I had a friend years ago in Nicaragua, where the story was written, whose name was Irma Prego, a great wit and a brilliant short story writer. She would read all my stories and when she’d finished one of them she’d say, “But I want to know what happens next.” Well life is full of stories, full of scripts and personal narratives without endings. Sometimes we do get to know what happened next, there is a resolution, a definitive event or a decision that sends a clear signal that things are over, that the drama has gone off the boil, that people have gone their separate ways, that new lives and new narrative threads have commenced. While it is true that sometimes what you suspect will happen does actually happen, there are other times when life can completely surprise you, people can do an about-turn, have a change of mind, or a change of heart.
Whatever the case, stories are an essential part of life. We tell the stories of what is happening in our families and in our relationships and friendships in order to have an understanding of who we are, in order to place our emotions in context, so that a story is always a kind of reflection on our strengths and weaknesses, a kind of open-ended soliloquy. We read and listen to stories for the same reason: for the community of feeling, for the understanding of our own humanity. We identify with the lives of the strangers we meet in fiction because in fact they are not really strangers. This is one of the great lessons we get from James Joyce, whether in Dubliners or in Ulysses: Leopold and Molly are part of the family, along with Blazes Boylan, Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan, Paddy Dignam R.I.P., and all the rest.
Dead Men Don’t Send Flowers
Everybody loved Nancy Holden. Nobody wanted her to die and when she did finally succumb to the muscle-wasting disease which over the last five years of her life had slowly reduced her to a cripple, everyone who knew her died a little too. It was an emotional occasion, her funeral. I helped carry her body to the graveside. And when it was all over, Patsy and I drove Dan back to our place. He was in a terrible state. Nancy was only forty-two years old. Dan slumped in an armchair in our living room and refused all offers of food—Patsy had prepared a chicken salad. There’s a time for eating and a time for drinking, it says in the Bible. I guess this is not one of those times for eating, he said. All afternoon he sat there, shaking his head as he poured more whisky into his glass. Forty-two is no age, he kept saying. She had her whole life ahead of her. Her whole life. I just can’t believe it! From time to time Patsy would call me from the room. She was concerned. Don’t you think he’s had enough alcohol for one day, she asked. I knew that she was saying this because she cared for Dan and not because of anything she had against heavy drinking. Honey, I said to her, he’s had enough whisky for a fortnight, but I’m not about to take the bottle from him, not today, not until he drops. Around five o’clock that afternoon he did drop. Not exactly drop. He just passed out. Patsy came in to look at him. His mouth was open and you could see the gold caps on his back teeth. The skin around his eyes was slack and discoloured. Such a sad, pathetic sight you could hardly bear to look.
Dan had once been our mailman. That’s how we got to know him. This was when me and Patsy first moved to Missoula and had no friends there. We’d been living down in California since we got married, trying to scratch a living on a small fruit farm just outside of Red Bluff. Trying and failing. Nothing we ever tried to do seemed to go right in California. The debts just grew bigger and bigger, no matter how hard we worked. Life was closing in on us, slowly but surely like some sort of vast sprung trap with huge, jagged teeth. Before our legs finally got caught forever, we decided to make a run for it. Montana was where we landed. Missoula, to be precise, and that’s where we began to rebuild our lives. Patsy got a job in a nursery and I was lucky enough to be hired by a building contractor. Been working ever since. God bless Montana, is what I say and I know Patsy says it too. Montana saved our lives. The Holdens were a bonus. After a few months they were regulars over at our house and on Friday nights we’d play bridge together. Nancy was the best bridge player I ever knew. She and Dan used to beat us every time. But it didn’t matter. Patsy and me weren’t playing to win. We were just glad to be alive and have company and not to have to worry about sudden frosts, or blight or the rising price of pesticides.
