The Diver

Alfred Neven DuMont

St. Martin's Press

The old man opens his eyes. Still groggy from sleep, he searches for a ray of light, the smallest glimmer. But the night has lost nothing of its deep darkness and keeps jealous watch over its gloom. And as he knows from last night, and the night before last, and many nights before that, he still has a long way to go, an eternity of waiting. Much too soon, blessed sleep has deserted him, throwing him back into loneliness. Soon the relentless questions will close in on him again, silent as bats on powerful, beating wings with an unerring instinct for the quickest way to their goal, their tiny heads and bulging eyes thrust forward. The same sharp pain again and again: Why did she go? Was it me? Was it my fault?
Then she’s with him again. His heart thumps as he hears her bright laughter ring out, followed by the twitters and coos only she can make. When she laughs, he thinks happily, she is happy, released from the depths of her sadness. Released at last from weeks in that ink-black sea, she exultantly proclaims her freedom. Only someone who knows the endless, forlorn blackness—the unending plunge into the chasm of nothingness, the abyss that awaits us from which there is no return—can have such a bright, angelic laugh. His eyes blur and tears run down his wrinkled cheeks. He cannot speak. He hears a certain sound in the distance. His lips tremble. For a long time he clings to the apparition, won’t let it go, won’t surrender the lost happiness that has long since vanished. And he knows that he has fallen asleep again and been rewarded in his bitterness, if only for a short time. Time, that intangible, incomprehensible mass.
Is that Ann bending over him? He senses her face nearby. He thinks he can hear her breathing. Her eyes look at him through the darkness, observing, questioning, searching. She doesn’t speak and he doesn’t speak. Silence can last longer than death, he thinks. He turns his head to the side on the damp pillow and thinks of Gloria, his beloved daughter, and how she has just made his heart leap with joy in the middle of the night.
*   *   *
The old man sat up. His forehead was sweaty. His pajama shirt stuck to him. He shivered from the cold. Was it raining outside? Did he hear something? No, it was nothing. He swung his legs to the side, put his bare feet on the floor. He got used to the pains in his feet long ago. He didn’t need any help—all that pushing and pulling, forward backward sideways, her cold hands on his shoulders, his arms, his back. What is he, a baby? No, God knows he’s not. Just an old man. He thought, What have I done that I don’t know where I’m going anymore? When did I lose my way? When did everything inside me get bogged down in endless questions and worries, senseless stammering? Why does this inscrutable God have no mercy? Why should he demand understanding, sympathy, forbearance, and compassion when he closes himself off from all such hopes? When he doesn’t even acknowledge, much less reward, the humility I struggle to maintain day in and day out. What sort of a God is it who makes me his servant, his slave? My Lord, my distant master, not answerable to a single soul. Hasn’t he ever heard me laughing in the night? He who punishes the innocent, the honest, and the devout and lets escape, unscathed, the dark, guilty figures—the drones, the flatterers, the facile, the secret thieves and sanctimonious murderers—or even rewards and honors them, gives them a place beside him at his table up above?
*   *   *
The old man walked through the garden with Ann. Her voice came to him from far away, as it often did, “Did you take your pills on schedule?”
His steps were quite hesitant today, his progress labored. He wobbled from one side to the other, stopped, then hurried on after her. Curious, he thought, is the garden getting bigger, or am I getting smaller? I think I am.
“Did you say something?” asked Ann sharply.
“Yes, darling. I think the garden is growing every day—getting bigger.”
“No, you’re wrong. The borders haven’t changed for decades. We did buy a piece of land from the neighbors once. You wanted to plant a vegetable garden and some trees.”
She walked at his side, straight-backed as always, a slim, stately woman not about to defer to anyone. She seemed to be growing, too. Would she soon be taller than he? Her face with its clearly etched lines, more deeply engraved with each passing year, severe, as if in the years and decades past one hadn’t given her enough—he felt a pang of guilt.
“I remember two trees I planted, Ann, a cherry tree and an apple tree. The cherry died and the apple hasn’t ever borne much fruit, I admit, but I think it’s coming along. It just needs time. And then the vegetable garden: together we were going to—”
“Yes, that’s right. But you left me in the lurch and I was on my own.”
“You’re right, darling, I didn’t have the time. The company was insatiable.”
“You allowed the work to devour you.” He listened as her laugh turned into a deep, barking cough he thought would never end. Finally she said, “You were too good to your people. You got too involved with every single one of them. When you’re the boss you have to put your foot down sometimes, like Father did.”
“That was after the war. Everybody was in awe of his toughness.”
“He was a model boss, a wonderful man. He wasn’t about to kowtow to anyone. The Nazis made him pay a price for that, and it almost cost him his life. I was still a child but I remember at home we almost died of fear. The Gestapo came to the house, asked Mother questions, and once they took her away for a whole day. My sister and I and my aunt who’d been bombed out and lost her husband on the Russian front—we were all trembling for her safety. They’d already sentenced Father to death for his connections to the Resistance. He only survived because the Allies liberated us. My life began anew. He was my lodestar.”
They had sat down on two wooden chairs, recent purchases of Ann’s. He leaned back in his.
“Not everyone was as courageous as your father, that’s for sure.”
“Your family was more cautious. Your father was a fellow traveler and marched in their parades. He made accommodations, like most people.”
Her voice had its sharp edge again.
He gestured toward the far end of the garden. “Look at that, the raspberry bushes are still there. They’ll be blooming soon. You planted them when the children were still small, darling. We were eating raspberries for half the summer.”
They walked slowly back to the house. A cold wind was picking up. The willow’s bright green was the first delight of spring. Its thick roots ate their way deeper and deeper into the earth, then reappeared as new shoots. The root system spread out farther than the crown, overcoming the earth’s crust with its thick arteries and then erupting again. He stumbled, quickly thrust his cane forward while his left hand clutched her for support.
He squinted at her, her body bolt upright as always. A soldier, he thought, a soldier. His Ann, perfect as always in her elegant, close-fitting cape over which she’d thrown a wide, light-colored shawl. Her hair bright silver, her lovely face uncommunicative. It wasn’t really a mask, he thought. No, but there was something like a mysterious varnish spread over it, a protective coating.
“Did you take your pills?” she persisted.
*   *   *
Anton came over on Sunday with the children, his three blond boys. They ran to their grandfather, hugged him with their skinny arms, whispered something he didn’t understand into his ear with their hot mouths, then disappeared into the garden like a whirlwind. Soon thereafter he heard Anton’s deep voice scolding them.
“Get out of that pond right now! Immediately! You’ll catch cold. Put your shoes and socks back on! Do you hear me?”
It was like hearing himself yelling. At Gloria. She’s standing up to her skinny knees in the water, with her skirt hitched up and bending over to watch the fish. She pays him no heed. Her brows are knit. He says nothing more, otherwise she’ll reply, “Papi, please be quiet! I’m sad.”
Why hadn’t he answered, “Me too, Gloria, I’m sad too.…” Perhaps that would have healed him, to say that to her. No one else would have understood, least of all Anton. Ann might have. But she was sick in those days. Her hip was hurting her—the operation, the long recovery—she needed his help. Why did I remain silent, never talk about myself? Yes sure, the business successes. It was easy to report good news: their wedding, Anton’s birth and then Gloria’s, the good grades they got—Anton did—the Order of Merit pinned to his chest by the prime minister, then that time in Greece when he pulled the little boy (his face was already turning blue) out of the sea and the mother kissed his hands in gratitude and made the sign of the cross on his forehead. And what about his doubts? His fears? His loneliness? Long ago, yes, at boarding school, he could talk to his friend Egon about them. They would pull their beds close together at night and lie there whispering to each other: one’s mother hadn’t written, the other’s father was on a trip with his girlfriend. One couldn’t understand the Latin homework, the math teacher hated the other. Luisa, his first love, a chubby-faced classmate asleep in the girls’ dorm, hadn’t looked at him but had smiled at another boy instead. Egon had died young. It had taken him a long time to really understand the loss. He needed a long time for a lot of things, too long to really understand them. Daily routine held him in thrall.
I just flutter around, he thought. No … I crash to the ground. I’m like a reptile, only looking out for myself, always just trying to survive. Is that what life is? He understood nothing. Now he tortured himself: It’s too late now. Is it too late for me, old and sick as I am? It’s very late, he thought. All is gone and forgotten.
In the dining room, his son sat down in Albert’s usual seat and with a laugh directed everyone else to their places, beginning with the three boys. Who did Anton think he was, claiming the chair at the head of the table with such assurance when he had been the head of the family for decades, the paterfamilias? At some point, just once, in a fit of generosity, he had ceded the head chair to his son. It was a friendly gesture for that one day, nothing more. But Anton, endearing as he always was but not very sensitive, had continued to sit there Sunday after Sunday when they celebrated the family dinner so precious to Ann.
Should he say something? Not seriously, no, but more offhandedly—a little humorous remark? Not today, but sometime in the future, to put a stop to it once and for all. But he never got around to it. Anton was showing off today more than usual, playing the boss, talking about “my company” as if it were his and his alone and he’d been the one who’d built it up and made it strong. Even though his father—the predecessor and longtime head of the firm who had only ceded the position to him a few years ago—was sitting two seats away from him, eating his appetizer and taking his first sips of the Sunday Riesling.
Were his hands trembling again? Was that starting up again? He put them under the table, resting them on his knees. Don’t get upset now, he thought, that will just make it worse.
Prost, Anton!” he called out. “I’ve already had a taste. Nice to have you and the boys here. It’s a great joy, a nice change of pace for Ann and me.”
“What do mean, Father? You’re the one who always puts so much store in tradition and family solidarity.”
The old man could hear all too well the recrimination in his son’s voice.
“It’s a lovely way to honor the mother who took care of you … you and Gloria … so lovingly.”
“Thank you,” said Ann firmly. “Enough pretty speeches for now! And let’s take life as it comes. We have to make peace with it…”
Her words grew indistinct in his ears.
He thought, I don’t have to talk. It’s not necessary. But I have to think of you, Gloria, I can’t help it. Forgive me, dearest, for not leaving you in peace, the peace you so much deserve. But if you too refuse yourself to me, I won’t know who else to turn to. Tell me, what shall I do?
Again, Ann’s compelling voice rang out across the table, “Please eat, Albert. You’re holding us all up. The children can hardly wait to get to the lamb.”
Anton’s inquisitive glance didn’t escape him. The boys giggled. He said to Anton, “I hope you’ll all come again next time! It’s been weeks since Lori was here. She should make some time for us too…”
Anton seemed annoyed and not in the mood for jokes. The old man saw his wife’s frown, the reproach in her eyes, her lips slowly parting to speak. “All right, Albert. Of course we miss her today, but we understand. Today’s world has cast off our old-fashioned narrow-mindedness and replaced it with tolerance. Everyone has a right to their own fulfillment.… Let’s not ruin this nice day, shall we? Let’s be cheerful!”
*   *   *
That evening he was in the bathroom trying to unbutton his shirt, but his fingers had lost their strength and were fluttering wildly again. He sat down heavily on the chair that had been shoehorned into the cramped space just for him. His pants had fallen to the floor and were bunched around his ankles He bent down to free his feet, tugging impatiently at the pant legs until they finally gave in and he was holding the wrinkled pants in his hand trying to decide what to do with them. Should he get up, go into the dressing room, and hang them on the valet stand, or was it simpler to just drop them and undo the shirt buttons that were so uncooperative today? He heard her steps.
“But, darling, why didn’t you call me? How was I to know you were getting ready for bed so early today? How many times have I told you I’m happy to help? You need me!”
