The Bayberry Years
By Nathan Turowsky
It was a cold morning at the beginning of December, before the snows but undoubtedly after the fall was through, and the narrow streets of the city were full of fog. Through the streets from the dreary banlieues of South Boston all the way up to the ancient brick mansions of Beacon Hill came a young man with a bag of groceries on his shoulder and a packet full of several pill-bottles in the pocket of his coat. He walked along the cobbles, not navigable by automobile traffic, and through the fog under the out-of-date streetlights til before him was the apparition of a thick dark wooden door.
The house that he now looked upon was not one of the oldest ones in the neighbourhood but it was old enough to impress one who had grown up in a borderline tenement, last of the seven children of a very traditional Irish Catholic family. It was built of brick brilliantly red even in this sort of weather, with shaped and somehow reinforced stucco cornices and one granite gargoyle. The roof of the house was steeply pitched on many levels, so that looking at it from below was almost like looking at the jagged Western mountains that the young man had seen in his geography textbooks in high school. The roof—or roofs, rather; the roofs were slatted in black-tarred wood, which the mistresses of the house every spring had to hire a new contractor to repair.
There was not much in the way of a front garden—most of that sort of thing was in the back. There was just a short walk between two lines of burgeoning boxwood shrubs up to the front stoop and the door. Other than the shrubs the only thing there to break the solid line from pavement to stoop was a mailbox, green plastic with the Boston Globe logo stamped on it in white, with its red flag now up as they apparently were awake and had put the mail out already.
‘Already…’ The young man laughed. They were ridiculously early risers for their age. It was rather endearing in some way.
The mailbox had two names on it, other than that of the newspaper, affixed to it in durable black vinyl tape with white lettering upon it: I. Crowninshield and F. Greenleaf. Crowninshield and Greenleaf were names with true old-Boston pedigrees. John Caspar Crowninshield had come to Massachusetts in 1688 from Germany and founded a long and storied seafaring family; the Greenleafs were not so old or well-established as the Crowninshields but they were quite rich and had been for some time. There were not many living people with those names alive these days, though; the old hold of the Brahmins of the city had been weakened in the time of Honey Fitz and finally destroyed by the 1960s or thereabouts. The families still existed in name, most of them; but even some of those names were dying out.
The young man did not think of this as he opened the door and went into the wood-walled front hall with its hanging sea-paintings and impossible and imperishable smell of cod. He, David Lenihan, was paid thirty-one thousand five hundred dollars a year plus some personal medical coverage out of some weird and wicked rich-people plan to make sure that the two old ladies who lived here were doing all right in their daily lives. It was a job that he liked a lot, mostly. The old ladies were gay but David had no real problem with this. It was actually kind of sweet, since early on they probably hadn’t had an easy time and they’d stayed together anyway. Isabel Crowninshield had been a high-ranking customs inspector at the Port of Boston until retiring about eight or nine years ago. Flora Greenleaf had been involved in patronage of the arts and had been involved in printing and publishing for a while, but apparently this career had eventually gone belly-up somehow.
‘David?’ came a soft, high, quavering, croaking voice from up the big dark-wooden staircase with the motorised chair on a rail affixed to the banister. ‘Is that you, David?’
‘Yes, Miz C,’ David called back. ‘Putting some vegetables an’ stuff away. Gonna refill your med trays too.’
‘Ah,’ the voice came again. ‘Good, good. After that, David, please come up here. Flora and I want to discuss a few things with you.’
David smiled. Miz C and Miz G, as he called them, often got lonely in this mansion, so sometimes they would get all personal with him and tell him about their lives and their interests. Both women maintained active pursuit of things that interested them, as much as they were physically able. Miz G liked to paint the flowers in the back garden, her hands thankfully nimble for her age, and Miz C spent hours a day watching trade indicators on the television and online.
David finished his work downstairs and ascended the staircase, which creaked considerably beneath him, up to the second floor with its intricate wallpapers and warren of ancient and mostly unregarded guest bedrooms turned storage space. A little way along one hallway was the room of his object, that in which Miz C and Miz G spent most of their free time.
He entered into it. It was a high, somewhat vaulted chamber, its plastered ceiling like the ceiling of an old bank but on a smaller scale. It had in it several old squashy chairs, some upholstered with leather and some with fabric, one with some cigarette burns on the arm; one large bed; one small nightstand; and lots and lots of old portraiture. One door led off into an adjacent bathroom. In two of the chairs, watching a small and rather old television set, were the ladies. They were fairly well-preserved, sitting fairly upright, their hair grey not white and still fairly thick even around the crown.
‘David,’ said Miz C.
‘Hey, Miz C,’ said David. ‘Hey, Miz G.’ He moved around the two chairs to a third, next to the television set, and sat down with a grin. Both women were smiling. They seemed to be unusually chipper to-day in general. Putting the mail out themselves and now this: both actively smiling at the same time. They were not too decrepit but their faces were rather lined, and Miz G in particular had had an operation that made it hard for her to grin, which made some things a little odd on account of her personality.
‘Isabel and I were just watching the news,’ Miz G said.
Miz C—Isabel—nodded. ‘Thank you, David, for getting those groceries we needed—and so early at that!’ she said. David nodded. ‘You’re a good sport.’
‘You’re in a wicked good mood, aren’t ya, Miz C?’ David said.
Isabel reached out and took Miz G’s—Flora’s hand. ‘I’m sorry,’ Isabel said. ‘I should have told you that to-day we have officially been together for fifty-one years and three months.’
‘And three months?’ It seemed that Isabel and Flora celebrated anniversaries at least quarterly—and probably two sets, for their partnership decades ago and their marriage in 2004. David found this a little odd, but, again, he wasn’t an old lesbian. There. ‘So…September of 1958?’
‘Right,’ said Flora. ‘We were working for the Kennedy campaign—Senate re-election, then, you know.’
‘You worked for JFK?’ asked David. Flora nodded. ‘Did you know JFK?’
‘In some sense,’ said Isabel.
David looked up at the ceiling and yawned. The vague bas-relief face of a neoclassical putto yawned back at him. ‘What do you mean ‘in some sense’?’
‘Well,’ said Flora, stretching her hands a little, ‘when Jack Kennedy was a new face in politics he was a face that we certainly knew. Then when he became an old hand he handled things in such a way that we who’d been there in the early days were dazed to see how burly the new Teamsters who came in to protect him were. And then he got ahead in life, poor thing.’
‘You can find a picture of us campaigning for him,’ Isabel said, ignoring David’s groans, ‘on top of the credenza in the room across the hall.’
‘That’s covered by a tarp,’ said David. ‘Can I take off the tarp?’
‘Sure,’ said Isabel.
‘Yes,’ Flora added. ‘It’s not as if we are using the tarp to bail out a boat or something.’
‘Right,’ said David.
David went to go look at the picture. The room became quiet around Flora and Isabel. Isabel’s eyes, still blue to the point of blazing, blue like the burners of a methane stovetop, narrowed in the crow’s-feet of a broadening of her smile.
‘What is it?’ Flora asked.
‘I’m glad,’ said Isabel, ‘because now Charlie’s gone to college, we were a little lonely for the last few years.’ There was a bang from the other room. ‘David,’ Isabel called, ‘are you quite all right in there?’
‘Fine, Miz C,’ he called back. ‘Just a chair that toppled over. ‘S fine. ‘S okay.’
‘Great,’ she said. ‘Anyway.’
Flora nodded. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘He’s being a big help. I think we should do something to thank him. We should find out when his birthday is and bake him a cake.’ She thought for a minute and then added ‘And keep paying him, of course. Man cannot live by cake batter alone. Dough also is important in this world.’
‘Man, this is a great picture!’ David called. ‘Can I take it back in there?’
‘Sure,’ said Isabel.
David jogged back into the room holding the picture. It was black-and-white with some tint colourisation for young Flora and Isabel’s eyes and bright parts of their clothing. Flora was shorter than Isabel and had what looked to be probably mid-to-dark brown or possibly red hair, relatively short and curled and piled around the head in a fairly standard fifties style. Her face was quite rounded, her eyes a sort of hazel trending almost into goldenness. Isabel, taller and thinner and wearing a separate blouse and long skirt where Flora had on a common dress pattern of the time, wore her much darker, possibly actually jet black, hair loose down over her shoulders. Her eyes were—or had been colourised—the same incredibly intense blue that they were now. Her face, then as now, was narrower than Flora’s, though they both had prominent cheekbones and noses—probably an indicator of distant relation to each other within their high social class. They were standing on a dock; behind them were several longshoremen unfurling a banner that read ‘SEND JACK BACK AGAIN ‘58’.
‘This is really an incredible picture,’ said David.
‘Well, thank you,’ said Flora. ‘We liked campaigning in the docks and the shore towns, really, though I suppose if we’d fallen in that experience would have been abysmal.’
‘We nearly did,’ said Isabel, ‘two times. Once in Rockport, once on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.’
‘I’d like to hear more about this,’ said David, flopping back on Flora and Isabel’s bed. David had an impulsive tendency to flop back on beds, and standing permission to do this from the two women; so that was all right.
‘About the campaign or about our history?’ asked Flora.
‘Either,’ said David. ‘Both. I’mma have to keep up with you ladies prob’ly for the rest of your lives at this point and that’s fine but, you know, I been helping you for months, still don’t know very much of your stories.’
The two old women thought for a while and then Isabel said ‘That is a good point. Come to think of it, we don’t know much about you either, David.’
‘Yeah, well,’ he said with a yawn, ‘your lives prob’ly aren’t as boring as mine. I’ve just been hangin’ with the boys and runnin’ from the cops since childhood ‘til I cleaned up my act in high school. Now I’m at BU. That’s pretty much it.’
‘That is in itself rather interesting to me at least,’ Flora said. ‘We were not conversant with the life of one who ‘hangs with the boys and runs from the cops’ for most of our time in this world.’
‘Well, you tell me your stuff first,’ said David. He sat up on the bed. Flora leaned towards him, blocking the TV, which had gone to a (to David) boring stock report anyway. ‘No, I’m serious,’ he said. ‘It’s all copacetic if you’d rather not but I think it’d be slamming to know more about the past. I don’t know much about history.’ He laughed. ‘Even local history. Kinda embarrassing.’
‘Well,’ said Isabel, ‘we can definitely help you there.’
‘Right,’ said David. ‘First, tell me about 1958. What was JFK running for that year? He wasn’t elected President then.’
‘Re-election to the Senate,’ said Isabel. She could have sworn that Flora had said this not twenty minutes ago but maybe David had been momentarily distracted then. ‘So, picture this. It’s August of that year and the fall part of the campaign’s getting into swing. It’s not going to be a particularly close race…’
‘But you have to run it to the fullest anyway,’ said Flora. ‘That’s just good horse sense.’
‘Right,’ said David.
‘So it’s a campaign, then,’ said Isabel. ‘We were talking to the working-class white ethnics out on Boston Harbour and Massachusetts Bay. This was and is a constituency that really adores the Kennedys.’
‘I…I know that,’ said David, who was a member of this demographic.
‘Right,’ said Isabel. ‘Sorry. Anyway, it’s August 1958. Summer, hot. We’re on the docks, sometimes drinking in longshoremen’s taverns. It’s the good times. At this point John Hynes is Mayor of Boston.’
‘I was twenty-four,’ said Flora. ‘Isabel was twenty-two. It was the first election she could vote in; the age was twenty-one back then. They changed it during Vietnam because people were being drafted and couldn’t vote. That’s desecration without representation.’
This particular pun David didn’t think was very funny or tasteful, but whatever. It was like a tic for Flora. It might not even have been intentional; Flora was very cultured and had had a pretty boring job for a while at one point, so she had developed a punning subconscious to stave off the ennui. She had been good with puns before this as well but it had not been an automatic process. Now it pretty much was.
‘So we were excited about both being able to be involved in the political process,’ said Isabel. ‘Flora voted for Ike in 1956 but that’s hardly remarkable. Two-and-a-third million people voted in Massachusetts in 1956, one million four hundred thousand of them for Ike. It wasn’t a matter of being a Republican, necessarily. 1958 was more…partisan, in that sense, since Ike’s approval rating was down.’ Her crinkled old hands worked as she talked; this happened whenever Isabel was explaining something. It was a tic that she had had for almost seventy years, ever since knowing enough about anything for the idea of ‘explaining’ to apply to her. ‘By which I mean it fell into the sixties.’
‘But I’m not particularly interested in the election,’ said David, ‘just what you did in it.’
‘What we did in it was to fall in love,’ said Flora.
‘That’s interesting. Break it down.’
Isabel nodded and cricked her head back and forth, for to work out a kink in her neck. ‘It began,’ she said, ‘that August, while we were standing on a big concrete pier…’
The Beginning of the World
They were in the middle of the boom years, and John Hynes was Mayor of Boston. Flora Greenleaf took her car out as far along the docks as she could, found a place to park, got out, and looked around. The first thing that hit her was the smell. It was incredibly strong, a most evocative cocktail of saltwater, bayberries, fish guts, oil, tar, and oranges—the last from a ship just bringing in a mass of fruit from Florida and the Caribbean.
The seagulls were the first noise she noticed, and then the bustle and hubbub of the clamouring longshoremen. This was an environment at least ninety per cent male, and under other circumstances Flora would have been a bit concerned to be here alone. But in this case she was not going to be alone for very long at all, and if she was she had the full force of a front-running senatorial campaign to get her out of any trouble.
‘The air tastes like salt,’ Flora said to herself. ‘Lovely in an odd way. Better savour such moments.’
She leaned back against a railing that was built in such a way that it leaned out a little above the open harbour. The water, very blue further out, here was an odd kind of reflective but muddy black. Flora did not know what exactly was spilling out from the ships or the dock workings to cause this colour but it didn’t strike her as a good thing. It smelled vaguely coffee-like, a pungent bitterness impinging itself on the salty osmyrrah of Boston Harbor. That was trouble brewing.
Flora heard another car coming off to the side. She turned her head away, feigning not caring in a sort of playful way that she had developed at Smith College for the purpose of acting in all-female revues. Then the car stopped with the sort of clattering moan common to older vehicles and she heard the door open and close again. She turned and there was her counterpart.
Isabel Crowninshield was two years younger than Flora but could be and often was mistaken for her older sister. They were second cousins, sharing little in their features but similar cheekbones and noses, but this was enough for the connexion to be made in people’s minds, and Isabel’s greater height and calmer demeanour made her seem illusorily the elder. Neither young woman was married. Isabel’s engagement to one Stamford Cornwell, while apparently based on real mutual feelings, had been dissolved when those feelings, again mutually, had waned; Flora’s family was a coterie of free-thinkers and ‘so-called ‘feminists’’, often very much at cross-purposes with the other established families around them, and so they had not even particularly edged her in this direction despite the fact that she was twenty-four already.
‘I haven’t seen you in a while,’ Flora said as they began walking towards the longshoremen’s union at which they were to speak.
‘Mm,’ Isabel said with a nod. ‘For a few weeks I was on a mountain trip in Maine. Then there were some affairs that had to be taken care of concerning my uncle’s business ventures, which meant that I had to assist my father in typing up reports of the dreariest kind.’ Isabel came to a portion of a dead—fish of some sort and stepped over it gingerly with a grimace.
‘Walking on these kinds of docks is not easy,’ Flora said. ‘It really brings one’s spirits to heel sometimes.’
Isabel nodded. ‘In any case,’ she said, ‘I am sorry I didn’t call you while I was in Maine, Flora. We were up in Aroostook County. I don’t know how much you know about Maine but…’
‘Not very much,’ Flora replied, ‘except for the little area around Portland and the coast south of that.’
‘That hardly counts as Maine any more these days,’ said Isabel. ‘I mean the mountains. There are hardly any working phone lines in the village where I staying.’
‘Gee!’ said Flora. ‘Still? In this day and age? I don’t like the sound of that.’
Isabel nodded. ‘Yes. So I am sorry I didn’t call you. Did you get the letter I sent, though?’
‘I did,’ said Flora.
‘I am also sorry that that was so short,’ said Isabel. They turned away from the harbourside wharfs to go up a section of boardwalk between two ramshackle sets of sheds and fishermen’s bars. It did not smell as strongly of the commerce of the oceanic world here, but it was somewhat dim and uncomfortable for them to be in.
‘It’s fine.’ Flora laid her hand on Isabel’s shoulder. ‘It was a fine length.’ She cast her eyes around. ‘You…I would have hoped that the campaign could have sent some other people with us here.’
‘Do you not feel comfortable?’ Isabel asked.
‘Honestly,’ said Flora, ‘not really.’
‘Well.’ Isabel pointed ahead to a tin building with a very faded sign, across a very narrow expanse of water with a footbridge spanning it. ‘There is the union hall, so we’ve almost got to our destination. You needn’t worry. I know the boss of this local from before when I came here with the Senator last week.’
They came to the front of the hall, and knocked on the door. From another door off to the side the boss of the longshoremen’s union local came around to greet them. Daniel Quinn was a strongly slender bulrush of a man, standing just a bit under six feet and wrapped tightly neck-to-toe in oilskins. His face was rough but clean-shaven and he had loosely curling dark and somewhat reddish hair.
‘Miss Crowninshield,’ Quinn said.
‘Hello again, Mr Quinn,’ said Isabel. ‘This is my associate, Flora Greenleaf. She’ll be rallying the boys with me to-day.’
Quinn looked Flora up and down and clucked his tongue and stamped his boots against the wood beneath. ‘Two women,’ he said after a silence of about half a minute. ‘They sent two women—young ladies at that—they sent ‘em, sent you alone down here to have this talk?’
‘Er…’ Flora began nervously.
‘Well, of all the…’ Quinn frowned. ‘That’s just not the sorta thing that’s gonna come out well, place like this. You drove here?’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel. ‘We did.’
‘Well, all right, at least…’ Quinn coughed into his hand. ‘That’s…Christ-all-Friday, but that’s a worryin’ thing.’
Flora was not sure to think of how Quinn was acting and what he was saying. There was nothing ill-natured about it but some of it annoyed her in other ways nevertheless. Eventually he calmed down and said ‘If either of you girls think there might be any problems come up, lemme know an’ I’ll have some of the boys escort you back to yer cars.’
‘Thank you very much, Mr Quinn,’ Isabel said.
They went inside. The union hall was one big room and a couple of smaller offices; the big room was full of longshoremen in their overalls and oilskins. The inside smelled the same as the outside with the added tang of the beer that was standing in a very large punch bowl in the corner. Quinn’s boys sat on folding metal chairs in cramped rows; at the front of the room, between the doors to the two offices, there was a cleared-out space with a series of large planks laid across some crates.
Quinn got up on this impromptu stage and said ‘All right. We’ve made you very aware there’s an election this fall and most o’ you boys prob’ly know Senator Kennedy’s on the ballot again. What I’ve got here is two ladies who are going to tell us about the Senator.’
Flora idly wondered to what extent this union pressured its members to vote a certain way. ‘I imagine,’ she whispered in Isabel’s ear as Quinn continued to speak, ‘somebody going into a voting booth and beginning to tick a ballot and then remembering that Mr Quinn wants them to vote another way, and then folding.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Isabel whispered back, patting Flora on the back and putting an arm partway around her waist. ‘This isn’t like that. They have the Celeste people coming next week.’
Quinn finished, and Isabel and Flora took the stage.
‘Hello,’ Isabel said, reading from a set of remarks that she had prepared together with some sub-campaign-manager from the extended Kennedy family. ‘You boys may be wondering why a US Senator has sent two young ladies such as ourselves here to your union this day to talk to you about politics. It’s because Senator Kennedy wants to show that the people whose loyalty he has inspired through his heroism in the war and his twelve years of service in both houses of the Congress come from all walks of life.’
‘Even the parts of society not always associated with political activity can come together in a time like this to help keep America the greatest and most modern country on Earth,’ Flora continued. ‘We are here to tell you why voting to return John F. Kennedy to the Senate will not only help protect, but help enhance our great American way of life.’
‘Senator Kennedy was only twenty-nine when elected to the House of Representatives after his famous heroism in the Pacific,’ Isabel said, ‘and thirty-five on his elevation to the Senate in the last election for this seat six years ago. The traits that lead such a man to rise so fast include his keen perception of the needs of Massachusetts and how quick a study he proved in the affairs of the nation and the world.’
‘The Senator may himself have been born into and raised in wealth,’ Flora said, ‘but his grandfather and great-grandfather pulled themselves up from the streets of Boston and the vales of Ireland.’
This went on for some time, with many reiterations of the same point about the Kennedy campaign having such mass appeal that even young women came down here to do the heavy lifting for it, along with a similar point made about negroes, which the mostly but not entirely white-ethnic union seemed to appreciate. All in all the speech was about twenty-two minutes, with twenty-three for questions, ten of which were used since most of Quinn’s boys either knew enough about the lay of the land politically as it was or else did not particularly care.
‘Well,’ said Flora as they left the union hall, streaks of pink and purple already in the eastern sky before them out over Massachusetts Bay, ‘I rather think that went jolly peachy after all. Some of those longshoremen could haul around quite a bit of knowledge in their heads.’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel.
They got out to the dock by which they had parked. That ship from earlier had gone back out to sea and the only people around were a few old men pulling up and putting away sea-soaked and salt-crusted ropes. The smell now was more straight seashore, bayberries and salt.
‘Isabel?’ said Flora.
‘What is it?’
‘I am very glad,’ said Flora, ‘to see you again. A friend is like a baseball in that you wonder why your depth of caring for them just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and then it hits you.’
Isabel got this after a second and genuinely laughed, and then had an impulse to do something very stupid. Flora was smiling and her lips were curling up and the flesh of her cheeks was stretching up beside her eyes and she was smiling. Her eyes were smiling. Her entire face was bound up in love of friend and love of world around her on that pier where the rope-men worked and the seagulls cried.
Isabel leaned forward and kissed Flora. It was not something done with any particular consciousness behind it in the usual sense, but it had in it an enormous depth and breadth of meaning. Flora, surprised for a second as her mind had hitherto been occupied with wondering what was on Your Hit Parade and American Bandstand these days, found enough composure to with one hand try to push Isabel away but with her lips kiss Isabel back. As Flora’s lips passed between Isabel’s and Flora’s tongue touched Isabel’s Isabel had one question that she prayed God could answer at His earliest convenience.
Is what we are doing forbidden, or does it not exist?
They broke away and stood there panting. Nobody was looking at them. They had not made enough of a commotion to rouse up the rope-men from their work. Orange into redness the late afternoon sun shone through the slats of the harbour buildings. The wind from the sea seemed already autumnal.
When Flora Greenleaf got home that evening she said hello to her parents and went straight to her room and turned on the radio there.
Why was it that for much of the past decade she had been hoping that Isabel would do precisely that again? This wasn’t something that happened—or at least not something heard of in decent conversation. There had been some rumours—or less than rumours, more like insinuations—regarding Bella Gardiner Lacey, but now Bella Gardiner Lacey was married to Flora’s brother Bill and Bill and Bella had five children and a beautiful house in a lovely Western Massachusetts town called Agawam with all the modern conveniences. Flora’s oldest sibling, Dorothy, was full eighteen years above her and Dorothy’s three children were already nearly grown. None of them gave any indication of having wrong or perverse inclinations of this kind. Nor did Flora’s sister Marian, her brother John, her brother Barton, or her sister Laura.
Flora gazed morosely at the telephone on the table beside her bed. It was right next to the radio and so every time she reached over to turn the volume up or down her hand had to pass over it. This did not concern her, exactly. It was not as if she could accidentally call Isabel or anybody else. It was just that—
It was just that a huge part of her wanted or even needed to call Isabel. It could even be said to be ‘for her health’ in this situation. Flora felt dirty and her stomach was churning. She needed to hear Isabel’s voice to assure her that she could go to bed to-night without feeling absolutely awful.
Flora sighed. The phone rang.
‘Hello? This is the Greenleaf residence. Who…’
‘Oh, Isabel!’ said Flora. ‘Gee, thank heavens. I really wanted to call you and, er…’
‘I know,’ said Isabel. ‘I know what you mean, I mean. I did not know that you were going to call me yourself.’
‘Thank you for calling me first, though,’ Flora said. ‘I did not want to bother you and my head was ringing with voices of fear that if I called you, you would think I…’ She broke off. This was not a sentence that she felt entirely comfortable finishing.
‘I don’t think anything less or more of you, Flora.’
‘I seriously do not. You made a pun involving telephones just now, and you felt a nervous sort of feeling when you wanted to call me. I think that nothing about you has changed to-day. Neither has anything about me.’
‘But this is a problem,’ said Flora. ‘I am sure you remember that time in Vermont nine years ago—even if we were very green then.’
‘It is only a problem if some aspect of us needs it to be a problem,’ said Isabel.
‘Isabel,’ said Flora, ‘I am going to be completely and absolutely candid.’
‘I was happy when you kissed me this afternoon,’ said Flora, ‘but I still don’t really know what these things are, beside what we are supposed to be ‘allowed’ to know. I feel as if most of the people in the world are so used to being manipulated like chips for others to cash in that it doesn’t even register any more. I like you so much, but I’m not sure if I know what liking means here.’
