– from –
The Gandy Dancer & Other Short Stories
Edith’s son had died. It happened in a traffic accident. He had hardly finished with youth, and had not touched manhood, and he was gone. And she didn’t know.
Edith had been living on a small island in Maine. The winters were her beautiful solitude. She lived alone. By early spring, her canoe could weave the remaining ice to shore, and by arrangement with the town grocer, who nannied her year round, she’d make her first trek in to the dry snow-dotted earth of the mainland, to gather up the fresh supplies she’d ordered at Christmas.
First stop was always the post office. Ralph was glad to see her and full of important gossip. As he filled her in, he brought out piles of letters and cards, magazines and packages, and stacked them in front of her at the window. One envelope stood out. It was a manila envelope, 9 x 12, and felt strange in her hands. It had a police department return address in the corner. But she dropped it with the rest into a canvas sack at her feet, which was neither large nor small in size or weight. Just a sack. But she could not forget the presence of the manila envelope, as if it held something burning.
The first week she always spent at Main-E-Ac’s Bed & Breakfast. It was comfortable. Run by friends. She had the pick of any room, though she always ended up in the back corner suite, from which she could see her island home across the water and the town’s twinkling night lights on the other side. It had a fireplace, and a beautiful quilt she loved on the old four-poster.
Edith ate breakfast with the family in their big downstairs kitchen. One child was off at school, one at the table with them, home all day every day, “driving us nuts,” her father said, but kissed the little girl, and reminded her of the day’s chores. Edith dropped her mail and knapsack in her room, and walked the three blocks to the garage, to pick up her car.
In every step and every view, she was reminded of how good it felt, this life she’d made for herself. The twenty years of life on her island, which nobody else had wanted and she’d bought for a song, and all the work of building her own house on it and raising her boy there. Good years, with all the usual troubles and all the usual joy. Edith was a musician, one of the few who’d made a decent living from it. Songs had paid for the life she loved. She whistled a passage from Puccini she’d been working on. As she walked, she started looking forward to driving again.
The old Land Rover had been hauled out front and the battery re-installed. It was an old one, about thirty years old, the rugged safari-looking kind, a dull army green with a spare tire fastened to the hood and a ladder up the back. Rachel was checking fluids and Larry considering the replacement of wires when she showed up, turning the corner by the gas pump and shouting out a greeting. She paid them for the winter’s storage, a list of parts Larry had added, and congratulated them on Rachel’s second pregnancy. Baby due by summer.
Edith got behind the wheel, and remembered how much she liked driving. She might return to Boston for a month and try spending some time with her son. She might not.
The size of Rachel’s belly surprised her, the starting month’s growth of a new child reminded her regretfully of the time passed since she’d seen or talked to her baby, the independent, grown, not-answering-letters, or noting the Christmas sweater baby.
She hadn’t spoken to the boy in four months. He was asserting himself, angry, wanting to be alone, away from mom. And her life, maybe this spring especially was very different for Edith, too, than it had ever been before. She turned fifty this winter on her island. She found that nothing pressed on her. She felt her aloneness in the world, but was not ro11l!ty. But there was a shift, and she felt it keenly and didn’t understand why.
A day of errands brought Edith back to the B&B, after five, where she shared a glass of sherry with the family in their living room, and headed then up to her room. At six o’clock, a knock on the door would announce the arrival of the specially cooked dinner which she would eat alone in front of the fireplace, her armchair drawn up to an old round oak table, so common to the parts. The meal would be pan fried blue fish with lemon and butter and fennel, mashed potatoes in their skins, a rare steak and a salad. The dessert, which she could smell even now coming out of the oven, would be a cobbler of home canned peaches from last summer in bubbling brown sugar and the world’s best crust. The fire had been started; she pulled her chair to it, and slid the phone across the table, to make room for the mail. All the things in view and touch had been prepared and tended by someone else, not her for once. The luxury of it, as always, descended over her.
Edith separated out and opened the manila envelope first, not knowing why she trembled. Knowing why she screamed. The crying without end had begun.
I came to know these things about Edith much later, after we’d been friends for going on three years. I first met her in California. I’d just pulled off the side of the road to see the Pacific pounding the cliffs below Highway One. Edith was parked in her Land Rover against the side of a sand dune, in the front seat reading a book. She looked up and smiled. She was living in her car.