He could hear the reproach in her voice. Ann stood next to him and had the shirt unbuttoned in a flash.
“I wanted to do it myself. I just needed more time.”
“Admit that you can’t do it alone anymore. It takes you forever!”
“It depends on the day. I don’t usually need any help. I can handle things by myself.”
“Why be so stubborn? Is it so hard to let someone help you? Don’t be so pigheaded.”
“What would you know about it?” he croaked, scratching his head.
She handed him his pajamas, picked up the pants, took his arm, and walked him into the bedroom.
“Why did you have to bring up Lori? You know very well how it hurts Anton’s feelings. And in front of the boys…”
“Why doesn’t he go get her back? I thought they were married.” He was already lying down and Ann was sitting on the side of the bed.
“You have to understand. Times have changed. Women today don’t want to be put on display the way we were. Nobody wants to make sacrifices anymore the way we did.”
Was that another reproach?
The old man stared at the ceiling. “Maybe you’re right. We men always thought of ourselves first. That’s all different now. Everything’s changed. That’s what you mean, Ann, isn’t it?”
She stroked his forehead and gave him a weary smile. “Maybe so, my dear. My life has just passed by at your side.”
“I need to sleep now, Ann.”
“You should sleep. I’ll turn out the light and leave the door open a crack, as always, so a bit of light gets in.”
“I’m not a child.”
“No, of course you’re not.”
*   *   *
His hand, calm and obedient, felt for the light switch, reached over to the shelf, and felt for the notebooks: Gloria’s diaries. The old man passed a hand over his eyes. “Gloria, thirteen years old,” his lips whispered. His fingers glided across the wrinkled pages with their awkward handwriting. The letters danced before his eyes. He could recite entire pages by heart. And yet he read the entries again and again just as one never tires of looking at a treasure again and again, with beating heart and undiminished joy. There were some passages he was especially fond of.
Had a fight with Mami. She can be so critical sometimes. She stepped on my left foot and I screamed. She claimed it was an accident. I don’t know if I believe her—no, I don’t believe her. But that’s just it: she doesn’t believe me, either. It’s not like it used to be. Later, Papi came home. He came straight up to my room and comforted me, gave me a hug and kiss. He understands me. I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful Papi. My friends all think he’s great.
And in the next notebook, when she was fourteen:
I got my period again, it’s so stupid. It had to start on the weekend and Mami went to the lake to go swimming, typical! At first Papi didn’t know what to do with me. Then we played a stupid game of dominos, but we laughed a lot, and later we played his beloved Ping-Pong. He tried to let me win but I saw right through him. Later he suddenly got sad. I think he’s like me. He laughed in such a weird way—very brightly, and couldn’t stop. Christie came over later and we slept cuddled up next to each other.
And then:
Summer vacation in Valais is the best, much better than Sylt. I don’t like the ocean. I guess I’m afraid of the big waves. Once I was way out, too far from shore, Papi thought, and I thought I was going to go under. In the mountains we always have the same house, actually just a big log cabin where you can hear everything. For example, when Papi laughs you can hear it all over the house, or when my parents fight, which they always do on vacation. This time I was allowed to invite Christie. We get along fantastically. Usually Papi comes with us on hikes. He carries the rucksack and annoys us with his warnings to watch our step. But when we start talking about boys, he walks on ahead a bit. He’s probably embarrassed. But I know he always keeps an eye on us. Our house sits a little above the village. In the next house down the hill, there’s a family with two boys, towheaded twins. Unfortunately, Christie and I both like the same one. He’s tall, has a cute nose and a cheeky smile. Really sweet. Papi has talked to their parents. They only speak French, so it’s going to be hard for us when we go out to dinner together, as has been arranged.
He remembered that when they were driving back down after their weeks in the mountains, he looked in the rearview mirror and saw tears in Gloria’s eyes. Her first case of lovesickness, as he thought at the time. Apparently, one evening she’d kissed the blond young man and then confessed to Ann that they were engaged—secretly, of course. No one must know! But Gloria never wanted to get engaged again, not even when she’d grown into a beautiful young woman. When he made cautious inquiries, she said, “No, no. Unfortunately not! It’s out of the question in my case. I just wouldn’t have the courage to get through it. Someone like me shouldn’t even think about having children.”
Not that she hadn’t had opportunities, among others a promising young man who worked in the company. He would have liked to have him as a son-in-law. But no, she took life hard, too hard. On the other hand, her memories of their vacations must have been indelible. She always returned to the Valais even though she didn’t talk about it. She found her way back there once more shortly before she died.
*   *   *
The next day, Erwin came to see him. For a long time now he’d been visiting him as a friend instead of as his doctor. Ann stood by the door as he entered the house. She hesitated a split second before she let him in. “I didn’t expect you today.”
He took off his coat. “Will summer never come? What an inhospitable place we live in!”
“What a nice surprise to see you today!”
He turned to face her and held out his hand. “You know I come every two weeks and always on the same day, if I can. I think your husband’s happy to see me. He broods too much.”
Lost in thought, she gave him a stern look. “You’re right, and I’m grateful to you.”
“No need for gratitude. As I’ve said, it’s a pleasure to come as a friend. Your husband hasn’t been my patient in a long time.”
“A hopeless case, isn’t that what you said? You didn’t cure him, although you certainly had enough time to.”
“No, I meant that in general, not about him specifically, but in general: a hopeless case. We’re all hopeless cases. However, I look more for the hope that’s present in every hopeless case. And at least we stabilized him and kept him from getting worse. Don’t forget, he wanted to follow his daughter.”
Ann walked ahead of him into the living room.
“I won’t keep him waiting any longer. He must be expecting you. Black tea for you, too?”
She opened the door to the library, a narrow, high room with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books. The old man was sitting in a wing chair with his feet on a hassock and his lap full of books. Ann tarried a moment, watching the two of them greet each other warmly. Without further ado, Erwin pulled over a chair and sat down next to her husband. There was a tender smile on Albert’s face. A smile he hadn’t given her for a very long time, she thought.
“All right then, a cup of tea for the doctor, and you’d like another one too, I assume?” As she left the room, her movements were almost mechanical.
When Ann returned a few minutes later with a diminutive tray and set it down on the hassock between the two men, her eyes were flashing. “But please, no dwelling on the same old problem again! Everything has to end sometime!”
“All very well for you to say, Ann,” responded Erwin, “but at what point do you declare something over and done with? Many questions remain unresolved, sometimes your whole life long. I don’t know of any formulas for answering them. But we’ll try to follow your advice, dear Ann. We’ll make an effort.”
Now even Albert was laughing. “We’ll make an effort, dearest. Don’t worry.”
She walked the few steps back to him and stroked his temples. “That’s just what I was going to say to you.”
Once she had closed the door behind her, the two friends sipped their tea and winked at each other like naughty boys.
“You can see she’s trying, Erwin.”
“Of course, but you don’t make it any easier for her. You won’t let her get near you or share your grief. You won’t share. Gloria was her daughter too, after all.”
“We’ve gone through all this so many times already, the eternal question I kept going over and over when I was your patient. How can you separate two people who have been married for more than forty years? Didn’t she just say not to keep harping on the same old problem? And didn’t you say we would try. So keep your word!”
“Albert, Albert, don’t play games with me! Don’t confuse the sorrow of losing a loved one with the topic of your marriage.”
“You’re right, Erwin. You’ve caught me out. But which of those is harder to resolve? You took the easy way out and got a divorce, you malingerer!”
“And suffered agonies, my friend, agonies! And afterward, it was worse than before.”
“Serves you right!” Albert gloated. “There’s a price to be paid for everything. But a psychiatrist who throws in the towel—that’s surrendering to the enemy, isn’t it? What kind of advertisement is that for your practice?”
“Touché! Congratulations! I have skeletons in my closet, too. You’ll just have to live with them.”
“I’m happy to live with them. It’s a pleasure. It would be unimaginably horrible, to have a perfect human being for a friend! You’d be right about everything—even more than you are already.”
“Well, Albert, you love questions and I love answers. Is there a God? No, God is dead and we have to cope with things ourselves.”
“By simply adopting his commandments as our own.”
“I only meant to say that we complement each other perfectly. I let you have your biblical God and you let me have my Nietzsche.”
They opened the wide glass door out to the garden. The rain had stopped and the sun was breaking through the clouds. They walked across the still-wet grass, looked at the flowers Ann tended so lovingly, and regarded the sky. They were seized by a rare sense of lightness. Albert walked behind his friend with small, hesitant steps but ignored his own clumsiness.
*   *   *
After Erwin had gone, the old man remained in the garden. With his handkerchief he wiped dry the bench farthest from the house, sat down, and listened to the birds who seemed to enjoy the sunshine as much as he did. The sound of music drifted over from a distant house—probably a garden party—with talk and laughter mixed in. To be sociable, he laughed too and even clapped his hands in time to the music.
There’s no reason not to be happy, he told himself out loud. Gloria was grateful whenever they did something that made her happy. It got harder and harder as the years went by. She withdrew more and more, as if into a fortress she had chosen for herself. Christie was the only person she allowed to be with her. But God knows her loneliness was anything but her own choice! She fought back tooth and nail, with increasing ferocity. Hesitantly at first, but then decisively, she rejected any help from outside. Her final, desperate attempts to escape: dashing off to the Caribbean, the Cayman Islands, south to the Atlas Mountains, north to the polar ice. Throwing herself desperately into the arms of men from other continents. She clung so hard to life, took what it offered, tried to keep her footing, grasped at every stone and branch, even at the edge of the abyss. And all to no avail. There was no footing to be had. Had she really said to him, with a shy smile in her eyes, “You’re the one closest to me”? Had she meant it that way? But when she said it she was still just a child.
He took a deep breath. The music seemed to grow louder. The breeze carried it over to him. He clapped his hands again, trying to match the rhythm.
What’s wrong with me, he thought. Have I gotten entangled in her? That must be what Ann meant when she said to leave her in peace! Didn’t Erwin tell her we would try? Was he talking more to me than to Ann? Ann needed no advice. She was always so sure of her way! The first year of mourning was long past, a second had followed, and a third was drawing to a close. Some part of him had died with her. That’s it. That’s the crux of it. I loved her more than I love myself. That’s my failing: my self-indulgence. If that’s so, he thought, then maybe I’m mourning less for her than for the part of me she took to the grave with her—the best part, certainly.
The evening sky had darkened; the distant music broke off abruptly. He hurried back to the house.
What storm must I be on guard against, he thought, what am I seeking shelter from? What did he, a sick old man, really have to lose? Did he fear death? The thought was laughable. Gloria had gone on before him. Wouldn’t it be a joy to follow her beacon? Then he would be free of the burden, the life that oppressed and weighed him down. Gloria’s loss was an invitation to an eternity almost completely elusive for him. At best, he caught fleeting glimpses of it. But the body that housed him—this old, worn-out body—was a painful drag. Had his soul already gone on ahead, following Gloria, and what remained was nothing but repetition, ossification, loneliness, a dead shell? With few exceptions, others viewed him as a leper whose time was up, a spoiled article waiting to be recalled. Why was he so bitter and resentful? No one had insulted him or done him any harm. It was he who virtually invited those around him—his family first and foremost—to treat him with indulgence and pity. And then they shared their concerns about him behind his back. Gloria’s death had been the catalyst, the shock that was so hard to recover from. But the cause was deeper and independent of it. What remained was himself as the afflicted one, his need for condolence, his plea for attention, all wrapped in a fatal, impregnable pride that was completely, utterly unjustified. His former achievements—in business, society, the family—if they had ever been worth anything at all, were faded by now, evaporated like drops of warm summer rain in the sunshine. The shining hero with a medal on his chest! Was that him? No matter: gone, squandered, over and done with. Who else would remember when he himself had such trouble cobbling together the pitiful remains of his past (to the extent they were still to be found) and presenting them once more to his family and himself?
