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Horace and Margaret's Fifty-Second
by Charles Baxter

A few months after she had put her husband, all memory gone, into the home, she herself woke one morning with an unfamiliar sun shining through a window she hadn't remembered was there. A new window! Pranksters were playing a shabby joke on her. Margaret rose heavily from the bed, a groan bursting by accident out of her throat, and shuffled to the new window they had installed during the night. Through the dusty glass she saw the apartment building's ragged back yard of cement and weeds. A puddle had formed in the alley, and a brown bird was flapping in it, making muddy waves as it bathed. Then she looked more closely and saw that the bird was lying on its side.

"I remember this view," she said aloud. "It's not a new window. I just forgot to pull down the shade." She did so now, blocking the sun, which seemed to her more grayish-blue than it had for years. She coughed rhythmically with every other step to the bathroom.

It was Tuesday, and their anniversary. He would forget, as usual. Now, in his vacancy, he had stopped using shaving cream and razor blades. He tore photographs out of their expensive frames, folded them into baskets, and used them as ashtrays. He took cigarette lighters to pieces to see how they worked and left their tiny wet parts scattered all over his nightstand. He refused to read, claiming that what she brought him was dull trash, but she had suspected for a long time that he had forgotten both the meaning of the words and how to read them from left to right across the page. She didn't want to buy him cigarettes (in his dotage, he had secretly and then quite openly taken up smoking Chesterfields again). He lost clothes or put them on backward or declared universal birthdays so he could give everything he owned to strangers. The previous Wednesday, she had asked him what he would want for their upcoming anniversary, their fifty-second. "Light bulbs," he said, giving her an unpleasantly sly look.
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See other short stories by Charles Baxter published in The Atlantic:

  • "Flood Show"
    June, 1995.


  • "Fenstad's Mother"
    September, 1988.


  • She glanced at his lamp and saw that the shade was pleated oddly. "They give you plenty of bulbs here," she said. "Ask them."

    He shook his head for thirty seconds before he replied. "Wrong bulbs," he said. "It's the special ones I need, with the flames."

    "Light bulbs don't have flames," she said. "It's filaments now."

    "Don't argue with me. I know what I want. Light bulbs."

    She was at the breakfast table reading the paper when she remembered that she had dropped an egg into the frypan, where, even at this moment, it must still be frying: hard, angry, and dry. She forgave herself, because she had been thinking about how to get to the First Christian Residence before lunch, and which purple bus she should take. She walked to the little four-burner stove with its cracked oven window, closed her eyes against the smoke, picked up the frypan using a worn potholder with a picture of a cow on it, and dropped her last egg into the wastebasket's brown paper bag. Now she had nothing to eat but toast. She was trying to remember what she had done with the bread when she heard the phone ring and she saw from the kitchen clock that it was 10:30, two hours later than she had thought.

    She picked the receiver angrily off the wall. "Yes," she said. She no longer said "Hello"; she was tired of that.

    "Hello?"

    "Yes," she said. "Yes, yes, yes, who is it?"

    "It's me," the voice said. "Happy anniversary."

    Very familiar, this woman's voice. "Thank you," Margaret said. "It's our fifty-second."

    "I know," the voice told her. "I just wish I could be there."

    "So do I," Margaret said, a thin electrical charge of panic spreading over her. "I wish you could be here to keep me company. How are you?"

    "Just fine. Jerry's out of town, but of course David's with me, and last night we roasted marshmallows and made a big bowl of popcorn."

    David. Oh, yes: her grandchild. This must be David's mother. "Penny," she said.

    "What?"

    "I just wanted to say your name."

    "Why?"

    "Because," Margaret said carelessly, "because I just thought of it."

    "Mother, are you all right?"

    "Just fine, dear. I'm going to take the bus to see your father in half an hour's time. I'm going to wish him a happy anniversary. I doubt he'll notice. He won't remember it's our anniversary, I don't think. Maybe he won't remember me. You can never tell." She laughed. "As he says, the moving men just come and take it all away. You can't tell about anything. For example, I thought they put a new window in my room last night, but I'd only forgotten to pull down the window shade." She noticed a list on the refrigerator, a list of things she must do today. It was getting late. "Good-bye, Penny," she said, before hanging up. She picked the list off the refrigerator and put it in her pocket. Then she stood in the middle of the room, her mind whirling and utterly blank, while she stared at the faucet on the right-hand side of the sink and, above it, attached to the cabinet, a faded color photograph of a brown-haired girl, looking away from the camera toward a tree. It was probably Penny, when young.