We saw each other again, a few weeks later, and sat down for coffee in a small Spanish cafe in Davenport, part of a beautiful surfer’s haven south of San Francisco. This, then, is Edith’s story.
“I had a house once, no kidding, and I had an island under it! I really did,” Edith told me, brushing crumbs off her shirt, running her fingers through her hair. “They were both small, it wasn’t posh or anything, very rustic.” She smiled. “Very very rustic! No roads, so I had a canoe, a great green canoe.” She looked away then back, to ask, “Ever try living like that? Takes a damn lot of work, that life.”
I said I had, and watched the woman opposite me. I liked her. Edith was a reddish-brunette, with a sunburnt athlete’s body. I took her for forty or 45 tops. She had a Russian-Mongol kind of face, cheekbones high that slid into a firm jaw and pointed chin. Her mouth was soft and full and her eyes a deep blue. I thought I could see her Maine waters in them. She turned out to be Irish and Jewish, half of each. I kept thinking something had beset her. Beset. Come down like a plague, sudden and terrible. She couldn’t focus for long on anything. But as I said, I liked her.
Three months later we ran into each other again at a supermarket down the coast.
“I’m still camping out,” Edith said to me. “I call it camping out. Sounds classier. How about you? Are you living here now? I guess I’m passing through. The jazz festival is coming up in Monterey. I might go. Maybe earn a few bucks, see some people. How do I reach you?”
Edith had been a Juilliard student in New York and a violinist with the New York City Ballet Orchestra. She played a mean blue grass, and had several records to her credit, doing opera on two, and back up rock ‘n ‘roll on the rest.
We walked out into the parking lot loaded with groceries, and laughed at each of us still having the battered old cars we’d first seen each other in. Survivors.
When we shook hands to say goodbye, I felt something slipping away in her, and it scared me. I argued for it, and she gave in and followed me back to my place, for at least a meal and maybe to stay a few days.
I’d settled into a tiny bunkhouse on a ranch. We ate a big meal, and Edith lay down to sleep. She was there with me for three days, sleeping soundly through most of it. She ate, took showers, and visited the horses for part of the day, then read and slept. I had a waitress job: breakfast, lunch and home by four. On the third day, I came back and she had gone. I didn’t see her again until November, four months later.
Edith and I drove past each other on Carmel Valley Road and both of us slammed on the brakes, pulled over and ran into each other’s arms, laughing like mad and hopping, so sure we’d never see each again. She had mailed me postcards from Montana, Utah, Nevada, the state of Washington and Puget Sound, and the last, from San Diego. I thought Mexico would be the next stop. I’d stayed put. She’d come back.
Edith had made some money playing what she called the sideshows, that is, not the main event but a good gig, nonetheless, and liked doing it. The vacant look to her was gone. She was robust. And wholesome, not the thread unwinding I’d always seen of her before. She’d been around for a week and was about to telephone me. She’d just rented a house on Laureles Grade, between Carmel Valley and Salinas. A home of her own again. That’s where we headed. I’d finished work. The next day was
Sunday, and the restaurant where I waitressed would be closed.
Edith and I ate a huge meal of steak and roasted vegetables and sweet corn, all grilled on a backyard pit. We drank scotch and walked through the sunflower filled meadow behind her house, watching the sun blow off the clouds and set behind purple-green hills in one of those goodbyes you never want to see end, that are finished in the blink of the eye, the color high and loud and deep as the Gregorian chant.
I had plenty of time, and was glad to be spending it with her. She made up the spare bed for me so I could stay the night. We got a fire going in the living room’s old stone fireplace, and closed up the windows and doors against the cold, and talked about what we’d done and what was to come.
Edith took out her fiddle and played “Amazing Grace” with single notes that made us both cry. We had more scotch and threw on another log. And then she told me about the past five years she’d barely lived through, since that day she stepped on land, that spring in Maine.
