Nora finished bringing the flowers onto the back porch and made sure the back door locked behind her. She went to the kitchen sink to wash her hands. She drew them back immediately after putting them under the stream of water, thinking that the water was hot. She realized instead the water wasn’t warm but that her hands had become so cold while working outside in the wet October air. She let the water sting the surface of her skin and rubbed them together to bring the warmth inward. There were dishes in the sink and on the table too, and she looked at them as she dried her hands, left them where they were and went out to the front to wait for Owen.
She grabbed a cushion from the small chair on the porch. She always hated that chair, a filigree cast iron white thing that Owen thought looked good on the porch and was too heavy for her to throw out. She put the cushion down on the top step to shield her rear from the hard, cold concrete. Nora’s hand were not quite dry and the wind let her know that, so she curled them up under her sweater. Owen loved to make the point that Beverly had no vistas, no point of perspective from which to see the neighborhood; trees and cars blocked everything and while the houses were lovely the lots were still city lots, close together and close to the street. On a day like this it didn’t matter as much. The faltering daylight was beautiful filtering through the trees, the leaves were changing, bright gold and auburn and orange. They were still bright and complementing and flowing through the dark browns and red brick houses and the dark evergreens and even the asphalt and the sidewalk to make up one canvas of watercolors.
But all she could see was her part of her block and not even all of that. Nor could she go somewhere and see the whole of the neighborhood. Owen’s argument was that the physical nature of the area led to a neighborhood that was too insular and private, had no geographic or social center and generally lacked cohesiveness. She didn’t know about that, planning was his profession, but he said this had contributed to white flight. Regardless, it was a sad thing when their friends moved away one by one. Not that she didn’t worry about the property values and the crime. Owen said he wasn’t worried, that the talk of increased crime was a bunch of anecdotes and not based in fact.
“Oh well, whatever’, she sighed, maybe out loud. ‘Bell St. is beautiful today, fall colors in their prime.’ Nora wondered why she had not enjoyed the street like this before.
Maybe simply she was relaxed. She wasn’t teaching for the first time in fifteen years and so she had had the whole week to herself. She slept well for several nights in a row, for the first time in many months. Wendy was gone now, married the Saturday before, the last one, and now Nora felt her breathing had become slower and deeper. Even after going through the ordeal with the other two girls, the whole wedding process made her feel marginally psychotic. Karen and her husband Art and Brian left on Monday, and the phone stopped ringing constantly only today. She went pretty much from funeral plans into wedding plans and she hadn’t realized how much she valued the normal rhythm of her life. Even her mother upstairs, sick for two years didn’t throw her off that much. It was probably harder for Owen, but he was very supportive role and never once complained. Many people came up to her and commented that it was too bad her mother hadn’t lived to attend the wedding, which through all her smiles and thank yous struck Nora as a funny and kind of stupid thing to say.
Owen and she decided in bed that night that it was an example of people wanting life to be like the movies, desiring life to have the same kinds of climaxes. She really hadn’t missed her yet. She had been so busy and her mother had been in so much pain. She just felt a kind of hollow nausea, a vague and mild poison in her stomach whenever she thought about it.
She hadn’t felt that way when her father died. He was a distant authority figure and they didn’t have the benefit of having a relationship when she was an adult. Maybe it was just that Owen came along at the right time. They met weeks before the stroke and after her father was gone, Owen filled more space than he had occupied. And he was similar to him, always confident and certain and willing to take control of any situation. Maybe that was the one thing that she got out of her father that she needed. Not that she was a weak person, she didn’t think of herself that way, but rather that it was a comfort to have someone around who seemed so sure of themselves. Sometimes when they were first married she would fall into a deep dream state and imagine that her father was lying next to her in bed. In reality, the two of them were very different. Owen was emotional, considerate and open and as liberal as her father was conservative. Knowing her father’s seriousness and Owen’s fondness for an argument, her father would have ended up hating him.
Owen was certainly opinionated, but never stubborn at least not with her. Advocacy real was the right field for him. He hadn’t changed much and she wondered where he got the energy. Or more accurately, passion for ideas, issues and doing things. For instance, he had called from the airport and asked her to be ready, that he was taking her to hear some baroque music at the Rockefeller chapel in Hyde Park. He had been at 4am and flown to a conference in Cincinnati that morning and still wanted to go to the concert this evening.
He told her he loved her on their second date and he tried writing her poems, something unfortunate about the color of her eyes. He asked her to marry him the day after they buried her father. He still said I love you every night before they went to sleep.
She decided he was just crazy enough to do wonderful things. When he was 34 he decided that he couldn’t do enough as a planner and went back and got a law degree and she admired him so much for that kind of dedication. That was really the word, he was dedicated. He was always after her to go back in get a masters or even to just take some classes at a local college, especially after the kids started going away to school. But after work she was really just as happy to come home, make dinner, take care for the kids and, time permitting, wrestle with the plants and flowers.
