By Susan Levi Wallach
William had slept through the grinding of tires on gravel and the splash that followed, had thought the house pleasantly quiet when he woke. It was June, just before the solstice, before the pleasing warmth of morning turns into unrelenting heat and the chirping of crickets becomes a sound both insistent and dark. A lecturer in linguistic etymology, he had the summer off — his department head having omitted his courses from the summer schedule. He’d spend the time re-reading Heidegger and Curtis, maybe get back to his research on anaphoric expressions in Latin, write a proposal for an advanced seminar and present it at the next department meeting. He’d sleep late, avoid the cloying green of early day, and work into the night, enjoy the deep solitude that comes from looking out his window at the dark houses opposite, their occupants unaware. He and his wife could live for three months on her earnings, advertising agencies a better source of income than colleges anyway.
He hadn’t bothered to look for her, figured she already left for the day. She often did, earlier than he believed she had to. At first it made him feel like an intruder, the newness of his presence forcing her into a different routine. Until a few weeks ago, he’d been the one out the door, hurrying off to the drive-through and his 7:45 class. Now he was just there, thinking, as he did every morning, that he should get a fix on the day. He pulled on a pair of loose linen pants, brushed his teeth, and went into the kitchen to start the coffee. If he’d sat at the table and glanced at the backyard, he might have seen her — not her, exactly, but seen that something wasn’t right.
As it was, the pool man found her an hour later. The man started shouting; William came out to find him hopping from foot to foot on the pool deck, plucking at his hair. At first, William thought the man had seen it happen — the man was Filipino and in his excitement had reverted to what sounded like highly idiomatic and incomprehensible speech. William couldn’t understand why the man hadn’t jumped in to save her. Surely, a man who made his living cleaning pools could swim. He remembered these thoughts later, after he dove in, after he saw her underwater, her hair streaming out behind her, her hands suspended just above the steering wheel. Her mouth hung open, a fish mouth, her eyes were clouded. There was nothing to save, and it took all his control to propel himself to the surface, where he gasped and wailed, howling out his sorrow between gulps of air as the pool man held out a pole, yelled for him to grab, then pulled him up to the deck.
People and trucks cluttered the driveway and backyard the rest of the day. The fire department had to borrow a heavy-duty winch from a department three towns over. “You might want to stay inside, Mr. Mason,” one of the police officers said. “She’ll be in the car when we pull it out. Safer than trying to get her out first.” William went into the kitchen and stood by the table to watch the EMTs remove his wife’s body and put it into a black body bag. By that time, her garden border had been trampled into the mulch and there were deep muddy ruts in the lawn. Not that he’d really cared for the lawn, which was more a strip of weedy grass between the gravel parking area and the pool.
He wanted a private service, which he thought meant just him, but her family figured that “private” included them, and they assured him they all would be there. The police officer explained the need under law for an autopsy, questioned him about her state of mind, the happiness or unhappiness of their marriage, the fact that he had heard nothing, noticed nothing amiss, the coincidence of the pool man’s arrival just then, while he was at the kitchen counter drinking coffee and could run outside at the first shout. “Just protocol,” the officer told him. “I expect they’ll release the body by the end of the week.” It was Monday.
Two days later, her parents and brother arrived. “We’ll drive. Louise, Ben, and me,” Sy had said. “It will be easier that way” — though William couldn’t see how two days in a Volvo would be easier than a direct flight. The funeral would be on Friday. She would be cremated, an option William chose after he skimmed through his wife’s book of Shakespeare sonnets to find a reading for the service and found one that began, promisingly:
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell
William thought of her dwelling with the vilest of worms, thought of himself distracted for months over the state of her decomposition, thought of the often-boggy ground in the town’s one cemetery and how, if the university did not renew his contract next year, he would almost definitely leave and what would happen to her then? The fact that none of his courses had made it onto the summer schedule was a bad sign, and he had only two courses to teach in the fall. The department chair, Annabella Brown (a name that to him paired the fanciful with the mundane), would not keep him on out of pity. A university position is as much about marketing as it is about teaching, his wife had warned him. “I’m not going to worry about it,” he’d replied, though now he wished he had.