She’d just paddled in from her island and gone for her mail. There was a large manila envelope in it from the Boston Police Department. Her son had been killed in a traffic accident driving to an early morning job. By the time she found out, three months had passed. She hadn’t seen him or talked to him for two months before that. And now he was dead. He’d been living in Boston, going to school, and wanted to be alone. Suited Edith, at the time, too. She’d had enough of children, even though he was her only child, and her cranky, demanding ex-husband, who kept trying to trump her in the parenting. The ex-husband knew where to find her, and how, but just hadn’t wanted to. She never spoke to him again, and swore she never would.
“That was different, not talking to him,” Edith said. “1 couldn’t talk to anybody, not at first. I had a lot of friends in Maine but I couldn’t talk to any of them. I couldn’t say ‘My son is dead,’ out loud. Then, all at once, the house and the island it was on seemed horrible to me. I’d always loved it. I’d been there almost twenty years and loved it then all at once, it seemed horrible and I couldn’t get away fast enough. That damn manila envelope. I’ll never … ”
Edith filled our glasses and I got up for ice cubes. She was looking out the window over the meadow, dark as pitch except for a path from her kitchen lamp. Light traveled out to the tips of the sunflowers, like children in bonnets, all the same size and age.
“I did make one trip back, early next morning. But I didn’t pack anything. I started throwing things away! Breaking things lit the woodstove and burned things. I was setting fire to my previous life … so I stopped myself cold and paddled back to shore with one suitcase. I didn’t know what I was doing. Acting out something.”
“Where did you go? How on earth did you live?”
“Well, I guess I gave the keys to Rachel and Larry, they ran the garage in town and stored my car for me all winter. Good people. Rachel was three months from her second child. I didn’t want to see that, either, I’ 11 tell you. I didn’t want to see anything. I told them to take the house and the island too. It was all paid for. I didn’t ever want to see it again. I kind of, you know, I lost it. I was non-functional in the extreme; I could hardly carry on a conversation. But I could drive, and drive I did. I gassed up the Land Rover and went to Minnesota. I had friends there, a family I’d been close to for years, from Julliard. They’re both musicians a piano and cello. They wanted me to stay. I couldn’t even do that well. I was all adrenaline and movement. The way I’d felt on uppers to cram for a test at school, like that, but it was just me and my broken heart.” Edith closed her eyes a minute, then suddenly said, “I want cake, want some cake? Here, say yes!”
Edith cut the cake, a triple layered chocolate thing that was terrific. I got more firewood from outside the back door and added three or four logs to the flames. I told her I wished I’d known, I wished I could have helped her in some way.
“Edith, we hardly spoke, not about this, not about things of real content.”
“I couldn’t have,” she said. “Not yet. But you helped. You treated that crazed woman you met like I was okay, and decent. And I am. But I had people asking me if I was on drugs, or lost my man. Jesus. I sure couldn’t hold down a job.”
Edith looked far away, outside the room in which we sat and beyond the mountains and the sky outside and maybe farther still into the stars.
“I drove to Los Alamos,” she said. “I had it in mind to explode … ” She laughed, deep and bitter. “And I lay down two days in the desert, just drove off the road, laid in the sand, took off all my clothes and roasted, froze at night, didn’t drink water … I hoped actually coyotes would kill me.”
“But you lived.” I knew what that meant.
“Yes. I decided I must not have it in me to die, not then. I didn’t bathe; my teeth were rotting in my mouth. That last night in the desert, I’m half hoping a flying saucer from Art Bell & Company will come and take me, but I thought too, suppose my son lost me, and went through this! That would be so wrong! So I checked into a Motel 6 and slept for a week, then I drove out here.”
The woman next to me was very pretty. Why hadn’t I noticed or thought that before? Not just her features, but compassion that made a look of wonderment to her, and all the hard-etched lines had gone from her face.
She told me about trying to get a job, trying to cover up the disorientation that swamped her, the anger she felt at being so abnormal, she called it, out of control.
“Better than twice it’s rough. I had some guy for some stupid job, I’m trying to get a job making smoothies in a juice bar, and he leans back and looks me up and down, and says, so, what’s your story? I didn’t have a story; I don’t have a story, not like he meant. Creep. It was like that, all over, and I think what I worked on most was trying to disguise it so the pain wouldn’t be visible and I wouldn’t be asked what’s my story. But you helped, really, you helped.”
