|by Kim Nesskain Hong|
by Alice Munro
Doree had to take three buses—one to Kincardine, where she waited for one to London, where she waited again, for the city bus out to the facility. She started the trip on a Sunday at nine in the morning. Because of the waiting times between buses, it took her until about two in the afternoon to travel the hundred-odd miles. All that sitting, either on buses or in the depots, was not a thing she should have minded. Her daily work was not of the sitting-down kind.
She was a chambermaid at the Comfort Inn. She scrubbed bathrooms and stripped and made beds and vacuumed rugs and wiped mirrors. She liked the work—it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out so that she could sleep at night. She was seldom faced with a really bad mess, though some of the women she worked with could tell stories to make your hair curl. These women were older than her, and they all thought that she should try to work her way up. They told her that she should get trained for a job behind the desk, while she was still young and decent-looking. But she was content to do what she did. She didn’t want to have to talk to people.
None of the people she worked with knew what had happened. Or, if they did, they didn’t let on. Her picture had been in the paper—they’d used the photo he took of her with all three kids, the new baby, Dimitri, in her arms, and Barbara Ann and Sasha on either side, looking on. Her hair had been long and wavy and brown then, natural in curl and color, as he liked it, and her face bashful and soft—a reflection less of the way she was than of the way he wanted to see her.
Since then, she had cut her hair short and bleached and spiked it, and she had lost a lot of weight. And she went by her second name now: Fleur. Also, the job they had found for her was in a town a good distance away from where she used to live.
This was the third time she had made the trip. The first two times he had refused to see her. If he did that again she would just quit trying. Even if he did see her, she might not come again for a while. She was not going to go overboard. She didn’t really know what she was going to do.
On the first bus she was not too troubled. Just riding along and looking at the scenery. She had grown up on the coast, where there was such a thing as spring, but here winter jumped almost directly into summer. A month ago there had been snow, and now it was hot enough to go bare-armed. Dazzling patches of water lay in the fields, and the sunlight was pouring down through naked branches.
On the second bus she began to feel jittery, and she couldn’t help trying to guess which of the women around her might be going to the same place. They were women alone, usually dressed with some care, maybe to make themselves look as if they were going to church. The older ones looked as if they were going to strict old-fashioned churches where you had to wear a skirt and stockings and some sort of hat, while the younger ones might have belonged to a livelier congregation, which accepted pants suits, bright scarves, earrings, and puffy hairdos. When you took a second look, you saw that some of the pants-suit women were quite as old as the others.
Doree didn’t fit into either category. In the whole year and a half that she had been working she had not bought herself a single new piece of clothing. She wore her uniform at work and her jeans everywhere else. She had got out of the way of wearing makeup because he hadn’t allowed it, and now, though she could have, she didn’t. Her spikes of corn-colored hair didn’t suit her bony bare face, but it didn’t matter.
On the third bus she got a seat by the window, and tried to keep herself calm by reading the signs—both the advertising and the street signs. There was a certain trick she had picked up, to keep her mind occupied. She took the letters of whatever word her eyes lit on, and she tried to see how many new words she could make out of them. “Coffee,” for instance, would give you “fee,” and then “foe,” and “off” and “of,” and “shop” would provide “hop” and “sop” and “so” and—wait a minute—“posh.” Words were more than plentiful on the way out of the city, as they passed billboards, monster stores, car lots, even balloons moored on roofs to advertise sales.
Doree had not told Mrs. Sands about her last two attempts, and probably wouldn’t tell her about this one, either. Mrs. Sands, whom she saw on Monday afternoons, spoke of moving on, though she always said that it would take time, that things could not be hurried. She told Doree that she was doing fine, that she was gradually discovering her own strength.
“I know those words have been done to death,” she said. “But they’re still true.”
She blushed at what she heard herself say—death—but did not make it worse by apologizing.
When Doree was sixteen—that was seven years ago—she’d gone to visit her mother in the hospital every day after school. Her mother was recovering from an operation on her back, which was said to have been serious but not dangerous. Lloyd was an orderly. He and Doree’s mother had in common the fact that they were both old hippies—though Lloyd was actually a few years the younger—and whenever he had time he’d come in and chat with her about the concerts and protest marches they’d both attended, the outrageous people they’d known, drug trips that had knocked them out, that sort of thing.
Lloyd was popular with the patients, because of his jokes and his sure, strong touch. He was stocky and broad-shouldered and authoritative enough to be sometimes taken for a doctor. (Not that he was pleased by that—he held the opinion that a lot of medicine was a fraud and a lot of doctors were jerks.) He had sensitive reddish skin and light hair and bold eyes.
He kissed Doree in the elevator and told her that she was a flower in the desert. Then he laughed at himself, and said, “How original can you get?”
“You’re a poet and don’t know it,” she said, to be kind.
One night her mother died suddenly, of an embolism. Doree’s mother had a lot of women friends who would have taken Doree in—and she stayed with one of them for a time—but the new friend Lloyd was the one Doree preferred. By her next birthday she was pregnant, then married. Lloyd had never been married before, though he had at least two children whose whereabouts he was not certain of. They would have been grown up by then, anyway. His philosophy of life had changed as he got older—he believed now in marriage, constancy, and no birth control. And he found the Sechelt Peninsula, where he and Doree lived, too full of people these days—old friends, old ways of life, old lovers. Soon he and Doree moved across the country to a town they picked from a name on the map: Mildmay. They didn’t live in town; they rented a place in the country. Lloyd got a job in an ice-cream factory. They planted a garden. Lloyd knew a lot about gardening, just as he did about house carpentry, managing a woodstove, and keeping an old car running.
