The Job

missoulaThe Job

When Daisy comes back from work that afternoon she looks flustered. She looks as though she’s had one hell of a day. I take her coat and hang it up for her. There’s chilli con carne bubbling away on the stove. I tell her to sit down in the living room, I’ll fix her a drink. Give me a big scotch, she says, the bigger the better, with plenty of ice. Coming right up, I say. The ice bucket is empty so I have to go into the kitchen to fetch some more. I turn down the chilli while I’m there. I don’t want it to dry out. While I’m tipping the ice out of the tray I can hear Daisy talking to herself. She sounds really worked up. Never known her to be so distressed. My poor Daisy!

Back in the living room I pour her a good measure of whisky and leave the bottle close to her chair. I sit down on the sofa near her and wait for her to tell me the worst. Daisy doesn’t like to be pressurized when she gets in and that’s a feeling I can relate to all right. I’m the same way when I’m working. Now that she’s the breadwinner she deserves even more respect. Not that I’ve ever failed to respect her. Daisy and I are real close, so close it’s like we’re not even married. That’s our little joke. Married people just aren’t this close, she’d say to me and I’d look at her with a big grin on my face and say, Honey, are you suggesting that what we’re living is not legal. No I’m not, she’d say, but married people are supposed to fight and shout at each other and sulk and turn their backs and have long faces and we don’t do any of those things. And then we’d laugh, both of us. It was a ritual, I suppose, a way of telling each other that this time we were going to make it, that there would be no repeats in our life. You see, both of us have been married before, we both have one disaster under our belts.

He did it again, she says after she’s taken a long hard pull on her drink. The dirty creep did it again. Immediately I feel my pulse rate go up. I know what she’s talking about. Daisy works for this haulage firm in Missoula. She’s there in the accounts office on the word-processor. It’s a responsible job looking after bills and dealing with customers’ enquiries. And it’s a job she likes because it brings her into contact with a whole lot of different people. But she has this manager who is nothing if not a pain in the butt. His name is Anderson and he’s about thirty-six and newly divorced and very careless with his hands. I’m angry, angry for her but I don’t want to rush things, let her tell me in her own time. She stares down into the bottom of her glass. Her face is flushed. I was typing out an invoice, and he comes up behind me breathing down my neck. First I feel a hand on my shoulder and then he leans forward and points to something on the screen, some detail or other he thinks I should alter. But as he takes his hand away it grazes my breast and just for a second I feel his fingers tighten around my breast. Can you believe that? His fingers on my breast—she has beautiful breasts, small and round and firm and soft-nippled and I love to curl my fingers around those breasts of hers—. And when I jerk back and say Hey, what the hell’s going on here, he removes his hand and says What do you mean what’s going on here, nothing’s going on. Jesus you women are all the same. But he knows full well. It was no accident, his fingers were there long enough to have a good pinch of flesh. He’s. . .I’m telling you that man is simply disgusting. I raise my glass to my lips and drain it in one gulp. It makes me so mad to hear of Daisy being treated that way. You did complain, I ask her, topping up her glass before pouring myself another drink. You did tell someone about this creep, someone who can put him in his place. Like who, she says. Like who? I’ve tried that, Gerry, you know I have. But nobody wants to listen. Take him to court they say. Get proof, evidence and then take him to court. It’s as though this thing is an every day occurrence and nothing they can waste their time on, she says.

Daisy is such a sweet thing, I know it’s not in her nature to raise a storm over nothing. She doesn’t want trouble, just to be allowed to get on with her work unmolested. In this day and age is that too much to ask? But now she’s upset. It kind of takes the shine off a job when you know that in the course of a day some slime-ball is going to start trying to feel you up. Anyway we eat the chilli and Daisy says it’s delicious. She always did like my cooking but more so now that I’m not employed and I have more time to concentrate on getting the seasoning just right. I’ve become, though I say so myself, something of a perfectionist, and not only with meals. I send her back into the room while I clear away the dishes and tidy up. Christ, she says, when I join her later, it sure is good to have a man like you around the house. You put your feet up honey, I say to her. Move over and put your feet up. She does as I say and I get her another drink and one for myself and then I sit down beside her. You want to watch a film, I ask. No, she says. Let’s just talk. Talking unwinds me more than television. She looks tired. I know this Anderson business is still on her mind. I slip my arm over her shoulder and give her a kiss on the cheek. I think to myself, another drink and then we’ll hit the sack. That’s what she needs, an early night.

I was real worried when I lost my driver’s permit. Wasn’t sure how Daisy would take it, you see. But she was great. These things happen, was her reaction. They happen all the time, Gerry. Of course when I lost the permit I also lost my livelihood. I was a driver for an express courier service. That was something my lawyer tried to impress on the court. I needed the permit or I’d lose my job. The judge was not at all sympathetic. Your client should have considered that before he got behind the wheel of his car in a state of intoxication, that was the judge’s comment. So they took away the permit and naturally I lost my job. That was six months back and ever since then I’ve been looking for work. But these are hard times in Montana. People don’t believe you when you tell them but these are, I would say, miserable times. All this talk of boom times, it makes me sick. What boom, I say, show me the signs, show me the evidence. What boom, for Christ’s sake?

Daisy’s great. She understands the problem. You take your time, she said to me. Something will turn up and it may be better than a driving job. We can manage for the time being, so don’t you go rushing into something that’s not going to make you happy. I don’t want to have to deal with a mopey face around the house. I want you to be contented. That’s love for you. Real love. A lesser woman would have thrown me out on my ear. Like my ex- for example. She’d have kissed me goodbye and changed the house locks. Correction, forget the kiss. She’d have locked me out plain and simple. She was a hard woman and sometimes when I think of her—which is not often, thank God—I really cannot recall one single thing I liked about her. I’m telling you, when I do make mistakes, I make them good. Daisy’s different. She appreciates me. This place is looking fantastic, she said to me one day when she got in from work. Not a speck of dust anywhere and you’ve polished all the silver and the wood is sparkling and it’s. . .it’s so fantastic. I stood there listening to her praise and I thought to myself, Jesus Christ, Gerry Swain, you’ve finally done it, you’ve finally found yourself a woman who’s not afraid to express her feelings. It gave me a real boost. This, she added, is your vocation. You have a talent for housework that is truly rare. I must have been standing there like a proud little boy because she then walked over to me and put her arms around my neck and gave me a big wet kiss. Other men might not have coped in my situation. They might have felt that housework was beneath them, that Daisy’s attitude was really a big put-down in disguise. Well let them. I felt special. . .she made me feel special, like nobody ever made me feel before. After all I’d worked hard all day to get the place into shape and make it just that little bit more comfortable for Daisy and I had achieved my aim. Her delight was my reward. Fair enough?

