Jennifer S. Deayton on "Swimming in Hong Kong" by Stephanie Han. The collection is, according to Deayton, "More observational than plot-heavy, Han’s stories revolve around characters who find themselves at breaking points both large and small." Click here to read the full review!
Priest Pond (Part 1)
This week we will be featuring Fall 2013 contributor Lisa Gornick on the Prairie Schooner blog. Lisa Gornick is the author of two novels, A Private Sorcery (Algonquin) and Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her stories have appeared in many literary journals, including AGNI, Confrontation, The Massachusetts Review, and Slice, and have received awards including distinguished story by The Best American Short Stories, ﬁnalist Glimmer Train Fiction Open, and winner of the Summer Literary Seminars Uniﬁed Literary Contest. ‘‘Priest Pond’’ was featured in the Fall 2013 issue of Prairie Schooner, and is part of a forthcoming collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Scroll down to read the first half of the story, and stay tuned on Friday for the second half.
Priest Pond by Lisa Gornick
As far as Charlotte MacPherson, née Callahan, can remember, she’s told only two lies in her forty-four years—the ﬁrst twenty-six years ago when she told her mother she was going with Rachel Bigsby to visit Rachel’s aunt in Loveland when really she was going with Wen to the Cincinnati City Hall and from there to Niagara Falls where in the morning they sent her parents a telegram to announce their marriage, and the second fourteen years later when she told Wen forty-ﬁve thousand dollars was left in her parents’ estate with another twenty thousand put in trust for Eric’s college when really with her brother Bill’s share gifted to her there was ninety, and it was she who’d arranged for the trust—so she is surprised to ﬁnd herself in the next ﬁve minutes telling in rapid succession another two.
‘‘Is Doctor Rendell expecting you?’’ the epauleted doorman asks, and Charlotte is so taken aback by the Doctor and by the marble counter behind which he is scanning four miniature screens that she says ‘‘Yes, yes she is.’’
The doorman murmurs her name into a telephone receiver while Charlotte’s mouth goes dry, and then he waves, gold buttons ﬂashing, toward the farthest elevator. ‘‘Ninth ﬂoor, south side.’’
‘‘The apartment number?’’ Charlotte asks, her voice low, almost a whisper, and cracking—surely he will not let her pass.
But there is no censuring arm, only the doorman’s thin eyebrows arching in tandem with his epaulets. ‘‘No numbers. You take the one on the right.’’
Inside the elevator, Charlotte glances at herself in the enormous gilded mirror that forms the top panel of the back wall. How simple and naive and maybe even poor she must have seemed to the doorman: the mousy hair still cropped into the pageboy she’s worn since shearing her girlhood braids, the green parka with the hood that zips bulkily into the collar, the corduroy jumper the color of stewed prunes, the white cotton turtleneck nappy from a hundred washes, the rubber-soled walking shoes ordered from a catalogue. She lost vanity so many years back, it is hard to remember when. Only about her eyes, still a large China blue, has she retained pride. Pride that they haven’t sunk into her face as Wen’s had, faded from wind and sand and sun and, she’s always thought, from the years of humiliations—the feeling of defeat when his back wouldn’t heal and he had to give up ice hockey and all his Icarus hopes; when, these last ﬁve years, the ﬁshing had gone bust, the ﬁshermen having taken out more of the cod and mackerel and hake than the bay could reproduce, so they’d gone from each boat bringing in upward of two thousand kilos a day to the whole ﬂeet hardly hauling in that much, and he’d had to take road work and then unemployment to make ends meet.
On the ninth ﬂoor, the elevator opens onto a foyer with a Queen Anne’s chair to the left and a pedestal table with a glass orb ﬁlled with white tulips to the right. In front is a door with a brass nameplate on which Dr. Margaret Rendell is engraved in small script letters. As Charlotte steps out of the elevator, a chime rings and then a young woman—redheaded, pony-tailed, crisply aproned—opens the door.
‘‘Oh . . .’’ A hand so freckled the white skin beneath is nearly hidden ﬂies up to cover her mouth. ‘‘Excuse me, only I thought he’d said Mister MacPherson. Is . . . did Doctor Rendell know you were coming?’’
‘‘Yes,’’ Charlotte says, this time the lie rolling smoothly, without pause, off her tongue.
‘‘Oh, dear. She just left, not even ten minutes ago. Said she’d be out for about an hour.’’ The girl seems ﬂustered, which has the effect of calming Charlotte. ‘‘Would you like to wait?’’
