneficial to ponder this?
She had secured the wine and brought it with her in a special sack designed for the purpose. She had arrived on time, her flight from Bangor to Boston seemed to be arranged for the convenience of the airlines rather than for their customers, but no matter. On the ride into town, she reflected that it was so much better than the ride into New York, for which she was thankful — she had once upon a time come close to marrying someone from New York and if that had been the case — she did not know, she was not one to moon over former options.
Or was she? The taxi passed the “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now” sign on Storrow Drive. It was a particularly favorite sign. She delighted in its illogic, its half-baked hospitality. She liked to fill in the line, “But then you’d live here — in the middle of Storrow Drive.“ The queer human impulse to live in the middle of things amused her. In New York, there were apartments on top of FDR Drive. Imagine looking up from your breakfast down the barrel of a Mack Truck.
And about that New York life — the attraction it had once presented was a distant memory that fluttered up at odd moments — like a scene in a movie that suddenly reminds you of another time. She did still like to flirt. That, after all, was what made her so good at her job (the New York guy had not been fond of this). Making a human connection across the sexes was for her as pleasurable as drinking — she never took either too far, like Dorothy Parker’s adage about martinis. Schmidt knew that as much as it would be impossible for her to ever go through with anything, without flirting she would wither and die as quickly as an unwatered plant.
* * *
The days on which he felt good, he marveled at the distance he had come. He was adding to his lifespan, and how lovely that was. Life is not a race — even a distance contest — but a matter of doing the best with what you have. To have been with her was a great blessing, to have stayed with her the same. The men who had left their wives seemed at the time adventurous but were later to be found floating through life alone like ghosts. Experience showed that the physiological damage of heartbreak could not be overestimated. He had attributed a friend from college’s late life taciturnity — he appeared to re-evaluate everything he knew about himself and then to turn himself off — to the wear and tear of life in his grueling industry, but now recognized it as much more vast. He understood now that it could only have come from heartbreak.
After all, one visit to her grave — he had not wanted to go — found the idea almost unbearable, avoided it, had gone eventually, thinking that he’d better, but had said nothing, brought nothing, stood mutely like a pouting child — had after all catapulted him here, to a small apartment in the middle of a small town on a small plot of land on the coast of Maine.
He had brought with him a pad of paper. He had made a list entitled “Things.”
Things I wish I had never done: “Fallen in love.”
The list had not gone further and the page had stayed otherwise as empty as the room.
Each day he went to the beach and collected a handful of sand and placed it out behind his little house. “In a thousand years, perhaps,” he thought. “I will bring the entire beach here.”
But he soon regretted this idea. He found he couldn’t stop collecting sand, marked his days by whether he’d done it and began to grow weary. All that he really wanted to do was to finish. To die. To join her. To go on driving her crazy. They had found each other too early. He should have expected to be this broken up.
But some days he forgot to despair. He invented new identities. He went to bars and local events. He considered the idea that he might start a business. There was a lovely furniture store in town which he began frequenting. Why not? He imagined adding a bookcase full of new books that he had never read.
He continued to carry sand from the sea to the house. He wondered how his life might have been different if he had been focused on completing a task.
Could he just stay here? Leave her there alone? Next to a headstone with a blank slate? Persist in this town in the middle of nowhere, like a spoiled child. Refusing, refusing, refusing?
* * *
They were to stay at her in-laws’ house, though no one had lived there since Schmidt’s mother’s death. Schmidt hadn’t wanted to go without her, so she went there first to open it. They would have to deal with it eventually as the cab pulled up, on the hillocky street, she was not exactly sure she could manage it.
The door creaked; it was like a haunted house dare. The front hall was spotless as if her mother-in-law had been to clean from beyond the grave, but there was, if such a thing were possible, a physical smell of inaction. She put her suitcase down and looked around: the assortment of knick-knacks; the beach scene she had always self-consciously ridiculed; to stand on this threshold and not anticipate being greeted by anyone was not unpleasant.
She went into the living room. A pair of glass doors looked out on a small backyard. Birds chirped accusingly in a tree just outside the window. Hundreds. What was the emergency? Perhaps there was a feeder that needed filling?