“Would you tell me how? I remember the things I was going through, me. I remember those three days. You slept a lot. I went to work. I was wondering all the while if you’d start doing peculiar things and get me evicted. I knew something was off in you, but it made me feel for you. We really didn’t know each other. I liked you a lot, from the start, but we hardly knew each other. I was, God, Edith! I feel so selfish. I was stuck on the things going on with me. I had a lump on my breast… ”
“You never told me!”
“We’re a lot alike! I figured if I didn’t say it out loud it would go away. I finally got it checked, nothing, a cyst, a nothing. But by then you were gone.”
I got up to grab my sweatshirt and put it on. I went outside to my car to get my wool socks, good for any travelling because once the sun goes, it can drop to the forties, even mid-summer. We settled back on the couch in front of Edith’s fireplace.
“You know that trail by your place?” she said. “The split, the one road following on to the ranch house, and the other one goes up the hill to your place?” Edith was holding the scotch glass in her hand while she spoke, looking at the firelight through it.
“Where the macadam switches to dirt, uphill? Sure, I know it,” I said, “The road to my place.”
“Okay. Now I could say, with conviction, that for the better part of two years after my son’s death, and then for the better part of the next three, I was really off the wall. I still don’t know if it was because I couldn’t talk about it, or there was no one to talk to. Everything reminded me, sounds and colors and children! Oh God I couldn’t stand to see or be near anybody under forty. I blamed myself for everything, right back to his birth.”
“God, parenting is so hard, we’re so ill-equipped, Edith. Not everybody takes to it like ducks to water.”
“I didn’t have it in me what he needed from me, that’s the plain truth. And maybe I do now, and maybe I don’t but in either case it’s too late, and that’s the truth. Oh, hell, I was lost, just gone lost to it, remorse and blame and grief. Grief may be the most powerful emotion there is, and nobody would’ve made me believe that, before this happened. I play differently than I used to! I can hear it! Is it in my chest or hands or brain? I don’t know where it resides, but it’s not the same. But listen, back to those three days. Funny, you worried about me, but I’ve had a lot of training, maybe it’s the music or what I can do with music, but it helped. I’m disciplined like nobody’s business. It didn’t help with my sanity, but my behavior, you know, figuring I could trust myself to not fully self-destruct.”
“And coming through it, Edith, what’s that journey like?”
“Well, nobody can really help. I mean, I know I said you did, and so did other people, but it’s not what anyone would think, not a regular thing. It’s like electric currents that finally penetrate, that get through to the brain or the heart, a little stab of insight, and then you cry and let go of some of it. The relief is what it must feel like to die.”
I hadn’t talked to anyone with this kind of loss before. I did feel incompetent and helpless. I had all the platitudes ready that I couldn’t bring myself to say, like, he’s in a better place or it was fate, or he’d finished his voyage.
Edith could see it on me, and smiled. “Don’t say anything, none of it’s true or logical. There’s no excuse for death. I hate death. I will always love death. There’s no way of making it pretty. It’s not fair.”
Edith started crying, and in a moment, she was letting it shake from inside her into waves of sobs that she made no effort to control. I sat next to her, watching the fire. After a little while, she got up and went to bed, and I went to mine. Maybe that was the help she meant. It was the first time I’d seen her cry since I met her. I figured there’d be more to say in the morning, and there was.
When I woke up, she was coming through the back door with one fist full of sunflowers and a scissors in the other. Country music was on the radio. Coffee water on the boil.
“Thanks,” she said, “just sitting there and letting me let go. How’d you sleep?”
I told her it was great, the whole house was a delicious experience and asked how she managed to end up in it. Real estate was pretty high in the area. She’d left everything behind, and it had sounded like that included the bank account.
“Life is just amazing, isn’t it.” Edith was making a big old tin watering can ready for the sunflowers. “I told you I’d given my island to Larry and Rachel? Well, five years went by before I wrote them, I had a post office box finally. I got back this excited, wonderful letter, nine or ten pages, updating me on everything. Rachel had the second baby, they moved onto the island, Larry built some more rooms and did carpentry … he’s very good … Rachel had a third baby! The second one was a girl, the third a boy, and they named him after my son. Oh the tears from that! By then life was getting complicated, she’s pregnant with the fourth and they got a place on the mainland, and sold my island, With all of Larry’s fine building … I’m still floored … some artist from Brooklyn bought it … get ready for this … half a million bucks! Inside the letter is a check for half! $250,000. I’m still in shock. I protested, they said I changed their lives, I deserved it and probably needed it. Am I lucky or what? New life, and money to pave the way. All of this happened two months ago.”