Sasha was born.
“Perfectly natural,” Mrs. Sands said.
Doree said, “Is it?”
Doree always sat on a straight-backed chair in front of the desk, not on the sofa, which had a flowery pattern and cushions. Mrs. Sands moved her own chair to the side of the desk, so that they could talk without any kind of barrier between them.
“I’ve sort’ve been expecting you would,” she said. “I think it’s what I might have done, in your place.”
Mrs. Sands would not have said that in the beginning. A year ago, even, she’d have been more cautious, knowing how Doree would have revolted, then, at the idea that anybody, any living soul, could be in her place. Now she knew that Doree would just take it as a way, even a humble way, of trying to understand.
Mrs. Sands was not like some of them. She was not brisk, not thin, not pretty. Not too old, either. She was about the age that Doree’s mother would have been, though she did not look as if she’d ever been a hippie. Her graying hair was cut short and she had a mole riding on one cheekbone. She wore flat shoes and loose pants and flowered tops. Even when they were of a raspberry or turquoise color these tops did not make her look as if she really cared what she put on—it was more as if somebody had told her she needed to smarten herself up and she had obediently gone shopping for something she thought might do that. Her large, kind, impersonal sobriety drained all assaulting cheerfulness, all insult, out of those clothes.
“Well, the first two times I never saw him,” Doree said. “He wouldn’t come out.”
“But this time he did? He did come out?”
“Yes, he did. But I wouldn’t hardly have known him.”
“I guess so. I guess he’s lost some weight. And those clothes. Uniforms. I never saw him in anything like that.”
“Wasn’t he once an orderly?”
“It wasn’t the same.”
“He looked to you like a different person?”
“No.” Doree caught at her upper lip, trying to think what the difference was. He’d been so still. She had never seen him so still. He hadn’t even seemed to know that he should sit down opposite her. Her first words to him had been “Aren’t you going to sit down?” And he had said, “Is it all right?”
“He looked sort of vacant,” she said. “I wondered if they had him on drugs?”
“Maybe something to keep him on an even keel. Mind you, I don’t know. Did you have a conversation?”
Doree wondered if it could be called that. She had asked him some stupid ordinary questions. How was he feeling? (O.K.) Did he get enough to eat? (He thought so.) Was there any place where he could walk if he wanted to? (Under supervision, yes. He guessed you could call it a place. He guessed you could call it walking.)
She’d said, “You have to get fresh air.”
He’d said, “That’s true.”
She’d nearly asked him if he had made any friends. The way you ask your kid about school. The way, if your kids went to school, you would ask them.
“Yes. Yes,” Mrs. Sands said, nudging the ready box of Kleenex forward. Doree didn’t need it; her eyes were dry. The trouble was in the bottom of her stomach. The heaves.
Mrs. Sands just waited, knowing enough to keep her hands off.
And, as if he’d detected what she was on the verge of saying, Lloyd had told her that there was a psychiatrist who came and talked to him every so often.
“I tell him he’s wasting his time,” Lloyd said. “I know as much as he does.”
That was the only time that he had sounded to Doree anything like himself.
All through the visit her heart had kept thumping. She’d thought she might faint or die. It cost her such an effort to look at him, to get him into her vision as this thin and gray, diffident yet cold, mechanically moving yet uncoördinated man.
She had not said any of this to Mrs. Sands. Mrs. Sands might have asked—tactfully—whom she was afraid of. Herself or him? But she wasn’t afraid.
When Sasha was one and a half, Barbara Ann was born, and, when Barbara Ann was two, they had Dimitri. They had named Sasha together, and then they made a pact that he would name the boys and she would name the girls.
Dimitri was the first one to be colicky. Doree thought that he was maybe not getting enough milk, or that her milk was not rich enough. Or too rich? Not right, anyway. Lloyd had a lady from the La Leche League come and talk to her. Whatever you do, the lady said, you must not put him on a supplementary bottle. That would be the thin edge of the wedge, she said, and pretty soon you would have him rejecting the breast altogether. She spoke as if that would be a major tragedy.
Little did she know that Doree had been giving him a supplement already. And it seemed to be true that he preferred that—he fussed more and more at the breast. By three months he was entirely bottle-fed, and then there was no way to keep it from Lloyd. She told him that her milk had dried up, and she’d had to start supplementing. Lloyd squeezed one breast after the other with frantic determination and succeeded in getting a couple of drops of miserable-looking milk out. He called her a liar. They fought. He said that she was a whore like her mother.
All those hippies were whores, he said.
Soon they made up. But whenever Dimitri was fretful, whenever he had a cold, or was afraid of the older children’s pet rabbit, or still hung on to chairs at the age when his brother and sister had been walking unsupported, the failure to breast-feed was recalled.
The first time Doree had gone to Mrs. Sands’s office, one of the other women there had given her a pamphlet. On the front of it was a gold cross and words made up of gold and purple letters: “When Your Loss Seems Unbearable . . .” Inside, there was a softly colored picture of Jesus and some finer print that Doree did not read.
In her chair in front of the desk, still clutching the pamphlet, Doree began to shake. Mrs. Sands had to pry it out of her hand.
“Did somebody give you this?” Mrs. Sands said.
Doree said, “Her,” and jerked her head at the closed door.
“You don’t want it?”