“Is there anything you need me to do?” Louise kept asking, her hands rough from the washing up and scrubbing she’d already done, the meals she’d prepared and frozen. “To see you through this,” she said when he objected. She shook her head when he offered her a Valium — more for him than for her, really, to relieve him from the frenzy of her unrelenting motion. Still, he invited her to go with him after lunch to choose the urn, just as six years earlier she’d joined him and Claire when they went to Saks to register for a china pattern before their wedding. Louise explained the difference between porcelain and bone, the impracticality of an ornate pattern that they might tire of. “Don’t you agree?” she said, nodding at William until he nodded back. It had evolved into a raucous outing: they ended up at the Drake Hotel, where they drank martinis in the Palm Court and William surprised Claire with a Limoges trinket box he’d bought while the women debated a platinum border versus gold. They lived in Chicago then, a half-hour from Lake Forest, where Claire’s parents lived. William met his wife there while finishing his doctorate; she was an undergraduate with a major in Comparative Literature, taking the introductory semantics course he taught.
Louise changed her mind about the Valium before they headed out. “You’re her husband, William,” she said. “You’re sure this is what she wants?” He nodded, hoping to avoid a discussion of burial practices and a numbing defense of his choice. This time, they would not be stopping for martinis on the way back. Still, he felt a similar flash of anticipation, that sense of being on the verge of a life-altering experience, but this one the opposite of the other — one he wanted to put behind him as quickly and neatly as possible.
The owner of the funeral home was settled on the veranda in a blue polo and khakis when they pulled up in the Volvo. There were three glasses and a pitcher of iced tea on a low table, as if this was a social call. Louise pursed her lips in disapproval. In Chicago funeral directors wore dark suits regardless of the season and had a somber assistant show you into a mahogany-paneled office. William put his hand on her arm, ready with an explanation, but he felt her stiffen and quickly withdrew it, saying nothing.
When they stepped onto the veranda, she ignored the funeral director’s outstretched hand and turning to William, said, “Something in porcelain — don’t you think, William?” Inside, he chose a white one, a classic shape ringed with playful platinum swirls, nothing too complicated.
Though William hoped for an early dinner, Louise and Sy went upstairs to nap — “I guess we’ll be having casserole and casserole with a side of casserole,” Sy had said, eying the kitchen counter with its offering of bereavement meals. “No hurry for that.”
William was sitting on the deck, staring at the pool, as he often did in the early evening while waiting for his wife to get home. The house had the same expectant silence. He could close his eyes and make the last week disappear. Then he heard the sliding door from the kitchen open, became aware that someone was somewhere behind him, maybe just letting in the breeze, the house in the past days having become stifling, airless. He opened his eyes to find Ben leaning against the railing
“Why don’t we pack up her things?” he heard Ben say.
Ben waited a few seconds, then added, “I’d like to help you with that. With the packing up.”
The packing, William thought. In that instant, he understood the finality of these days and how they were sweeping him along in their undertow. “Thank you, but it’s all right,” he said.
“I’d really like to,” Ben said, his still-soft face furrowing.
“How about you pick out something of hers to keep,” William said. The boy nodded, a hurried motion that made William think it was what he wanted all along.
Her clothes were still as she’d left them, mostly folded in the bureau or hanging from padded hangers. A pair of sandals lay side by side under the chair. The hamper was empty except for the shirt he’d worn over the past days — the same shirt every day until Louise had put her hands on his shoulders, whispered that he should go on and change before the minister arrived to discuss the eulogy.
“Bet you haven’t even thought what you would do with all this stuff,” Ben said, his fingers tracing the pale blue stripes on cashmere scarf. “I have a friend who lost his mother last year. It would have been easier on them if they hadn’t waited. You know what I mean?”
To his relief William did. “Actually, you’re talking about Heidegger’s concept of death as inevitable but unknowable,” he said. It was, after all, what he’d been studying, Being and Time. “They had to come to terms with her death and by extension the inevitability of their own. In their case, twice.”
When Ben just stared at him, he added, “Is that what you were saying?”
