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Not Because We Will

Published: September 1, 2017

The doves stare through the bars of their cage, the opened slats of the blinds, the tight mesh of the window screens, into the dismal, sunless morning. They are mystified, it seems — the world is as much a mystery to them as they are to Anne. She watches them while she waits for the water to boil. She can smell the newly ground coffee.

She wakes Tennyson with a kiss and a glass of orange juice. He is the only little child she has ever known — heard of — who likes to sleep in, but this morning, he wakes with a huge smile and throws his arms around her neck, surprising her and spilling a few drops of her coffee onto his favorite pajamas.

“Oops!” he says. “I got it dirty.” She smiles.

“It’ll wash out,” Anne tells him.

He sits up, takes the OJ, and swallows it in one large gulp. “My,” Anne says, “somebody was thirsty.”

I was thirsty,” Tennyson replies, “not somebody.”

Anne kisses him again. Naming their children after other poets was Jesse’s idea. She’d been reluctant when he mentioned it — “Who’d want to be called Hughes? Or Plath?” — but when he suggested Tennyson, the idea had grown on her. It was, after all, appropriate for either gender, and there were both singularity and inherent poetry to its sound.

You’re somebody, all right,” she tells him.

“I am?” he says.

“Yup,” Anne answers. “Get dressed. We’re having bacon and eggs this morning.”

“Neat-o keen-o!” he says, echoing Jesse’s favorite phrase, and scrambles from the covers.

 

“The sky is dirty,” Tennyson notes.

“Uh-huh,” Anne says as she sips the coffee. Tennyson’s appetite astonishes her. Food at 8 o’clock in the morning repels her, but he eats — as he does most everything else — vigorously. “It’s going to rain.”

“I don’t think the doves like it.”

“The rain?”

“The sky. They like sunlight.”

“So do I,” she says.

“Me, too!” Tennyson exclaims.

“Well, we’ll just have to order you a whole day full of sunlight.”

He looks confused. “How do we order one?” he asks.

Anne smiles. “Well, when you get home, we’ll … write a letter to the Sun and ask him to make tomorrow sunshiny all day. Can you do that?”

Tennyson looks crestfallen. “I don’t know how to make all the letters yet, Mommy,” he says. “We’re only up to M.”

She kisses the top of his head. “I’ll make the letters you don’t know. Okay?”

He smiles. She loves his wide, toothy smile that looks just like Jesse’s little-boy grin. “Okay!”

 

Despite the overcast, he’s buoyant in the car en route to pre-K: School is an adventure, and Tennyson loves adventures. Anne kisses him goodbye at the curb, tells him she’ll pick him up at 1:30. She checks her watch: 9:26. He’s right on time today; she’s been late twice this week. Some mornings, she still can’t get herself going. She hasn’t yet reacquired the habit of waking up alone. She watches her son take the two dozen steps up the canopied walkway to the door by himself — his choice — then he turns and waves. She waves back, watches him go inside, and returns home. She prefers to have him with her but she’s learned that 4-year-olds aren’t prepared to deal with the concentration demanded for writing. Before, she and Jesse took turns. Now … well, now is now.

She takes a shower, washes her hair, dries in front of the mirror, looks at herself. “There is nothing wrong with me,” she says, then shakes her head. She talks to — at — herself, her reflection, the objects in her life, too often. “That has to stop,” she says.

The computer is still on from last night. She sorts through the stacks of papers, disks, pencils, coffee cups, and curiosities that clog her chair, her desktop, and rereads what she has written, makes a minor correction, reads it again, then looks out the window. It’s busy: Women with strollers pass, trucks blow their horns, leaves fall. Downstairs the doves are cooing at the top of their oddly powerful lungs. Their cage needs to be cleaned. Her office needs to be cleaned. The house needs to be cleaned. Domesticity was never her strength, and over the past five months, it has become utterly incidental to her life. Everywhere, she is surrounded by dust and disorder. She tries, more for Tennyson’s sake than her own, but, she acknowledges, it’s a half-hearted effort.

She sighs and stares at the screen, her fingers poised on the keyboard. She types:

As through a dream
The glimmer softens
And there stands

And she stops. And there stands — what? who? Jesse, of course. But she loathes confessional poems, and this has all the symptoms of one. What would he think?

I’d hate it. But it would be a good confessional poem, he says.

