An Atlantic “First" by Ann Beattie
Took monthly leaf cuttings to send to her friends in the violet association. Other than that, all routine: turning on fluorescent light, usual watering from dish beneath the pot. Store delivered decorative pots. Now the inside pots must be carefully lifted so that none of the delicate leaves snap. A tricky business. My fingers must not touch the leaves. The clay pots must be centered exactly in the decorative pots, then misted from a distance of two feet. Mrs. Edway has inspected them carefully to be certain there are no bruised leaves. After unjust complaint yesterday, put ice water on the violets today to get even. Wilted a little. Shook my head with her as she called the violets “temperamental.” Annoyed me by talking about too many articles she’d read in the violet association publication. Made note to discard next issue of the magazine in post office when I pick up the mail. She calls the mails “unreliable.” She has been crankier than usual. I suspect her pain is worse, but after years of marriage I know better than to ask. Mrs. Edway has always had her secrets.
Yesterday I began reading Confessions of Z. Next to be read are The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. It sounds as though we are literate people. Also in the pile are The Silver Chalice, French Science-fiction Stories, and Man Meets Dog. Every time I read to her she reminds me how lucky we are that the librarian’s mother is her personal friend, so the librarian sends us books by messenger every Saturday at noon, when the library closes. I am not sure whether the books are selected by the librarian or by the messenger, who is a young schoolgirl of racially mixed parentage. Sometimes, as Mrs. Edway called to my attention, we receive a selection of books from authors whose names follow alphabetically: Faulkner. Fitzgerald, Flaubert. Other times there seems to be little method in the selection. Mrs. Edway and I agree, however, that we should be grateful for the service, which began when Mrs. Edway (who had donated half a dozen specimen violets to the reading room of the library) wrote a note to the librarian saying that she would no longer be able to make a weekly inspection of the violets because of her poor health: in fact, she would no longer be able to use the library at all. Our service began the week the note was delivered. On that occasion the librarian came herself, dropping off several anthologies of English and American literature. She declined to stay, although she did wait long enough to be given several Food’N’Bloom pellets.
Something interesting happened: after careful consideration as to whether we wanted a dog or a cat or nothing, we voted secretly, on separate pieces of paper, which we held up at the same time, so that one couldn’t change his mind after seeing what the other had written. Each of us had written “cat.” Next Saturday I will ask the messenger if any of her schoolmates have kittens they want to give away.
Mrs. Edway sees me writing and asks who I think is going to read all this. She is jealous for two reasons: I am using Xerox paper that Bernie brings me (he brings his father Xerox paper, while he brings his mother nothing), and because I have not begun the afternoon reading yet. I am not much interested in Confessions of Z and may call for a vote as to whether we should continue with it. She is cranky today because she did not have a good night, and if she suspects that I am not calling for the vote just out of routine, she is sure to answer “yes.”
She is looking through a magazine now, holding it close to her face. I suspect she is studying ads for cat food. The pictures show so clearly which brand contains more liver that it will not be necessary to vote when it comes time. What a coincidence that she received a free coupon for creamy liver dinner in the mail this morning. Is it the same brand pictured in the magazine?
Bernie just called to check on things. Xerox has developed an improved reproduction-machine paper. He is going to a convention to describe the new product to clients. He tells me his mind will be at rest if I persuade her to see a doctor before he leaves town.
The messenger has come and gone. Romeo and Juliet was not accounted for when she returned the books we had finished to the library today. She told me the book had to be in this house, because it was not in her house. She described putting the pile on her bureau and removing the pile this morning to return on her way to school. She carried them in a book bag, so she could not have dropped the book. I tried to treat the subject lightly and asked, “Wherefore art thou, book?” as she sprawled to look under the bed. Wanted to ask about the kitten, but she seemed very agitated. Decided to wait until Saturday. She made a thorough search of all but one room, and did not have time to do that because it was her lunch hour, and she had to return to school.
I raised what I thought might be a touchy subject: a charcoal filter for the spigot. She agreed.