She looked in a few cabinets and then in the big kitchen closet and found a bag of birdseed with a note attached to it saying, “At least once a week.” She carried the bag out into the back yard. An elegant feeder stood off to one side on a pedestal. It was empty. She dutifully filled it. Perhaps she would spend the next 12 hours following the logic of her mother-in-law’s way of living. Where were the glasses? Where were the placemats? Here was a small television — perhaps she liked to watch it while she cooked?
Could she, like some fairy, reanimate her mother-in-law? Would she want to? She thought of making tea. She opened the refrigerator and put in the wine. The smell of its interior was deeply nauseating. It was perfectly clean, but something inside had gone bad. Another task. Trash bags, cleaning solution — under the sink? She opened the cabinet and was hit with another strong smell. Someone had left a gloppy mess in the trash. She pulled out the bag and threw in what was in the fridge and carried the trash bag outside to a bin she had seen outside the back door. Then she went back in and found cleaning solution and rags, now crusty with disuse. She ran them under the water, wishing for paper towels, and went to work. Within an hour, the fridge was spotless. She put the bottle of wine in and thought again about that cup of tea.
She was surprised how much she was enjoying this intimate visit with her mother-in-law’s life. It was not as alienating as she’d expected. Indeed it seemed as if her mother-in-law had been expecting her. She found notes, lists of things: groceries, bills, where to find accounts, suggestions.
She found her mother-in-law’s handwriting comforting. Rounded, neat letters that had a tendency to flatten out and become illegible at the end of sentences. Here and there among the lists was a gentle reminder: “Don’t let the food go bad.”
At first, she found herself wondering whom the messages were meant for. They could have been for a cleaning lady — or even notes from her mother-in-law to herself — but she soon reached the obvious conclusion that they were messages to her father-in-law. So why hadn’t he done any of it? She had left him a blueprint for moving forward, but he had refused to follow it. Why?
“Ask Emma to come in.” That must be the cleaning lady.
“Do remember to make the bed.”
She went upstairs to the bedroom. The bed was rumpled but looked as if it had not been slept in recently.
“The recipes are in the cabinet to the left of the sink — you know the one. Crisp recipe on top.”
For all she had deplored their visits to the house in Cambridge, she had always loved the crisp — with its crust of remarkable thickness — just enough of the most delicious combination of cinnamon, butter, sugar and lemon. She had asked her mother in law for the recipe and had been given it many years before, but Schmidt had not liked it very much when she’d tried to make it. “She’s leaving something out,” he would say, suspiciously.
* * *
She had told him almost as an afterthought, as if it were something he already knew but had forgotten. It was just after — or just before his spate of medical activity. Cells had been found and removed. Scraped away. She was sure she had told him. But she had not told him, for whatever reason. Perhaps she had been protecting him, but it was protection that he did not want.
Afterwards, he felt an imbalance. A wariness. A distance. He felt inferior. Judged incapable. He understood that there was an irony in the fact that he could not tell her this. Would not. That the emotion was self-fulfilling. He wanted to hear about her health, was by turns solicitous and dismissive. On his better days, he was able to see that her relationship to her body was different than his relationship to it (and to his own). He was the administrator of their sex life. Or so he’d thought. But perhaps this was just a misapprehension based on initiation. Perhaps she had always allowed him, but participated only as she wished. But you could co-exist only as long as you existed, he thought to himself, feebly. Her not telling him because she didn’t think he could handle it seemed somehow to correspond to her giving in because she knew he wanted to, had to, even when she didn’t. She could make the choice to make her body attend to his, but some part was always separate, inaccessible, or simply, unrelated. And yet he was grateful. How could he not be? So profoundly grateful he felt foolish, vulnerable, weak.