Some weekends I would head off hunting with Dan. He knows Montana like the back of his hand. The best hunting I ever did in my life was alongside Dan Holden. Teal, geese, pheasant, any kind of fowl you care to mention. And those weekends we were away, Nancy would move in with Patsy. She had her own bed made up for her in the spare room and over the bed she’d draped one of those colourful Indian ponchos she’d bought on a trip she and Dan had made to Guatemala. Patsy and I used to call that room Nancy’s room. God knows if we’ll ever call it anything else, even though she’s no longer with us. The poncho is still there along with some books of hers. Nancy was a real cultured woman and poetry was what she enjoyed reading most. Kind of strange that the men could be out in the country pumping leadshot into the wildlife while the women were back home swapping recipes and listening to Verdi and the like and reciting Emily Dickinson and Amy Lowell. Still, that’s life, I suppose, kind of strange, but never dull. What I liked about Nancy was the fact that she never looked down on anyone who had less education than herself. Patsy and I for instance, and Dan too. Looking at the pair of them you might have thought that she had married down. But that was not the case. Not at all. Dan has qualities all of his own. People marry for different reasons, and yet the only valid reason is when two people love each other. Nothing lasts without love. That ought to be obvious, but somehow, considering how many marriages fall apart these days, it probably isn’t anymore. Tramping through the sagebrush out on the benchland with our shotguns over our shoulders, Dan would often talk about himself and Nancy. Isn’t she something, he’d say to me, isn’t she someone really special? Yes she is, I’d say to him. She’s one of the best and you’re a lucky man. That I am, he’d say proudly, nodding and smiling at me as he thought of Nancy. She was a petite lady—barely five foot, I’d say—and she wore her crimped, honey-blonde hair in a long cascade that reached down her back almost to her waist. And she had fine features. You could almost see the culture in her bones, in her small, delicate mouth, in her sharp, inquisitive eyes. And Dan adored her. From the moment her illness was diagnosed he devoted as much time to her as was humanly possible. They may be the last years, he’d say to me, but I want them to be the best, the most comfortable of her life. Do you understand that, Ray? Yes, I’d tell him, I know just what you mean and you’re right. Nancy deserves nothing but the very best. And Patsy and I did what we could. Naturally we had to cut down on the hunting trips, but the two of them still came over to play cards, right up until the very last weeks of her life. And Nancy. . . Jesus, that lovely woman was an inspiration. She never complained, she never lost her good humour. She was determined, it seemed, to die the way she had lived: with dignity and patience. Sometimes Patsy would cry after the Holdens had gone home. She’d lie in bed and tears would stream down her face as she thought of what was happening to her friend, her sister—Nancy was like the sister she’d never had, the older sister with everything to give. Jesus Christ, she’d say to me, it just isn’t fair. Why Nancy? If life were about fairness this would be a very different world, I’d say to her. We might never have had to leave California, we might never have met Dan and Nancy. Life is swings and roundabouts. I said these things not because I thought they could be of any comfort to Patsy but simply because I had nothing else to say. And Dan, she’d say. What about Dan? Dan is such a good man. How is he going to cope when he’s all alone? Do you think he’ll cope, Ray? I didn’t know the answer to that one. Who can tell? But I remembered the way he used to speak about Nancy when the two of us were alone and to me it seemed most likely that he would not cope that well. This is not what I said to Patsy. To Patsy I said: Sure, sure he’ll get by. It’ll take time but he’ll make it. I’m sure he will.
A few days after the funeral, a dozen long-stemmed red roses were delivered to the house. It was a Saturday and I’d just finished installing a new radio-cassette player in the car. I looked up from the newspaper I was reading. Patsy tore open the little envelope and glanced at the message. It’s not signed, she said. And then she was thoughtful for a moment. I know these lines, she said, I’ve read them or heard them before. It’s from a poem. Listen to this. And she read me the message:
Nobody knows this little Rose –
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
and lift it up to thee.
Must be from Dan, she said breathlessly, her face flushed and yet smiling. Only Dan would think of sending those words. I think they’re taken from one of Nancy’s books. God bless him, it’s his way of saying thanks. Don’t you think it’s a charming verse, she asked. I do, I said, yes I do. And I did. I’m going to call him, she said smiling. I’m going to call him right now and invite him over. Today or tomorrow. He can stay for lunch or for dinner. Poor Dan! You do that, honey, I said. What I love about Patsy: she’s all heart. Wisest move I ever made, marrying her. Lesser women would have walked out on me, the way things were going in California. It took courage to stand by me. Patsy has loads of courage, loads of sticking power. Call him now, I said. And tell him hello from me. Say how’s he doing. Then I returned to my paper. More bad news. Lay-offs up and down the country. Hard times and getting worse. I was glad my job was secure. And glad too that I’d gotten out of farming. Farmers were getting it in the neck all the way along the line. Jesus Christ, I thought as I read on, who’d be a farmer in this day and age. Who would?