Next morning I sensed that Daisy was a little nervous before she left for work. Come here, honey, I said to her. You look gorgeous. I put my arms around her and gave her a big hug. You look the most beautiful thing in God’s creation. She looked up at me and smiled. She was wearing a black woollen skirt with grey patterned tights and a bright yellow jacket over a crimson blouse. All of them good strong colours. And she had on her heels, the black heels I’d bought her for her birthday. Sensational! I bet no one else in that office can hold a candle to you, honey, I said to her. Really you are one of God’s rare gifts. When he created you, he had style in mind. This seemed to relax her a bit and she laughed. I hugged her again and gave her a long kiss on the forehead—not wanting to smudge her immaculate lip-gloss. Neither of us mentioned Anderson, the creep, and that seemed best. But as soon as she was out the door, I thought of nothing else. You see, that’s the down side of being out of work. There’s so much time, and you get to thinking and sometimes you just can’t help yourself and you go through an entire day worrying an idea until in the end you think you’ll go mad. Keep busy, that’s the answer, if there is an answer, which there probably is not. But busy helps.

Around ten that morning, after I’ve changed the bed-linen and vacuumed all over, I give Daisy a call. I love to call her at work anyway. Just the thought of that tall, slim body of hers on the other end of the line is always enough, is always enough to send shivers right down my spine. I visualize her, as though I’m face to face, staring into those deep green eyes, those bright pools of light. But this time I’m calling not just for the thrill of her voice, the purr of her warm breath, but to check in to see that she’s all right. She sounds pretty up-beat and I’m pleased. I was thinking of doing us a roast tonight, honey. What would you say to a roast, a good cut of red meat? I’d say a roast would be just fine, she says. With broccoli and carrots, I add, and a thick wine sauce with mushrooms. Sounds wonderful, she says. And then her tone changes. Look, sweetheart, I can’t talk too long, she says, we’re really snowed under here, but I’ll ring you back later if I get the time. Fine, I say. But don’t forget, I’m out this morning. Down to the mall, pick up a few bits and pieces, your suit from the cleaner’s for example. That’s right, she says, sounding now as though her mind is on other things. That’s right. You are an angel. I love to hear her call me that. Okay, she says, if I try you and you’re not there I’ll know where you are. And then she blows me a little kiss down the line which I return, of course, and then she’s gone.

Coming out of the butcher’s in the mall, I meet Tony Dunn. Haven’t seen Tony in over a month. How are you, I ask him. Jesus Christ, he says with a broad smile on his face, I haven’t felt better in years. Tony used to work as a tool maker until his company went bust. No job, I ask. He shakes his head, but he doesn’t look too upset. Nope, he says, but Dorothy’s still working. They promoted her last week. She’s chief sales manager now. Can you credit that, Dorothy head of sales? That’s marvellous, I say. And I really am delighted. Dorothy and Tony are a great couple. So what’ve you been up to, I ask. This and that, he says, a little golf in the afternoon. Matter of fact I’ve a big game on tomorrow, perhaps you might like to come out? I shake my head. No can do, I say. No car. That’s right, he says. Tell you what, if you’re on, I’ll pick you up. How’s that sound. Great, I tell him. I’ll be there. By the way, Tony says, lowering his voice. You hear about Andy and Muriel? I haven’t heard. All over, he says. Walked out on him. I don’t believe you, I say, not those two. Those two were welded together, you’d need an oxyacetylene to prize those two apart. Not any more, Tony says. She’s moved in with a Texan, a Texan engineer up here prospecting for oil. Jesus Christ, I say, poor Andy, he must be devastated. That’s the word, Tony says, you should see him. A shadow of his former self. I don’t think he’s eating or anything. I’ve never seen anything like it. Poor Andy, that’s just too bad. Tony raises his hand and makes the gesture which signifies Time for a shot of malt? I’d love to, Tony, I really would, but I have to get my hair done and then I want to get back early to get the roast in the oven. Maybe tomorrow, after the game. Great, he says, I understand. Call you later.

They have one of those new unisex parlours in the mall, all black leather seats and marble fittings. I want to give Daisy a surprise, so I ask Angela if she can do something about the grey hairs that are beginning to overrun my temples. Sure, she says, no problem. We can handle that. Angela is a superb hairdresser. And what about the moustache, she asks. Made your mind up yet? I’m still not sure. What do you think, I ask her. You don’t think it might be too drastic? Not at all, she says. It’ll take years off you. Daisy’ll love it. Okay, I say, you’ve convinced me. Off it comes. Angela knows a thing or two. She’s about twenty-five and stunning and still playing the field. While she’s putting on the colour, I remember about Andy and so I tell her. My God, she says with a gasp, not those two. I thought those two were lifers. We both laugh at that. Well, I always say, you can never tell, you never can. It’s a funny old world. Christ almighty, she says, it surely is that. When the job’s done I stare into the mirror and I’m impressed. Impressed and grateful. After all man has to make the most of what he’s got. Poor Andy, I think. You see Andy recently, I ask Angela. Not for about two months, she says, and honestly, now I think about it, he didn’t look too bright then. Poor Andy!

Back home I put the joint in the oven and let it sizzle for a while before turning the heat down. Then I set to preparing the sauce. A good beef stock, plenty of salt and garlic, a dash of pepper and a large glass of red wine. The mushrooms go in later. I’m just peeling the potatoes when the phone goes. He did it again, Gerry, she says. This man is driving me insane. You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to do something or I’ll murder the bastard. Okay, okay, I tell her, you calm down. I hear her blow her nose. You’ve no idea, Gerry, no idea how it feels, she says. Tell me about it, I say. She’s quiet for a while, I hear her trying to catch her breath. Was it the breast again, I ask. No, she says. No it wasn’t. I was standing by the filing cabinet, the drawer was open. I just didn’t hear him come up. Next thing his hand glides across my butt. I turn around and slap him. I slap him good and hard across the face. And he just laughs. The creep just laughs and walks off, laughing. Right, I tell her, you leave him to me. I’ll sort him out. He won’t laugh again by the time I’ve finished with him. And you, you just take it easy, you hear? Oh and get his address. I’m going to need that. Sure, honey, she says. No problem. Love you, she whispers. Me too, honey, I tell her.