‘‘Please.’’ Charlotte follows the maid down a long corridor lined with sepia-tinted photographs of elegantly dressed black people, and then through a set of French doors into a large room with a blonde oak ﬂoor and a rose oriental rug covered in a pattern of blue-gray vines. She motions Charlotte toward a creamy couch with a fan of pillows against the back and a mohair blanket, also light, alabastrine, laid over one arm.
Charlotte runs her ﬁngers over the blanket and inhales: the sweet decaying scent of gardenias. Across from her, a wall of tall windows looks out over Central Park. There are no real curtains, just a sheer voile, left loose on one side so a shadow falls over the black grand piano but pulled back with a braided cord on the other so the late afternoon light forms a gold pool on the ﬂoor. A ﬁca tree with shiny leaves brushes the ceiling, and on the walls are two pastel canvasses, one of silvery cubes ﬂoating like bubbles, the other an abstract nude. Folding her chapped countrywoman’s hands, she thinks of her own living room with its centerpiece of Wen’s television and recliner. When they built the house, a prefab ordered from a company in Ontario, they’d economized, putting in wall-to-wall carpet instead of ﬁnished wood ﬂoors, but what with Wen and Eric always coming in damp and muddy, the carpets had mildewed, and Charlotte ﬁnally had the rugs ripped up, resigning herself to the linoleum underneath, which at least she could keep clean.
The maid returns bearing a lacquered tray that she lowers carefully onto a glass table. On the tray is a whimsical teapot shaped like a Pierrot doll with an arm for the spout and a matching sugar bowl, creamer, and mug. To the side sit two oval plates: one with an array of sliced fruits— strawberries, oranges, pineapple rings; the other with a sampler of tiny bakery cookies—iced rounds, chocolate-ﬁlled straws, ﬂowers with red jam centers. ‘‘Milk or lemon?’’ she asks.
The maid pours the tea and lifts a lemon wedge with a pair of silver tongs. She points to a small bell on the tray—‘‘If you need anything . . .’’— and then disappears, closing the French doors behind her.
Three days before, on the morning she left Priest Pond, Charlotte woke thinking of her father. She hadn’t seen him in twelve years, and then he’d been in his coffin, the remaining strands of his jet black hair plastered to his head, his bushy brows combed into place, his thick arms straining even in death against the suit he’d worn only to church and other funerals. Charlotte’s mother, who would die less than four months later, had insisted that the wake be held at home, her father’s coffin placed in the room her mother had called the parlor. Charlotte had stood next to her brother, Bill, a year out of Princeton and in his ﬁrst banking job. She’d been struck by how ﬁtting it seemed, how the room—which her father had always hated, seeing it as her mother’s attempt at pretending she wasn’t a plumber’s wife—had always felt like a funeral parlor, dark and heavy and stiff with the promise of chastisements.
It was early, the morning light ﬁltering through the white bedroom curtains Charlotte had sewn herself. She lay still for longer than usual, knowing there was nothing to do. The car was packed, her neighbor set to pick the fall kitchen garden crop. (Take it, Charlotte had urged when she’d shown her neighbor the kitchen garden—the beans, acorn squash, onions, beets, kohlrabi, and red cabbage—unable, now, to even imagine why she’d planted all of it or how, in years past, she’d spent weeks canning, weeks preparing the root cellar.) Arrangements made to spend the two nights she’d stay in New York with her brother and his wife, their apart-ment, Bill had explained, not far from where she was going, just a short cab ride across the park, Charlotte too embarrassed to tell him that she would be driving the pickup.
Twisting backward, she reached the window over the bed and pushed it open. Outside, the air was balmy, the island’s secret, God’s kiss, she used to tell Eric, the Gulf Stream that came from New Orleans warming the Saint Lawrence Sound, the water warmer than anywhere north of the Carolinas, like the Caribbean, she’d heard tourists say, as though there should be palm trees and coconuts instead of ﬁelds of barley and stands of pine and spruce tumbling into the sea.
She dressed quickly—jumper, tights, walking shoes—and made tea and a slice of toast from bread one of her sisters-in-law had brought her two days before. When she ﬁnished eating, she rinsed the cup, checked the stove, locked the kitchen door, and stuck her handbag on the front seat of the pickup.
