He wanted to talk again, suddenly. During the days, he still brooded, scowling at the swimming pool from the vantage point of his wheelchair, where he sat covered with blankets in spite of the summer heat. In the evenings, though, he became more like his old self: his old old self, really. He became sweeter, the way he'd been as a child, before he began to gird himself with layers of irony and clever remarks. He spoke with an openness that astonished her. No one she knew talked that way -- no man at least. After he was asleep, Janet would run through the conversations in her mind and realize what it was she wished she'd said. She knew she was generally considered sincere, but that had more to do with her being a good listener than with how she expressed herself. She found it hard work to keep up with him, but it was the work she had pined for all her life.
A month earlier, after a particularly long and grueling visit with a friend who'd taken the train down to Wynnemoor from New York, Laird had declared a new policy: no visitors, no telephone calls. She didn't blame him. People who hadn't seen him for a while were often shocked to tears by his appearance, and rather than having them cheer him up, he felt obliged to comfort them. She'd overheard bits of some of those conversations. The final one was no worse than others, but Laird was fed up. He'd said more than once that he wasn't cut out to be the brave one, the one who would inspire everybody to walk away from a visit with him feeling uplifted, shaking their heads in wonder. He had liked being the most handsome and missed it very much. When he'd had enough he went into a self-imposed retreat, complete with a wall of silence and other ascetic practices that kept him busy for several weeks.
Then he softened. Not only did he want to talk again; he wanted to talk to her.
It began the night they ate outside on the terrace for the first time all summer. Afterward, Martin -- her husband -- got up to make a telephone call, but Janet stayed in her wicker chair, resting before clearing the table. It was one of those moments when she felt nostalgic for cigarettes. On nights like this, when the air was completely still, she used to blow her famous smoke rings for the children, dutifully obeying their commands to blow one through another or three in a row, or to make big, ropey circles that expanded as they floated up to the heavens. She did exactly what they wanted, for as long as they wanted, sometimes going through a quarter of a pack before they allowed her to stop. Incredibly, neither Anne nor Laird became smokers. Just the opposite; they nagged at her to quit and were pleased when she finally did. She wished they had been just a little bit sorry. It was a part of their childhood coming to an end, after all.
Out of habit, she took note of the first lightning bug, the first star. The lawn darkened, and the flowers that had sulked in the heat all day suddenly released their perfumes. She laid her head back on the rim of the chair and closed her eyes. Soon she was following Laird's breathing and found herself picking up the vital rhythms, breathing along. It was so peaceful, being near him like this. How many mothers spend so much time with their thirty-three-year-old sons? She had as much of him now as she'd had when he was an infant -- more, because she had the memory of the intervening years as well, to round out her thoughts about him. When they sat quietly together she felt as close to him as she ever had. It was still him in there, inside the failing shell. She still enjoyed him.
"The gloaming," he said, suddenly.
She nodded dreamily, automatically, then sat up. She turned to him. "What?" Although she'd heard.
"I remember when I was little you took me over to the picture window and told me that in Scotland this time of day was called the 'gloaming.'"
Her skin tingled. She cleared her throat, quietly, taking care not to make too much of the event that he was talking again. "You thought I said it was 'gloomy.'"
He gave a smile, then looked at her searchingly. "I always thought it hurt you somehow that the day was over, but you said it was a beautiful time because for a few moments the purple light made the whole world look like the Scottish highlands on a summer night."
"Yes. As if all the earth was covered with heather."
"I'm sorry I never saw Scotland," he said.
"You're a Scottish lad nonetheless -- at least on my side." She remembered offering to take him to Scotland once, but Laird hadn't been interested. By then, he was in college and already sure of his own destinations, which had diverged so thoroughly from hers. "I'm amazed you remember that conversation. You couldn't have been more than seven."
"I've been remembering a lot, lately."
"Mostly about when I was very small. I suppose it comes from having you take care of me again. Sometimes, when I wake up and see your face, I feel I can remember you looking in on me when I was in my crib. I remember your dresses."
"Oh no!" She laughed lightly.
