ANNA CRAVEN HAS BEEN GOING PLACES ALL ALONE for three years now—to airports, shopping mails, fairs, political rallies, any place where she can be surrounded by people without having to interact with them. She works only two days a week (could retire if she wished ), so it’s not as if she had other, important things to do. Her children are scattered in every direction, living their own lives, and her time is something that can’t easily be filled with cooking or talking on the phone.
“Why don’t you watch TV?” they asked over the holidays, and pointed to the huge console they had given her the year before. “I do,” she told them, and did not try to explain that she saw more drama in public places.
“It’s not healthy, all this time alone,” her son-in-law, the therapist, had said. “There are plenty of other women who are. . He faltered for the right words—wid-
ows’? all alone? “Why are you punishing yourself?”
Punishment. The punishment was that Walter was no longer with her—period, the end. Divorcées go out for drinks and dancing—even the ones her age—but the widows, the all alone, are supposed to drink coffee and play Mah-Jongg, sing in the church choir, never think about or wish for intercourse other than of a verbal or spiritual sort. Nobody even uses that word—“intercourse”—in front of a widow. Sometimes she wants to tell her son-in-law, the therapist, that that is punishment: perfectly good words reduced to nothing. Punishment was that day three years ago when she got the call about Walter’s death. He was on business, the West Coast, his last look fastened on some awful hotel furniture, the telephone cord beyond his reach.
SHE HAD JUST GOTTEN HOME FROM SCHOOL when the call came. The kids at the elementary school called her “the traveling musician,”because she made her rounds to each class once a week. Her music lessons were usually related to the season or the holiday at hand, but she also had her favorites to be sung at any time, such as “Born Free” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” That one was wonderful to hear, a chorus of little high-pitched voices singing words the children did not fully understand, much like “Mares Eat Oats.”
That particular day she had spent the class time singing “Gobble Gobble Turkey” while the students drew their own versions of the first Thanksgiving, with turkeys whose tail feathers were the outline of a hand, each finger colored a different hue. Her mind had been on the upcoming holiday and what kind of sleeping arrangements she would make for her growing family. Her daughter, Carol (wife of the therapist), was pregnant with a second child. Carol had said that Kim, the fifteen-month-old, ate only pizza crust, and that Trey (the therapist, whose name was William Bradford “the Third”) said it was important that they let Kim eat her way through this, that if they used force of any kind, she might never eat vegetables. Anna and Walter had sat up many late nights talking about how absurd these ideas were, how it seemed such a shame that ail Kim’s infant toys had been in basic black and white, because this is what stimulates newborns, Anna kept wanting to remove the dull toys and replace them with fluffy pastel bears and cats.
Trey had videotaped every minute detail of childbirth. He had carried the placenta home in a lawn and garden bag; though curious, Anna never asked what they did with it. He studied the child’s every movement, was quick to tell anyone who would listen what Kim could and could not see, could and could not know. Walter’s greatest fear had been that they would have a son and name him William Bradford “the Fourth.”
“And then what?” Walter had asked off and on for a month. “Will they call him Quar?” He tossed his travel kit into his suitcase and then stretched out on the bed and laughed. “Or Queer?” He shook his head, hands clasped behind his neck as he watched her put on her nightgown. They had always done that, locked looks in the mirror as she undressed for bed.
Their oldest son, Ben, had just gotten his divorce and was going to bring a new girlfriend and her four-year-old. The girlfriend had told Anna in their one and only telephone conversation that she had decided to have a child on her own, because she had not yet met the right man. “Little did I know the right man was still married at the time,” she had said, and laughed, Ben chuckling with her in the background. “Divorce is so prevalent, I knew I’d find somebody eventually, you know, somebody who could be a father figure—not, of course, that I think a father figure is important. They aren’t. Men are not always necessary.” Can you imagine? Anna had asked after hanging up the phone. The gall. The poor taste. Walter had said he would like to put this woman and Trey in a room and lock the door, and take bets on which one would survive the night. Anna said she’d just like to tell them not to come, but Walter talked her out of it; he said it would be one of those occasions they would enjoy after the fact.