Wanting to see and smell the water a last time before her trip, Charlotte walked down the clay road lined with wild blackberry bushes, the outer bunches shriveled and dry, but inside, where she reached her long ﬁngers, ﬁlled with the tiny tart budlets. Although their ten acres ran from the road out to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Wen had insisted they build away from the water, where in the winter cold gusts of wind blew in from the north Atlantic, so as to save on heating costs. Then, Eric had been in his fourth year of ear infections, and Charlotte, tired out from her ﬁghts with Wen that the boy would never get well if Wen refused to let her keep the trailer a decent temperature and scared, too, that Eric’s keen sense of sound might be damaged, had gone along. Today, a warm breeze rose from the east and the ﬁeld of hay that stretched west from the house made rustling sounds. On the dunes, the sea grasses would be blowing, soft, all in one direction, a lime green animal’s hide. This year, with Wen sick, they’d left the tract behind the house unplanted, and wildﬂowers had grown, deﬁant, like children spinning wildly through a room where they know they should be still: yellow goldenrod, purple Michaelmas daisy, a spiky ﬁreweed with leggy stalks and ﬂuffed cabernet-colored ﬂowers that Wen’s sisters called ‘‘rosebaywillowherb.’’
When she’d ﬁrst come to the island, Charlotte had been amazed at the way the ﬁelds ran right to the edges of the bluffs, the land dropping off like those ancient drawings of the earth as ﬂat. Before her, red clay cliffs abutted the gulf, this morning a sapphire blue stretching out toward a pale horizon, the water velvety with only the thinnest slivers of white caps toward the shore. Green lichens streaked the cliffs and, below, pools of water formed between the rocks. Floating in one was a wooden slat from a lobster trap, smooth, Charlotte knew from years of scrambling with Eric over these rocks—Eric, whose translucent skin she’d had to cover from head to toe with suntan lotion, the peaked white brow dotted with a tiny bluish star, the residue of a little piece of lead lodged under the skin after another boy had poked him with a pencil, eerily, in the exact spot where the mystics place the third eye. Eric leaning to examine each object that washed ashore: a starﬁsh, a bottle embossed with Japanese characters, pieces of rope, once a braided gold chain he’d laid cold and wet against her then still young neck.
A quarter of a century before, sitting on the porch of her parents’ two-family house, when Wen, a roguish boy she’d met at a street fair—Wen and the other Canadian ice hockey players loud and bold from German beer and a winning streak that had left money in their pockets—had told her about the island, she’d imagined it as something between Pocahontas and The Little House on the Prairie. Wen had talked about ﬁrst-growth forest: red spruce, white spruce, black spruce. Pine, cherry, maple, birch. He’d talked of beef chickens and lane chickens and how his father had sheared their own sheep and his grandmother and great-aunts had spun a coarse white wool that his mother and aunts had dyed and knit into bulky sweaters. There’d been a double outhouse—frosted over or bee-infested, depending on the season—and an orchard with apples, peaches, and pears. He and his brother had trapped beaver, mink, and rabbit for pocket money. They’d walked four miles each way to a one-room schoolhouse by a river where, after school, the boys would saw a hole in the ice and then shine a torch to attract salmon, six man’s hands wide, they’d spear with a long harpoon. Winter nights, they’d drag his uncle’s combine down to the river to generate electricity for lights so they could play ice hockey.
Before, before, Charlotte thought, gazing up at the white October sky, empty of clouds or color, and then out at the horizon where she could see a tanker headed toward Newfoundland. That useless before.
On the ferry to Cape Tormentine, Charlotte sat in the second-deck cafeteria drinking tea from a Styrofoam cup. It was a forty-ﬁve minute crossing over the Northumberland Strait, a trip Charlotte had made a half-dozen times with Wen to shop in Saint John. A young couple sat at an adjacent table. The girl had long dark hair, stiff with hair spray, and athletic calves that peeked out between the bottoms of her Lycra pants and the tops of her slouchy socks. The boy, man really, had brought back a tray of food from the cafeteria line: two cups of coffee, a muffin for the girl, and, for himself, eggs, potatoes, bacon, and toast. The girl teased him, ignoring her muffin and instead taking nibbles from the crispest pieces of his bacon and the edges of his toast. He gave her hand a play whack and pushed the plate out of her reach. She giggled and lifted herself onto her knees, leaning over the table toward him, her sweatshirt falling forward so the tops of her large soft breasts were exposed.
