Midway in Life’s Journey
©John M. Williams
Midway in Life’s Journey
A morning, in the precarious season between summer and fall, surprised the eastern sky like an organ chord.
Everywhere the inexperienced light did battle with shadow—streamed through the pine trees, gilded the morning glories entangling the fence, crept toward the house then blazed it with fiery streaks. If I could paint, thought Sylvia Quist, sitting at the patio table with a cup of coffee, I would paint this.
The old mental picture of the whole prescription of blue pills, or maybe the greens, being dumped into a tumbler of water had awakened with her, but kept to the shadows as her thoughts went wandering.
Painting, for example—such a curious impulse: the ravishment she understood, but the need to do something, capture it, must be the most fulfilling life, she reflected—that longing to answer beauty. Or maybe not—maybe futile, something that disappears as you touch it—stops in the mind, never reaches the soul. How odd, to be two things—does one ever become one? Only, she reflected, in not knowing one is.
But no argument: the world was most beautiful at two times of day—late afternoon and early morning. The mystique and the grace; overall, she preferred morning. What a shame she so rarely saw it—either not looking or sleeping. And she realized that this particular arrangement of light and shadow, leaf and cloud, had never before existed, nor ever would again. Nor had exactly this situation: she, alone, on the patio, September well aged, a quarter till eight on a Friday morning, two days before her fortieth birthday.
Knowing the vacuum she would make of his day, Sylvia had called Mr. Burge to say she didn’t feel well and wouldn’t come in.
Oh, good thing it’s a Friday, he had laughed—then added he hoped it wasn’t serious. Serious enough to stay home, she replied, giving him thirty minutes to stare at his plaques before taking his hat and going out to share his boredom with the town. Not as serious as that spell he’d had a couple of months ago, he doubted—that fluttering in the heart, you can’t even imagine . . . she instinctively quit listening until his voice stopped. Her loathing had long since outlived the active stage—this caterpillar-eyebrowed man who, she marveled, had somehow all his life been able to pass off perverted self-pity as civic magnanimity, who massaged the biceps of young men he was talking to like a doctor feeling for disease, or something—hard and shrewd at the heart and not especially clean. Her reflection, as his voice was going on again, turned from the man to the loathing itself—what a strange emotion, hate: must be the animal in you, but do animals hate? They just look at something else’s life and want to take it. All life feeds on life. Of course, what did it say about her that she’d stayed with him for seven years? Well, obviously life would be pretty lonely with no one to despise.
A scarlet flame appeared on the birdbath. Far over the lawn the shadow of that mossy ornament reached, an elongated and elegant ghost, to the top of which the cardinal with his inquisitively turning head added his distorted silhouette. She closed her eyes and listened. Such a symphony! Engaging almost her entire sensory capacity for a few seconds—if only you could do that—hearing the clear individual voices in an abstract whole—strange how you could listen to only one place at a time. Still, so beautiful. To come from the other side and wake up hearing that. You would think: I’m home.
When she opened her eyes the scene before her shone with momentary splendor. But it was late September. Almost that fatal word: October. It had just been summer—minutes ago. The world still looked, felt like summer. Only, it didn’t. She looked around for clues.
Well, of course, the fruit: the muscadines, the apples, the pears. But aside from that, the smell, she decided—a sweeter, spicier scent—more, what?—artful than the sweaty breath of summer. And of course the shade of green: deeper, darker, more tired. Her marigolds grown spindly, like the lavender petunias spilling from their life-support planters on weary stems. Actually, everything. The spider lilies along the fence, the goldenrods at the edge of the little wood, the crape myrtles holding onto their last blooms, the pyracantha bent with its load of berries like an old man. The sweetgums well turned, the pods on the redbuds, the red berries on the dogwoods, the restless fritillaries haunting the marigolds, the light—somehow, like the smell, different, richer. Even the birds, for all their music, fell short of the full clamor of midsummer, so many gone, the voices more select. And the chinaberry tree with its single branch of blazing yellow, the dogwoods with their premature boughs of red, the gardenias and their scattering of aberrant September blooms, drawing the scandalized whispering of the other shrubs. Oh everything, everything. No hiding the state of your sap.
But something had happened—blame it on the smell—taken her back, mysteriously, as though the places of the past were not a long procession away but only a deft step aside. Her grandmother’s back yard.
