It’s exactly 20 minutes to midnight, on this, the eve of my 70th birthday. And I’ve decided to address you, for a change, in writing, odd as that might seem. I’m perfectly aware of how you’re going to take the fact that I’m doing this at all, so late at night with everybody due to arrive tomorrow and the house still unready. I haven’t spent almost five decades with you without learning a few things about you that I can predict and describe with some accuracy. Though I admit that, as you put it, lately we’ve been more like strangers than husband and wife.
Well, so if we are like strangers, perhaps there are some things I can tell you that you won’t have already figured out about the way I feel. Tonight we had another one of those long, silent evenings after an argument. Remember? Over pepper. We had been bickering all day really, but at dinner I put pepper on my potatoes and you said that about how I shouldn’t have pepper because it always upsets my stomach. I’m bothered to remark that I used to eat chili peppers for breakfast. And if I wanted to put plain, old, ordinary black pepper on my potatoes – as I had been doing for more than 60 years – that was my privilege.
Writing this now, it sounds far more testy than I meant it. But that isn’t really the point. In any case, you chose to overlook my tone. You simply said, “John, you were up all night the last time you had pepper with your dinner.”
I said, “I was up all night because I ate green peppers, not black pepper but green peppers.”
“A pepper is a pepper. Isn’t it?” You said. And then I started in on you. I got – as you call it – legal with you, pointing out that green peppers are not black pepper. And from there we moved on to an evening of mutual disregard for each other that ended with your decision to go to bed early. The grandchildren will make you tired and there’s still the house to do. You had every reason to want to get some rest. And yet, I felt that you were also making a point of getting yourself out of proximity with me, leaving me to my displeasure with another ridiculous argument settling between us like a fog.
So after you went to bed, I got out the whiskey and started pouring drinks. And I had every intention of putting myself into a stupor. It was also my birthday, after all, and – forgive this, it’s the way I felt at the time – you had nagged me into an argument and then gone off to bed. The day had ended as so many of our days end now. And I felt, well, entitled. I had a few drinks without any appreciable effect, though you might well see this letter as firm evidence to the contrary.
And then I decided to do something to shake you up. I would leave. I’d make a lot of noise going out the door. I’d take a walk around the neighborhood and make you wonder where I could be. Perhaps I’d go check into a motel for the night. The thought even crossed my mind that I might leave you all together. I admit that I entertained the thought, Marie. I saw our life together now as the day to day round of petty quarreling and tension that it’s mostly been over the past couple of years or so. And I wanted out as sincerely as I ever wanted out of anything.
And I got up from my seat in front of the television and walked back down the hall to the entrance of our room to look at you. I suppose I hoped you’d still be awake so I could tell you of this momentous decision I felt I’d reached. And maybe you were awake. One of our oldest areas of contention being the noise I make, the feather thin membrane of your sleep that I am always disturbing with my restlessness in the nights.
All right, assuming you were asleep and don’t know that I stood in the doorway of our room, I will say that I stood there for perhaps five minutes looking at you in the half dark, the shape of your body under the blanket. You really did look like one of the girls when they were little and I used to stand in the doorway of their rooms. Your illness last year made you so small again. And as I said, I thought I had decided to leave you for your peace as well as mine.
I know you have gone to sleep crying, Marie. I know you felt sorry about things and wished we could find some way to stop irritating each other so much. Well, of course, I didn’t go anywhere. I came back to this room and drank more of the whiskey and watched television. It was like all the other nights. The shows came on and ended and the whiskey began to wear off. There was a little rain shower. I had a moment of the shock of knowing I was 70.
After the rain ended, I did go outside for a few minutes. I stood on the sidewalk and looked at the house. The kids, with their kids, were on the road somewhere between their homes and here. I walked up to the end of the block and back and a pleasant breeze blew and shook the drops out of the trees. My stomach was bothering me some and maybe it was the pepper I’d put on my potatoes. It could just as well have been the whiskey.