Charlotte tried to remember if she’d ever felt that way, proud and in full possession of her body. It had been a different time. Her mother’s brother had died in Honﬂeur, the ﬁrst year of her own marriage. Her mother’s hair had turned white within the year, her grief draining the color from everything it touched. Her mother’s grief had not abated, it seemed to Charlotte, until Bill, her uncle’s namesake and nine years her junior, had been born, so that Charlotte would always think that she and her brother had grown up not only in different eras but in different households with different mothers. She’d been eighteen and in her last year of high school when she’d met Wen. Wen had mistaken her heart-shaped face, blue eyes, and slender shape for angelic temperament; she’d mistaken his tight muscular arms, his rust hair, always falling forward into his eyes, and his laugh, boisterous and from the gut, for the outward signs of a deep pulsing vital-force. The next day, watching him play, his ﬂat butt almost parallel with the ice, his eyes ﬁxed on a spot far ahead, Charlotte had thought of an animal, a leopard or a lion, a creature with natural grace. A week later, they had eloped.
The girl got up from her chair. Giggling, she walked around the table and plopped herself on the boy’s lap. Her thighs spread over his and he reached his hands around her and moved them under her zippered sweatshirt. Fascinated and then embarrassed, Charlotte averted her eyes. With Wen too, at ﬁrst, she’d been embarrassed, intimidated by his experience: the many girls he’d gone to bed with on the road. After Eric was born, when he’d hardly wanted her, she’d wondered if the girls had continued, but he’d slept peacefully wrapped around her, hardly like a man racked with guilt. Later, she’d wondered if it was his back, the injury when Eric was ﬁve. Over the years, though, she’s come to understand that it was none of these things—that it was simpler, sadder. Wen experienced himself as living on scarce resources. It took all he had to leave the house eight months a year at 4 a.m., to put on the damp yellow oilskins and head for his boat redolent with ﬁsh guts. After that, he could either love her or want her, and she guesses that if she’d been able to choose between his face pressed every night into her shoulder and something more like she’d imagined that ﬁrst time watching him play ice hockey, she would have chosen what she’d had.
She must have dozed off because she starts when she hears the chime ring in the hall, the fruit dish still balanced on her lap, the maid’s high voice saying there is a Mrs. MacPherson here, she said she was expected, and Charlotte tastes her mouth, a bitter metallic from sleep, and for an instant thinks how foolish to have said this, certainly there will now be a scene. But if Margaret, Doctor Margaret Rendell, responds to the maid it is very quietly because Charlotte hears no disclaimers, only the maid coming in to clear the tea tray, the red wisps tucked back into the ponytail.
A moment later, the rapid click click of pumps announces Margaret Rendell’s entrance. She is tall and large-boned, clad in a chic red and black houndstooth suit with a jacket that buttons on a bias up the front, just glancing her ample hips, and a short straight skirt. Her gazelle’s neck is accentuated by her hair, slicked back from her face and secured in a chignon at the nape. What leaves Charlotte with her mouth ajar is Margaret’s skin, a deep mahogany so beautifully cared for it looks almost polished, and the tortoise-shelled glasses, large and round with the lenses so entirely opaque Charlotte can see only her own reﬂection in them.
Margaret lowers herself into a white leather swivel chair. She crosses her long legs and spins the chair in quarter turns with a tiny rotation of her ankle. ‘‘Would you mind,’’ she says, ‘‘closing your eyes for a moment? I’d like to take a look at you, but I don’t let anyone see me without the glasses.’’
Confused but obedient—that obedient impulse she learned from the nuns at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception—Charlotte closes her eyes. The chair creaks as Margaret stands, walking away from the couch and onto the bare ﬂoor by the windows. Charlotte hears the snap of glasses folding, and then what feels like Margaret’s eyes running over her, that old tingly sensation from morning services when she believed she could tell if one of the sour-breathed nuns was passing her eyes over Charlotte’s back, particularly Sister George with her lashless lids and blue-veined temples whose gaze would spark an electrical current that would spread across Charlotte’s shoulder blades before racing down her spine.
Margaret laughs. It is a friendly laugh but with a sharp edge to it. ‘‘You didn’t know, did you?’’
‘‘Excuse me?’’ Charlotte says. Her voice sounds small and weak, and suddenly she feels panicky, an impulse to open her eyes and dash out of the room.
‘‘That I’m blind. Well, 95 percent. I can make out large shapes.’’