That birdbath had been old even then, cracked, leaning, its bowl greened with a patina of algae, its base supported by bricks—a longago act like many others in the yard and around the house still echoing with the touch of her ghostly grandfather—bricks which through some forgotten association she had always traced to a vent in the house’s foundation, under the back room in the dreadful shadows behind the hydrangeas, an opening through which escaped the cool sinister breath of the appalling basement—bricks between and around which the grass grew unchecked, for Ben mowed only as close as he could get and took no further pains, just as he would skirt any watermelon shells set out for the birds, leaving a little watermelon scene. Old Ben, who had his own drinking glass, a tall contaminated jelly jar alone on the windowsill. The redbirds—her grandmother had names for them all, could convince you she could tell them apart, claimed she knew whose offspring was whose, passing on their names accordingly; she would call them in a trilling voice and they would come, limb by limb ever closer as she crumbled yesterday’s cornbread onto the wobbly railing of the back porch where Sylvia had once slid her bare foot onto a four-inch splinter requiring a terrifying visit to a strange doctor which remained to this day the touchstone in her mind for trauma. On the south side of the house grew the pomegranate tree: the spindly, climbable limbs, the green, ripening, ripe fruit with their leathery russet skin and bristly protuberances on the bottom. The lower ones she could pick herself; the higher (better) ones had called for Ben and his splattered stepladder. The pear tree in the lower yard with weathered planks holding up its sagging branches. The wide breezy front porch where she would sit in the platform swing and read or carve designs into pears with her teeth or pick away at a pomegranate as the noon cooking smells drifted through the windows. That would be Cora, in the kitchen, who arrived every morning from some unimaginable region at exactly eight in the same Red Taxi driven by the same crumple-capped old man—strange, moody Cora who ironed in the somber middle room, dampening the clothes with water from a Coke bottle capped by a dented sprinkler head, watching white people’s dramas on the organ-groaning soap operas. Peculiar Cora in that unquiet time, with ideas of her own, who sent off for travel brochures and fat packets of exotic picture post cards that opened like an accordion. White-palmed Cora, dusted with flour, filled with dreams. And Grandmama, having her afternoon Coca-Cola on the porch, a napkin wrapped around the frosty bottle, or standing at the stove, gazing through the side window sampling from the cold leftovers on plates: cornbread, fried pies, scalpeled sweet potato halves, chicken—her only meals. The bathroom: cold black and white hexagonal tiles, hissing space heater, lion’s paw bathtub with a stopper on a chain mirroring a parabolic rusty stain on the enamel. The smell of bubble bath, Jergen’s lotion, human waste—a precise olfactory signature, like every room, like the house itself, swallowed by time, sold, remodeled, twenty years in the hands of strangers in a now irrelevant city—trespassing in memory, just like the little girl.
Sylvia’s eyes burned, and it didn’t help that the sun had risen higher and the novel touch of early morning had passed. At last she rose and went inside with her coffee cup. At the kitchen sink she poured out the cold, undrunk coffee, rinsed and refilled the cup. She then paused, peering through the window at the little scene lately including her. How nonchalantly it continued without her. The only distinction between the two universes—the one with her in it, the one without—was just this dubious, intermittent, unspeakably perishable considering of one by the other. Consciousness, Sylvia considered: it’s overrated. Everybody so aware—it’s too petty. More lurks in the cool caverns below. Only not soul—the word that conjured her childhood image: a sand-filled pillow lodged in the thoracic cavity and associated with the claustrophobia of death. Not only the primal image of the hushed parlor where her grandfather had lain in his casket came to her mind, but a succession of other suffocating rooms as well, all smelling of souls and death.
With her new coffee she returned to the patio thinking to recover something, but just as she realized she didn’t want the coffee, and set the cup on the table, she knew some moment had passed. Looking toward the back of the yard she noticed the sun had risen high enough to lure the hammock from the shadows, and she set off rather daringly across the still-wet yard. She lay, gazing at the flaming treetops around the house. The hammock still rocked gently from her getting in it, and she closed her eyes and conjured up a little ocean drama—only a bit too well as the feeling slowly evolved into a quite convincing sense of floating in a small boat, adrift from the mothership. Alarmed, she opened her eyes, reassuring herself, but felt suddenly conspicuous and exposed. She reached out with forcep fingers, plucked a Granddaddy Longlegs from her knee, tossed it to the pine straw, then got up and retraced her still visible footprints to the patio.
There, she paused. Coffee—no. Sit—no. Take off her clothes and run around the yard—yes, but no. Impasse. She returned to the kitchen and poured out her coffee again.