Before going into the hospital, she had left the entire house just so. Arranged for Emma to keep coming, had her shop for him. Left him cheerful notes. As if she were off on another trip. He couldn’t stand it. Had she really written all these notes when she knew? Perhaps she had been doing it over time, which was almost worse. How could dying — leaving him — be so matter-of-fact for her and so painful for him? She had done the dying, after all, not he. She had left directions on how to make his favorite dessert. An apple crisp so light and delicate with a crust at once substantial and airy, like biting into a crunchy sugar cloud. He could not just carry on making that. He never wanted to taste that taste again. He had never known anyone who could take care of him as well as she could. And that was why he had been so devoted to her for so long. But he could not live on her memory or on the faint disappearing curls of her handwriting. They would fade far too quickly — he would depend on them and they would fade. Still, he had tried. But he had forgotten the flour, ignored the cinnamon and the result had been an unpalatable, sticky mess. He had poured it into the trash and lay down on the kitchen floor. The floor had been warm. And he had lain there sobbing until he had fallen asleep.
In the morning, he had not known where he was or indeed how old. Was he a young married man getting over a bender, a man in his late fifties exhausted by the demands of work, or a man on the verge of old age overwhelmed by the thought that his own child could be old enough to marry? To discover he was none of these people, but an eighty- year-old man alone, who had seen his life through, was both comforting and bewildering. The floor was still warm and the refrigerator hummed and he felt himself falling back to sleep. A ray of sunlight framed a long rectangular box along the floor beside him and he stared at it entranced. He rolled into the rectangle and slept for what seemed like an hour or so but when he awoke, the sunlight box was gone and it was mid-afternoon. He stood up and without thinking, put his wallet and his car keys in his pocket and left the house. He drove down Storrow Drive and emerged onto the turnpike and headed north. He intended to go to his son but the directions would not come to mind and he found himself on a stretch of Route 1A filled with elaborate restaurants. He stopped at the Kowloon, a rambling Chinese restaurant built to resemble someone’s idea of an imperial palace.
The last time he had stopped here was long ago, in college, on a trip into the night with a girl. It had not been her, but someone else. They had gotten drunk and decided to drive to the beach. He’d thought he would remember how to get there but hadn’t. So they’d ended up short of the beach, here, driving up and down Route 1A. That night, all of the establishments had been open, but tonight they were all closed. Now he peered in the window of the Ship, hoping to see his younger self, looking back at him, eager, chagrinned. Instead, he saw tables at a restaurant inside a scale-sized boat sailing nowhere on land.
He wondered that his life had never included the desire to erect such an enterprise. He remembered reading that the owner had been a captain. He thought about this business of forgetting, of selective memory. Had they found the beach that night, perhaps his life might not have been his life. Perhaps they would have, what? He did not understand why he had become obsessed with alternatives. He felt as if he no longer wanted his memory. But then it occurred to him that by failing him about the beach, his memory had guided him, saved him, corralled him and directed him into the life that he’d led. What would it do now? He thought of the cows outside the nearby Hilltop Steak House. Marveled at the audacity of decorating what was in essence an end-to-end slaughterhouse to restaurant with statues of resplendent live cows.
They had gone to the Ship restaurant in the aftermath of their failed expedition. Entering the front door, they’d been assigned to a room on the bridge. Their conversation, which had been excited and hilarious at the prospect of the beach in the dark and had fluttered briefly at the idea of eating on a land-bound ship, grew increasingly fragmented at the prospect of lasting through a sit-down dinner. They finished and went home, bid each other good night with no hard feelings but he always remembered that threshold moment fondly, perhaps because it had been the beginning of something that had not had a chance to become real.
That would be what he would build here, next to the Ship. A beach, corresponding to the one they had hoped to reach. Perfect next to this alternative, parodied version of the world. Slaughtering animals, polluting the air, maligning the landscape, reaching the beach: it was all proof of life! Of memories commemorating self. China. Farm, Ship. Love, Larger than Life. Man conquering his own boredom. Back in his car, he amused himself by flicking his brights at the gathering darkness.
* * *
Butter, flour, sugar, lemon, cinnamon. Schmidt had been right. There was more sugar. She had left all of the ingredients in the house so he could make his own. He must have tried. She had replaced the rotting apples and dried out lemons (she must have bought extra). She wondered whether she would still be so present in her house two months after her own funeral.