Abandoned Confessions of Z for The Red and the Black. Listened to Brahms. Dinner of crabstuffed flounder, lima beans, and corn. She went to bed an hour earlier than usual, not feeling well again.
Arose early, prepared pancake batter for breakfast. Wrote two notes: one to the mail-order house for a charcoal filter, the other to Dr. Yeusa. The messenger arrived just as I finished writing. She was distraught and said she must find Romeo and Juliet. The search ended in vain at 8:30 when she had to leave for school.
Must call Mrs. Edway’s attention to “High Hopes”—two withering leaves.
She slept through the phone call from Bernie, allowing me to tell him that I had contacted the doctor, asking him to stop by unannounced. He thanked me, promised a supply of the new Xerox paper.
When she awakens we will have breakfast and take the Tuesday stroll.
Radio bulletin about a missing two-engine plane.
Walked by the frozen pond, where children were ice-skating. One child recognized us, a girl about eleven, and asked if she should stop by with a selection of Girl Scout cookies. A nice little girl-remembered her from last year. Mrs. Edway knew her name, I think, but wouldn’t say it in front of me. She points up my deficiencies, such as forgetting names, by not helping out. She knows the messenger’s name, too, but won’t use it. Am waiting to ask the favor about the kitten because things are still strained between us. Looked for Romeo and Juliet myself. No luck. Told the messenger it had to be either here or there. She is convinced it is here and has arranged to stop by with a friend after school. I think her job may be in jeopardy and will suggest to Mrs. Edway that she offer to repay the library for the loss and to assume responsibility.
Mrs. Edway’s cousin from San Francisco mailed her a belated birthday gift: an embroidered picture of the Eiffel Tower, La Tour Eiffel in black crossstitch at the bottom. Took a secret vote to see if it should be hung: “Yes.” We decided on the dining room without having to vote. Mrs. Edway wrote a note to the librarian offering to replace the book before I suggested it. She leaves the envelopes for me to lick and seal because she doesn’t like the taste. Peeked before I mailed it, but the note didn’t mention the messenger’s name.
Fell asleep in the afternoon after the episode in which Julien wishes he had died in M. de Renal’s garden. Dinner was late, and I didn’t concentrate as much as usual on the preparation because I was trying to piece together the nightmare I’d had. about a plane circling a garden. Someone had asked questions of me, and the correct answer would allow the plane to land. If Mrs. Edway slept when I did, she didn’t say. I awoke to see her examining a magazine close to her face. She always looks over the top of her magazine to let me know she is aware I’m dozing. When she dozes, I ignore it.
She makes a shopping list for Wednesday. I have my own little private joke about the list: she can’t see well and lists toothpaste every week, although she has over a hundred tubes in reserve, and I keep buying them, stacking them up so if her vision improves and she sees them we will have something to argue about. We can well afford the toothpaste-no harm done. We spend some time, while the food cooks, making lists of vegetables and meats we will both eat, then buv seven dinners of items we have both agreed upon. She has added a few things to the list when she gives it to me: a hairnet, vitamins, toothpaste (I laugh to myself).
Chicken casserole and tossed salad for dinner. She asks me if it is iceberg lettuce. I chopped it small on purpose, knowing she’d ask. I answer that it is romaine. No argument.
Search parties have gone out for the plane.
Mrs. Edway answers the phone. It is the messenger, who says she was kept after school and hopes we weren’t inconvenienced waiting for her. Sensing that things have turned around a bit, I ask for the phone and tell the messenger that we are replacing the book. I inquire about the kitten. She thinks she knows where she can get one and promises to call back.
Pushing the grocery cart back from the store, I see a car parked in front of the house. Dr. Yeusa received my note in the morning mail. He is a thin man with curly, bushy hair and small silverrimmed glasses. Mrs. Edway and the doctor look at each other over the tops of their glasses. She refuses to stand when asked, and asks him to join her on the couch. I will fix them tea. She is angry with me for what I have done, so surely I will at least fix tea. She allows the doctor to question her. It is a pain in the stomach that usually comes only at night. He takes her blood pressure; she turns her head to avoid looking. She sees the bad leaves on the violet, the ones I forgot to mention, and gets up, the device still wrapped around her arm. On her way back from the violets the doctor blocks her way and examines her abdomen. He takes a blood sample and puts it out of sight in his bag at tea-drinking time. Before he leaves he phones in a prescription for sedatives.