AT THE TIME, THEIR YOUNGEST SON, WAYNE, seemed to be the only sane child. He was just out of law school and studying for the bar. Except for an earring in one ear, he was classically clean-cut, with a wardrobe of 100 percent cotton and name brands. The earring, a tiny diamond chip like a star, prompted Walter to say that Wayne had a hole in his head, but it was a joke. They talked a lot about how Wayne had the most sense. How he was the caring child. “A little depressed, maybe,” Walter often said. “But he’ll pull out of it. Got a lot of pressure on him.”
SHE HAD BEEN THINKING ABOUT THE CHILDREN coming home when the phone rang. She had been standing in the kitchen, one crayoned turkey folded neatly in her purse. She had been thinking about stuffing—in the bird or out of the bird? Carol (who said that pregnancy had brought with it a great distaste for poultry) liked the stuffing (or had liked it) crumbling out from the bird; Walter preferred it fixed in a pan (dressing, it is called), because he said he hated the thought of scooping around inside the bird. He said he couldn’t stand to think of either end of the creature and refused to eat giblet gravy because he would not eat any of the working parts, no organs. Frey did not like for any two items to be touching on his plate, and often had to have lots of separate little bowls, as if he were in a cafeteria. He also talked a great deal about roughage. She was envisioning both—emptying the turkey out of Walter’s sight, but also having a nice pan of dressing cut into squares. She would prepare a huge salad and some bran muffins, and if that wasn’t enough roughage, would offer a Metamucil cocktail. The ringing phone was an interruption, and she was slow to grasp the purpose of the call.
Oh, dear God, she remembers saying; with the phone cradled under her chin she had slowly and systematically shredded that paper turkey. She had stood, not knowing what to do with her hands or with the turkey that was thawing on the counter. That very morning she had changed the sheets on the bed. The pillows were duffed to his liking, TV Guide was on the nightstand, clean pajamas were folded in his drawer. The thought of their bedroom, the minute details of their world, made her feel unbearably alive. Walter’s raincoat was hanging in the hall. She ran past it to the stairs. Their bedroom was just as she had left it that morning, when the sun streamed through the window, and she was so sorry that she had not waited to wash, so terribly sorry that she had not left the sheets on the bed from the day before yesterday.
SHE WAS STANDING IN THE KITCHEN WHEN THE phone rang, and then, within minutes, they all seemed to be there, these people, these children she had birthed while unconscious, with Walter in the waiting room chain-smoking with the other men—these children they had conceived in the darkness of their bed: Carol in that tiny studio apartment overlooking the A&P parking lot; Ben in their first house, the small two-bedroom Cape Cod where she’d left behind a rosebush she had brought from her grandmother’s house (when she went back and requested it, the new owners refused); and finally Wayne, in a rented cottage one row back from the ocean, salt wind whipping the sticky drapes.
BEN CAME HOME WITHOUT THE GIRLFRIEND, AND the only thing Anna said to him that night was “How dare you ask to bring that trollop to my house when we still haven’t gotten over your divorce?” She told Trey and Carol that if they didn’t stop talking about gastrointestinal and psychiatric things, they would have to get out, they were making her sick. She told Wayne that she wished he’d pierce his other ear, so that she wouldn’t have the inclination when looking at him to tilt her head in an attempt to make up for his lack of symmetry. She asked him please to guard her bedroom door so that no one would come in to talk to her or to try and get her to talk or eat or turn on a light. She didn’t cook a turkey the next day; she didn’t leave her room. It was the lousiest Thanksgiving knowm to man.
Walter’s favorite movie was Rear Window. He said the movie reminded him of the way they had sat on the balcony of that rented beach house and watched the lights in the row of houses across the way. They had gone to the same house every summer while the kids were growing up. It was not a big house, just a small white wooden cottage up on tall, spindlv-looking pilings, a short walk from the pier.
“Well, I’m no Grace Kelly,” Anna had said, and laughed. The first year they had watched an older couple across the way; they had laughed at the way the couple dressed for dinner, the woman in a floor-length floral skirt and the man in a white jacket and white shoes. “Like Pat Boone,” Walter had howled. He was only thirty-six then, and his skin was a dark tan. “Imagine getting dressed up like that at the beach.”