‘Do you want to find out together?’ Isabel asked.
This phrasing had taken Isabel a while to conjure up, and she was so incredibly glad that Flora had given her such a perfect opening to say this. Their minds really did sing in such incredibly close spheres.
Isabel, after getting home, had interacted with her family a little more than Flora had, mainly in the form of asking her father, Godfrey Crowninshield, and her mother, Adelle Crowninshield, what they thought of various oblique and vague hypothetical situations, then talking to her brother Peter about things when her parents became confused and irritated with her.
‘Pete,’ said Isabel.
‘What is it, Bel?’
‘What would you say,’ she said, leaning over the back of the couch to put her face next to his as he sat there watching Ed Sullivan on the television, ‘if two men, or two women, were in love?’
Peter thought for a while and then said ‘I would find that a bit odd. Isn’t that supposed to be a form of insanity or something along those lines?’
‘I believe it is classified as such, yes,’ said Isabel, who had something of a sinking feeling at her brother’s answer but was glad that he was at least not outright horrified. ‘I ask because I think I might be dealing with such a person in my day-to-day life. How would you handle that?’
This did not seem strange since Peter was three and a half years older than Isabel and they had always had a good relationship. Her asking him for advice was nothing new. He went over to the television and turned down the volume and came back to the couch and sat down and thought about the new question some more.
‘I would be fine with it as long as nobody asked me to join in,’ said Peter.
‘Really? You would?’
He thought some more. ‘Probably. I wouldn’t really be able to say for sure unless this really happened to me. Do I know these people, Bel?’
‘You do,’ Isabel said.
‘Well then I will not think about it,’ he said, ‘and if I ever have to I will try to be as kind and understanding as I possibly can.’
‘All right,’ said Isabel. ‘I’ll tell them you said that. Thanks, Pete. You’re a good brother.’
‘Mm,’ said Peter.
Returning to the conversation at hand, Isabel said ‘I talked to my brother.’
‘Yes?’ said Flora. Unlike Flora, Isabel had just the one brother, though she also had two sisters; thus ‘Peter’ did not need to be specified by name.
‘I told him that we knew two people—whom I did not name—who were of the same gender and who loved each other. I asked him what his thoughts on this were. He said he would try not to think about it and if he had to he would just do as best he could to be kind to them.’
There was, at the other end of the phone line, a sharp intake of breath.
‘What is it, Flora?’
‘That is lovely of Peter,’ said Flora, ‘but I’m not sure it’s good of you to have said something like that. You might have sewn the seeds of odd suspicion, and so inadvertently inclined him to pick nits.’
‘Ah,’ said Isabel. Her tone of voice was the contrition particular to those who have just had mistakes of theirs that should have been obvious pointed out to them
‘It’s all right since it’s Peter,’ said Flora. ‘But, I mean…think about what would happen if that colleague of your father’s Mr Paul Andersen were the person to whom you were telling something like this.’
‘Why Paul Andersen specifically?’ asked Isabel. ‘My father has more dealings with Harry Edelson, actually…’
‘Because, Isabel,’ said Flora, ‘in that case, you would be robbing Peter of your confidence in favour of Paul.’
A long silence.
‘I see what you did with that sentence,’ Isabel said in a sort of flat tone that obviously had in genesis in an overcorrection for suppressed gales of laughter.
They talked for a little while more, shifting the conversation into less uncomfortable and new and unfamiliar territory, and then said good-bye and went to bed.
The next morning, still reeling from the day before, Flora took a walk of a quarter of a mile through Back Bay from her house to Isabel’s. The Crowninshields lived in a mansion modelled, very vaguely, after the Genesis, with each room on the bottom floor decorated in colours loosely corresponding to days of the creation. Isabel’s grandfather, Samuel Crowninshield, had been that wonderful type of very religious person whose religiosity was as much an eccentricity as it was a stance on life.
Flora came in and greeted Isabel’s parents, taciturn as always, and her little sister Grace, who had just turned seventeen and was in poodle skirts and letter jackets. Looking for Isabel herself Flora heard from an upstairs room the plaintive keening of a piano tinkling out the blues. The song was unknown to Flora but it was deep-keyed and minor-keyed and doleful yet with a strong sense of hope somewhere in there.
Flora went up the stairs and, sure enough, found Isabel at the piano, her body swaying, eyes half-closed as she played away.
‘I didn’t know you played the blues,’ said Flora. ‘I wasn’t aware that would be considered a key skill to have on the piano.’
‘It’s not,’ said Isabel without looking away from the music sheets. ‘I learned the blues because I wanted to.’
‘All right then,’ said Flora. She came into the room, pulling a chair from the upstairs hallway outside with her. ‘May I sit down?’
Flora sat. ‘I thought a bit last night,’ she said. ‘About the two of us. And…’ She waited for Isabel to stop playing and take interest, but when it became very clear that Isabel was taking interest but was not going to stop playing Flora just continued. ‘I think that there should be nothing stopping us or saying we can’t love each other. I think that love is something that we have to investigate and not just listen to other people about, or at least not only. Investigation—if you do enough digging you will strike gold.’
Isabel nodded. ‘So what do you want us to do, then?’ she asked.
‘Just spend time with each other some more,’ said Flora. ‘Perhaps, when we are alone and it is safe, kiss each other some more; I don’t know.’
‘That sounds good.’
‘The kissing or the spending time together?’
‘So you like all different sorts of faces.’
Isabel shrugged, which messed up her piano playing for a few measures but fortunately not in the long run. As it was blues, this seemed almost more like a stylistic syncopation of the rhythm than anything else, and they continued to talk as if such a disruption had not occurred.
‘I mean,’ said Flora, ‘you like my face—kissing me—and a clock face—spending time together.’
‘That is to the best of my knowledge,’ Isabel said with a secret grin, ‘the only pun you have actually bothered to explain when I didn’t immediately get it in…I am not sure how long. Quite some time. The question now is how we’re to conduct ourselves publicly, if we’ll be setting out on such an emotional journey in private.’
‘As long as we’re not touching them yet it should be fine,’ Flora said.
‘You just said it.’
Isabel played and thought for another moment and then yelped ‘Flora! You’re worse than Peter!’ She flushed; the pink-red against the white of her skin and the black of her hair and clothes and the blue of her eyes was, Flora thought, not bad. ‘Good job, good job. You caught me on that one, Flora dear.’
Flora noted that she was ‘dear’ now with love and a giggle. She couldn’t help it. This was just too exciting, even if it was still unclear how they were going to act while out and about.
‘A question,’ said Isabel, getting back into the groove of the music, turning a few pages to start another piece.
‘Yes, Isabel dear?’
‘Ought we simply act, in the public realm, as we have always done?’ Isabel banged out an unfamiliar chord, messed it up very slightly, frowned, but persevered. ‘That is to say, why change anything about the way we present ourselves if what we’re doing is investigating our own hearts?’
‘That is a good point,’ said Flora. ‘There’s private property and then there’s public propriety. I don’t particularly care if we shock others but…’
‘I would rather not,’ said Isabel sharply, ‘for our own sake, not theirs.’
‘Exactly. I don’t care if their hair stands on end but I also don’t want our families’ heirs to be shunned and penned.’
‘Oh, my,’ said Isabel with a laugh.
Flora smiled. ‘I know.’
And that felt to them like the beginning of an entirely new world that consisted solely of ways in which and venues in which to explore the avenues of that which was love. They spent the rest of the day together, at the Crowninshields’ until dinner and then at the Greenleafs’ in the evening listening to the radio and talking with the nice and somewhat peripherally conscious Barton Greenleaf about the glory days of the aging Ted Williams. The dinner that they had that night was simple, Italian food bought in the North End (which Isabel was very unfamiliar with) and some salad made with the leaves of Mrs Evangeline Greenleaf’s summer garden.
It was a happy, happy day, and several more followed, filled with stuff for the Kennedy campaign. The youngest Kennedy sibling, whose name was Edward, came over to the Crowninshields’ to help with a rally to be organised. The elder Crowninshields, who were Republicans, were a bit leery of this but also impressed against hope with their daughter’s industriousness.
‘She’s going to make somebody a good and thrifty wife at this rate, so I would wager,’ Godfrey Crowninshield said, his iron-grey moustache twitching as he spoke.
‘That she is,’ said Adelle Crowninshield.
‘Now, then,’ Godfrey said. ‘Where is the evening edition of the Globe? John Harries told me there might be something of relevance to my interests in it.’
After that day things became quieter for the next few weeks before the autumn climax of the middle-of-term campaigns across the country. Isabel and Flora went to a concert of the Boston Pops conducted by Maestro Arthur Fiedler, mainly Charles Ives and other American music of such kind. The next day they went up to the North Shore and swam together, which had its awkward and its joyous moments.
‘So the lesson here,’ said David, ‘is that way back in the fifties some things worked really differently but you two still loved each other?’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel with a smile. ‘Exactly.’
‘And also,’ David added, punctuating this addition with an index finger thrust haphazardly into the air, ‘that Miz G had that ‘PUNS ARE CRUISE CONTROL FOR COMEDY’ thing goin’ on, even then.’
‘Most certainly,’ said Flora. ‘They are just so punny.’
‘That one was a little weak,’ said Isabel.
‘As weak as this tea that you have made?’ asked Flora, picking up a now-lukewarm cup of tea and drinking what was left of it down in a gulp.
‘Ah,’ said Isabel, and there were laughs all around for a minute.
Then Flora turned back to David, a little more serious than usual, and said ‘Yes, that was the beginning, of sorts, though there were other clear points before and after as well, obviously. And…things were pretty difficult, let me tell you, at times during those early days…’
Men without Blinders
They were in the middle of the gilded years, and John Collins was Mayor of Boston. Isabel Crowninshield could not stop crying as her father threw her personal effects roughly out of her room, his face working in a rage, tears streaming down his face also, shouting, again and again, ‘Get out!—get out!—get out!’
Godfrey Crowninshield had come home from work that day to see his eldest daughter and second-eldest child sitting in the dining room, alone at the huge teak table, with a cake that she had baked and an incredibly nervous smile. His firstborn Peter was standing at her shoulder, looking a little bit more grim and perhaps uncomfortable with whatever situation had impelled Isabel to do this.
The two had wasted no time in explaining the situation to their father, with Peter’s wife, who was a doctor with somewhat radical opinions a bit to Godfrey’s frequent chagrin, even coming in at one point and offering to explain something that Godfrey really did not want explained. He began to cry, because this was so far beyond his ken, and because he knew that it could, in this world, be so incredibly dangerous for his daughter. And he reacted like a wounded beast.
‘You are not to come back until you end things with Miss Greenleaf,’ he shouted, his strained and blubbering voice reducing this to a semi-coherent gurgle. ‘You are twenty-seven years old and cannot go on with such…such adolescent, inappropriate, such behaviour that is…’
‘I understand,’ said Isabel, flatly and softly, too softly for her father to hear over his own rage and pain. ‘I understand your feelings and I know we are not going to see eye-to-eye.’ One of her stockings struck her in the face; she flinched but did not move. ‘I love you, father.’
Godfrey stopped, frowned, said ‘I love you, too’ in a low murmuring gurgle of sadness, and then threw at her a teddy bear that she had had from the day she was born. Isabel caught this ‘Captain Barrington’ and nodded.
‘And,’ Godfrey said, his voice rising again as he began stripping the sheets from Isabel’s bed, ‘because I love you, I do desperately hope that you will one day see reason and stop acting like this!’
‘Strangely, father,’ said Isabel, gazing intently at her shoes, ‘I agree verbatim.’
Godfrey, his face red and bloated from screaming and crying, tried to catch her eye. ‘It’s too much,’ she said, and kept her head down.
‘I understand,’ he said. ‘It is too much for me too.’ He was calming down but no less angry or disappointed or sad. He handed Isabel her bedclothes. ‘Please go,’ he said. ‘I already know: You can stay with the Greenleafs. I’m sorry but this is not something that we can deal with right now.’
‘I know,’ said Isabel, still without looking at him, trying as best she could to hide her own tears. ‘I am sorry also.’
Isabel went out into the street with her belongings in her arms and what could not fit there stuffed into a tote-bag. It was a cold day in the beginning of February, only a couple of weeks after her birthday. So much had gone so far south so quickly.
The walk to the Greenleafs’ was dismal but once there she found herself in Flora’s tight, sob-racked embrace, with Dorothy, the eldest sibling, eighteen years above Flora, who was visiting from her home in the western town of Hadley, standing confusedly by. Dorothy, it was clear, had no idea what was going on with her youngest sister. She was in her late forties already, soon to be a grandmother; she had her own worries in this world.
Randolph Greenleaf, Flora’s father, at seventy-one still looking about the same age as the fifty-year-old Godfrey Crowninshield, was in the sitting room listening to a record with Evangeline Greenleaf, Flora’s mother, sixty-eight. They greeted Isabel and embraced her with love and sorrow.
‘How long as this, ah…odd state of affairs existed?’ Randolph Greenleaf asked.
‘Four and a half years,’ Isabel said lowly.
Randolph nodded. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘And your father’s reaction was…as could be expected, honestly.’ She nodded as well and mouthed something that could have been an ‘I know’; Randolph went on. ‘By far the vast majority of parents would have the same problems, the same worries. I know that I worry about this, its implications. I have just finished talking with Flora about it and we have decided that we are not going to tell anybody else, not even those of my own children who don’t live here any longer.’
‘Thank you for that respect, Mr Greenleaf,’ Isabel said.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘It is only natural—I would rather you have the privacy, and would also rather I not have the infamy.’
Isabel said, ‘I understand completely.’
Flora came in, carrying a lit candle, and sat down between her mother and Isabel, across the room from her father, in a leather-upholstered chair with brass buttons in its back and along the outsides of the arms. The smell of bayberry filled the room. It was relaxing. Then Flora said ‘I am sorry to hear about what happened with your father, Isabel. You know that I love you?’
‘Of course,’ Isabel said.
Randolph and Evangeline looked vaguely uncomfortable, or perhaps simply a bit confused, but said nothing.
‘My love for you is like a schooner,’ said Flora. ‘I want to carry you through life the way a ship carries a cargo of bananas.’
‘…what?’ asked Isabel. Isabel worked in a clerical position at the Port of Boston, inspecting ships’ manifests and making sure, simply, that people were not outright lying about what they were trying to bring into the city by sea. She was familiar with the analogies that Flora was trying to make, but they did not seem to her to make much sense.
‘Bananas,’ said Flora, ‘because our love might seem a bit, ah…’
Isabel groaned and then laughed, though a little sadly right now.
Evangeline turned and coughed. ‘Flora,’ she said, ‘your father and I have been talking and…have you and your, ah…have you and Isabel ever considered psychological therapy?’
‘We are completely sane,’ Isabel snapped, the blueness her eyes blazing and flashing at Evangeline across Flora’s suddenly very edgy line of vision.
‘Psychology,’ Randolph intoned calmly, ‘is not just for madmen any more, Miss Crowninshield. You have known my daughter a long time. You have many things to work out with both your family and society—with her. There are people for things like that.’
‘Yes,’ said Flora. ‘But are such people all over? Would there be any on, for instance, a rural Greek island, father?’
‘I think there can,’ Evangeline said.
They sat there, tense and a little sad, as through the grey light of the winter afternoon the smoke from the bayberry-wax candle drifted now whitely, now blackly.
‘Might such not be questionable in other ways, though?’ Isabel asked.
‘They certainly might,’ Randolph said. ‘Are you willing to take that shot, though?’
‘For being happy? I am, anyway,’ Flora said. ‘Though a shooting is a terrible thing to befall happiness.’
There was another horrible span of silence, but for the sound of Randolph’s record. ‘What is this music, Mr Greenleaf?’ Isabel asked to break it.
‘It is the Kingston Trio,’ said Randolph, ‘a band for both pop and traditional music. Their place of origin is in California, I believe, but they have been active right here in Boston at times.’
Isabel nodded. ‘Where would we even find such a psychologist as you are suggesting?’ she then asked. ‘Where in this city? Would we have to go into the South End, the North End? Mob places? What kind of person would such a man be who would ignore the professional writings that would cast me and Flora as sick?’
‘A person with his own mind,’ said Flora, ‘who doesn’t mind a parson’s invectives, perhaps?’
This conversation, having established the main issue to be worked out, that of finding a mental doctor with some sympathies in the line of another form of love such as this, guttered, as, after about an hour of sitting quietly and sombrely with Randolph occasionally getting up to change the record, did the candle. It finally went out with a last puff of smoke at a time of the day when the blazing reddish sunbeams of evening were glancing over the roofs of Boston into the upper portions of the windows, when Evangeline had fallen quite asleep in her chair, and when Randolph’s old recording of one of the lesser-known big bands of the thirties had nearly reached its musical climax.
Flora’s mind was hard at work softly in the low light of the winter’s evening. Nearly three decades of honing the same talent for thinking in unusual ways that gave her such skill with puns and wordplay were now turned to the singular, once-in-a-lifetime purpose of finding a way to safeguard her mind and the mind of her love, living as they did in a general society of this kind. She looked and saw that in addition to her mother Isabel also had just drifted into sleep. The black-haired lady slumped and fell sideways on the couch with a soft pomf.
Flora’s thoughts coiled up from the depths of wondering how Yellow Pages might or might not help at the sound of her sister Dorothy asking a question of her husband in the next room over. ‘—What are we going to do with that bed, Egbert? We mightn’t be able to fit it up the stairs.’
‘Right, right,’ Egbert Vernon, Dorothy’s husband, said. ‘I will have to, ah…’
‘You can take the headboard off, you know, Egbert!’ Randolph called, loudly enough to wake up both Isabel and Evangeline. These women gave him somewhat nasty looks initially, at which he frowned in concern, but such looks soon subsided, and Isabel sat up again.
‘What are we talking about?’ Isabel asked.
‘Moving beds, it would appear,’ Flora replied. ‘Not the bed from the end of Othello, though that is very moving; I mean a bed that is to be moved, naturally.’
Isabel nodded. ‘Naturally.’
‘Talking of beds,’ Randolph said, ‘Miss Crowninshield, have you given any thought to where you might want to sleep? I am sorry to say that from your father’s actions and words it appears you may well be staying with us for quite some time. It may not be possible for you to have your own room.’
‘What about sleeping with Flora?’ asked Evangeline, worryingly innocently.
Flora raised her eyebrows. ‘Mother!’ she said. ‘We haven’t, even in these years, progressed to that stage, even if we are Democrats!’
‘It has taken us quite some time, to be sure,’ Isabel added, not particularly caring to notice the levels of discomfort with the topic implied in Randolph and Evangeline’s faces and postures, ‘but when your head continually makes noises like sick little birds telling you that you are wrong for having feelings that in the heart feel gloriously and infinitely right…’
‘You need,’ said Randolph firmly, ‘to find a psychological personage.’
It was decided, eventually, that Flora and Isabel would sleep in the same room but in different beds. As a placeholder until they could get a bed for Isabel, Randolph, Egbert, and Barton—the last of whom, now married and living in Somerville, had come over because Randolph had informed him of the presence of a houseguest but who did not know the straight story of what was actually going on—moved the sitting-room couch upstairs.
‘This may be uncomfortable,’ Randolph said to Isabel, ‘and if it is it need only be for a few days, until we can get a twin bed perhaps.’
‘Thank you very much,’ Isabel replied.
When Flora and Isabel went to bed that night they discussed the idea of finding a psychologist extensively. Both liked the idea but were very worried about how exactly they were to be expected to do such a thing.
‘The psychologists in the telephone directories are likely to be Respectable,’ said Flora, ‘which, to be direct, likely is a bad idea.’
Isabel nodded. ‘Yet,’ she said, ‘also a bad idea would be going to the Mob or some such outfit. I do not know if those levels of society even use psychologists; if there even are such psychologists as are not ‘Respectable’ in your sense.’
‘Those who are not do often take to drug,’ said Flora, ‘which drags in a whole other set of problems too concerning for many reasons for me to contemplate. Though, I am sure there are some people with the right sort of training, or perhaps simply wisdom, but who do not practise, who are not Respectable.’
‘But how would we be able to find such people?’ Isabel asked. ‘Would one have, in the Yellow Pages or in the advertisements of the Globe or some such paper, something like ‘I know a lot about the human mind, and am willing to have dealings that the psychological community might consider shady’?’
‘I am sure one would not.’
Isabel frowned. ‘Can we discuss this more in the morning?’ she asked. ‘It has been a very, very long day for me.’
‘I understand,’ said Flora, and turned out the light.
They lay in the dark, breathing and listening to the breathing, scarcely thinking after thinking for so long before they allowed the nighttime in. Their first night living together—it could have come, certainly, under better circumstances, yet here it was. A milestone—like meeting, like that time at the lake in Vermont, like the kiss on the docks in Boston Harbour. Something precious, something new, something loving, something true. The loving times were certainly upon them.
The next day dawned in freezing rain and so nobody particularly cared to go outside.
‘Would you like,’ Randolph asked, ‘my famous fried eggs, Miss Crowninshield?’
Isabel thought for a moment, frowning. She did not generally care for eggs but Randolph Greenleaf was being twice as kind to her as even the kindest half of other people would have been, and she had thanked him for less than half of his actions half as well as she should have by now. ‘Yes,’ she said, then. ‘I would love some.’
‘All right.’ Randolph, a little crotchety but also a little spry, went over and turned on the butane stove and put on a skillet and brought three eggs over to it from the refrigerator. ‘Is three all right?’
‘How about two?’ countered Isabel.
Randolph nodded. ‘I shall take the third, then,’ he said, cracking one of the eggs into a skillet that already had three others on it. ‘I like a big breakfast now and again.’
‘We all do,’ said Isabel with a grin, taking a sip of coffee with cream. ‘May I have some sausage, if you have it?’
‘Sure,’ said Randolph. ‘We have, er…’
‘We have hot dogs and the, you know, better, cooler sorts of sausage,’ said Flora. ‘From Little Italy or Micro-Germany or what-not.’ She clicked her fingers. ‘Talking of Little Italy.—Isabel?’
‘Yes, Flora?’ said Isabel.
‘Might we go to Little Italy to scope out the street there and see what we can see?’ asked Flora. ‘As a matter of course we would first go to the Mini-Consulate to get our Wee Passports…’
Isabel laughed. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘I’d say we shouldn’t worry; they are not all mobsters.’
‘Oh, can’t possibly be,’ Flora said.
In Isabel’s head there was a clean pad of long, ruled yellow paper, the kind that lawyers and doctors sometimes used. She imagined her hand coming down and writing two items of business upon it. One, which might continue to be problematic for several reasons for some time, was to explore the sexual nature of her relationship with Flora. This was something that Isabel really, really, desperately did want, but she wanted to make sure that the time was opportune before they did anything.
The other, which was one aspect of the time being opportune for the first, was going to Little Italy to see if there were any psychological or psychiatric or other head-folks there in that sort of working-class ethnic environment who might be either broad-minded or jaded enough to help where their own class of the Establishment might try to tear them asunder. This was much more easily done—at least, the going to Little Italy part. They could walk, or there was the MTA.
‘I can get you girls some Metropolitan Transit Authority tokens,’ Randolph said. Randolph was so kind—as was Evangeline, though she didn’t talk much, as had often been de facto required of women of her generation.
Flora nodded. ‘That would be lovely, father,’ she said. She found it a bit surprising that her father was being so incredibly indulgent of her and Isabel but it was a good surprise at least. Randolph Greenleaf and Godfrey Crowninshield had known each other for a long time but had always been on somewhat cool terms, even in the young days when Randolph had been an ostensible mentor to Godfrey in the business of economic and financial management. Randolph had always found Godfrey to be rather ossified, intellectually as well as culturally, despite his relative youth; Godfrey had been scandalised not by Randolph’s lifestyle but by some of his opinions for quite a long time. Both men were of the Boston ‘Brahmin’ class; both were distant relations to the late Justice Holmes; both were from families partly Episcopalian, partly Unitarian, and overwhelming, though not quite entirely, Republican. But they were different sorts of Brahmins, different sorts of Republicans—and Randolph himself was Episcopalian and rather liberal about this whereas Godfrey was Unitarian and more conservative.
In this case, Isabel marvelled at how far Randolph was going in a situation that neither decreased Godfrey’s prestige nor increased his own. Jaded in some ways, though by no means all, and having grown up in a businessman’s household, Isabel was having a hard time understanding this simple kindness. There were many simple kindnesses that she did understand; but Randolph being of the age and of the class and of the status that he was, it was a little difficult for her in this instance. A working-class union boss like Dan Quinn, a younger person like Pete or like Barton Greenleaf, somebody who had had a hard life like her friend Mary Crackstone—from such people Isabel would have had an easier time accepting this kindness and, apparently, even love.