"You always had the loveliest expression," he said.
She was astonished, caught off-guard. Then, she had a memory, too -- of her leaning over Laird's crib and suddenly having a picture of looking up at her own mother. "I know what you mean," she said.
"You do, don't you?"
He regarded her in a close, intimate way that made her self-conscious. She caught herself swinging her leg nervously, like a pendulum, and stopped.
"Mom," he said. "There are still a few things I need to do. I have to write a will, for one thing."
Her heart went flat. In his presence she always maintained that he would get well. She wasn't sure she could discuss the other possibility.
"Thank you," he said.
"For not saying that there's plenty of time for that, or some similar sentiment."
"The only reason I didn't say it was to avoid the cliché, not because I don't believe it."
"You believe there is plenty of time?"
She hesitated; he noticed and leaned forward slightly. "I believe there is time," she said.
"Even if I were healthy, it would be a good idea."
"I don't want to leave it until it's too late. You wouldn't want me to suddenly leave everything to the nurses, would you?"
She laughed, pleased to hear him joking again. "All right, all right, I'll call the lawyer."
"That would be great." There was a pause. "Is this still your favorite time of day, Mom?"
"Yes, I suppose it is," she said, "although I don't think in terms of favorites anymore."
"Never mind favorites, then. What else do you like?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean exactly that."
"I don't know. I care about all the ordinary things. You know what I like."
"Name one thing."
"I feel silly."
"All right. I like my patch of lilies of the valley, under the trees over there. Now can we change the subject?"
"Name one more thing."
"I want to get to know you."
"Oh, Laird, there's nothing to know."
"I don't believe that for a minute."
"But it's true. I'm average. The only extraordinary thing about me is my children."
"All right," he said. "Then let's talk about how you feel about me."
"Do you flirt with your nurses like this when I'm not around?"
"I don't dare. They've got me where they want me." He looked at her. "You're changing the subject."
She smoothed her skirt. "I know how you feel about church, but if you need to talk, I'm sure the minister would be glad to come over. Or if you would rather a doctor..."
"That you still call psychiatrists 'doctors.'"
"I don't need a professional, Ma." He laced his hands and pulled at them as he struggled for words.
"What can I do?" she asked.
He met her gaze. "You're where I come from. I need to know about you."
That night she lay awake, trying to think of how she could help, of what, aside from time, she had to offer. She couldn't imagine.
She was anxious the next day when he was sullen again, but the next night, and on each succeeding night, the dusk worked its spell. She set dinner on the table outside, and afterward, when Martin had vanished into the maw of his study, she and Laird began to speak. The air around them seemed to crackle with the energy they were creating in their effort to know and be known. Were other people so close, she wondered? She never had been, not to anybody. Certainly she and Martin had never really connected, not soul to soul, and with her friends, no matter how loyal and reliable, she always had a sense of what she could do that would alienate them. Of course, her friends had the option of cutting her off, and Martin could always ask for a divorce, whereas Laird was a captive audience. Parents and children were all captive audiences to each other; in view of this, it was amazing how little comprehension there was of one another's story. Everyone stopped paying attention so early on, thinking they had figured it all out.
She recognized that she was as guilty of this as anyone. She was still surprised whenever she went over to her daughter Anne's house and saw how neat she was. In her mind, Anne was still a sloppy teenager who threw sweaters into the corner of her closet and candy wrappers under her bed. It still surprised her that Laird wasn't interested in girls. He had been, hadn't he? She remembered lying awake listening for him to come home, hoping that he was smart enough to apply what he knew about the facts of life, to take precautions.
Now she had the chance to let go of these old notions. It wasn't that she liked everything about Laird -- there was much that remained foreign to her -- but she wanted to know about all of it. As she came to her senses every morning in the moment or two after she awoke, she found herself aching with love and gratitude, as if he were a small perfect creature again and she could look forward to a day of watching him grow. She became greedy for their evenings and replaced her daily, half-facetious, half-hopeful reading of the horoscope with a new habit of tracking the time the sun would set. As the summer waned, she drew satisfaction from seeing it listed as earlier and earlier -- it meant she didn't have to wait as long.
She took to sleeping late, shortening the day even further. It was ridiculous, she knew. She was behaving like a girl with a crush, behaving absurdly. It was a feeling she thought she'd never have again, and now here it was. She immersed herself in it, living her life for the twilight moment when his eyes would begin to glow, the signal that he was stirring into consciousness. Then her real day would begin.
"Dad ran off quickly," he said one night.
She'd been wondering if he noticed it.
"He had a phone call to make," she said automatically.
Laird looked directly into her eyes, his expression one of gentle reproach. He was letting her know he had caught her in the central lie of her life, which was that she understood Martin's obsession with his work. She averted her gaze. The truth was that she had never understood. Why couldn't he sit with her for half an hour after dinner, or if not with her, why not with his dying son?
She turned sharply to look at Laird. The word "dying" had sounded so loudly in her mind that she wondered if she had spoken it, but he showed no reaction. She wished she hadn't even thought it. She tried to stick to good thoughts in his presence. When she couldn't, and he had a bad night afterward, she blamed herself, as her memory efficiently dredged up all the books and magazine articles she had read emphasizing the effect of psychological factors on the course of the disease. She didn't entirely believe it, but she felt compelled to give the benefit of the doubt to every theory that might help. It couldn't do any harm to think positively. And if it gave him a few more months...
"I don't think Dad can stand to be around me."
"That's not true." It was true.
"Poor Dad. He's always been a hypochondriac -- we have that in common. He must hate this."
"He just wants you to get well."
"If that's what he wants, I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint him. At least this will be the last time I let him down."
He said this merrily, with the old, familiar light darting from his eyes. She allowed herself to be amused. He'd always been fond of teasing and held no subject sacred. As the de facto authority figure in the house -- Martin hadn't been home enough to be the real disciplinarian -- she'd often been forced to reprimand Laird but, in truth, she shared his sense of humor. She responded to it now by leaning over to cuff him on the arm. It was an automatic gesture, prompted by a burst of high spirits that took no notice of the circumstances. It was a mistake. Even through the thickness of his terry cloth robe, her knuckles knocked on bone. There was nothing left of him.
"It's his loss," she said, the shock of Laird's thinness making her serious again. It was the furthest she would go in criticizing Martin. She'd always felt it her duty to maintain a benign image of him for the children. He'd become a character of her invention, with a whole range of postulated emotions whereby he missed them when he was away on a business trip and thought of them every few minutes when he had to work late.
Some years earlier, when she was secretly seeing a doctor -- a psychiatrist -- she had finally admitted to herself that Martin was never going to be the lover she had dreamed of. He was an ambitious, competitive, self-absorbed man who probably should never have gotten married. It was such a relief to be able to face it that she had wanted to share the news with her children, only to discover that they were dependent on the myth. They could hate his work, but they could not bring themselves to believe he had any choice in the matter. She decided to leave them to their own discoveries.
"Thank you, Ma. It's his loss in your case, too."
A throbbing began behind her eyes, angering her. The last thing she wanted to do was cry -- there would be plenty of time for that. "It's not all his fault," she said when she had regained some measure of control. "I'm not very good at talking about myself. I was brought up not to."
"So was I," he said.
"Yes, I suppose you were."
"Luckily, I didn't pay any attention." He grinned.
"I hope not," she said -- and meant it. "Can I get you anything?"
"A new immune system?"
She frowned, trying to disguise the way his joke had touched on her prayers. "Very funny. I was thinking more along the lines of an iced tea or an extra blanket."
"I'm fine. I'm getting tired, actually."
Her entire body went on the alert, and she searched his face anxiously for signs of deterioration. Her nerves darted and pricked whenever he wanted anything -- her adrenaline rushed. The fight-or-flight response, she supposed. She had often wanted to flee, but had forced herself to stay, to fight with what few weapons she had. She responded to his needs, making sure there was a fresh, clean set of sheets ready when he was tired, food for his hunger. It was what she could do.
"Shall I get the nurse?" She pushed her chair back from the table.
"Okay," Laird said weakly. He stretched out his hand to her, and the incipient moonlight illuminated his skin so it shone like alabaster. His face had turned ashy. It was a sight that made her stomach drop. She ran for Maggie, and by the time they returned Laird's eyes were closed, his head lolling to one side. Automatically, Janet looked for a stirring in his chest. There it was; his shoulders expanded; he still breathed. Always, in the second before she saw movement, she became cold and clinical as she braced herself for the possibility of discovering that he was dead.
Maggie had her fingers on his wrist and was counting his pulse against the second hand on her watch, her lips moving. She laid his limp hand back on his lap. "Fast," she pronounced.
"I'm not surprised," Janet said, masking her fear with authority. "We had a long talk."
Maggie frowned. "Now I'll have to wake him up again for his meds."
"Yes, I suppose that's true. I forgot about that."
Janet wheeled him into his makeshift room downstairs and helped Maggie lift him into the rented hospital bed. Although he weighed almost nothing, it was really a job for two; his weight was dead weight. In front of Maggie, she was all brusque efficiency, except for the moment when her fingers strayed to touch Laird's pale cheek and she prayed she hadn't done any harm.
"Who's your favorite author?" he asked one night.
"Oh, there are so many," she said.
"Your real favorite."
She thought. "The truth is there are certain subjects I find attractive more than certain authors. I seem to read in cycles, to fulfill emotional yearnings."
"Books about people who go off to live in Africa or Australia or the South Seas."
He laughed. "That's fairly self-explanatory. What else?"
"When I really hate life I enjoy books about real murders. 'True crime,' I think they're called now. They're very punishing."
"Is that what's so compelling about them? I could never figure it out. I just knew that at certain times I loved the gore, even though I felt absolutely disgusted with myself for being interested in it."
"You need to think about when those times were. That will tell you a lot." She paused. "I don't like reading about sex."
"No, no," she said. "It's not for the reason you think, or not only for that reason. You see me as a prude, I know, but remember, it's part of a mother's job to come across that way. Although perhaps I went a bit far..."
He shrugged amiably. "Water under the bridge. But go on about sex."
"I think it should be private. I always feel as though these writers are showing off when they describe a sex scene. They're not really trying to describe sex, but to demonstrate that they're not afraid to write about it. As if they're thumbing noses at their mothers."
He made a moue.
Janet went on. "You don't think there's an element of that? I do question their motives, because I don't think sex can ever be accurately portrayed. The sensations and the emotions are -- beyond language. If you only describe the mechanics, the effect is either clinical or pornographic, and if you try to describe intimacy instead, you wind up with abstractions. The only sex you could describe fairly well is bad sex -- and who wants to read about that, for God's sake, when everyone is having bad sex of their own?"
"Mother!" He was laughing helplessly, his arms hanging limply over the sides of his chair.
"I mean it. To me it's like reading about someone using the bathroom."
"Now who's the prude?"
"I never said I wasn't," he said. "Maybe we should change the subject."
She looked out across the land. The lights were on in other people's houses, giving the evening the look of early fall. The leaves were different, too, becoming droopy. The grass was dry, even with all the watering and tending by the gardener. The summer was nearly over.
"Maybe we shouldn't," she said. "I've been wondering. Was that side of life satisfying for you?"
"Ma, tell me you're not asking me about my sex life."
She took her napkin and folded it carefully, lining up the edges and running her fingers along the hems. She felt very calm, very pulled together and all of a piece, as if she'd finally got the knack of being a dignified woman. She threaded her fingers and lay her hands in her lap. "I'm asking about your love life," she said. "Did you love, and were you loved in return?"
"That was easy," he said.
"Oh, I've gotten very easy, in my old age."
"Does Dad know about this?" His eyes were twinkling wickedly.
"Don't be fresh," she said.
"You started it."
"Then I'm stopping it. Now."
He made a funny face, and then another, until she could no longer keep from smiling. His routine carried her back to memories of his childhood efforts to charm her: watercolors of her favorite vistas (unrecognizable without the captions), bouquets of violets self-consciously flung into her lap, a chore performed without prompting. He had always gone too far, then backtracked to regain even footing. She had always allowed herself to be wooed.
Suddenly she realized -- Laird was the love of her life.
One night it rained hard. She decided to serve the meal in the kitchen, as Martin was out. They ate in silence; she was freed from the compulsion to keep up the steady stream of chatter that she used to affect when Laird hadn't talked at all; now she knew she could save her words for afterward. He ate nothing but comfort foods lately -- mashed potatoes, vanilla ice cream, rice pudding. The days of his strict macrobiotic regime, and all the cooking classes she had taken in order to help him along with it, were long past. His body was essentially a thing of the past, too; when he ate, he was feeding what was left of his mind. He seemed to want to recapture the cosseted feeling he'd had when he was sick as a child and she would serve him flat ginger ale, and toast soaked in cream, and play endless card games with him, using his blanket-covered legs as a table. In those days, too, there'd been a general sense of giving way to illness: then, he let himself go completely because he knew he would soon be better and active and have a million things expected of him again. Now he let himself go because he had fought long enough.
Finally, he pushed his bowl toward the middle of the table, signaling that he was finished. (His table manners had gone to pieces. Who cared?) She felt a light, jittery excitement, the same jazzy feeling she got when she was in a plane that was just picking up speed on the runway. She arranged her fork and knife on the rim of her plate and pulled her chair in closer. "I had an odd dream last night," she said.
His eyes remained dull.
She waited uncertainly, thinking that perhaps she had started to talk too soon. "Would you like something else to eat?"
He shook his head. There was no will in his expression. His refusal was purely physical, a gesture coming from the satiation in his stomach. An animal walking away from its bowl, she thought.
To pass the time, she carried the dishes to the sink, gave them a good, hot rinse, and put them in the dishwasher. She carried the ice cream to the counter, pulled a spoon from the drawer, and scraped together a mouthful of the thick, creamy residue that stuck to the inside of the lid. She ate it without thinking, so the sudden sweetness caught her by surprise. All the while she kept track of Laird, but every time she thought she noticed signs of his readiness to talk and hurried back to the table, she found his face still blank.
She went to the window. The lawn had become a floodplain and was filled with broad pools. The branches of the evergreens sagged, and the sky was the same uniform grayish yellow it had been since morning. She saw him focus his gaze on the line where the treetops touched the heavens, and she understood. There was no lovely interlude on this rainy night, no heathered dusk. The gray landscape had taken the light out of him.
"I'm sorry," she said aloud, as if it were her fault.
He gave a tiny, helpless shrug.
She hovered for a few moments, hoping; but his face was slack, and she gave up. She felt utterly forsaken, too disappointed and agitated to sit with him and watch the rain. "It's all right," she said. "It's a good night to watch television."
She wheeled him to the den and left him with Maggie, then did not know what to do with herself. She had no contingency plan for this time. It was usually the one period of the day when she did not need the anesthesia of tennis games, bridge lessons, volunteer work, errands. She had not considered the present possibility. For some time, she hadn't given any thought to what Martin would call "the big picture." Her conversations with Laird had lulled her into inventing a parallel big picture of her own. She realized that a part of her had worked out a whole scenario: the summer evenings would blend into fall; then, gradually, the winter would arrive, heralding chats by the fire, Laird resting his feet on the pigskin ottoman in the den while she dutifully knitted her yearly Christmas sweaters for Anne's children.
She had allowed herself to imagine a future. That had been her mistake. This silent, endless evening was her punishment, a reminder of how things really were.
She did not know where to go in her own house and ended up wandering through the rooms, propelled by a vague, hunted feeling. Several times she turned around, expecting someone to be there but, of course, no one ever was; she was quite alone. Eventually she realized she was imagining a person in order to give material properties to the source of her wounds. She was inventing a villain.
There should be a villain, shouldn't there? There should be an enemy, a devil, an evil force that could be driven out. Her imagination had provided it with aspects of a corporeal presence so she could pretend, for a moment, that there was a real enemy hovering around her, someone she could have the police come and take away. But the enemy was part of Laird, and neither he nor she nor any of the doctors or experts or ministers could separate the two.
She went upstairs and took a shower. She barely paid attention to her own body anymore and only noticed abstractly that the water was too hot, her skin turning pink. Afterward, she sat on the chaise longue in her bedroom and tried to read. She heard something; she leaned forward and cocked her head toward the sound. Was that Laird's voice? Suddenly she believed that he had begun to talk after all -- she believed he was talking to Maggie. She dressed and rushed downstairs. He was alone in the den, alone with the television. He didn't hear or see her. She watched him take a drink from a cup, his hand shaking badly. It was a plastic cup with a straw poking through the lid, the kind used by small children while they are learning to drink. It was supposed to prevent accidents, but it couldn't stop his hands from trembling. He managed to spill the juice anyway.
Laird had always coveted the decadent pile of cashmere lap blankets she had collected over the years in the duty-free shops of the various British airports. Now, in spite of the mild weather, he wore one around his shoulders when they sat outside and spread another over his knees. She remembered similar balmy nights when he would arrive home from soccer practice after dark, a towel slung around his neck.
"I suppose it has to be in the church," he said.
"I think it should," she said, "but it's up to you."
"I guess it's not the most timely moment to make a statement about my personal disbeliefs. But I'd like you to keep it from being too lugubrious. No lilies, for instance."
"And have some decent music."
"I had an idea, but now I can't remember."
He pressed his hands to his eyes. His fingers were so transparent that they looked as if he were holding them over a flashlight.
"Please buy a smashing dress, something mournful yet elegant."
"And don't wait until the last minute."
She didn't reply.
Janet gave up on the idea of a rapprochement between Martin and Laird; she felt freer when she stopped hoping for it. Martin rarely came home for dinner anymore. Perhaps he was having an affair? It was a thought she'd never allowed herself to have before, but it didn't threaten her now. Good for him, she even decided, in her strongest, most magnanimous moments. Good for him if he's actually feeling bad and trying to do something to make himself feel better.
Anne was brave and chipper during her visits, yet when she walked back out to her car, she would wrap her arms around her ribs and shudder. "I don't know how you do it, Mom. Are you really all right?" she'd ask, with genuine concern.
"Anne's become such a hopeless matron," Laird always said, with fond exasperation, when he and his mother were alone again later. Once, Janet began to tease him for finally coming to friendly terms with his sister, but she cut it short when she saw that he was blinking furiously.
They were exactly the children she had hoped to have: a companionable girl, a mischievous boy. It gave her great pleasure to see them together. She did not try to listen to their conversations but watched from a distance, usually from the kitchen as she prepared them a snack reminiscent of their childhood, like watermelon boats or lemonade. Then she would walk Anne to the car, their similar good shoes clacking across the gravel. They hugged, pressing each other's arms, and their brief embraces buoyed them up -- forbearance and strength passing back and forth between them like a piece of shared clothing, designated for use by whoever needed it most. It was the kind of moment toward which she had aimed her whole life, a graceful, secure parting at the close of a peaceful afternoon.
After Anne left, Janet always felt a tranquil sensation as she walked back to the house through the humid September air. Everything was so still. Occasionally there were the hums and clicks of a lawnmower or the shrieks of a band of children heading home from school. There were the insects and the birds. It was a straightforward, simple life. She'd tried never to ask for too much, and always to be of use. Simplicity had been her hedge against bad luck. It had worked for so long. For a brief moment, as she stepped lightly up the single slate stair and through the door, her legs still harboring all their former vitality, she could pretend her luck was still holding.
Then she would glance out the window and there would be the heart-catching sight of Laird, who would never again drop by for a casual visit. Her chest would ache and flutter, a cave full of bats.
Perhaps she'd asked for too much, after all.
"What did you want to be when you grew up?" Laird asked.
"I was expected to be a wife and mother. I accepted that. I wasn't a rebel."
"There must have been something else."
"No," she said. "Oh, I guess I had all the usual fantasies of the day, of being the next Amelia Earhart or Margaret Mead, but that was all they were -- fantasies. I wasn't even close to being brave enough. Can you imagine me flying across the ocean on my own?"
She laughed and looked over for his laughter, but he'd fallen asleep.
A friend of Laird's had somehow gotten the mistaken information that Laird had died, so she and Martin received a condolence letter. There was a story about a time a few years back when the friend was with Laird on a bus in New York. They'd been sitting behind two older women, waitresses who began to discuss their income taxes, trying to decide how little of their tip income they could realistically declare without attracting an audit. Each offered up bits of folk wisdom on the subject, describing in detail her particular situation. During a lull in the conversation, Laird stood up.
"Excuse me, I couldn't help but overhear," he said, leaning over them. "May I have your names and addresses, please? I work for the I.R.S."
The entire bus fell silent as everyone watched to see what would happen next. Laird took a small notebook and pen from the inside pocket of his jacket. He faced his captive audience. "I'm part of a new I.R.S. outreach program," he told the group. "For the next ten minutes I'll be taking confessions. Does anyone have anything he or she wants to tell me?"
Smiles. Soon the whole bus was talking, comparing notes -- on when they'd first realized he was kidding, on how scared they'd been before they caught on. It was difficult to believe these were the same New Yorkers who were supposed to be so gruff and isolated.
"Laird was the most vital, funniest person I ever met," his friend wrote.
Now, in his wheelchair, he faced off against slow-moving flies, waving them away.
"The gloaming," Laird said.
Janet looked up from her knitting, startled. It was midafternoon, and the living room was filled with bright October sun. "Soon," she said.
He furrowed his brow. A little flash of confusion passed through his eyes, and she realized that for him it was already dark.
He tried to straighten his shawl, his hands shaking. She jumped up to help. Then, when he pointed to the fireplace, she quickly laid the logs as she wondered what was wrong. Was he dehydrated? She thought she recalled that a dimming of the vision was a sign of dehydration. She tried to remember what else she'd read or heard, but even as she grasped for information, facts, her instincts kept interrupting with a deeper, more dreadful thought that vibrated through her, rattling her and making her gasp as she often did when remembering her mistakes, things she wished she hadn't said or done, wished she had the chance to do over. She knew what was wrong, and yet she kept turning away from the truth, her mind spinning in every other possible direction as she worked on the fire, only vaguely noticing how wildly she made the sparks fly as she pumped the old bellows.
Her work was mechanical -- she'd made hundreds of fires -- and soon there was nothing left to do. She put the screen up and pushed him close, then leaned over to pull his flannel pajamas down to meet his socks, protecting his bare shins. The sun streamed in around him, making him appear trapped between bars of light. She resumed her knitting, with mechanical hands.
"The gloaming," he said again. It did sound somewhat like "gloomy," because his speech was slurred.
"When all the world is purple," she said, hearing herself sound falsely bright. She wasn't sure whether he wanted her to talk. It was some time since he'd spoken much -- not long, really, in other people's lives, perhaps two weeks -- but she had gone on with their conversations, gradually expanding into the silence until she was telling him stories and he was listening. Sometimes, when his eyes closed, she trailed off and began to drift. There would be a pause that she didn't always realize she was making, but if it went on too long he would call out "Mom?" with an edge of panic in his voice, as if he were waking from a nightmare. Then she would resume, trying to create a seamless bridge between what she'd been thinking and where she had left off.
"It was really your grandfather who gave me my love for the gloaming," she said. "Do you remember him talking about it?"
She looked up politely, expectantly, as if Laird might offer her a conversational reply. He seemed to like hearing the sound of her voice so she went on, her needles clicking. Afterward, she could never remember for sure at what point she'd stopped talking and had floated off into a jumble of her own thoughts, afraid to move, afraid to look up, afraid to know at which exact moment she became alone. All she knew was that at a certain point the fire was in danger of dying out entirely, and when she got up to stir the embers she glanced at him in spite of herself and saw that his fingers were making knitting motions over his chest, the way people did as they were dying. She knew that if she went to get the nurse, Laird would be gone by the time she returned, so she went and stood behind him, leaning over to press her face against his, sliding her hands down his busy arms, helping him along with his fretful stitches until he finished this last piece of work.
Later, after the most pressing calls had been made and Laird's body had been taken away, Janet went up to his old room and lay down on one of the twin beds. She had changed the room into a guest room when he went off to college, replacing his things with guest-room decor, thoughtful touches such as luggage racks at the foot of each bed, a writing desk stocked with paper and pens, heavy wooden hangers, and shoe trees. She made an effort to remember the room as it had been when he was a little boy; she'd chosen a train motif, then had to redecorate when Laird decided trains were silly. He'd wanted it to look like Africa, so she had hired an art student to paint a jungle mural on the walls. When he decided that was silly, he hadn't bothered her to do anything about it, but had simply marked time until he could move on.
Anne came over, offered to stay, but was relieved to be sent home to her children.
Presently, Martin came in. Janet was watching the trees turn to mere silhouettes against the darkening sky, fighting the urge to pick up a true-crime book, a debased urge. He lay down on the other bed.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"It's so wrong," she said angrily. She hadn't felt angry until that moment; she had saved it up for him. "A child shouldn't die before his parents. A young man shouldn't spend his early thirties wasting away talking to his mother. He should be out in the world. He shouldn't be thinking about me, or what I care about, or my opinions. He shouldn't have had to return my love to me -- it was his to squander. Now I have it all back and I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it," she said.
She could hear Martin weeping in the darkness. He sobbed, and her anger veered away.
They were quiet for some time.
"Is there going to be a funeral?" Martin asked finally.
"Yes. We should start making the arrangements."
"I suppose he told you what he wanted."
"In general. He couldn't decide about the music."
She heard Martin roll onto his side, so that he was facing her across the narrow chasm between the beds. He was still in his office clothes. "I remember being very moved by the bagpipes at your father's funeral."
It was an awkward offering, to be sure, awkward and late, and seemed to come from someone on the periphery of her life who knew her only slightly. It didn't matter; it was perfectly right. Her heart rushed toward it.
"I think Laird would have liked that idea very much," she said.
It was the last moment of the gloaming, the last moment of the day her son died. In a breath, it would be night; the moon hovered behind the trees, already rising to claim the sky, and she told herself she might as well get on with it. She sat up and was running her toes across the bare floor, searching for her shoes, when Martin spoke again, in a tone she used to hear on those long-ago nights when he rarely got home until after the children were in bed and he relied on her to fill him in on what they'd done that day. It was the same curious, shy, deferential tone that had always made her feel as though all the frustrations and boredom and mistakes and rushes of feeling in her days as a mother did indeed add up to something of importance, and she decided that the next round of telephone calls could wait while she answered the question he asked --
"Please, Janet, tell me -- what else did my boy like?"
Copyright © 2000 by Alice Elliot Dark
In The Gloaming
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Reading Group Guide
In The Gloaming
1) What does 'gloaming' mean? How does the title bring out the theme of this story? As it is also the title of the whole collection, what does it hint about the rest of the stories?
2) Janet says that having intimate communication is the work she'd longed for all her life. Does she fulfill that longing? With whom?
3) Janet realizes that Laird "is the love of her life." Is she different from mothers you know in feeling that? Do you think she could freely admit this feeling to a friend, or is it an emotion people generally keep to themselves? Why?
1) The author suggests that there is a difference between bad language and dreadful language. Do you agree? How is the difference demonstrated in the story?
2) Frannie and her mother both eventually marry for peace and security. Do you think it's a mistake to do so, or is it possible to find such marriages fulfilling? Do you think a marriage that isn't based on passion is doomed? How do you think Frannie will feel about her marriage now?
The Jungle Lodge
1) This story reflects the experience of many girls who are raped or incested and don't know how to tell about it. Do you think it is getting easier for girls to be open about such experiences? Why wouldn't someone want to, even now?
2) How does the atmosphere of the jungle affect the different characters in see more