The couple became a joke for them, their own Rear Window. Each day Anna and Walter would sit on the beach (she under a striped umbrella) while Ben and Carol played in the sand and at the edge of the water. They would take turns glancing up at the big weathered house, each anxious to be the first to spy the couple, but the front shades remained drawn. “Maybe they’re vampires,” Walter whispered, and stretched out beside her, his skin sandy and sunburned. “Maybe they’re spying on us right now, and they don’t want to meet us because then we’ll all just have ordinary, boring vacations.”
“It’s not so boring,” she said, and yawned. “I love doing nothing.” It was a wonderful feeling to collect their things and head up over the huge white dunes in the early afternoon. The kids ran ahead, stopping to examine shells and the wild roses that grew close by, while she and Walter followed, drawn by the thought of a cool shower and a nap. Once, when Wayne was nine, he had asked them why they decided to have him. Anna looked over at Walter, but he didn’t look like someone on the verge of speaking. “We wanted another baby,” she said. “That’s all we could talk about that summer at the beach, how we wanted another baby.” Walter grinned at her, eyebrows raised with the silent truth: they had been delirious with joy when the children finally closed their little eyes and mouths and slept like lambs. They had been careless, wild and reckless, thinking that if something did happen, they’d deal with it later. The nearest drugstore was a twenty-minute drive, and there just wasn’t always time enough to be prepared.
IN THE LATE AFTERNOONS, WHEN THE BEACH WAS empty, the older couple strolled out, cocktail glasses in hand, and sat on their deck. When the sun set, they got in their car and left for a latenight dinner. Anna and Walter imagined them driving over to a friend’s house, maybe one of the large antebellum homes just inland, where they would sit and sip champagne. By now Walter had nicknamed them “the Vanderbilts.” With the children tucked in, Anna and Walter sat on their own tiny deck and waited for the Vanderbilts’ return. They took turns using an old telescope to zero in on the lights of the pier; one night, before a circle of people blocked their view, they saw a man catch what looked like a shark. Another night they spotted a young couple kissing below the bait shop, the woman’s back against one of the pilings. Walter imagined that at least one of them was married, that their affair was illicit; Anna said they were teenagers trying things out for the first time. They would have bet except that they had no way of learning the truth. They sat with their telescope, the transistor radio playing, until the headlights came around a curve. The Vanderbilts always returned just before midnight. Their lights went out half an hour later.
The last day of vacation Anna suggested that they follow the couple on their nightly outing. As soon as the couple appeared on their deck, cocktails in hand, Anna started getting ready. Carol and Ben were in the back seat singing and screaming (they were going to get ice cream), and Anna and Walter took turns fiddling with something (he under the hood, she running back into the house) until the couple across the street prepared to leave. Finally the Lincoln pulled out, and Anna and Walter let it get a good block down the road before they pulled out and began following. Anna was excited, ready for a lengthy expedition that might take them who knew where, only to be disappointed five minutes later, when the Lincoln turned into Brady’s Seafood, an old establishment adorned with plastic fish and nets and offering several varieties of fried food. Walter turned off the headlights, the car still idling, as they watched the man walk around to open his companion’s door. Her floral evening skirt glistened under the streetlights as the couplewalked to the big glass door. Inside they would be met by the glare of ceiling lights on Formica, the smell of fish and a vat of reheated grease.
“Disappointed?” Walter asked, as he turned their station wagon around, flipped on the headlights, and drove to the Tastee Freeze next to a Putt-Putt Golf range. They sat on a bench and let the kids run around on the little green course. “They deserve better, don’t they?” he asked, and she suddenly felt very protective of these complete strangers. “Maybe they’re happy,” she said. “What do we know?” That remark was used often over the next twenty-five years. It was what Walter always said to her (reminding her) if she commented on someone else’s life. It’s what she imagines people are saying about her life, now that she is all alone in public places.
SHE HAS SPENT THREE YEARS WITHOUT WALTER, and she has finally adjusted to the shock. She has gotten used to the largeness of the bed, the quiet ticking of the clock which his snores and breathing had always hidden. Still, she comes to loud public places in order to absorb the emotions. People in airports cry and hug—Look at you! They lean and wave— I thought you’d never get here! People at political rallies or marches smile and cheer one another on as if they had a relationship. All you have to do is clap at the right time, raise your hand in affirmation or rejection at the right time. People in the mall are absorbed into the fluorescent lights and water fountains.