Flora meanwhile was still working over more practical issues in her mind as she worked away at her father’s eggs, invading the softly tissued sanctuary of the molten yolk with her fork, then scooping the whites into her mouth and sopping up the liquid life-gold with delicately toasted rye bread. Simply walking into the North End and asking the first Mob-looking guy she saw where he went if he was feeling bad about things would be an excruciatingly awful way to go about it, in large part, but not only, because it was more likely than not to lead to a bar rather than a head-shrinker. The South End presented a different culture with a different set of options, but it wasn’t one that Flora was quite so comfortable with—and besides, universally associating ‘working-class ethnic’ with what she and Isabel were looking for could be a dangerous and even bigoted mistake to make, so she would try very hard not to.
That left the option of asking people who were partially Respectable and partially not. People like Quinn and his boys, or even Catholic priests depending upon the neighbourhood, might fall into such a category as this and as such might be very helpful indeed, if they themselves could be made to understand and accept. This was the hardest part, at least at this stage, it seemed.
Flora sighed and wrote all of this on her own mental notepad, which was in her mind’s-eye’s perception of it a bit less literal but no less important for all that than Isabel’s. Then she had the rest of the eggs and the toast and went to unpack some more of Isabel’s clothes for her.
It was early afternoon when they finally decided to go outside and do things. This was something that they wanted to get done, and so, throwing on warm coats and boots and scarves and hats and gloves, they set out for the nearest MTA station.
‘Are you sure this is safe?’ Isabel asked. ‘I mean to say, safe alone.’
‘I’m sure,’ Flora replied, ‘since I have my father’s old service pistol.’ She patted one of the pockets of her coat, which bumped firmly under the touch. It was a Browning of the M1911 make, standard issue for infantry in the First World War, loaded with seven shots. She had three extra cartridge boxes in another pocket. It was unlikely almost to the point of losing all relevance that she would need to fire twenty-eight rounds but in this instance there was an abundance of caution rearing itself up in Flora’s breast. This was not just a question of being laughed at if they went to the wrong person with their little problem. It was a question of, potentially, if worse came to absolute worst, being laughed at, and beaten up, and killed.
‘So,’ Flora said, ‘we are certainly being served.’
‘Right,’ said Isabel with a wan smile.
They got on the subway car and went up into the North End. While nervous in this particular situation, neither woman was really inherently afraid of the North End, or the less genteel parts of the city in general, at all. Campaigning for Kennedy at the harbour in 1958 and in the South End and in Taunton and Fall River and New Bedford in 1960 had done a great job immunising them against hatred or fear of the poor, the non-North-West-European, the non-Protestant of their city and their Commonwealth. Something residually in the nature of prejudice was there, as they, particularly Isabel who was comparatively more sheltered than Flora, could look in the eye of a North End Italian or a Portuguese from Bristol County and see not the actual qualities of the communities or people but the ruddy bluster of somebody more like Daniel Quinn; but that was an improvement on the perception of faceless masses of Other that could under different circumstances have seized them on venturing beyond their Beacon Hill and Back Bay spheres.
They got out north of the Paul Revere House and espied a bustling Italian bakery and walked towards it.
‘Are we really sure this is so great an idea?’ Isabel asked.
‘We are not sure at all, at all,’ Flora said. ‘When I’m ‘sure’ about anything in this world, Isabel, we can celebrate; I’ll take you to the beach or something.’
Isabel nodded. ‘Certainly,’ she said, ‘on that I’ll take you up.’
They came to the bakery, Zarrilli’s. They went in and were greeted with a cheer. Isabel looked confused until Flora whispered ‘wait’ and some other guy came in and was greeted with a cheer.
‘This isn’t Italians,’ Isabel whispered.
‘No,’ Flora whispered back. ‘Don’t hold prejudices like that, Isabel. This is just Zarrilli’s.’
‘You’ve been here before?’
Flora nodded. ‘A few weeks ago,’ she said. ‘I was doing something down around Fanueil Hall and I felt hungry so I walked around a bit and came here and bought some sweet bread. It was on sale, after the holiday season.’
‘I see,’ said Isabel.
They went up to the counter. The man behind it, about fifty-five or sixty, tall and thin with a neatly-trimmed grey moustacheless beard, lifted a finger and them and said with a smile ‘Now…Flora, right?’
‘That’s right, Mr Zarrilli,’ said Flora. ‘Flora, Flora Greenleaf. This is my friend Isabel Crowninshield.’
‘Lovely to meet you,’ said Zarrilli. ‘What’ll it be for you girls to-day, then? We’ve still got that bread you liked last time, though it’s a new batch, not quite so fancy since Christmas and New Year’s and everything is over. Also calzones, which are especially good to-day since we got better ingredients for some of it than normal.’
‘Actually,’ said Isabel, ‘we are here, Mr Zarrilli, for advice.’
‘Advice?’ Zarrilli furrowed his brow and pouted slightly. ‘Advice on what?’
‘Well,’ said Flora, ‘it’s awkward, you understand. It’s cultural in a way, I suppose.’
‘Go on,’ said Zarrilli, clearly a bit confused.
‘We are seeking to turn a little bit of an aspect of this society on its head,’ said Flora. ‘For that, we want a shrink of some sort, or somebody who knows about that sort of thing. Somebody in a situation where they can’t judge.’
‘So why are you coming to me?’ Zarrilli asked. ‘If it’s on account of associations from the ‘Little Italy’ I’ll have you know I can and ought to tell you off, thinking that way.’
‘It’s not that,’ said Isabel hurriedly.
‘Flora said ‘cultural’.’
‘There…is that aspect to it. But…’
‘Yes?’ Zarrilli’s brows went up again.
‘It’s not a question of having any problems,’ said Flora, ‘so much as it is knowing that groups not part of the East Coast establishment might have established more toleration of certain kinds in their souls.’
‘Clearly you never been to a Catholic church in Dorchester when there’s someone who’s not Irish running for an ‘Irish office’,’ Zarrilli replied, turning to deposit another tray of rolls in one of the ovens.
‘That, again, isn’t what I meant,’ said Flora. ‘I meant tolerance of other things.’
‘Are we getting back into crime again?’
‘Not necessarily crimes, but things more related to the times.’
‘We are into the 1960s now,’ said Flora. ‘The age of Eisenhower and leaving what-nots to Beaver has ended or will soon, I feel. I want the new world to come to be good, to be accepting, to be prosperous—in this case, for me and Isabel at least.’
‘Times are changing even in Beacon Hill and Back Bay,’ said Isabel. ‘I think in some ways it’s more likely that those of us who are not Brahmins in this city might accept these changes as they are going forward.’
Zarrilli thought for a second and then leaned over and whispered in Flora’s ear ‘Are you, ah…how do I ask this, put this, do you twos…’
Zarrilli raised his eyebrows and nodded. ‘That’s different,’ he said.
‘I have a 1911 Browning,’ said Flora, ‘with twenty-eight bullets.’
‘So?’ said Zarrilli.
Isabel nudged Flora and whispered ‘Flora, I don’t think the baker is going to attack us.’ Flora looked up and saw Zarrilli take out a plate of cannoli from a glass-covered display and bring them over to a young-urban-professional-looking negro in a brown serge suit. ‘I think this man is special,’ said Isabel. ‘I think we are lucky. I don’t just think he tolerates; I think he doesn’t even care.’
‘Well, that’s Flora floored,’ said Flora. And it was true, pun or no pun, that this was going far beyond even Flora’s dream of grudging acceptance. It was so, so lucky, she felt, as she watched Zarrilli go about his business occasionally looking back at them with care, saying with his eyes and brows that he would be with them to talk to them again as soon as he could. Flora laughed. Isabel laughed with her. Some men looked over at them in some confusion; they looked back at the men with apologetic smiles.
Zarrilli came over again, and said ‘Hey, girls. There’s gonna be a regular comes in about an hour and a half, two hours before closing time. That’ll be in about twenty-five minutes. I think he’s got training in head stuff and he’s really nice and tolerates a lot of kind of odd things. If you’d like to sit and have something to eat until then, I can have Hugh in the kitchen bake up some more cannoli…’
‘Thank Hugh,’ said Flora.
They sat and had the cannoli and looked with a sense of glorying in mercy at Zarrilli, and with a sense of heart-pounding worry and concern for self and safety at many of the other customers. None of them seemed to be paying them any mind—but even so. This was an uncomfortable situation. It had, after all, been but one day since…
Isabel reached out. Her hand slipped into Flora’s. Flora smiled and leaned her soft brown-blown head on Isabel’s shoulder. Isabel was wearing dark red, a knee-length dress over stockings of the same colour and black high-heeled boots. Her jacket, which she had shrugged off on to the chair behind her, was brown. Her eyes, same as ever; Flora’s eyes, golden even for their own colour, which trended as it was in the direction of the blazing sun.
They sat. The door jangled and a little man in a long off-white trenchcoat and a pork-pie hat came in. He was quite pale, with a patrician nose that seemed out-of-place on his generally rather squat face.
‘Charles!’ cried Zarrilli.
‘Hey, Pasquale,’ said the newcomer. ‘How are things?’
‘Pretty good,’ said Zarrilli. ‘Pretty good.—Hey, listen. Could I talk to you about something?’
‘What is it?’ Charles (apparently) took off his coat. He was wearing a blue button-up shirt and grey slacks underneath.
‘You studied a bit of that there, ah, psychology, right?’ said Zarrilli.
Charles nodded. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Can’t practise, though. Why? Are you needing mental help suddenly, Pasquale?’ He grinned and laughed; he had a loud and somewhat raw-sounding laugh, one which had he not been speaking normally might have been most easily attributed to a cold or mild flu.
Zarrilli shook his head. ‘Got some people coming to me with a problem you might be able to help with,’ he said. ‘Probably not most other people, really.’
‘I’m interested. Go on.’
Zarrilli leaned over and whispered in his ear. Charles laughed. ‘That, Pasquale? Oh.’ He bit his lip. ‘I dealt with crazier shit than that by a mile. So who are these people? Here?’
Zarrilli, unsure, looked over at Flora and Isabel. ‘Discretion,’ Isabel mouthed to him. He nodded and turned back to Charles.
‘Maybe you could want to talk to them outside after I bake you up your calzone?’ Zarrilli suggested.
Charles nodded all right and Zarrilli went back over to talk with Flora and Isabel about this.
‘That’s Charles Compton,’ Zarrilli said. ‘He came to this city about maybe a year or so ago, with a psych degree, two pieces of luggage, and some kinda accent. He’s kept the first two, though he’s got an apartment now so it’s not like the luggage is him living off the street.’
‘Yes,’ said Flora with a smile. ‘I know what you mean. I wonder what kind of baggage impelled him to come here.’
‘I have no way of knowing,’ said Zarrilli. ‘And perhaps we shouldn’t wonder. Should I formally introduce you?’
They were, indeed, in a few minutes introduced, and then Flora and Isabel and Charles Compton went for a walk. Compton was wrapping his coat very tightly around himself, and kept his head down in the cold.
‘So you two are under the star of Uranus, then,’ he said.
‘What?’ said Flora. ‘No. We’re women.’
‘That isn’t what I meant,’ said Compton. ‘I was trying to be delicate. I suppose not, though. You two are together?’
‘Right, then,’ Compton said.
This was awkward.
‘So what is your story, Mr Compton?’ asked Isabel. ‘Mr Zarrilli informs us you are a relative newcomer to Boston.’
‘Dr Compton.’ He nodded. ‘I’m from Georgia. Take a drawl and a degree in psychology and mix them and transport them north. Turns out that there are different requirements for some…stuff up here, so I got my licence stripped since I didn’t know that. This was about nine months ago. Since then I’ve just been…I don’t know, I guess you could say ‘on the take’?’
‘Being ‘on the take’ implies something nastier than what I think you’re trying to say, though,’ said Isabel.
‘Right,’ said Dr Compton. ‘Right. You get my meaning, though.’ Isabel nodded. ‘So what about…?’
‘There were, to be frank,’ said Flora, ‘a thousand reasons for us not to do something like this, ever. But my nephew Frank lives in Hadley and we rarely speak. For us to do this, simply out of love?—A million reasons.’
‘I,’ said Dr Compton, ‘have come over the past year to understand. As I said, I’ve dealt with crazier shit than homosexuality by a mile—personally as well as for others. This frozen land called Massachusetts has ruined my health as well as the legality of my practise!’ he snapped.
They were so, so blessed, Isabel thought. She was in love and with help now beneath this cold sky. She had people who cared about her—even her father on a wise. They turned on to the same street corner where ten years ago she and Flora had liked to go, in their high school days, to the malt shop that had stood there then. There, north of Downtown, west of the harbour, south of the Charles and the North End, east of Beacon Hill and Boston Common, Isabel began to weep and was beautiful in her weeping.
‘So that,’ said Flora, ‘was how we met Dr Charles ‘Competence’ Compton.’
‘Is that an actual nickname or did you just make it up?’ David asked.
‘Guess,’ said Isabel with a smile and a sigh.
‘Is he who Charlie’s named after?’ asked David. Isabel and Flora both nodded. ‘So it worked out well,’ he said. ‘You must’ve known him for a long time.’
‘Oh, we still do,’ said Flora. ‘It turned out that Dr Compton’s only a year older than I am. He is still very much alive and living like…well, not like a king…a duke, perhaps, would you say, Isabel?’
‘I would say an earl,’ said Isabel. ‘Definitely more than a mere baron.’
Flora nodded. ‘Certainly,’ she said. ‘Living like an earl in Brattleboro, Vermont. He might even still be practising, at the Brattleboro Retreat most likely if he is; I am not sure. But yes; that is who Charlie is named after.’
‘Charlie is…’ said David. ‘How old’s Charlie again? You’ve shown me pictures of him but we’ve never met since you hired me when he was on that vacation in Mexico and then he went back to grad school.’
‘Right,’ said Isabel. ‘Charlie is twenty-eight and in his last year of medical school now. He was born in 1981.’
‘Charlie,’ said Flora, ‘came in at a later time.’
‘Things had become a bit easier by then,’ Isabel said. She cleared her throat. ‘There were problems for us. It wasn’t everyday life; it was the eighties. But things were easier. You know…’ She trailed off.
‘What is it?’ David prompted.
‘I really do enjoy your presence here, David,’ Isabel said.
‘As do I!’ crowed Flora. ‘As do I.’
David nodded. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘So, Charlie…oh, Charlie. That Charlie.’ He grinned. Dude he’d never met, dishing about him with his moms. ‘So how about that? How’d that go?’
‘Well,’ Flora began, ‘as we said, it was a little easier by that point…’
At Home in Twilight
They were in the middle of the languid years, with Kevin White still Mayor of Boston. It was a cool spring morning of silvery rains. Isabel Crowninshield strode happily through Beacon Hill on her way to the Port of Boston for another eight hours, more or less, earning her daily bread, those parts of it which were not hers by unfair hereditament. She passed the Massachusetts State House; she passed the homes of more of her traditionally genteel class, many now in disrepair or resold to young professionals moving in from other parts of the state or even the country; she passed her old church, which she had not been to in years because ‘Unitarians’ were now ‘Unitarian Universalists’, and had contingents with remarkable faculties to hold seemingly any beliefs and none, and it was harder and harder for such a staid Brahmin woman now pushing fifty to feel quite a part of it any more. And so Isabel was not quite sure why it was that she was so happy at these sights.
It was something about the day itself, maybe, she thought. She had her rainhat on and her long light spring jacket also. The air would be cleaner after a rain like this, and the city seem brighter. Yes, Boston was certainly the type of city to shine in the rain…! So Isabel was happy.
Flora, at home, was having a good time of it the past few days, having got some time off her job at the great printing presses of Scoresby Hebble. Things had been dicey there for a time but now Flora’s good friend Roger Whitmore was making sure things could run all right in her absence. So Flora was dedicating this week to starting a proper herb garden this year. Thyme, basil, dill, sage, you name it. The plot out back soon would have it all. Before going out this morning Isabel had put some dried herbs from Flora’s attempt at same last year—the only batch that had survived an August storm—in with some other ingredients for a nice savoury sauce, spread the sauce on some bread, and run that bad boy right through a minute in the oven for something that was like a pizza except not.
She was a little upset about one thing, though. She had apparently forfeited her privileges of going to work with her love when she was interested. Flora still blamed her for the incident where six thousand copies of a book apparently called ‘Mrs Galloway’ had been sent out all over New England. She had forgiven her, but still blamed her, for whatever sense that made. To be fair, Isabel had, in a fit of pique, neglected to tell Flora about the problem, thus helping to prevent it being fixed; she felt bad about that and it had led to a rupture of some weeks in which there had been very little talking and even less hugging and kissing and sleeping together in their lives. That had been fixed with a long talk, initially tense but increasingly emotional and free-flowing as it went on, over dinner one evening, but the ban on Isabel visiting Flora at work, a little upsettingly, remained.
Well, it couldn’t be helped. It was often the case that Flora was more interested in Isabel’s work anyway. Isabel had just last year been named an official, signed-sealed-delivered United States Customs Agent at the Port of Boston, with command over some other Customs Agents no less. So she went in and got into her office and sat down. On her desk there was a picture of her and Flora, one of those new computers that was less enormous than the old kind but still rather clunky to have on a desk, and several large stacks of papers next to a touch-tone telephone.
When Isabel had been there for about five minutes the phone rang. This was a morning ritual. Flora got to the office about fifteen to twenty minutes before Isabel, and she would wait until nine-ten or so and call Isabel and tell her how the day looked like it might shape up. Then Isabel would go about the morning and call Flora again at lunch and tell her what was going on over on her end. It was rather lovely for them.
‘So,’ said Isabel. ‘What is it, love?’
‘Well,’ said Flora, ‘we need to finish this magazine printing. I don’t know how I got sucked into printing for a magazine. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s the New England Quarterly—which, incidentally, costs far more than a quarter—and not some rag. It’s ‘literary’, thus ‘relevant’.’
‘Hmm, I see. Anything else you know about the day so far?’
‘Well, some of the workers might be…restive,’ said Flora nervously.
‘What makes you think that?’
‘One of the coffeepots is broken beyond all possible repair,’ Flora replied. ‘The one that some of the staff up here in the main offices use. The boss-man made me Vice-President in the hopes that I’d help deal with things like this but I can’t fix the coffeepot. It’s not a labour dispute with the people who oil the moving parts of the presses or anything of that nature. The pot is not on strike, it is simply broken. That’s trouble brewing.’
Isabel laughed, then leaned back, looked at the picture of her and Flora on the desk—a summer resort in Cohasset on the South Shore, 1972, her in a blue bikini and sarong, Flora in a knee-length yellow sundress, both wearing matching broad straw hats—and felt like singing. ‘Flora,’ she said. ‘Do you know something?’
‘What?’ asked Flora.
‘In only a few month,’ said Isabel, ‘it will have been twenty-five years already.’
‘Really?’ said Flora. ‘Dear me. But only yesterday weren’t you a stony-faced sot of a Simmons girl and I a mad bright young Smithie?’
‘It seems that way, I know,’ said Isabel. ‘But even so…’
Flora laughed. ‘Yes, you certainly complete me,’ she said. ‘Not like those mean old bastards at Dundridge Printing Solutions who just compete with me.—So. What does your day look like?’
‘The usual,’ said Isabel. ‘There are rumours that Carlos the Hawk and his Crazy 80 might try to get some cocaine in through the harbour again to-day but if so that isn’t particularly odd and we’ll just have to look especially carefully through ships coming from parts of Latin America, of which there will only be a couple.’
‘So that shouldn’t really be difficult?’
‘No, not really,’ said Isabel. ‘First, though…this morning, Amanda Fitzpatrick has something that she needs to talk to me about. You know who Amanda Fitzpatrick is, right?’
‘Is this the Fitzpatrick that came to my forty-ninth last month?’ Flora asked.
‘Yes, that’s her.’
‘Then yes,’ said Flora. ‘I know a bit about her. Twenties, mother of a baby son. She works as a recorder for manifests and things, doesn’t she?’
‘That’s right,’ said Isabel. ‘I don’t know what she wants to talk to me about but she made an appointment to talk about it at—in about fourteen minutes, actually. So I can talk until a few minutes before nine-thirty.’
‘Maybe not until then, for me,’ said Flora. ‘Depends on when Rodney from outreach comes and starts complaining that the coffeepot being broken is like a rod to the knee for him.’
‘I’m sure he doesn’t actually say that,’ said Isabel with a grin.
‘No, but you understand my meaning.’ Flora sighed. ‘It never ends.’
‘Never does,’ said Isabel. ‘You would not believe some of the declarations that people have made. Claiming illegal or semi-legal ‘medicines’ from Third-World countries as ‘eyeglass repair kits’ is only the beginning.’
‘Hmm,’ said Flora, a little distractedly.
‘Eh?’ said Isabel. ‘Is something going on there?’
‘Yes. Rodney Absalom is knocking on my door, as I expected. I’m sorry. I have to take care of this.’
‘All right,’ said Isabel. ‘Talk to you at lunch, then, love?’
‘Yes, dear. Of course. Good-bye.’
‘Good-bye.’ Isabel hung up the phone and sat back in her chair.
Flora went over to the door to let in Rodney Absalom. Rodney was in outreach, an adept negotiator, and was currently looking very distressed about, presumably, the coffee thing.
‘Come in, Rodney,’ Flora said. ‘What is it?’ She went and sat down behind her desk, hands folded, her own photo of her and Isabel—the 1958 one, at the docks—louring up next to her left elbow like a household god of old.
‘It’s not about the coffee maker,’ Rodney said.
‘It isn’t?’ asked Flora. ‘Well, what other tempest in a teapot do we have to-day, then?’ She cocked her head back and smiled.
‘There’s a problem with one of the presses and the person who would be able to fix it is not exactly being nice about things,’ Rodney said. ‘It’s what’s-her-name.’
‘What’s-her-name could be any number of people,’ Flora said. ‘Lots of ‘hers’ have names. Perhaps even some hearses have names.’
‘You know who I mean!’ he snapped. As he went on, Flora felt her consciousness dropping down to some slightly lower level against her will. She frowned. This was, she thought, a somewhat disturbing development.
It made her want to grab and hug and thank somebody for such a charmed life. They had escaped together, or not even been attacked by at all, so many things which could, perhaps by rights should, have destroyed them. There was of course the possibility of thanking God but God could not be hugged and given a present and a head-ruffle. Besides, it would not be particularly meaningful for Flora. Flora’s Christianity, such as it was, was in many ways fuller and realer in form than in content, but part of that form was such frequent prayer that it had long ago lost all meaning. The Lord’s Prayer had over the years been morphed and twisted and condensed into her mouth into an almost tic-like mumbling of something like ‘Ourhenlowdobrempilkingpow’ at times of serious stress. So thanking God wasn’t what she was looking for at this time.
Rodney went on with his harangue. Flora thought of thanking her father on that day: It would be in four months, mid-August, and Randolph Greenleaf would almost certainly still be alive. Ninety-one, he was incredibly spry; he still lived in the old Greenleaf mansion where Flora had been born. Thanking him, of course, was something that Flora had done a lot already…
—So she was overflowing so much with thanksgiving had had nowhere to direct it. Almost mechanically Flora got up and went with Rodney to see why Esther Jackson was being so ornery about not wanting one of the presses to be fixed. She went down on to the printing floors with Rodney, shouting back one-word or even one-syllable answers to most of his questions over the noise of the machines. The world around her smelled of oil and ink. She thought of Isabel at the port, whose world smelled of saltwater and bayberries. This was such a blessed day. How could she keep from being happy in spite of all the little crises of this world?
‘I,’ said Amanda Fitzpatrick, ‘am nearing the end of my life.’
Isabel shifted in her chair and frowned slightly. ‘What do you mean, Amanda?’
‘I mean exactly what I say, Miss Crowninshield,’ Fitzpatrick said, her voice a forced level. ‘I have pancreatic cancer and it is getting worse for me every day.’
‘Oh, God…’ Isabel leaned forward and put her face in her hands. ‘Amanda…? Amanda, how long do you have?’
‘One or two months.’
Isabel looked at her through a crack in her wall of fingers. Fitzpatrick’s face was stern all over except for one edge, just one corner, the cheek beneath the right eye, which was trembling and twitching as she forced herself to remain composed. Then Isabel’s eyes were wet with such a sudden absurdity. Amanda Fitzpatrick was a hard worker and good at taking down manifests quickly and accurately, and she was nice. Now she was here, and very soon she would not be. How absurd death was.
Isabel’s day had already taken one decidedly unexpected and worrisome turn in its cast when Fitzpatrick decided to throw in another scant minutes after the first. ‘You know, Miss Crowninshield,’ she said, ‘my son, Harold?’
‘I know of Harold,’ Isabel said softly.
‘Harold is very young,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘He has just turned two years old and will be orphaned since my fiancé was shot in a week of his birth. Nobody determined why.’ Still so stoic…
‘I’m sorry,’ said Isabel. ‘I had not been aware of the exact circumstances of your single parenthood.’ This day just kept assailing her with brickbats and tiles, didn’t it? She had had no idea for three years working with Amanda Fitzpatrick that her life was—had—had been falling to pieces like this. Fitzpatrick was kind, but reserved, even more so than Isabel herself, who if nothing else kept a picture of her and her ‘closest second cousin and best friend’ (all she would admit to the public at large) on her desk. Fitzpatrick did not do that. Her cubicle had her work and nothing else. ‘I had no idea…’
‘I want to ask a favour of you,’ said Fitzpatrick, ‘Miss Crowninshield.’