“When you’re down is when they’ll try and get at you,” Doree said, and then realized that this was something her mother had said, when some ladies with a similar message came to visit her in the hospital. “They think you’ll fall on your knees and then it’ll be all right.”
Mrs. Sands sighed.
“Well,” she said. “It’s certainly not that simple.”
“Not even possible,” Doree said.
They never spoke of Lloyd, in those days. Doree never thought of him if she could help it, and then only as if he were some terrible accident of nature.
“Even if I believed in that stuff,” she said—meaning what was in the pamphlet—“it would only be so that . . .” She meant to say that such a belief would be convenient because she could then think of Lloyd burning in Hell, or something of that sort, but she was unable to go on, because it was just too stupid to talk about. And because of a familiar impediment, that was like a hammer hitting her in the belly.
Lloyd thought that their children should be educated at home. This was not for religious reasons—going against dinosaurs and cavemen and monkeys and all that—but because he wanted them to be close to their parents and to be introduced to the world carefully and gradually, rather than thrown into it all at once. “I just happen to think they are my kids,” he said. “I mean they are our kids, not the Department of Education’s kids.”
Doree wasn’t sure that she could handle this, but it turned out that the Department of Education had guidelines, and lesson plans that you could get from your local school. Sasha was a bright boy who practically taught himself to read, and the other two were still too little to learn much yet. In the evenings and on weekends Lloyd taught Sasha about geography and the solar system and the hibernation of animals and how a car runs, covering each subject as the questions came up. Pretty soon Sasha was ahead of the school plans, but Doree picked them up anyway and put him through the exercises right on time so that the law would be satisfied.
There was another mother in the district doing homeschooling. Her name was Maggie and she had a minivan. Lloyd needed his car to get to work, and Doree had not learned to drive, so she was glad when Maggie offered her a ride to the school once a week to turn in the finished exercises and pick up the new ones. Of course they took all the children along. Maggie had two boys. The older one had so many allergies that she had to keep a strict eye on everything he ate—that was why she taught him at home. And then it seemed that she might as well keep the younger one there as well. He wanted to stay with his brother and he had a problem with asthma, anyway.
How grateful Doree was then, comparing her healthy three. Lloyd said that it was because she’d had her children when she was still young, while Maggie had waited until she was on the verge of menopause. He was exaggerating how old Maggie was, but it was true that she had waited. She was an optometrist. She and her husband had been partners, and they hadn’t started their family until she could leave the practice and they had a house in the country.
Maggie’s hair was pepper-and-salt, cropped close to her head. She was tall, flat-chested, cheerful, and opinionated. Lloyd called her the Lezzie. Only behind her back, of course. He kidded with her on the phone but mouthed at Doree, “It’s the Lezzie.” That didn’t really bother Doree—he called lots of women Lezzies. But she was afraid that the kidding would seem overly friendly to Maggie, an intrusion, or at least a waste of time.
“You want to speak to the ole lady. Yeah, I got her right here. She’s rubbing my work pants up and down the scrub board. See, I only got the one pair of pants. Anyway, I believe in keeping her busy.”
Doree and Maggie got into the habit of shopping for groceries together, after they’d picked up the papers at the school. Then sometimes they got take-out coffees at Tim Horton’s and took the children to Riverside Park. They sat on a bench while Sasha and Maggie’s boys raced around or hung from the climbing contraptions, and Barbara Ann pumped on the swing and Dimitri played in the sandbox. Or they sat in the mini, if it was cold. They talked mostly about the children, and things they cooked, but somehow Doree found out about how Maggie had trekked around Europe before training as an optometrist and Maggie found out how young Doree had been when she got married. Also about how easily she had become pregnant at first, and how she didn’t so easily anymore, and how that made Lloyd suspicious, so that he went through her dresser drawers looking for birth-control pills—thinking she must be taking them on the sly.
“And are you?” Maggie asked.
Doree was shocked. She said she wouldn’t dare.
“I mean, I’d think that was awful to do, without telling him. It’s just kind of a joke when he goes looking for them.”
“Oh,” Maggie said.
And one time Maggie said, “Is everything all right with you? I mean in your marriage? You’re happy?”
Doree said yes, without hesitation. After that she was more careful about what she said. She saw that there were things that she was used to that another person might not understand. Lloyd had a certain way of looking at things; that was just how he was. Even when she’d first met him, in the hospital, he’d been like that. The head nurse was a starchy sort of person, so he’d called her Mrs. Bitch-out-of-hell, instead of her name, which was Mrs. Mitchell. He said it so fast that you could barely catch on. He’d thought that she picked favorites, and he wasn’t one of them. Now there was somebody he detested at the ice-cream factory, somebody he called Suck-stick Louie. Doree didn’t know the man’s real name. But at least that proved that it wasn’t only women who provoked him.
Doree was pretty sure that these people weren’t as bad as Lloyd thought, but it was no use contradicting him. Perhaps men just had to have enemies, the way they had to have their jokes. And sometimes Lloyd did make the enemies into jokes, just as if he were laughing at himself. She was even allowed to laugh with him, as long as she wasn’t the one who started the laughing.
She hoped that he wouldn’t get that way about Maggie. At times she was afraid she saw something of the sort coming. If he prevented her from riding to the school and the grocery store with Maggie it would be a big inconvenience. But worse would be the shame. She would have to make up some stupid lie, to explain things. But Maggie would know—at least she would know that Doree was lying, and she would interpret that, probably, as meaning that Doree was in a worse situation than she really was. Maggie had her own sharp no-nonsense way of looking at things.