*   *   *
That evening the two of them ate supper without speaking. There was cold fish and a salad with just a few sips of white wine in addition to water, with fruit for dessert. At last the silence was broken by Ann who seemed as self-absorbed as he was. “Tell me about Erwin. What’s he up to? He seemed to be in good spirits.”
“He is, and why not? We had a nice chat, nothing earthshaking. We’ve gotten past all that psychological stuff, thank God.”
“Don’t forget, there was a time not so long ago when he helped you a lot.”
“If memory serves, he was Gloria’s doctor for many years—her faithful companion, as he put it—”
“And couldn’t fix anything.”
The old man laid aside his knife and fork, straightened up in his chair, and took a deep breath. “I beg to differ, my dear. Many days he smoothed her path and dispelled her gloomy thoughts. Then we started consulting him too.”
You started consulting him, Albert. You needed him, not me. I know where I’m going.”
“Fine, I did!”
Ann gave him a stern, almost ferocious look. “Results are what count, and he was a failure.”
“In Gloria’s case—in the end—yes, you could say he failed. It was a defeat. Her longing to cross over was too strong. Even the best doctor is no match for the will of nature. How could he have succeeded when later on even the psychiatric hospitals couldn’t do anything? But really, wasn’t it our defeat too? It was mine for sure.”
Ann had stood up. She was putting the dishes on the cart to be wheeled into the kitchen. “No, don’t get up. It’s easier for me to do it by myself. You always get a tremor if a glass or a plate falls and breaks, like a few days ago.”
“I know. It was my fault.”
Ann turned away brusquely. “It’s always got to be somebody’s ‘fault’! My God, such trivialities aren’t worth worrying about, are they? You have this illness just like many other people and I do all I can to ease your burden. But no one’s at fault. If anyone is to be blamed for our suffering, it’s God. And as everyone knows, God is without fault. The blame falls back on us humans. Those are the rules of the game. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.”
Long before she was done he started to smile.
“You’re talking about Christianity. If you go a little further back, the ancient Greeks were not so strict. Their gods mingled with mortals.”
She called from the kitchen, “You’re always either down in the dumps or making a joke out of everything, Albert. Can’t you find a happy medium? Please, darling, it would make our life so much easier!”
He had gotten up and was standing in the kitchen door with his wineglass in his hand. He nodded his head slowly forward and whispered, almost inaudibly, “Yes, my darling.”
“Hang on to your glass. I just remembered that Anton is going to stop by this evening. He wants to see how you’re doing.”
With his head still lowered, the old man repeated, “Yes, darling.”
Ann was putting the packed-up leftovers into the refrigerator. “Talk louder; I can’t hear you.”
He returned to the dining room, carefully put the glass down, and although he must have heard the doorbell ringing, he continued on to the foot of the stairs, ascended to his bedroom, and closed the door behind him.
Before she opened the door and let Anton in, she called up the stairs after him, “I told you I couldn’t understand what you were saying!”
*   *   *
Ann hugged her son tightly, clasped him in a sudden wave of desperation, tears in her eyes. “Oh, God,” she stammered, “it’s so hard! First Gloria and now him…”
Anton gently tried to free himself from her embrace, kissing his mother’s forehead and her wet cheeks. “I seem to have arrived just in time.”
“You’re my only joy, the last one I still have,” she sobbed. “I’m so happy you’re here, you dear sweet boy.”
Gallantly he took her arm and escorted her into the living room. “What’s the old man been up to this time?” He laughed. “You know he doesn’t mean it, Mother. Don’t take every word he says so seriously! You know very well that Gloria inherited her depression from him. No trace of that in you that I know of. You’re strong! I’m your child in that regard.”
She sat close beside him on the sofa and stroked his left hand while her eyes shone up at him. “You have beautiful fair hair, such wonderful curls, and so thick. Who did you get them from?”
He laughed again. “Only you can answer that, Mother. It must have been some handsome prince passing through that you couldn’t resist. Who knows? You got married not long before I was born—giving rise to the legend of me being premature.”
Ann sat up straight and smoothed her blouse. “Your mother is a decent woman! Now go upstairs and bring your father back down. He may be sulking, which he does more and more. Make him come down and be with us. You’ll do him more good than that fawning shrink.”
Anton took the stairs in a few bounds, stopped at the old man’s door and knocked briskly. “Open up, Father! You don’t have to lock yourself in—I came to see you. Can you hear me?” He put his ear to the door, strained to hear something. “Open up, please. I want to see you. We all want what’s best for you.”
Finally, he heard a voice from within. “Why not just come in? It’s not locked.”
Entering the room he could just barely make out the dim figure of his father stretched out on the bed. “Why are you lying here in the dark, Father? Or have you gone to bed already?”
The old man raised himself up on his elbows. “Take a closer look, my son! I don’t usually go to bed in a suit and tie. Perhaps it will come to that some day, who knows, but not today. No, I just wanted to rest a bit and take the strain off my eyes.”
“Are you coming down? Mother’s waiting. We wanted to drink a glass of wine together.”
Albert sat up, stretched his back, and took his son’s hand. “Is that what we wanted? If you say so. And you don’t think the two of you would rather be alone together? I wouldn’t want to interfere. And you know, I’ve always got to be thinking about something. It’s getting worse and worse.”
“And you’re just realizing that now, Father? You think too much; everybody says so. You’ll end up as some kind of mental millipede with so many legs you won’t be able to find your way.”
“You think so? But which ‘way’ do you mean? I don’t understand. I don’t know if I still have a path to follow. I feel I reached my goal long ago. I’m already there. Forward motion stops, of course. One turns in circles, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, like an old dancing bear in the circus.”
His son took his hand firmly in his own and snorted with laughter. “What a lively imagination you have! But much too melancholy, not cheerful enough. Come along now! Let’s go downstairs. Please, Mother’s going to wonder what’s keeping us. Let’s try to be a little bit happy.”
Albert gave a mischievous smile, “Okay, let’s be happy! If you give me no choice, we’ll be happy!”
Once they were seated at the table, the evening dragged on a bit. At his father’s request, Anton had gone down to the wine cellar and come back with a bottle of Burgundy. The old man took the first taste. “We waited too long with this one! It’s not at its best anymore. It’s lost some strength, just a shadow of its former self.”
Anton filled his mother’s glass while she got out nuts and raisins. Then he took a big mouthful himself. “Nonsense! It’s the same as always, no trace of weakness. On the contrary, it’s wonderfully mature, just like Mother. Here’s to you, Mother!”
They toasted her, clinking their glasses as in days gone by.
“You’re a good son, Anton!” said Albert.
“Bravo!” cried Ann.
*   *   *
The old man lay in his bed, wakeful and restless. The lamp on the bedside table was still on and cast large shadows on the wall. Why can’t I talk? he thought. Why this inability to communicate? Is it because I’ve become distrustful, because I feel like a convict? How did it come to this? Is it others’ fault perhaps, Anton’s and Ann’s? Am I worried that they don’t want to hear what I have to say? Maybe it will seem strange to them, abstruse, or worse: completely inconsequential, insignificant, laughable. Why am I afraid of being afraid? Why this inscrutable, fathomless fear with no concrete object? It’s just there, meaningless, unsubstantial, without any way to pin it down. Or have I locked myself up out of pride, stupidity, lack of love? But I did love them, my daughter, my son. Should I go back downstairs and tell them the love is still there? It hasn’t gone out yet. Let’s bring it up from the cellar like that bottle of Burgundy that tasted so good despite—no, because of—its age. Anton said so, and Ann nodded in agreement. Will they laugh at me or snigger to themselves about the crazy old man and his strange notions? What if they do? What do I have to lose? Nothing, nothing at all! The wall of respect I constructed so carefully around myself lies in ruins long since. Its fragments evoke a weary smile at best. What did Anton—my only son, my only remaining child, my heir and successor—what’s that he said to me on the stairs? “Let’s try to be a little bit happy.” What he meant was: Try to be a little happy, old man! Is that really too much to ask? Why so stingy? How about a modest sign of closeness, affection, a little attempt to understand? Do I really want to tell them: I’m alone in the world; I don’t need you; go where you want—to the devil as far as I’m concerned; leave me alone! Didn’t I tell myself that when I took leave of Gloria, I lost my fear of death? You only need to follow; she has shown the way. But if that’s so, then why be grouchy, carping, suspicious? Why can’t I enjoy my waning days? If the others have settled opinions about me, I may have shrunk to a mere grimace in their eyes. Why not shatter the distorting mirror they think they see me reflected in? Confuse them, show them something new and better! Flip yourself over like a hole card. Instead of the dreary, everyday back showing on the table, display the face: Look! The king of hearts! It trumps everything except the ace. If the ace is played, then and only then can you lower your flag and surrender.
*   *   *
He knew he would find Ann in the garden first thing in the morning. She loved the early morning smell, the dew that evaporates as soon as the sun comes up. The old man had woken up early and dispensed with his usual morning brooding and ruminating. Instead, he got up, put on his robe, and hurried out as best he could to find her in the garden. It looked to be a lovely day indeed, preparing to create the world anew after all the rain and low, dark clouds of the last few weeks. He walked in his bare feet across the moist grass, step by cautious step. Above his head, an airplane traced a wide arc in the sky. He heard the birds whistling and twittering and thought he saw a squirrel. His legs weren’t working very well this morning, worse than ever. He halted and tried to calm down. The illness seemed to be taking its course. Finally he was standing behind her. Ann had her back to him and didn’t hear him coming. She was squatting on the ground with some young seedlings lying beside her in the grass. She held a trowel in her right hand and in her left a hand rake she was using to loosen the earth. He bent down to her.
“May I hand you the seedlings? Maybe it will be easier to—”
She started and looked up at him. “Are you up already? Did something happen? Please don’t bother. It’s better for you to sit on the bench and not exert yourself. You’re not supposed to!”
“I’m not exerting myself. It’s a pleasure to help a little.”
A second, skeptical look. “For heaven’s sake, what’s gotten into you today? I hope you’re feeling all right!”
“Why shouldn’t I be feeling all right? It made me happy to look out the window and see you in the garden, my little woman already hard at work.”
Ann struggled to her feet, put her hands on her hips. “I work hard all day long, what with the house, the garden, and you most of all, Albert. You and your illness keep me on the go. Have you noticed that? Or do you think everything takes care of itself?”
The old man stamped his foot lightly on the grass. “No, no. I think you’re a wonder. I’m grateful to you. You take care of everything so well, like no one else can.”
Ann straightened out her linen dress and gave a fleeting smile. “What I need now is a cup of coffee to recover from this morning surprise! Let’s go inside. The flowers can wait. They won’t complain.”
He caught her by the arm as she started to walk on ahead of him. “Please, Ann, listen to me. I love you, do you hear? I love you!”
Distractedly, she freed her arm from his surprisingly strong grip, let her palm rest for a moment on his extended fingers, and then firmly repeated, “Let’s go inside!”
The old man tarried a few steps behind her, thinking: What shall I do? She doesn’t want me. She doesn’t believe me!
Ann turned back toward him, and for a moment tried to soften her strained expression. “Please forgive me; I don’t feel very well. I slept badly, maybe from too much red wine. Our illustrious son, that happy-go-lucky fellow, always keeps refilling the glasses.”