She will not speak to me.
There is a knock at the door. Mrs. Edway says, “I like the mint and the assorted.” But it isn’t the Girl Scout. It’s another girl, and she’s brought a basket of kittens, all six weeks old she says. She takes the blanket off. Mrs. Edway and I study the contents. We each write on a slip of paper which ones each likes. Her slip reads: gray and white, all gray, the largest kitten. Mine: gray, multicolored, orange-ish one. We confer; yes, by “the largest kitten" she meant the multicolored one. So it is narrowed down to that one or the gray one. I tell her that either is all right with me. She chooses the multicolored kitten. The girl stares, even after we have chosen. No, she says, they’re free, and leaves the house.
I offer the kitten a can of liver, but it seems uninterested and walks off to explore the kitchen.
Dinner: liver and onions, succotash, pound cake. Lately we have been arguing about the necessity of both a green and a yellow vegetable daily, now that vitamin pills are so fashionable. I fix dinner, so she gets both, but the idea of having to eat them for good health gives us something to talk about. To annoy me, she used to finish her vegetables and take a vitamin pill. Now, since I shop, I ignore vitamin pills when they are on the list.
On one of my pieces of paper she has begun a thank-you note. I see “Merci, Celeste,” but she shades the note with her hand when she sees me looking.
Two cowboys die, shot by another cowboy on horseback. The rest of the movie shows the cowboy’s dog walking home without his master, and the wife of one of the dead cowboys standing on the front porch staring curiously at the dog. who slinks under the porch. The wife goes down the stairs to look at the dog. Program interrupted by delivery boy from drugstore. Embarrassed to say I nearly tipped him a nickel instead of a quarter. Usually keep that nickel separate from my other change because it’s an Indian head. Mrs. Edway sits stirring the batter for carrot bread. The movie depresses her and she speaks bitterly against Bernie for not calling, wonders what will happen to the inn across the street when it’s sold. She asks how many years we’ve lived in the house, and I tell her fifty. She gets confused when she’s tired. She tosses the kitten a ball of yarn that is nearly as big as the animal itself. The kitten circles it. She asks what we decided to name the kitten. No use lying, telling her the name I like: if it doesn’t ring a bell, she won’t believe me. “Rainbow,” I tell her all the same. She nods. I suspect she’s not tired, but in pain.
She feels better later and says she doesn’t remember discussing the kitten’s name. Where is the piece of paper on which we agreed? The pieces of paper are piled next to the Xerox paper, in boxes I bring back from the food store. Of course I can’t produce the evidence. She wins her point and goes to bed.
The weather forecast is for snow.
Bernie came in the afternoon, brought her a pumpkin pie Mary Louise made and a package of the new paper for me.
Bad news, but Bernie says they won’t know how bad until more tests are made.
No snow yet. No decision about name.
She couldn’t see the small illustrations in Man Meets Dog, so I copied them on large sheets of paper. Copied four of them. We’ve enjoyed the book more than The Red and the Black. Secret vote revealed that neither was sorry we had a kitten instead of a puppy.
The news has gotten around. She can’t blame me because I didn’t go out yesterday or today. She had two phone calls, both of them from women offering encouragement. She was polite and didn’t talk long, but long enough to find out that it was Mary Louise who told them.
She won’t eat the pie Bernie brought. She looked through her cookbooks today and found the recipe for apple, and has made an early store list, including the ingredients she’ll need. She doesn’t criticize Mary Louise for telling people what the doctor said, but she talks about Mary Louise’s Catholicism and complains that she’s more narrowminded than the Pope. How foolish she is to think she’ll go to purgatory because she’s sterile!
She asks me if I remember the night she tried to talk Bernie out of marrying Mary Louise. I do. We talk about it, careful not to overestimate the extent to which Bernie lost his temper. Bernie never would listen to advice.
An uncomfortable moment when Mary Louise cried on the phone and said she had been to church to pray.