‘What is it?’
‘If you can…I do not care in what exact way, but if you can do it at all, I would like you to see that Harold’s childhood isn’t too hard on him after I’m gone.’
Isabel, continually stunned in this conversation by Fitzpatrick getting ever more personal, nodded mutely. She parted her lips and forced out an ‘All right.’
‘I know that you live in that big house with that friend of yours,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘Maybe…maybe you could play with him sometimes.’ She hung her head. ‘Maybe you could tell him stories sometimes. Maybe—’
‘Why, exactly,’ Isabel breathed, her hands numbly sliding over her desk to hold Fitzpatrick’s as Fitzpatrick was shaking, ‘are you entrusting me with something so close and personal to you, Amanda?’
At the end of that day Flora got back in a few minutes before Isabel, let the door fall open and then closed with twin crashes, and collapsed in an armchair to wait for her partner. Isabel was in shortly, bearing with her that bay scent and a sprinkling of the rain that had just started up again. In this old house, the one that Samuel Crowninshield had moved out of to pursue his project in décor-according-to-the-Pentateuch, Isabel looked a lot more at home than Flora did, her appearance being as it was somehow simply more naturally regal. She moved it seemed almost without effort into the sitting room and sat down primly on the couch across from Flora’s chair, beneath an enormous Ansel Adams photograph of some national park out West.
‘So how was your day?’ Isabel asked almost mechanically.
‘Awful and tiring,’ Flora replied. ‘Yours?’
‘I really have no idea,’ said Isabel. ‘Or…I know what happened. I do not know what to make of it at all, at all.’ She shook her head and clutched her brow. ‘Oh Lord. And it started out so pleasantly also.’
‘We didn’t talk at lunch.’
‘I know. I am sorry about that but the ship from Colombia unexpectedly came in right then.’
‘It’s fine.’ Flora forced herself to stand up. ‘Isabel.’
‘You know what we need to do?’
‘No. What do we need to do?’
‘We need to get really drunk now,’ said Flora.
Isabel nodded. ‘That sounds good,’ she said. ‘But…what if we have to, to-morrow…?’
‘No to-morrow,’ snapped Flora. ‘I’ve had it up to here already from to-day. Less thinking, more drinking.’ She vanished into the room with the old liquor cabinet which they used to store the gifts of fancy alcohol that they often received but seldom drank, and came back with a whole ethanol galaxy of claret, port, sherry, calvados, Sea Hag and Boston Lager beers, whisky, aquavit, two kinds of vodka, some liqueurs, and some sort of plum brandy from Japan. All told there was a little more than two gallons of beer, wine, and spirits, with concentrations ranging from three per cent by volume to around a hundred proof.
‘We,’ said Isabel, ‘are not drinking all of this, Flora. Not at once. I won’t allow it in a million years.’
‘Oh, to be sure not,’ said Flora. ‘Three or four pints I’d say is my limit. Maybe five. I do in fact want to come back from the underworld, eventually, through I drink of the waters of the river of life down there.’
‘Ha, ha,’ said Isabel, and took a swig of Boston Lager.
‘Ha, ha, ha,’ said Flora, and poured herself a glass of claret.
In a little under an hour Flora had a hand down the back of Isabel’s shirt and Isabel was laughing insanely and tickling Flora’s feet. Then the phone rang and they had to disengage for a moment. ‘Abort!’ Isabel shouted. ‘Abort! Mayday!’
‘Hello?’ Flora mumbled into the phone.
‘Flora. It’s Charles. Charles Compton.’
‘Ah!’ Flora shouted. ‘Comp’tence Compton himself, my man! My man! Oh, I swear to all sloshed I’ve not made myself the Almighty.’
‘I…should hope not,’ said Dr Compton. ‘In any case. I called Amanda Fitzpatrick and left a message.’
‘What?!’ squawked Isabel, who could hear most of the conversation. ‘Compton, when did we tell you about Amanda Fitzpatrick?’
‘You, er…twenty minutes ago,’ Dr Compton said. ‘You were sad-drunk then. You said to look up an Amanda Fitzpatrick in the Boston telephone directory, then call her, then tell her to call me back after I’d talked to you some more.’
‘—Ah,’ said Isabel. ‘I…do understand why I might’ve asked that.’
‘Please,’ said Dr Compton with a sigh, ‘in the future, don’t do these things while this drunk. It’s not like you, Isabel—and from the vague sketch of what this is about that you gave me, I get the impression that this is something very serious. So please try to take it so.
‘We tried taking it seriously,’ said Flora, ‘but it failed so hard that we decided to make ourselves mad roaring drunk instead! How do you like them apples, Doctor?! Ha, hee, hee, hee.’
Dr Compton sighed. ‘May I ask Miss Fitzpatrick what this concerns myself?’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel, who unlike Flora was just barely sensible enough for this permission to have some sort of value.
‘All right,’ said Dr Compton. ‘I promise I’ll deal with this and set this up okay.’
‘Thank you,’ said Flora, quite genuinely given the situation, and hung up the phone. Then she took another swig of vodka. ‘NOW!’ she shouted. ‘Isabel Priscilla Crowninshield!!’
‘Come over here and fuck me.’
‘No, I heard that, Flora Cabot Greenleaf. But…’ Isabel frowned and scratched her head. ‘Why should I go over there?! Couch is much better!!’
Flora laughed. ‘You always know what’s what, Isabel!’ she cried. There was something gnawing away at the underside of her mind that she got the feeling she should not be forcing down. This was the part of her that still had some wisps and scraps of sobriety left and it was rather upset with her for this abrogation of responsibility after a bad day. She felt it in Isabel too, in her gaze and in her touch. Isabel had agreed to drink because she was worried, not because she was simply upset.—But, then, the vague feeling of a bad idea that Flora was having…it wasn’t for herself, was it? There had been nothing wrong with Flora drinking about two-thirds of a gallon of alcoholic beverages except insofar as she would feel absolutely awful for most of the next day, which was Saturday in any case. But Isabel…what was it that Isabel had been supposed to do?
Flora was just beginning to probe this line of thoughts when yet another wave of buzz kicked in and she grinned and lapped out at Isabel. Isabel threw her head back with a laugh and rolled over Flora on the couch. They really genuinely were going to deal with this soberly and seriously on the morrow; but for just right now, Charles Compton was a hundred miles away, and they trusted him even at that distance.
So it was possible even here, if in a little bit of a depressing way, to make a life with happiness in it. If only that could be more reliable, more whole.
When they woke up the next morning, Flora was feeling a lot better than Isabel was, to the extent that she could even go about her morning normally enough without lying in bed and crying and bemoaning her station in life. She fixed breakfast for herself and Isabel, brought Isabel’s breakfast to her in bed, took a shower, put her house-clothes on, and went to get back on the phone with Charles Compton.
‘So did you talk to her?’
‘Yes,’ Compton said. ‘It seems that she is dying, and wants Isabel, or rather you and Isabel, to look after her young son when she is gone?’
Flora gulped. ‘I did hear that from Isabel at one point,’ she said, ‘yes. I am very sorry, doc, for being in such a funk last night.’
‘I don’t think ‘funk’ is the word you want there,’ said Compton. ‘I think it’s something else that rhymes.’
Flora giggled. ‘Caught me,’ she said. ‘—Anyway. This is concerning. Or rather it concerns me.’
‘How do you feel about it, on balance?’ Compton asked. ‘Miss Fitzpatrick seems fairly certain, perhaps because she does not really have many friends and I get the feeling that she might not get on too well with her family.’
‘Where did you get that impression?’
‘She implied it fairly heavily,’ Compton said. ‘She opened up quite a bit after I’d convinced her to her satisfaction that I was with you and Isabel. She is not happy about the situation.’
‘If she is dying,’ said Flora, ‘I can’t imagine she would be. Unless it is tie-dye. Now that’s dying for art.’
Compton laughed for a second and then stopped himself and said ‘I’m not sure now is the time for this, Flora.’
‘I’m sorry. It’s force of habit.’ Flora leaned back in the armchair and looked at the patterned stucco frieze, which was classical in much the same manner as Wedgwood pottery. It was so opulent, so inarticulately elegant, this house that she lived and was loved in. ‘Please tell me more about why Fitzpatrick thinks that…’ She trailed off. ‘Oh, God, I think that—no. Oh…wait, there it goes. Sorry.’
Compton sighed. ‘Miss Fitzpatrick said that she would rather wait until she could talk to Isabel personally to explain her reasoning,’ he said, ‘beyond the obvious in any case. The obvious here is the fact that Isabel is somebody who Miss Fitzpatrick knows she can trust and who is clearly at least generally competent at life enough to rise to a fairly high rank in the USCS and the Massachusetts Port Authority. Beyond that…’ He whistled. The high sound made Flora flinch. Her head was still a lot off and probably would be for some hours yet. ‘Well, let me be clear. I’m not going to baby-sit you to the extent you might be fishing for here.’
‘I’m not fishing to be baby-sat at all, Dr Compton,’ Flora said. ‘I am actually sorry that I made you do all of those things last night. Far from wanting to be baby-sat I feel that I was sitting on you.’
‘…what?’ said Compton. ‘In any case, that’s fine, then.’
Flora nodded. ‘When Isabel is feeling better,’ she said, ‘she and I will call. Thank you for twenty years of service and help. You’re eminently comp’tent, Compton.’
Compton said ‘Heh. You just cannot resist…’ He cleared his throat. ‘Anyway! Yes! You’re very welcome of course.’
‘You’re a good friend,’ said Flora. They said good-bye and Flora hung up the phone and tottered into the kitchen to find some coffee or something.
Later that day she finally talked to Amanda Fitzpatrick herself. Early that Saturday afternoon Miss Fitzpatrick was just beginning to fully take into herself the tragic sense of living and dying. Flora the jokester tried to dial it down, then, for this woman’s benefit; to be sure, she was, as the kids would say, ‘so not in the mood’ for quips and puns.
This worked, a little. The first thing she said to Amanda Fitzpatrick was not ‘Looks like you don’t need Amanda be involved in raising your son,’ as she had initially considered; instead, it was, upon hearing the sounds of a stove in the background on the younger and sicker woman’s end of the line, ‘Hello, Miss Fitzpatrick. What’s cooking?’
‘Is this Flora Greenleaf, the friend and relation of Isabel Crowninshield?’ Fitzpatrick asked.
‘Yes,’ Flora said, ‘that is I. We have met before, once.’
‘Mm,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘So we have.—Anyway, Miss Greenleaf. This is about my son.’
‘I know,’ said Flora.
‘I want what is best for him,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘That is all.’
‘I know,’ said Flora. ‘Why do you think that we are the best when you go to your rest?’ Oh, damn and blast; she had slipped.
Fitzpatrick did not seem to mind. ‘Because,’ she said, her tone the same as before, ‘you seem as if you live charmed lives. My sense of life has always been a little bit tragic and a little bit desperate.’
‘Things can get a bit raggedy even for us,’ said Flora. ‘This is the logic, to be honest…may I be honest? Entirely honest?’
‘Please do be,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘I am not a woman who likes to delude herself or be deluded.’
‘All right,’ said Flora. ‘Honestly, your logic is almost like that of the people who in the olden days would sell children into lucrative apprenticeships when they could not support them themselves any longer.’
‘Did not those parents love their children?’
‘Yes. But Miss Fitzpatrick, we don’t live in nineteenth-century Staffordshire.’
‘Of course not. That is why,’ Fitzpatrick said with sardonic tragedy, ‘instead of throwing myself on the mercy of some beadle, I had the option to go to my boss, whom I trust and respect and admire, and say to her that I would like her to see if she might handle this.’
‘I understand,’ said Flora. ‘I for one have never met the child, though.’
‘I am not going to be dead to-morrow. I would never dream of expecting you to simply take a child you don’t know from Adam.’ Fitzpatrick shifted something on the stove, which gave off a loud sizzle, and yawned. ‘I am,’ she said, ‘at this moment, making lunch for Harold and myself. Harold is one year and nine months, he can say ‘birdie’ and ‘doggie’ and ‘food’ and ‘up’ and half a hundred other words besides, and he is beginning to walk quite well around the house on his own.’
‘He sounds precious,’ said Flora.
‘He is precious,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘I am going to miss him very much.’
‘So I’d imagine,’ said Flora. ‘I’d imagine that he’d miss you a lot more, though. Depending on how you look at it, you’d be in unceasing Bliss whereas he’d have a lot more to miss, since he’d be down here orphaned.’
‘Reminding me of the unpleasant but obvious is not particularly helpful,’ Fitzpatrick said softly.
‘I understand.’ Flora nodded. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s all right,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘I…I can throw some people, because I’m not freaking about this. I mean, it’s not a wicked good deal, but…’ She sighed loudly. ‘You know what I mean?’
‘I actually do not; sorry.’
‘Well, I mean,’ Fitzpatrick said, ‘we are in Boston. Both of us were born in this city, weren’t we? Wait. Were you born in Boston?’
‘Yes,’ said Flora. ‘In Beacon Hill, a block away from where I now live.’
‘Perfect. I was born in Dorchester.’ Flora nodded and shifted the phone to her other ear. Fitzpatrick went on. ‘Because we are Boston girls, we have things about us and around us that affect who we are. Situations have consequences, as do actions.’
‘But you didn’t ‘act’ to get pancreatic cancer, Amanda,’ a third voice interjected.
‘Isabel?’ said Flora. ‘You’re up!—Well, you’ve not come down.’
‘Mm-hm. I’m using the upstairs phone.’ Isabel yawned and muttered ‘Oh, God, I can’t see…—Anyway, Amanda, you know…you didn’t choose pancreatic cancer. Or act for it. You. Yes.’
‘I did not,’ said Fitzpatrick, ‘however I will also not act against it as I feel that I have already felt as much of the endless beat of life as I can.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’ Isabel yawped.
‘It means that I view this as inevitable fate,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘My life was a few things, Miss Crowninshield. It was growing up and barely graduating from a community college where I met a lovely man. It was moving with that man to a nicer part of the city and going to work at the port. It was having a child with him, losing him, while at the same time rising in my working day. It was getting to the point where I popped the Hell out of that guns-as-computer-parts, drugs-as-sports-memorabilia coded manifest.’
‘This was something that happened at work, Isabel?’ Flora asked.
‘Yes,’ Isabel replied. ‘It was an amazing insight.’
‘And so,’ said Fitzpatrick, ‘what else is there but to make sure that what little I’ve done can be preserved, and go about accepting my fate?’
‘Because there are other people who will miss you when you are gone!’ Isabel snapped. ‘Have you even tried any treatment, Amanda?!’
‘Too far gone,’ Fitzpatrick replied.
‘You,’ said Isabel, ‘are the most efficient recorder of these manifests that we have, Amanda Fitzpatrick. You are better at it than I was before I got this new position of mine. This is far too sad.’
‘Out of love for my son,’ said Fitzpatrick, ‘I’ll take that sadness. Thank you.’ There was a long silence, and then just about when Flora was going to hang up Fitzpatrick spoke again. ‘For a long time,’ she said, ‘I’ve been reading a lot of books in my free time. So I learned what it means to be-in-the-beginning-of-the-world. Have you ever read ‘Dover Beach’, either of you?’
‘Yes,’ said Flora.
‘No,’ said Isabel. ‘I was reading The Borough when she was reading that.’
‘Well, then,’ said Fitzpatrick, ‘Miss Greenleaf, you will understand me when I say that that is a boundary of the world that I’ve been trying to escape from all along. The working day for daily bread, feeling as if I am in the beginning of the world…I can get away from the darkling plain that way.’
Flora remembered the poem and the horrific image at the end thereof and she thought she understood. Isabel, though not having read the poem, still had a pretty clear idea of what Fitzpatrick was talking about, since she knew her better, and she thought she understood as well.
‘You two are very lucky,’ Fitzpatrick went on. ‘So, you wouldn’t give my son a tragic sense of life if he were to become yours. Would you?’
‘No,’ said Flora. ‘If you mean anything close to what I think…’
Fitzpatrick giggled. ‘I’m glad, in a way,’ she said, ‘because I would not wish this realisation on everyone. If he gets the same way of looking at the world that I do, then—he should get it, but he should get it, not be given it.’
‘Right,’ said Flora. ‘If you have some definition of wisdom and want people to become wise, then you can only really provide access. Eyes on the prize, Miss Fitzpatrick. Eyes on the prize.’
‘What about ‘Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour’, Miss Greenleaf?’ Fitzpatrick asked. ‘Have you ever read ‘Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour’?’
‘No. Who is it by?’
‘Wallace Stevens,’ Isabel murmured.
‘He was an American poet, New England. He was born some suburb in eastern Pennsylvania but had a Harvard education. Lived in Connecticut, I think, most of his life.’ Isabel hiccoughed. ‘What does Wallace Stevens have to do with this, Amanda?’
‘We say God and the imagination are one,’ said Fitzpatrick over the clatter of kitchen utensils as she transferred her son’s and her food from crockery to plates. ‘How high that highest candle lights the dark. Out of this same light, out of the central mind, we make a dwelling in the evening air, in which being there together is enough. I can’t do that. You two can.’
‘We can…?’ Isabel muttered, but in truth she was not, at her core, surprised, nor was Flora. They remembered a conversation that they had had in 1964, shortly before they had taken their relationship to the ‘next level’, if-one-knew-what-they-meant. It had been, in essence, a declaration of mutual need; a promise of mutual support; and a claim not to need or indeed particularly want very many external things—at least, emotionally. So they could accept the twilight of being alone together in a world where the dolorous old structures of Establishment and Respectability were so liable to fail or be failed by them. Love itself, concept and feeling and ground of their situational and active being, lit a light, dimmer but realer than the old lights that had faded, to make itself Mankind and God, Church and State, there in that shadowy kingdom.
‘I can’t live in the twilight,’ Amanda Fitzpatrick declared.
‘I know,’ Flora said. ‘Why should we expect you to? Twilight’s scarcely more than a toy light next to midday, and it’s certainly no midnight either.’
‘Exactly. I can’t abide…’
‘—Well, no. You’re on the darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night. It is perfectly understandable that you would want to—’ Don’t say ‘end it’, Flora! This was such a surreal sequence, these last few days. There would be a son, certainly; it waxed evident to Flora and Isabel that, from her standpoint of a true philosopher’s agony, the dying woman on the phone wanted her son to have them as his apparent mothers, and there was little that Flora and Isabel could morally do to deny this.
Especially as they had wanted a child in any case, for some time now, and had nearly given up…
‘Let’s make a date to meet and discuss this in person, Miss Fitzpatrick,’ Flora said.
‘All right,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘That sounds good.’
‘Of course,’ Flora said, ‘Harold was precious, and he heralded a newfound part of life for us. It took some convincing of the next-of-kin but we had a couple of months.’
‘We had our due to the dying,’ said Isabel.
‘But Miz C,’ said David, ‘your son is named Charlie.’
‘Right,’ said Flora. ‘Harold Charles Fitzpatrick Crowninshield, called Charlie and not Harry because of Charles Forrester Compton. Charles being his middle name all along…was it, in that case, destined?’
‘I don’t think it’s destined for somebody to get pancreatic cancer who was, what, late twenties?’ asked David. ‘And then die.’
‘Amanda was twenty-eight when she died, though a few weeks shy of being twenty-nine,’ Isabel replied, her eyes fixing, it seemed, on some point a little way away, keen and shining and bursting with twilit loves. ‘It was that June, a hot and muggy afternoon, sun coming through the blinds. She had a nice little place by Cedar Street Garden in Roxbury. We were there, me keeping Harold—Charlie—in my arms; Nell Fitzpatrick, Amanda’s aunt, was there; and Big Bill Mahoney, Amanda’s dead fiancé’s father, was there.’
‘How was it?’ asked David.
‘Sad,’ said Isabel with a sigh.
‘So I would imagine,’ said David.
Flora cocked her head and said ‘It was sad but it wasn’t bad. Her last words were from The Book of Tea by Okakura. ‘The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.’ That last sentence we put on her gravestone as well.’
‘You said that you’d wanted to have a child but given up on it before that whole state of affairs came to be,’ David said.
‘That’s right,’ Flora said.
‘Can you tell me what was up with that?’
‘Well,’ said Flora, ‘for that track we have to back up a bit…’
They were in the middle of the hard years, and Kevin White was Mayor of Boston. But Flora and Isabel were not in Boston, they were on a train, and that train was speeding north-west through the hills between Worcester and the Pioneer Valley.
‘What is this town?’ Isabel asked, looking out the window at a somewhat ramshackle little village clutched in the hills with their autumn trees.
‘Pelham, I think,’ Flora replied. ‘We’re going to be cutting across these hills to Amherst, near where Dottie and her family live…’
‘Right,’ said Isabel.
‘And then we’ll go north through the valley to Vermont. Compton’s at the second station in Vermont, Bellows Falls.’
‘Right,’ said Isabel again, shifting in her seat and tearing open a package of snacks from the café car. These trains were a little cramped these days, but there you go. Isabel supposed that, well, people would do what they had to do to keep these train lines in business. If they had to cut back in order to turn a profit in days of cheap and easy automobiles, well then, that was the price one had to pay, she guessed.
‘Bellows Falls,’ said Flora. ‘No doubt a town in which the old Vermont Yankee spirit is stirred up into flame.’
‘I am glad that he is doing better for himself these days,’ Isabel said, ‘but it is a little annoying that he put his new practise so far away. There are some things we just cannot do over telephone, even now.’
‘Mm,’ said Flora. ‘Well, honestly, my goal for to-day is to have as much as this conversation through with as we can so we mightn’t have to go all the way out here again.’
‘Remember the last time we were in Vermont?’ asked Isabel with a coquettish smirk.
‘Of course I do. The mountains weren’t nearly as green as we were then. They won’t be as green as we are now, either…because…’ Flora began to trail off a little. ‘Because the trees are red and gold now and I am wearing a light green dress?’
‘Work on that one,’ Isabel said.
Flora flushed. ‘Right,’ she said. She got up and paced around the train car a little. ‘You know…if we had done this earlier…’
‘We weren’t as brave earlier, Flora,’ Isabel said, her eyes now following the line of red-leafed brush between the train tracks and an overgrown, abandoned field and the Holyoke Range beyond. ‘That hullabaloo in New York City was only last year.’
‘I would hope that people would stop stonewalling people like us when we ask for this sort of understanding, after all that,’ Flora replied. Isabel chuckled a little at this one. Flora smiled and sat back down again.
‘I made some sandwiches,’ Isabel said. ‘I’ve not eaten any yet as I’ve not been quite hungry as all that, but they are in the bag if you want one.’
‘All right,’ said Flora. She rootled around in Isabel’s bag, a canvas tote wedged under one of the unoccupied seats to protect some of the things inside, and pulled out a vegetable sandwich with mustard swathed in wax paper. ‘I’ll have this one,’ she said. ‘Maybe one of the meat ones later if we’re still hungry?’
‘We?’ said Isabel with a laugh. ‘I just said I am fine with these chips here, love.’
‘Are you nervous?’ asked Isabel.
‘Yes,’ said Flora. ‘Are you?’
‘Yes.’ Isabel sighed. ‘You know, it’s…it is not that I am concerned about anything that Compton will say or do to us. I just worry that he might say that this cannot plausibly, or easily, be done.’
‘Right,’ said Flora. ‘That’s what worries me too.’
The situation, specifically, in this case, was much more concerning than it would usually be because of just how many variables and potentials for abject failure were involved here. Flora and Isabel several months ago had decided that they greatly wanted to be mothers to a child together. At issue were the facts that they were legally unmarried, and of the same sex; mitigating at the least the first of these issues was their wealth, which by now was both considerable and stable: Flora had a job in printing, Isabel in customs, both were well-remunerated, and they had recently begun to put considerable and purposeful effort into fixing up an old Crowninshield family house close by in the neighbourhood to the one that Samuel had built, and additionally to the house in which the Greenleaf family was still ostensibly based. It was because of this desire for stability, uniquely relevant to them in a world that seemed so oft heartless and cold to people of their particular nature, that they had not really thought of this until both well into their thirties. They were both holding up well, physically—Isabel enough so even to be comfortable in short dresses and small swimsuits that Flora would not have touched even fifteen years ago. But even so there were clocks at play, ticking ever wildly into an uncertain future.
‘Do we feel like the future is going to be more sure for us with a child in our life?’ Flora asked. Isabel noted, of course, that she was ungrammatically saying ‘more sure’ instead of ‘surer’, likely because Flora’s natural penchant for puns and rhymes seemed to be sinking only deeper and deeper still into her consciousness as she got older. Isabel also noticed the ‘our life’, a technically discordantly-cased phrase that was in this reality much, much more right than either ‘my life’—blatantly false—or ‘our lives’—the time when their lives had been separate had passed long ago.
