There had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Jackson being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time, we had naturally made plans for our funerals (none) and for the burials (immediate) in a plot already purchased. We had decided against cremation, which was popular with our friends. It was just the actual dying that had been left out or up to chance.
What a great opening. I’m particularly fond of the use of passive voice in the first sentence – a big no-no – which means it’s very important. And it is, in what it says about this woman, whose name we never learn – an interesting choice, since the other two characters get two names apiece.
She’s 71, a retired math teacher who now writes biographies of Canadian authors who aren’t all that famous. Jackson, to whom she’s technically not married, is a poet and sometimes-lecturer who describes himself as a horse trainer. She isn’t crazy about what she calls his “‘aw-shucks’ persona”, but she understands it: “When you’re busy with horses, people can see that you are busy, but when you’re busy making a poem, you look as if you’re in a state of idleness and you feel a little strange or embarrassed having to explain what’s going on.” I love that; I suspect Alice Munro came up against that all the time, back before she was famous. Maybe even now. Just sitting and thinking isn’t all that respected any more.
She and Jackson have put their plans on hold, however, since he thinks she’s too young to die just yet. They’ll talk about it again in four years.
I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed anymore, in our lives.
He said that we had just had an argument, what more did I want?
It was too polite, I said.
We leave this little scene, which at the time disappointed me. I should’ve trusted Alice Munro.
Months later, Gwen comes to the door selling cosmetics. She’s not exactly the poster girl for the business: “If she hadn’t told me she was wearing makeup, I would have thought her face was a bare as mine. Bare, sallow, an amazing mass of wrinkles.” She’s invited in, and the two women have coffee and a pleasant conversation. There’s an interesting observation around Gwen’s smoking: “Now that she had her cigarette, she appreciated everything.” I quit smoking three years ago, but I understand that entirely; like the idle poet, it’s a tiny, perfect observation.
The woman orders skin lotion, more from sympathy (Gwen’s family is in disarray) than a real desire to look younger. She’s surprised when Gwen actually delivers it some time later, and they have another nice chat about one of the earlier biographies.
When they’ve finished and it’s time to go home, Gwen’s car won’t start, and the garage doesn’t answer the phone; the woman invites her to stay for dinner, of course, and figures she’ll need to stay the night. Jackson arrives home, and is also unable to get the car started.
And then the twist:
She and Jackson were struck at the same time.
“Oh my Lord,” Gwen said.
“No, it isn’t,” said Jackson. “It’s just me.”
They stood halted in their tracks. How could they have missed it? It would not do to spread their arms and fall upon each other, so instead they made some strange disconnected movements, as if they had to look all around them in order to be sure this was reality. They said each other’s names with tones of mockery and dismay. Not the names I would have expected them to say, either.
After a moment I realized that Gwen, Gwendolyn, could indeed by teased into Dolly.
And any young man would rather be called Jack than Jackson.
Notice the “young man.” There’s no question, in the woman’s mind, this is someone from Jack’s youth. Everyone has an ex, several exes; running into one in your own living room sixty years on is a pretty strange event. But that isn’t the half of it.
But I did know, in a highly celebratory way, about her two weeks with Jackson, and so, as I have said, did many others. At least if they read poetry. They knew how lavish she was with her love, but they did not know how she’d believed that she couldn’t get pregnant because she’d been a twin and wore her dead sister’s hair in a locket around her neck. She had all kinds of notions like that….This wasn’t all in the poem, of course. I had badgered him into telling me things, and was privately unenthralled. I knew how men are charmed by stubborn quirks, by idiocy, if the girl is good-looking enough. Of course that’s long gone out of fashion. Or I hope it has. All that delight in the infantile female brain.
But the girl I had teased out of Jackson might, of course, be his creation, as much as the girl in the poem. Somebody Gwen or Dolly wouldn’t recognize.
It isn’t exactly Dante and Beatrice, but it’s a pretty cool setup. A bit of craziness ensues as the woman comes unhinged, and the next day, runs away from home. A different kind of Runaway. She mails a letter to Jackson – one of those letters one should write but never send, alas – but comes to her senses soon after and returns home.
Strange. In the middle of my rage, it had seemed as if we had gotten time back, as if there was all this time in the world to suffer and complain. Or make rows, if that was what you wanted to call it. Whether or not we could spare the time for that had never come into it, no more than it would have done if we were thirty….
I would have to be on the lookout for the letter I had written him. What a joke it would be – well, hardly a joke – if I should die in the meantime.
That made me think about the conversation we’d had earlier in the fall, and our notion of being beyond all savagery and elation.
Some of the story lines didn’t quite make sense, but then again, that’s how people are sometimes. As I read, it all felt completely authentic; even as I marvelled that the woman overreacted the way she did, I never for a moment doubted that she did exactly that. And of course her overreaction was, perhaps, more of an affirmation of the promise that life might not yet be completely over, that surprises can still await us even at 71 years of age.
Even though it’s slightly forced, I greatly appreciated how the circle was closed at the end by bringing it back to the beginning; I’m very fond of circular structure. I’m also fond of the writerly details, such as the notion that it might do to consider carefully who gets immortalized in one’s work.