Now Carol has had a second boy (Brandon), in addition to her first one (William the Fourth), and she stays at home with them while Prey sits and records people’s problems out in his black-and-white office, which used to be the garage. Carol wears children the way most people wear arms and legs. She is already talking about having another. Anna can’t imagine that Carol and Prey have ever done anything reckless. All these children are planned, one right after another. Carol never talks about anything else these days. Carol never says, What do you miss most about Dad? What would be your pick of a day if you could have one? Instead Carol says, “Trey and I have got to get a new diaper service, we don’t like the way this service folds—there’s always a wrinkle in the front. We fear they use really strong detergents, too, or else how do they get the diapers so white? Trey says I can just keep searching until I find the perfect service, no matter the cost. Isn’t he wonderful?”
Anna says, “Well, Carol, if I could have any day with your father, I’d pick a day in July that very summer that we surprised ourselves and I got pregnant with Wayne. Your dad would tiptoe in on you and Ben to make sure you were completely out, and then he’d come flying back, lock our door, jump in the bed, and there we’d be, laughing and whispering and doing anything we pleased. If I could’ve bought Huggies, I would’ve.”
“Mom, I can’t let Kim and William and Brandon eat canned spaghetti. When you said you had spaghetti, I thought you meant real spaghetti.” Carol stands there, her eyes as blue as Walter’s, her nose with the same slope. When she was a child, she ate canned spaghetti all the time. Anna looks at the open can and puts it on the counter. She wants to say, Your father and I would go aftereach other like crazed rabbits and we wouldn’t stop until we fell out with exhaustion or until one of you started calling from the other room, whichever came first, but instead she tells Carol that if she wants real spaghetti, that if Chef Boyardee, who has been around longer than Trey, is not good enough, then she’ll have to do her own shopping and cooking.
BEN, AFTER A SERIES OF LIVE-IN GIRLFRIENDS, met and married somebody who looked and sounded just like all the others. They moved to Alaska, where he teaches history. His wite teaches arts and crafts in the prison there, and for Christmas she sent Anna a pendant carved from ivory. It’s an awkward elephant, so large, she thinks, that it might knock her out if she forgot and bent over too fast—that is, if she ever wore it. Terri (the wife, whom she has met only once) sent a history of the elephant: This was carved by a reformed alcoholic named Ike who is serving a life sentence for murdering his wife, mother, and child. Ike has found religion and sees his art as a manifestation of his cleansed soul. He is a new man.
Though the children at school would probably love this atrocity the same way they love her loud parrot pin, Anna will not touch it with a ten-foot pole. Imagine, writing to tell her such a thing. Didn’t they know that she would only stare at the misshapen piece of junk and ask why such a man is living and breathing and whittling his animal tusks while Walter, who was the epitome of sanity and goodness, is gone? Were it not for the fear that she would completely alienate her son and his free-spirited wife, she would throw the elephant out in the trash. Instead she keeps it in its box, in the drawer where she keeps a photo of Ben’s first wife, a cute, quiet, conventional woman who wanted to settle somewhere and spend her life there.
“That’s not so much for her to ask,” Walter had told Ben when he announced with anger that they were separated, that she was asking too much of him. “What is it you’re looking for?”
Wayne, after only a few months practicing law, decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer and instead went back to school to get an M.B.A. Now he’s considering becoming a CPA. What happened to the normal child? She keeps asking the question and wishing that Walter could answer. Anna recently asked Wayne why he didn’t drive his BMW while eating a BLT to the YMCA for a little R&R—or, better yet, why didn’t he find a nice young woman who could give him some TLC? What she has found out most recently is that Wayne is more interested in finding a nice young man, and she thinks she can live with all that. She is convinced she can live with just about anything. It’s what she can’t live without that poses a problem.