‘I think it might be,’ said Isabel. ‘It would be superfluous, though, if we said that to Charles Compton.’ Flora nodded. She understood this. It would be superfluous, first, because Dr Compton already knew that Flora and Isabel had started of late to think along these lines, just not quite the extent of what had been thought out yet; second, because Dr Compton assumed certain things about the way they thought—most of which had turned out to be true even if they had not thought that they thought that way when he had started thinking that they did—that he would not be convinced of otherwise, some of which were intimately relevant to this sort of thing; and third, because Dr Compton cared a lot more about their personal wellbeing than their security in the world.
Indeed, this was why they were going to see him—precisely because he would give them an honest opinion of how doable he thought the concept of children for them was, rather than pabulum about the sort of Establishment-snob concerns with precedent and lineage and preservation of privilege that cropped up so in Henry James novels and other things of such kind. Being Establishment but not snobbish and unpleasant was still a learning experience, in a way a working experience, for Flora and Isabel and, on other levels and in other ways, the families from whose bosoms they had sprung also.
The train chugged on. They came to Amherst, where the beech trees blew golden, a tiny station at the edge of a culturally very important town—home of Amherst and Hampshire Colleges, the University of Massachusetts, sites associated with President Coolidge and with Shays’ Rebellion. This was going to be the last stop probably until Brattleboro, the largest town in south-eastern Vermont, about fifteen or twenty miles south of Bellows Falls and their destination.
Isabel took out a photo in her pocket and looked at it in something like reverie. The presence of this photo was recursive in an odd way. The person depicted was Isabel herself yet the picture reminded her of Flora, because it was a photograph of a painting of Isabel that Flora had done one summer four years ago. Isabel was posing nude in a chair with a curtain draped loosely around her in such a way as to, basically, purely ornament; it didn’t particularly hide anything, a job that they had left to Isabel’s hair in the case of her breasts and her left leg in the case of the bits lower down that Isabel’s breeding made her a little loath to specifically name even in private thought. At one point a visitor, generally pretty liberal but a traditionalist about art and a fan mostly of landscapes, had asked them if the painting, which was displayed in an upstairs room, was not perhaps a bit inappropriate.
‘No,’ Flora had said. ‘You know what’s inappropriate? Portraits that couples do where the man has the woman, or the woman has the woman, lie on a bed with her legs spread and intricately paints what is between in the name of ‘celebrating the liberation of the sexual holistic balance through fine art’. Or something like that, like you see more often than you’d like among the academic Left these days. That is inappropriate. This is entirely in the tradition of Goya and, well, other such luminaries of goyish art.’
Flora’s use of the word ‘goyish’, incidentally, did not indicate any Jewish ancestry, which did not exist in the family any more recently than a Rachel Zossenheim who had come over from Germany around the time of the Revolution and been great-grandmother of Baldwin Weld, himself mutual great-grandfather to Flora and Isabel. Only being one-sixty-fourth Jewish, and not at a place in her ancestry that would make her remotely a Jew by any sort of traditional definition, was not, however, something that Flora could stand for getting in the way of her punny sense of life.
So, in a sort of meditation over this picture of her very ownself, Isabel felt her thoughts spiralling inward into a meditation on who Flora was, what Flora meant, why Flora was so very, very precious to her. Precious things…—And part of the preciousness, here, was a profound and only increasing desire for a direction in which to spread the preciousness—hence the desire for a child.
The train left Amherst and set out north along the river valley. It was flat and fertile, the fields still green beneath the fire-capped hills. The Holyoke Range to the south had already passed away out of sight; now there was, to the west across the river, the Pocumtuck Range and the Hill Country over to the Berkshires, and to the east the lower flanks of the Wapack Range and the tangle of hills around Wachusett Mountain and between Fitchburg and the Quabbin and Route 2.
The valley of the middle Connecticut narrowed after a time, between hills marching up into Vermont on the left and hills marching up into New Hampshire on the right, and soon they were on rougher ground themselves. The train crossed the river roiling below around Montague and Gill. Flora rested her chin on the back of her hand and looked listlessly out at the rolling hills of Franklin County while Isabel went and got a newspaper from another passenger who was done with his and came over again to read to her about the news of the world that day.
‘So Nixon’s coming back from Europe in a couple of days, it looks like,’ Isabel said. ‘Also they’ve set up a new scientific group in the Department of Commerce.’
‘Oh?’ Flora murmured. ‘What’s its bailiwick to be?’
‘Ocean and weather conditions,’ said Isabel.
‘Ah, so that’s relevant to your work.’ Flora turned, smiled, and then turned back to gaze out the window some more.
‘Yes,’ said Isabel, ‘I think it might end up being so, yes—though we’re under the Treasury Department.’
‘I always like to say that you’re Boston’s secret treasure.’
‘You’re sweet.’ Isabel flipped to another page in the paper. ‘All right. Also, there was this plane crash in Colorado yesterday. It killed most of a college football team.’ She frowned. Flora frowned. This was certainly sad—though Colorado was far away physically from them, and college football far away in interest—still, sad.
‘Another half-hour to forty-five minutes to Bellows Falls, do you think?’ said Flora.
‘It’ll be just good time for a late lunch,’ said Flora. ‘Likely we’ll get back late to-night though, or stay overnight. Do you want to stay overnight?’
‘I wouldn’t mind it,’ said Isabel. ‘Dr Compton has a fine old farmhouse.’
Dr Compton’s fine old farmhouse—which indeed they reached in about an hour, forty minutes on the train and twenty more with Dr Compton in his car—was in fact a converted barn, or part of one. Of the usual sort of construction but with eaves so deep as to make it look from some angles almost like an unusually shallow A-frame, it was made mostly of simple and simply-painted wood, deep red, with unpainted leanters, or structures kind of like leanters in any case, on three sides. One of these was a mud-room, one a roost for chickens, one, with large windows and some glass panels in the ceiling, a room for the flowers and cacti that Dr Compton liked. There were two floors, the second of which overhung the first rather than being entirely separated, a bit like a mezzanine with rooms set off of it, so that standing between the old-style kitchen range and the woodstove if one looked up one could see all the way up to the rafters thirty or forty feet above.
Of late it seemed that Dr Charles Forrester Compton had accrued a wife and twin young daughters. The former, yclept Barbara, née Allen, was a Vermont Yankee of the oldest stock, a bit far culturally but close in personality to her Georgia gentleman of a husband. She was out in the fields of herbs and flowers, collecting autumn bittersweet for an eventual Christmas wreath. The daughters were sleeping—sound asleep, after a morning of toddling around being three-year-olds.
‘Can I get you anything?’ Dr Compton asked. ‘Like tea, coffee…’
‘Some coffee would be good,’ said Flora.
‘Just milk for me,’ said Isabel. ‘I am trying to get up a good amount of calcium so that an incipient health problem that my physician says might be a cause for worry does not end up happening.’
‘All right,’ said Dr Compton. He put on a pot of coffee for himself and Flora and poured Isabel a tall glass of milk from a big glass bottle with foil curled over the mouth. He set it out in front of her and she straightway drank down two or three mouthfuls in two gulps. She set it down and wiped her lips with a striped cloth napkin.
‘So,’ said Dr Compton, ‘what exactly did you want my opinion about?’
‘Children,’ said Flora.
‘What about children?’
‘The feasibility,’ said Flora, ‘of me and Isabel having some.—That is to say, I know it’s possible, but a question of what would need to be done.’
Dr Compton went over to the coffee pot, picked it up, regarded it, and sighed. ‘Honestly,’ he said, ‘probably a lot would have to be.’
‘We know,’ said Isabel. ‘The question is if the burden would be tolerable, not if there would be a burden. We are perfectly aware of the realities of the situation. But we’re not ‘in’ medicine or family care.’
‘Neither am I,’ said Compton.
‘You’re a psychologist,’ said Flora.
‘That isn’t medicine,’ said Compton. ‘And you know that.’
‘What?—Ah, yes.’ Flora frowned. ‘So what, then? Is a child too wild an idea to work for us?’
‘Well,’ said Compton, ‘no.’ He poured two cups of coffee and brought them over and sat down at the kitchen range with them. Outside, somewhere off in the hills, there was the too-clean crack of a gunshot. Flora flinched; Isabel instinctively reached out to clasp her shoulder. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ Compton said, the picture of country blaséness. ‘Undoubtedly it’s a just a hunter of some description.’
‘It didn’t even surprise you a bit?’ Isabel asked.
‘Not particularly. I’ve lived here for a few years now; my wife is out pulling up thorny brambles from the ground with her bare hands just because they are pretty colours—yes. Are you jealous?’ He grinned.
‘Not particularly,’ said Isabel, clutching Flora ever the tighter.
‘Good,’ said Flora and Compton at the same time, for different reasons.
‘Anyway,’ said Compton. ‘That…my wife grew up on a farm up near Smugglers Notch—and I’m a farm boy too. So hunters aren’t very surprising to me.’
‘We never really did ask what part of Georgia you were from, did we?’ asked Isabel. And they had not. Getting to know Charles Compton had been a slow process over the past seven years, but a rewarding one, on both sides. Compton seemed to really like Flora and Isabel a lot and would always stick his hand out for them or his neck out for them, as asked or required. What he was getting out of this was unclear. Perhaps, simply, to him it—they—meant friends.
‘I’m from Rebecca, Georgia, in Turner County,’ he said. ‘It’s halfway between Macon and Valdosta, in kind of the south-central part of the state. Can we talk about this children thing again?’
Flora nodded. ‘Please,’ she said.
Compton sighed. ‘The easiest way to have a child is to get pregnant,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Isabel. ‘We know that. We also know that that is not going to happen between us.’
Compton frowned and looked down into his coffee cup. The dark liquid just barely reflected a tiny bit of the light off his face. ‘Isabel…’ he said, and ‘Flora…’ he said—‘When I’ve advised other couples in your situation—which I have, twice, since that thing in New York last year—I’ve told them that the typical, or…I don’t know if anything along these lines happens enough to be considered ‘typical’, but the most obvious route to go down here is to decide who wants to carry a child—or dislikes the idea less, as the case might be.’
Isabel raised her hand. ‘I’d be willing,’ she said.
Flora raised her hand. ‘So would I,’ she said. ‘Well, that is not a problem, then. But even so.’
‘There is also the question,’ said Compton, ‘of where the sperm comes from.’
Flora blanched. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Sperm. That.’ Isabel could have been said to have been blanching also but given how pale her complexion was anyway the actual apparent difference was minimal.
‘You could find a sympathetic man to have intercourse with,’ said Compton, ‘or a sympathetic man to donate sperm in a baster or something. Either way,’ he said, sipping his coffee and trying his best to go on despite the disturbed expressions on his friends’ faces, ‘you would need to find a sympathetic man.’
‘Er…’ said Flora.
‘It cannot be me,’ said Compton. ‘That’d violate professional ethics, and besides, I don’t want to.’
Isabel swallowed nothing hard. She ran her thumb awkwardly along the rim of her glass. Compton frowned. Had he upset them by…? No. They understood the reasons why he’d object to doing something like that himself. That didn’t seem to be the problem here.
‘Not wanting to do these things with a man is entirely understandable…’ began Compton.
‘The ‘man’ isn’t the chief problem,’ said Flora. ‘The ‘not the lady sitting next to me’ is the chief problem.’
Isabel nodded firmly and, stiffly, took the glass of milk up to her lips once again.
Well, then, that certainly made sense. Compton nodded. ‘I am sorry for not realising that,’ he said.
‘No, you’re fine,’ said Isabel. ‘For people who might be more…outcome-oriented in their thinking than we are, it would be fine advice.’
‘But outcomes aren’t as important as coming out as we are,’ said Flora. Isabel nodded. ‘Isabel, may I have a bit of your milk?’
‘What for?’ asked Isabel dully. She was not offended by the fact that Dr Compton had considered that, of all things, acceptable advice to give them, but she was a little saddened that it really looked like it would indeed come to that or nothing. So it went sometimes, she supposed.
‘Well, to put in the coffee, silly!’ Flora said. Being a little cross with Dr Compton for his implying, she was in a better mood than Isabel—it was easier for her to deal with her feelings within her mind. Her main concern was that this was a moment at which she did not understand quite was Isabel was thinking and feeling. She hated those moments.
Isabel, splashing just a bit of her milk into Flora’s coffee, did not quite understand herself, truth be told. Their happy little life had led them into an unexpected and of course unwanted potentiality of inelegance. It bore not thinking about too much. She did not really know, in her heart, just quite how she was to handle all of this.
Nothing would happen, but in thoughts…
She laid her head down on the kitchen range, and Charles Compton’s eyebrows shot up in concern. Flora reached out to embrace Isabel with one arm.
‘I will…’ Isabel rasped ‘…never be a mother…and it’s for you, Flora. I love you so much—!’
‘It’s all right,’ Flora said. ‘It’s all right.’
Dr Compton felt bowed and alone and worthless. Clara and Jeanne were sleeping incredibly soundly upstairs. Barbara had gone on, it seemed, from gathering bittersweet to outright cutting brush. He was, in this situation, on his own, and felt utterly without use. He stood up. He felt dazed. Why was he here, with these two women in love and crying on and for each other? He was just bad.
‘Dr Compton,’ said Flora. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m going to check on my wife,’ he lied.
‘Is she really in that much danger,’ Isabel muttered muffled into her arms folded on the counter, ‘clearing brush in a way she has all her life, that you have to run off like this?’
‘Do—’ breathed Compton. ‘Wait. Do you actually want me here…?’
‘What?’ said Isabel.
‘Of course we want you here, Dr Compton!’ Flora snapped. ‘Why on Earth would you think that we don’t?’ Compton raised his eyebrows and moved to sit down again. Isabel looked up, and Flora stood up, and Compton cast his eyes downward.
‘We’re taking this as fine as we possibly can,’ Flora said, ‘though I wouldn’t use the word ‘happy’ to describe our attitude towards the reality of what we’d clearly have to do. We’re not happy, because it’s something we can’t psychologically handle, so we can’t do it, but that itself is something we can handle. Easily. It’s you right now who needs to take it easy.’
‘I…suggested something horrible to you,’ Compton said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘No,’ said Isabel. ‘There are plenty of people with more utilitarian or consequence-based outlooks on life who would have been more than happy to take that advice and find the least objectionable willing male and just do it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the advice that you gave.’
‘But it was wrong advice for you two.’
‘That it was. I am crying and Flora is not even cracking jokes.’
‘And you don’t resent…’
‘You? Of course not.’
Flora sighed. ‘Dr Compton,’ she said, ‘somehow I get the distinct feeling that these…concerns of yours have been a long time brewing. Is this true?’
‘For some years now,’ Compton said, staring once again into his coffee cup, ‘I’ve been thinking to myself that I’m so glad to know you two, but that I have no real value because of how…because of how God-damn sufficient for each other’s happiness the two of you are!’ He hung his head. Flora and Isabel reached out. ‘It’s so…you don’t need…’
‘Stop whining,’ Isabel snapped. ‘Dr Compton, you are being absurd.’ She stood up and walked around to him and threw her arms around him from behind. He yelped in surprise. ‘We do appreciate you,’ said Isabel. ‘We do need you.’
‘We might be sufficient for each other but that’s not very efficient in a culture like this,’ Flora said.
‘Right,’ Compton said flatly.
‘What’s come over you, Charles Compton?’ asked Isabel. She let go of him and walked over through the kitchen to the refrigerator. She got out a tin pitcher full of water and brought it back over to her lover and their friend. ‘If we didn’t care about you, would we have helped you sort out your legal issues and become a ‘proper’ psychologist once again? Would we have given you money to make this old barn liveable?’
‘These things aren’t simple gratitude,’ said Flora. ‘We care. We’ve shown you that latitude because your attitude when you met us really surprised us and amazed us. Thank you so very much. We’ve not said that nearly enough.’
‘I might have to break your kneecaps if you bastards touch my Testarossa, though,’ said Isabel.
‘Why…why would I touch your car?’ Compton asked. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Levity,’ she said. ‘I suppose it failed?’
‘But dear,’ Flora said. ‘You don’t drive an Italian car. It’s a Porsche Carrera.’
‘Porsches are Italian,’ said Compton.
‘No they’re not,’ said Isabel, ‘they’re German, and you drive a ’48 Buick.’
‘You know what kind of car I want?’ Flora asked. ‘A Hindustan Ambassador. It’s an Indian car that was a licenced copy of the Oxford Morris. Seats eight, classic wood-and-leather seats, thirty miles on the gallon, and you can fix it by hitting it with a hammer.’ She grinned. ‘I think it’s illegal to import to this country unmodified.’
‘I…I see,’ Dr Compton said. ‘So, Isabel.’
‘Why did you say you drove a car different to the one you do?’
‘Because it sounded cool.’
‘Can we get off the subject of cars now? I don’t understand why we are discussing this.’
‘It took your mind off of thinking yourself unworthy and berating your lot in life, did it not?’ Flora asked. ‘I should think that that would mean a lot.’
‘It does,’ said Dr Compton. ‘But now I’d like to discuss what we are going to do for dinner and in the evening.’
‘Well, it’s twenty to four now,’ Isabel said. ‘Dinner in about two and a half hours? Does that sound good?’
‘Right,’ said Dr Compton. ‘That sounds very good. Until then would you like to see the farm?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ said Isabel.
‘By all means,’ said Flora.
‘All right,’ said Dr Compton. ‘Let me wake the girls up so they won’t be alone in the house.’
Dr Compton’s acreage sloped down to the west to a wooded creek valley. A lot of the ground was covered in mats of autumn bittersweet, that peculiar ground-level brush with its wickedly brambly woody vines and berries the colour of mountain sunset that so chokes the New England hills in the waning days of the year. His wife was out there with a huge basket full of the stuff to make an early Christmas wreath out of, and with a hacksaw she was clearing other sorts of bushes from around the beds of herbs and flowers. Around their feet some chickens were clucking. In about an hour or so Barbara would probably bring them into their coop in one of the house’s leanters. It was getting cold at night; the outdoor coop might even now let them catch their death of cold.
‘Hello, Barbara!’ Flora said with a cheery wave.
‘Hello, Flora, Isabel,’ Barbara replied, a little distractedly. They walked up to her and saw that, having set her saw down, she was picking through the basket of bittersweet, looking for—something. ‘Sorry, I’m…trying to pick out the Celastus orbiculatus from the Celastus scandens,’ she said.
‘Eh?’ said Flora.
‘They look similar. But scandens is a good old native vine and orbiculatus is damaging and was introduced from Japan in the 1870s.’
‘All right, then,’ said Flora. ‘I suppose you could say that the scandens is a sweet old plant and the orbiculatus a bitter-type old codger.’
Barbara said nothing, and then, after almost half a minute, ‘You could say that. Yes. The question isn’t could but should.’ She frowned but the frown was obviously a ‘proper’ affectation and soon turned into a grin. She threw herself, undignified, at Flora and Isabel, clamped an arm around each of them, and said ‘I haven’t seen you in so long!’
‘Almost a year,’ said Isabel. ‘Yes.’
At this point a loud crash came from the house and Clara Compton’s voice cried out ‘Daddy-y! Jeanne fell on that sheet’a tin!’
‘Oh…’ murmured Charles Compton, and ran off at the sound of crying.
‘Shouldn’t you be going with him?’ Isabel asked.
‘Charles’ said Barbara, ‘is very much the ‘standard’, for us, in being the person who tends to them when these things happen. He has his growing things and I have mine. Of course—’ She held up a bundle of vines, the scandens, the sweet ones, and continued ‘—just like he loves the bittersweet, I do love my daughters.’
‘Oh, naturally,’ said Flora.
‘Yet,’ said Barbara, ‘I tuck them in…I read to them…I provide parts of their meals by tending to these gardens and going to the general stores and farmers’ markets while Charles is at his little office in Springfield.’
‘But he tends to them when they are hurt,’ said Isabel.
‘And picks up fertiliser for the plants, which I then tend to mostly on my own—though we both handle the chickens,’ Barbara said.
‘I think you’re stretching this metaphor, this comparison, rather far,’ said Isabel with a grin.
‘I think I am.’ Barbara grinned back.
‘It’s good that you are happy together, though,’ Flora said. ‘My mom and pappy have a pretty good marriage too.’
‘Your parents are still alive?’ Barbara asked.
‘Yes,’ said Flora, a little peeved that Barbara, whom she honestly did not know particularly well, was asking such a question. ‘They are. Dad is seventy-eight; mom, seventy-five. They’re very much in love as well. It is almost a bit Harlequin.’
Ah, yes. Barbara Allen had spent her teenage years and early twenties a lady of action. The old tropes and clichés of trashy romance novels, and indeed the names of the publishing houses notorious for producing such, had not been in her wheelhouse in a youth spend fly-fishing and boating on the Mad River. Barbara Allen-Compton could ski downhill or cross-country, and could also shoot a gun pretty good. She knew baseball and some football stuff, though she didn’t do these things as much. And of course there was all the farm labour that she voluntarily did with relatively little help. It made Flora feel a little bit like that Paul Verlaine poem Langueur. ‘I am the empire where decadence ends…’
But no. It was not like that. Her identity was defined mainly in terms of her love for Isabel, as Isabel’s was in terms of her love for her. This sort of reciprocity of self-image and self-belief was not ‘decadent’; not in the slightest. This being-in-a-real-world-in-each-other was the very opposite of decadence. It was not quite a full-throated repudiation of gilded comfort in the way that Barbara’s life was—they still lived, externally, some of that comfort at least—but it was emotionally and spiritually vastly different: far more strenuous and far more rewarding. It was the equivalent in mind and soul of Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘strenuous life’ of the body, loving someone so much and so much contra the prevailing measures of social good.
Charles and Barbara were lovely together and Flora and Isabel together shone, blazing over the ramparts of culture and creed like the morning and the evening star. From Beacon Hill their commands of love bound their own selves in Heavenly being and here on Earth; through Boston and out across the world in tendrils the effects of their love reverberated, by the Port whose operations one of the lovers helped write up and catalogue, by the printers’ floors whose operations the other lover oversaw, and in myriad other ways too small for human notice but certainly well within the eyeline of the love that was itself the nature of eternity.
Now Barbara Allen-Compton was singing. ‘Carl Yastrzemski, Carl Yastrzemski, Carl Yastrzemski, he’s the man we call ‘Yaz’! We love him…’
Oh, the Red Sox, the Red Sox! So close, just three years ago, to winning it all. But not for over fifty years now. It was a bit saddening, really. It was the only really, really inopportune thing about living in New England in these times that was not true of the rest of the country equally or more so.
It was ‘hard times’, so they were saying. There were things to be sad about both for the country and for them themselves, of course. People were dying in Indochina and in protests about Indochina, and it looked dismally unlikely that Flora and Isabel would ever be parents. So it went, but even so—it felt a little unfair. Probably there were reasons for it, probably rather stupid ones. Sad to say, it really would not have been plausible, given their images and personae, for either of them to have been born a man, even had it been possible. It was also not, perhaps, even desirable. They were who they were; loved each other because of that, even.
‘In Beacon Hill he gives them quite a thrill…’
Carl Yastrzemski really was an incredibly good baseball player.
They stayed the night there at the farm between Bellows Falls and Saxton’s River. Clara and Jeanne Compton were darling. It made Flora and Isabel both a little bit sad and a little bit happy to be around them at this time. The next morning, Sunday, they went perfunctorily to a little Congregationalist church—closer to Isabel’s idea of a good time than Flora’s but not by particularly much—and then went back to Boston on the next down train.
Sunday was colder than Saturday and considerably cloudier. It was under greyness and with grey-greenness mostly around that they came back to the bayberry-scented land again.
‘So it was a long time coming,’ David Lenihan said. ‘By the time you got custody of Charlie, who were you ‘out’ to?’
‘Most close family and friends,’ Flora said. ‘There was a particularly fun time when I told my oldest sister. Dottie is eighteen years older than me and quite traditional in many regards, so I feared that sis would hiss.’
‘That was small-time,’ said David. ‘Did she?’
‘Not really, no,’ Isabel said. ‘Really, the only problems with families were in mine. My little sisters, Jane and Grace…and my parents, obviously.’
‘Anyway, though,’ David prompted. ‘This thing with Dorothy or whoever was interesting?’
‘Yes,’ said Flora. ‘It was…’
The Fields of Lammas
They were in the middle of the tired years, with Kevin White still Mayor of Boston. Flora and Isabel were enjoying their summer so far. It was the first of August, a Friday, and very hot.
‘It’s frying to-day,’ Flora observed as they got into her new, modified-for-US-roads Hindustan Ambassador, a gift from a friend of hers who had done work in India with the State Department.
‘Yes,’ said Isabel. ‘It is a shame we have to drive so far in this heat.’
Flora sighed. ‘I cannot help it,’ she said, ‘that my sister lives all the way out past the Quabbin.’
‘I never said that you could.’
