Saturday, October 5, 2013

September Song: Part Two

That night, after she had finished correcting papers, she had lain awake wondering, trying to think her way back to the last letter she had written him. Had she somehow given offense or written something that had turned his heart from her?

There was no sense in it, and she had resolved the very next morning to put it away from her and to live her life out from under what she refused to think of as anything but the bright and happy interlude their time together had represented. The memory was worth honoring, but that was that. Her life would have to be other things. She had never met a man like Richard, and would accept that she was unlikely to meet another. The woman who lived next door had lost her husband, and her own misfortune --and it was terrible, really, to even think of it as such-- was such a small thing in comparison. It was a pity, was all. She understood herself, and this understanding was the arrangement that allowed her to live with the way things were.

She lived quietly, saved her money, and built her small and private life around her. She bought a little house in the neighborhood and filled her fenced-in backyard with a garden and flowers. She had a string of dogs, each of them dear to her, and each of which managed somehow to take on her own quiet, reserved personality. She enjoyed sitting in her yard with her dogs, surrounded by her flowers, reading; she loved travel diaries and British novelists. She stayed in the same job for almost 40 years, teaching high school students social studies and history. She considered herself a good teacher, capable and interested in the lives of her students. Over the years she maintained correspondence with dozens of her former students --always one-sided affairs; she gave little of herself away, to anyone, but she was patient and a good listener, and for several generations of her students she had served as a confidante for all manner of dreams, frustrations, and fears. Not one of those students knew the first thing about her life away from the school, and that was exactly the way she preferred it. She made few close friends, and had little social life away from work.

There was a lake near her home where she could walk with her dogs and reliably expect to encounter present and former students and their parents, and to engage in pleasant small talk. A full-service grocery was also within walking distance of her home, as were a number of other stores where she could do most of her shopping. She had never owned an automobile, and was largely content to do her traveling through books. Over the years she had attracted the apparent interest of a number of men, and she had had what she supposed might truthfully be called dates, but none of these men had been able to push through her reserve or overcome their own obvious discomfort, and there had seldom been a second invitation.

It wasn't as if she had been expecting to catch lightning in a bottle a second time --but, honestly, she would think to herself, was that what she'd imagined she'd done all those years ago? Catch lightning in a bottle? No, it was nothing like that. Life wasn't a movie. The truth was she'd always been fussy and private, even before Richard came along. She wasn't interested in wasting her own or anyone else's time, that was all. She certainly hadn't spent all those years fretting over the fact that there was no man in her life, and there was no one around to nag her about such things as marriage and children. She had quite enough of children with her job, and was always grateful to have summers away from her students. There were though times --very few times, really, when one considered all the years that had passed-- when she'd see a couple walking together at the lake, for instance, when she would briefly entertain the thought of what her life might have been like if things had not gone wrong with Richard, but there was no regret attached to such thoughts. She'd didn't like to think so, at any rate. It had been a decent life, full of small satisfactions. There was no point wasting time with idle speculation over what might have been.

She liked to believe that she was someone who recognized that every moment of every day had offered her options and opportunities that might well have changed the direction of her entire life. She hadn't avoided anything, but she also wasn't one to go looking for change for change's sake. No, she had made do, and the bigger world had tempted her not at all. Yet...she'd had her blue spells, there was no point in denying that. The world was such a changed place, and her own neighborhood was more and more populated with strangers who couldn't be bothered with a civil hello. Hers was the only garden on the block anymore.

The little church a few blocks from her home, where she had been attending Sunday services faithfully for more than 40 years, had lost so many members over the decades that they were now forced to sublet space to a daycare provider, a driving school, and a Zen center. There had in recent years been a constant shuttle of ministers, young people just starting out, mostly, or older men with personality problems of one sort of another, men who were nearing the end of their careers. Most Sundays anymore there weren't more than a couple dozen worshipers in attendance, mostly older people who lived in the neighborhood.

Her faith was important to her --it had been instilled in her by her mother-- but she was not given to zealotry; nor was she interested in any flights of fancy or talk of dark recrimination. It was no one's business what anyone else believed, and she had no patience with people who spent their lives trying to force their own ideology down the rest of the world's throats. The tenets of her own faith were mostly constructed from common sense, and prayer for her provided a necessary unburdening at the end of each day. It was meditative in the best and most satisfying way, and quieted her mind.

After her retirement she relished the open-endedness of her life. She read constantly, walked more than ever, and volunteered at a local animal shelter. It was a bit strange to her, but she didn't miss teaching, not for a moment. It had taken what it could from her, and vice versa. She still occasionally received cards and letters from former students, but they were all now scattered in so many directions, and pulled in so many others that she could no longer relate to or truly sympathize with.