She felt sorry for Schmidt. Not one of those little notes anticipated that anyone else would enter the house but his father, in the hospital now, after spending two months living far away in a small town in Maine. How Schmidt could just live with this she did not know. She wanted to shake him and say, “It’s your life, they’re your parents, they should behave as if they care, as if they notice, as if you are their child, which you are.” But she could not say any of this. And since she could not say it, she pitied him and had been unable to discuss anything substantial with him since the funeral. She worried that pity in a marriage could be deadly.
She crushed the butter into the sugar. She remembered how completely despondent her father-in-law had seemed at her mother-in-law’s funeral. Discarded, at the edge of a room full of people there to wish him well. It wasn’t his fault that he had outlived her, was it? He had stood up against one of their floor-to-ceiling bookcases as if he might at any moment take down a novel and begin to read and the world and the assembled mourners would disappear. Was he mourning? She wondered now. Or was he just waiting to disappear? Only to be recaptured by illness — by reality — and returned back here to the hospital to face its music. She herself accepted death — she believed it was a natural conclusion, a bookend — that it would feel right when it came. You couldn’t have a beginning without an end.
She took the bowl of crust and put it in the freezer. Then she began peeling apples. There were eight. She rarely cooked — she was married to a chef — but she liked to watch the pastry chef on occasion, who was particularly good at peeling apples, among other things. Well, she liked to watch him anyway, but this was, she told herself, why. She tried now to peel the first apple in one go — and managed to get close. She then cut the apple into slices and arranged them around the bottom of her mother-in-law’s baking dish as her note indicated. “Watch the edges for browning,” she was admonished. In the dim afternoon light, she squinted at the slices and made herself go faster.
When she heard that her father-in-law had disappeared, she was sure he had done something drastic. Something dramatic. It made sense given the way he had behaved at the funeral. She supposed he deserved credit for having written the queer letter they’d received: “Am all right. Please don’t try to find me.” Postmarked from that town in Maine.
Schmidt had thrown a few books together and sent them to him care of the town, general delivery, and when he’d received no response, been prepared to do nothing, but she had prevailed and he had gone to the town the note had been sent from but found no trace. She thought she would never forget how shell-shocked he seemed when he came home. She could not get him to say what he feared. He felt that was all he could do. He was standoffish. Days later they had received word that his father was in the hospital.
The phone call came from a woman — was she Russian? An accent, hysterical: “You must save him, I found your number in his wallet. I don’t know if he knows anyone else. I will tell you where he is….”
This had been followed by a theatrical throat-catch: he was all she had, perhaps they could help — a check sent to an address — it was a half-hearted effort. Who knew what she was hoping for — but they did not have it. Thankfully, she revealed where he was.
She paused and laid the peeler in the middle of the apples. You had to have patience for this. She looked at the slices, so neatly arranged on the bottom of the bowl. She plucked away one turning slightly brown at the edges. She imagined her mother-in-law peeling apples. She was probably able to do all her apples in one peel. She had four more chances to get it right.
* * *
He had driven until dawn, along Route 1. He had found a motel or a motel had found him. There had been blueberry muffins for breakfast, and a circular of some sort advertising a small house for rent. He had rented it the next day.
After that, he had gone down to the dock and stood staring out at the ocean feeling more than a little foolish. Would he go through with this? He ate lunch in a diner and went to a Wal Mart where he bought a bed which they were willing to deliver that day. Then he went to his new home and sat on the floor. There would be nothing to do here and he would get bored. He should have gone to a place with movies, restaurants, bookstores.
There was the small matter of money. He would have to make a phone call sooner or later. His credit cards could not pay rent. He had enough — he could get his banker to wire it. But then what? The banker would wonder what he was doing — he would call his son. And then his son would come. There was not time for righting wrongs.
He was not the first person to hope that the finality of death was only a mirage. You could not know what was ahead — there were only the images, the hopeful myths. He assumed his body would not continue, but he thought of presences, imagined hers as he had always felt it, nearby, supporting. Perhaps you simply started over in another life once the essences from your first were reassembled. Waited in the meantime in a purgatory, maybe like an airport. So you could expect another round, but this would be his last chance at something completely different in this one.