Then Doree asked herself why she should care, anyway, what Maggie might think. Maggie was an outsider, not even somebody Doree felt particularly comfortable with. It was Lloyd and Doree and their family that mattered. Lloyd said that, and he was right. The truth of things between them, the bond, was not something that anybody else could understand and it was not anybody else’s business. If Doree could watch her own loyalty it would be all right.
It got worse, gradually. No direct forbidding, but more criticism. Lloyd coming up with the theory that Maggie’s boys’ allergies and asthma might be Maggie’s fault. The reason was often the mother, he said. He used to see it at the hospital all the time. The overcontrolling, usually overeducated mother.
“Some of the time kids are just born with something,” Doree said, unwisely. “You can’t say it’s the mother every time.”
“Oh. Why can’t I?”
“I didn’t mean you. I didn’t mean you can’t. I meant couldn’t they be born—”
“Since when are you such a medical authority?”
“I didn’t say I was.”
“No. And you’re not.”
Bad to worse. He wanted to know what they talked about, she and Maggie.
“I don’t know. Nothing, really.”
“That’s funny. Two women riding in a car. First I heard of it. Two women talking about nothing. She is out to break us up.”
“Who is? Maggie?”
“I’ve got experience of her kind of woman.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Careful. Don’t call me silly.”
“What would she want to do that for?”
“How am I supposed to know? She just wants to do it. You wait. You’ll see. She’ll get you over there bawling and whining about what a bastard I am.”
And in fact it turned out as he had said. At least it would certainly have looked that way, to Lloyd. She did find herself at around ten o’clock one night in Maggie’s kitchen, sniffling back her tears and drinking herbal tea. Maggie’s husband had said, “What the hell?” when she knocked—she heard him through the door. He hadn’t known who she was. She’d said, “I’m really sorry to bother you—” while he stared at her with lifted eyebrows and a tight mouth. And then Maggie had come.
Doree had walked all the way there in the dark, first along the gravel road that she and Lloyd lived on, then on the highway. She headed for the ditch every time a car came, and that slowed her down considerably. She did take a look at the cars that passed, thinking that one of them might be Lloyd. She didn’t want him to find her, not yet, not till he was scared out of his craziness. Other times she had been able to scare him out of it herself, by weeping and howling and even banging her head on the floor, chanting, “It’s not true, it’s not true, it’s not true,” over and over. Finally he would back down. He would say, “O.K., O.K. I’ll believe you. Honey, be quiet. Think of the kids. I’ll believe you, honest. Just stop.”
But tonight she had pulled herself together just as she was about to start that performance. She had put on her coat and walked out the door, with him calling after her, “Don’t do this. I warn you!”
Maggie’s husband had gone to bed, not looking any better pleased about things, while Doree kept saying, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, barging in on you at this time of the night.”
“Oh, shut up,” Maggie said, kind and businesslike. “Do you want a glass of wine?”
“I don’t drink.”
“Then you’d better not start now. I’ll get you some tea. It’s very soothing. Raspberry-camomile. It’s not the kids, is it?”
Maggie took her coat and handed her a wad of Kleenex for her eyes and nose. “Don’t try to tell me yet. We’ll soon get you settled down.”
Even when she was partway settled down Doree didn’t want to blurt out the whole truth, and let Maggie know that she herself was at the heart of the problem. More than that, she didn’t want to have to explain Lloyd. No matter how worn out she got with him, he was still the closest person in the world to her, and she felt that everything would collapse if she were to bring herself to tell someone exactly how he was, if she were to be entirely disloyal.
She said that she and Lloyd had got into an old argument and she was so sick and tired of it that all she’d wanted was to get out. But she would get over it, she said. They would.
“Happens to every couple sometime,” Maggie said.
The phone rang then, and Maggie answered.
“Yes. She’s O.K. She just needed to walk something out of her system. Fine. O.K. then, I’ll deliver her home in the morning. No trouble. O.K. Good night.
“That was him,” she said. “I guess you heard.”
“How did he sound? Did he sound normal?”
Maggie laughed. “Well, I don’t know how he sounds when he’s normal, do I? He didn’t sound drunk.”
“He doesn’t drink, either. We don’t even have coffee in the house.”
“Want some toast?”
In the morning, early, Maggie drove her home. Maggie’s husband hadn’t left for work yet, and he stayed with the boys.
Maggie was in a hurry to get back, so she just said, “Bye-bye. Phone me if you need to talk,” as she turned the minivan around in the yard.
It was a cold morning in early spring, snow still on the ground, but there was Lloyd sitting on the steps without a jacket on.
“Good morning,” he said, in a loud, sarcastically polite voice. And she said good morning, in a voice that pretended not to notice his.
He did not move aside to let her up the steps.
“You can’t go in there,” he said.
She decided to take this lightly.
“Not even if I say please? Please.”
He looked at her but did not answer. He smiled with his lips held together.
“Lloyd?” she said. “Lloyd?”
“You better not go in.”
“I didn’t tell her anything, Lloyd. I’m sorry I walked out. I just needed a breathing space, I guess.”
“Better not go in.”
“What’s the matter with you? Where are the kids?”
He shook his head, as he did when she said something he didn’t like to hear. Something mildly rude, like “holy shit.”
“Lloyd. Where are the kids?”
He shifted just a little, so that she could pass if she liked.
Dimitri still in his crib, lying sideways. Barbara Ann on the floor beside her bed, as if she’d got out or been pulled out. Sasha by the kitchen door—he had tried to get away. He was the only one with bruises on his throat. The pillow had done for the others.