Anyway, as I came back to the house, I began to have an eerie feeling that I had reached the last night of my life. There was this small discomfort in my stomach and no other physical pang or pain. And I’m used to the small ills and side effects of my ways of eating and drinking. Yet I felt a sense of the end of things more strongly than I can describe. When I stood in the entrance of our room and looked at you again, wondering if I would make it through to the morning, I suddenly found myself trying to think what I would say to you if, indeed, this were the last time I would ever be able to speak to you. And I began to know I would write you this letter.
At least words in a letter aren’t blurred by tone of voice, by the old, aggravating sound of me talking to you. I began with this and with the idea that, after months of thinking about it, I would at last try to say something to you that wasn’t colored by our disaffection. What I have to tell you must be explained in a rather round about way.
I’ve been thinking about my cousin, Louise, and her husband. When he died and she stayed with us last summer, something brought back to me what is really only the memory of a moment. Yet it reached me, that moment, across more than 50 years.
As you know, Louise is nine years older than I and more like an older sister than a cousin. I must have told you, at one time or another, that I spent some weeks with her back in 1933, when she was first married. The memory I’m talking about comes from that time. And what I have decided I have to tell you comes from that memory. Father had been dead four years. We were all used to the fact that times were hard and that there was no man in the house, though I suppose I filled that role in some titular way.
In any case, when mother became ill, there was the problem of us, her children. Though I was the oldest, I wasn’t old enough to stay in the house alone or to nurse her either. My grandfather came up with a solution– and everybody went along with it – that I would go to Louise’s for a time and the two girls would go to stay with grandfather.
So we closed up the house and I got on a train to Virginia. I was a few weeks shy of 14 years old. I remember that I was not able to believe that anything truly bad would come of mother’s pleurisy and was consequently glad of the opportunity it afforded me to travel the 100 miles south to Charlottesville, where cousin Louise had moved with her new husband only a month earlier, after her wedding.
Because we traveled so much at the beginning, you never got to really know Charles when he was young. In 1933 he was a very tall, imposing fellow with bright red hair and a graceful way of moving that always made me think of athletics and contests of skill. He had worked at the Navy Yard in Washington and had been laid off in the first months of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Louise was teaching in a day school in Charlottesville so they could make ends meet. And Charles was spending most of his time looking for work and fixing up the house.
I had only met Charles once or twice before the wedding, but already I admired him and wanted to emulate him. The prospect of spending time in his house, or perhaps going fishing with him in the small streams of central Virginia, was all I thought about on the way down. And I remember that we did go fishing one weekend, that I wound up spending a lot of time with Charles, helping to paint the house and to run water lines under it for indoor plumbing.
Oh, I had time with Louise too, listening to her read from the books she wanted me to be interested in, walking with her around Charlottesville in the evenings, and looking at the city as it was then, or sitting on her small porch and talking about the family, mother’s stubborn illness, the children Louise saw every day at school. But what I want to tell you has to do with the very first day I was there.
I know you think I use far too much energy thinking about and pining away for the past. And I therefore know that I’m taking a risk by talking about this ancient history and by trying to make you see it. But this all has to do with you and me, my dear, and our late inability to find ourselves in the same room together without bitterness and pain. That summer, 1933, was unusually warm in Virginia. And the heat, along with my impatience to arrive, made the train almost unbearable. I think it was just past noon when it pulled into the station in Charlottesville, with me hanging out one of the windows looking for Louise or Charles. It was Charles who had come to meet me. He stood in a crisp-looking seersucker suit with a straw boater cocked at just the angle you’d expect a young, newly married man to wear a straw boater, even in the middle of economic disaster.
I waved at him and he waved back and I might have jumped out the window if the train had slowed even a little more than it had before it stopped in the shade of platform. I made my way out, carrying the cloth bag my grandfather had given me for the trip. Mother had said, through her room, that I looked like a carpetbagger. And when I stepped down to shake hands with Charles, I noticed that what I thought was a new suit was tattered at the ends of the sleeves.