She sits back and looks at him. The urn is exquisite. And dusty. She looks at it, daily, of course, but she hasn’t touched it since she put it on top of the low bookcase a week after the funeral. It has stayed there, an indelible scratch blemishing the otherwise cluttered-but-ignorable landscape of her office. Now she gets up, takes a T-shirt — one of Tennyson’s — that’s draped across a chair, left for some distraction on its way to the laundry hamper, picks up the urn, and carefully, slowly strokes it clean. Then she sits on the chair, the covered gray marble bowl between her legs, and reaches for the lid.

When she first brought the urn home she sat with it, like this, alone, at night, arguing with herself whether to open it, to smell its contents, to touch them. She started to lift the lid — her fingers closed around its spired handle — but stopped. What, after all, was there? Ashes? Bits of bone? Dust become dust.

That was — exactly — five months ago. The urn has since remained on the bookcase in her office, undisturbed. Tennyson has forgotten it. In his youthful resilience, he has adjusted. No nightmares, no recriminations. The occasional “I miss Daddy,” but he has accepted his absence. We forget because we must, not because we will. Wrong, Mr. Arnold, she thinks, and lifts the lid.

Inside is a small mound of gray-brown-blackness, its contour interrupted by tiny protrusions. She takes a deep breath, then touches one. Bone. But there is no sensation in the contact; it’s as insignificant, as asymbolic as the residue of last night’s chicken.

She lifts her finger to look at it. It’s no different. Flesh, soft and unsullied. She reaches down again. This time, her left index finger probes. She lifts it. There, on the tip, are specks of the gray-brown-blackness. And suddenly she is terrified: What can I do with it? she thinks. I can’t wash it off, it’s part of Jesse. But I can’t leave it on, Tennyson will see it.

He won’t mind, Jesse answers.

She stares at it. She tries to think: It’s just so much dirt. It’s not Jesse.

No, it’s not, she hears him say.

Keeping her index finger extended, she closes the urn and replaces it on the bookcase. She stares at the finger. The ash is still there. Should she just blow it away and get on with her life? Anne shakes her head. It is Jesse.

You think so. Hmh. You really think so?

She sighs, and sighs again. What will she do with the rest of the day? She can’t type, she can’t read, she can’t wash the dishes.

She goes downstairs. Sappho is in the nest. Catullus is standing beside it, preening her. They need baths — it’s been three days since she sprayed them. She can do that! If it were sunny she’d lug the cage outside, but the rain looks imminent. Using her right hand, she gets the water bottle and opens the cage door.

The doves look unconcernedly at this intrusion into their sanctuary. She’s had them for six years now, a wedding present from one of their close friends (who thought they were a pair, not just a couple — “Sappho” was intended as irony), and they are as unaware of her as they were the day they arrived. But if they’re not affectionate, neither are they perturbed by her presence. With her clean hand, Anne reaches in, presses a finger gently against Cat’s chest, and says, “Up.” Cat flaps her wings once; then, obediently (or instinctually, she’s never been sure which) the brown dove hops onto Anne’s finger. Anne moves her just below the perch. Cat hops up and onto it. Saph stares — longingly, Anne thinks. The doves dislike any separation.

She sprays Catullus through the bars of the cage. She blinks, lifts one wing, then the other, tucks one leg, and stretches both wings in what Anne calls the birds’ tai chi routine. Clearly, Cat enjoys this. So does Sappho, but her bath will have to wait until Cat replaces her on the eggs. If there is one thing they are deadly serious about, it’s caring for their eggs. That in the six years not one has hatched is irrelevant. Hope springs eternal in their soft breasts, too. The thing with feathers.

So there is the rest of the day. One-handedly, Anne pours more coffee, drinks it, watches her left index finger as if it’s ordained that the ash will somehow envelop the rest of her hand, her arm, her body. Despite her shower she feels unclean. This tiny fleck of residual love on her finger has scratched her soul, leaving a faint tarnish.

“It would be easier if I could cry,” she says to the coffee cup. The therapist told her there was nothing wrong with that, that it was, in fact, the best thing she could do. But tears, on the rare occasions they’ve come, haven’t helped. She wants to cry out: Why? But she’s done that, too. And there’s been no answer forthcoming. She and Tennyson will sit in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, watching cartoons, and the coyote’s car will crash into the side of the mountain, and it will spring up to chase the roadrunner again (like Jesse chased a howling Tennyson around the room), and Tennyson will laugh, and Anne will smile, but she can feel the tautness at the corners of her mouth. People do not spring up. They lie among the ruins of the car and the dust along the road, and they will never chase anything again.