“When I phoned last night?” Lloyd said. “When I phoned, it had already happened.
“You brought it all on yourself,” he said.
The verdict was that he was insane, he couldn’t be tried. He was criminally insane—he had to be put in a secure institution.
Doree had run out of the house and was stumbling around the yard, holding her arms tight across her stomach as if she had been sliced open and was trying to keep herself together. This was the scene that Maggie saw, when she came back. She had had a premonition, and had turned the minivan around in the road. Her first thought was that Doree had been hit or kicked in the stomach by her husband. She could make nothing out of the noises Doree was making. But Lloyd, who was still sitting on the steps, moved aside courteously for her, without a word, and she went into the house and found what she was now expecting to find. She phoned the police.
For some time Doree kept stuffing whatever she could grab into her mouth. After the dirt and grass it was sheets or towels or her own clothing. As if she were trying to stifle not just the howls that rose up but the scene in her head. She was given a shot of something, regularly, to quiet her down, and this worked. In fact she became very quiet, though not catatonic. She was said to be stabilized. When she got out of the hospital and the social worker brought her to this new place, Mrs. Sands took over, found her somewhere to live, found her a job, established the routine of talking with her once a week. Maggie would have come to see her, but she was the one person Doree could not stand to see. Mrs. Sands said that that feeling was natural—it was the association. She said that Maggie would understand.
Mrs. Sands said that whether or not Doree continued to visit Lloyd was up to her. “I’m not here to approve or disapprove, you know. Did it make you feel good to see him? Or bad?”
“I don’t know.”
Doree could not explain that it had not really seemed to be him she was seeing. It was almost like seeing a ghost. So pale. Pale loose clothes on him, shoes that didn’t make any noise—probably slippers—on his feet. She had the impression that some of his hair had fallen out. His thick and wavy, honey-colored hair. There seemed to be no breadth to his shoulders, no hollow in his collarbone where she used to rest her head.
What he had said, afterward, to the police—and it was quoted in the newspapers—was “I did it to save them the misery.”
“The misery of knowing that their mother had walked out on them,” he said.
That was burned into Doree’s brain and maybe when she decided to try to see him it had been with the idea of making him take it back. Making him see, and admit, how things had really gone.
“You told me to stop contradicting you or get out of the house. So I got out of the house.”
“I only went to Maggie’s for one night. I fully intended to come back. I wasn’t walking out on anybody.”
She remembered perfectly how the argument had started. She had bought a tin of spaghetti that had a very slight dent in it. Because of that it had been on sale and she had been pleased with her thriftiness. She had thought that she was doing something smart. But she didn’t tell him that, once he had begun questioning her about it. For some reason she’d thought it better to pretend that she hadn’t noticed.
Anybody would notice, he said. We could have all been poisoned. What was the matter with her? Or was that what she had in mind? Was she planning to try it out on the kids or on him?
She had told him not to be crazy.
He had said that it wasn’t him who was crazy. Who but a crazy woman would buy poison for her family?
The children had been watching from the doorway of the front room. That was the last time she’d seen them alive.
So was that what she had been thinking—that she could make him see, finally, who it was that was crazy?
When she realized what was in her head, she should have got off the bus. She could have got off even at the gates, with the few other women who plodded up the drive. She could have crossed the road and waited for the bus back to the city. Probably some people did that. They were going to make a visit and then decided not to. People probably did that all the time.
But maybe it was better that she had gone on, and seen him so strange and wasted. Not a person worth blaming for anything. Not a person. He was like a character in a dream.
She had dreams. In one dream she had run out of the house after finding them, and Lloyd had started to laugh in his old easy way, and then she had heard Sasha laughing behind her and it had dawned on her, wonderfully, that they were all playing a joke.
“You asked me if it made me feel good or bad when I saw him? Last time, you asked me?”
“Yes, I did,” Mrs. Sands said.
“I had to think about it.”
“I decided it made me feel bad. So I haven’t gone again.”
It was hard to tell with Mrs. Sands, but the nod she gave seemed to show some satisfaction or approval.
So when Doree decided that she would go again, after all, she thought that it was better not to mention it. And since it was hard not to mention whatever happened to her—there being so little, most of the time—she phoned and cancelled her appointment. She said that she was going on a holiday. They were getting into summer, when holidays were the usual thing. With a friend, she said.
“You aren’t wearing the jacket you had on last week.”
“That wasn’t last week.”
“It was three weeks ago. The weather’s hot now. This is lighter but I don’t really need it. You don’t need a jacket at all.”
He asked about her trip, what buses she’d had to take from Mildmay.
She told him that she wasn’t living there anymore. She told him where she lived, and about the three buses.
“That’s quite a trek for you. Do you like living in a bigger place?”
“It’s easier to get work there.”
“So you work?”
She had told him last time about where she lived, the buses, where she worked.
“I clean rooms in a motel,” she said. “I told you.”
“Yes. Yes. I forgot. I’m sorry. Do you ever think about going back to school? Night school?”
She said that she did think about it but never seriously enough to do anything. She said that she didn’t mind the work she was doing.
Then it seemed as if they could not think of anything more to say.
He sighed. He said, “Sorry. Sorry. I guess I’m not so used to conversation.”
“So what do you do all the time?”
“I guess I read quite a bit. Kind of meditate. Informally.”
“I appreciate you coming here. It means a lot to me. But don’t think you have to keep it up. I mean, just when you want to. Just come when you want to. If something comes up, or if you don’t feel like it— What I’m trying to say is, just the fact that you could come at all, that you even came once, that’s a bonus for me. Do you get what I mean?”
