THIS, AND THEN THIS
Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 14, Number 2
Copyright © 2019
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Fiction by Mary Grimm
She liked to be busy, but she liked also to decide on a given morning
that she would do nothing that day. It was OK, she told herself, if you
planned it as you would a vacation, and if you wrote down everything you
ought to be doing on the next day’s list. Then she would half recline on
her L-shaped couch and read, forgetting to get up and make lunch until
after three, when she would eat the crackers left in the sleeve, a bit of
cheese, two olives, and a handful of dried apricots.
Her name was Elizabeth, but no one called her this. She had been
Lettie for as long as anyone could remember, because those who might
remember differently were dead.
She talked to herself, of course, for who does not? But not too
much, because she didn’t want to be one of those old people who forgot
the customs and mores of the world, who let their hair hang in their eyes,
who dribbled food on their fronts and forgetfully said swear words
because they had been used to saying those in their cars when someone
cut them off.
She didn’t use a cane or a walker, although sometimes she leaned on
the wall going downstairs, joking as she did so that she and gravity were
at odds, that it was always luring her to come down, to lie down, to fall.
Lying there, a sheet of sun thrown over her, creeping higher and
higher until she was covered and warmed by it. She was reading a book
about ancient glaciers, when her house would have been covered perhaps
with a mile of ice, if her house had been there, which it hadn’t. The ice
would have been moving very slowly, and her house would have creaked
and groaned with its movement. Its boards and windows and the stones
of its foundation wrenched from each other so slowly, a long frigid torture,
if it had been there, which it couldn’t have been. She herself would have
been unable to stand up under that onslaught. The house wouldn’t have
sheltered her, no matter if it lasted for a year or two, for how could anyone
live under a mile of ice?
When she half lay on the couch (gravity at bay, since she was so
close to the ground), when she put down her book, she would let her mind
go, swimming through the layers of time. Not for nostalgia’s sake, but to
get the details right, in her own mind if nowhere else. It didn’t matter to
anyone but her to pin down the year she’d gotten her first car, bought with
money from her first job, and why it should matter to her, she didn’t know.
But she drifted through the likely years, looking for markers of time, the
great dates standing up like mile markers on the turnpike, graduation,
marriage, the year that someone was assassinated, the year that someone
else was impeached. When she managed to pin down the car (the three-
year-old yellow convertible, a Chevy Impala, beige leather seats) she felt
triumph, fleeting, as when you passed a test in an ancient classroom, the
old nun drowsing at the front of the room while a fly banged against the
window looking for the freedom of the air outside. 1967, she told herself,
yes. If she had a calendar handy she would mark it. The first week in
June, two weeks after she had sat on a barstool and answered someone
with a smile: yes, he could buy her a drink.
One thing led to another, and always had. One look, one smile, one
careless dropping of someone’s hand. In her store of memories the chain
of the one-things, each linked to the next with a hard causality—how was
it that she hadn’t been able to see how it was at the time? A glass of white
wine, please—so ordinary a phrase, she had said it a hundred times, a
thousand—but that one time, the wine glass touching her lips as she
smiled, and he watched her. Now it was hard to say why it was different.
It was hard to say why it had mattered. His face rose in her memory, like
the face of a drowned man carried by a wave.
When she saw him now, they spoke only of books. Have you read
this? Did you know there was a trilogy? His newest isn’t his best, not
by a long shot. When she saw him now, his wife was usually there, her
long pale hair held back by a girlish barrette. He still had that habit of
stroking his chin, his beard, a professorial habit although he had never
been a teacher. He was retired, in any case. He had a chronic disease.
Irrationally, she felt that he wouldn’t have contracted it if they’d stayed
Sometimes when she saw him she would bring deliberately to mind
the times when they’d still been together. Nothing too graphic, for that
wouldn’t have seemed polite, with his wife sitting there. But that time
when they’d gone for a drive in the park with her sister, when his hair
had been black as obsidian, when they’d photographed each other lying
on the thick branch of a tree hanging over the river. And the time that
they had driven an hour to the mall to wander up and down, looking at
things they couldn’t afford. Or a day when they’d gone shopping at the
PX to buy something cheap for supper, which then they had cooked in
their ramshackle house with chickens outside in the yard, and then had
eaten, forgetting to do the dishes which lay in the sink while they played
poker with a group of friends, drinking wine out of paper cups that were
stained red by the end of the evening. She had gone early to bed that
night, and while sleep came up over her, she listened to the sounds of
them in the kitchen, his voice telling a joke, his laugh when he won a
hand. When they left, they tiptoed by the bedroom, so as not to wake
her up, which somehow she knew although she was asleep.
These were things, these times, that still existed somehow between
them. If you have said that you love someone (and if you mean it) will
those things always be there, stretched between the two of you like the
retractable leash on a dog? He had gone back to that mall in Tennessee
without her to buy a shawl she’d admired, paisley, purple-fringed, which
she’d never wear now, but then it had been the epitome of something she
wanted, a shawl that made her into a different person, who might be a
folk singer, an activist, someone with a colorful life, that shawl draped
over her arms, dropping from her shoulders as she stood dazed in a
spotlight. He had known this, or had guessed at it, her longing for that
something else, and he had bought it for her, even though that longing
was what was waiting to draw her away from him, not so many months
later. Had he ever done something so charming, so wonderful again,
for her or anyone else?
If her life were a movie or a play, she would ask him this question
and wait to see what he would answer, or if he would. Lying on the
couch, she imagined the scene, the two of them sitting with their chairs
angled toward each other on a stage, she also somehow in the audience.
There would be a clattering, chiming noise offstage, where his wife was
making drinks or washing dishes. Behind them would be a wall of
books, and perhaps a window, which looked out into a sunny meadow
that represented the past. She would ask, and he would lean forward
to answer while the other she, in the audience, waited to hear what he
would say. But in her own life she would never ask, for his wife never
went to the kitchen to get drinks, and if she did, he would make a joke,
or he might say that he didn’t remember, and maybe he wouldn’t.
Mary Grimm is the author of a novel, Left to Themselves, and a short
story collection, Stealing Time, which were both published by Random
House. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.
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