Two new violets have taken root.
Watched the sunset. Sky was very bright before the storm began. The colors disappeared in a second and were replaced by fast rolling clouds and then the snow. Tried to take a picture with the Polaroid, but the sky darkened too fast. Very windy. Didn’t stay out long because of the flu epidemic. She watched me from inside the house—face looked like a ghost’s because of the fluorescent light shining around her. Used to read ghost stories to each other. For years she hasn’t wanted to hear them. She used to get frightened and dive for cover, under the afghan, into the pillows, even though the plots were familiar. Finally cleaned, got rid of the old books last summer. She laughed when she found The Lives of the Angels that Mary Louise gave her for Christmas: a whole book filled with drawings of the angelic hierarchy, faint lines made with a thin pen point, pastel colors swirling behind them like the sky before the snow.
Trying not to think about it.
I do all the reading now because the years have proved that I’m the better reader. I cook better too. although she still fixes a few specialties. I’m not responsible for the flourishing violets—only do what she tells me. Keep track of what was done when by making notes on a calendar hanging above the plants, with pictures of specimen violets on it-a bonus from her violet association for subscribing for ten years.
Kitten’s ripped up pieces of wool all over the rug.
Maybe it would cheer her up if I told her about the toothpaste.
Glanced at The Charterhouse of Parma and am thinking of putting it in the pile to be returned, pretending we’ve finished the week’s reading.
A television special tonight on the astronauts.
Who’s supposed to arrange for the tests?
When I got back, Bernie’s car was parked outside. They were standing in the doorway in their coats, ready to drive her for the tests. Mary Louise must have seen the pie in the kitchen, untouched, I had arrived home either a minute too soon or a minute too late. Had a nervous conversation with Bernie about paper and the flu epidemic. She left without a word to me. Don’t know if she gave them trouble or not. Fat Mary Louise helped her down the walk. Bernie kept looking back at them, pretending to look at me, waving twice.
Wish I had started keeping this book long ago, so I wouldn’t look back through it and read only about familiar routines.
Could do something different today, talk to neighbors, take a bus to the zoo, but that would seem disrespectful while Mrs. Edway is being tested.
Could get rid of the book and all the Xerox paper inserts, but I’d miss it, and she’d miss having cause to dislike me because I’m always writing in secret, refusing to show it to her. Would she be disappointed? She probably remembers what the last few years have been like. There aren’t any fantasies. I could go back and write endearments in the margins, or at the end of the pages. Ink wouldn’t match. She couldn’t read the small writing anyway. Calling her Mrs. Edway is a form of endearment, I suppose.
Afternoon: rolled pastry crust for the meat pies. Almost forgot book delivery. The messenger came in spite of the snow, carrying two history books and three novels. She stopped long enough to stroke the kitten. Kitten won’t use its box, uses the corners of the dining room. House smells a little bad. Went for some air, dressed very warmly. Nobody at the pond today. Sign still up at the inn. One two three four. We used to keep track of the number of steps it was from one place to another: between the pond and inn, for instance, or from the house to the field on top of the hill. She’d try to confuse me by counting out loud, and she took two steps for every one of mine.
When she was pregnant I stuffed a feather pillow under my shirt and walked around, colliding with her. Maybe that’s why Bernie got dizzy when he was a child.
Evening: Mealybug discovered on “Victor Blue” during a routine check. Leave it there? Let all the plants be contaminated? Go out in the snowstorm and catch the flu? Stop answering the door when the messenger comes? Get no grocery list Tuesday night, do no shopping Wednesday? Take the kitten to the Humane Society? Feeling sorry for myself. Mrs. Edway tells me to spray the plant with malathion. She wants to save “Victor Blue” even though she says she will d—.
Night: Bad television reception because of the storm. A secret vote to see if we want to listen to the radio, if possible. Two No’s. She calls for a vote about what she said earlier. Hers Yes, mine No.
Discovered some of her old samplers: “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall/Jesus Loves Us One and Ail.” Another: “In Heaven There Is Work and Play/Half of Each Makes Up Our Day.”