About ten minutes later Patsy came into the room carrying a tall vase with six of Dan’s roses. She set the vase on the mantlepiece and took a few paces back to admire the flowers. Aren’t they gorgeous, she said. I put three in the bedroom and the others in Nancy’s room. That’s nice, I said. That’s a real nice gesture. She gave me a sweet, kind of nervous look. You call him, I asked. No reply, she said. I’ll try again later. But I could see she was disappointed. Come here, I said, finally casting aside the newspaper. Come and sit here. She walked over and sat on my lap. Could be he’s gone away for a few days. You never know. It can’t be easy. Living in that house. Then it struck me that these were not the right things to say at all. Patsy’s eyes filled up. I pulled her closer to me and began to stroke her hair, her fine auburn hair. She twisted around and hugged me tightly. For a while I just stroked her hair with slow, easy motions, trying to help her work the grief out of her system. Then gently I unfastened a few buttons on her blouse and reached inside. Her skin was cold.
All day Sunday Patsy tried to reach Dan but there was no reply.
And Patsy wasn’t sleeping. I’d wake at two or three in the morning and find her gone and when I looked for her, she’d be in Nancy’s room, lying on the bed reading one of Nancy’s books or sitting in the easy-chair with the Guatemalan poncho wrapped around her, blankly staring into space. I’d have to take her by the hand and lead her like a child, back to bed. And she was jumpy in the mornings, the least thing upset her and all she could talk about was Dan Holden.
Come Saturday she said to me: Ray, I don’t know what’s going on but this thing is driving me insane. It’s no good, I can’t seem to think straight anymore. And then she gave me one of her determined looks. I’m going on over to Dan’s place, see for myself. God, Ray, you don’t think…what if he’s done something foolish? Patsy, I said, not believing what I was hearing. No, no, she insisted. These things do happen, they happen when people get down, I know they do. They do things you might never imagine. I want to go, I have to go. Ray, please! I’ll admit, when she put things in that light it did make me think. She could be right. So we drove over there. But there was no answer when we tried the door. I strolled around to the back to look for signs of life.
I peered in through the kitchen window. Everything was neat and tidy. Nothing that might alarm you. But it was a strange feeling, gazing into someone’s house like that. An empty house but so full of memories. Hanging over one of the kitchen chairs I spotted a brown woollen shawl that Nancy had often worn when she visited us, and there were other things, like cups and dishes and jars, homely things that brought back so much. The times we’d sat around that table in the kitchen and talked! Just talked. The pleasure of talking of life, of love, the future, the way you do with close friends. Where the future is not the important thing, just the talking about it, the sharing of dreams, of hopes. And Patsy. Patsy had probably heard a hundred poems read to her at that same table while Dan and I chased Canadian geese through the great outdoors. I joined Patsy at the front of the house. She was staring up at Dan and Nancy’s bedroom. The curtains were drawn. He may be inside there, she said in a whisper. You really think so, I asked. You honestly think Dan’s the sort? Anyone, she replied. Anyone’s the sort if the pain is bad enough. How can you tell? Being brave is just a mask. There comes a point when the pain just takes over, forces you to choose the lesser of two pains.
A dozen red roses were lying on the doorstep when we arrived. And there was another unsigned card. We assumed the flowers were from Dan. Who else?
Back in the living room, Patsy was standing in front of the flowers. She didn’t hear me come in. I watched as she reached out and began to pull petals from one of the roses. She was muttering something under her breath. When I cleared my throat noisily to let her know I was there, it made her jump. She span around and looked at me but she was not smiling. She looked more beautiful than ever. My own rose: a tall, pliant body which I so loved to dress and undress, to caress, to bathe with, to lie with, to love. I held out my arms and waited for her to walk towards me. Instead she closed her eyes and sighed. She raised a hand to her right cheek and bowed her head. A silence opened up between us. I wanted to tell her about the florist but couldn’t speak. My hands were shaking. She needs to be alone, I thought, alone with the flowers. Perhaps I should just slip away and call the police. Something had to be done. I knew that now. On her face a haunted, remote look. I needed her and she was nowhere. I looked down at her feet. There were rose petals on the carpet. Patsy reached out and took another flower from the vase. One by one she pulled at the petals until the stem was stripped bare, and all the time her lips were moving, silently. Words, but words not meant for me.
Dead men don’t send flowers. Not in Missoula, at least, and the officer laughed at his own wit.
That night she slept in Nancy’s room. I lay awake thinking of Nancy and of how much pain her death had brought upon us all. How the world without Nancy was not the same place and never would be. One person and all that difference. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing endures. And Patsy, where was she? One confusion after another. I wondered too what had become of Dan, why had he sent the roses, and what did it all mean, and most of all I wondered how long it would be before Patsy returned to my bed.
John Lyons, 1992