With her eyes closed, the street sounds that before seemed muffled and almost soothing, a gurgle of human life so unlike the unpeopled silence that blankets the Priest Pond house, now seem ampliﬁed, a cacophony of horns and screeching brakes.
‘‘You’re an ectomorph like Eric. All skin and bones with cold hands and cold feet.’’
Charlotte can hear her own breath, short and hollow. Since Wen’s death, now nearly a month ago, there’s been a hard tight feeling in her chest, as if a piece of ice has broken off from a frozen mass inside her, drifting up toward her heart so that she has to breathe around it. She’s been mortiﬁed to realize that this feeling is not grief for Wen—who’d been gone, really, for years, no, decades already—but the awareness of Eric’s absence, Eric whom she’d thought of as only temporarily estranged from them, not so unusual for a boy in college, but who, when Wen went into the hospital, she’d not known how to even contact. It came as a shock, that old ache of longing for Eric, followed by a sudden and terrible sense of shame that they, she, had let so much time pass, three years now that he’s been out of college, years in which their calls to Eric dwindled from once a month to birthdays and Christmas, his cards and letters growing less and less frequent so that the week after Wen’s ﬁrst heart attack, she was taken aback looking through the shoebox where she kept Eric’s letters to see that the last she’d heard from him was six months earlier, a Christmas card in which he’d written only his name. With Wen’s second heart attack and the ensuing days during which she tried to locate Eric, his phone disconnected, the school where he’d written that he worked unable to tell her any more than that he is on leave until January, abroad they believed, the curtain of pretense lifted, and she had to acknowledge that it has been ﬁve years, more than a ﬁfth of Eric’s life and all of Wen’s ﬁnal years, of only polite gesturing between them.
‘‘And you didn’t know that I’m black.’’
When Charlotte hears Margaret sit back down, she opens her eyes. Margaret has put the dark glasses on again. Her head is tilted in Charlotte’s direction.
‘‘I’m afraid I’ve intruded upon you. I . . . I’m afraid I don’t quite know myself why I came.’’
Margaret nods slightly. In the center of the opaque lenses, where her eyes should be, two circles, reﬂections from the crystal lamp on the table between them, glow a buttery yellow.
‘‘I know Eric’s out of the country. The principal at his school told me. That was in August, right after Eric’s father went back into the hospital.’’ She can’t not look at Margaret’s face but is then distracted by the odd experience of not seeing her listener’s eyes. ‘‘He said he’d ask around if anyone knew Eric’s itinerary or how to reach him. I got a letter from him saying one of the teachers had given your name as someone who might be in touch with Eric.’’
The maid pushes open the French doors, her face ﬂushed, a gray spot near the hem of her uniform suggesting a mishap in some distant room. Charlotte feels guilty noticing this, knowing something that Margaret is unable to apprehend. A round teak tray is placed between them: a carafe of pale wine, a green bottle of sparkling water, a glass bowl ﬁlled with large crescent cashews.
‘‘Thank you, Janie,’’ Margaret says as the girl, ponytail ﬂapping, hastens off.
‘‘Eric’s traveling in Indonesia.’’ Margaret’s hands rest quietly on her lap. ‘‘I think you have about as much chance of locating him there as ﬁnding a needle in a haystack.’’
‘‘Wen, Eric’s father, passed away a few days after I spoke to the principal. I’d already buried him before I got the letter.’’
A silence falls during which Charlotte feels relieved that Margaret doesn’t say any of the expected things like how sorry she is—why should Margaret be sorry?—that would require Charlotte to evade or explain. Instead, Margaret laces her ﬁngers together and extends them upward, making a steeple with the tips. A moment passes during which Charlotte wonders if Margaret is silently intoning a prayer. Then Margaret leans forward. She wraps a hand around the carafe.
‘‘Shall I?’’ Charlotte asks.
‘‘I can do it. Wine, bottled water, or a spritzer?’’
Wen stopped drinking after his heart began acting up and Charlotte had stopped with him. At the reception after the funeral, she’d longed for a drink but her sisters-in-law had served coffee and turkey sandwiches and pound cake they’d made themselves. ‘‘Wine,’’ she says.
With one hand on the wine glass and the other circling the carafe, Margaret rests the lip of the carafe on the rim of the glass and pours. She angles an ear toward the glass, pouring, it seems, by sound.