I’ve always kept a gun —an old service .45 and a few rounds— on the grounds that you never know when you might need one. I fetch it from the drawer in the bedroom and take it down to the kitchen where I strip it down and give it a good clean and oil. From time to time I get up to baste the meat and potatoes. Around five I peel the carrots and wash the broccoli. They’ll go on the moment Daisy steps in the door. The gun is ready now. I load it and place it in the pocket of my coat which is hanging in the hallway. Then I set the table. Candles and the best dinner service including the crystal glasses. I trim the stems of the flowers I bought on the way home from the mall and stick them into a tall vase. By the time I’ve finished the table looks magnificent. The meal’s going to be a real knock-out. I look at my watch. There’s just time to freshen up and change before Daisy gets back.

While I’m under the shower the phone rings and I wonder is it Tony or is it Daisy. Nothing I can do. The phone stops. Then I get to thinking of Andy, poor Andy. His life in pieces. Jesus, life can be so cruel, sometimes. I put on my best tan trousers and beige shirt and go down to the living room where I pour myself a whisky and sit in the chair, waiting for Daisy. The air is heavy with the smell of roasting meat. On the floor beside the chair, the newspaper lies open at the job ads page. I glance at it for a moment. And then I see something amusing and I can’t help smiling, just a smile to begin with until I can no longer hold in the laughter. I raise my glass and say: Well, here’s to you, Anderson, you miserable son of a bitch!

© John Lyons, 1991

Pearl – a short story


When I say I loved Betty Foster, I mean I loved her, no two ways. She was the best thing that ever happened to me, and when she left it nearly broke my heart. It all fell apart last summer, round about this time. Now I’m sitting out on my porch drinking Budweisers and staring across at her empty home and in that empty home I see nothing but my empty heart and Betty Foster gone away. Over ten months that house has been on the market and far as I can tell not a single potential purchaser has come forward. In this part of Montana real estate just isn’t shifting like it used to. These are hard times. For everyone. I run a small travel firm and believe me, bookings are down by almost a half. So don’t talk to me about economic miracles. These are hard times and we are all depressed. Betty Foster moved—up to Portland, Oregon, I hear—and in her valise she took my heart. Yes sir.

She never loved her husband, Vern. She told me that often enough. Never loved him from day one of their marriage. So why stay with him, I kept asking and she would look at me and say: Because I was brought up to believe that marriage was for keeps and that’s the way I am and I just can’t change. But you don’t love him, I’d say . That’s true, she’d answer me. That’s very true, but I won’t leave him either. It just doesn’t make any sense, I’d say back to her, frustrated and a little petulant and she’d say: So what? Who says life ever has to make sense? And to that I had no answer! Tell you the truth, although I loved her, Betty remained right to the very end a real mystery to me. All I knew was that I loved her and she loved me. And she was the best thing in my life, the very best ever. We were made for each other: how often did we tell each other that? Vern travelled the length and breadth of the country hawking the expert systems he worked on; and while he was away —often for days at a stretch— Betty and I would get together. Occasionally in my house, but mostly in hers. She forced me to take risks when it would have been so easy for her to come across to me! You know sometimes I honestly believed she wanted him to catch us, just to see his reaction, just to see what would happen. But I don’t think Vern ever knew what was going on, and even if he had found out, I’m not so sure he’d have bothered to do anything about it. Vern was a high-flyer and he lived for his work. Incidentally, it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that he had a string of women tucked away in every major city who kept him company while he was on his sales trips, glamorous women. Betty was beautiful but not in a glamorous way. I always had a hunch Vern —the tall, slim, silent type— was a ladies’ man. With Betty, however, he was cool. Sometimes the two of them would invite me over for drinks at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I never got the impression he really loved his wife. Betty was a fine woman, but to Vern, it appeared, she was just someone who could guarantee him a change of clothes between trips. When we were alone once I asked Betty: Does he insult you or hit you, does he treat you bad? She laughed. Honestly she laughed outright in my face. Vern hit me? You have to be joking. He’s never laid a finger…he hasn’t the slightest interest in me. Then leave him for Christ’s sake, I’d say. Come live with me. But no, she wouldn’t hear of it. And then when Vern died in a freak accident, sure I was upset for her and naturally I never would have wished anything like that on him, but I thought, this is it, she’ll soon be mine, once she gets over the shock. Instead, she crept away in the dead of night. Portland, Oregon, they say.

There’s a smell of honeysuckle in the air and I can hear the crickets in the long grass. I open another Budweiser and gaze across at Betty’s empty house. Jesus, I can’t take my mind off that house. I still go over sometimes to cut Betty’s grass and weed the front lawn. It’s a way of keeping in touch, at least I feel it is, though something tells me too that Betty’s never coming back. Not an easy feeling to bear, honestly. I can remember saying to her, real exasperated: You don’t mind cheating on your husband that you don’t love anyway but you won’t leave him. You’re going to have to explain that one to me Betty, because the way I see things, we’re playing with different sets of marbles. We have one life only, for God’s sake. Let’s make the most of it. Come on Betty, let’s.

Appears Vern was out driving late one night when a sudden storm blew up. A real hell of a wind. One of those huge billboards—advertising I don’t know what—came crashing down through the windshield. Must have killed Vern outright, the poor bastard. His face. Should have seen what it did to his face, Betty said to me afterwards. You should have seen. It was ghastly. And then a few days later she said: My God, I feel so guilty. It should never have happened. Vern didn’t deserve to die like that. I feel so guilty. And she did, though I tried to reason with her. Nobody should die like that, I agree, I said. But it wasn’t you and it wasn’t us that brought that billboard down, so don’t go blaming yourself. She turned on me, and there was a cool, hard look in her eyes. You think not, she said indignantly. You think we had nothing to do with it? Nothing at all, I said. But I knew I’d lost her. There and then I just knew it. Could see it in those beautiful sad grey eyes of hers. That was the last time we ever slept together. Ten days later the house was closed up, the furniture was put in storage and she was away to Portland, Oregon. And we were truly made for each other.