‘Right,’ said Flora, turning the keys in the keyhole. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you, too,’ Isabel shot back. She buckled her seatbelt—seatbelts were necessary for American roads—and shut her door and they were off. The Ambassador, a relatively big car, had a little difficulty in Beacon Hill but by the time they were on the long straight boulevards of Back Bay it was fine.
Dorothy and Egbert Vernon and their family lived in Hadley, a town in central Hampshire County along the Connecticut River. Hadley was geographically long and narrow, and it was sparsely populated; South Hadley, which was a separate municipality, actually had several times more people, as did Amherst to the east and Northampton across the river. Hadley was still mostly farms—old-style, pre-enclosure farming, even. It was in what would be the floodplain of the Connecticut if the Connecticut were liable to flood; it had no hills.
There were many hills between, however, and for the first time in the six months that she had had it Flora got a real sense for how the Ambassador handled rough terrain as she had decided to take back roads across Worcester County. It had been mostly Isabel who had driven in their previous excursions this summer, most of which had been to Cape Cod or other parts of the coastline rather than the rugged interior of the Commonwealth anyway.
To-day what they were learning was that Flora’s new car, while not perhaps as ‘nice’ conventionally speaking as Isabel’s Porsche, was considerably more awesome. It had taken a lot of modifications for Isabel’s superiors in the US Customs Service and Massachusetts Port Authority to allow a Hindustan Ambassador into the country—at least for purposes of actually driving on American roads—but the basics that had made the thing appeal to Flora were still there. The car was both genuinely good, as in it held up well and could be fixed by percussive maintenance if anything went wrong, not to mention its high gas mileage and roomy interior, and had significant comedy value due to its unusual appearance and provenance. The interior smelled good: Flora had taken to keeping bayberry-wax candles in the glove box and under a couple of the seats, not to burn but simply to scent in this way.
‘So how do you expect this to go?’ Isabel asked.
‘Expect?’ asked Flora. ‘I have few if any expectations. Remember, we’re visiting overnight. If possible I’d like to talk with Dottie about this to-morrow rather than to-day. Less pressure. More treasure.’
‘Treasure?’ asked Isabel.
‘Agricultural goods are treasure,’ said Flora, ‘and later this afternoon we were going to go to a farmers’ market, weren’t we?’
‘Ah, yes,’ Isabel said. ‘But…might it not also be better to get it off our chests to-day?’
‘Well, I’m not so sure about that,’ Flora replied, heaving the steering wheel to the left to avoid a pothole in the old grey-worn asphalt.
‘It would be more pleasant to be able to rest easy.’
‘Less pleasure! More treasure!’
‘What is it with you and this ‘call to agriculture’ thing all of a sudden?’ Isabel asked. ‘You’ve always preferred wharfs and fishing boats to fields and ploughs, haven’t you? And yet now, with your sister…’
‘It is because I love my sis, after all,’ Flora replied. ‘I miss my sis also. To live near my sis is an idea I’d kiss if ideas could be kissed as much as sises are missed.’
‘Are you a kid?’ Isabel demanded, trying to snap it but failing as she was in fact laughing.
‘Mind acting it?’
‘If I acted it you’d not love me as much. Would you?’
‘Likely not,’ Isabel admitted, ‘since in that case Flora Greenleaf would not be Flora Greenleaf. And if Isabel Crowninshield does not love Flora Greenleaf as much she is not Isabel Crowninshield either.’
‘So I will not change,’ Flora said, ‘so that you can remain you also.’
‘So corny,’ said Isabel.
‘As well as cheesy,’ said Flora. ‘Right. But there isn’t anything wrong with that, is there?—We just have to keep in mind that my sister will if nothing else at least take this a bit more seriously than we are inclined to.’
‘Implying we are not serious about each other?’
‘Implying we can be cheesy and corny and make ridiculous puns,’ Flora said, displaying more self-awareness than Isabel had seen her display in really quite a long time. ‘Implying Dorothy is not so much older than me that she is only a few years younger than your father.’ She frowned. ‘…Implying I am not about to hit a beech tree if I do not turn the steering wheel and quickly.’ She then, thankfully, did this.
Worcester County was geographically the largest county in Massachusetts, as well as that which contained its central location, at the Central Tree on Central Tree Road in the town of Rutland, a bit north-west of the city of Worcester and south-west of the great twin towns Leominster and Fitchburg. The country spread out from the New Hampshire border to the Rhode Island, the only county into the state to do so save for Berkshire County from Vermont to Connecticut, which was simply Massachusetts’s rugged westernmost tier of towns and hills.
‘I like this area,’ said Isabel.
‘I don’t,’ said Flora.
Flora sighed. ‘Because it’s hilly and often chilly,’ she said, ‘which isn’t bad itself, but it’s not got the same sort of culture, agri- or otherwise, that you’d find further west. Central Massachusetts has always struck me, you see, as a bit of an odd place, on a few levels.’
‘I’m afraid I do not quite see.’
‘Well, it’s centred on Worcester, isn’t it? So when we have whooshed to Hadley, what else have we left behind, other than that? Its own suburbs, and some outer suburbs of Boston, and…’
‘Leominster?’ said Isabel. ‘Fitchburg? All of the hills up near New Hampshire? Flora, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and all those sorts of people lived in Concord which is in Worcester County.’
‘No, Concord is in Middlesex County.’
Isabel thought for a while and then said ‘Is it?—Ah, yes.’
It occurred to Isabel that Flora, who really bore no more ill will for Worcester County than she did for any other place that was not her and Isabel’s home in Beacon Hill, was probably pursuing this (bizarre even by her standards) line of conversation as a way to alleviate anxiety about her sister that she was having a difficult time admitting that she in fact had. This was of course completely understandable. Flora had a history of behaving like this in these sorts of situations that went back about ten years, to a series of questionable interactions with superiors—they had both at the time been relatively low in the hierarchies of their callings despite or perhaps because of their high birth—spread out over a period of several months in 1965 and 1966.
‘I’m sorry,’ Flora said. ‘I know that I am not necessarily giving you an optimal good time right now.—I mean, I can think of several ways that I could do so. None of them are easy or safe to do in a car, probably. An optical good time is another question,’ she added with a smile. ‘Some of the scenery on this drive is lovely.’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel. ‘I particularly love the part between Worcester and the Quabbin, actually. There is not much there, so it can be simply pretty.’
‘A bit like an initial state of a human mind that lives at leisure,’ Flora said. ‘Leisure and pleasure. The words rhyme for a reason.’
‘They don’t in most American accents.’
‘But they do in ours,’ said Flora. ‘I do not actually particularly trust either of them, conceptually, you know.’ She hung a left on to another road. ‘D’you know what I mean?’
‘Not…particularly,’ Isabel confessed. ‘Are you referring to decadence?’
‘You could call it that. All right as a feature of a more diverse life but not the end of anything, I should hope.’
‘Well, no,’ said Isabel. ‘If we were entirely decadent we would not be nearly so concerned over what your sister thinks or might think, after all.’
‘That is so,’ said Flora. She turned on to a road of delicately yet deeply green maples. ‘Yet if we were not decadent at all we might be more willing to cut ties with our families if the situation got too awful.’
‘I don’t think that will become necessary, to be honest,’ said Isabel.
‘Well, no. If nothing else, the Thais who run that restaurant we all sometimes go to would remain.’
‘Flora, the Phongsas are Laotian. They came here a few years ago because Nixon had their village bombed into oblivion. I really do not think it is a situation amenable to being made into puns.’
‘You are saying that there are any situations not amenable to being made into puns,’ Flora said. ‘I find this concept troublesome.’
‘Flora,’ said Isabel, ‘are you by any chance pursuing this line of conversation because you do not want to talk or think about how we are going to handle our concerns about your sister?’ Flora drew her lips tight into a thin line and said nothing. Isabel pressed on. ‘This surprises me, Flora. I actually think it might surprise me in a good way.’ The closest that Flora and Isabel had ever come to breaking up—not really very close but enough to scare them silly for a few days—had been seven years ago and involved a vaguely similar situation, in which the pretty open-minded then-Director of US Customs at the Port of Boston, a stringy and querulous-seeming but fundamentally kind man named Anthony Holt Sedgefield, had one day after work asked Isabel a casual question about her personal life that Flora, present on that particular evening, had answered honestly. This had horrified Isabel, even though it had been all right because Sedgefield had not understood what Flora was getting at, so the fact that Flora was now the one who was so nervous about the prospect of being open about this that she could not even bring herself to talk about it was strangely gratifying to Isabel in a way.
On the other hand it was also upsetting to Isabel, because Flora was clearly upset and Isabel loved Flora. ‘It surprises me,’ Isabel said therefore, ‘in a bad way, too, though, because I don’t really think it’s good for you to be thinking and feeling like this. That is why I want to have this conversation as soon after we get there as we can.’
‘I’m sorry I made that pun about Indochina,’ Flora said with a sigh.
Isabel rolled, then fixed and narrowed, her eyes. ‘That is not the point,’ she said. ‘Would you like me to talk to your sister, Flora?’
‘You know,’ Flora said softly, ‘your reaction after that incident concerning Anthony H. Sedgefield, back in that time…that really frightened me.’ Isabel nodded. Flora fell silent for a moment and then blurted out ‘I feared you would leave me.’
Isabel took a deep breath and then rested her head on Flora’s shoulder, her black tresses folding into a pillow beneath her face. Her blazing blue eyes gazed up into Flora’s of glinting gold. ‘What are the chances of that happening?’ she asked.
‘What are the chances, you silly woman,’ said Isabel, ‘of me ever, ever leaving you? I have woken up beside you every day for the past twelve years—even when my schedule should not have admitted of it, I forced the schedule to change rather than force myself to not look upon your face as your eyes opened even once.’
‘And I have made your tea every day for even longer,’ said Flora, ‘over even the protestations of the dour a-théists who would rather you drink coffee just because it’s easier to make out of fake crystals. Such people should have real pistols emptied into them! So, if you’re not going to leave me I’m certainly not going to leave you.’
‘And I’m not going to leave you.’
‘Good. Then that is settled,’ said Flora.
They came to Hadley at about two in the afternoon and Flora became very nervous again. They went out into a field behind the house that Dorothy and Egbert lived in—it blazed green and golden with summer grasses in the afternoon light. There were tomato and lettuce patches and, over a whitewashed post-and-rail fence, a pasture with cows contentedly, or one might say obliviously, grazing.
It turned out, Dottie explained in her garrulous manner whilst showing them around these fields, that she and Egbert had misinterpreted some aspect or another of their title to the property when they had bought it. This had not become a problem until a few years ago, at which point fortunately all but one of their five children had moved out and that child, the youngest, Rebecca, was getting ready for her freshman year at Smith College. The unfortunate aspect of the situation was that—well—even then, with Young Egbert, Randolph II, Amity, and Young Dorothy out in the world—they had owned, or ‘owned’, the house for thirty-eight years, almost as long as Flora and Isabel had even been alive. They, cutting it simply, had a lot of stuff in there.
So the people who claimed to actually own the property brought in this girl of twenty-four who had just graduated as one of the few women in her class from Harvard Business School. Jessica Gardiner Dana was a cousin once removed of Bella Gardiner Lacey’s on their respective mothers’ sides, and as such related by marriage to the Greenleafs and through them distantly even to the Crowninshields. She had been born in the waning days of the Year of Our Lord 1950 in the town of Ware in the hills just south of the Quabbin and grown up in Ware and Belchertown and Pelham, so she was familiar with the area. The exact legal issue involved complex instruments involved in the initial sale in 1937, which meant that of the four floors of the house Dottie and Egbert only had a particularly strong claim to the fourth and part of the third. What this meant was that Jessica Dana was trying to get them to accept the status as, essentially, boarders in their own home.
‘Oh, she is a lovely girl,’ Dorothy said to Flora and Isabel, ‘and I should not be too disinclined to do as she says, and live in the building with her to boot, if it comes to it—if it comes to her claim being as unassailable as the lawyers make it out to be.’
‘I still don’t understand how this happened,’ Isabel said, her eyes flashing and lips working keenly as she turned over laws and deconstructed contracts in her head to no avail.
‘Neither do I, neither do I,’ Dorothy admitted, manoeuvring around a gate and over a stile.
‘Dottie,’ said Flora, ‘a two-part question, sister to sister.’ Dorothy turned with her lips and brows turned up in curiosity. ‘First, what if she is a con man trying to swindle you? What then? Second,’ she blurted out much more quickly, ‘what would you say if I told you that I was in a relationship with Isabel and had been for seventeen years?’
Isabel’s face went right into her hand. Dorothy sighed and smacked her lips and said ‘First part, I have reason to believe that that is not the case based upon some of the documents I have seen. Second part, I have found that obvious for a decade and did not say anything only because I thought it would be impolite since you had not.’
‘Eh?’ Isabel said. ‘So…’
Dorothy frowned at the untowardly surprised look on Isabel’s face. ‘I am nearly sixty, Miss Crowninshield, and have long since given up on trying to fully understand the way people’s hearts sometimes work. I am just happy that my baby sister is not alone. That’s the worst thing.’
They went back to the house. Egbert of course was there. Egbert Vernon was a man with a voice that sounded, to Flora’s mind, which was possessed of a sort of synaesthetic sensibility unrelated to actual brain structures and bound up more in cultural associations filtered through and expressed in a poetic bent, like white plums.
‘We’ve a call from one of the lawyers,’ Egbert Vernon said.
‘Ah,’ said Dorothy. She turned to Flora, who was smiling with relief, and Isabel, who was offering prayers of thanksgiving to omnibenevolent God for their—to her—not-quite-expected security and salvation. ‘Well, girls, I’m afraid I shall have to go deal with this. Please, make yourselves comfortable.’
‘All right,’ said Isabel. ‘Thank you very much.’
Dorothy and Egbert went upstairs, and Flora and Isabel sat down in a room that, while very nice, gave them a slight but acutely-felt sense of discomfort because of the fact that it was on the first floor and thus one of the parts of the house that these people were wrangling over.
‘I really have no idea how property laws could possibly work this way,’ Flora said conversationally. ‘I don’t think it’s proper.’
‘Me either,’ said Isabel ungrammatically. She yawned and pulled out a copy of some new paperback.
‘Is that good?’ asked Flora.
‘Not particularly,’ Isabel replied, ‘but it’s something. I am reading it in situations where I have not got much else—or in this case, when I am not up for much else.’
So they sat and rested. Flora, who had more acute hearing and eyesight to make up for Isabel’s superior taste, touch, smell, and common sense, heard some distinctly tense conversation going on upstairs but could not make out the words.
‘I am not fond of these main characters at all,’ Isabel said with a dry laugh.
From upstairs, there came a loud sigh. Then somebody whacked something. Flora, and now Isabel also, cocked their heads up in mildly interested surprise. The mild interest turned to high, and highly negative, interest when Egbert could be clearly heard by all and sundry yelling ‘It isn’t…why the Hell didn’t you tell me before we had them?!’
‘Oh God,’ Isabel said sharply.
‘What is it?’ Flora asked.
Flora went around to the bottom of the stairs. Up above she heard her sister hurriedly whispering something, her voice more hushed than Flora could remember hearing it for a long time. Not even Flora with her keen ears could make out what was being said. Then Egbert replied and his voice was even lower.
This was not helping, and a sick feeling was rearing up within Flora’s breast.
‘I wish,’ Flora called back softly to Isabel, ‘that my ears were not so accustomed to such corny speech. It would be better if, seriously, softly…if I had experience in things like this.’
‘Does it sound bad?’ Isabel asked.
‘It sounds right now like Dottie’s almost interrogating Egbert about something,’ said Flora. ‘Almost as if they’re having a hearing.’ She paused, and frowned. The sounds had reversed their flux and flow and her heart felt as if it were squirming within her like a sick little bird. ‘Apparently now Dottie’s in the dock.’
‘What are they…?’
Flora shook her head, but as she was shaking it, as the anatomy of her ears clicked and whirred and passed to and fro in twisted motion beneath the sharklike gullet of the suddenly obscene-seeming staircase, she distinctly heard the words from Dorothy’s mouth ‘My sister and her—’.
‘They’re talking about us,’ Flora whispered.
Isabel sighed and put her head in her hands and her hands between her knees. ‘Oh, for the love of God,’ she said. ‘Why did this come up? How did this come up?’
‘Well, I don’t know!’ Flora snapped, running back away from the stairs to where Isabel was sitting. ‘I don’t know how they…’
‘I feel ill,’ Isabel said.
‘So do I,’ Flora said, and then heard something else, something that saddened her and horrified her and made her world come down about her ears whenever she heard it. Isabel was crying. ‘I’m sure it’s not that bad…’
‘Hug me,’ said Isabel.
‘I said hug me.’
Flora went and put her arms around Isabel and buried her face in Isabel’s shoulder. Isabel clutched at Flora’s back and heaved a sob into her cheek. It was all—they did not know, either of them, why they felt like this. They understood the problem but the problem shouldn’t make them feel this way.
Their dreams about their life had vanished into a fevered nightmare about intolerance. Their knowledge that Egbert was a reasonable man and could be made to see the light eventually, knowledge that was to say confidence based on his prior experiences with Irish, Jews, negroes, and poor people, disappeared in the flow of this desperate sense of the current problem. Egbert was upset with some aspect of the situation and the shock of two women was the probable immediate cause. Whether this was, perhaps, simply surprising, with his anger issuing from Dorothy’s not confiding any of this in him before, remained to be seen.
The idea was hopeful, both in that it was to be hoped and in that the thought itself gave hope for other things, and thankfully it was not too doubtful.
‘Proper it’s happening in August,’ said Flora, ‘because if this goes well…it might end up vindicating and exalting us after all.’
‘Mmm,’ said Isabel through her tears. ‘Is that a pun in Latin?’
Flora nodded into her shoulder. ‘I tried,’ she said.
‘You spill the bounds even of your mother tongue now, do you, in your fathomless enthusiasm?’
‘Naturally,’ said Flora, ‘I try to make waiting perhaps a bit less grating upon us.’ It was astounding how naturally she could switch back and forth between complex multilingual puns and simplistic rhymes. Isabel loved her so, so much. They held each other more tightly there.
‘Remember Tim Bradley, that boy we befriended?’ Isabel asked.
‘Yes,’ said Flora.
‘It’s a real shame,’ said Isabel, ‘what happened to him at that bar. It was before the thing in New York, so…’
Flora nodded. ‘Yes. He should be out by now but—but it really arrested his development as a person.’
Isabel shifted her arms down around Flora’s waist and said ‘You’re absolutely terrible.’
By and by Dorothy and Egbert came down, both still fuming a bit at the seams.
‘I want to state first and foremost that this is nobody’s fault,’ Egbert Vernon said.
‘Oh?’ said Flora. ‘I’m glad. I was worried that you would vault over that into, well—’ She scratched around the back of her head down to the nape of her neck. ‘—Shouting, really.’
‘What is there to shout about?’
‘Us,’ said Isabel, flat and honest as always.
‘This is not something I am comfortable with,’ Egbert said. ‘Please do not talk about it.’ He left the room as brusquely as he had come in. Flora and Isabel stood in shock.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Dorothy said. ‘I intend to make him see as much as I can, so please try to trust me.’
‘I…’ said Isabel.
‘Thank you, Dottie,’ said Flora. ‘You’re a good sis, Miss.’
‘How the Hell can you be so flippant at a time like this?!’ Isabel shouted hysterically. She threw herself at Flora, wrapping her arms around her shoulders with such force as nearly to drag her to the floor.
‘Isabel…’ said Flora, and reached up and stroked her face and hugged her back. ‘This is harder than it has to be, I know. Let’s go out in the fields again; dirt’s softer than wood.’
‘When you are stressed, Flora,’ Dorothy observed, ‘your little quips have a tendency to become a bit…off.’
‘Yes, I know,’ said Flora, still standing entangled with her lover. ‘I apologise.’
Flora and Isabel shared the belief that before birth and after death people lived in some kind of happily grey area where consciousness and individual souls existed but were perhaps not very important. They did not think too much about the details of this but it was the general feeling that they both got, something between nirvana and the Chamber of Guf. So in this world, to deal with the pain incident in the—perhaps artificially?—increased relevance of the person as person, one was given three things: Humour, music, and love, each of which relied on the others. It was perhaps an idiosyncratic way of looking at life’s meaning but it had evolved organically from their view of their own experiences being alive and loving each other.
Right now humour was shaky, and even more absurd than usual. That left love and music. Love was always there between them but the radio wasn’t on, and it perhaps ought to be at a time like this.
Dorothy went to talk to Egbert and Isabel, faltering, hesitant, reached over for the radio and numbly turned the knobs and pressed the buttons until some Aerosmith came on.
‘You really like this sort of music, don’t you?’ Flora asked with a smile. ‘The sort of stuff you could whittle a knife out of. Let me tell you, I think it’s a bit of a racket. A rocket, if you will.’
‘They’re good Boston boys and they know how to play their instruments,’ Isabel said. ‘Frankly the alternatives seem to be a lot harsher and more irritating. I do not know what the people who run radio stations are thinking these days or why we can seldom get any of the sorts of things that we used to listen to any more outside of Boston.’
‘It’s because young people’s tastes change as new groups of what qualifies as ‘young people’ come to exist,’ Flora said. ‘So they’d like newer tongues singing their songs. It’s amusing, a little.’
Isabel nodded. ‘So do you mind this? Is it all right?’
‘It is fine,’ said Flora. ‘You’re fine. Some of this stuff catches on well enough. I hope Dorothy is…’
‘It will be fine, I think,’ said Isabel.
‘I think, absolutely, that it will be fine,’ said Isabel. ‘More than your sister or your brother-in-law or anyone, I think that there are the things in place for us to be all right together.’
‘But it’s still difficult,’ said Isabel. ‘I know it is upsetting when people do not or will not understand. It upsets me also.’
‘You had to deal with it with your father,’ said Flora.
‘I still have to deal with it with my father,’ said Isabel, ‘as well as a lot of the rest of my family. Estrangement is not pleasant. Make no mistake: I am estranged, even though we have one of my family’s old houses.’
‘Estranged because of me…’ Flora said softly.
‘Don’t say that!’ Isabel said. ‘It is not true by any stretch of the imagination. I cannot hold you ‘responsible’ for anything because I love you. It is to your credit that I have done these things.’
‘I’m glad,’ said Flora.
Isabel smiled. ‘Of course,’ she said.
In this single moment they really were happy. It would take Egbert a while to understand them if he ever did, and to-morrow they would have to go back home and prepare for another working week. But out in this house between the street and the fields, the house will all the drama and questioning surrounding it, things had suddenly become calm and quiet. It was Lammas, the middle of the summer months. All God’s creatures would dance in the sunlight.
But now, greater than gods or anything, was a love that worked, a love that made sense, a love that was practical in the world even of their work.
‘The work, I might point out,’ David Lenihan said, when after several hours of doing other things they finished this part of their story in the evening, ‘that sounds like it was badass.’
‘It was,’ said Isabel. ‘Certainly it was. To-morrow, let me tell you about when…’
The Working Day
They were in the middle of the autumnal years, when Thomas Menino had become Mayor of Boston. At the harbour, an axe came down on a crate labelled ‘sports memorabilia’, and some things that were distinctly not sports memorabilia came tumbling out. Isabel with her long hair, most of it silver but with some black still in it, stood regarding this and at the same time sweeping over the area a few times a minute with her blazing blue eyes and, not to put too fine a point on it, her handgun.
Something moved. Isabel’s backup bristled; she motioned for O’Malley, Bourke, and Kanjorski to be still for the moment.
She herself, however, had no intention of being still. Whatever was moving, she moved with it, keeping it in sight. ‘Get down!’ she shouted. ‘Get down, motherfucker!’
Stillness. She stepped forward over the huge bricks of compressed powder cocaine and the various paraphernalia not all of which she could name even now after decades doing this. In her left hand Isabel carried a silver-topped ironwood cane. Amazingly empowered customs agent or not, she was sixty years old and her hip was not what it had been.
‘Come here, Kanjorski, O’Malley,’ Isabel Crowninshield said.
The aging but not yet fading lady customs agent and the two young port cops stalked towards a stack of small crates full of canned goods behind which one of whoever this particular group of smugglers and malefactors were was hiding.
‘This is Isabel Crowninshield of the US Customs Service and the Massachusetts Port Authority,’ Isabel said. ‘Also Sergeants George Kanjorski and Jeff O’Malley of the Port of Boston Police Department. Come out with your hands up, please.’
The person stood up. He looked oddly like a California surfer for a person likely involved in drug smuggling. His skin was dark and his hair was light and up in odd spikes and curlicues. He was wearing a light v-necked sweater over a bright t-shirt and cargo pants. At his belt he had, and this was the really concerning and damning part as far as Isabel was concerned, an old Soviet pistol.
Isabel advanced, shaking a little. This was always a bit…worrying when it happened. It was so different to wrestling with paper clips dealing with normal manifests and normal customs declarations. Kanjorski and O’Malley advanced with her; O’Malley called Officer Bourke in from the side as well.