‘‘He, Wen, Eric’s father was sick for a long time,’’ Charlotte says, surprised by her own words, since Wen died four days after his second heart attack. It is, though, in a certain way, true: Wen had never really recovered from the back injury nearly two decades before.
‘‘Eric sublet his apartment but didn’t want to leave his electronic keyboard there. It’s in my guest room.’’
Charlotte feels her heart pounding, knocking hard, insistently on her chest.
Margaret hands Charlotte the glass of wine and then pours herself half a glass, topping it off with the bottled water. That must be a spritzer, Charlotte thinks, her hand tremulous as she moves her own glass to her lips. ‘‘How do you know Eric?’’
Margaret swivels toward Charlotte, and for a moment, Charlotte is overcome with the suspicion that Margaret is tricking her, that she really can see. In the pause, her face grows hot, the awful red splotches of embarrassment that have plagued her since childhood when they’d streak her neck and burn across her cheekbones toward her ears, as she wonders if Margaret is Eric’s lover. With the glasses hiding her eyes, it is hard to tell how old Margaret might be—certainly past forty. But Eric will be twenty-ﬁve in the spring.
‘‘He saved my life. Brought me back from the dead.’’
Charlotte presses a damp palm over her heart. Perhaps like her mother, she will quickly follow her husband to the grave. ‘‘What do you mean?’’
‘‘I was one angry son of a bitch after I lost my sight. It was six months or so later that I met Eric. I was supposed to be going through this rehabilitation program, and I was giving them hell.’’ Margaret’s voice is lilting, as though she is talking about a naughty child. ‘‘I couldn’t imagine what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I’d spent eleven years training to become a surgeon—four years of medical school, four years of residency, a three-year fellowship in microvascular surgery, two more years establishing my practice, and then boom, in one instant, it was gone.’’
Margaret laughs. ‘‘At this rehab place, they were trying to teach me what they called functional skills: how to navigate without sight, how to cut your food, how to ﬁx your hair. There was an idiot psychiatrist there, blind himself—but from birth, that’s different—who kept talking about letting go of the false expectation that life is fair. One of the other patients, a kid who was never going to walk again after a motorcycle accident, told me that the nurses rolled their eyes whenever this idiot talked.’’
Margaret reaches for a cashew, tracing the perimeter of the tray until she ﬁnds the bowl. The salt glistens on her lips. ‘‘One day, after I’d been there a good while, making no progress toward what they called my therapeutic goals, I had a temper tantrum over something and shoved my food tray across the cafeteria table. It ﬂew off the table, landing with this enormous bang on the ﬂoor. The sound shocked me so badly I started to cry. I just sat there with my hands over the eye patches. This nurse peeled back my ﬁngers—bloody around the nails, they’d told me, from chewing the cuticles. She held my hands in hers and said ‘‘Sugar, there’s got to be something you can do with these hands other than make trouble, and that’s how she came up with the idea of sending me to Eric.’’
Charlotte lets her own hand drop from her chest. Outside, light is draining from the sky and a shadow, sharp, like a parallelogram, grazes the piano—dusk, that chimerical moment between day and night when tree branches and leaves and even the veins on the leaves appear for a ﬂeeting instant more distinct, the edges no longer blurred by glare. It has always struck Charlotte as a pensive time, light and dark held in balance, and now she remembers those quiet dusks in the trailer at Priest Pond, before her parents died and they built the house on the money she inherited, her brother insisting she take his share since he was by then in his second year at his bond trading job and expecting a bonus twice the size of the inheritance. In the trailer, Charlotte’s kitchen window had looked out over a ﬁeld of emerald grass that stopped at a red mud cliff only ﬁfty feet away, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence purple in the ebbing light, Wen seated on the banquette that served as a couch reading the paper, Eric at the fold-down kitchen table playing with pipe cleaners and humming so quietly that it had been maybe ten minutes before she recognized that he was humming Chopin’s Polonaise in A-ﬂat, a selection from an Artur Rubinstein recording she’d brought home from the library and played that afternoon.
‘‘This nurse’s son was in Eric’s class, a nine-year-old kid with a school chart three inches thick from breaking windows and stealing things and scratching obscenities on a teacher’s car. One of those kids who looks like he’s headed in a bee line for jail. It was Eric’s ﬁrst year as the music teacher at the school, his ﬁrst job out of college, and he’d taken the kid on, kept him after school trying him on the piano and the tuba and the cello and the recorder until one day the kid sat down at a drum set and Eric saw a look in his eyes, and now this nurse’s son was doing great with the bad behavior behind him.’’