Ben gave a nervous laugh. “You’re the professor. I was just saying that it can become like a fetish, like you can’t touch anything because you keep believing she might come back. That’s what it was like for my friend’s dad.”
By 10 a.m. the next day it was over. His in-laws said their good-byes at the funeral home. “We can get almost a full day’s drive in this way,” Sy had said, slipping off his tie. “It will be your friends here this afternoon. They don’t know us.” He patted William on the shoulder, then placed the urn on the floor of the backseat. They would have it buried at the cemetery near their home, where they’d already paid for their own plots. Earlier, William had the funeral director fill one of Claire’s Limoges boxes — maybe the one he’d given her that afternoon in Chicago, though he wasn’t sure. He’d wrapped carefully in his handkerchief and tucked into his jacket pocket. It was the funeral director who drove William home. “Friends are invited to call at the Mason house from four to six on Friday,” the obituary read, the funeral director’s suggestion. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’ll have people dropping in at all hours for days.”
Most of the day stretched out before him. He used to relish days like this, days when, morning obligations out of the way, he had hours of uncommitted time left.
He walked through the house, thinking that suddenly it had too much air, that he might choke on all the air, and stopped at the bookcase to compose himself, to count out each breath until the room stopped trembling. His eyes swept over the books, to a photograph taken right after they became engaged. In the picture they were talking to each other, their faces close together, angled so that the tops of their foreheads almost touched. They were probably whispering — he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember what he was saying — it’s his mouth that was open, hers was closed but she is smiling. It was a happy moment, one of the last they’d have before stepping off into the landscape of shared hurts and regrets that is the geography of marriage.
He’d drained the pool already. The pool man would be coming by tomorrow to clean and refill it. “It’s better you keep water in it,” the man explained. “Otherwise the liner dries, cracks. Big expense to fix.” He needed to think about getting a car, just as soon as the check from the insurance company arrived. The ruling had been accidental death. A leak in the power steering system might have caused the steering wheel to freeze. In her panic, his wife might have pushed hard on the accelerator instead of the brake pedal. The car hit the rim of the pool with enough force to go airborne, so it came to rest in the deep end. The windows had been open and the car had sunk quickly. His wife had not even tried to free herself from her seatbelt, had apparently just sat there and waited till she had to inhale, to take that last deep cool breath.
These were his thoughts as he stood in the backyard at the edge of the empty pool, waiting for his neighbors and colleagues to stop by to offer condolences. He turned to go back inside the house. There he was, already awash with casseroles, salads, and bundt cakes — a single man now, with too much food and so many people to greet, so many murmurings of sympathy to acknowledge. People he barely knew reached for him. He felt hands on his arms and shoulders, saw moues of concern meld into hesitant smiles, grateful they’d been spared the howls his next-door neighbor described hearing as the pool man pulled him from the water. He nodded to each, looked as many in the eye as he could. “I’m sorry,” they all said. “So sorry.”
If he were giving a lecture, he might discuss the connection between sorry and sorrow, how in fact they had separate derivations in Old English, the former from sarig, the latter from sorg. He might play with the idea that someone can be sorry for someone else’s sorrow, but explain how sorrow describes a palpable feeling, how you can say that you are sorry and in fact feel nothing. In that sense, he would say, saying you are sorry is a means to relieve the guilt of not sharing in the sorrow of the person in front of you. One lets you off the hook, the other embeds the hook as deep as it will go. Depending on the age and erudition of his students, the discussion might include references to “Stabat Mater” or Old French (sufrir) or Latin (sufferre), a language he’d been pleased to read was making a comeback in the nation’s high schools.
Across the room, Annabella Brown was talking to one of the department’s graduate students, the one she especially wanted to stay on for his doctorate. William watched them, wondering how long would it take for the rawness of sorrow to numb into memory. Wishing there were a way to lift his brain out of his skull and set it out somewhere, where the thoughts now whirling through it could dissipate into air and leave him again with the pleasure of idle and meaningless reflection.