“Well,” he said, “Young John.” I smiled at him and I was perceptive enough to see that his cheerfulness was not entirely effortless. He was a man out of work, after all. And so, in spite of himself, there was worry in his face, the slightest shadow in an otherwise glad and proud countenance.
We walked through the station to the street and on up the steep hill to the house, which was a small, clapboard structure, a cottage really, with a porch at the end of the short sidewalk lined with flowers. They were marigolds, I think. And here was Louise coming out of the house, her arms already stretched wide to embrace me. “Lord,” she said, “I swear you’ve grown since the wedding, John.”
Charles took my bag and went inside. “Let me look at you, young man,” Louise said. I stood for inspection. And as she looked me over, I saw that her hair was pulled back, that a few strands of it had come loose, that it was brilliantly auburn in the sun. I suppose I was a little in love with her. She was grown and married now. She was a part of what seemed a great mystery to me, even as I was about to enter it. And of course, you remember how that feels, Marie, when one is on the verge of things, nearly adult, nearly old enough to fall in love.
I looked at Louise’s happy, flushed face and felt a deep ache as she ushered me into her house. I wanted so to be older. Inside, Charles had poured lemonade for us and was sitting in the easy chair by the fireplace, already sipping his. Louise wanted to show me the house and the backyard, which she had tilled and turned into a small vegetable garden. But she must have sensed how thirsty I was and so she asked me to sit down and have a cool drink before she showed me the upstairs.
Now of course, looking back on it, I remember that those rooms she was so anxious to show me were meager indeed. They were not much bigger than closets really, and the paint was faded and dull. The furniture she’d arranged so artfully was coming apart. The pictures she’d put on the walls were prints she’d cut out, magazine covers mostly. And the curtains over the windows were the same ones that hung in her childhood bedroom for 20 years.
“Recognize these?” she said with a deprecating smile. Of course, the quality of her pride had nothing to do with the fineness, or lack of it, in these things, but in the fact that they belonged to her and that she was a married lady in her own house.
On this day in July, in 1933, she and Charles were waiting for the delivery of a fan they had scrounged enough money to buy from Sears, through the catalog. There were things they would rather have been doing, especially in this heat, and especially with me there. Monticello wasn’t far away. The university was within walking distance. And without too much expense, one could ride a taxi to one of the lakes nearby. They had hoped that the fan would arrive before I did, but since it hadn’t – and since neither Louise nor Charles was willing to leave the other alone while traipsing off with me that day – there wasn’t anything to do but wait around for it.
Louise had opened the windows and shut the shades and we sat in her small living room and drank the lemonade, fanning ourselves with folded parts of Charles’ morning newspaper. From time to time, an anemic breath of air would move the shades slightly. But everything grew still again. Louise sat on the arm of Charles’s chair and I sat on the sofa. We talked about pleurisy and, I think, about the fact that Thomas Jefferson had invented the dumbwaiter, how the plumbing at Monticello was at least a century ahead of its time.
Charles remarked that it was the spirit of invention that would make a man’s career in these days. “That’s what I’m aiming for, to be inventive in a job, no matter what it winds up being.”
When the lemonade ran out, Louise got up and went into the kitchen to make some more. Charles and I talked about taking a weekend to go fishing. He leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head looking satisfied. In the kitchen, Louise was chipping ice for our glasses. And she began singing something low for her own pleasure, a barely audible lilting. And Charles and I sat listening. It occurred to me that I was very happy. I had the sense that soon I would be embarked on my own life, as Charles was. And that an attractive woman like Louise would be there with me.
Charles yawned and said, “God, listen to that. Doesn’t Louise have the loveliest voice?”
And that’s all I have from that day. I don’t even know if the fan arrived later. And I have no clear memory of how we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening. I remember Louise singing a song, her husband leaning back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head, expressing his pleasure in his young wife’s voice. I remember that I felt quite extraordinarily content just then.