    ONCE Margaret was on the bus, she was sure that everything would be fine. The sun was out and several children were playing their peculiar games on the sidewalk, smacking each other and rolling over to play dead. Why weren't they in school? She knew better than to ask children to explain their reasons for being in any one spot. If you asked such questions, they always had that look ready.

    The bus was practically empty. All the passengers, thank God, seemed to be respectable taxpayers: a gentleman with several strands of attractive gray hair sat two rows in front of her, comforting her with his presence. The sun, now yellow, was shining fiercely on Margaret's side of the bus, its ferocity tempered by tinted glass.

    Margaret felt the sun on her face and said, "Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea." This, her one and only phrase to express joy, she had picked up in 1935, from a newspaper article that had tried to make fun of Gertrude Stein. The article had quoted one of her poems, and Margaret had remembered its first line ever since. "Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea," she said again, gazing out the window at obscurely sinister trees, with far too many leaves, all of them the wrong shape.

    Horace, before he had been deposited in the First Christian Residence, had been a great one for trees: after they had bought a house, he had planted them in the back yard, trimmed them, fed them, watered them when droughts dusted their leaves. "Trees," he liked to say, "give back more than they take. Fruit, oxygen, and shade. And for this they expect no gratitude." He would have been happy working in a nursery or a greenhouse. As it was, he worked in a bank, and never talked about exactly what he did there. "It's boring," he would say. "You don't want to hear about it." Margaret agreed; she didn't. Only toward the end had he raged about the nature of his work. But he didn't shout at Margaret; he told the trees. He told them how money had gobbled up his life. He talked about waste and cash, and he wept into his hands. Margaret watched him from the kitchen window. She watched him as he lost his memory and began to give names to the trees: Esther, Jonas, Ezekiel, Isaiah. He told Margaret that trees should have serious, adult names. For eighteen months now, he had confused the names of his trees with the names of his children. He wanted his trees to come visit him in the home. "Bring in Esther," he would say. "I want to see her."

    Because of this, Margaret no longer gazed at trunks, branches, or leaves with any special pleasure.

    She remembered where to get off the bus and was about to go into the residence when she realized that she had no anniversary present. She stood motionless on the sidewalk. "He won't remember," she said aloud. "What's the difference?" She waited a moment and found that she disagreed with her own assessment. "It does make a difference. He'll think I'm making it up if I don't bring him something." She looked around. At the corner there was a small grocery store with a large red Coca-Cola sign over its door. "I'll go down there," she said.

    The store was darker than it should have been and was crowded with confusing teenagers. Margaret found herself looking at peanut-butter labels and long rows of lunch meat. Then she was in front of the cash register, holding two Hershey bars. "I'll buy these," she said to the coarse girl with the brown ponytail and the pimples. She was already far down the street when she realized that she hadn't waited for change, or a bag to put the chocolate in. It was the first time she had given him a present she hadn't wrapped.

    Holding the candy bars and her purse in one hand, she opened the large front door of the First Christian Residence with the other. This was the worst moment, because of the smell. Margaret knew that oldsters couldn't always keep themselves clean and tidy, but their smell offended her nevertheless. Just inside, a man with wild hair and a bruise on his forehead, whose eyes were an angelic blue, smiled at her and followed her in his wheelchair as she walked to the elevator. A yellow Have-a-nice-day sticker, with a smile face, was glued to the back of the chair.

    "Beautiful day, Margaret. Don't you agree?"

    "Yes." This man had been pestering her for months. He was forward, and looked at her with an old man's dry yearning. "Yes," she repeated, inside the elevator, as she pressed the button for the third floor, wanting the door to close, "it is indeed a nice day. You should get outside into the sunshine for some fresh air and vitamin D, instead of staying in here all the time."