“THE SUMMER AFTER WAYNE WAS BORN, THEY went back to the small cottage. Anna spent most of the vacation on the screened porch with Wayne in her arms, his tiny body shielded from the salty breeze by a cotton blanket. It was midweek before they saw any lights on in the house across the way. Several cars were in the drive (the Lincoln was in the garage, but they never saw it move), and the beach in front ot the house was peppered with children of all ages. Anna had a lot of time to watch while Walter was out swimming with the kids and she was left behind in the shade of the porch. All day long people came and went, but she sawno sign of the couple from the year before, other than their car.
Finally, late one afternoon, the woman came out on the deck. She stood and held tightly to the rail as if the wind might whip her out to sea. She stood that way for what seemed an eternity, and then a younger woman— someone who was probably Anna’s age—came out and took her by the arm. Anna’s involvement in the scene was interrupted by Wayne’s cries. She had a diaper to change, a baby to nurse, two children to bathe and dress and entertain.
“Mr. Vanderbilt left her,” Anna said to her skeptical husband over a dinner of steamed shrimp, which the children would not eat, and french fries, which they would. “She’s all alone. He ran off with his very young secretary, and where does that leave her?” Anna was trying hard to make a joke of what she had seen, but the humor was impossible to find.
“I think he died,” Walter said, and she turned, her expression matching his. They both sat quietly, fries and catsup all over the plastic tablecloth that came with the house. “Yeah, he’s dead all right,” Walter said. “She’s too peaceful for him not to be. If he’d just left her, she’d be furious, breaking things, screaming for the lawyers. He died all right.” It was a feeble joke, and though Anna laughed, she felt the tears spring to her eyes without warning.
Summer after summer they came to the same house, catching glimpses of the woman, who came outside less and less. The Lincoln was no longer in the garage. With each passing summer the children across the street got bigger, and then they were doing things with Carol and Ben and Wayne. Carol reported that the house belonged to the kids’ grandmother; there were twelve cousins in all. The children were still so young then: Ben down at the Putt-Putt range or at the pavilion, playing pinball; Carol reading magazines with a girlfriend and talking about how no man would keep her from being an astronaut if that’s what she decided to be; Wayne out riding the waves on a Styrofoam board. In her worst scenarios tragedy came to them from beyond the boundaries and frames of their everyday lives: a car running a red light, an airplane engine dying, Ben drafted and dropped in a jungle, a stray bomb planted in a building where they happened to be visiting, a lunatic firing a submachine gun in a fast-food restaurant. But instead it came from within, from a heart that had never threatened anything except too much love, a fragile, easily broken organ.
“SEE YOU TONIGHT, HONEY.” THAT’S THE LAST thing Walter said to her, and she has spent countless moments playing back the phone conversation, imagining that unwitnessed day. Why didn’t she feel something? Why didn’t she, while singing songs of praise and drawing turkeys and Pilgrim hats, get a sudden rush of gooseflesh, a tightening in her own chest?
NOW SHE: STEI’S IP WHERE A CROWD HAS GATHcred in the center of the mall and is watching the closed curtains of a stage. People are pushing, standing on tiptoe, to get a better look. WELCOME! a big banner says, and another says EAT TO WIN! All of a sudden a little man in a white jumpsuit jumps from behind the curtain and bounces around, waving and circling his arms at his fans. It’s the Exercise Man; she has seen him on TV. A great many people are lined up to catch a glimpse of him. She pulls her purse around in front of her and eases out of the crowd, goes down to the other end of the mall, to a petting zoo. Young mothers are there with little ones who reach out and then shrink back from the hungry tongue of a billy goat.
“I WORRY ABOUT WAYNE,” HE HAD SAID ON THE phone. It was early morning. She sat on the bed in her gown and robe, a cup of freshly made coffee on the nightstand. Out the window she could see the dogwood tree, leaves bright red, and down below the school bus stopping for a crowd of children who filed up the steps and in through the narrow door, their arms filled with lunch boxes and notebooks. She had a stack of construction paper on her dresser; the children would spend the time during the day’s lesson tracing their hands to make turkey feathers. “I just don’t think he seems satisfied.”