She stood there a moment. That smell, Arthur’s after-shave, lingering around the tale of his presence on the counter: coffee-streaked mug, spoon, cereal bowl, juice glass, alongside a puddle of spilled water. Sylvia stared—the puddle looked like South America. Exactly like South America. Amazed, she began trying to shape the water above it into Central, North America, thinking for a few exhilarating seconds she would make the world, then gave up.
Arthur. Eighteen years. They met when they were twenty. Arthur had seemed to know some secret and she fell in love with him to find out what it was. Of course she still didn’t know. He couldn’t help it—he was born with it. And if she defined herself through knowing she was half of whatever a man like him was the other half of—well, so what. Funny how you couldn’t have a whole person, just your part. Spare me the details. But to be blindsided by something so strong so young—it wrote out the whole story of your life. There should have been more—others—people she should have known. Episodes, like books, then back to your life.
Arthur’s eyes—the masculine face dissolved into the other: the feminine, the younger, not so innocent but had been—and she fought back a pang of love.
A nice hot bath.
She had a bit of a cry then looked up to realize the day had aged into commonness. A nice hot bath. The phone rang like somebody sneaking up behind her with a snake.
It took her three rings to master her nerves. Why am I answering this, she thought, and answered it. Burge! How was she feeling? She was pretty sure she’d be back on Monday, right? She wouldn’t want to miss two days’ pay. Ha ha ha. Seriously, he thought he’d run by and bring her whatever she needed, and visit for a while. Aggh! You come over here you fat depraved baboon and I’ll kill you, she wanted to say, but said it differently. She hung up. Bastard.
“It’s his business,” Arthur would remind her. “He raised the capital, he took the risk.”
“Oh, shut up, Arthur.”
“Why don’t you figure out a way to steal some if he’s as stupid as you say he is?”
“Because I’d get caught and he’d go around to all the Elks and things going you never would have suspected her.”
A nice hot—she descended to the lower end of the house and began drawing a bath, suddenly realizing this is why time is going so fast: whatever I’m doing I’m already thinking of the next thing. Is there anything you can do about that? imagining curling up with a book, a little snack.
She soaked as the mid-morning sun streamed through the window—silent but for the occasional audible snippet.
“—you’re supposed to say something—”
“—was it the money?—”
“—if you’d move your fat ass—”
“—you can’t tell she’s lying?—”
Later, dressing in the bedroom, she observed the sun had worked its way to the end of the house, illuminating the little nook by the window with her violets and the pillow-strewn daybed, a scattering of magazines and books. One lay open and upside down—she liked leaving surprises for herself—the life of Judy Garland—which she would savor a few pages at a time then set aside, like one with infinite time, knowing she would eventually read it all, then not have it. She reached the end of a chapter, set it aside, thumbed through a couple of magazines, then felt restless.
She returned to the brighter, higher end of the house, to the kitchen where the microwave clock said it was 10:33. Maybe a little hungry but the survey through the cabinets and refrigerator was uninspiring—then she had an idea. She went out to the muscadine vines and picked a few very ripe ones, then picked a pear. Walking back to the house she started peeling it with her teeth, leaving a zigzag band. In the kitchen she sliced it—ate a slice—that was enough—she’d never really loved pears.
She found herself at the piano: “Moonlight Sonata,” “Für Elise,” “Desperado”—like a milkman making his rounds—then felt, what was that—boredom?
After eleven o’clock. Where was the sun? I’m a cat, she thought—following the sun around. It hadn’t reached the front of the house, but she sat down on the sofa by the front windows anyway, picking up a book of Double-Crostics she had left there. She worked on some unfinished ones, then did the easy clues on a few new ones, then finally got engrossed in one beginning to unravel. She finished it, read through the quotation which seemed a scant reward. All in the chase.
She looked around her for other left items—nothing interesting—what was this? A little clothbound book she couldn’t at first place: Woman as Simile by Constance Waller Grimes. Where had it come from? Oh yeah, the bridge game. A Diane book. Sylvia looked at the photograph of the author, scowled, opened the book and read the first paragraph five times. It seemed a private matter. “What is this crap?” she said, and threw it across the room.
It tumbled over and landed, splayed out upright on its edge.
“Damn,” said Sylvia.
Was the universe trying to tell her something? Talk! She said.
She sat there, the brazen act slashed across her short-term memory like a meteor streak—the result conspicuously out of place in the immaculate room. She lingered for a while, then went to the bathroom. Washing her hands she collided with her face in the mirror—and the shock sent her back to the kitchen where she learned it was twelve-fifteen.