    He wheeled himself onto the elevator and turned around so he was next to her. "I stayed," he said, "because I was hoping you'd come." The elevator doors closed, at last. "I can still walk, you know. This chair is a convenience."

    Margaret tried to sound chilly. "I'm going to see Horace, my husband. I don't have time for you."

    "Horace won't miss you. His memory's bad. He remembers the 1945 World Series better than he remembers you. Let's go for a walk."

    "No, thank you." She remembered his name. "No, thank you, Mr. Bartlett."

    "It's Jim. Not 'Mr. Bartlett.' Jim." He smiled. She noticed again his remarkable eyes. The numbers above the doors flashed. It was the slowest elevator she'd ever been on, slow to prevent shocks to the elderly.

    "This is my stop," she said, backing out into the hallway, once the doors opened. As they closed again, Mr. Bartlett leaned back in his wheelchair and gave her a bold look.

    Horace was in his room, wearing a Wayne State University sweatshirt, gray corduroys, and tennis shoes. He was watching The Price Is Right and eagerly smoking a Chesterfield when Margaret came in. He glanced at her and then went back to the activity of the contestants. On screen, a woman in uniform was spinning a huge, multicolored wheel, and the studio audience was roaring, but Horace failed to share the excitement and watched the television set indifferently. Margaret picked up a newspaper from the chair by the window and arranged the flowerpots on the sill.

    "Good morning, dear," she said. "How did you sleep?"

    Horace didn't answer. Perhaps it would be one of those days. Lately he had retreated into silence. Apparently he found it comforting. Margaret clucked, shook her head, and walked over to the television set, which she turned off.

    "It's our anniversary," she said. "I don't want daytime television on our anniversary."

    On the table next to Horace was a breakfast roll. A fly walked back and forth on it, as if on sentry duty. Margaret picked up the plate and took it out to the hallway, placing it on the floor next to the wall. When she came back, Horace was still staring at the dark television screen.

    She gazed at him for a moment. Then she said brightly, "Do you remember Mrs. Silverman, two floors up in the building, Horace? The apartment building? Where we moved after we sold the house? Mrs. Silverman, whose husband was so terribly bald? I'm sure you do. Well, anyway, several nights ago there was a great commotion, and it seemed that Mrs. Silverman was reading the paper, probably just the want ads, as she did usually, when she had one of those seizures of hers. She knocked over a tall glass of ginger ale. It left a stain on the rug, I think. They came for her and took her to the hospital, but the word in the building is that it may be curtains for Mrs. Silverman."

    "The moving men," Horace rasped.

    "Yes, Horace, the moving men. Someone in the building called for them. Sometimes they can help and other times they can't. You are looking very scruffy today, Horace," she said. "Where did you get that awful sweatshirt?"

    "Someone gave it to me," he said, avoiding eye contact.

    "Who?" she asked. "Not that horrid little Mr. List?"

    "Maybe." Horace shrugged.

    "I'd think you'd be ashamed to be in that sweatshirt. You were never a student at Wayne State. Never. You went to Oberlin."

    "It's warm," Horace said. "And it's green."

    "Which reminds me," Margaret announced, "that I thought they had put a new window into our bedroom last night. But I just forgot to pull down the shade. Oh. Someone called this morning." She thought for a moment. "Penny." She waited for him to show recognition, but he kept his face turned away from hers. "She called to wish us a happy anniversary. It's our anniversary today, Horace. "

    "I know that," he said. "I know that very well."

    "Well, I'm glad. I brought you something."

    "Light bulbs?"

    "No. Not light bulbs. I explained to you about the light bulbs. You don't need them. What do you need them for?"

    "Bliss," Horace said.

    "For bliss? I doubt it. No. Well, what I brought you was this." She handed him the Hershey bars. "Happy anniversary, dear. These were the best I could do. I am sorry. Age has brought us low. I would have presented you with a plant in the old days."

    "These are the old days," Horace said. He gazed down at the dark-brown wrappers. "Thank you. Mr. List likes chocolate. So do I, but Mr. List likes chocolate more than I do." Horace suddenly looked at her, and she flinched. "How's Penny? And where's Isaiah?"

    "Penny's fine. She toasted marshmallows with David last night. And Isaiah's lost his leaves, because it's late October."