“He will when lie’s taken that test,” she told him. They had visited Wayne once during law school at Columbia, and he had spent the whole visit locked in his room, “studying,” though they’d heard him make many phone calls. They had just gone ahead and ventured out as tourists, seeing everything one could possibly see in Manhattan in twenty-four hours. That night, after an early dinner, Wayne went back to his studying and they sat nursing their sore feet and vowing that the next trip would last longer. They had made the same promise just the year before, when she went with Walter to San Francisco. Walter had an early meeting, but then they rented a car and set out to see the city. They were determined to see everything from Alcatraz to Chinatown. Walter sang like Tonv Bennett everv time thev saw a cable car. They had raced through downtown Seattle the year before that. They loved the West Coast and had always talked about taking another trip—a long, relaxing, childless trip—as soon as Wayne passed the bar. Son, I’ve got to tell you, Walter said the day they were leaving New York, I’ve never been able to pass a bar.
“I hope that test is all that’s bugging him,” Walter said that morning on the phone. “He’ll be home soon.” That’s when she looked at the clock and told him that she had to hurry, she was going to be late, somebody had to work.
“See you tonight, honey.”
SHE THINKS NOW THAT WALTER WAS ON TO WAYNE. He always seemed to know things. On Ben’s first wedding day he said that he felt the marriage would never work; he couldn’t put his finger on it, but something was wrong. Carol will never go back to school if she marries this Trey fellow, he had said. This Trey fellow wants a woman in the house. I can tell. It may take a dozen children and shackles, but he’ll find a way. Sometimes it makes her mad that he knew so damn much, was so perceptive about their children, could tell from her physical stance what mood she was in (uh-oh, the limp-wristed hand on the hip means depressed; straight wrist is mad as hell), but at the most important moment, when he might have sensed the danger that would rob him, her, all of them, he hadn’t had a clue.
The first year was the hardest. Each day was an anniversary. Each day was a countdown of events. Nothing could pull her away from the timetable leading up to or away from his death. Her children tried. They took turns dumping the events of their lives at her feet, but she wouldn’t be deflected. She got tired of listening to what was going on in their lives. She wanted her own life. She wanted to be a part of something, real or not, that was of her own design. She had to get out, go places, watch people. In her mind she wrote long letters to the woman at the beach. How could you just stand there? she asked. How could you be at peace?
Now the third year is closing. Thanksgiving is around the corner. It’s time to decide what kind of stuffing or dressing to prepare. But nothing equals a mall or an airport during the holidays. Both are bustling with people, and emotions are soaring. On the days she doesn’t work, she alternates between the two. Carol says, “But why were you at the airport?” and Anna tells her that the airport is filled with wonderful stores, that people shouldn’t ask so many questions so close to the holidays. That was Walter’s line. He had used it on the children from October I to December 25, diverting their curiosity with what seemed the promise of a present. Her children want her to be a perfect widow, to be led in and out of the house like the woman at the beach. Anna imagines Mrs. Vanderbilt living out the rest of her life in silent composure as she yearns for those late afternoons with her husband, their dinners at Brady’s Seafood, so long and so hard that she loses all of what had made her the person she was.
Children are so selfish, the way they want to lead you around and keep your mind occupied with latch hooks or Phil Donahue. Carol says, Why don’t you get interested in a continuing program? (meaning a soap opera). Trey disagrees with Carol’s suggestion of regular programs. (He says he hopes she isn’t watching such trash when he’s out in the garage working!) He suggests that Anna watch the Public Broadcasting System (British soap operas). Ben and Terri suggest that she choose a craft (ivory carving has done wonders for some people). Wayne says she’d be great at the soup kitchen, a breath of life for the downand-out. And who will give me a breath? she asks.
Her children don’t want her to talk about Walter anymore. They don’t want her to talk about how he looked in the casket. She keeps saying, “He looked okay, but his mouth was wrong. Walter never held his mouth that way a day of his life.”
“Really, mother,” Carol says, and Anna wants to slap her, to shake her, to tell her, For God’s sake get a divorce. And Ben says, “Really, mother,” and she wants to ask how they can be so sympathetic to an alcoholic who murdered his family and not to a woman who had a wonderful, happy marriage (complete with wonderful sex and happy private jokes) to a wonderful man and who wants to talk about it. Wayne says, “Really, mother,” and she wants to shake him, to ask how a son of hers and Walter’s went such a route, holes in his ears and men on his arms. She wants to say, Don’t tell me what loneliness means. Don’t you even try. Dear God. Some nights she can’t sleep because her mind flashes picture after picture, like slides.