Back inside, she sat down beside him on the small sofa in the library. She took several deep breaths. He knew she had something important to tell him. It was unlikely to be something pleasant; her face was getting more and more serious.
“Albert, you know Mary’s written me twice lately. Early this morning, she called up. I could barely hear her she spoke so softly. She’s back home from the hospital and it looks like they won’t be able to stop the cancer. I also spoke to her doctor and he explained the situation in detail to me. It seems clear they’re giving her up for gone. Her lung is all eaten up.”
“Your poor sister,” he interjected. “Shouldn’t we go see her, the two of us, and brighten up her days a bit?”
She turned and gave him a searching look, “Do you really mean that? You think you could cheer her up?”
“Why not? You know how much I always liked Mary. What a charming young girl she was when we got married, always cracking jokes. Your little sister … remember?”
“Like it was yesterday, my dear!” Ann laughed. “You flirted with her quite shamelessly every chance you got. And you two danced together the whole time…”
“Yes, especially the waltzes. She could waltz like no one else. Leading her was like leading a feather. The way she could anticipate every move…”
“Albert, Albert, get a hold on yourself! That was forty years ago. Now your waltz partner is on her deathbed; her dancing days are over. The waltz ended long ago…”
His breathing was labored now. “I know, I know … and she’s alone. But she’s been alone all her life, hasn’t she?”
“She never got married, if that’s what you mean. We sisters were independent women. That’s how our father brought us up. But she enjoyed life differently than me. Just think of her string of affairs. After every one, she seemed to flourish and just get more beautiful than before. Triumphant! She was the first one of our circle of girls to talk about her men—holding nothing back. She all but demonstrated her pleasure to us, enjoyed describing every detail. And her bedroom stories made us married girls feel like stupid geese. We were terribly envious. I would never had been able to talk about things like that. I don’t think I would have had much to tell anyway. But now … now she’s paying for it!”
Albert got to his feet faster than he had for a long time. He couldn’t stay seated next to her. “You don’t really mean that, do you, Ann? There’s no connection!”
She was sunk in thought, eyes closed. In a meek voice, she replied, “No, you’re right, Albert. Forgive me, Mary! My nerves got the better of me. I got upset thinking about Mary as she was back then. It must have stirred up feelings I’ve suppressed and forgotten. She was a good person who lived out her passions to the full, openly, proudly. And she was rewarded with glamour, beauty, and wealth. Remember Eduardo, the famous tenor, and their tours from one metropolis to the next? And then there was Heribert, the London banker—what a gorgeous man! I didn’t begrudge her that, Albert, please believe me! Do you believe me?”
He sat down beside her again and took her hand. He slid closer. Several minutes passed, then he heard her speaking again. She had calmed down.
“Over, finished, forgotten! We have to deal with the present. I’ve thought everything through, planned it all out. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come as well. I appreciate your intentions, of course, and I thank you for them. But once I’m with her, I should devote all my time to her. Don’t be mad at me, Albert. You need caring for too, but two patients at once would just be too much for me. It’s Mary’s turn now. She’s suffering more; she’s the one at death’s door. I’ve put it off long enough for your sake, Albert. I didn’t want to leave you alone here. Now the scales have tipped in her favor. I’m leaving today. I’ve taken care of everything. Faithful Irma has promised to come every day. She’ll do the shopping, look after the house, and make you a hot lunch. She’s also ready to give you a hand. Besides her, there’s Anton. He stops by every other day anyway, and I’ve given him a copy of the front door key.… And then there’s Erwin who lives nearby. It will only be for a few days.”
He lowered his gaze. “Well, you’ve made your decision. You’re going to Mary’s without me. I understand. It’s a shame there’ll be no more waltzes.”
*   *   *
Ann left at noon. Albert said goodbye to her in front of the house. They hugged each other for a moment. He tried to relax his arms and his torso; it was as loving an embrace as they had had in a long time. Over her shoulder, he could see the face of the cab driver, a friendly face with a three-day growth of beard. The man watched the elderly couple hug and gave a little nod. Albert thought he could detect a trace of empathy in the driver’s eyes—no, maybe admiration. The sound of the taxi’s engine lingered in the old man’s ear for a long time.
Then he ate the light lunch Ann had prepared for him. It tasted good and he didn’t mind sitting alone at the kitchen table. He thought of Ann and how well she took care of him. Could he make out all right alone in the coming days, even with Irma’s help?
His afternoon nap lasted longer and was more refreshing than on recent days. His wool jacket hung on the chair. He lay upstairs on his bed with his belt unbuckled and listened to the empty house. His door was cracked open. The window to the garden was open too and he enjoyed the sunlight slanting in. He was overcome with an unfamiliar feeling: he was alone. No one in the house but him. No one would arrive or leave, no one interrupt his thoughts. Irma was quite taciturn anyway, hardly uttering a word except to ask a question now and then. And Anton? He was tied down in the office just as he himself used to be. He’d be glad if Albert didn’t need his help. Anton, his son, who did everything better. Straightforward, consistent, success-oriented, the heir and boss, the heir of his grandfather, the founder. He, Albert, had only been a lieutenant, a stopgap, the son-in-law and prince consort, as they had already begun teasing him at the bachelor supper the night before he married Ann. He was convinced that he had been slower, less decisive, and more cautious than the position required. He had a hyphenated last name, had added his wife’s to his own, as was appropriate to the situation but still unusual at the time.
*   *   *
While he lay in bed, almost weightless, he was also walking through the garden at her side. She smiled. “It’s so nice not to fight.”
“But I didn’t say anything.”
Silence. They walked in a circle, slowly, almost gravely, as if they were part of a procession. She stopped. “The lawn needs cutting. Your feet are wet. I’ll let the gardener know.”
She was standing behind him, looking intently at his back that is bent beneath his shirt. Lightly she touched his hair where it covered the nape of his neck, the way he wore it before they were married. She said it was too wild that way—too wild for the family business, for his parents-in-law.
“Your hair is so beautiful! I had forgotten.”
Albert could feel his hands shaking as they always did when he got excited. He shoved them deep into his pockets. Ann, still behind him, laughed as she hasn’t laughed in ages. She laughed almost inaudibly and for a long time.
“You don’t have to hide your hands, my dear. There’s no reason to hide your joy. And I’ll let the gardener know…”
Her voice faded away.
“We don’t need the gardener, dear Ann. I’ll do the work. I can easily mow the lawn in two hours. I’ll be done before you know it.”
He turned around, but she has disappeared.
*   *   *
That evening, he fell asleep quickly. His thoughts had all fled. His head was on vacation. He slept through the night and more soundly than he had in a long time. The next morning he fumbled with his shirt buttons. He was putting on the shirt he had worn yesterday and there was no one to object. He considered whether to take it off again and put on a fresh one, as he should, or simply begin the new day in his old shirt. He could just wash his face and hands and brush his teeth. He didn’t feel like doing more than that. He had gotten up early—earlier than usual—and it was just getting light. Wearing nothing but his old shirt, he went downstairs like a young man and poured himself a cup of coffee from the thermos bottle. The coffee tasted stale but he liked it that way. He sat a while in the kitchen, then got up and started wandering through the house. He pushed open the door to Ann’s bedroom without knocking, looked around inside, looked at the photographs in silver frames: her parents, the children, the grandchildren, photos from her youth, of her sister and himself—their wedding picture!
The consciousness grew on him that he was alone in the house. Everything was different—it tasted different, smelled different and somehow new. The walls had pulled back and the ceiling was higher. He heard strange noises: the dripping of the kitchen faucet, the humming of the water heater. A child’s yell was audible through the closed window. Everything was louder than usual. It didn’t bother him. On the contrary, it seemed to make his solitude more bearable. He heard the squeal of brakes out in the street and opened the kitchen window. Had something happened? It’s wonderful to have his kingdom to himself. He’s the master of own time, eager for what the new day will bring. He will do what he feels like doing—maybe just sit in his easy chair in the library or on the bench out in the garden, weather permitting. He won’t do anything. No one will disturb him. He’ll eat when he’s hungry, not at the appointed times. Maybe he’ll eat less, maybe more. No one will be urging him to talk. He’ll give the clocks a day off. No, he’s not sick. He’s a bit older—that’s as it should be—a bit slower, but not sick. He would budget his strength. He’d get along fine, wouldn’t have it any other way.
He wondered if Ann had slept well, how the train ride had gone with two stations where she had to change trains. He tried to picture his sister-in-law’s pretty house on the edge of the small town where she had finally settled down at the end of her restless life. It had been too long since he’d been there. Her last beau, a retired professor, had inveigled her into moving there. The relationship had probably been a mistake. He was an upstanding, jovial gentleman of the old school, the sort you don’t find anymore nowadays, but in the long run, he hadn’t been amusing enough for her, and he’d died quite some time ago. Albert couldn’t recall his face. Ann would call later and he’d hear about everything and tell her how much he missed her.
He straightened up his room a bit, recalling his student days. He’d often left his digs in a chaotic mess: the bed unmade, the desk overflowing with papers, books and notebooks all jumbled together, yesterday’s clothes strewn heedlessly about the room, a woman’s stockings still on the floor from the weekend. He laughed, tossed the books from his bed onto the floor where no stranger’s stockings now lay. Downstairs in the library, he took a close look at the spines of the books. There were titles he didn’t recall, books he certainly would never pick up again, others that piqued his interest. He took some of them down, read a few lines, and a new perspective on life opened up. And a look back as well: some older works that had seemed to stand the test of time now tasted insipid, others simply foreign. But he had neglected to do something yesterday, and he could and would make up for it today. He wandered into the dining room and sat down at his rightful place at the head of the table. He’d bought this table as a surprise for Ann on her fortieth birthday so they would finally have enough room for the whole family and their friends—enough room to feast a large crowd. Today it was quiet. He loved the quiet and allowed it to suffuse him. He stretched out in his chair with no one to challenge him. He rose, rapped on the table, squared his shoulders ceremoniously, placed his hands on the back of the chair, and regarded the assembled company. Silence all around; expectant, attentive faces. Everyone awaited his words with respectful curiosity. What would he say in celebration of this day? His words would lend significance to the banquet. Each person there would feel welcomed and personally addressed by his remarks that now commenced, slowly at first, deliberately, word by word, then flowing more freely, with amusing little asides for the children. He found his tempo. Salvos of words succeeded each other with pauses between, long pauses when the room fell so silent you could hear the breath of the person sitting next to you. People looked longingly at him: please, please continue! Don’t keep us in suspense! When will you finally get to me, mention me—the exam I passed, my business coup, the child I’m expecting, my professional success? Albert meted out his praise and every recipient was thrilled by his formulations. He shook them up, questioned their doubts, gave encouragement, showed them the way. Finally the home stretch, the finish, played staccato, the stream of words ebbing away, his voice calming down, the end. He nodded his head slightly, modest and casual, and looked around with eyebrows raised in surprise as the applause swelled up, as Ann and the children and all their friends—Christie as well—released from his spell, jumped to their feet clapping, laughing, and cheering. What a masterly performance! Without a word he sat down again. It had been a happy day.
*   *   *
The front doorbell was ringing. A delivery? Maybe just some children playing a prank. Now it was up to him to open the door. To his great surprise, it was his daughter-in-law Lori. It had been too long, and he was glad to see her. She looked pretty in her summer dress. Her thin face still had the glow of youth, at least today it did. She had made herself up for him, without a doubt.
“I brought you something to eat, Father! Mostly fruit, some cookies—the kind you like—and a little salami to go with your special bread. I haven’t forgotten! And a bottle of my favorite red wine from Italy. I hope you like it, Father.”