He glanced their way again, in time to see her turn away from her student and begin striding toward him. She was in a grey dress with one of those short jackets over it, the ones that always looked too small, like something stolen from a child’s closet. It surprised him — she always wore pants and fitted jackets, as if she were running for election. In the dress, she looked slighter, vulnerable. He felt tears in his eyes and hoped she wouldn’t notice, hoped he could blink them away unobtrusively. He stopped just within reach of what he saw now were her muscular arms. She pulled him to her, patting his back tentatively, then immediately released him and took a step back.
“Where do you keep the plastic wrap?” she asked. When he hesitated, she added, “To wrap up the food. It needs to be put away.”
“Under the counter, to the left of the sink.”
She nodded. “All right, then. I’ll start clearing things. People will get the idea.” She smiled at him, a small conspirative smile. “It’s almost six. Not long now.” She turned toward the kitchen, stopped, turned back, for a moment hesitant.
“Your wife was lovely. We knew each other from the fitness center, you know.”
He must have looked puzzled.
“She swam there. Same time as I did, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at eight.”
He already would be mid-discourse in his freshman seminar. “We have a pool,” he said, waving his hand in the direction of the backyard.
“I think she liked the companionship, a buddy in the water. She was a strong swimmer. It was a struggle to keep up with her. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?” Annabella made a sound like a laugh, then stopped with a small gasp. “Oh, William, oh how careless of me.”
What was ironic, thought William, was that a week ago it would have been just another a small detail amid the many trivialities that made up most people’s days. Now he found himself wishing to know everything she’d done. He wanted the memory of the conversations in which they’d discussed this and that. He didn’t want to be one of those people who only get to know the person closest to them through stories told by others. Claire should have said if she wanted someone to swim with her. He was sure he would have done it, could almost picture the two of them, hair slicked off their faces.
But what Williams said was, “Everything is confusing right now.” He stepped to the side, but Annabella moved with him. In another setting he might have offered his hand and put his arm around her back, sweeping her onto the floor in a waltz or two-step. Annabella, with her swimmer’s shoulders and her ability to replace him with a doctoral student or two. He put his hand on her shoulder to hold her in place as he eased around her, nodding — “So much to think about now” — and excused himself — “I think I hear the phone.” Her hand grasped his, and he saw in her face the fierceness of impending confession.
“Annabella, please, whatever it is, let it keep till next week.”
To William’s relief, she patted his hand. Perhaps, he thought, all she wanted was to say how sorry she was.
And then the telephone did ring. The voice on the other end was his mother-in-law’s.
“I have to ask you something,” his mother-in-law said, her voice catching. “Sy says so. About the diamond.”
William had thought about giving a piece of his wife’s jewelry to Louise, not that there was much. And no diamond, not that he could recall. “I’m a pearl girl,” Claire had told him when a proposal seemed certain; the engagement ring, an antique, was a pearl surrounded by rubies that looked like tiny pricks of blood, not a diamond. It was upstairs, in the box with his cufflinks. He’d put it there himself, though of course his mother-in-law could have taken it.
“The ring is ruby and pearl,” William said patiently. “Do you have it? It’s all right if you do.”
Louise ignored the question. “It’s something I read about,” she said. “Making the ashes into a diamond. I want to do that. I want to keep her with me. It’s all right, isn’t it? We could even make two diamonds — one for you — though they’d be small.”
How easily she always made him complicit. At the university, one of the professors had a ceramic jar with a fat cork stopper, the words “Ashes of Problem Students” confronting whoever sat across the desk from him. William laughed the first time he saw it, but then it began to gnaw at him: what turned a student into a problem? If he asked too many questions or didn’t ask enough? If he argued with an assertion instead of just writing it in his notebook? It was aggressive, a preemptive strike, a line in the sand: keep your distance, respect my boundaries, or I’ll finish you off.
William thought about that jar, about putting one on his own desk, where anyone who stepped through the door — a student for a conference or a colleague with words of solace — would see it and wonder what exactly it held. He thought about the photograph and hoped that Claire was smiling because of what he’d said to her, that it was something true and tender.
“William?” his mother-in-law said, her voice fainter now. “Are you still there? Is this a bad time?”