Small Consolation

On Monday, if no one in the office seemed to be glancing at her guardedly, or whispering just out of her presence, he would hope she felt protected by her new and trusted friend

MY aunt Libby's only son was killed over Italy during the Second World War. She had one daughter as well, but the girl was retarded and by the time I knew Aunt Libby had been relinquished to the care of an institution. These were facts that I was told, but beyond those essential details Aunt Libby's misfortunes were never discussed in our family. So I was left to wonder why she always seemed so kind.

Even though I was quite young -- perhaps six or seven -- when the information about her children was shared with me, I felt that she should be angry, or at least sad, but certainly not sweet or caring, as she was. Later I heard my mother recalling to another relative what a wonderful athlete Aunt Libby's son had been, and how well he had done in school. I thought then that maybe Aunt Libby's continued amiability resulted from never having to see either child fail. For her daughter she had no expectations. Those she might have had for her son would never have to be met.

When I became an adult, Aunt Libby was still alive. I would see her every six months or so at a family gathering. She would go from table to table asking how everybody was, inquiring after children, including my own, and laughing at stories like ours of stopping the car after my daughter had spilled ice cream on herself to have her hosed off by a stranger watering his lawn.

Looking at my own boy and girl rendered me even more confounded by my aunt's demeanor after such unbearable loss. Once, when we were seated together at a cousin's wedding, I was going to ask how she had conquered her life, but I lost my nerve. The opportunity passed and then she died.

I'm sure others would have ascribed her equanimity to faith, the usual explanation, but the promise of such transcendence has always seemed to me too illusory to have any real value.

Later I had a friend who lost a son in an automobile accident at the age of twenty. I allowed the period of public mourning to pass, and then I went to see him. "My wife is coming through this well," he told me. "She says John is in a better place." He paused, but not to hear from me. "There is no better place," he said.

I supposed he was surviving on gratitude for the time he had had with his child. That barely works for me when I become upset that my children are away during the summer months. I do not cope well. What small adversities I do face, I treat with alcohol. I have a worrisome job in an office of overstressed employees. Almost every Friday night some of us go to one bar or another in search of a low level of oblivion.

I get tired during those evenings much more easily than I did several years ago, but I still go, because I still need a night during which I don't have to think about certain parts of my life.

A core of regulars attends these outings, but every so often somebody fresh is tried out, to see if he or she fits in with our particular brand of indulgent behavior and unrepressed cynicism. Indeed, each new employee at the company is given the opportunity to come along once or twice for a potential initiation. If the new employee is a pretty girl, it is my task to ask her if she would like to be included. I am presumed to be past the age of uncertain motives, if not beyond the time of impure thoughts. Thus when Colleen began to work in the office, I extended her an invitation.

She was a lovely girl, with an aura of innocence that, if not out of fashion, is certainly rare. She was quiet, and had a benevolent-looking smile while she worked. Her hair was a very wheat-like blonde, which she set off with lipstick that was an unassertive shade of red. Her eyes were so sparkly that their color could not be discerned in a quick hallway passing. She was thin -- almost delicate; she dressed with care, but not as if she wanted to be noticed.

Approaching her actually made me nervous: I feared my invitation would somehow be an insult. But I smiled a fatherly smile and stood over her desk.

"Hi, Colleen," I said. "How do you like it here so far?" She did not work directly for me, and she would not hear this as a job-related question with only one right answer.

"I've liked it fine," she told me. "There's a real good atmosphere here. Everybody's so nice."

"Some of us are going to go out for a beer tomorrow night, and we were wondering if you'd like to come along -- to sort of get better acquainted." She looked puzzled. "It's not required," I said, smiling, "and we won't keep you out too late."

"Okay," she said, and I told her we would come by at five o'clock and gather her up. And we did.

We went to a dark, lively place that was large enough to have a few pool tables and room for a dart game. High tables were scattered around, surrounded by stools. There were seven of us, and we put two tables together and got our drinks from the bar.

Twenty minutes into the carefully crafted revelry, we realized that Colleen was not going to be joining us on a regular basis. She had ordered a diet Coke, and gave the most limited answers possible to our attempts to draw her out. Where do you live? On the north side. What do you do when you're not at work? Not much. What kind of music do you listen to? All kinds.

When the rest of us began to feel inebriated enough to start the weekly round of insult humor, Colleen was at best bemused. At worst she was totally detached. She drank her soda from a straw and stared down into the glass. I could feel her wondering how to take her leave, and how soon.

I thought perhaps we were to blame. We were so used to one another's company that we almost instantly fell into a codified form of communication. An aggressive person would not have let herself be excluded, but Colleen was not an aggressive person.

When Vickie and Alison went to the bathroom, Frank left for the bar to get another round, and Ben and Eric set up at a pool table, I moved to a stool next to Colleen.

She did not wear a wedding or an engagement ring, so I asked her if she had a boyfriend. She looked like a girl who would have one. "No," she said. "Not for some time now."

"How long is that?"

"Well," she said, "years, actually. I was married until six months ago."

I was slightly surprised. Not that I couldn't imagine her as a wife -- but I had difficulty thinking of her as divorced. She seemed too compliant to initiate such an action, and too precious to have it inflicted upon her. Apparently, however, one of those propositions was not true.

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