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A P R I L 1 9 9 7
by Joel Ostrow
Y 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.
I could hardly ask what happened, a martini and a half notwithstanding, so I asked her the next obvious factual question.
"Do you have any kids?"
"Yes and no."
I immediately assumed that her husband had gained custody of their issue in the divorce. "Well, you see him . . . or her . . . or them, don't you?"
She looked at me for a moment. Later I realized that she had hesitated to see if she could formulate a way to say what came next with minimal discomfort to me.
"My son died," she said, "a few months ago. He was five."
I looked at her -- I couldn't very well look away -- and took a long breath to find words beyond "I'm sorry" or "Oh, Jesus."
"How horrible," I told her with sincere conviction. "And here I was thinking you weren't being much fun to be with. Now I know it can't be much fun to be you. I'm sorry."
She forced a laugh then, to disengage my solemnity. "Until that little fact is out in the open, I'm definitely not fun to be with. I sit knowing that I'm going to have to stun everybody, and that everyone will be uneasy and not know what to say. Then I'll be an object of sympathy, and giving sympathy is not why you're all out on a Friday night."
No, it's not, I thought; but Colleen's need for distraction was far greater than mine, and here she was, sipping a diet Coke while I was trying to fog up my windows.
"You're entitled to sympathy," I said, "and whatever other little relief we might be able to muster for you. I have two children myself, and I can barely read a newspaper article about teenagers in an accident or a kid who gets snatched."
She made no response, and I realized I had confirmed her fear that other people would recoil from her circumstances and then from her. I changed the subject, I thought. "Did you ever drink?" I asked her.
"Not very often, or very much," she told me. "Alcohol has been recommended to me frequently in the past six months. But I want to stay in touch with things. If I stay in touch with them, they don't sneak up on me."
Vickie and Alison returned, and Alison was starting to feel playful. "You going to stay out for a while this time?" she asked me, "or do you have to run off to the wife and kiddies?" People without children often act as if going home to your family is a betrayal of friendship.
"I haven't decided yet," I told her. "It depends on what you're able to tempt me with."
"I haven't grown a third breast," she said, "and I never could tempt you with the other two." I laughed, and so did Colleen.
"Maybe Colleen can entice you," Alison suggested. "That is, if she's sticking it out for a while. How about it, Colleen -- and how about a real drink?"
I had felt protective of Colleen from the moment she had confided in me, so I answered for her. "Don't be a carrier, Alison. Alcoholism is still regarded as a bad habit."
"Not where I'm from," she said cheerfully. "It's regarded as a way of life." Alison's main charm was that she could never be offended.
Colleen spoke up in her own behalf. "I really need to get home," she said. "Laundry and that sort of thing. Thanks for inviting me. I had fun." She slid off her stool and walked out of the bar. I knew as I watched her leave that to me she would always look defeated.
Eric, Ben, and Frank made their way back to our tables. None of them asked what had become of Colleen. That suited me.
Her secret had now become my secret. Maybe she had even intended that to happen. On Monday, if none of these people seemed to be glancing at her guardedly, or whispering just out of her presence, I would hope she felt protected by her new and trusted friend.
On the other hand, she hadn't told me not to say anything. Maybe I was supposed to be her messenger to everybody else -- the person who would get everyone across the bridge of her discomfort and let her become a normal part of the office.
One thing I did know was that if I had another drink, the gin would make the decision for me. So I put on my coat and left for home, to the catcalls of my co-workers.
On Monday, I exchanged the usual perfunctory greetings with Colleen when I passed her desk. Upon returning to my office, I reflected that if I followed that pattern for a few days, it would be as if she had never told me.
The only person with whom I had talked about Colleen's history was my wife, who was properly and honestly horrified, and asked me how the boy had died. "I don't know," I said, "and I'm pretty sure I don't want to know."
As I sat in my office that Monday, I was absolutely sure I did not want to know. What a coward I am, I thought. I cannot share even a scintilla of a burden that must be terribly difficult to bear alone. But then, I felt basically powerless anyway. If I could not help her scream, what real good could I do? I just hoped I would not find some way to do her harm.
I know that this is how I always am. We learn about ourselves late at night, when we can't sleep and the room is dark. I have learned, for example, that if my wife became disabled, I would not leave her, but I would be unfaithful to her. I could not disown my responsibility to her, but I could not assume any of her handicap either. My wife knows this about me. Selfishness is a hard secret to keep.
EVERAL weeks went by. Colleen did not attend any more Friday-night bar sessions, and I did not tell anyone what had happened to her, even on the evenings when I had way too much to drink. Nobody ever whispered it to me, so I guessed that she had never again divulged this information.
My plan, to simply retreat, had been successful. We said hello to each other once in a while, and that's all. In the silence of my office I felt that I had abandoned her, that I had behaved essentially as I always did.
One day she was not at her desk. After several days somebody else was there. "What happened to Colleen?" I asked someone in her department.
My feeling then was one of complete failure. As long as I was seeing her five times a week, I had had a chance to redeem myself, even if I kept putting it off. Now she was gone.
I went to the personnel office.
"A girl recently quit," I said. "Colleen Patton. I borrowed a book from her and never returned it. She must have forgotten to ask me for it when she left. Can you give me her address?" I learned long ago that the more drawn out a lie is, the more likely it is to be believed. I was given her address, although providing such information was "highly irregular," I was told.
I wrote her a letter.
I have been lost around you, and myself, since the night you went out with us and you told me about your son. I know you must have told me because you were counting on me to help you in some way. I was never able to do that.Weeks went by. Sending the letter had a somewhat calming influence on me, and after a while I surmised that I had been forgiven. Then one day a small envelope, addressed in unfamiliar feminine handwriting, was put on my desk with the rest of my mail.
Dear Mr. Griffith,What a good thing it is, I thought, that so little is expected from me -- by Colleen, by my wife, by God himself, who thrusts upon me only the smallest of problems: the knowledge of right and the inability to perform it.
The real tragedies are handed to those who, like God, bewilder the rest of us.
So I have the answer I sought about Aunt Libby. The answer is that I am not good enough to know it.
Illustrations by Mark Ulriksen
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April, 1997; Small Consolation; Volume 279, No. 4; pages 85 - 88.