    Horace nodded. He appeared to think for a long time. Then he said, "I went out yesterday. I wanted to drop something on the ground the way the trees do. Dead leaves reactivate the soil, you know. They don't rake leaves in the forest, only in the suburbs. It's against nature and foolhardy to rake leaves. I pulled out a strand of my hair and left it in the grass. Why did we get married in October? Tell me again." He smirked at her. "I've forgotten. I've lost my memory."

    "It was 1930, Horace. Times were hard. When you finally secured a job at the Farmers and Mechanics' Bank, I agreed to marry you."

    "Yes."

    Margaret knew she had made a serious mistake as soon as she saw the tears: she had mentioned the bank.

    "When did you stop kissing me?" Horace asked.

    "What?"

    "After the war. You wouldn't kiss me after the war. Why not?"

    "I think this is very unpleasant, Horace. I don't know what you're talking about."

    "Of course you do. You wouldn't kiss me after the war. Why?"

    "You know very well," she said.

    "Tell me again," Horace said. "I've lost my memory."

    "I didn't like it," she muttered, standing up to look out of the window.

    "What didn't you like?"

    "I didn't like the way you kissed me."

    "We weren't old yet," Horace said. "It's what adults do. They have passions. You can't fool me about that."

    Margaret felt tired and hungry. She wished she hadn't taken the breakfast roll out to the hallway.

    "I'm not here to settle old scores," she said. "Do you want to split one of these candy bars?" Outside, a blue convertible with a white-canvas roof came to a stop at an intersection and seemed unable to move, and all around it the small pedestrians froze into timeless attitudes, and the sun blinked on and off, as if a boy were flipping a wall switch.

    Horace struck a kitchen match on the zipper of his pants and lit up a cigarette. "I love cigarettes," he said. "I get ideas from the smoke. Call me crazy if you want to, but yesterday I was thinking about how few decisions in my life were truly important. I didn't decide about the war and I didn't decide to drop the bomb. They didn't ask me about nuclear generators, or, for that matter, about coal generators. I had opinions. They could have asked me. But they didn't. Mr. List and I were discussing this yesterday. The only thing they ever asked us was what we were going to do on the weekends. That's all. 'What are you doing Saturday night?' That's the only question I can remember."

    Margaret tore the brown paper away from the candy bar, then crumpled up the inner wrapper before she snapped off four little squares of the chocolate. Someone seemed to be flicking lights inside the First Christian Residence as well. The taste of the chocolate rushed across her tongue, straight from heaven.

    "Want any rum?" Horace asked. "I have some in the closet. Mr. List brought it for me. On days like this, I take to the rum with a fierce joy." This line sounded like, and was, one of his favorites.

    "Horace, you can't have liquor in here! You'll be expelled!"

    Suddenly he appeared not to hear her. His face lost its color, and she could tell he would probably not say another word for the rest of the morning. She took the opportunity to snap off one more piece of the chocolate and to straighten the room, to put smelly ashtrays, pens, shirts, and dulled pencils in their rightful place. There were pencil sketches of trees, which she stacked into a neat pile. In this mess she noticed a photograph of the two of them together, young, sitting under a large chandelier, smiling fixedly. Where was that? Margaret couldn't remember. Another photo showed Natwick, Horace's dog in the 1950s, under a tree, his mouth open and his dirty retriever's teeth prominent. Horace had trained him to smile on cue.

    "Someday, Horace," Margaret said, "you'll remember to keep your valuables and to throw away the trash. You've got the whole thing backward." Seeing that he said nothing, she went on. So often I myself have ... so often I, too, have found that I have been myself in a place where I have found myself so often in a place where I have found myself." Standing there, squarely in the middle of the room, she felt herself tipping toward Horace's cigarette smoke, falling through it, tumbling as if off a building, end over end, floor after floor. Horace held his hand up. Margaret, whose mind was still plunging, walked toward him. He whirled his hand counterclockwise as an invitation to bring her ear down to his mouth.

    "Don't tell me anything," he whispered. "That's for kids. And be quiet. Listen. There's a bird scratching in the tree outside. Hear it?"