A notice in the mail this morning, signed “Suzie Duncan, Your Girl Scout Representative,” informing us that cookies had been re-ordered, but there would be a two-to-three-week delay. A depressing thought: the posthumous delivery of Girl Scout mints.
Mystery of Romeo and Juliet solved, book found in old box of signed agreements that had been carried upstairs. Called the messenger, apologized. Mrs. Edway got the number for me. Still don’t know the messenger’s name. Good she answered and not her parents.
She calls for another vote. Still a tie, of course. Now I have an advantage on my side, though. She came right out and asked if she could read the book I’d been keeping before k------herself. I told her I’d discovered the old samplers. She was angry and accused me of spying on her because I know she can’t climb stairs. I think she wants to read this to find out whether I’ve secretly loved or hated her all these years. It wouldn’t be fair for her to get all this when I’d only have three incidents or facts imparted to me, written on sheets of Xerox paper not large enough to hold much information. It’s the best she can do, she says. We take a secret vote on whether we should keep arguing: one Yes, one No. More talk about d— later in the afternoon. She asks if I resist the idea because I want to see her suffer, smug in her assumption that that’s what the book says.
Night. Petite marmite.
A phone call from Mary Louise’s priest, who identifies himself as Father Donnelly and explains that he knows we are not Catholic, but that Mary Louise has been very upset and he felt he might offer words of consolation. The words he offers are references to books of the Bible: numbers, suggested psalms. Told him that “In Heaven There Is Work and Play/Half of Each Makes Up Our Day.” He had no ready answer.
Keep thinking of what I’d do. Wouldn’t want to stay in the house—not just because I’d have bad memories, but because I’m tired of the house. Violets are too much trouble. I complain to her about the problem it would create, and she suggests we d— together.
Tea and bed.
Took care of violets. A little worried about “Pledge of Pink,” but no signs of mealybugs. Mrs. Edway inspected with a magnifying glass to prove me wrong, but after careful examination no argument resulted.
On the phone, she refused both further testing and interim treatment. Her doctor or Bernie?
Finish petite marmite.
Gave her the book when she went to bed. She flipped through, held it close to read passages but was too drowsy to concentrate. Bottle of sedatives three-quarters empty.
Just got the book back. Put the light out over the violets and have been watching the sky change color, from pale to dark. Radio says more snow, but there’s a ring around the moon. Does that only mean rain?
One officer to another officer: “The old man says he killed a Mrs. Edway. Waited to come in because Tuesday is his day for a stroll.”
The authorities are such young people.
Phone call: Bernie and Mary Louise come to the police station. Mary Louise cries and says I’m innocent. Just like his mother, Bernie is wild to get his hands on the book, but two policemen are reading it in another room. I am allowed to go into the room with Bernie and Mary Louise because they hope I’ll talk more. Mary Louise does most of the talking, explaining that her mother-inlaw had a terminal illness. Bernie hears a report from another policeman who’s just arrived. Suicide. The policemen in the room doubt it and pore over the book. Bernie looks with them. Mary Louise looks all around, crying. They want to find something written down.
“What does this mean?" an officer asks, looking at a page near the end of the book.
Another officer looks over his shoulder, brings the book to me.
I won’t do anything more, including talk.
An officer makes a phone call, spells the words to someone on the other end. “It’s French,”he says. “A vegetable soup cooked with a turkey carcass.”
Mary Louise’s fat hand patting my shoulder. Remember the day Bernie first brought her home. He was going to marry her. Mary Louise sensed Mrs. Edway’s depression, told Mrs. Edway she wasn’t losing a son but gaining a daughter. When they left. Mrs. Edway said it looked like she’d be losing twice.
When Bernie was a little boy, we hid Easter eggs and Mrs. Edway directed him: “Warm, warmer, cooler. . . .”Bernie loved it. Days later we had to turn the living room inside out, looking for an unfound Easter egg. Turned out to be the one Mrs. Edway had spent the most time decorating. She was upset, said she wished she was d----.
Don’t cry. Mary Louise. Accidents happen. A ring around the moon last night, and today no rain, no snow. □