He was even good with the girls and they simply adored him.
And it was always something new. He had gone out and bought a sports car, even though he had never had even mentioned ever wanting one. He had taken to wearing a crew cut just because it was simpler and he wouldn’t have to comb it. He decided he wouldn’t go to church any more, which was fine with her, except any time someone from the neighborhood would mention that they hadn’t seen him around, he would tell them that it was all bullshit anyway. Bullshit seemed to be becoming his favorite word now, particularly in the terms of this is bullshit or that is bullshit. She decided she would ask the girls if they had noticed any difference.
She was pulling her sweater out of shape, so she took her hands out from underneath and looked at them. They were dry and slightly shiny. They were familiar but they were changing. The skin held less tightly to the shape and the folds rose and creviced in a pronounced manner. Spots and small marks accumulated, with pronounced scar on the thumb of the right hand, at the bottom knuckle. It totally disfigured the joint. It glided across the surface as she flexed her thumb. It was strange that it was permanent. She had done it while carving a pumpkin many years earlier, when the girls were very young. She remembered the moment precisely. They were being impossible, fighting and crying and whining, half dressed in half constructed costumes, a three headed beast that distracted her into hacking a large section of meat out of her knuckle. They shut up of course when she cried out and ran to the kitchen sink. She remembered standing there and watching the blood mingle with the water and run over the pots and dishes there. It hurt and she was so weary, that a feeling of giving up washed over her, a feeling she had never had before, the kind of feeling she imagined the very sick must have when illness wears them out. She was very frightened and clumsily bandaged the cut, went upstairs and cried for about fifteen minutes by herself while the children waited, quiet and also frightened. Then she came back downstairs, did a lousy carving job on the pumpkin, dressed the children as best she could and took them trick or treating.
She continued to look at her hands, but now what she saw was different. It was an odd idea, with a distant familiarity and then she remembered something about the Platonic ideal from college. She laughed for she hadn’t thought about it once since then. She dismissed as foolish when she was younger, but now it seemed kind of poignant and ironic. There was something about dreams in there too and she did notice that as the years gathered, the past seemed more and more dream‑like, not quite real
Owen had said some other crazy thing, too, after the rehearsal dinner, that she had put out of her mind. He was a little drunk, or maybe worse. She couldn’t tell. Jan and Brian had gone out with Art and Karen after the dinner and had left the kids with them. Brown babies he had called them, and although he had been drinking, it was so strange and outrageous she couldn’t let it go.
“I put the little brown ones to bed.” He had said.
“What?” She was at first convinced he was joking.
“Our little brown babies.”
“Brown babies?” She asked after she saw that he wasn’t joking. He had poured another scotch and was sitting in the recliner. “That’s a pretty weird thing to say, Owen.”
“Yeah it probably is. Maybe a kind of visceral racism. Who knows?”
“Well you should, for one. What the hell are you talking about?”
“I don’t know. I’m pining all mortal all of a sudden. Maybe I’d feel differently if I had a son. This is my progeny, huh? Nice kids, intelligent, well behaved. The don’t have the same name and they don’t look anything like us, Nora. Well, it can’t be racism, Michael is Italian. Maybe ethnocentrism? Clannishness?
You probably have no idea what I’m talking about.” His tone changed from philosophical to one of rambling anxiousness. “I love the way you look. I mean I love and you are beautiful. But I love your hair and eyes and skinb and the fineness of your features. You have the most beautiful lovely blue eyes in the world and we have these Irish beauties that look like you and I end up with one black son in law and one who’s Italian and a couple of grandsons who don’t look remotely like either one of us, and now I’m to understand that Wendy doesn’t want kids, that his kids are enough?” At which point Nora started up the stairs for bed. “You don’t understand, do you?”
“No. I’m stupid and wrong and confused. There’s a difference.”
The next day he was back to normal, and so helpful and considerate and charming that he made the day very easy for her and she had been eager to put the incident out of her mind, what with all the other things she had to deal with. He was drunk all right, but not that drunk and besides he was a very good drinker. Thinking about it now, it seemed more than just the raving of a besotted fool. The very sentiment was anathema to everything he was about. It sounded like something her father might have said, rather than Owen. She hoped it was just an incident. It was something she didn’t want to contemplate. She tried to forget it by thinking of other things, the kids, the grandchildren, the house, the weather, but it all seemed to lead back to him. And everything about him was suddenly misshapen, weakened at the core. She looked down Bell St., but it was getting dark and all the colors were becoming grey. She got up to go back inside. ‘He can come and find me when he gets here.’ The dishes needed to be done. As she did, she reminded herself to be careful of the cut on her thumb.