He would need occupation — perhaps a job? He could get a job at a bar — but wouldn’t that be exactly the thing he would be expected to do? Or pass his time in a bar, pretending he was going to get a job in one? He thought about selling newspapers, chopping trees or pulling up lobster. Or bagging groceries. Ah the human need for work. And then what? Into the arms of Miss Jones, checker at the supermarket? The lovely girl at the knick knack store? Into the sea, to wash up bloated, unsightly and be deposited in a potter’s field?
He brought a blanket and sat on the dirty sliver of beach next to the dock, below a lobster restaurant and its parking lot. This was when the sand collecting project began. On the fourth day at the beach, a woman tried to get his attention. He pretended not to notice. Since he already had the sand, he went home and did not return for days, searching his mind for any memory of whom the woman might be. She had blue eyes and brown hair and looked to be in her forties. When he finally went again, she was there once more, but kept her distance. He sat on a rock and watched the sea. He did not know this woman, he felt sure. At length, hungry, he went into the lobster restaurant and ordered a cup of coffee.
She came in too and sat at a distant table and ordered. Outside, it began to rain. He had a refill. His handful of sand was safely in his pocket.
Finally, she came over.
“Are you here to take me home?” he asked.
She smiled at him as if she didn’t understand English.
“I need your help,” she said.
He was overcome and not a little confused. There would be a purpose for his last days. And then he thought: first days.
* * *
The peel of an apple was like a train of thought. Round and round and round. She would think and think and think and imagine she was getting close to an answer — even to a question — and then, like some elusive goal in a dream, break off the end, lose the train and begin some new question (new peel).
Not Schmidt’s family but perhaps her own for once. But they were a blank. She had been orphaned, raised by an aunt. Aunt Jackie, who had been a delight, when she could spare the attention. Framework, framework — she could always count on Jackie. Uncle Avery made a good living and only handed back to her the fact that she was a charity case when they were having money troubles, which was how the phrase had become locked in her mind. The story of her father’s disappearance and her mother’s resulting dissipation was like a vivid children’s fable. They had splurged on a vacation to Aruba, as Jackie liked to tell it, proud of her sister’s refusal to worry about money the way her husband did. On a beach called Snorkel Beach. Her father had saved her mother — he had been big and strong — pushing her on to the rocks to safety, but had not been able to bring himself on after her and had disappeared under the waves. Then, Jackie would say, “He disappeared, but he might as well have taken her with him.” So the date of his drowning resonated as the date she had lost both parents. Her mother drank herself to death within the year. That was what Jackie had called it.
But how did one do that? She couldn’t help imagining it literally. Choking on wine, stuffing gin up her nose. Bloating from beer. It was why she never really liked to drink herself. Why, in bringing bottles of wine to people she sometimes felt like a cheerful executioner. So close. She had reached nearly the very end of the peel before it broke. There was one more apple now.
* * *
She was beautiful — or she was young — or he wasn’t sure. She was lonely, or alone in this town with no one to talk to and wondered if he would talk to her. She wasn’t looking for anything “untoward.” Just the use of the word charmed him and put him off his guard. As if she’d read it in a book. She was foreign, adding to her allure.
Of course he would, what would she like to talk about? But he found, after a day or two of meetings, that the interaction required an energy he did not have. He forgot where she was from or how many siblings she had or the unpleasant details of her all-too-recent divorce. From time to time, in their conversations, which always took place at the lobster restaurant, mid-morning, over a cup of coffee each, for which he always paid, he would find himself looking out to sea thinking how little his wife would have liked this place, internally remonstrating with her to just let him stay a little longer, perhaps.
And didn’t he really mean take him away? No, the coffee wasn’t very good and the beach was gray, but just a little longer? He was so enjoying himself talking to — what was her name? — what was she saying? The young did not enunciate. They murmured. Of course his hearing was not what it once was.
In order to continue he would have to find a way to pay rent. He couldn’t do it on his credit card. And eventually, he would have to pay his credit card. Maybe he would call the banker, ask him to take care of it, say he was taking some time by the seashore to recover and needed a line of credit.
He tried to imagine how he would have such a conversation without emotion.