She said yes, she thought so.
He said that he didn’t want to interfere with her life.
“You’re not,” she said.
“Was that what you were going to say? I thought you were going to say something else.”
In fact, she had almost said, What life?
No, she said, not really, nothing else.
Three more weeks and she got a phone call. It was Mrs. Sands herself on the line, not one of the women in the office.
“Oh, Doree. I thought you might not be back yet. From your holiday. So you are back?”
“Yes,” Doree said, trying to think where she could say she had been.
“But you hadn’t got around to arranging another appointment?”
“No. Not yet.”
“That’s O.K. I was just checking. You are all right?”
“I’m all right.”
“Fine. Fine. You know where I am if you ever need me. Ever just want to have a talk.”
“So take care.”
She hadn’t mentioned Lloyd, hadn’t asked if the visits had continued. Well, of course, Doree had said that they weren’t going to. But Mrs. Sands was pretty good, usually, about sensing what was going on. Pretty good at holding off, too, when she understood that a question might not get her anywhere. Doree didn’t know what she would have said, if asked—whether she would have backtracked and told a lie or come out with the truth. She had gone back, in fact, the very next Sunday after he more or less told her that it didn’t matter whether she came or not.
He had a cold. He didn’t know how he’d got it.
Maybe he had been coming down with it, he said, the last time he saw her, and that was why he’d been morose.
Morose. She seldom had anything to do, nowadays, with anyone who used a word like that, and it sounded strange to her. But he had always had a habit of using such words, and of course at one time they hadn’t struck her as they did now.
“Do I seem like a different person to you?” he asked.
“Well, you look different,” she said cautiously. “Don’t I?”
“You look beautiful,” he said sadly.
Something softened in her. But she fought against it.
“Do you feel different?” he asked. “Do you feel like a different person?”
She said she didn’t know. “Do you?”
He said, “Altogether.”
Later in the week a large envelope was given to her at work. It had been addressed to her care of the motel. It contained several sheets of paper, with writing on both sides. She didn’t think at first of its being from him—she somehow had the idea that people in prison were not allowed to write letters. But, of course, he was a different sort of prisoner. He was not a criminal. He was only criminally insane.
There was no date on the document and not even a “Dear Doree.” It just started talking to her in such a way that she thought it had to be some sort of religious invitation:
People are looking all over for the solution. Their minds are sore (from looking). So many things jostling around and hurting them. You can see in their faces all their bruises and pains. They are troubled. They rush around. They have to shop and go to the laundromat and get their hair cut and earn a living or pick up their welfare checks. The poor ones have to do that and the rich ones have to look hard for the best ways to spend their money. That is work too. They have to build the best houses with gold faucets for their hot and cold water. And their Audis and magical toothbrushes and all possible contraptions and then burglar alarms to protect against slaughter and all neigh neither rich nor poor have any peace in their souls. I was going to write “neighbor” instead of “neither,” why was that? I have not got any neighbor here. Where I am at least people have got beyond a lot of confusion. They know what their possessions are and always will be and they don’t even have to buy or cook their own food. Or choose it. Choices are eliminated.
All we that are here can get is what we can get out of our own minds.
At the beginning all in my head was purturbation (Sp?). There was everlasting storm, and I would knock my head against cement in the hope of getting rid of it. Stopping my agony and my life. So punishments were meted. I got hosed down and tied up and drugs introduced in my bloodstream. I am not complaining either, because I had to learn there is no profit in that. Nor is it any different from the so-called real world, in which people drink and carry on and commit crimes to eliminate their thoughts which are painful. And often they get hauled off and incarcerated but it is not long enough for them to come out on the other side. And what is that? It is either total insanity or peace.
Peace. I arrived at peace and am still sane. I imagine reading this now you are thinking I am going to say something about God Jesus or at any rate Buddha as if I had arrived at a religious conversion. No. I do not close my eyes and get lifted up by any specific Higher Power. I do not really know what is meant by any of that. What I do is Know Myself. Know Thyself is some kind of Commandment from somewhere, probably the Bible so at least in that I may have followed Christianity. Also, To Thy Own Self Be True—I have attempted that if it is in the Bible also. It does not say which parts—the bad or the good—to be true to so it is not intended as a guide to morality. Also Know Thyself does not relate either to morality as we know it in Behavior. But Behavior is not really my concern because I have been judged quite correctly as a person who cannot be trusted to judge how he should behave and that is the reason I am here.
Back to the Know part in Know Thyself. I can say perfectly soberly that I know myself and I know the worst I am capable of and I know that I have done it. I am judged by the World as a Monster and I have no quarrel with that, even though I might say in passing that people who rain down bombs or burn cities or starve and murder hundreds of thousands of people are not generally considered Monsters but are showered with medals and honors, only acts against small numbers being considered shocking and evil. This being not meant as an excuse but just observation.
What I Know in Myself is my own Evil. That is the secret of my comfort. I mean I know my Worst. It may be worse than other people’s worst but in fact I do not have to think or worry about that. No excuses. I am at peace. Am I a Monster? The World says so and if it is said so then I agree. But then I say, the World does not have any real meaning for me. I am My Self and have no chance to be any other Self. I could say that I was crazy then but what does that mean? Crazy. Sane. I am I. I could not change my I then and I cannot change it now.
Doree, if you have read this far, there is one special thing I want to tell you about but cannot write it down. If you ever think of coming back here then maybe I can tell you. Do not think I am heartless. It isn’t that I wouldn’t change things if I could but I can’t.