I know every room in that house, as though it were my own home. And every window. The huge bay window on the ground floor where she would stand and wave across at me. The bedroom window with the curtains still drawn, the rose-coloured chintz behind which we made so much love. Loved her so much. To the point of distraction, and jealousy. Once, I remember, one of those rare weekends Vern was home, I sat up through an entire night —it was a Sunday. I sat here on the porch drinking whisky sours and staring up at that bedroom window while by my side a cassette player softly played over and over the Patsy Cline tapes that Betty and I loved so much. Sat and waited till around midnight their bedroom light was switched on. And then I waited some more and drank some more whisky and felt worse and more heartsick, waiting for the light to go off, which didn’t happen till way after one, me just sitting there, sipping at my whisky, gazing up at that light wondering which part of her he was touching now, and now, and now and how she was responding. And it was as though, I truly felt as though she was being unfaithful to me, that I almost had a right to run out back and fetch my shotgun and then rush across there, burst into that room and put a stop to it once and for all. Following morning, around seven, I heard their front door. Saw her standing there in her night-dress, and a moment later Vern by her side in his business suit, attaché case in hand. I saw her kiss him good-bye, saw him wave as he backed out of the drive, saw her wave back to him as he began to pull away, and when he was gone, saw her look across the road, and seeing me, saw her wave, a gentle wave, and saw her wait for me to wave back, but by then I hadn’t the heart and I saw her eyes fall as she turned back into her house and closed the door. And then I saw too that I understood nothing about Betty Foster except that I loved her and would never understand her.

How come you never married, she asked one afternoon, lying there in that bed, the pink satin sheet pulled up over her breasts, her long brown hair spilling over the pillow. Nobody gets to your age without some sort of damage. What happened to you? I’d just turned fifty-four and Betty and I’d been seeing each other for a couple of years by then. O, I said to her, turning in the bed so that I could stroke her breasts: O I guess I was saving myself, all my life I’ve been saving myself for someone like you. She just burst out laughing. Be serious, she said, can’t you just for once give me a straight answer. But it was a straight answer. I never loved anyone like I loved Betty Foster. I guess she never could quite believe that. Yes, there were others, and sometimes I did draw close and hope and get a sense of magic. But no never, never anyone like Betty.

I’m thinking about her long, smooth legs and the tiny black hairs around her nipples that I used to chew on and of what the two of us used to do in her kitchen, or in the living room in front of the open fire winter times, or the times we took steaming hot baths together, she soaping my back as I soaped her feet and kissed her toes one by one, the things we did. I’m sitting there, thinking these things when I hear a car approaching and I look up and see Bill Douglas’s blue Plymouth hatchback swing around the corner. Bill and I go way back. We were in elementary school together and I love that man as I might have loved a brother had I ever had a brother. He turns in and parks under my car port and jumps out, still in his fishing clothes. In his hand he’s carrying a string of yellow perch. These are for supper, he says, handing me the fish. Four good specimens. Sit yourself down, Bill, I say. Take a beer. I’ll just run these out to the fridge. When I get back, Bill is staring across at Betty Foster’s empty house and sipping at his beer. To Bill, just like to me, that empty house has come to be a kind of heartbreak hotel: just looking at it brings you down. Still no takers, he asks. I shake my head. Bill knows about Betty. You can’t hide a thing like that from your best friend. So how’s tricks, he says. Fine, fine, I say, snapping open another Budweiser. And you? A great day’s fishing, you see the results for yourself. It’s an honest enough answer but an evasive one also. Like me, Bill’s been through the mill recently. His wife Marjorie died just over three months ago: of a brain tumour. I’ve been nursing him ever since. Sometimes it seems like the whole of Montana is in mourning for someone or other. Like nothing lives forever, nothing lasts. Jesus, nothing at all. And he loved her. Every bit as much as I loved Betty. Bill deals in foodstuffs. And sure he’s had his ups and downs like the rest of us. But just about the time he feels he’s getting out of the woods, Marjorie goes and dies on him. Right when they were making plans for the great European tour. And it’s aged him. He’s lost hair and what’s left is greyer and his face has gone slack and pale and I know he’s struggling, dear God I know that feeling. Whenever his beer is out of his hand I catch him stroking his wedding ring. Little things like that. And I know that for some pain there simply is no cure. Betty Foster.

Smell that honeysuckle, Bill says taking in a deep breath, just smell that smell. And I know that when he says that he’s smelling something else because I’m smelling it too. His eyes are on Betty’s house, but his heart is elsewhere. Beautiful smell, I say, and he nods but does not look at me. He nods and sighs and tips back his can of beer and then takes another deep breath. Honeysuckle.

He offers to help me clean the fish but I say: No, Bill, your work is done for the day. Today I’m going to look after you. You just sit there and take it easy. I’ll have it done in no time. Now he does smile. Brotherly love just isn’t the same, but it can help when that’s all there is.

About ten minutes later I hear Bill calling through to me. I walk out to the porch with a cloth in my hands. Bill points to the small removal truck now stationed in front of Betty Foster’s place. The removal man has the back of the truck open and standing next to him there’s a woman. I drape the cloth over the railing and sit down. Bill opens another beer and hands it to me. Both of us are concentrating on the woman. The way I see it, she’s about forty-five, average height and trim figure—trim for forty-five, though Betty was a bit stouter and none the worse for that. She’s wearing a black cardigan and black pants. The removal man jumps up into the back of the truck and a moment later he emerges with the end of a table, a dining-table. The woman takes hold of the end of it and the man climbs back in the truck and between them they manoeuvre it all the way out and then up the sloping path and into the house. Bill looks at me as they disappear. My hands are still covered in fish scales, tiny flakes of silver. A moment later the two of them come out of the house. The man hands down four dining-chairs which the woman stacks by the side of the truck. Then together they take in the chairs. Next, what looks like an antique chaise longue. As the man is easing it out of the truck the woman loses her grip and the chaise drops to the ground on one corner. There is the sound of splintering wood as one of the legs snaps. Bill and I hurry across the road to see if we can help. It occurs to me that we could have offered earlier, before the damage was done.

Let me tell you, it’s a strange feeling to be sitting in Betty’s living room surrounded by all this chaos created by someone else’s furniture and boxes and bits and pieces. The air is stale, like in a mausoleum but without the body. The carpets are still in place, the fixtures too and I can’t help thinking just how utterly provisional our lives really are. What you thought would last forever is here today and gone tomorrow. Betty Foster, I loved you!