    She did not. Margaret bent down to kiss his forehead and made her way out of the room, sick with vertigo. The hallway stretched and shrank while she balanced herself like a tightrope walker in a forward progress to the elevator. Three floors down, Mr. Bartlett was waiting for her, wearing a cap and a jacket in his wheelchair, but she tottered past him, out into the sun, which she saw had turned a sickly blue.

    THERE was something wrong with the bus.

    She sat near the back. The bus would start, reach twenty-five miles an hour, then stop. Not slow down. Stop. In midair, as it were. When it stopped, so did the world. The trees, pedestrians, and birds froze in midair, the birds glued to the sky. And when this occurred, Margaret grabbed the top of the seat in front of her, pressing it hard with her thumbs, hoping she could restart the world again.

    She looked up. In front of her a little girl was kneeling on the plastic seat next to her mother, facing the back, staring at Margaret. The little girl had two pigtails of brown hair, a bright-red coat, and round-rimmed glasses too large for her face. As the bus began to move, Margaret stared at the girl, frowning because she wanted the youngster to know that staring is rude, a sign of bad breeding. But as she scowled and frowned, and the bus passengers swayed like a chorus together, she was horrified to feel her own eyes producing tears, which would run partway down her cheeks and then stop, as the bus itself stopped, as time halted. The little girl reminded Margaret of someone, someone she would never exactly remember again.

    The girl's mouth opened slightly. Her eyes widened, and now she, too, was crying. Her glasses magnified her tears, which were caught by the rims in tiny pools. Margaret gathered herself together. It was one thing to cry herself for no special reason. It was quite another to make a little girl cry. That was contagion, and a mistake in anyone's part of the world. So Margaret wiped her eyes with her coat sleeve and smiled fiercely at the girl, even laughing now, the laugh sounding like the yip of a small dog. "Toujours gai, toujours gai," she said, louder than necessary, before she realized that little girls on buses don't speak French and would never have heard of archy and mehitabel even if they did. "There's a dance in the old dame yet," Margaret said, to finish the phrase, quietly and to herself. She drew herself up and looked serious, as if she were on her way to someplace. She was not about to be cried at on a public bus in broad daylight.

    "What a nice day!" Margaret said aloud, but no one turned toward her. The little girl took off her glasses, wiped her eyes on her mother's coat, and gave Margaret a hostile look before turning around. "The old lady shows her mettle," Margaret continued, editorializing to herself, simultaneously making a mental note not to engage in private conversations where other people could hear her. It takes a minimum of sixty years' experience to recognize how useful and necessary talking to oneself actually is. When you're young, it just seems like a crazy habit. Margaret did not speak these thoughts aloud, as the bus whirled upside down and righted itself; she whispered them.

    They went past a world of details. Sidewalks broke into spider-web patterns. A green squirt gun was in a boy's hand, but the bus was moving too quickly for her to see the rest of the boy. In a tree that she noticed by accident, a brown bird flew out of a nest. Something redbreast. Robin redbreast. The bus driver's head, suddenly in the way of the sun, shone a fine gunmetal blue. On a jungle gym, a boy wearing a green sweatshirt, smaller than Horace's, hung down from a steel bar with only his legs, his knees, holding him there. Margaret stared at him. How was it possible for a human being to hang by his knees from a bar? More important, why would anyone want to do it? Before an answer came, the boy faded out and was replaced by another detail, of a sea gull standing proudly in someone's alley, an arrogant look on its face. The sea gull cheered Margaret. She admired its pluck. The other details she saw were less invigorating: an old man, very white in all respects, asleep in a doorway; two young people, across the street from the art institute, kissing underneath a tree (the tree and the kissing made her flesh crawl); and now, at last, a cumulating, bright-pink, puffing cloud of smoke exploding out of someone's back yard, someone's shed, on fire or dynamited, even the smell reaching her. The bus drove on and Margaret forgot about it.

    She remembered her stop, however, and was halfway up the sidewalk when she remembered that she had forgotten to get out at the Safeway to buy groceries. She counted all her canned goods, in her mind's eye. "I'll be all right," she said, "and besides, there are more buses going here and there. It's their fate in life." She trudged on into the building.