‘What is your name?’ Sergeant O’Malley asked.
‘Am I under arrest?’ the surfer-looking guy asked.
‘What is your name?’
‘Come on, come on,’ the guy said with a sneer. ‘I can handle it. Ain’t there a process here? I mean, let’s keep this real and…’
The guy reached down. Isabel sighed and tapped the concrete ground with her cane; Kanjorski leapt forward and grabbed his arms and pulled away his gun.
‘Resisting…’ Isabel sighed.
‘You’re under arrest,’ said Sergeant Kanjorski, ‘on suspicion of importation of illegal drugs into the United States and attempting to assault a US Customs Agent. You have the right to remain silent. Anything that you say may be use against you in a court of law. You have the r…’
The man broke Sergeant Kanjorski’s hold. This was surprising and alarming. George Kanjorski was trained in karate and boxing and was incredibly strong, so that if he wanted to hold one in one place one would be held in one place. He ran, and Isabel Crowninshield came after him with prodigious speed, much greater than most women of sixty though still not as fast as him. Fortunately, he was either out of shape or injured or both, because he misjudged what should have been an absolutely ordinary vault over a line of empty oil drums lying on their sides. He crashed into two of the drums and rolled with them over the concrete for a few yards before coming to an abrupt stop credit of the outer wall of a warehouse nearby. What happened next was a series of mutually responsive motions on his part and Isabel’s. She came over and he got up. He went into an uppercut and she smacked his rising fist with the butt of Randolph Greenleaf’s eighty-five-year-old service pistol. Bulling into her headfirst the man knocked Isabel over. They tangled on the ground, Isabel breaking her fall with her right arm, and then he leapt up again.
Isabel pulled herself halfway to her feet and brought her cane up and around in a great arc, sweeping it through the air directly into the position where the man’s head had been a second before. She half-crawled, half-ran forwards; he turned and yelled ‘Come at me, bitch!’ She came at him; her cane came down through the autumn skies again, struck him in the neck, and he spasmed and he fell. He writhed for a moment, then tried to get up. Isabel sighed and put her foot on his neck.
‘Okay, okay, I give!’ he shouted.
Sergeant Kanjorski, nursing his hurt hand, walked up and shook his head and sighed. ‘I think it is fairly safe to say that this guy is on something right now,’ he said. ‘This is just ridiculous.’
Isabel nodded. ‘This is actually going to be a serious problem for probably a few different reasons. We need to question this fellow and we need to do it as excruciatingly strongly in accordance with every remotely applicable book as we can.’ She let the man up and Kanjorski, this time, cuffed him immediately. ‘Otherwise,’ Isabel said, ‘my concern is that us failing to follow procedures here will let him walk.’
‘I’m not even sure which procedures would be most applicable in a situation like this,’ Officer Bourke said.
‘No, neither am I,’ Isabel admitted, ‘since this is also customs, a port, hot pursuit, international issue…oh, God, I wish Flora was here.’
‘Flora’s somebody who’d be helpful with this?’
‘No. Flora is somebody who would hug me and make a joke and tell me how fine everything was going to be even though I am actually not upset.’
Flora Greenleaf was sitting in a park out near Waltham with a man called Boris. Boris was from a publishing company in London that dealt mainly with writers from the Continent, particularly the old Eastern Bloc. He himself was British, but of Russian and German descent. At issue, the planned new American printing of a book by a Polish writer of some repute.
‘I’m afraid we cannot print on such short notice from the publisher, Boris,’ said Flora. ‘We are not ink-lined to entertain even notions of such speed as you would require.’
Boris sighed and rubbed his glasses on the sleeve of his jacket. The air was burning with falling maple leaves. He put the glasses back on and said ‘Miss Greenleaf, this was explicit in the contract and Scoresby Hebble said or at least very strongly implied that you would be able to do this.’
‘That was before Bloomsbury kept moving their dates forward!’ Flora replied. ‘I would not care a fig for these dates if there were not procedures in place saying that we have to coordinate all of our printing runs with publishers’ directions about entirely other things.’
‘That is a problem for Scoresby Hebble to solve on its own by changing those procedures!’ snapped Boris. ‘They are not industry-wide. I know this because Gorton does not do it, AmeriPrint does not do it, Nehring Ormskirk does not do it, and New Solutions does not do it.’
‘Have I even specified what ‘it’ is that we do?’ asked Flora waspishly.
‘Do you compare your materials against finished copies of versions from the original country in cases of imported titles, by any chance?’ asked Boris.
Flora frowned and blustered and said ‘Yes. We do.’
‘Heh,’ said Boris.
The water in the river running through the park before the bank on which they sat glittered silver in the waning fall sunlight. It was getting towards mid-afternoon. They had had lunch at a little restaurant near the campus of Brandeis University and then come out here to talk about this whole fiasco. In the entire Scoresby Hebble business structure, Flora Greenleaf and Rodney Absalom were the only two people who had taken even token stabs at trying to fix the problem. Boris was getting angry, and Flora was getting frustrated by trying to defend a certain President and Chairman’s total and complete inaction.
‘Is it that you don’t see this as a problem?’ Boris prompted. ‘That is to say, perhaps you are unaware of why we—we and Bloomsbury both—are so, as you might think, adamant about getting this done?’
‘No,’ said Flora. ‘I understand. We had a contract. Expanding our timeframe unduly of course would not do, and I have claimed nothing different.’
‘I don’t mean to be rude, but hearing you reassure me by bringing up sanctity of contract is a little strange after your company decided to breach that contract with Houghton Mifflin last year.’
‘The person responsible for that was rooted out and fired.’
‘I find it hard to believe that there could be just one ‘person responsible for that’ at a company the size of Scoresby Hebble. Also, Corryvreckan’s attitude towards trusting other groups is not that laissez-faire. We need to see proof of your good faith.’
Flora raised her eyebrows and the corners of her lips. ‘Or else?’
‘Please do not act antagonistic,’ said Boris. ‘The alternative is to not enter into any further arrangements with you after we—eventually—get this book out.’
Flora felt herself wondering how necessary a new English edition of Ferdydurke really was. It was not her job to question this—she did not involve herself, for the most part, in acquisition of contracts, and if she did that would be a matter of mostly financial calculations rather than her own literary opinions. Even imagining herself in this position was a headache. She marvelled at contract acquisitions’ even minimally acceptable ability to do its job.
‘All right then,’ Flora said. The damn book would have to get printed, then. They would have to break a protocol and do a rush job but it had to get printed. Not doing business with Corryvreckan House any more was not the worst thing that could possibly happen but not doing business with the Bloomsbury Group was a lot closer to being so. If the book was printed with, she know not what, Witold Gombrowicz’s name misspelled or something, then that was the way it would have to be.
Sometimes this job was very rewarding and made her feel like she was genuinely doing her part to increase the amount of Culture in the world. Other times, though…well, other times it made her feel like her soul was about to eat itself up, then pass itself through its digestive tract, then re-eat its own self-faeces sometime in the worryingly near future. She was three years from the government’s idea of the usual retirement age and eight years from the company’s—three to eight years from retirement and still getting involved in these messes.
It was enough to make her long for being a housewife—to Isabel, obviously, but still. Thinking of which, she wondered how Isabel was doing at the harbour. Apparently they had been tipped off about a shipment of…drugs, of some description, possibly coming in from Colombia to-day.
It was a little sickening to think of this as excitement.
‘Well,’ said Boris, standing up abruptly and rather startling Flora, ‘please tell me you will call if anything develops—all right?’
‘Certainly,’ said Flora. ‘Thank you for talking this through with me, Boris. I understand that it’s sometimes difficult for you to make these tiresome flights across the Atlantic but we were after all rather frantic about where you were positioned on this.’
‘You are very welcome.’ Boris nodded gravely. He walked off, and left Flora sitting there in the park. She did not have much else important to do to-day, just going back and being there when they closed everything up at five (except the printing press floor itself, which would go on into the evening; but that was Rodney’s responsibility, his and the union’s). That meant that she could stay here for a couple of hours if she so desired.
The park smelled of wet leaves and wet grass. It was funny how just going to the other side of Boston—and, admittedly, out through a suburb or two—could lead so from an oceanic to a sylvan feeling. She was sure that the osmyrrah of saltwater and bayberries had greeted Isabel when she had arrived at her own work this morning; she was sure that, however, Isabel had had to deal with much nastier smells since then.
It was funny how smells were so evocative yet so hard to describe except in terms of other smells that they somehow qualitatively resembled. There were words in the language like ‘acrid’ and ‘pungent’ and ‘sweet’, but far fewer and with far less sophisticated shades of distinction than for other senses. And it was strange the associations with smell that the two of them specifically, she thought, had in their lives. By rights Beacon Hill should not have smelled of bayberries at all. It was too built-up, and besides, it was set back a little way from the sea. Bayberries didn’t grow there. And yet—it was the smell of their memories and their dreams, and so somehow it imposed itself into their everyday life, no matter where in Boston they were. It was only out here, where other autumnal smells were so strong, that…
‘God above, my nostrils are stinging,’ Isabel said. ‘That…that stuff, whatever it is, it smells horrid.’
Sergeant Kanjorski nodded. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘See, I’ve got my doubts about some of this law, some of these practises.’
‘Some of what law and what practises?’
‘Not to put too fine a point on it,’ said Kanjorski, ‘ones concerning drugs. But then, I mean, you get stuff like this, and…’ He spread his arms. ‘I don’t know. I guess what I’m trying to say is, just…’
‘This is something on another level from, as it were, ‘your dad’s drugs’,’ said Isabel.
Isabel nodded. ‘I don’t even know what this stuff is,’ she said, turning over packets of a sticky substance of an almost indescribable colour with nimble rubber-gloved hands. ‘Some sort of processed version of some plant that grows in tropical countries, no doubt. And we found so much of it. Christ, this is worse than that time some assholes tried to bring in a bunch of guns from, I don’t even remember, Yemen or wherever the Hell it was.’ She cocked her head at Kanjorski. ‘That was before your time, George. 1981 or ’82, I think.’
Kanjorski cocked his head back at Isabel. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I’ve noticed something, Miss Crowninshield.’
‘What is it?’
‘I’ve noticed,’ Kanjorski said, ‘that—well, I’ve been here for seven years now and you were obviously here long before that, but you’ve begun to swear a bit more in recent years. I mean, so far to-day you’ve said motherfucker and asshole.’
Isabel thought for a minute before saying ‘Yes. I have. I’m sorry if it bothers you, George—it is just…changing standards, I suppose.’
‘It doesn’t bother me.’ Kanjorski leaned against a space heater that Isabel had trundled into her office the previous week during the first of what promised to be many cold snaps this season. ‘I was just observing it.’
‘All right, then,’ said Isabel with a smile. She wrapped up the drugs again. ‘Bring this out to Bourke,’ she said, ‘and tell him to take it down to the lockers again.’
‘Right,’ said Kanjorski. He pulled on a pair of rubber gloves of his own and gingerly took the package of drugs.
When Kanjorski was out of the office Isabel set about making a phone call to Pendleton, the police detective interrogating the various suspects who the Port of Boston police had captured both in the initial raid and throughout the balance of the morning. Pendleton preferred to communicate by email these days but Isabel had still not quite got the hang of that realm, partly because she was seventeen years older than he was, so he would just have to deal with the phone this time.
‘Pendleton. It’s Crowninshield.’
‘Oh. Yeah, hi, Agent Crowninshield. What’s going on?’
‘I just wanted to see what you’ve found out, if anything, from that tanned young man with the spiky bottle-blond hair. The one who Kanjorski, O’Malley, Bourke, and I took in a few hours ago.’
There was a pause, and then a sigh, and then Pendleton said ‘Yeah, questioning him isn’t quite going to go as we’d hoped because of how irregular the way he was taken in was.’
‘Oh…’ said Isabel. ‘I am sorry.’
‘No, no, it’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong, just unusual. But…’ There was a sudden sort of flickering click, probably Pendleton lighting a cigar. ‘The bastard thinks that you did and so he’s not talking.’
‘Did you go over Miranda with him?’
‘Did he waive them?’
‘Then how is he not talking?’ Isabel snapped. ‘Damn and blast, Pendleton. I am not a police officer; I work for the Port Authority and the Treasury Department, for God’s sake. Why can you not…?’
‘Don’t let’s start this, Crowninshield. You’ve been doing this for how long now?’
‘I have been working at customs here for thirty-five years,’ said Isabel. ‘I have been in roughly my current capacity—or roughly my current general sort of capacity—for sixteen.’
‘You of all people know that sometimes these things aren’t easy.’
‘Yes, but this is ridiculous.’
‘I agree with you!’ Pendleton snapped. ‘It feels as if you’re blaming me for this situation. Please don’t be defensive. I just said that you did nothing wrong. This is all on Mr Denham, the little punk.’
Isabel nodded. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘I am sorry.’
‘I’m sorry too.’
‘So, we know his name now?’ asked Isabel. ‘Denham? He gave you that, at least? That’s good.’
‘Yeah. Frank Denham. He’s from California. I have no idea how he ended up in South America and obviously he doesn’t exactly seem about to tell us.’
‘Great. Thank you.’
‘His name we can probably work with,’ said Isabel. ‘I’m sorry, but Sergeant Kanjorski’s knocking on my door. I should probably go and talk to him. Thank you for the update. Keep it up.’
‘Uh…all right,’ said Pendleton.
Isabel hung up the phone and sighed and massaged her temples before going over to the door. She felt the sudden urge to call Charlie. She hadn’t wanted to raise a latchkey kid, but on a day like this when the school had vacation for some bizarre reason…
Charlie Crowninshield was at home eating Chippos and drinking Pow! soda in front of the radio. His mothers had raised him well in the sense that, all other things being equal, given the choice between a television show that he liked and a radio station that he liked, he would pick the radio. This was good because his mothers had also raised him to have exceptionally good, or at least ‘cultured’—as they saw it—taste in music. So right now that meant Debussy.
Charlie was doing something akin to air guitar, but in this case more like invisible piano, when he got a call from his mom Flora.
‘Charlie, my favourite son!’ crowed Flora.
Charlie laughed. He was their only son, of course, but this never prevented them from referring to him in this way. ‘I’m at home listening to the radio, mom,’ he said. ‘I found the chips and soda in the fridge. Thanks.’
‘Don’t tell Isabel-mom.’
‘I won’t; don’t worry.’ Charlie laughed again. ‘So why are you calling, mom?’
‘Just because you’re off from school and you don’t have your newspaper club afterwards. Because you’re off from school. And my work is kind of strangling me here.’
‘That’s…bad noose,’ said Charlie. ‘I’m sorry to hear it.’
This was another thing that they tried to keep secret from Isabel. Flora was actively trying to teach Charlie how to make puns. He was not as good at it as she was so in their telephone conversations she sometimes tried to steer the line of talk into some of the oldies-but-goodies, obvious ones that never even now ceased to amuse her, even if they did not amuse anybody else. Discussing the newspaper club immediately before saying that her work was ‘strangling’ her led him naturally into the pun, and he was thankful for it.
‘I love you, mom,’ said Charlie.
Usually, Charlie, Flora, and Isabel all got home at around the same time, since the newspaper club, work, and work all let out at around five, but it was Columbus Day, a holiday that Scoresby Hebble had a history of ignoring and that the Port of Boston could not afford to ignore, being as it was a seaport. Isabel worked on Mondays through Thursdays and except for her birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day that was ironclad. It was her shift of the week. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays were for a very dedicated but rather sickly man called James Barnabas Collier, and that was the way it was and would always be until either Isabel or Collier retired.
So Charlie was home alone to-day, and this made him rather lonely. His friend Jake and Jake’s girlfriend Francine had been over earlier but they had had some other things to do, since Francine’s family was Italian and took Columbus Day very seriously as a family celebration.
So it was good that his mother was giving him a call.
‘Have you heard from Isabel-mom?’ Charlie asked.
‘I was just about to ask you that!’ Flora said. ‘I have heard from her. She called me this morning even though she was busy. Isabel is a belle.’ Charlie sighed. ‘Sorry. Have you heard from her?’
‘She called me in the morning too,’ said Charlie, ‘and, yeah, said she was going to have kind of a hectic day.’
‘Mine is actually becoming boring,’ Flora said. ‘My meeting with Boris Grimsky just finished.’
‘Are you still in the park?’
‘Are you using a pay phone?’
‘So where are you, mom?’
‘I am in Waltham,’ said Flora. ‘I left the park and went into the town to do a bit of shopping, since I don’t have to be back at the office for a couple of hours. Instead of my office I chose to indulge an orifice. I got a delicious cake for later.’
‘That’s good,’ Charlie said. ‘I should probably eat something healthy, then. Do we have any of those apples left?’
‘The Granny Smiths? Yes,’ said Flora. ‘They’re not as odd and grainy as the last ones, either. They’re good.’
‘Then I’ll have a couple of those.’
‘Good,’ said Flora. ‘—Listen. I actually should run. I have a few things I’d like to do before I return to the office, all right?’
‘All right, Flora-mom. I love you.’
‘I love you, too. See you later.’
Flora hung up the pay phone and hitched her hands in her pockets and walked back out to where her car was. She still had the Ambassador. Twenty-two years and it worked like a charm, chiefly because she simply did not drive especially much. The only reason she had taken the car to work to-day as opposed to the MTA was because she had anticipated coming much farther out from Boston in her meeting with Boris than she in fact eventually had.
Flora got in the car and drove. Dreary suburbs rose up and passed beside her, and she came back properly into the city. The towers of Boston shone in the afternoon sun that blazed out from behind her, obscuring part of her rear-view mirror. She was not entirely comfortable driving with the sun at this angle, but it was still better than it would have been in the morning.
Flora came to a bakery a couple of blocks from Scoresby Hebble, parked, and got out of the car with creaky joints. She went inside and bought some cookies to go along with the lemon cake that she had got at the patisserie in Waltham. After a day like this, Isabel deserved sweet things, and Flora and Charlie would be damned if they would not enjoy those sweet things with her.
Flora sat outside the bakery for some minutes before returning to her office. Rodney Absalom was on the job, so there really was relatively little that she had to do for the next hour or so, but she set about getting things done for next week nonetheless.
At the end of the day, when the sun was just beginning to dip its hull below the rooftops, Isabel Crowninshield stumbled in the door of her house to find Flora Greenleaf just there taking off her coat. Flora had dull smudges of deep lavender in the crows’-feet folded around her eyes; Isabel could not see herself right now but would have bet anything that hers were even darker. Charlie was in the sitting room; he got up and went over and said ‘Hi, Isabel-mom!’ with a huge smile on his face and hugged her.
‘Oh, it is so wonderful to see you,’ said Isabel. She hugged Charlie back—he was about her height by now—and then went over and kissed Flora. ‘So, my dear, how was your day?’
‘Somehow it was tiring and boring at once,’ said Flora. ‘So tiring, in fact, that I put more miles on my car to-day than I have in the past three weeks before.’
‘Well, you haven’t driven for the past three weeks before,’ said Isabel.
‘You sound awful,’ said Flora.
‘I feel awful. I wish I had had the luxury of my day being boring.’ Isabel yawned. ‘Our problem was that we had an extremely uncooperative gang of smugglers to deal with—to deal with in ways that implicated the relevance of, among other things, international law. My head feels like Jack Kemp has attacked it with a jackhammer, and I just want to go to bed.’
‘Oh, but don’t you want to have dinner with us first?’ Flora entreated. ‘Bread should come before bed, Isabel, dear. Bread before bed.’
‘Of course,’ said Isabel. ‘I said ‘want to’ go to bed, not ‘will right now’. Also, that was a fairly simplistic one, was it not?’
‘I am, after all, kind of tired,’ Flora said officiously.
Isabel nodded. ‘Right. I am sorry.’
‘No, you’re fine.’
‘So,’ said Isabel, taking off and hanging up her coat and propping her cane against the door-jamb at the bottom of the staircase. She went out of the front hall with Flora and Charlie into the dining room and through that into the kitchen. Spreading her hands, she said ‘Did you have anything in mind for to-night, Flora?’
‘Flora-mom bought a cake and cookies,’ said Charlie. ‘At two separate bakeries, even. She said she wanted to do it special for us.’
‘Man does not live by cake and cookies alone,’ Isabel said.
‘There is also the possibility of salad,’ said Flora, ‘or steak and my home fries if salad is not salty enough.’
‘Is that another one in Latin?’ Isabel asked with a cocked head and cool eye.
Flora shuffled her feet and nodded. ‘So, what will it be?’ she asked. ‘I am myself a partisan of salad if we’re going to have all of this cake right afterwards. It’s ricotta cake, too, and it’s not as if we’ll be running a boat race to get it out of our systems, so…’
‘Salad sounds good to me,’ said Charlie. ‘Well, Isabel-mom, what do you think?’ He grinned. Charlie grinned a lot. He was fifteen, five-foot-nine, his red-gold hair close around his head but falling down in loose locks over and beside his ears. He looked almost nothing like either of his mothers and they would not have traded him for the world.
‘Salad is fine,’ said Isabel. ‘Honestly, I will probably be more in the mood to enjoy the cake to-morrow, so let’s see if we can save some, all right?’
‘All right,’ said Flora.
‘So did you save any of the cake?’
Isabel with her blue eyes bored into David Lenihan’s grey ones and said, a little snobbishly but not too badly compared to how she usually was, ‘David, it was thirteen years ago. Most of the rest of 1996 after that incident is a bayberry-scented miasma to me. I don’t remember what happened with the cake. Flora?’
‘Do you even remember if we ate any of it?’
Flora thought for a while and said ‘If it’s the same ricotta cake that I am thinking about, then I think Charlie, actually, had the lion’s share of it. But I don’t quite clearly remember since it is not a particularly important moment in our personal history.’
‘So why’d you tell me about that day in such detail, then?’ David asked.
‘Because it was just a day, you understand?’ said Flora. ‘That is to say, something of a representative day, but still memorable. A senator day, perhaps?’
‘Okay, fine,’ said David.
‘It is fine,’ said Flora, looking awfully pleased with herself. ‘It most certainly is fine.’
David sighed. ‘So what’d be a, uh, like, a presidential day, then?’ he asked.
‘We had one of those in 2004,’ offered Isabel.
‘Oh? What was that?’
David smiled. ‘So I know. I didn’t know it was that year specifically, though.’ He laughed.
‘David,’ said Isabel, ‘we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary with you.’
He laughed again. ‘Well, you measure your anniversaries based on a couple different things, though, don’t you?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Flora. ‘But it was specifically ‘wedding’.’
‘I forgot, okay? I’m sorry.’
‘No, no,’ sighed Isabel, ‘it’s fine.’ She yawned and put on her reading glasses. ‘A bit tired, you see,’ she said. ‘Eyes need a little rest sometimes.’
‘Shut-eye for eyes?’ laughed Flora. ‘This time of day?’
‘It is what it is,’ Isabel said. She flopped her head over to look at David over the kitchen table. ‘In any case—our wedding day. Do you want to hear this story?’
‘Very much,’ he said, ‘yes.’
‘Well, then,’ said Isabel, rubbing her aching hands. ‘Shall I, Flora dear?’
‘Of course.’ Flora took a spoonful of sugar in a cup of tea. ‘The wedding day is, well, it is…one of the more interesting things, certainly, to befall us in recent years. Oh, you raised Cain, you did.’
‘I will get to that in its time in the story,’ said Isabel, ‘unless you want to tell it…’
‘I thought so.’ Isabel went and kissed Flora’s forehead. ‘Well, then David. The situation broke down, that day, like this…’
They were in the middle of the blustery years, with Thomas Menino still Mayor of Boston. Flora and Isabel were on Cape Cod for their first weekend of this season, though it was only May. This was an important day. Flora seventy and Isabel sixty-eight, they would to-day play the parts of a firm-cleaved duo of virgin brides.
‘Are you going to wear the dress that Dr Compton got you for your fiftieth, dear?’ Isabel called from the bathroom to the bedroom of their summer-house in Harwich.
‘I certainly plan on trying to,’ Flora replied. ‘It may be a dress but it will hardly do for me to address you as I must on this day if it is too tight for me to breathe in. Do you think, net, I have lost or gained any weight these past twenty years?’
‘You have worn it since you were fifty a good deal, dear,’ Isabel replied. ‘Do you remember when the last time you wore it was?’
‘No,’ called Flora. ‘Do you?’
Isabel yawned. ‘Can you come in here, dear?’ she asked. ‘I am having a bit of a hard time of hearing you.’
‘Resting is the last thing to do on a day like this,’ said Flora.
Isabel sighed. ‘What about bathing?’
‘Bathing,’ said Flora, ‘defined broadly as ‘going at one’s toilette’ as in the old days, might indeed be a lot more relevant.’ She walked over to the bathroom, slid aside the sliding wooden door, and came in. Isabel, naked from the waist up but with a complex tiered skirt on, was holding one blouse in each hand. Both were white but one was long-sleeved, with buttons, and relative simple, whereas the other was short-sleeved and intricately embroidered with glistening silky threads.
