Pearl – a short story

honeysucklePEARL

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

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