One morning she was sitting out on the little porch off the back of her house, reading the paper and drinking the first of the two cups of coffee she allowed herself each day. She had just turned her attention to the obituaries, as she did every day, when she was startled to see a tiny photo of Helen, the old department store girl from Richard's hometown. There was no mistaking her --as they so often did, someone had chosen a photo that was many decades old; it was, in fact, Helen just as she remembered her from that terrible afternoon on the bus. A big horsey smile and an outrageous over-sized hat. So startled was she to encounter Helen's photo that she may have let out a cry. And there in the small print beneath the photo was the corroboration of what she had long suspected: "Survived by her loving husband of 43 years, Richard, of Minneapolis."

Yes, the same last name. She hadn't even noticed that. It was a unique name she'd never encountered elsewhere. What an awful feeling, she thought (not I feel awful; she still had that distance, that control of her emotions). She read through the obituary several times, more slowly each time, the rush of blood slowly receding from her head. Three children, two girls and a boy. The service was to be held that morning at a church not six blocks from her home.

It didn't seem possible that he might have returned from the war, married that woman, and raised a family, right under her nose, possibly even in her own neighborhood. She might even have taught his children. She had resisted the temptation all those years to look up his name in the telephone directory. She didn't wish to be troubled by such knowledge and whatever foolish speculation it might have aroused in her. But now, nearly 50 years later, she felt she could at last allow herself this one indulgence.

He was there, of course, right there where he had probably been all those years. And living not ten blocks from her home, a stone's throw from the high school where she had taught. She was overcome by what struck her as the strange impropriety of her interest; she had tried so hard not to think of it for so long. There was no denying that she felt suddenly awful, to have this shadow that had apparently been following her since that long-ago bus ride suddenly catch up to her, and now standing right before her.

She wondered: Is that what it was, after all? Is that how it was? Had she allowed the memory of that man to keep her pinned down in her quiet life, afraid to ever again expose herself to such a vulnerability? No, she would not say that. She could not.Yet she imagined striking out with her dog, right that moment, to find the house where he lived. Perhaps she would catch a glimpse of him.

She realized with a start that she was crying. Such a silly thing, really. All those decent years and here she was, crying over that handsome and funny man for the very first time. It was the thought of him bereaved, she told herself, perhaps feeling some version of the thing she had not allowed herself to feel since that long ago Once Upon a Time. And then she realized that she was praying, resorting to that almost unconscious, ingrained habit that she believed had sustained her through all the disappointments and uncertain years, and suddenly the old, nearly forgotten questions were now being reformulated as desperate and wholly inchoate requests in her folded and trembling hands. With considerable effort she extracted one hand from the other, called the dog to her, and pulled his head into her lap. Her lips found the soft spot behind one of his ears.

"There, there," she said. "There, there. There, there...."

Friday, October 4, 2013

September Song: Part One

He was still the one fellow who had ventured furthest into her heart, the only one, really, who had so much as set foot in the puzzling place (she knew it was just that, even to her). It had been such a long time ago, but she had sometimes wondered if he had kept some tentative map of her heart stashed somewhere in his head. When she was younger she had wasted time wondering if he might have retained some traces of it in his own heart.

She honestly believed that he had not hurt her. No, he'd just left her confused (that puzzle again). She knew that in the relatively brief time that they'd known each other he had shown her possibilities that she'd never even suspected. But she'd been young, and she also knew that she shouldn't have needed a man to show her such things, or, lord knows, teach her anything. Still, she had missed him all those years, the way, she supposed, that she missed things from her childhood.

She had never married, never again had anything she would even have called a relationship with a man, but it certainly wasn't as if she'd spent her life grieving over him or torturing herself over what might have been. She'd gone ahead and had her life without him, and a quiet life it had been. I would have been noisier with him, she felt sure of that. It had been, noisier, that Once Upon a Time that dreamers liked to talk about. He'd been such a handsome man, bright, and sure of himself. It wasn't that he made scenes or played the fool, but he didn't mind being the center of attention, and had the charisma to carry it off.

She'd met him at a community event, a fundraiser for a local library. She'd just gotten a job at the neighborhood high school, and was fresh out of teacher's college in a small town in Iowa. She'd never so much as visited Minneapolis before she took the bus from Omaha to interview for the position. She hadn't been in town for even two weeks, and the library was just up the street from the little house she was renting in South Minneapolis. On one of her first walks around the neighborhood she had volunteered her services for an ice cream social in a park adjacent to the library. He was playing trombone in a Dixieland band that had been enlisted for the event. The members of the band all wore straw hats and matching vests, and there had been lots of exaggerated mugging. He was tall, dark complected, with a head of almost unnaturally black hair. When the band took a break she had found herself cornered by him. He was from South Dakota, he told her, also new to town, and was working for the city's streets department. At the end of the afternoon he had sought her out and asked if he might see her again.