‘Which?’ Isabel asked. ‘Also keep in mind that it’d affect which brassiere I wear.’ She nodded at two brassieres laid next to the sink. ‘That one would look better under the simpler blouse and this one would work under either.’
‘Then use that one,’ said Flora. ‘The one that works with either.’
‘Right.’ Isabel put on the brassiere. ‘What about the blouses, though?’ she asked.
‘Well, what are your thoughts on the blouses? Don’t just grouse about it. I won’t have that in our summer house, and it might rouse the neighbours. It’s not as if either would be very unflattering. You are not going to look like a louse or a mouse.’
Isabel, forcing back laughter, said ‘The fancier one is…well, it is fancier. I daresay it might be a nicer blouse, overall. My concern is that the simpler one might, potentially, look better with this skirt.’
‘But that is very fancy as well. Let’s not skirt that issue.’
‘It is fancy,’ said Isabel, ‘but I worry that I might go into something like overkill with fanciness.’
Flora gazed languidly at the blouses for a minute, the lids of her golden eyes half-folded over them. ‘I don’t think it would be overkill,’ she said. ‘Actually, I think that the embroidery in the fancy one might complement the—ah, the vaguely Minoan style of the skirt rather beautifully.’
‘Right,’ said Isabel, and put the fancier blouse on.
Flora smiled. ‘That was fast.’
‘Well, now,’ Isabel said, ‘you expressed an opinion. I was of two minds and you expressed your opinion so I did it.’ Her voice sounded very slightly manic. Over the past few years Isabel had been getting calmer and more sedate and in some ways creakier—she was after all in her late sixties now, and had never been quite as energetic as Flora even in their early days—but now she was speaking with the speed and clipped tone of possibly even fifty years ago.
‘Yes, my love?’
‘Are you nervous?’
‘Very, my love.’ Isabel glanced in the mirror. ‘—I like it.—Legal recognition, Flora!’
‘I know. Do you know when Charlie is going to get here?’
‘He called,’ said Isabel, ‘from East Wareham only a few minutes ago, so he should be here quite soon. He is driving Dr and Mrs Compton down, as well as a cake from Zarrilli’s.’
‘What is it about us and cake, I wonder?’ Flora asked.
‘It is because cake is delicious,’ said Isabel, very seriously and strongly.
They went out, and looked over the Cape Cod shoals. The wind was whipping them up into small whitecaps. Sea and sky were very blue, fading together into a hazy line that broke for a time in the middle to describe the far but nearer shore of Martha’s Vineyard. There was in the air, of course, as always it seemed at such important times for them, an overpowering scent of bayberries and salt.
They would, once all assembled, proceed to the town hall in Harwich, in the company of a Methodist minister of their acquaintance. Choosing this as the procedure by which they would marry had been the culmination of a long and somewhat silly story. It had been, initially, that both Flora and Isabel had wanted a minister of their own denomination to marry them; but Isabel was not on very good terms with the Unitarian Universalist Association and Flora’s Episcopalianism was at this point in her life mostly a formality. They had found several places on the Cape that were at some point in the process looking good and sitting pretty as possibilities: the Unitarian Church of Barnstable, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth (both too liberal for Isabel’s liking), First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist (insufficiently liberal for Flora’s liking, though they almost certainly would have in fact agreed to perform the wedding if asked), St Mary’s Episcopal in Barnstable (Flora was not on good terms with the people there), St Christopher’s Episcopal in Chatham (Flora did not know anybody there), St Peter’s Episcopal in Osterville, the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in Provincetown (Isabel found these church buildings physically ugly), and on and on and on. Finally a friend called Mariette Dulcer, who had been a minister in the United Methodist Church for many years, put her foot down and said that she would accompany them to a civil wedding at (in Mariette’s words) ‘a town hall or county building or, I don’t know, something’ and then give them a blessing afterwards.
‘All right,’ Flora had said. ‘Blessings are certainly good.’
‘Fine,’ Isabel had said. ‘I understand that if we want to do this on May Day, which I for one do because I feel that it is romantic, we ought to take that which we can get.’
‘That is pretty much the long and the short of it,’ Dr Compton, who had been part of this conversation but scarcely able to get a word in edgewise for most of it, said with much annoyance.
So they had gone on to the Internet, which Flora and Isabel had both been learning quite a bit about since their retirements (Flora in 2000 at sixty-six, Isabel in 2001 at sixty-five), and had found the town hall in Harwich. It was good, because their summer cottage was in Harwich anyway. The town hall building itself was deeply mediocre, but offended Isabel less than St Peter’s or the Provincetown meetinghouse because she expected less from municipal architecture than from ecclesiastical architecture in general. That was what came of living in a city whose city hall was as unrelentingly and soul-smashingly hideous as Boston’s, particularly given that everything around the Boston City Hall was aesthetically perfectly fine.
‘Shall we go down to Harwich for that week?’ asked Flora.
‘What day does May Day fall on?’ asked Isabel.
‘May the first,’ said Flora with a grin.
‘You know what I mean,’ said Isabel.
‘Hold on,’ said Flora. She went into the kitchen to look at the calendar on the refrigerator. 1 May 2004 was to be a Saturday, which was perfect because it meant that Charlie could come down from Dartmouth on Friday—a day on which he only had one class this semester, early in the morning—and Dr Compton might even be able to make it as well. Flora went and got a red pen and went back up to the calendar and, circling the first of May several times, wrote in ‘WEDDING’ in as large letters as she could without crowding into other days.
It was mid-February at the time that she did this. They had, pragmatically and industriously yet at the same time singing all Heaven’s praises, begun planning the wedding very shortly after the release of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’s decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which had come on the eighteenth of November in the last year. They already knew, by the point that Flora took pen to calendar and put in the day, that they wanted to both dress all in white, but not in traditional wedding gowns (‘that would look absurd,’ Flora had said; ‘we’re too far down the road of life for expensive gowns to cause a strife’). They already knew that they would be doing this on Cape Cod rather than in Boston, because that way they could drive about in Isabel’s new(-ish) Porsche going to beauty spots and antiques stores as an immediate and down-home honeymoon. They already knew that they would, at the very least, be inviting Charlie, Dr Compton, Mariette, Barbara Allen-Compton, and possibly the Compton girls, now grown and in Jeanne’s case with a family of her own. In some cases they might outright beg these people to come, as some of them did not live particularly near Cape Cod.
Dorothy, when she heard about it, had wanted to come, but for several reasons this was considered an unfortunately unworkable idea. Dorothy was now eighty-seven years old and would be eighty-eight just a few weeks after the wedding; Egbert was eighty-nine and ailing. Dorothy was the last surviving sibling of Flora’s, Barton having died the previous year and both John and Laura a year before that—William and Marion had been dead since the early 1990s. With Randolph Greenleaf’s death four years ago at the incredible age of one hundred and eight, Dorothy was now head of the family, even if her last name was in fact now Vernon.
‘I don’t want a family head to get killed off by all the excitement, going across the state like that,’ Dorothy had said. ‘I’m very sorry, dears. I will just stay here in little old Hadley. I hope you will tell me how the wedding went!’
‘Of course, Dottie,’ Flora had said.
‘Be sure to send me pictures!’ Dorothy had said.
‘Certainly,’ Flora had said. ‘And I hope they will become fixtures in your home for a long time to come.’
‘Oh, to be sure, to be sure!’ Dorothy had laughed, and then had hung up the phone. This had been on St Valentine’s Day, a week before the final physical imposition of May Day as the wedding date on to the calendar at the house in Beacon Hill.
‘It occurs to me,’ Isabel said, ‘that, since the average age of first marriage for women in this country is now around twenty-five and a half…’ She smiled, and her blue eyes sparked. ‘We will be skewing that average a bit, won’t we, dear?’
‘We needn’t be mean about it,’ golden-eyed Flora replied, face meeting her lover’s—now fiancée’s, it could be said. ‘It’s only love. And besides…’ She smiled. ‘How long have we been together?’
‘You were twenty-four,’ said Isabel, ‘I twenty-two.’
‘And how long have we lived together?’
‘You were nearly twenty-nine,’ said Isabel, ‘I twenty-seven. We’ve known each other for a long time, Flora.’
‘Yes,’ Flora replied. ‘Even before that.’
They were in the front kitchen of the summer cottage. Charlie and the Comptons and the cake would be here in about ten minutes, so Charlie had just called to say. Then they would take maybe fifteen minutes to get ready and go over and meet Mariette at the town building by two-thirty. It was one-forty-four now.
‘We are getting married,’ said Isabel, ‘in under an hour.’
‘Yes,’ Flora replied. ‘It’s all a bit nerve-wracking, certainly. But even so—I would not want to not do this, not for all the gold in the world.’
‘Oh, neither would I,’ said Isabel. ‘I would never try to claim anything otherwise, my love.’ She went out on to the deck and looked down over the beach yet again. ‘So much time in the world,’ she said, ‘and so relatively little of it is ours.’
‘We are living on time we’re borrowing from the universe to make a space for love,’ said Flora. ‘At least, that’s how the way of the world feels to me sometimes. Clock roaches, of a sort.’
‘I don’t think it is borrowed or stolen,’ said Isabel. ‘I think that that is what the time is there for in the first place.’
‘To be used in love?’ asked Flora, coming out through the screen door to be with her. ‘For us to love within it, that is to say?’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel. ‘I would say that it is the work of the Holy Spirit-Who-Used-to-Be-Called-a-Ghost, but I do not know enough about what God is or what I myself believe about the nature of love and personhood to say.’
‘Let’s not discuss theology forty-five minutes before we are to get married,’ said Flora. ‘This is a time for rite, not doctrine.’
‘Agreed,’ said Isabel. ‘It’s certainly a world bound up in love, though.’
‘Definitely,’ Flora said smiling. ‘I love you and you love me and more than anything else that is what we are here to be—to do.’ She took Isabel’s hand in hers and leaned her head against Isabel’s shoulder. Still, even as somewhat-shrinking old ladies, Isabel was taller by several inches, and the crook of her neck was at a perfect height for Isabel to nestle against.
All in a trice the front screen door slammed open. ‘—And I say, no, named after you or not, you’re just not making sense on this, Doc Compton!’
‘Charlie and the others,’ said Flora with a smile.
‘Clearly,’ said Isabel. They went in to meet them. Charlie was twenty-three now, five-foot-eleven and with a broad, almost perpetually grinning face. His chin was still angular, which gave him a slightly odd, almost lopsided in a way, mien about him. Dr Compton was seventy-two and Barbara was sixty-nine. They were looking pretty good.
‘Shall we set off?’ Barbara Allen-Compton asked.
Flora looked at the clock. It was one-fifty-nine…now it was two o’ clock. ‘We have half an hour,’ she said, ‘but it might take as much as fifteen minutes to get there. I want to be in front of the town officials doing things and making things happen by three, but we said we would meet Mariette there at half-past-two.’
‘I think we can manage this,’ said Isabel.
‘So do I,’ said Flora. ‘We should get going in a few minutes, though, certainly.’ She went over and hugged her son. ‘Charlie, how have you been?’
Charlie, very slightly embarrassed by this affective display, laughed lightly. ‘I’ve been doing well,’ he said.
‘How was that sweet girlfriend of yours doing?’
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Isabel. ‘Charlie, it is not like you to be flushing and stammering. This is a day for love.’
‘We broke up,’ he muttered.
Isabel’s face fell. ‘Oh, I am sorry,’ she said. She went and hugged Charlie. ‘I am sorry we brought it up.’
‘It’s fine,’ he said. He smiled bravely. ‘But.’ This conversation was a little awkward somehow, but he strove on. ‘Classes are great and so are friends. Dartmouth is really great. It’s a shame I couldn’t go to Smith like Flora-mom or Simmons like you, but…you know…’ He grinned and turned to the Comptons. ‘Yeah.’
They chatted like this for a couple of minutes longer and then went out to the cars. The Crowninshield family (one member of which was still Greenleaf; anyhow…) got into Isabel’s Porsche; Barbara Allen-Compton took the wheel of Charlie’s Prius and her husband got into the passenger’s seat.
It was, it turned out, a drive of twelve minutes over a couple of fairly poorly-maintained roads to the municipal building in question. Harwich was very much a community based around the beach and the sea and things to do thereon and therein; so this particular town building, which was in Harwich Port, had a view of the water, just a different part of the water to the summer cottage. Not very many people were there. It was not quite full beach season yet.
Mariette Dulcer was already there, standing outside, leaning against the outer wall. She was a woman of fifty-six with the countenance and energy of somebody perhaps two decades younger, and to-day she was dressed, impossibly, for both a wedding and the beach at the same time, in a simple, summery, yet at the very least white dress.
‘Mariette,’ said Flora, clasping her hands and smiling, ‘it is lovely to see you on such a day.’
‘Oh, my, you both look great!’ said Mariette. ‘—And hello, Charlie!’
‘Hello, Reverend Dulcer,’ said Charlie, who did not know Mariette quite well enough to feel comfortable calling her by her given name. ‘This is such an important day.’ He chuckled. ‘I can hardly believe this is really happening! It is quite amazing.’
‘It is!’ she said. ‘It is!’
They went in, and then there was something like a climax, and something like a vindication. The town clerk, a man in his forties with receding but still jet-black hair and little round wire-rimmed glasses, seemed mildly uncomfortable but he did his job.
Mariette Dulcer nodded impatiently.
‘Ahem,’ said the town clerk. He was reading from a modified version of the Book of Common Prayer marriage service, which Flora and Isabel had agreed on since the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ part appealed to Flora and the ‘modified version’ part appealed to Isabel. ‘Will you, Flora Cabot Greenleaf, have Isabel Priscilla Crowninshield as your true and only wife, to live together under the aegis of Heaven in the bonds of matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honour her, keep her, in good times and bad, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health—’
Flora was beginning to cry; Isabel had been weeping for several minutes now.
‘—and, forsaking all other, keep yourself only unto her, as long as you both shall live?’
‘I will,’ Flora said. She snorted. She was snorting during her wedding. Not exactly ‘cool and beauty’ material but it was a very emotional experience for which she did not have a handkerchief on hand so it couldn’t be helped. ‘I absolutely will.’
‘And you,’ said the town clerk, ‘Isabel Priscilla Crowninshield—will you have Flora Cabot Greenleaf as your true and only wife, to live together under the aegis of Heaven in the bonds of matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honour her, keep her, in good times and bad, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health—’
Isabel was grasping Flora’s hands, now, particularly hard. They seemed ready to, at any moment, just fall forward into some swooning embrace. Both were crying freely, and it was spreading: Charlie was looking down awkwardly, Dr Compton covering his face. Only Barbara Allen-Compton and Mariette Dulcer were still smiling placidly at the sight of the two women old and grey in their white dresses, hands clasped, ready to hug or kiss at any opportune moment, standing before the middle-aged stuffed shirt, the very avatar of things official and officious, at a makeshift altar of recognition and acceptance.
‘—and,’ the town clerk went on, ‘forsaking all other, keep yourself only unto her, as long as you both shall live?’
‘I will,’ said Isabel. ‘Naturally…’
This next part was going to be quite traditional, and then Flora’s master stroke would set in. But for now…
‘I, Flora, take thee, Isabel, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.’ This was just how Flora and Isabel had both wanted it, had both dreamed about it for almost half a century in a way that until so, so recently, neither dared to hope could ever be fulfilled.
‘I, Isabel, take thee, Flora, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.’
And then there were even rings.
‘Then,’ said the town clerk, and he suddenly bit his lip and shuffled his feet.
‘Say it,’ hissed Isabel.
‘Say it or I will not hear the end of it.’
This was one thing about Flora. She had wanted to have funny stories to tell of their wedding, but since it had become such a low-key affair, rather than leaving it to chance she had elected to seed a funny story into the ceremony herself. That was the sort of person she was, and the town clerk either did not realise or was a little embarrassed by the role that he now would have to play in this.
‘Fabulous powers were granted to me,’ said the town clerk, ‘the day I became a municipal employee and said ‘by the power of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Town of Harwich’. I have the power.’
Charlie had been a huge fan of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe as a little boy. For some reason this had stuck in Flora’s head and wormed its way down into the concept of a good wedding story. Charlie had to restrain himself from giggling. Isabel sighed and marvelled at the past forty-five years of putting up with this sort of thing for love—or sixty-two years, really, of knowing Flora and spending time with her in whatever capacity.
‘By that power,’ said the town clerk, stumbling and faltering formerly but now back into his element again, ‘I pronounce you wife and wife.’
It was two-fifty-four in the afternoon. There were still some legal papers to sign but for right now Flora and Isabel just flung themselves into an incredibly tight embrace, stumbling to and fro over the floor, covering each other’s faces with a riot of kisses.
It had been so long, so very long, this road. The far-off horizon that they now crossed instantly together had looked impossible for such a very long time. It really was a shocking and brilliant happening, here, now, quick, now, always. Charles Forrester Compton proudly smiled. Harold Charles Fitzpatrick Crowninshield gave up and sat down and laughed and cried together with his namesake.
‘Well,’ said Barbara Allen-Compton, ‘I for one am very happy about this. Are you, Reverend Dulcer?’
‘Oh, of course,’ Mariette Dulcer said with the most enormous grin. ‘Well…they skipped ‘and let our cry come unto Thee’ but their actions make the sentiment pretty clear, don’t you think?’ She chuckled.
‘And let our cry come unto Thee!’ Isabel snapped over at Mariette.—Well. The tone of voice was that of one snapping but she was smiling and crying also so probably she was simply very emotional in a general sense right now.
‘And let our cry,’ said Flora, ‘come unto Thee. Happy, Mariette?’
‘Very,’ said Mariette Dulcer.
‘So now what should we do?’ asked Isabel as they left the building.
‘Well, we could go to a late luncheon,’ said Flora. ‘We wouldn’t have to be bludgeoned with bureaucracy that way. Even in these dresses we would not be too incredibly obtrusive. This isn’t a dress that attracts much press.’
‘You are less interested in complex bilingual puns these days,’ said Isabel, ‘and more interested in simply drenching the world with rhymes, aren’t you, my dear newlywed bride?’
‘It fluctuates,’ said Flora. ‘A few years ago I would be more inclined one way; a few years hence, perhaps that way again.’
‘I am up for a diner,’ said Dr Compton. ‘I have been hungry for some time. There is little to eat in municipal buildings. I’m sorry you didn’t have a reception.’
‘Oh, don’t be snide,’ said Flora. ‘You’re not a bride.’
‘I was a bridegroom once.’
‘I don’t want a repeat performance of that,’ said Dr Compton.
‘I don’t want him to have to have a repeat performance of that,’ said Mrs Compton.
Isabel’s eyes traced up to the sky. There was something cosmic about this day that she felt deep in her bones. It was only a formality but it was a formality that represented a vindication and an acceptance and as such then a victory. She walked along until she came upon a girl who would question her. The girl was standing a hundred feet or so away from the municipal building, near what seemed like it might be another couple of newlyweds, this one involving two men in their thirties.
‘What is going on here?’ Flora asked.
Isabel turned her head and cocked her ear to hear.
‘…mainstreaming queerness!’ this girl was saying. ‘With ‘same-sex marriage’ and queer ‘families’…having children, quick as you can—you’re losing something! Can’t you grinning folks who’ve just taken advantage of this stupid mainstreaming court ruling see that? You’re losing what makes us a passionate and radical community!’
‘What on Earth…?’ said Flora. Isabel just sighed and clutched her forehead in her hand.
‘—Creating and sustaining the societal difficulty with the ideal of sex in general! Making these relationships, keeping them standardised, to treat it as icky, taboo, sacred, as something other than just a fun thing to…’
‘Ma’am, you’re upsetting me,’ one of the gay guys said.
‘—No I’m not. As I was saying…’
‘Yes, you are. And if you are here to stand near a town office because there might be gay people getting married there you are not helping the queer community effectively whatever you might think ‘helping’ it is.’
At this point Flora wanted to go over to Articulate Younger Gay Man, as she had decided to think of him, and shake his hand. Isabel wanted to do something very different. This was their wedding day. If she had thought that it might clash with somebody protesting something this was very different to what she would have thought the likeliest form of that would be. It was also much more annoying, and hit a bit closer to home.
There was a certain ‘kids these days’ aspect to her thoughts. A certain—
—and, right now, there was a certain aspect that was clutching her cane as tightly as she could and wanted nothing more than to just take it to this young upstart for trying to ruin this other couple’s important day. She had not wished for anything to happen, but even so—!
‘Flora?’ Isabel whispered.
‘What is it, dear?’
‘I should like to cane this girl,’ Isabel whispered. ‘What are your thoughts on this idea?’
Flora thought for a moment before saying ‘I am opposed to it.’ A pause. ‘Would you like me to explain why?’
‘Yes, please,’ said Isabel.
‘Because,’ said Flora, ‘to cane somebody for being an idiot with horrible priorities is not the humane way to act toward such a person.’
‘Was that the rhyme, there…?’ Isabel loosened her grip on her cane a little and smiled at her wife. They walked on, ignoring the lovelessness that wallowed below. ‘Cane and humane.’
‘It was,’ said Flora.
‘Have I told you that I love you, Flora Greenleaf?’
‘Not since we have been married, Isabel Crowninshield!’
‘Well, then,’ said Isabel with a little bow going into something like a curtsey. ‘This is something that desperately needs to be remedied. So: Flora Cabot Greenleaf? Daughter of Randolph Ord Greenleaf and Evangeline Walpurga Greenleaf, née Cabot? May I tell you a secret?’
‘What is it,’ asked Flora, ‘Isabel Priscilla Crowninshield, daughter of Godfrey Alfred Crowninshield and Adelle Elizabeth Crowninshield, née Alden?’
Isabel bent to whisper into Flora’s ear. They knew very well how twee and faintly absurd they were being. They revelled in it. They loved each other, in specific and in general. They were being absolutely ridiculous and it was beautiful.
‘I have loved you,’ Isabel whispered, ‘for going on fifty-five years now, and I would have loved you before that in the same sense—but we were children before then, after all.’
‘Why are you whispering?’ Flora whispered. ‘This is not a secret.’ She brought her voice down so low that even Isabel could barely hear it and said ‘I also love you. Pass it on. It’s important, or something.’
They giggled and hugged each other. Charlie Crowninshield could not keep from smiling, and Charles Compton felt very, very good about the history of his career and life and actions right now. The world of love was taking over the quotidian. The quotidian was becoming just an adjunct to this sub-created Heaven to adorn it and make it shine.
Once back in the cars, Flora made it clear that she wanted to drive a little bit inland, over the bayberry- and bay-leaf-scented sandy hills, to Harwich Center to get something to eat. Harwich Center stood as far inland as one could get on the Cape as opposed to Harwich Port, though they were part of the same town.
—Yes! Let the world come! One by one or all in a group, Flora believed powerfully that she and Isabel would take on the bigots and snobs of the world and beat them all. The foolish youth who were so hip and with it…they’d break their hips and they’d just have to deal with it—metaphorically. The so-called ‘city fathers’ who shook their heads and talked about how in their day these deviants had the good sense to stay hidden…Flora could only hope that they would have the good sense to pray to be ridden of the Cain that Isabel and she could and would raise up against them.
Violent thoughts. Rhetorically and symbolically violent only, it was true, but even so, these were strange thoughts from a strange woman. Flora knew this.
‘Am I a strange person?’
Isabel pursed her lips. ‘Why are you asking me this?’
‘Because,’ said Flora, ‘I think I might be a strange person. Very strange indeed, also queer.’
‘You certainly are queer,’ said Isabel.
Flora snickered and Isabel frowned. She realised what Flora had done. ‘Did I play into one of your puns just now?’
‘You did,’ said Flora, ‘and it was wonderful, my dear.’
Isabel leaned over and put her arms around Flora. ‘You’re so strange,’ she said. ‘I love you so much.’
Flora grinned. ‘I need to keep my eye on the road, Isabel.’
Isabel sighed. ‘I,’ she said, ‘am driving back to Boston, and that is going to be final, my dear.’
‘Of course. I never claimed anything else.’
Isabel let go and looked out across the stretch of road between them and the other car, the car that was now carrying the Comptons and Reverend Dulcer. ‘I am so glad that they could make it,’ she said.
‘So am I,’ said Flora. ‘Dr Compton I think would not have missed it for the world.’
‘He’s a good friend,’ Charlie said. Charlie in the back was awake, but tired out from driving from Dartmouth to Cape Cod over the course of two days, and had not been talking much.
‘We named you after him for a reason,’ said Flora.
‘But, Flora-mom, you didn’t name me. My biological mom did. You just decided to call me by my middle name.’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel, ‘well, that is what Flora-mom presumably meant, Charlie.’
‘It is,’ said Flora.
‘Were you saving face with that?’ asked David.
‘No,’ said Flora. ‘That is what I meant. It was fortuitous that he had that middle name! One could almost say that the level of fortune we’ve been blessed with has at times been quite gratuitous.’
David looked around the big old mansion rooms and thought about his family’s flat in the South End and said ‘I’ll say.’ He smiled. ