Below is another of the stories I wrote in the early nineties. As I have explained before, at that time I was in the thrall of the American short story writers, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. One of the things I discovered from reading their work was that nothing really had to happen in a story in order for it to work as a story: after all, they were not writing action stories but really meditations on life, on what it is to be human, to struggle, to fall in love, sometimes to lose that love, to fail and to come to terms with one’s failures, with the fact that life is not perfect, or at least we as human beings do not lead perfect lives but we can always be honest and try to do our best. The stories of these two writers were subtle and they often contained pearls of worldly wisdom drawn from observation and particularly in the case of Raymond Carver, from experience, some of it quite bitter. The bitterness, however, is always offset by the nobility of the story telling art.
No matter what means of expression we choose, be it drama, poetry, painting or fiction, art always rescues us, it always adds dignity to our lives and to our experiences, and this is because it always separates out something good in our lives, whether it is a bison drawn on a cave wall, or a simple refrain from a song that comes from the heart. Art is always from the heart. And we can fail in our art too, it can fall short of our own expectations, but it is always there, always something upon which we have focused our attention and which therefore has been salvaged from the endless drift of time. We see this in its most innocent form in the work of young children who at the school gate rush to show to a parent a painting or a sketch that they have done in class. Their pride in their production stems from the emotion of having made something of the moment, something true and something beautiful.
No worldly wisdom here below, I’m afraid, but I did my best at the time.
Beau Visage Belle Vie
I was completing my final year at college in Chicago when my mother walked out on my father. The news came as no surprise to me, I have to admit. I had heard them quarrel throughout my teens and if anything, the surprising thing was that they managed to last as long as they did. I received a letter from my mother just before my exams started. The letter was posted in Dallas where she was now living with a man named Alvin who owned a string of donut shops. Finally, she said, I’ve met someone who appreciates me for what I am. I was happy for my mother but at the same time I knew that my father would find it difficult to get by on his own. My mother’s letter made no mention of him. It was as though he no longer existed. That part of her life was gone forever. Although she said that she loved me and promised to keep in touch, I suspected that this letter was in reality a fond farewell.
When I returned home to Helena, I found that my father was drinking again. He was still able to control it, but only just. He’d lost weight and looked older and more tired than before I had gone away and he was reluctant to talk about what had happened, about what had finally brought things to a head. These were difficult times for me. I loved my father. I knew he had his faults but that was no reason not to feel sympathy for him.
Having been away more or less for three years, I’d lost touch with almost all of my local friends in college and so most evenings I would stay in and talk with my father. Sometimes we would play chess. My father is a superb player and I have never once managed to beat him but he taught me a great deal. Often though he would not be in the mood for games and we would just sit and talk. Mainly he would talk and I would listen. Life was his theme. Life and its complexities and surprises. I expected him to be morose but in actual fact, despite the drink, he managed to retain a certain amount of optimism. He was still a good-looking man: tall and slim and with the sort of thick grey hair which gave him a certain aura. I felt sure that sooner or later he would find himself a divorcee or a widow if only he would make the effort and get out of the house a bit more often. He just needs time, I told myself. Events like these can damage a man’s confidence. It’s going to take him a while to get back on the road, to find his way again. The fact that he had also lost his job did not help. For as long as I can remember he had worked at the hydroelectric station. But the installation two years ago of new computerized equipment had made his job unnecessary. He was not unduly concerned. The terms of the settlement he’d reached with the electricity company were such that his financial security was more or less guaranteed. But work would have taken his mind off things, mixing with people would have forced him to make an effort to be sociable. I was looking for work myself as a newly qualified engineer, but in Montana there was little on offer. It occurred to me that I might have done better to remain in Chicago. Still, Chicago was always there and it could wait.
As I said, the nights when we didn’t play chess or merely sit in front of the television, my father would talk. He always was a good talker. The more whisky he took the more he opened up, and for the first time in my life I began to get a picture of the man. At first I used to enjoy our conversations, I felt I was learning something that would stand me in good stead. My father spoke with such assurance that everything appeared to have the ring of truth to it. Life, he would say, life is about coming to terms with loss. When you’re young you have so much, you gain so much, you grow so much, in so many ways. And you get to thinking that this is the pattern, that learning and growing and adding to your general stock of things is what it’s all about. Wrong! Dead wrong. That’s only a phase, an immature phase which sure we all have to go through. But it’s only a preparation for what’s to follow. And what follows it loss. I thought when he said this that he was referring to his own life, to the loss of my mother, but he made no mention of her. Life is learning to be a good loser. Life is knowing when you’re beat and not fighting battles you can never win. But after many evenings of him talking in this vein I began to recognise these sentiments for what they really were: an expression of his own helplessness. Even now I distrust any sentence that opens with the word life. The problem with those general statements is that they can give you a false sense of security, they can make you believe that there is somehow, somewhere, a perfect solution and this I simply do not buy. I’d look at my father topping up his glass of whisky or lighting another cigarette and think to myself: He’s just a lonely man, desperately talking to fill the void in his life. The game he’s playing is a game of make-believe.
When I was growing up, people would often comment on how much my father and I were alike. And we were very close. He would often take me fishing when I was old enough and he promised also to let me in on one of his hunting trips but this he never got around to. He used to go off for whole weekends with Jim Douglas and Phil Baines, two friends from work. Occasionally I would remind him of his promise: Sure thing, son, he’d say. One of these days, you can bet on it. But then something happened. Jim Baines got blinded in a shooting accident and though my father was not at all responsible for this, he took it very much to heart and the hunting trips stopped. I could see that physically I had a lot in common with my father, but hearing him night after night going on about life, I sure did hope that I would not end up in such a state.
One night the conversation we were having did turn to my mother. I can’t recall now whether it was me or him who brought up the subject of her departure. Whatever the case my father appeared to take it all very much in his stride. The trouble with your mother, he said, was that for years she wanted too little out of life. I know she blames me for that, but it really was none of my doing. I tried to encourage her but she always insisted that she was happy the way she was. The truth is, she allowed herself to be squeezed into a space that was so narrow it left her eventually with no room to breathe. And when this Alvin came along and offered to let her out, she just jumped at the chance. Then he paused and stared into the bottom of his whisky glass and rattled the ice. I just hope she’s happy, he added. That’s all. I don’t miss her. Fact is, I’m glad she’s gone. That may shock you, but then you young people are always so much easier to shock. I’m glad, I tell you. Perhaps now she’s getting what she’s wanted for all these years. What she maintained she was missing out on.
Then I met Glenda. Glenda was working as a beauty therapist at the Beau Visage Belle Vie parlour just off Main Street. She had just turned twenty-two and she was the prettiest thing I ever did get my hands on. About my height and with long brown hair and hazel eyes, I fell for her straightaway. She rented the small apartment above the parlour and I soon began to spend more and more time there with her. She was everything I ever wanted from a woman. She had spirit and a great sense of fun. I’m telling you, from the moment I first slept with her I felt like a man who had just struck gold.
What is this beauty therapy, my father asked me one day when I called in to see how he was doing. Just another term for getting you to look good, I told him. Glenda says that looking good makes you feel good and anything that makes you feel better than you felt before is a kind of therapy. He thought about this for a while and then he said: I’d like to meet her. Bring her over sometime? Introduce her, perhaps a lunch one Sunday. I couldn’t see the harm in that and so I promised him I would put it to her. Naturally she had no objection. Sure, she said, I’d like to see where you came from. But for several weeks I did nothing about it. There were interviews to go to—not that I was successful at any of them. And there were other things. And there was the simple fact that Glenda was so special, so precious to me, I didn’t feel like sharing her, not even with my own father. And Sundays. . . Sundays were for lying in bed all day with Glenda.
Then late one Saturday afternoon things finally came together. Glenda and I picked up some steaks and burgers and a few bottles of wine and drove over to my father’s place without warning. It was a warm summer’s day and the idea of a barbecue on the back patio really appealed to us. I found my father sitting in the living room with a bottle of whisky on the table and a glass in his hand. He was still in his dressing gown and he hadn’t shaved. But he was pleased to see us. While Glenda and I began to set things up on the patio he went off to shower and shave. By the time he appeared again the smell of charcoal and burning grease was thick in the air. I offered my father a glass of wine and we all toasted his health.
The evening turned out better than I had expected. Glenda and my father talked as though they’d known each other for ages. And my father seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. So tell me about this beauty therapy, he was asking her. Glenda immediately launched into a sales pitch. You should try it, she said. She was teasing him but I think that underneath that she did think a little therapy could do no harm. Come into the parlour one day and we’ll see what we can do for you. My father laughed. I hadn’t heard him laugh in ages, but he laughed talking to Glenda. I can’t see myself wearing a mudpack or any of that nonsense, he was saying to Glenda. And she was laughing too. Things have come on a long way since mudpacks, she told him. We have machines that can work wonders. She was playing it up and he was enjoying every moment of it. Or what about a manicure, she said, taking hold of one of his hands and holding it up to examine the cuticles. You’d be surprised what we have to deal with, she said. Farmers’ wives who’ve abused their skin for forty years and who suddenly come into a little money and want to repair the damage. I’m telling you straight, miracles is our business. Again my father laughed at the sales pitch Glenda was adopting. Then, for the first time in ages I thought of my mother. I wondered what she might be doing at that precise moment, whether she was at the rear of some palatial Dallas mansion, enjoying a rare steak with Alvin by her side, and laughing. I hoped she was. Life felt good and I wanted everyone to be happy.
© John Lyons, 1991