Pearl. Her name is Pearl. She is pacing up and down the living room making mental notes of where to position her furniture. Bill is fussing with the broken leg of the chaise longue. He is twisting it back and forth, trying to evaluate the damage. He shows it to me for a second opinion, but I have to shrug my shoulders; I know nothing about carpentry. Deciding that the job is within his powers, he offers to take the chaise away and return it once it’s fixed. Pearl seems a little nervous about the whole business and she hesitates before finally accepting. She smiles at Bill and it’s a warm smile and it casts a warm glow on Bill’s face. She’s pretty. Prettier than I first thought. An oval face and chestnut hair which hangs in neat delicate curls. Brown eyes and soft skin, her skin looks soft, as though she’s spent a lifetime taking care of it.

Bill and I carry the chaise longue out of the house and over to my place. He opens the back of the Plymouth, pushes the fishing gear to one side and together we get the chaise inside. Pearl hands Bill the broken leg which he places in the back also. He then locks up. I leave them sitting out on the porch while I fetch the wine. I take it out on a tray with three glasses. Do you mind red wine with your fish, I ask Pearl. Not at all, she says. Wine is wine. Red is fine. She takes the glass in her left hand and for the first time I notice her long, pale fingers, the warm pink glow of blood beneath her nails, and no ring of any sort.

Bill can’t take his eyes off her and all through the meal he’s stealing glances like a kid in high school on his first date. And I’m thinking, Betty Foster, I truly loved you, why did you leave me? But I’m also thinking Pearl is a nice name, and Pearl is a charming lady, and Bill is my best friend. You caught this fish, she says to him. He smiles. You caught this fish? This fish is magnificent. Best fish I’ve eaten in years, best in years. And Bill smiles proudly as she rolls a piece of fish around her palate.

So, tell us about yourself, I say to Pearl when the dishes have been cleared away. She lowers her head. O, she says, what’s to tell? Beyond her, across the street, a light is burning in Betty Foster’s house. The crickets have long gone quiet and there’s just a hint of honeysuckle in the air now. Slowly she raises her eyes and looks first at Bill who a while back seemed to slip into a world of his own—and I know where that is—and then with those deep, dark brown eyes of hers she looks at me—and I’m thinking of Betty Foster’s breasts—and I look back into her eyes, soft and smiling and just a little bit sad and I know that she is right. What is there to tell?

© John Lyons, 1992

The Good Times

montana forestHere is another of the short stories I wrote in 1992. Reading it recently for the first time in over twenty years, it seemed to me that this story, along with many of the others in the collection Bleeding Hearts, had been written by someone else. I remembered nothing about the characters and could not recall the circumstances in which I was writing at the time, nor even where I was living. I have a vague recollection that my life was going through a period of turmoil, or that it was about to go through such a period. It is also clear to me that through these short pieces of fiction, I was trying to undestand something about my life, and trying to muster a little worldly wisdom to pass on to the reader through my narrator. Trying and failing. That is what writing is about for much of the time, doing one’s best, knowing that often it is not good enough and that maybe it will never be good enough but that it is the best you can do at the time. There is the famous quotation from Samuel Beckett: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I’m not so sure that in subsequent years I succeeded in failing better. For the most part I abandoned writing fiction and concentrated on what I believe to be my only hope to progress as a writer, which is to write poetry. There too, I have had my failures, but failure is something that goes with the territory. Writing is, after all, a pursuit, in the sense of a chasing after something elusive: the truth, the philosopher’s stone, whatever. The truth about who we are and what we feel and what we know as conscious, sensitive human beings. It all sounds so easy and yet it is the greatest challenge any of us faces in our lives: to find the truth and to be faithful to it, to live it and to feel it and to express it, and to make it the cornerstone of our relationships. To be true to ourselves and to those we love, and to be true and honest in the wider world. Again, it sounds so easy when put into a simple sentence, but in practice it’s another matter.

Since 1992 I have been through other periods of turmoil: that too is part of the nature of life, the sine curve of our existence, the good times and the bad. Occasionally I think I have come to greater understanding, only to discover that past mistakes have been repeated, past failings have re-emerged, and on the surface I would appear to have learnt nothing from my experiences. So now I take it a day at the time, aware that at any moment life might release another curve ball and I need to do my best in meeting the challenge, and to accept, in all humility, that my best might not be enough.

The Good Times

The things I’ve heard tonight have shocked me. Not that they are shocking in themselves. What’s shocking is that all this should be happening in my house, between my parents. Sure I have plenty of friends who tell me worse stories, about their parents, about the goings-on, the fights, the separations, the divorces. But somehow, I always thought my parents were above that. They always seemed to me to be a perfectly matched couple. Sure they’ve had their differences over the years, but nothing they couldn’t handle. They’ve always kissed and made up. But now this, this has changed everything and I know my life will never be the same again. I will never be able to talk to them with the same trust, I just know that. They haven’t mentioned me yet, but sooner or later they’ll get around to me. I’m not top of their agenda tonight. Kids rarely are. I’ll be fifteen in three months time. In three years I’ll be able to leave home, if I still have a home to leave.