I am sending this to your place of work which I remember and the name of the town so my brain is working fine in some respects.
She thought that they would have to discuss this piece of writing at their next meeting and she read it over several times, but she could not think of anything to say. What she really wanted to talk about was whatever he had said was impossible to put in writing. But when she saw him again he behaved as if he had never written to her at all. She searched for a topic and told him about a once famous folksinger who had stayed at the motel that week. To her surprise he knew more than she did about the singer’s career. It turned out that he had a television, or at least access to one, and watched some shows and, of course, the news, regularly. That gave them a bit more to talk about, until she could not help herself.
“What was the thing you couldn’t tell me except in person?”
He said that he wished she hadn’t asked him. He didn’t know if they were ready to discuss it.
Then she was afraid that it would be something she really could not handle, something unbearable, such as that he still loved her. “Love” was a word she could not stand to hear.
“O.K.,” she said. “Maybe we’re not.”
Then she said, “Still, you better tell me. If I walked out of here and was struck down by a car then I would never know, and you would never have the chance to tell me again.”
“True,” he said.
“So what is it?”
“Next time. Next time. Sometimes I can’t talk anymore. I want to but I just dry up, talking.”
I have been thinking of you Doree ever since you left and regret I disappointed you. When you are sitting opposite me I tend to get more emotional than perhaps I show. It is not my right to go emotional in front of you, since you certainly have the right more than me and you are always very controlled. So I am going to reverse what I said before because I have come to the conclusion I can write to you after all better than I can talk.
Now where do I start?
That is one way but not right because I never believed in Heaven and Hell, etc. As far as I was concerned that was always a pile of crap. So it must sound pretty weird of me to bring up the subject now.
I will just say then: I have seen the children.
I have seen them and talked to them.
There. What are you thinking at the moment? You are thinking well, now he is really round the bend. Or, it’s a dream and he can’t distinguish a dream, he doesn’t know the difference between a dream and awake. But I want to tell you I do know the difference and what I know is, they exist. I say they exist, not they are alive, because alive means in our particular Dimension, and I am not saying that is where they are. In fact I think they are not. But they do exist and it must be that there is another Dimension or maybe innumerable Dimensions, but what I know is that I have got access to whatever one they are in. Possibly I got hold of this from being so much on my own and having to think and think and with such as I have to think about. So after such suffering and solitude there is a Grace that has seen the way to giving me this reward. Me the very one that deserves it the least to the world’s way of thinking.
Well if you have kept reading this far and not torn this to pieces you must want to know something. Such as how they are. They are fine. Really happy and smart. They don’t seem to have any memory of anything bad. They are maybe a little older than they were but that is hard to say. They seem to understand at different levels. Yes. You can notice with Dimitri that he has learned to talk which he was not able to do. They are in a room I can partly recognize. It’s like our house but more spacious and nicer. I asked them how they were being looked after and they just laughed at me and said something like they were able to look after themselves. I think Sasha was the one who said that. Sometimes they don’t talk separately or at least I can’t separate their voices but their identities are quite clear and I must say, joyful.
Please don’t conclude that I am crazy. That is the fear that made me not want to tell you about this. I was crazy at one time but believe me I have shed all my old craziness like the bear sheds his coat. Or maybe I should say the snake sheds his skin. I know that if I had not done that I would never have been given this ability to reconnect with Sasha and Barbara Ann and Dimitri. Now I wish that you could be granted this chance as well because if it is a matter of deserving then you are way ahead of me. It may be harder for you to do because you live in the world so much more than I do but at least I can give you this information—the Truth—and in telling you I have seen them hope that it will make your heart lighter.
Doree wondered what Mrs. Sands would say or think, if she read this letter. Mrs. Sands would be careful, of course. She would be careful not to pass any outright verdict of craziness but she would carefully, kindly, steer Doree around in that direction. Or you might say she wouldn’t steer—she would just pull the confusion away so that Doree would have to face what would then seem to have been her own conclusion all along. She would have to put the whole dangerous nonsense—this was Mrs. Sands speaking—out of her mind.
That was why Doree was not going anywhere near her.
Doree did think that he was crazy. And in what he had written there seemed to be some trace of the old bragging. She didn’t write back. Days went by. Weeks. She didn’t alter her opinion but she still held on to what he’d written, like a secret. And from time to time, when she was in the middle of spraying a bathroom mirror or tightening a sheet, a feeling came over her. For almost two years she had not taken any notice of the things that generally made people happy, such as nice weather or flowers in bloom or the smell of a bakery. She still did not have that spontaneous sense of happiness, exactly, but she had a reminder of what it was like. It had nothing to do with the weather or flowers. It was the idea of the children in what he had called their Dimension that came sneaking up on her in this way, and for the first time brought a light feeling to her, not pain.
In all the time since what had happened had happened, any thought of the children had been something she had to get rid of, pull out immediately like a knife in her throat. She could not think their names, and if she heard a name that sounded like one of theirs she had to pull that out, too. Even children’s voices, their shrieks and slapping feet as they ran to and from the motel swimming pool, had to be banished by a sort of gate that she could slam down behind her ears. What was different now was that she had a refuge she could go to as soon as such dangers rose anywhere around her.
And who had given it to her? Not Mrs. Sands—that was for sure. Not in all those hours sitting by the desk with the Kleenex discreetly handy.
Lloyd had given it to her. Lloyd, that terrible person, that isolated and insane person.