 

The morning has managed to pass. She’s finished four cups of coffee and is a little wired. In an hour, she can pick up Tennyson. But in the meantime, there is still the matter of her left index finger. The ashes remain, reminding her vaguely of the wedding ring she decided she couldn’t wear any longer, but which left its impression for weeks after she took it off, an itch she could not — cannot — scratch.

She sits at the dining table, the breakfast dishes still on it. She can see into the living room, where books, magazines, newspapers, the occasional blouse or pair of shoes are randomly piled or left, in an abstruse pattern of loneliness. She watches the doves. On the wall is their wedding picture: Jesse and Anne, his curly tresses flowing over his collar, her straight hair severely short. They are smiling, both dressed in white: his tuxedo, her gown. We looked so happy, she thinks. We were, he says.

“Were we?” she asks the picture.

Of course. Newlyweds are always happy.

“That was then.”

His smile broadens. She squeezes her eyes in disbelief, and when she looks again the picture is exactly as it was.

Wash it off, he says. You won’t ever be renewed, but you’ll be fresh. -Ened.

“I can’t,” she says.

He recites for her:

I struggle towards the light; and ye,
Once-long’d-for storms of love!
If with the light ye cannot be,
I bear that ye remove.

“Matthew Arnold did not have all the answers, Jesse!”

And you have them?

“No.” She sighs, sees that Saph has left the nest and Cat is settling in, gets the water bottle, coaxes the smaller white dove to the perch and sprays her. She thinks Sappho almost smiles as she fluffs her feathers, discarding the motes of dust, the bits of seed among them.

The clock strikes one. The mouse ran down, she thinks in honor of Tennyson’s favorite nursery rhyme. She opens the door to find the day surprisingly warm and — expectedly — muggy, gets an umbrella, her bag, the keys. She decides she will take Tennyson for pizza, a special treat. Besides, it will be another hour she doesn’t have to face this: She looks around the living room, the dining room, the staircase. All the places she lives her life.

Anne opens the door, still wondering what she will do about the ashes on her finger. She can see them, clearly. She uses her right hand to lock the door, to open the car, to put the keys into the ignition. She drives that way to the pre-school. As she turns in she hears the thunder. She sees Tennyson standing among a group of children under the canopy of the walkway. She waves, but he doesn’t see her.

She parks the car in the lot, and as she walks the hundred steps to meet him, there is a flash of lightning and another thunder roll. Damn it, she thinks, I left the umbrella in the car. She waves again and calls his name. He turns and calls, “Mommy.”

The rain breaks just as she reaches the covering. He runs up to her, gives her a big hug and pulls a large envelope from under his shirt. “Look!” he says. “I made it.”

He holds the envelope as, with her right hand, she opens the clasp and gently slides out the crayoned construction paper. On it, there is a neatly drawn picture of a roadrunner, a mountain, and a man in a car. A lump comes to her throat. “That’s very nice,” she says.

Tennyson points. “That’s Daddy.”

“I recognized him right away,” she says.

“You did?”

“Yup.” She looks at her son, closes her eyes a long moment. Behind them she sees Jesse, hears him murmur, but though she listens as hard as she can, the words are indistinct.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Are you okay?”

She opens her eyes. “Absolutely. Hey. How ’bout some pizza?”

“Neat-o keen-o!” he says and looks at the rain. “Then can we go home and write the Sun the letter?”

“You, bet.” Anne breathes deeply and stares into the downpour. She tucks the envelope carefully into her bag and says: “Let’s go!”

They walk briskly through the rain. With her right hand, Anne holds Tennyson’s small left hand. She reaches out with her left and lets the water spill across it.

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  • I felt a tearful restoration when Anne let the rain wash off the ashes. A gigantic step was taken. This story touched me deeply. The juxtaposition of Anne’s depression and Tennyson’s youthful exuberance paints a keener view of grief than just describing the widow’s feelings alone. That’s masterful writing. In a short time I came to know three vibrant characters. Though no longer living, Jesse came alive through Anne’s feelings for him and the memories of his playing with Tennyson. Even his wanting to name the children after poets. The reader gets to know him pretty well. And of course we meet and grow to love Tennyson and his enthusiastic view of life. And Anne. I love her and want to sit with her in her sorrow. Help her to lift her feathers again like the doves in their baths. I’ll remember this story.

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