        “How did it happen,” my father is asking her. “How did you meet him?”
       The question irritates my mother, I can tell from her voice.
        “Does that really matter, Ray. Haven’t we been through all this?”
        “I’d like to know,” he says. “I’d just like to know.”
        “You think you’ll feel better if you know,” she asks.
        “No,” he says. “No, I don’t think that. I’d just like to know how it all happened, how it started. Is that too much to ask?”
       It goes quiet for a while. She wants to put a gloss on it, make it sound not as bad as it is. Perhaps she wants to minimise the hurt. These are delicate things to relate.
        “Well,” she begins, “first of all he was just a customer. A regular. In there two, maybe three evenings a week.”
        “Married,” my father asks, “Does he have a wife and family, kids? Is he leaving them for you?”
       My mother is angry.
        “Are you going to let me tell this or are you going to interrupt all the time because if you are….”
       My father says nothing.
        “Anyway,” my mother says, “we just got talking, the way you do. I must have spoken with hundreds of men since I’ve been working there. You know the way it is, men come in after a hard day’s work and they want to talk. If they’re alone they’ll talk to anyone. Especially they talk to the waitresses. It’s all part of the service.”
       I hear my father laugh. It’s a sad, hollow laugh.
        “It’s expected,” my mother says. “Conversation. We have to talk to the customers. You know that. You must have spoken to waitresses in your time.”
        “Spoken yes,” my father says, “but I never took any of them to bed. Never. It was just talk, just normal talk, passing the time.”
       My mother coughs to clear her throat:
        “Well, that’s the way it was with me,” she says. “Normal, everyday talk, passing the time: How you doing? What’s new? How’s your week been? That sort of thing. To begin with. I never dreamt it would…that things might…but that’s the way it happened. Just talk. And then one thing led to another. He asked me out and I said no. And he asked again and again I turned him down, until in the end he asked me so often I just thought what the hell and I went. I never intended to go any further. Just a meal, just an evening. But then it happened. You can’t fight it. It happens. It drags you along. You lose your senses, whatever. The more you get to know someone. I never planned it.”
        “What does he do?” my father asks.
        “Engineering,” she says, “He’s in construction, roads, bridges, civic buildings, that line of work.”
        “In Montana?”
        “Mostly in Montana; a little out-of-state but mostly here.”
        “And he’s doing all right?”
        “He’s working,” my mother says.
       She sounds tired and deflated. This is the downside that she has to negotiate in order to free herself. She’s tired of the conversation and tired of this part of her life. It’s just something she has to go through, she knows that, but she wants it to be over. Like in the films when the police drag someone in off the streets and throw a bunch of questions at them and the suspect answers slowly and in a bored voice. She’s acting like that. Just like in the movies when they’re accounting for their movements, whatever, talking about their life, about so and so, but it all sounds so passionless because they’re saying these things in order to avoid saying other things and they make it sound as though their life is grey and uneventful. There’s no detail. That’s how my mother comes across now. Acting. Going through the motions as politely as possible. But you can hear it in her voice. She’ll be glad when this is all over and she can get on with the rest of her life. My father, on the other hand, is trawling for evidence. He thinks that the more information he has on this guy, the greater chance he has of nailing him. This talk is his last hope. If this fails, he’s lost her. For good.

Honestly, you think you know someone and you know nothing. Nothing at all. I’ve always trusted my mother, told her things, been open and felt that that was a useful thing in life, to have a mother who could listen, give some advice, open my eyes a little to the world. To me she was always a known quantity, inside out. But after tonight, I know nothing, and it hurts. It hurts and it makes me angry to be deceived like this. By her. Unfaithful. My father uses the word as though it only affected him, as though the only one let down in all this is him. What about me? Don’t I have feelings? Haven’t I got a right to bawl her out. I trusted her and she’s such a hypocrite. You see, I’ve been going with Jed now for nearly six months, and one evening, after he’d dropped me off homewe’d been to a movie or something, I had this big long talk with my mother about school and the future and my life and so on, and eventually we got around to Jed and I told her that Jed was fine, that I was very happy with him, that he treated me properly and that I was just prepared to see how things worked out and wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. That’s good she said, smiling at me. I remember her smiling. I can see her face now. That smile, that false, deceitful smile, Jesus. She was fixing me something as we talked, a hot drink and a sandwich. And that smile of hers, a real mother’s smile. A tell-me-more smile. I wasn’t embarrassed. Why should I be, with my own mother? Yes, I said, he is affectionate, we hold hands and he kisses me. And you kiss him back, she said. Yes, I do, I told her, of course I do. But that’s it. Just kissing. That’s good, she said, placing the supper in front of me, that’s how it should be at your age. There’s plenty of time for other things when you’re older. I knew what other things she meant. Half the girls my age in Montana were up to other things.

        “Do you want anything?” I hear my mother ask him.
       My father doesn’t answer. Perhaps he’s shaking his head. Perhaps he’s thinking he wants her and nothing else, he doesn’t want her to go. I don’t know what he’s thinking. But with a question like that I can imagine. He also wants this night to be over, to be forgotten. He wants everything to slip back into place the way it has always been, but deep down he knows that’s not going to happen. He must know that if I know it. And I do. The tone of voice, the confidence, the sheer energy, the calm in my mother’s voice. The detachment. It all says one thing: I’m heading for better times, I can afford a little generosity.
        “Well I do,” she says. “I’m going to fix myself something. You’re sure? “

I hear her stand and so I hurry back to my bed and get in under the covers. The living room door opens. She walks out into the kitchen. I hear the clatter. And I wait. I wait. Wait until she’s finished and all the time I’m thinking how I trusted her, put my life in her hands and now she’s doing this and it’s as though I don’t exist. I’m not in there at all. And it makes me sick. And my father. The way she’s treating him. The way she’s behaved. She doesn’t deserve to be a part of this family. Let her go. But I know that I love her, and have always loved her and cannot picture a life without her. And I want to cry. I want to get up out of bed and shout at her, shake her, pull at her hair, slap her, tell her she has to love us, that she can’t just walk out on us. We need her. Both of us. But I cannot cry. I feel like crying but the tears just won’t come. As though what’s happening is so important there’s no time for tears. I listen and wait and think of the years we’ve had, the years I was growing up, the good times. The times I would say to her: When I’m older I want to be just like you. Lay my head on her lap and look up at her and say: Just like you, and marry a man just like daddy. And see her smile light up, a smile spreading slowly across her face. Just like you, I’d say. Baby talk. But then times change, people change and she has a right to a life of her own, a right to her own happiness. She must be free to do what she feels she must. Because otherwise she cannot be happy. Yet she always used to be happy. She always was happy. I always thought so. She never let on about any misery in her life. I never want you to die, I’d say, never. You understand? Or I want to die before you because I don’t think I could live without you, either of you. And she would smile at me then and think: What a sweet, loving thing to say.