Lori had never called him Father before; he hadn’t forgotten. He sat in the kitchen while she made tea, sliced the bread, and put salami and tomatoes on it.
“This all looks delicious, of course. But most of all, I’m happy to see you, Lori. It’s been such a long time. You look good, but a little sad around the eyes. Is something wrong?”
She looked down into her lap, stood up, opened the window, took a deep breath of morning air, wandered around the room, and finally looked him in the eye. “It’s hard, very hard. With him I mean. He’s very fussy. He won’t allow any disagreement. He’s getting bossier. I ask myself if it’s just the business. ‘I have to be the boss!’ he says. But why at home, too? He still needs me twice a week in the Lutheran position, if you know what I mean, but otherwise he’s not very interested in me. He’s self-sufficient. And the worst thing is, he’s taking the three boys from me. He’s their be-all and end-all; they worship him. I’m just the housemaid.”
Albert was silent. He stood up too, came over beside her, and put his arm around her shoulder. “And do you think I could—be of some help to you? Should I talk to Anton, open his eyes?”
She gave him a timid look. “That’s not why I came. I’m here because I wanted to see you again and … because you’re … you’re the only one in the family who understands me, now that Gloria is gone.”
For a moment she leaned her cheek against his. The long hair he’d always liked so much tickled his ear and nose. Is he allowed to be happy? He is happy. So I’m good for something after all; I’m not alone, he thought.
Once they’d sat down again and were sipping their tea, she told him that she’d gone back to work. Her pediatric practice was going better than she’d dared to hope. Just before she left, she said, “If it’s all right, I’ll come back soon with a surprise visitor. You’ll be happy to hear that Christie got back to town a few days ago. She’s brown as a berry from the African sun. Working down there has rejuvenated her. Helping others must be good for you, especially the poor. Compared to her, I feel like an old woman with my problems.”
“Oh, come now! You’re in the prime of life, no question about it. It’s a good thing you’re starting a new life. You have so many wonderful things to look forward to, I’m sure of it. You just have to want to…”
“You really think so? You make me so happy—more than you’ll ever know!”
She pressed the old man against her warm body and for a moment he thought he would lose his composure.
*   *   *
Christie was Gloria’s best friend, her lifelong companion, her closest confidante. She was the sister Gloria had never had. When the girls were children, everybody loved Christie, even Ann. She was a part of the family. Later, it was hard for Ann not to be jealous. She was bothered by the two girls’ closeness, their blood sisterhood, and their secrets. She felt she was standing in front of a door that was locked against her. Anton however, the big brother, adored his sister’s friend who stayed over as often as she could and slept next to Gloria in bed. He loved her often boisterous temperament, her wildly unruly hair, her bright bursts of laughter. But he didn’t stand a chance either; the two girls were too exclusively involved with each other. Anton felt like a fifth wheel in their company and also felt neglected by his father. But for Albert, the house shone with the reflected beauty of the two girlfriends. He saw their happiness and welcomed it into his soul. It was the most wonderful gift he had ever received. He had so much experience of life’s shadows that he was taken unawares by this sudden beam of light. Then it lasted so long that when it was abruptly extinguished, he was plunged back into even greater darkness. He had never recovered from the loss that pierced his heart.
*   *   *
Albert lay awake a long time that night, thinking. He couldn’t get to sleep—didn’t want to. The news of Christie’s return to the city had given him a jolt and opened up the old wound that had barely healed. He had failed, and Christie had fled because she couldn’t bear the calamity any longer. She had thrown herself into a new mission far away: taking care of children, the elderly, and the dying in Africa. Now she had returned unexpectedly with no advance warning.
It brought the Valais back again! Albert himself had set them on this path with his love of the mountain air and the expanses of high, snow-covered peaks. Gloria shared his passion for their mountain village at a time when hardly any outsiders had discovered it. Anton had gone his own way early: camping in Brittany and conquering the Greek islands. Ann put up with the Valais, playing bridge with French ladies in the little inn where they liked to have supper. And so during the day, he had the mountains and the girls to himself. They would often bound up a mountain ahead of him, like goats, challenging his strength and ignoring his warnings to be careful. Their skirts billowed in the wind, revealing slim brown legs.
The more Gloria’s illness came to dominate her life, the more she sought sanctuary in the village of her childhood where she still found something resembling peace. Sometimes she brought a man along, but like everything else, those episodes never lasted long. Sometimes she came with Christie. Then her trips to the Caribbean began. She learned to scuba dive. And that is where the tragic end came. More and more, Gloria had closed herself off from him and everyone else and in the end, he lost her. She showed up at home less and less often. She said she had to go her way alone. And he couldn’t or wouldn’t understand what she meant by that. Who was with her on her final journey? Was she alone? When she died, was someone there at her side—a boyfriend, some stranger? Death by drowning! Wasn’t she an accomplished swimmer and enthusiastic diver? As he finally learned after endless inquiries, she died with all her equipment on and the oxygen tank on her back. Christie called with barely a word of explanation about how it had happened; thereafter it was impossible to get in touch with her. Christie, the intimate family friend, failed just when they needed her most. Had she lied to him? More than two years had passed but it still seemed as terrible to him as if it were yesterday. Now he was an old man and had to struggle greatly to accept his life as it was before it was over.
In the middle of the night, he woke up and looked around in bewilderment, rubbing his teary eyes. He must have fallen asleep with the light on. The room was still brightly lit. Slowly, he raised himself up and sat on the edge of the bed. His legs felt numb. The old man could feel his face assuming a stern expression. Not like this, he thought. He wasn’t going to end his life like this: humbly, thankfully accepting the charity of the Good Lord, cringing and cowering in awe. Fury crept into his skull, invaded his limbs, shook his entire body. He jumped to his feet, grasped his head in both hands, looked angrily toward the sky.
He was driven restlessly through the house. As spryly as he could manage, he made his way from floor to floor, throwing open the doors of the little mansard rooms under the eaves where the children had had their bedrooms. Everywhere he went, he turned the lights on. He wanted the whole house ablaze with light from top to bottom; he would drive out the gloom, the pervasive darkness in the rooms around him. Yes, he would do so once and for all.
The old man raised his voice, stronger and louder until his bellowing reached the last corner of the house. “I quit, effective immediately. I’m revoking my contract because of deceit—malicious deceit—fraud, misappropriation—misappropriation of my life—because of malice and capriciousness, but most of all because you took away the dearest thing I had to gratify all the more easily your greed for another victim! I accuse you of manslaughter, of perfidious murder! My suffering is your joy. You expect humility and devotion in order to use us at your pleasure. Your hands are stained with our blood, your mouth smeared with it. You are more ravenous and violent than the most fearsome beast. You allow humankind to tear itself apart, man against wife, mother against child, brother against brother, son against father. The nations fall upon each other at your bidding. You incite one against the other, drive them to a fever pitch of fury, despair, fear, and blindness and they butcher each other in a pit of broken bodies, slick with sweat, wounds agape, fertilizing your earth with their blood, and its stench rises to heaven like a poisonous bubble for your delectation and delight! Yesterday there were thousands, today there will be millions, tomorrow tens of millions. Now as in the past, you put into the hands of your creatures, your children (long since stepchildren), the playthings of death. First it was lances and spears, then sabers, rifles, and cannon, then missiles—through the air, under the sea, on the land. You stand by while they acquire more and more tools of death for your pleasure, pile them up like a hoard of gold and diamonds, gaining dominion over the whole earth and arming for the next attack. And in the end, the great hour will be at hand: the great, incomparable, unparalleled bomb, created by a genius who resembles you and atomizes all life on earth. Countless millions will die, humans of all colors, animals of all kinds. Gigantic cities filled with skyscrapers will collapse like a house of cards and bury everything that breathes. Vast swaths of land will wither and die or be flooded by raging waters that open new seas and sweep innocent children, unsuspecting women, and grandparents into the abyss. The dying will proceed east and west, north and south, until at last the earth is again what it was at the beginning: without form and void. Humankind will have vanished! But don’t forget: you will die with us. It will finally be achieved: all of us, all humanity, will be the victims, but we created you, just as you created us. We created you and your prophets, both the honest ones and the hypocrites. Like the toadies of a despot, they will share in your fall. Peace, longed-for peace, will reign at last for all eternity! Didn’t Moses himself say, ‘If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence?’ And so it shall be at the end! Worth the price of the doom we will share, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah! You said, I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end!”
Exhausted and gasping for air, Albert sat down on the stairs. His hands were trembling. “Once you were in me and I in you. You became the world, but the world didn’t become you. You allowed us to resign from the covenant. You transformed yourself into an alien god and every evil ran its course.”
He sat slumped forward with a heavy head, as if drugged. Yet with each passing minute he became more and more suffused with an unfamiliar feeling of happiness. Although his limbs were trembling, something like a ray of light fell across his face. The blood pulsed more quickly through his arteries and his body glowed with heat. He had dared to do it, dared to speak it! He had rebelled, carried out a successful revolt. Yes, it had happened! Was he free? He hardly dared to say it. He felt like a long incarcerated prisoner whose chains have just been struck off. Could it really be true? Was this reality and not some treacherous dream that would soon thrust him back into his accustomed dungeon? No, through his own strength he had liberated himself, not the Almighty! There was no doubt: he had done it himself. The happiness within was not ephemeral. Or did the cunning one up above have his hand in the game after all? He couldn’t accept that it was so. No one could cast doubt on his victory over himself, no one on earth or anywhere else.
He got to his feet, climbed the stairs to the second floor leaving behind the brightly lit rooms, and lay down on his bed, weary but happy. Almost immediately, he fell into a deep, sound sleep.
*   *   *
Albert spent the following days in a state of semi-intoxication. It had been a long time since he had ventured out of the house. To go with his summer suit, he took care to choose a checked tie (although the knot ended up a little askew) and donned the Panama hat purchased years ago on a cruise. The low garden gate squeaked as he opened it; the hinges could use a few drops of oil. The young trees lining both sides of the road—maples if he was not mistaken—were progressing well. Here and there, a house had been freshly painted. The pretty little homes turned a friendly face toward him. Albert stopped to admire the flowers in their front yards: roses, tulips, daisies, even lavender. We’ll have to get busy if we’re going to keep up, he thought.
The newly installed wooden bench at the corner was a welcome chance to sit down. There was already an old man sitting there who returned his greeting with something like a grunt or low growl, but even that couldn’t dampen Albert’s good mood. He took a good look at this neighbor sitting there with a stooped back and his hands resting on a cane, lost in gloomy thought. Two or three cars glided past, shiny red and blue in the morning sunlight.
“Nice day, isn’t it?”
The old man didn’t move, and no reply was forthcoming, but Albert wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
“The sun feels good after all that rain! I think this weather’s going to last, don’t you?”
His neighbor didn’t seem to hear. I wonder how old he is? Maybe just my vintage, thought Albert as he slowly got up, leaning on his own cane—the cane with the sterling silver head that Gloria had given him. He only used it on special occasions.
“Sorry to disturb you. Enjoy your morning!”
He was already turning away when he caught the almost inaudible but bright voice behind him, “Same to you!”
He turned back and said, “Perhaps we’ll see each other here again!”
He saw the old man’s face: lined, wrinkled, the eyes small above swollen features.
A hard nut to crack, he thought.
The little neighborhood grocery around the corner had managed to survive despite supermarkets not far away where customers could stuff their trunks full of purchases. In this neighborhood there were mainly retirees, but also young couples with children who would be in school at this time of day, leaving the narrow suburban streets in almost paralyzing silence. As he entered the little store, he was warmly greeted by the elderly Mrs. Huber, whose name he fortunately recalled.