It didn’t matter if she ate or not—it was the thought of preparing it. She opened the refrigerator and stood staring at the contents like one with a gift certificate in the wrong sort of store. A little soup maybe, and the good crackers—or two or three kinds of cheese, some olives—or poach an egg with a slice of Canadian bacon. A weak pulse of nausea passed through her, making her swallow. Not really hungry.
The phone rang. She jumped.
“Hey honey,” Arthur said, saying less than having waited till noon to call said. “I’ve been worried about you. How you feeling?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.”
“What you need me to bring you?”
“Nothing, thanks. I’m fine, really.”
Brief pause. “What you doing, babe?”
“Just relaxing,” he half said, half asked, like one who secretly needs to assign it a code number on a form.
“Is that okay?”
“Sure it’s okay, of course it’s okay.”
“What are you doing?” she countered.
“Oh, same old crap. We’ve got to go out this afternoon.” He paused. “I’ll be out standing in my field.”
“Congratulations: you’ve just used that for the thousandth time.”
“What do I win?”
“A clock radio.”
“Great. And listen, baby—I’ll take care of dinner, okay? You just take it easy—I’ll stop and pick something up.”
“Not Captain D’s, Arthur.”
“No, not Captain D’s. Something good. Maybe Chinese.”
“Get me some soup.”
“Don’t I always?”
“See you tonight. Love you.”
She had sat in a kitchen chair and now remained there reflecting how Arthur had not aged year by year but in surges of time—twenty, twenty-three, twenty-seven, thirty-four—she herself shadowing him—and now this.
At last she rose, poured a glass of tomato juice, and returned with it and the good crackers to the patio.
The sun had risen higher, stunting the shadows; the day had aged warm. The birds seemed all at a distance now, their songs less urgent. She sat in the padded recliner, leaned her head back, drifted . . .
Above the world—floating on the wind—light as a butterfly: the house below and yard, enclosed in their little wooded island. To the left the Johnsons—Marlon at work, Rita doing who knew what or cared, might as well be on another planet; to the right the Richards, ditto—everything separated by spaces—everybody—what you want, what you are—even thought itself, flickers of light in a black hole of nothingness. The futility, disappointment: either too clever or not clever at all. The great redeemer, Tomorrow, comes at you eating your life away.
But not at the thought—rather, at a sound from within the house. She opened her eyes and saw over her shoulder Suzanne cross through the dining room and plop her backpack onto the table. Must have dozed. The girl sent a curious glance to her mother through the French doors, then disappeared into the kitchen.
A few moments later thirteen year old Suzanne Quist, her cuticle-tortured fingers enclosing a stack of cookies, crumbs on her lips, chewing, came through the doors and took the chair where Sylvia had sat that morning. She bit a cookie and chewed.
“What’s up with the book?”
“The one in the middle of the floor.”
“Oh—that one. I didn’t like it.”
Sylvia smiled; Suzanne started on a new cookie.
“Are you going to drink that?”
Sylvia leaned her head forward, followed her daughter’s line of sight to the tomato juice. “I doubt it.”
“Good.” Suzanne reached for it.
“Tomato juice, darling? With Pecan Sandies?”
“What are you going to do—hurl?”
“I’ll try to hold back.” Sylvia watched with a scowl. “Why don’t you at least go get some fresh? That’s been sitting there a long time.”
“That’s the way I like it.” She drank and in a lifelong gesture wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “So why’d you pour it if you didn’t want it?”
“Because at the time I poured it I didn’t know. Actually, that’s not entirely true. But is there a necessary connection between pouring something and drinking it?”
Suzanne stared at her. “Uh—yes.”
“Why? Why can’t you pour something just to pour it?”
Suzanne kept staring—Mom’s cracked. “O-o-kay.”
“Why don’t you get some milk?”
The girl grimaced. “With tomato juice?”
“I mean instead.”
“Obviously it’s too late now.”
Sylvia had reclosed her eyes and leaned her head back. What was it? Something—like the birdsong so pervasive, so familiar, you had to stop and focus on it: the smell, the sweet distinct smell, from day one, of her daughter.
“What have you been doing all day, Mom?”
Sylvia didn’t answer at once. She felt the breeze on her face, opened her eyes and looked at her daughter, not chewing, looking back at her—Arthur’s eyes—sitting there casually with that little piece of genetic theft—no longer even the twilight of the child, but the merciless dawn.
“Just sitting here,” Sylvia said, thinking how the story of our lives, the tumor, feeds off ourselves.