And that’s all I remember.
But there are, of course, the things we both know. We know they moved to Colorado to be near Charles’ parents. We know they never had any children. We know that Charles fell down a shaft at a construction site in the fall of 1957 and was hurt so badly that he never walked again. And I know that when she came to stay with us last summer, she told me she’d learned to hate him, and not for what she’d had to help him do all those years. No, it started earlier and was deeper than that. She hadn’t minded the care of him – the washing and feeding and all the numberless small tasks she had to perform each and every day, all day. She hadn’t minded this. In fact, she thought there was something in her makeup that liked being needed so completely. The trouble was simply that whatever she had once loved in him she had stopped loving. And for many, many years before he died, she’d felt only suffocation when he was near enough to touch her, only irritation and anxiety when he spoke.
She said all this and then looked at me, her cousin, who had been fortunate enough to have children and to be in love over time and said, “John, how have you and Marie managed it?” And what I wanted to tell you has to do with this fact. That while you and I had had one of our whispering arguments only moments before, I felt quite certain of the simple truth of the matter, which is that – whatever our complications – we have managed to be in love over time. “Louise,” I said.
“People start out with such high hopes,” she said, as if I wasn’t there. She looked at me. “Don’t they?”
“Yes,” I said.
She seemed to consider this a moment. Then: “I wonder how it happens.”
I said, “You ought to get some rest,” or something equally pointless and admonitory. As she moved away from me, I had an image of Charles standing on the station platform in Charlottesville that summer, the straw boater set at its cocky angle. It was an image I would see most of the rest of that night, and on many another night since.
I can almost hear your voice as you point out that, once again, I’ve managed to dwell too long in a memory of something that’s passed and gone. The difference is that I’m not grieving over the past now. I am merely reporting a memory so that you might understand what I’m about to say to you.
The fact is, we aren’t the people we were even then, just a year ago. I know that as I know things have been slowly eroding between us for a very long time. We are a little tired of each other. And there are annoyances and old scars that won’t be obliterated with a letter, even a long one written in the middle of the night in desperate sincerity, under the influence – admittedly – of a considerable portion of bourbon whisky, but nevertheless, with the best intention and hope that you may know how, over the course of this night, I came to the end of needing an explanation for our difficulty.
We have reached this place, everything we say seems rather aggravating mindless and automatic, like something one stranger might say to another in one of the thousand circumstances where strangers are thrown together for a time, and the silence begins to grow heavy on their minds and someone has to say something.
Darling, we go so long these days without having anything at all to do with each other. And the children are arriving tomorrow. And once more we’ll be in the position of making all of the gestures that give them back their parents as they think their parents are. And what I wanted to say to you– what came to me as I thought about Louise and Charles on that day so long ago, when they were young and so obviously glad of each other, and I looked at them and knew it and was happy – what came to me was that even the harsh things that happened to them, even the years of anger and silence, even the disappointment and the bitterness and the wanting not to be in the same room anymore, even all that must have been worth it for such loveliness.
At least I am here, at 70 years old, hoping so. Tonight, I went back to our room again and stood gazing at you asleep, dreaming whatever you were dreaming. And I had a moment of thinking how we were always friends too, because what I wanted, finally, to say was that I remember well our own sweet times, our own old loveliness. And I would like to think that even if– at the very beginning of our lives together– I had somehow been shown that we would end up here with this longing to be away from each other, this feeling of being trapped together, of being tied to each other in a way that makes us wish for other times, some other place, I would have known enough to accept it all freely for the chance at that love. And if I could, I would do it all again, Marie. All of it. Even the sorrow. My sweet, my dear adversary, for everything that I remember.
Richard Bausch has authored eleven novels and eight story collections. His novel, The Last Good Time, was made into a feature-length film. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and Gentleman’s Quarterly. His many awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Magazine Awards, and the 2004 PEN/Malamud Award. A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, Bausch is editor of The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.