Walter. Wayne as an infant. Walter looking down at her, sheets twisted around their legs. Wayne running toward them with his suitcase, happy to leave summer camp, never to go again. Walter’s eyes closing as he exhales, his heart beating rapidly, her hands on his back, pulling him toward her. Wayne in a shiny blue graduation gown. Walter’s eyes closed as his heart beats rapidly, the telephone cord beyond his grasp, and Wayne with a male lover, sheets twisted around their legs. She shudders and cries out, unable to bear either picture.
SHE IS AT THE AIRPORT AT A GATE THAT IS crowded. Sunlight is streaming through the big glass windows. She sees a man with a bouquet of flowers. A young girl wearing fatigue pants and a tight black T-shirt is slouched in a chair with her tote bag on the seat beside her. She’s reading a self-help book (Making a Place for Yourself) and will probably do so all the way to Dallas (Anna can read the boarding pass she clutches). Somewhere in this world (somewhere in Dallas-Fort Worth, maybe) this girl has a place and someone is waiting for her; her name is running through that person’s mind this very minute. The last time Anna was here she watched a lost child. The little girl’s description was given over the loudspeaker time after time as an airport employee hugged her and tried to get her to stop crying.
While the child sobbed. Anna watched and wondered what Walter would have said when Wayne announced that he had a male lover. Alone, she had held her breath and counted long seconds, swallowed, focused. She said, “We ...” and then faltered over the plural. “We want you to be happy, Wayne. Nothing more.” If Walter had been there, his large strong arm around her, she would not have been so understanding and sensitive. She would not have thought to remind herself how fragile it all is. fragile and precious. The lost child was red-faced. Her nose was running onto the stuffed toy she clutched. The airport employee looked at Anna and shook her head. “Can you believe this?” she asked. “Can you imagine a parent not keeping a better watch?”
“Oh, God, there you are!" A woman rushed into the area, her face white and frantic, mascara ringing her eyes. “Oh, baby, baby.” She grabbed the child and then turned to the airport employee. “My husband thought I had her,” She was explaining, out of breath and needing to redeem herself. “I thought she was with him.” The husband was there within seconds, a trail of suitcases strewn behind him as he wrapped his arms around the two. Thank God,” the man said.
Sometimes Anna imagines that she will turn in a crowded place and see him there, that they wall reach for each other with a babbling of how it was all a misunder- standing, that he didn’t really die. “Oh. thank God.”she sometimes wakes up saying, thinking that the dream— he was checking the air in her car tires—is reality, and the empty bed is not.
SHE YOU TONIGHT, HONEY,” WALTER SAYS, AND hangs up the phone. He turns to the simple, moderately priced room. On the table by the window is his breakfast, orange juice and toast. He loves eggs and bacon but he is watching his cholesterol. He quit smoking years ago. He walks at least a mile a day. He does everything just the way it’s supposed to be done. In the closet are his blue suit, white shirt, red paisley tie. He has been traveling for years. The insurance business has been good to him, good to them financially. Retirement is just around the corner.
I LEFT MY HEART IX SAX FRAXCISCO. THE THIRDgrade teacher thought it was an odd selection but couldn’t help smiling at the chorus. They drew pictures, hearts like valentines, riding up to the stars. “You can’t leave your heart nowhere,” a boy, still pink-faced from recess, said, and he grinned. “You’d die.”He laughed, the whole class joining in. The teacher looked at Anna in a shocked, worried way, which Anna brushed off with a wave of her hand. She thought of Mrs. Vanderbilt, her hands firm on the railing, her chin lifted as she stared out at the ocean.
“That’s true,” she said. “You would die without your heart.”
“Oh, no.”A girl at the front shook her head, her hand up to her chest as if to check her own beating heart, while Anna attempted to explain figurative.
“What’s a cable car?” another child asked.
Now PEOPLE ARE FILING THROUGH THE JETway door, spilling into the hall with waves and shrieks. The man who has stood so quietly with the bouquet is moving forward, arms reaching for a young woman in blue jeans, her hair cropped in a thick blunt cut. “I thought I’d never get here,” she says, and kisses him full on the mouth, the flowers pressed between them. The girl in fatigues looks around as if annoyed by all the chatter and goes back to her book. Her flight can’t board until all these people have gotten off and the plane is tidied.