“What a surprise to see you again! We haven’t had the honor in quite a while.”
From his pocket he took the little list of the most important things they needed, written in Irma’s legible hand. In addition, he asked for peppermint pastilles, dark chocolate (which he hadn’t had in quite a while), and a fairly good cognac he happened to spot on a shelf, and returned home with a well-filled shopping basket. From the bench where he had rested a short time ago, the other old man watched him pass in silence, his hands still resting on the handle of his cane. But Albert thought he could catch a nod of his head, and there may even have been a shy smile on his face. Back at the house he sat down in the library and put his feet up on the hassock, exhausted but content. The telephone rang. It was Ann.
“What are you up to, Albert? I’ve abandoned you and I can’t help worrying about you all the time, but it’s worse here. I should have come sooner than I did, God knows; sorry, but you’re going to have to do without me for a few extra days. I think my poor sister is near the end; it’s going faster than expected.”
Albert took a deep breath, “I miss you, my dear, but don’t worry about me. I’m managing just fine.”
“Irma said you’d gone out alone to shop. She was so excited about it—in her own prim way, of course, with just two or three words—and even thought it was due to her care, the good soul.… But what I wanted to say is: I’ve hardly left the house and you’re doing something dumb and irresponsible. Imagine if something had happened to you on the way to the store! God only knows it’s not fair to me, and at the very time when you should have some consideration for me, when I’m tied down here with my dying sister!”
Albert stayed calm, studied the ceiling where the previous owner of their house had installed genuine plaster molding.
“Don’t worry. I’m rationing my strength.”
“I also heard about Lori, I mean about her visit. You should have kept out of that, as I told you to…”
Albert was silent at first, then, “Nothing happened that you need to worry about. And don’t worry about me, either.”
Ann was crying and almost inaudible as she hung up. He could just hear her sobbing, “It’s too much, too much…”
*   *   *
What was going on? Something didn’t seem right. Where were his grief, his pain, his despair? Something had obviously happened overnight; at the very least, he had been granted a reprieve for an unspecified length of time. By tomorrow, it might be all over and malign habit would suck him back into his old hole more quickly than he had left it. Involuntarily, he recalled his first trip to America. For days on end, he had walked the streets of New York and Washington, D.C., as if intoxicated, all cares behind him. And then, after unbelievably happy days, he had turned back into the same old worrywart as before. It was as if he had lost his shadow and then it caught up with him again. But now, today, he threw back his shoulders and walked through the world without a care, released from his weighty burden. It was sunny even when the sun wasn’t shining. He smiled. Everyone was smiling. Even the grumpy couple next door waved back at him. He got Irma to talk more than she had in years, a miracle in itself. She told him about her doctor’s appointments, her back pain, her swollen feet. As best he could, he gave her advice.
He began to write in his diary, that very morning. His handwriting was small and scrawly. He regained possession of his waking hours and even his nights seemed less foreboding. When he awoke in the dark, he told himself calmly, “Soon it will be light.” He left the lamp on his night table burning until dawn. He began listening to music again: Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky, but also popular things on the radio. He took a taxi to a shop that sold CDs. It had at least doubled if not tripled its floor space since the last time he was there. He caught himself singing along with a Mozart opera. Irma overheard him and stifled a laugh with her hand, her eyes twinkling.
*   *   *
Erwin stopped by. “I wanted to see how you were doing all alone here. It must be hard without—”
“Without Ann, you mean?” the old man interrupted him. “Well, Ann. When you live with someone, you get so…”
“Used to each other?” Erwin supplied.
“Something like that.” He had to force himself not to show his hand too soon. Let his friend talk.
“Well after all, my friend, you’re ill. I know how it is plaguing you more each day, and differently from one hour to the next. Sometimes it really hits you hard and then other times it seems to just disappear.”
“It is insidious, that’s for sure! And you think I need help? Don’t worry, I’m getting along fine by myself. I don’t need anything.”
They stepped out into the garden. Erwin matched his pace to Albert’s. With great gravity they strolled side by side across the lawn. Although it was starting to turn cool already, they sat down on the old wooden bench among the shrubbery. From there they had the best view of the house in its pretty setting between the bright green willow and the lovely white trunks of the birches.
“That sounds suspiciously positive.” Erwin laughed. “And what else do you have to report?”
Albert smiled back. “What do you mean?”
Now Erwin was grinning. “How should I know if you don’t?”
“Talking about things doesn’t always make them better. I think I already talk too much about myself.”
“Do as I do: don’t think about anything.”
“I’ve heard that before, but it’s very hard. Okay: it’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s…”
His friend looked at him expectantly. “You know, sometimes I have doubts about my profession. The older I get, the more I recognize that it’s almost impossible to help people. I can’t bring their story to a halt, stand fate on its head. The best I can do is change their consciousness. We know our spouse, our family, our friend, our colleague. We know them all well, perhaps our enemy best of all, but we know ourselves the least. You remain forever a stranger to yourself. You want to solve the riddle, but without success. It’s a funny feeling to realize you’ve been going through life in the body of someone you don’t know and may even have wrong ideas about.”
The old man slapped his thigh with a palsied hand. “Forget about God and it’s a step in the right direction! Once you get rid of that triangular relationship, you can start to make some progress. Then there’s just your stranger and the person you think you are. It’s easier to have a discussion with just two people. You get to know each other better, you’re not so ashamed that beneath your clothes, you’re naked and have to admit that your body wants something different from your head.”
Erwin stood up and faced him. “What’s gotten into you? Were you struck by lightning? Or have I corrupted you with all the Nietzsche baggage I carry around?”
They resumed their walk in the garden, Albert leaning on his friend’s arm. Darkness was slowly falling. Erwin came to a stop and took Albert’s hand. “So now all of a sudden you think God is dead?”
“Everyone has to decide for himself. But surely the thought isn’t new to you?”
“I don’t know, I just don’t know. Even if God has been dead for quite some time, I still always feel there’s something there. Call it a source if you will. It’s a surrounding presence, anyway, whose breath lasts far longer than ours.”
“And can you pray to it?”
“You’re in an ironic mood today! At the risk of annoying you: yes, I could pray to it in an emergency.”
“There are no atheists in the foxholes, as the saying goes! You forget about him, lead a happy-go-lucky life, and then when you need him—presto, he jumps out of his box. Pretty pathetic, don’t you think? So he’s a sheet anchor for somebody who’s lost his way, a God in reserve.”
“That’s how I think of him, anyway. What about you?”
“Okay! If it has to be that way, then I agree, but only as long as I can revile him and judge him as he judges me.”
Erwin burst out laughing, “That makes you an apostate: a pal, God as your pal! You’ve gone a good deal farther than me.”
Albert joined in the laughter, “Too far you mean, right? And then comes the abyss…”
“Amen! I think it’s time we went down to your wine cellar.”
They sat in the library, the old man in his wing chair and Erwin across from him on the small black leather couch, each with a glass in his hand.
“Albert, I think you’re pulling my leg. Tell the truth: have you been praying?”
“If that’s what you want to call it, yes.”
*   *   *
Later that evening, Albert sat watching TV. The news was about to come on. The newspaper he’d already read lay in his lap. Unexpectedly, Anton entered the room, bringing the coolness of the late hour with him.
“Just a short visit, Father! You remember Mother gave me the house key so I could look in on you any time?”
“That’s right, Anton. But please have a seat. It makes me nervous when you march up and down the room. You haven’t even taken off your raincoat.”
He turned off the TV with the remote control just as the news was starting. Anton let his coat drop to the floor in a heap and threw himself down on the leather couch.
“I see you’re feeling well, Father. You look splendid. So I’ll get right to the point: you invited Lori over, showed her a lot of sympathy, gave her an affectionate hug like she was a good, loving daughter.”
Albert looked intently at his son with just the trace of a smile on his face.
“That’s right. Lori was here. But she came to visit me. Should I have shown her the door right away?”
Anton jumped to his feet again.
“Father, you seem to want to treat this as some sort of joke. But I’m in no mood for fun! Our Lori, who’s hardly spoken a word to me for some time, has been puffing herself up in front of me and the boys, boasting loudly about the marvelous, friendly, effusive welcome she got from you, full of empathy and understanding for the poor, unfortunate wife whose family—and especially her ruthless spouse, your son—treat her so badly. A quote from you. The father: a darling of a man; the son and husband: a son of a bitch!”
Anton’s face was flushed and he threw himself back down onto the black couch that groaned beneath his weight. Albert still regarded him attentively, but his continuing silence fanned Anton’s pent-up resentment into anger.
“Well? What have you got to say for yourself, Father? Why don’t you say something? You’ve delivered a stinging slap in the face to your only son; you’re stabbing me in the back in the midst of a serious crisis in my marriage—a crisis that Lori and Lori alone is responsible for. Really stabbing me in the back…”
Albert sat up straight in his chair, carefully took his hands from his thighs and calmly folded them, looking at Anton the whole time.
“So, I’m waiting,” his son finally burst out. “I’m all ears.”
“Me too,” said the father after another pause. “And first of all I would suggest that you calm down, Anton. I have a certain amount of sympathy for you: the constant business pressure you’re under, your family duties, and much else … you’re overextended. But I think you can’t expect good results from the way you’re currently running your life. And now my answer, short and sweet: I have nothing to say in my defense. Of course I treated your wife, whom I feel just as sorry for as I do for you, in a friendly way. That’s the only way I can help your shaky marriage. And another thing: I didn’t stab you in the back. You’re not sure where to turn. That can happen in a marriage, and I admit there are extenuating circumstances. However—and this is the most important thing I have to say to you—you’ve got to solve your own problems, settle your conflict with Lori, heal your rift. No one else can do it for you.”
Anton furrowed his brow and finally answered his father. “Fine. I’ve listened to your lecture, listened patiently, as usual. But I don’t find it convincing. On the contrary! You feel sorry for me, you grant me extenuating circumstances—what a travesty! That’s the way you treat people you expect sympathy from for yourself? Most unfortunate of all, you seem not to acknowledge that you should be on my side. You play the judge, expect me to recognize you as such—aloof, emotionless. It’s hard for a son to accept that his father’s going to leave him in the lurch just when he needs him—very hard. But maybe I’m expecting too much of you. Mother complains about you too. While she’s worried sick about you and her sister, you’re putting your health at risk irresponsibly. You’re acting foolishly, burdening her with new worries when she has more than enough already. Isn’t it about time, old man, to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking more about your loved ones?”
Anton was already in the doorway. Albert hurried after him, chuckling, “I’m trying to, I’m trying…”
*   *   *
It was early morning and Ann was already calling. Albert was still in bed when the shrill ring echoed through the house.
“Yes,” she said weakly. “I didn’t sleep well, only about two or three hours. No, you shouldn’t take everything I say so literally. Taking care of her is wearing me out more than I expected. And I’m coming to realize more what you mean to me, my dear. That’s what I wanted to tell you so early in the morning. Can you hear me, Albert?”
He cleared his throat, “Yes, yes, of course. That’s sweet of you, and nice to hear. Thank you! Ann, don’t you think maybe I should—”
“No, absolutely not! I’ve got things under control here. Just think, now she’s blaming herself! She thinks she got so sick because of the kind of life she led. And she used to be more beautiful than any of us. How we envied her! Now she regrets all those men she threw herself at—her dissolute life, as she calls it. She says there was a lot she didn’t tell me or Father. I’m so exhausted. I can’t persuade her that it doesn’t work that way. What do you think, Albert?”