When she’s finished in the kitchen, I creep back out of my bedroom and I can hear them talking again. My father is laughing. I cannot believe it but he is laughing, and she is laughing too. He’s talking now:
        “And the time we were driving down to Reno for Bud’s wedding, when Julie was still a baby, and we got a flat tyre in the middle of the night and when I went to fit the spare that was flat too and we had no pump and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours until a car pulled in and we could get a lift to the nearest town? Do you remember that?”
        And my mother laughs too and I wonder Jesus Christ, what is going on? Next they’ll be taking out the photos and he’ll be saying: Who’s this, Patty, tell me, where was this taken? And she’ll say, as she always says to him: Ray, you have no memory for faces or places and he’ll smile at her and say: Honey, you’re right, goddam it, you’re always right, and laugh as they always laughed in the past. The past. She’s leaving and yet there they are, locked in the past. You can’t go back because there is no back to go to, because the past is always with us. Love, past loves, always with us. And now they are chatting like two old friends about shared days, shared hopes. Shared dreams. The time she burned the turkey on Thanksgiving. The time he went fishing when we were vacationing up by Fort Peck and caught so many fish he couldn’t give them away. Like something miraculous. And I think how happy I would be if Jed could come along with us one vacation and we could all go walking through the forest and have barbecues and lie out in the sun and talk and be with one another and just live, the way we have always lived, as a family. How can he laugh when he knows it’s all over, her mind is made up?
        “Yes,” I hear my mother say, “they were good times. We did have good times. Nothing can take away the good times.”
       And now there is a hint of sadness in her voice.
        “You see,” he says. “You see what we have done we can do again. What we had we can have again.”
        And when he says those words I know just how desperate he is to hold onto her, and I know too that she does not believe him. Her heart is elsewhere. Not denying the past but not tied down by it either. And they are silent. For a long while they are silent and I can picture it from where I stand. That silence. Two worlds. Silence tells you there are two worlds. Silence is separation and the longer it lasts the greater the possibility that the silence will never again be breached. Separate lives. A fork in the road. And I begin to shiver. I want them to speak, to go on speaking, to fill the silence with their memories if nothing else, to fuel the present with words, to keep it alive, the flame glowing. But there is only silence, like the silence of hospitals, just a flicker and then silence. Total silence.

        “Do you love him?” my father asks her.
       I want her to say no, to hesitate and then say: No, no I don’t.
       ”Yes,” she says, “I love him.”
        “Would you stay if you didn’t love him?” my father asks.
       And I think how much I love my father for having the courage to ask such a question.
        “No,” she says, “I wouldn’t stay.”
        “Because you’re not happy,” my father says. “You’re not happy, here, with us.”
       And now my mother is crying. Faintly, barely audible, but there are tears. She, the strong one, the one with all the decisions behind her, is buckling under the strain. He is holding her. If I know anything he is holding her and stroking her hair, running fingers through her hair, brushing away her tears, holding her and loving her and waiting for some sort of an answer, for some sort of explanation as to why, suddenly after seventeen years, his life is in crisis. She’s looking up at him, her face stained with mascara, looking up at him I imagine pleading for understanding, not for forgiveness, just understanding. Nothing that is obvious requires understanding, I think. Not at all. Understanding is like faith, a leap in the dark. To see what another person sees without really seeing it: that is understanding. To know how they feel without feeling it or really knowing how they feel at all. He hasn’t asked her why she no longer loves him. He never will ask that question, I know him. You cannot ask that question and hope for an honest answer, because there is no honest answer. Love is not about honesty. It is about love only. Even an impossible love is love and it may be the most important love in your life, the love of your life, and totally impossible and totally obsessive and enthralling, and totally you, and everything else second best, make-do. An impossible love. My father’s love for this woman who now rests in his arms, in tears, for another man. The silence in tears, in sadness. Unreachable love. Reaching out. Stroking her hair, wiping the tears from her face and she’s not even there. All these things I’m learning in the darkness. And she’s still there, in his arms and perhaps even she is surprised that she found the courage to say no, I wouldn’t stay.

John Lyons, 1992

A woman called Carmela, by Irma Prego,

irmaI can’t remember exactly how I met Irma Prego. I was living in Costa Rica in the early 1990s and teaching a course in Latin American literature in the National University there. Often I would go to the literary evenings organised at El Farolito, the international cultural arm of the Spanish government, and on one occasion Irma must have been there. We became friends immediately. Born in Nicaragua in 1933, Irma had at one time been engaged to the poet, Carlos Martínez Rivas, but her parents had eventually forced her to break off the relationship on the grounds that Carlos was too poor. Well he was poor except for his incredible gifts as a poet.

In 1956 Irma moved to Costa Rica and married a prominent journalist. It was an unhappy marriage and they eventually divorced. Although her ex-husband was still alive, at the time, whenever I saw Irma, she would refer to him as ‘el finado’, the deceased one. She was not very tall, about 5’ 2”, and slightly built, but at the age of sixty kept her hair long, though usually worn up. In her youth she had been incredibly beautiful, incredibly unconventional and the darling of all the young male poets of her day, and she still retained her good looks. She had sharp eyes and a sharp wit and conversing with her was a delight. She wrote her short stories with the same voice with which she spoke, full of irony and good humour, but deadly when it came to references to her ex. And in one way or another, all her fiction centred around him and the details of their unhappy union.

To me Irma was a treasure, and she read and commented on all my poetry and all the stories I was writing at the time. She was also very hospitable and had trained as a cordon bleu chef, and we enjoyed many meals together in our respective homes. A proud and gentle and very generous soul, she was much loved by everyone. The story below is taken from a collection entitled Mensajes al más allá, [Messages for the beyond] published in 1996. The irony is that the stories were intended reading for her ex-husband, el finado, in his premature afterlife.

A woman named Carmela, by Irma Prego

It was not for no reason that they called Carmela the Renegade. That silence, that oblique look, that sharp observation, that sudden leap into the most radical of rebellions.

Carmela married a workaholic, who hated Sundays, hated to relax, hated the silence or simple concentration. A hyperactive, psychotic obsessive, he murdered the atmosphere with all kinds of idiotic interventions: trivial and bad-tempered arguments, muttering, complaints, a real pain in the arse the whole time.

One day, because anything can happen in a day in life, one Friday as it happens, Carmela decided to put a bit of beauty into her Sunday, because Sundays should be lived in style, when time slows to a crawl out of the sheer pleasure of doing nothing, or at least the doing the minimum.

With her meagre housekeeping budget, she discovered in the market some splendid, round and compact tomatoes, some freshly picked peas, some tiny potatoes, some clean white Santa Ana onions, some red and green bell peppers, and some of those prawns that are “al dente” in eight minutes.

She prepared the mayonnaise with all fresh ingredients for the French dressing and as she did so her husband’s smiling face flashed through her mind.

Come Sunday Carmela got up early. She whistled in the kitchen, she sang while she bathed and dried the children, recited poetry as she picked things up off the floor, tidied, dusted and swept. She entered the bathroom singing opera at the top of her voice.

She placed the iceberg lettuce on the white wooden cutting board along with the other beautiful components of the salad. Still life, not at all! Wonderful life!

He became impatient because he couldn’t stand the spontaneous joy of those who got up in a good mood in the morning. So he just buried his head in his newspaper: an utterly compulsive reader, reading was for him just a means of escape, had nothing to do with improving the mind.