They saw each other frequently right up until the beginning of the school year --movies downtown, dinners and dancing, walks around the lakes, and an outing to the State Fair. Once school started she had needed to adjust to the demands and routines of the new job, and so had felt the need to put the brakes on what felt like it was becoming a serious relationship. By Christmas, however, they were back to seeing each other at least two times a week. She'd realized even at the time that she had opened herself up to him in a way that she never had before, with anyone. She'd also never known anyone quite like him. She came from quiet, unassuming people; they didn't let themselves go. When she had left home for college she had never danced in her life, and had never seen her parents dance. There was never music in their house. It wasn't religion; it was reserve. Her parents worked hard and kept a quiet house. It was something of a shock to her, then, to have a young fellow spoil her with attention, even affection. He was very free with his money --"You can't take it with you," he'd say. He taught her to dance, and she supposed that had been the most fun she ever had, dancing to those bands at ballrooms and gymnasiums all over the Twin Cities.

Their time together lasted through her first year of teaching, and most of that time --since the Christmas holidays, anyway-- she had known there was a rival for his attention. He'd never been dishonest about it. There was a girl, a family friend, new to the city from his old hometown. This girl, he always claimed, pestered him; she didn't know another person in the city, he said, and couldn't find her way around to save her soul. They had known each other most of their lives, and had attended high school together. He was always going off to help the girl find her way someplace, helping her get settled in an apartment, find a job, even shop for groceries. He complained about all the demands the girl made on his time, but he was good-natured even in his complaining. He was simply a kind-hearted fellow, and didn't have it in him to turn away anyone who might need something from him. This, of course, was part of his charm, but she couldn't deny that she grew impatient with the time he was spending with the other girl.

Then summer came around, and she learned that he was being called up to the military effort. He'd known it was coming; the war had been escalating for more than a year, and they had figured it was only a matter of time. Before he left --it was in late June-- they drove to the North Shore together. They'd had a wonderful time, and she'd never seen anything so lovely in all her life, and would never forget her first view of Lake Superior. In all the time they were to spend together not so much as a cross word passed between them. He was the most easy-going fellow she'd ever met, and his natural extroversion was the perfect antidote to her own shy reserve.

She'd seen him off when he left for the Service, and for six months they'd exchanged letters faithfully and regularly. Once he shipped off for Southeast Asia, however, his letters stopped coming entirely, and for a year she had worried about what might have become of him. It pained her to think that she really didn't know enough about him; she had no idea how to get in touch with his family, and didn't even know any of his co-workers. It was the girl from his old hometown, in fact, who was to provide her with the first news of him in more than a year. She had met this girl on several occasions before he'd departed for military training.

Coming home on a bus early one evening she had found herself seated across from the girl from his hometown; Helen, the girl's name was, and Helen had always struck her as a plain girl who tried to hide her plainness with fancy clothes and bright lipstick. She knew it was uncharitable, but she could not bring herself to like Helen, who was loud and chatty and worked at a department store downtown. She also could not bring herself to ask the girl if she had any news. It was Helen, in fact, who inquired, "Have you had any news from Richard?"

No, she said. She had not. Not for quite some time. She would not admit that she had been worried about him, or even wondering. "What do you hear?" she did ask, as casually as possible.

"Oh," Helen said. "I tell him he should write books. He writes such wonderful letters, and has such lovely penmanship. It's awful, really, the stories he tells. You feel as if you're right there with him sometimes. He has such a level head on him, though; you know how he is. Can you imagine? One of the fellows from home has been with him much of the time, so that's a comfort. To have someone you know so well. The war is, of course, a terrifying thing, but the way he tells it they're all holding up just fine. He says he misses things just terrible, and I just keep telling him how happy we'll all be when they're done with the whole mess and back home where they belong."

She sat there listening to this silly girl Helen prattle on and all the while she felt as if her heart were taking on shadows and the truth was drawing her stomach in tighter and tighter. As she got off the bus Helen had offered the cruel assurance: "I will write him that I've seen you."

Something had gone terribly wrong. She would never understand it. That was the way she was and the way she had always protected herself; she moved directly from "I do not understand" to "I will never understand," and then she went on with her life almost as if nothing had ever happened.