Charlotte’s thoughts are breaking into fragments, darting this way and that, as she struggles to put this—the nurse’s, Margaret’s, he’d taken the kid on—Eric, together with her own: a shy, dreamy boy with ankles that wobbled in the hockey skates Wen had bought him and large bony ears the other children had teased him about.
‘‘It was a humbling experience, to say the least, letting your son teach me to play the piano. I wasn’t used to doing things without a guarantee that I could succeed. We weren’t poor when I’d grown up, there’d always been money for food and clothes, but there for damn sure hadn’t been money for piano lessons. In college, I’d been single-minded. Anything I wasn’t certain about, I avoided. It might lower my grade point average. I was going to become a doctor, and I was going to go to a top medical school. And it was easy. Not that it wasn’t a lot of work, just it was predictable. If I went to all my classes and labs and did all the problem sets and read and then reread all the assigned reading, I’d get an A in the course. Effort was, as they said in my biostat class, strongly correlated with outcome. I’d never tried to learn anything that didn’t work that way.’’
Charlotte’s own music instruction had been limited to the recorder during grammar school and chorus once she’d reached high school, but she’d learned enough to know when she heard Eric humming that he could hear, that he’d heard every note of the Chopin polonaise.
‘‘Of course, Eric didn’t tell me that he’d never taught a blind person before—or that he was just twenty-two. I guess I was lucky I couldn’t see how young I’ve heard people say he looks. I was still living at the rehab center, and for the ﬁrst lesson, we used this old clunker of a piano they had in the patient dayroom. Eric placed my right hand on middle C and said play. I banged. Banged like an angry four-year-old. Eric didn’t say a word. I must have banged for a good half-hour, but eventually, maybe I was just getting tired, I let up, began letting myself feel my ﬁngers on the keys and listen to the sounds they made. I experimented with a little ditty. After a while, Eric started humming along. He leaned over me and began to answer my ditties, and I answered back. And then he asked, When are you leaving here? and I said by the end of the month, and he said, Good, when you get home, rent yourself a piano, and we’ll start. So I did. Actually, I bought one. Not this one,’’ Margaret says, pointing over her shoulder, ‘‘this I bought last year, but a used upright.’’
The day after Charlotte had recognized Eric humming the Chopin polonaise, she drove him the ﬁfteen kilometers to the white spired church in Naufrage. Sitting in the choir practice room, she placed his right hand with the thumb on middle C. Like Margaret, he banged until he was tired with the banging, and then slowly found his way to a melody. She sang her response, and he answered with his ﬁngers. No one on the east side of the island could teach beyond the beginner level, so for ten years, until Eric was able to drive himself, every Saturday morning, Charlotte drove Eric the hour and a half to Charlottetown for his lesson with old Mr. Fleitzig, a German-Jew who’d left Bremen before the war and lived in a Victorian house by the harbor, the garden and exterior so overgrown and neglected the house appeared to be decomposing around him.
‘‘So,’’ Margaret says, and then she comes to a full stop like the silence between movements in a piano sonata, and Charlotte realizes that this is partly why she seems so intimidating, this bluntness exercised at will. ‘‘Why do you have to ask me where your son is?’’
Dazed, by the wine, by the opulent room, by the scent, stronger now of gardenias (could it be Margaret’s perfume?), by Margaret, by Margaret’s Eric and the ﬂood of her own memories, Charlotte fears that if she speaks, her wet eyes will overﬂow, a whimper escaping from her lips. But to her surprise, the next thing that happens is a yawn. A big sleepy yawn that pulls her eyes shut and casts her mouth wide. She raises her hand to cover her teeth. ‘‘Excuse me, I’m afraid I’m not accustomed to the wine.’’
Margaret stands, briskly rubbing her hands together. Grains of salt ﬂoat through the air. ‘‘You need a nap. All that driving, the body wasn’t made to be conﬁned that way.’’
‘‘Oh, no. That’s not necessary. I’m ﬁne, really.’’
‘‘No arguments. Not a word more until you’ve had a nap. Besides, I have some phone calls to make. You can stretch out on the couch. There should be a blanket resting on the arm.’’
Again, Charlotte feels the heat rising up from her neck, and then, to her horror, she yawns again. Before she can think of what more to say, the French doors open and then close and the click click of Margaret’s heels recede in the hall.