Meanwhile, the coffees continued. She would ask him for money. He knew that was coming. Expected it. His better judgment, which he now, ungenerously gave the voice of his wife, suggested it might be a good way to decide whether she was worth it.
“Tell her you have nothing,” the voice suggested. “Lost it all in the market. See if her face drops at that and then ask yourself how you feel about it. When you see her intentions staring you in the face.”
But when she did ask him for money, he didn’t look at her, but sipped his coffee and pretended for a minute she wasn’t there and thought how nice coffee was after all and how much he liked the shore and the Northeast Coast and then he turned to her and asked, in spite of himself, “How much?”
The sob story involved a child and a mortgage and audaciously, funeral expenses for the husband who was supposed to have divorced her. But it was finally this that caused him to call his banker and ask about the line of credit. While on hold for Herb or Ed or Jack or whatever his name was, he imagined all of the pleasant responses to the pleasantries to come. She had always dealt with their finances. His banker was a little patronizing. It might have gone off without a hitch, but following some new bank policy Herb or Ed or Jack unctuously apologized for, they needed him to give his social security number and the only one he could think of was his wife’s.
“I think that will do,” Herb had said. But now he was on hold and had been so for twenty minutes. He had made the additional mistake of phoning old Herb with the woman in the room. While he waited, he noticed the woman inspecting the room and its lack of furnishings, looking out the back door at the pile of sand.
“You live alone?” she asked and he waved her away as if he were concentrating on the details of a wire transfer when in fact he was on musical hold. She placed her bag on the bed and removed her shirt revealing a black bra and then removed that too.
“I’m sorry,” Herb was saying. “There’s nothing we can do.”
* * *
There had been a lot of saving. Jackie had saved her the same way her father had saved her mother and then Schmidt had saved her again. She had met him walking into a bar to find help after her car had run out of gas. She had made it a lifelong rule to go into bars as little as possible, but this time she had no choice. She had lost track. Had left New York and hadn’t wanted to stop. He saw her immediately and somehow sensed that she was about to cry and ushered her outside. That morning she had walked out on the guy in New York who was cruel and dismissive and unable to see past his own borders. She had had it. When she was with him she was often about to cry. She had tried this, she had tried that and nothing was working. She had graduated from college and was still living in her off campus apartment when she wasn’t commuting to his bachelor hideaway above the FDR and she felt like a plane on a runway during a storm — no one was willing to allow her to fly.
But Schmidt, right then and from then on gave her wings. And now it was 25 years later. Ten years into the Inn and she couldn’t stop thinking of all the possible ways they could end up on some Snorkel Beach. She wanted 30 more years, she would take 20. Whom did she have to speak to?
There was no one of course. Life progressed and progressed and suddenly you were represented only by your scribbled notes. There. She made it all the way to the end of the final peel without breaking it. Now, all of the apples were peeled and sliced. “Now, squeeze a lemon over the slices, sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon and retrieve the bowl of crumble from the freezer and layer it on top. Put it all in the oven at 350 degrees.”
Would there still be something missing?
* * *
About halfway through, he found himself observing what was going on as if he were floating above it all, on a kind of cloud with his wife. Despite what was going on below, the feeling of floating, with her again, was more ecstatic. He imagined that they were floating on a boat on a celestial river and that there were birds and a picnic basket and soft music and then he was lying on a bed in an empty room in a small town in Maine feeling as if someone had just dropped a ton weight on his chest with someone nearby screaming into a phone in Russian and then, soon after, somehow, he was in a hospital in Boston being told he had only a very short time to live.
* * *
It was done. And it occurred to her suddenly what she must do. She would carry the bottle of wine, but she would bring the crisp too. It felt somehow more appropriate — more complete.
And they’d had their go round about the wine and then and then, she had hesitated, nudged Schmidt and produced the crisp and her father-in-law had tasted it and looked at his son unseeing? Untasting? Except Schmidt, he’d smiled, squeezed her hand and a tear had rolled down his face. His father had had several more bites and grinned an otherworldly grin and then, just as suddenly was gone.
* * *
The crisp, the crisp, the crisp — he had her back with each bite of crisp, taken from her, handed to him, on a cloud. It would be all right in this new place as they slid away down the celestial river —