“Are you asking if I think the body will rebel when the soul is damaged, suffering, when it’s been thoroughly suppressed? Perhaps it’s possible … but you can’t prove it.”
He heard Ann take a deep breath on the other end of the line. “Didn’t we have a book about that? A scientific theory, with examples? I wanted to bring it along to Mary’s but I couldn’t find it before I left. Do you have any idea where it is?”
“You bought it because you wanted to find out if there might be a connection between my illness and way I lived my life.”
“It’s important to find out if you’ve made some mistake. I wanted to be fair to you, too. As fair as I could be.”
“What I heard was more like a reproach, a complaint that quickly turned into an accusation.”
“My dear Albert, I don’t know what to say … what do you mean?”
Agitated, he was pacing back and forth in his bedroom. “Well, if you must know: I threw that book into the trash weeks ago!”
“Into the trash? You don’t usually…”
“Do such a thing? Is that what you were going to say? You’d be surprised at all the other things that belong in the trash.”
He heard her breathing again, louder this time. “I’m very upset. What are you referring to?”
His voice grew sharper, “I just mean we need to get rid of all our excess ballast. Even old people have a right to live, don’t you agree? We drag so much old baggage around it’s enough to suffocate us! Wouldn’t it be great to make a fresh start, Ann?!”
There was a long silence before he heard her voice again. “I’m tired. I don’t think I’ve got the strength to … I just don’t understand all that. I think I’d better lie down and rest a little.”
*   *   *
Albert had barely calmed down when Christie was at the door. He’d had an awful night, slept badly, tossing and turning and dreaming he couldn’t fall asleep. Having that false dream was more oppressive than endless insomnia. His head was muddled: hideous faces appeared to him, repeated laughter, and then a persistent drumming that hurt his ears. The sound was still in his head when he woke up, but finally the drumming came to an end.
He was having his breakfast of coffee and toast with honey when Irma showed Christie in, followed by Lori. They came into the kitchen. Albert was taken aback—how could he ever have forgotten Christie? But it was Lori behind her, not Gloria. Was this a temptation? Was he being lifted up only to be dashed to the ground again? Were these devils or demons sent to tempt him? Or had a demon already taken up residence inside him, and he just hadn’t admitted it yet?
Christie didn’t look like the success story Lori had made her out to be. She was pale and seemed hesitant and ill at ease. They greeted each other with a hug, but it was tentative, almost incorporeal: two beings who had thought about each other for too long now looked over the other’s shoulder. Catching Christie’s mood, Albert had struggled out of his chair, and was still having trouble shaking off Anton’s visit last evening and his telephone conversation with Ann. Now he and Christie were at a loss for words. They all went into the dining room and sat down at the big table, perching somewhat uncomfortably on the high-backed chairs, as if waiting for a conference to begin. Lori spoke up first.
“Well, Father, here she is at last, the heroine of the Dark Continent. I had to twist her arm to get her to come, even though I know very well how much she likes you.”
There was another painful silence while Albert and Christie reached for the water glasses in front of them and each took a quick swallow. Albert couldn’t shake off his sluggishness—on the contrary, it got worse. Lori’s words seemed to go right past him.
“It’s amazing all the stories Christie has to tell about Africa: the enormous distances, the endless, wild, uninhabited landscapes. And then the people, jammed together in miserable conditions: birth and death and war and persecution. She’s seen it all firsthand: epidemics where not just sexual contact but any contact at all can turn into a deadly nightmare. She’s told me about crazed dictators and death squads that wipe out entire ethnic groups, generals who order the devastation of whole swaths of country so it’s easier to starve out the population—”
He heard Christie’s unpleasantly shrill laugh and recalled the drums in the night. Then Christie spoke in the voice he recognized. It reminded him of Gloria’s, only hoarser, huskier—smoky.
“Whoa, Lori! What’s gotten into you? It’s taken me days to tell you all those things, and now you’re pouring it all out in just a few minutes! Be a little more sensitive. Tell Albert about the flower I found in the desert, the fairy-tale flower I discovered in the real world. Tell him about the miracles I saw—the eyes of the children, the woman I cured of her long illness, the infant laughing in my arms.”
Albert’s hands fluttered uncontrollably as his fingers tried to brush away the tears obscuring his vision. Under the table, the soles of his shoes clattered involuntarily on the floor. It sounded like well-fed rats scurrying furtively back and forth. He felt Christie embrace him from behind, felt the warmth of her body. The pressure of her hands upon his shoulders intensified, became unrelenting. Not until that moment did it become real that Christie was finally there, after so many years, bringing a piece of Gloria with her, only a wisp of her, perhaps, a beam, a covert glimpse. Now his tears were flowing freely, a waterfall that blinded him. How wonderful it was to let them run their course, to lose himself and forget his trembling hands, his clattering shoes. The old man lay on the sofa in the library, not knowing how he’d gotten there. Maybe the two women had carried him over. Had they grunted under his weight? Lori wasn’t in the room anymore. She must have left the house already. What would she tell his resentful son this time? Maybe he would come by again. But he wouldn’t dare cause trouble when Christie was here. His pent-up male indignation would melt away at her hoarse, husky laugh.
And then the thought was there, striking him like a bolt of lightning: the question that had tortured and plagued him since Gloria’s death, the question he was unable to ask Christie, didn’t dare ask her, the question that had consumed his soul ever since, whose answer he hoped would release him from his own bitterness, the question about Gloria’s final hour. Christie and Christie alone had the answer. Gloria’s final hour!
Christie was curled up in his armchair. Her eyes seemed to be closed. Her face had gotten thinner, almost translucent. Her body was delicate, bony, like an adolescent girl’s. And yet it was neither a girl’s body nor that of a grown woman. Perhaps it was the body of someone who had lost herself, misplaced herself somewhere. Her chest rose and fell. Was she asleep? Sleeping in his armchair, that grandfatherly old piece of furniture he’d inherited and had re-covered several times? It was reserved for him, almost a part of him, too big for that skinny female body, which it almost swallowed up. He was looking at her as she opened her eyes.
*   *   *
“I shouldn’t have come, I know. I frighten you. The past—it’s still so near when I’m here. Gloria is still here. Why don’t you let her go, Albert? They say we should leave the dead in peace, don’t they? Then we can be at peace ourselves. I know now why I went to Africa. I went to forget, to let go, to start a new life, to find new hope. Without that we would suffocate.”
“And did you find it?”
“Yes, yes I did, finally.… It was hard in the beginning, the first few months were pure torture. Every single day I wanted to go back, be with her, even though I knew she wasn’t there anymore. But at least to be near her places, breathe her air—here, but especially up in the Valais where we were so carefree and happy. You were, too. I wanted to smell the earth, plant flowers, lie down in the meadows in the sunshine. But then reality finally caught up with me: the laughter of the children, the sick who looked to me with such desperation, the eyes I had to close. Every day, every hour, many nights. You change, lose yourself in a larger world where people are freer than here, less preoccupied with themselves, less subject to fear—because God is closer, I think.”
Albert sat up, ran a hand through his hair.
“And now you’re here! Wait a little, give me some time, and soon I’ll be happy. And I think you’re not that little girl anymore who came to the mountains with us. You’re not Gloria’s twin sister any longer, her shadow in good times and bad. Now you’re the woman from Africa, the Good Samaritan. I’m an old man and Gloria’s been dead for two and a half years.”
Christie stood up, smoothed out her dress, stretched a little. Her body seemed to grow larger, her hair to regain the sheen it used to have. He remembered it. It was almost the same color as Gloria’s. You could hardly tell them apart, the little girls’ hair tousled together when they lay in each other’s arms in bed, asleep already, not knowing what was in store for them.
She walked to the window and looked out at the garden.
“Look, it’s started to rain. In Africa, that’s always something special. It’s like the whole garden has been dipped in water. Water! You have too much of it, and down there we have too little. The world is unfair.”
“No walks through wet grass? What a shame. You could go barefoot.”
She turned back toward him.
“You’re still living with one foot in the past.”
“I think about the past a lot, about the two of you, about how you told me I had to treat you like young ladies starting right that minute. We laughed a lot back then. I remember that. I’m permitted to remember, aren’t I? At the end of your life, you look back. I recall many things from my boyhood better than what came afterwards.”
He looked at her. How changed she was—a woman, a beautiful woman despite the lines in her face and her serious expression. It felt like he hadn’t looked at a woman in a long time.
*   *   *
Later they sat down to lunch. Irma, clearly pleased by Christie’s presence, had bought some fish. Albert asked her to bring a bottle of white wine from the cellar. When Irma had gone home, Christie took his hand. The wine had softened her voice.
“I thought about it a long time before coming to see you. I’ve been back quite a while already—more than a week. I’m staying in the country with my mother. It was high time. You were like a father to me, Albert, a foster father. And for a foster child, a foster father is perhaps even more valuable than a real father. A child can’t ever lose its father, but a foster child can. She has to always draw attention to herself if she wants to be loved and not forgotten.”
“I remember so well how lively you were. Sometimes I thought you wanted to outdo Gloria.”
“I yearned for you, for the father I never had—worse than that, for the father that would make me forget my real father. And I wanted to be like Gloria and put my arms around your neck. You can’t imagine how often I was consumed by jealousy of her, of your love for her, of your unspoken mutual understanding and your secret glances just between you two. I had to outdo her with my love.”
“I remember you showing off your long legs to me. You even asked if they weren’t the most beautiful. Another time it was your hair. You wanted me to admire you.”
“And in the end, you were as excluded as I was. I knew you were desperate and helpless. Gloria wanted to spare you and probably hurt you worse in the process. I was aware of what we were doing to you. Uncertainty is terrible! I was sure you blamed me entirely! That’s why I ran away head over heels—from you and from her long shadow that held me in its grip. I didn’t even pack properly, couldn’t say goodbye. I arrived down there with nothing but lipstick and a suitcase full of books. The books were useful at least. It was a long time before I found my place. The worst of it was that at first, I understood nothing, not even myself. But I gritted my teeth and got down to work, lost thirty pounds so that men stopped looking at me entirely. I didn’t even notice. Fleeing Gloria was also a flight from you. I knew you would never forgive me for not saving her, for my utter failure. I was too weak. I couldn’t tell you—tell you what it was really like at the end. My inability to prevent Gloria’s fall. I could neither look you in the eyes nor bear the thought that I would lose both my beloved sister and my father as well.”
Albert had lain back down and stretched out his legs. His breathing was labored and his gaze wandered across the high ceiling again.
“Your love for me that you talked about—wasn’t it worth telling the truth? You sold me out. You both sold me out. But you were in your right mind and you…”
His voice died away. They remained silent as darkness fell. Albert seemed to have fallen asleep. She sat on the floor by the window. She heard his voice from far away: “Leave now. I want to sleep.”
*   *   *
The old man awoke in the middle of the night, the sound of his own quavering voice in his ears.
“Why won’t you allow me into the exalted circle of your mercy? Why do you refuse me that? Am I still in your debt? Why does my liability keep growing when I’m trying so hard to pay it off? Sometimes I feel on the brink of inner bankruptcy. You indict me, but I believe in you. Whoever doesn’t believe is cast out. And I ask, I plead with you to let me enter your dwelling place, to give me permission to die. She was the one thing I loved, much more than I loved myself. You took my life away but left me to go on living. You took her from me because you wanted to have this angel for yourself. A goodness for which I should be eternally grateful to you? But I won’t lie to you: I’m not grateful, not one bit. And I’m unable to perceive any mercy behind your curse. You see, for your mercy I’ll give you my truth.”
He got up from the sofa, half asleep, and padded upstairs through the brightly lit house. Leaden weariness weighed him down.