Carmela tacked the recipe to the wall (a recipe can also make a home) and began her great manoeuvres. She cut the top off the tomatoes, and how beautiful the rose window of Notre Dame turned out, the magnificent structure of a gothic rose window, and each tomato a different one.

At twelve-fifteen her preparations were ready, tomatoes stuffed with prawns, peas, diced potatoes and French dressing. She proudly plonked them on top of the crisp bed of lettuce and triumphantly decorated the crests with aromatic parsley. On top of the green tablecloth she had crocheted herself she laid out the yellow plates and the crystal glasses. Overjoyed she called out: “Lunch is served!”

He folded his newspaper grumpily. He sat at the table with a frown on his face.
With a vaguely threatening gesture he shook the serviette in the air and confronted the tomato as though it was an enemy!

Carmela could see the stinging indictment she was about to receive. With the stern look of a Juvenile judge he asked peremptorily: “What the hell is this, my girl?” Finding the strength to overcome her weakness and fatigue, Carmela responded boldly:

      “A stuffed tomato!” She felt almost ashamed with her wounded pride.

      “A stuffed tomato!” he exploded. “You know I love my tomatoes sliced,” he said bitterly, “but my tastes count for nothing in this house.”

However, deeply dejected and amid constant grumbles, he devoured four tomatoes with marinated chips, and downed two or three glasses of wine.

The silence at the table could have been cut with a knife, and the lunch intended to brighten up the Sunday had been a heartbreaking disaster.

From that day on she loathed markets, tomatoes and Sundays.

By the time of the siesta Carmela had begun to insult, to scold, to rebuke herself with real fury. Of course it was a disaster, she could get nothing right, life was too much for her, everything uphill all the way, and as for her, she was a silly fool, a hopeless case, a loser, a nobody. An internal speech delivered so angrily, so feverishly, with such intensity that she was convinced that she wasn’t worth a cent, that she was little more than a useless piece of trash. Not surprising that nothing went right for her and she’d never merited a single sincere compliment, nor the slightest recognition, nor even the slightest thanks.

It was then that she began to slink around in the corners as unnoticed as possible, as though she was invisible. She blended into the broom, the iron, the oven, the pressure cooker, the vacuum cleaner. They forgot about her at home, maybe they’d even forgotten before her pathetic attempt to disappear. Occasionally they wondered where she was, but they never saw her; on one occasion they wanted to mention something to her but couldn’t find her; and once they wanted to know when her birthday was but it wasn’t important enough for them to try to find her.

When they lost something, some faceless hand brought it to them, a bodiless cloth rinsed out the bathtub, a soulless creature prepared the meals, the beds were made by the hand and grace of inertia, and the house was cleaned by the electric appliances.

Carmela, an invisible faceless, silent, absent woman, who lived in a house on loan to her from her children who were just passing through, from a husband who was elsewhere, was a slave to them all every day. Carmela, this woman named Carmela, walked out one day for good and left a trail of threads and buttons and needles and dishes and linen and bedding and patches and resentment and empty hours and corners and recipes and shopping lists and thrift and silences upon that huge puddle of tears that she’d never cried.

Translation by John Lyons

Dead Men Don’t Send Flowers

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

20_red_roses_bunchEverybody 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

Augusto Monterroso – a fable and a tale

Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003)

One of the most delightful writers I met in Latin America was Augusto Monterroso. A Guatemalan, he lived for much of his life in Mexico, where he taught in the UNAM university. Before leaving London, I had been given the telephone number of a Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Mejía Sánchez, and I called him as soon as I got to Mexico City. We agreed to meet one lunchtime at Sanborn’s café, which was where all the artists and writers usually met. At that time Mejía Sánchez was going through a difficult patch in his life, and the conversation was rather strained and dull until Augusto Monterroso turned up. He had with him copies of three of his published works and in each of them he wrote a very individual dedication to me. “I hate to burden you,” he said as he handed them to me. “But you can chuck them into the Atlantic when you fly back to London if you like.” Naturally, I held onto them, still have them today, and they are among my most prized possessions.

mont_dedicAugusto, was extremely warm and jovial and the conversation soon became filled with laughter and great stories and even managed to draw poor Mejía Sánchez out of himself. Monterroso’s writings tend to be short pieces, fables and short stories but always with a humorous and satirical slant. The Colombian Nobel Prize Winner, Gabriel García Márquez said of one of his works: “This book should be read with your hands in the air: its danger is based on its sly wisdom and the deadly beauty of its lack of seriousness”. With a sense of humour very much in tune with that of Julio Cortázar, it was no surprise that when the latter died in 1984, his apartment in Paris was ceded to Augusto Monterroso.

Years after that meeting in Mexico, I was asked by Index on Censorhip to translate a story by Monterroso, entitled “Mister Taylor”. This was a satirical tale about the export of shrunken Guatemalan heads to the American market where they had become fashion accessories. The tone, of course, was very much that of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. In a subsequent book, Augusto touchingly singled out this publication with these words: “I’ve just received a copy of Index on Censorship from London where I story of mine, “Mister Taylor”, translated by John Lyons, has just appeared. Most surprising!” The circle was thus complete!

The frog who wanted to be a real frog

There was once a frog who wanted to be a real frog, and every day she struggled to be so. First she bought a mirror into which she gazed for hours hoping to see her longed-for authenticity. Sometimes she thought she’d found it and sometimes she did not, depending on the mood of that day or hour, until she grew tired of this and put the mirror away in a trunk.

Finally she thought that the only way to be sure of her own worth was through the opinion of others, and she began to do her hair and to dress up and undress (when she had no other option) to see if others approved of her and recognised that she was a real frog.

One day she noticed that what they most admired about her was her body, especially her legs, so she started to do squats and jumps in order to have to better legs, and she felt that everyone applauded her.

And so she continued to push herself harder and harder, and was willing to go to any length to get others to consider her to be a real frog, she even allowed her thighs to be ripped off for others to eat, and as the others devoured them she was still able to hear bitterly when they said, “Excellent frog. Tastes just like chicken.”

The mirror that could not sleep

There was once a hand mirror which when left alone with no one looking into it, felt absolutely dreadful, as though he didn’t exist, and perhaps he was right; but the other mirrors laughed at him, and when at night they were put away in the drawer of the dresser they slept soundly, oblivious to the neurotic’s worries.

Translations by John Lyons

Beau Visage Belle Vie

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

ChicagoI 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