    Skinny Mr. Fletcher, employee of the United States Postal Service, had already come and gone with his Santa's sack of bills and messages. Margaret unlocked her mailbox, hoping for a free sample of a new soap. Instead, there was a solitary postcard inside, showing on its picture side Buster Keaton walking squarely down the middle of a railroad track. On the other side was a message from Horace, written in his miserable script. Some letters had been crossed out, but he had not given up.

    Dear Margaret,
    Happy birthaniversery
    today
    from love Horace
    ps remember lightbulbs

    Where had he mailed the message? Where, more important, had he found the stamp? How had he remembered the address? It was all very mysterious. The postcard was, of course, simply one of his monstrously large postcard collection, which he had taken with him to the First Christian Residence, over two hundred of them. He had traded a few for cigarettes. Margaret looked at Buster Keaton as she went up the stairs, the stairway extending and shortening, like a human-sized accordion.

    She opened her door and stepped into the living room. On the left was her pastel-blue sofa, next to her Emerson radio and Muntz television set, and on the right was her mother's harmonium, underneath a mirror. Behind the sofa were bookshelves, filled with books she and Horace had read to each other: Robert Benchley, Don Marquis, Brooks Atkinson. She could remember their names but not the character of their work. "Feels like I'm walking through Jell-O," she meant to say, but no sound could make its way out of her throat.

    She stood stranded inside the door, waiting for something to happen. At last the invisible steel wires holding her feet loosened for a moment, and she managed to get as far as the harmonium. Then the movie came to a halt again. She hadn't taken her coat off, nor could she. She was forced to look at more details: the spiral pattern on her white rug; the legs of the harmonium; her own white surprised face in the mirror. "I know where I am," she said.

    "I'm home." But she didn't remember the mirror. Who had brought it here? Had it been delivered by Mr. Fletcher, from his sack?

    "I should go to the kitchen," she said. "Or I should take a nap." Step by step, feeling the great work her progress required, she walked to the kitchen, weighted down by the thousands of details that were in her way. A nick in the floor, a jolly afternoon sun, a cookie crumb in the shape of an elf sleeping on the dinner table. A brown lamp with a tiny dial switch on its base, and hundreds of slits in its metal shade. And on the harmonium, photographs. Photographs of her three daughters, and one of herself, Margaret, and her husband, Horace, sitting down beneath a chandelier somewhere, and smiling. In the chandelier were eight light bulbs, their glass transparent, like Mazda bulbs, shaped from a broad base to a sharp tip, like a flame. "Well, I never noticed," she said. "You can't blame me for that."

    In the kitchen, she was drinking water when she looked out the window and saw them. They were dressed in uniforms, and they had big arms and big faces. They had their truck in the alley and were carefully loading chairs, lamps, sofas, and tables into it. She noticed that they didn't joke as they took Mrs. Silverman's furniture away, that it was a solemn event, like running up a flag. Feeling foolish and annoyed, Margaret cranked open the window and began to shout. "Who told you boys to come here? Where do you think you're taking those things?" She noticed a lion painted on the side of the moving van and was momentarily disconcerted. "I hope you boys know what you're doing!" she shouted at last, down to the large, astonished faces. When they finally looked away from her, she lifted the glass of water to them, drank, then spilled out the rest into the sink.

    She tried to remember what she had planned to eat for either lunch or dinner and found her way back into the living room, where she sat down in front of the television set. She saw, reflected in the dark screen, herself, in black-and-white, miniaturized. She smiled and laughed at the tricks television could play, whether on or off. And then, behind her, but also in the background of the set, she saw a tree, waiting for her. Horace had left his trees behind when she and he had moved out of the house. She stood up and went to the window again, and with the clatter of furniture being hauled away in the alley underneath serving as a background, she began to stare at the branches and dried leaves of the one tree the management had planted, and then she began to talk. She told the tree about Horace. Then she laughed and said that she and he would probably sit together again, checking on the sun and the other tricks of light shining from odd directions on the open gulf lying radiant and bare between them.


    Copyright © 1983 by Charles Baxter. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1983; Horace and Margaret's Fifty-Second; Volume 252, No. 1; pages 74-79.

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