When Albert woke up the next morning, it was already light. Suddenly he felt more refreshed than he had in a long time. He tossed the blanket aside and discovered to his surprise that he was completely naked. Who had undressed him?
Gloria and Christie went their way without me, he thought, without turning their heads in my direction. They always strung me along, but when it turned serious, they cut me out. They had no more room for me. Why was he only seeing that now, when it was so crystal clear? They had gone their way, and now he must go his, alone, without them. That simplified everything. He felt good—a new beginning. He went downstairs in his robe without taking his usual shower. His step was firmer than it had been in a long time. He clapped his hands, seeking a melody.
The breakfast table was set for two. What did that mean? He gave Irma an inquiring look. She made a sour face, gave him a hostile stare. “You want to know what happened? We have a guest and you let her sleep on the floor. You didn’t even get out a blanket for her. That angel sacrifices herself for the poor and the sick down there in Africa and you live in the lap of luxury. I’ve got to tell you, Herr Director, that I don’t much want to stay in a household like this!”
Albert stared at Irma in astonishment. Never before had she let loose such a tirade. As he sat down, she gave his chair a demonstrative shove against his legs and slammed the coffeepot onto the table just as Christie entered the room, almost without a sound. You could see she had just gotten out of the shower. Her hair was still shiny with moisture. Albert started to get up, but she gently pressed him back into his chair and sat down beside him, looking bright-eyed and wide-awake.
“I’m sorry—I didn’t realize you were still here. I thought you left last night. I must ask your forgiveness.”
She pushed back her hair. Irma, still angry, stood behind her.
“I don’t mind sleeping on the floor. I’m used to it—it happens all the time in Africa. I didn’t want to leave you alone. Now I’ve showered. Let’s not let Ann know I invaded her bathroom.”
“Although you waited until Ann left to come by,” Irma interjected suspiciously.
“Yes, that’s right. I wanted to talk to you alone, Albert. You know Ann and I have a difficult relationship.”
While they ate Albert’s toast and sipped their coffee they could hear Irma rattling around upstairs. Albert listened intently. He didn’t know what to say. Christie smiled at him.
“Well, you look rested. Did you sleep well?”
“You do too, Christie.”
“Strange, after the evening we spent together.”
“Yes, strange.… You could just as well have slept in Gloria’s attic room. You know the way, after all, and the bed is always made up. Maybe you’d like to…”
Christie took his hand. “No, I’m not going to stay another night. I’ve got other things planned for you and me. Listen, I want to take you with me today—really! And no argument! I’ve only got a few more days in the country and we should make use of them. Who knows when we’ll see each other again! We’ll pack up a few things and drive out to our place for a few days, out in the country, where Mom lives. The country air and all that nature will do you good. And best of all, quite apart from the change of scene, we’ll have a chance to talk! It will be a welcome distraction for you.”
“No, no, I couldn’t possibly.”
She had taken him by surprise, but he wasn’t convinced. Albert couldn’t even remember the last time he had spent a night away from home. One trip to another town to go to a museum, a visit to a restaurant on a special occasion, the annual Christmas Eve mass, and two or three times to the philharmonic, that was it. Anton had driven them out to his hunting lodge in his big car, but Ann had always insisted on returning to sleep in her own bed at night. It had been years since they’d gone on vacation; Ann was afraid he would overdo it.
And what would Ann say about this? She would be appalled. No, he’d couldn’t subject her to that. She had enough to deal with right now as it was. Such were the spirited objections he raised.
But Christie was not to be gainsaid. She insisted on the plan that had formed in her mind. She was determined. She swept aside any further discussion, rose from the table, and went upstairs with Irma, who was obviously in on the plan, to pack his things.
“I know just what the director needs—better than anyone else,” Irma declared.
While he remained glued to his chair in vain protest, Christie called down from the second floor, “Any special requests? A favorite sweater or anything? We’ve packed the toiletries you need and your light shoes. Your walking shoes are already downstairs ready to go. If there’s a book you can’t do without, you’ll have to fetch it yourself. Otherwise, there’s plenty to read out there. You just have to put on something appropriate. Shall I help you?”
“That’s the last thing I need!” he scolded from his chair. But finally his curiosity drove him upstairs. “You’re worse than Gloria in her best years, Christie! And now, out of my bedroom, ladies! Give an old man some privacy!”
When he came back downstairs, his suitcase was already in the front hall, along with his coat, hat, and walking shoes. Still somewhat bewildered, Albert sat down in the kitchen again and took another swallow of the now lukewarm coffee.
“Christie, this whole mission is your responsibility. You give me no choice. If I come along, it’s under protest and under compulsion. I’m being abducted.”
“You’ll enjoy our little outing to the country all the more for that!” She beamed.
The old man looked up at her.
“Well … if it makes you happy! It looks like it does, at any rate.”
And after another swallow. “What shall we do about Ann? I can’t just sneak off.”
“Aha, Herr Director needs permission from the lady of the house, even though she’s not even here,” piped up Irma from the front door, Albert’s suitcase already in her hand.
“I’ve got to get in touch with Ann right now, or there’ll be the devil to pay!”
“It’s comfy down there with the devil. No one freezes to death.” Christie looked around for the telephone and found Ann’s number.
“Maybe it doesn’t have to be right now. We could take a little stroll in the garden and calm down. We could talk everything over…” he backpedaled.
“No, you have to do it now, this minute!” Christie insisted. “I’ve already dialed her up for you.” She handed him the cordless phone.
“My God, what are you doing to me? From the frying pan into the fire!”
After two or three rings, Ann answered. Albert shooed the two women out of the kitchen with his hand.
“Hello, Ann. I just wanted to check in.… How is Mary?… What did you say? There’s a buzz in the line.… I understand. You’ve got to stay a few more.… You already said that. Poor Mary!… No, no, I understand completely. Everything’s fine here. Of course, I miss you taking care of me, but … what? No, nothing special. You said you called Lori? That’s news.…”
He strained to hear; now her voice was clearer: “Yes, Albert, I talked to her.… You gave me the idea. I thought a lot about everything you said to me. One has to see both sides, isn’t that what you said? Lori told me about Christie, too.… Has she come to see you yet? Was she nice to you? She owes you at least that much, God knows.”
He was on his feet now, walking back and forth in the kitchen.
“Guess what? She wants me to drive out to the country with her to visit her mother, just a little excursion for a day or two. What do you think of that?… What? It’s up to me?… You mean, if it’ll do me some good?… Of course, I’m being well looked after.… She sends you her best.… Yes, she’s gotten more serious. Living down there leaves its mark on you.… Give Mary a hug; you two are always in my thoughts.… If you think so, I guess I’ll…”
Albert ended the conversation nodding his head, then went out into the hallway where the two women were waiting.
“I caught her on a good day! Poor Mary, what a charming young woman she was! And how she could waltz.…”
*   *   *
He watched the ever-changing cityscape fly by. They soon reached the river and crossed the town along the water. The trees lining the avenue had been recently pruned. Christie took the bridge near the cathedral, drove through attractive suburbs, then past workshops and abandoned farmsteads. She crossed a highway and left the built-up area behind. She drove efficiently, sitting there beside him, and told him about her life in Mali, where she’d been stationed for almost a year now. Yes, of course she’d visited the legendary Timbuktu, but that goal of so many Sahara travelers wasn’t such a golden place anymore. Far from it: today it was a filthy hole, half devoured by sand—as she put it—with animal droppings all over the dusty streets. A place surrounded by desert, where time had stopped long ago, a place in which you forget where you are.
The old man was enjoying this unexpected outing more and more. They’d already passed the large forest and the cemetery with its never-ending walls. He didn’t like cemeteries, those museums of the dead. He would never have had the strength to visit Gloria’s grave if there had been one. The landscape outside the car opened up into rolling hills. He liked going uphill best. At the rise, groups of trees appeared, the occasional chapel, villages with half-timbered houses to the right and left, in between a gorge, then more smokestacks, low-slung factory buildings—a thriving country, he thought, no need to worry! Occasional blue sky, then thick white clouds high up. Somewhere in the distance, rain was falling.
They must have been driving for an hour already when Christie pulled over on a hilltop to enjoy the view spread out before them: broad patches of forest interrupted by fields, some already harvested.
“We’ll be there in just a few more minutes.”
She opened the window to let in the fresh air. He took a deep breath.
“This is the life, by God! The air smells so good!”
In the far distance they could make out higher ground, a mountain range.
“I could keep driving like this forever, maybe all the way to Africa! Count me in! I’d forgotten how beautiful the world around here is.”
Albert had put his arm affectionately around her shoulders. He looked at her with gratitude.
“High time you took me on a trip, Christie. I’ve been waiting a long time for it. You won’t get rid of me so easily now.”
*   *   *
The house was smaller than he’d expected. It hugged the ground and its roof hung so low he could reach it with his hand. The building was gray with green shutters peeling their paint. You could have overlooked it where it stood, at the edge of a large meadow. The compact property was enclosed by a hedge of tall bushes and a few old trees. The only remarkable thing were the roses, climbing the walls of the house and wherever else they could gain a foothold. Everywhere, hedges of them were in bloom. Christie’s mother was obviously a rose lady. The roses cast a spell over everything else.
Albert had never been to this house nor had he seen Christie’s mother for what seemed an eternity. He couldn’t remember exactly when the last time was. Now here she was, coming toward him through the gloom of the entrance hall, bashful apparently, small—much shorter than he remembered her; Christie was more than a head taller—and somewhat stout, in a faded linen dress and clunky shoes with mud clinging to them, her wavy gray hair combed back. But with a full-lipped, lively mouth.
Is she embarrassed? Albert thought. Perhaps it’s awkward to have me here.
Behind him, Christie said something he didn’t catch and her mother answered. She seemed to be apologizing and he didn’t know what for. Why would anyone need to apologize to him? He thought of Ann with her tall, ramrod posture, so full of self-confidence and sense of duty, her finely chiseled features becoming sterner with each passing year.
“I have to thank you for letting me come along. I’m sure Christie had the best intentions; I only hope I’m not a burden. I’m a pretty useless fellow.”
In the living room tea was ready for them. A tea light was burning beneath the pot. It was a tidy, low-ceilinged room that made its inhabitant, as she led him in, seem even shorter and stouter. He liked the simple furniture upholstered in natural fabrics, the old rolltop desk on one wall, and the squat lamps.
“No, no. It’s no trouble at all to have you here. Bringing you along was the one thing Christie wanted. I hope you’ll help me persuade her … uh, what’s past is past … I know how much you mean to her; you can influence her. But right now, we’ll take your suitcase to your room. It’s not much of a room, actually, more of a chamber you’ll have trouble turning around in, you’re so tall.”
*   *   *
The day ended in silence. He went outside with the two women to explore the surroundings and breathe the air. They walked across pastures and a little way into the woods. He stopped to admire an anthill almost as tall as himself, larger than any he’d seen before. His steps got shorter and shorter, but he didn’t want to give up. On the way back, he had to stop often to catch his breath and he leaned on Christie’s arm.
In the evening the fire blazed and crackled in the fireplace. The three of them sat watching the flames flare up and die down. They spoke only now and then. The lovely, eventful day had tired Albert out and his hands were shaking. He asked their permission to retire early. Without waiting to be asked, Lena unbuttoned his shirt for him and knelt down to untie his shoelaces. He was touched and didn’t try to stop her. He lay in bed in the semidarkness, stared at the wall just beyond his feet, where a large child’s drawing hung. A masterpiece, he thought, as he dropped off to sleep.

Copyright © 2010 by Alfred Neven DuMont