“What good people.”
We went into the garden, smoked cigarettes and watched the dawn. “Look,” Edith said over breakfast, which I volunteered to cook, “I need to keep getting this out of me, like putting cards on the table or something, as these things pop up out of me I don’t want to hold them back anymore. I think it’s death for me if I do and maybe going crazy again, which is a dark and dreadful place I no longer want to be. There’s something true about the stages, or levels of coming back to life. It never made sense to me before ‘ I’d read that you sense it, you’re stepping off one level and proceeding up to the next, and you don’t even know you’ve been curled up in a ball, like dodging meteors, until you’re in that new place and look back. Follow? Okay. Those three days at your place, it was the first rest I’d had in literally years. I was not scared. I was not in danger. I was safe. I trusted you. I slept, and I had a place to shower. It was incredibly important. I can’t even say what…it was huge.”
“Well, I’m glad. It seemed like so little … ”
“No!” She banged her fist on the table and everything shook and the coffee sloshed through the rough pine. She dropped a napkin on it and refilled our cups.
“No, no and no. It was monumental. I want you to listen to this, because I only half believe it myself. I never said this out loud. You know something? I do have a story. This is my story. That day, the morning I left your place, listen, I’m coming from the row of garbage cans at the bottom of that hill where the paths intersect. I’d cleaned out the car and had some stuff to toss, so I walk down to the cans. Then I’m on the fork, right there where the dirt road goes up to your place, the other paved road goes off. Your place, my friend. Where l felt safe.”
“Okay, I know where you mean. Edith, my friend.”
“Okay, you’re there?”
“Yes, I’m there.” I was curious, waiting.
“I start back up the hill, like I said, maybe a few feet past the fork, and I look over to the main road and see a woman walking in my direction, parallel. But we’re on these different roads. We’re not opposite each other, maybe twenty feet apart. Me going up. I like her immediately, and don’t understand. It just kind of washes over me, that this is a really terrific woman, it makes me warm. So I smile. Then, here I am on this road above the one she’s on, and we’re close, but not close, and it strikes me odd. But all of a sudden I stop and say to her, ‘Is there anything you need?’ Just that.”
“Go on, go on.” And I confess to a thrill sweeping me, maybe the tale itself or Edith’s own excitement.
“Okay. And this hasn’t taken any time at all but was one of those things where you feel slightly separated from real time, and I’m sort of puzzled but pleased, and then I start to wonder, is she really there, or am I hallucinating her. Except it’s so clear. It’s vivid. Sometimes when I play violin, the images from the composers are of such strength, have such powerful enormity to them, you are literally in their vision. And seeing this woman reminds me. I ask if she needs anything, meaning I suppose, from me. She looks up and smiles. She shakes her head, no. She looks down the road in front of her. And I smile back. And I’m really happy! Happy to see her! Happy she’s nice! Then I get the thought, leave her alone, because she’s sorting through something that’s private. Well, I sure understood that! I’d been feeling that way for years, so I sure understood that! … years … so I keep on my path, and God! It keeps coming over me how good I feel! No frantic voices, no desperate pulling from twenty directions, I just feel good! I have fifty feet maybe to go on that road to your place. But I stop and turn around. I want to thank her, or wave, or something. My heart just feels so light, like it used to before, like I’m the way I used to be in life, it’s so good.”
“I’d have done that, follow the impulse to let her know she made me happy. You go back, talk to her?”
“No. I turn around on the hill to look at her, though. I plan to speak, there’s some jumble of words in my mouth trying to match the experience. She’s not there.”
“She’d gone further down the road? To visit somebody?”
“No. She’s not there. She’d walked past me, gone on a different road, while I climbed up. I feel frantic for a minute, I can’t stand I didn’t let her know. Then I start to understand. That’s when I packed up and drove away, alone, so it could sink in.”
”That a big part of what I’d been going through just ended. That woman on the road, on that other path, leaving me, both of us glad we met…that was me.”