Insane if you wanted to call it that. But wasn’t it possible that what he said was true—that he had come out on the other side? And who was to say that the visions of a person who had done such a thing and made such a journey might not mean something?
This notion wormed its way into her head and stayed there.
Along with the thought that Lloyd, of all people, might be the person she should be with now. What other use could she be in the world—she seemed to be saying this to somebody, probably to Mrs. Sands—what was she here for if not at least to listen to him?
I didn’t say “forgive,” she said to Mrs. Sands in her head. I would never say that. I would never do it.
But think. Aren’t I just as cut off by what happened as he is? Nobody who knew about it would want me around. All I can do is remind people of what nobody can stand to be reminded of.
Disguise wasn’t possible, not really. That crown of yellow spikes was pathetic.
So she found herself travelling on the bus again, heading down the highway. She remembered those nights right after her mother had died, when she would sneak out to meet Lloyd, lying to her mother’s friend, the woman she was staying with, about where she was going. She remembered the friend’s name, her mother’s friend’s name. Laurie.
Who but Lloyd would remember the children’s names now, or the color of their eyes? Mrs. Sands, when she had to mention them, did not even call them children, but “your family,” putting them in one clump together.
Going to meet Lloyd in those days, lying to Laurie, she had felt no guilt, only a sense of destiny, submission. She had felt that she was put on earth for no reason other than to be with him and try to understand him.
Well, it wasn’t like that now. It was not the same.
She was sitting on the front seat across from the driver. She had a clear view through the windshield. And that was why she was the only passenger on the bus, the only person other than the driver, to see a pickup truck pull out from a side road without even slowing down, to see it rock across the empty Sunday-morning highway in front of them and plunge into the ditch. And to see something even stranger: the driver of the truck flying through the air in a manner that seemed both swift and slow, absurd and graceful. He landed in the gravel at the edge of the pavement, on the opposite side of the highway.
The other passengers didn’t know why the driver had put on the brakes and brought them to a sudden uncomfortable stop. And at first all that Doree thought was, How did he get out? That young man or boy, who must have fallen asleep at the wheel. How did he fly out of the truck and launch himself so elegantly into the air?
“Fellow right in front of us,” the driver said to his passengers. He was trying to speak loudly and calmly, but there was a tremor of amazement, something like awe, in his voice. “Just plowed across the road and into the ditch. We’ll be on our way again as soon as we can and in the meantime please don’t get out of the bus.”
As if she had not heard that, or had some special right to be useful, Doree got out behind him. He did not reprimand her.
“Goddam asshole,” he said as they crossed the road and there was nothing in his voice now but anger and exasperation. “Goddam asshole kid, can you believe it?”
The boy was lying on his back, arms and legs flung out, like somebody making an angel in the snow. Only there was gravel around him, not snow. His eyes were not quite closed. He was so young, a boy who had shot up tall before he even needed to shave. Possibly without a driver’s license.
The driver was talking on his phone.
“Mile or so south of Bayfield, on 21, east side of the road.”
A trickle of pink foam came out from under the boy’s head, near the ear. It did not look like blood at all, but like the stuff you skim off the strawberries when you’re making jam.
Doree crouched down beside him. She laid a hand on his chest. It was still. She bent her ear close. Somebody had ironed his shirt recently—it had that smell.
But her fingers on his smooth neck found a pulse.
She remembered something she’d been told. It was Lloyd who had told her, in case one of the children had an accident and he wasn’t there. The tongue. The tongue can block the breathing, if it has fallen into the back of the throat. She laid the fingers of one hand on the boy’s forehead and two fingers of the other hand under his chin. Press down on the forehead, press up on the chin, to clear the airway. A slight firm tilt.
If he still didn’t breathe she would have to breathe into him.
She pinches the nostrils, takes a deep breath, seals his mouth with her lips, and breathes. Two breaths and check. Two breaths and check.
Another male voice, not the driver’s. A motorist must have stopped. “You want this blanket under his head?” She shook her head tightly. She had remembered something else, about not moving the victim, so that you would not injure the spinal cord. She enveloped his mouth. She pressed his warm fresh skin. She breathed and waited. She breathed and waited again. And a faint moisture seemed to rise against her face.
The driver said something but she could not look up. Then she felt it for sure. A breath out of the boy’s mouth. She spread her hand on the skin of his chest and at first she could not tell if it was rising and falling, because of her own trembling.
It was a true breath. The airway was open. He was breathing on his own. He was breathing.
“Just lay it over him,” she said to the man with the blanket. “To keep him warm.”
“Is he alive?” the driver said, bending over her.
She nodded. Her fingers found the pulse again. The horrible pink stuff had not continued to flow. Maybe it was nothing important. Not from his brain.
“I can’t hold the bus for you,” the driver said. “We’re behind schedule as it is.”
The motorist said, “That’s O.K. I can take over.”
Be quiet, be quiet, she wanted to tell them. It seemed to her that silence was necessary, that everything in the world outside the boy’s body had to concentrate, help it not to lose track of its duty to breathe.
Shy but steady whiffs now, a sweet obedience in the chest. Keep on, keep on.
“You hear that? This guy says he’ll stay and watch out for him,” the driver said. “Ambulance is coming as fast as they can.”
“Go on,” Doree said. “I’ll hitch a ride to town with them and catch you on your way back tonight.”
He had to bend to hear her. She spoke dismissively, without raising her head, as if she were the one whose breath was precious.
“You sure?” he said.
“You don’t have to get to London?”No.
Biography of Alice Munro