Anna thinks of the couple reunited with their lost child as if she knows them, as if they are distant relatives. She imagines them at home, their house recently painted, a yard recently mowed, a bed with sheets just washed, their dinner thawing in the kitchen. They have gotten over what happened at the airport and have stopped studying each other with the unspoken, unintended accusation; but they still realize with a sudden rush of horror all the things that could have happened that day. “You have such a morbid mind, sweetheart,” Walter once said. The kids were at camp and she kept expecting a phone call: a broken arm, salmonella, stitches in the chin.
BUT THAT MORNING, AS SHE COLLECTED HER construction paper and went to school, she had no such thoughts, no expectations of what was _ to come. She tries so hard to see it all. “See you tonight, honey,” he says, and he hangs up the receiver. She imagines a hotel bedspread with matching striped drapes, Art Deco prints in chrome frames. He would have the drapes open, with the sunlight coming through. He would stand in front of the window and watch people on the street below. Maybe someone was watching him across the way. Maybe someone in another building saw him turn suddenly. He felt sick and he turned to put down his coffee, he reached for the phone, their familiar number going through his mind like a secret message or song, but he didn’t get there. Everywhere Anna looks she sees the message: life is fragile, so very, very fragile. She watches the people exit, the crowd thinning temporarily before those departing make their way to the gate. Already the couple with the bouquet is at the end of the hallway, arms entwined as the flowers swing back and forth. Now the girl in the fatigues sits up straight, clutching her boarding pass.
“You going to Dallas?” the girl asks, and Anna is startled. She turns quickly from the big glass window and shakes her head. “Are you?”
“Yeah.” The girl’s voice is much higher than Anna would have expected, much younger. “Unfortunately.”
“Oh.” Anna waits for an explanation, but the girl doesn’t give it.
“I guess your person missed the flight,” the girl says, and points to the closed door.
“Yes.” Anna feels the need to move now, to push herself down the hall and outside into the fresh autumn air. “I hope you have a good trip.”
The girl smirks, runs a hand through her short, stiff hair. “I won’t. It’s my dad. You know I have to go spend that weekend once every three months.” She waits for Anna to nod and then goes back to her book.
Anna begins walking. By the time of her next visit here she will have constructed a setting for this girl, in which she will be happily reunited with her father. The father and girl will ask in amazement why they haven’t seen years ago how silly their problems are. They are parent and child—family. They will drive into Dallas and eat at a fine restaurant. Now Anna feels like a ghost, like someone haunting someone else’s life, and so she concentrates on turkey and stuffing and her own children and grandchildren and schoolchildren, and how she needs to construct or reconstruct her own scene. It’s been exactly three years; now the fourth begins. She is aware of details she will forget and need to reinvent in a simpler, gentler way. It will be a smoother progression, the nerves worn down. She passes gate after gate, each one identical.
If she could pick a time, they would load the station wagon and drive to the coast, the kids crowded in the back seat. It would be a long, bright day—the children’s squeals muffled by the roar of the surf—followed by a cool shower and a nap. And in the late afternoon, as the children sat in a circle playing cards, as Walter still napped, she would cross the street and go stand by Mrs. Vanderbilt on the deck. She would take notes on loneliness (is it really possible to live with it?) and then rush back to her own bed to find Walter there, her love reaffirmed with his every breath.
Anna decides while walking the long hallway that she will not stuff her turkey. She will have a turkey breast; she will make a pan of dressing on the side. She will not have to put the heart, liver, and gizzard (those working parts) into her gravy, because she won’t have them in the first place. People are boarding at gate C-10. She will bake a chocolate cake so big and so rich that everyone will need to lie down right after dinner. They will nap and she will sit quietly on the patio, content to rest after a busy day, relieved to have some silence after all the talk, all the questions she has asked her children about their lives. She sees a young woman in the hallway, her beige pumps a perfect match with her suit, diamond ring flashing on her smooth young hand. “See you tomorrow night,”she calls, and blows a kiss to the tall, dark-haired man stepping into the boarding tunnel. He lifts a hand and is gone. □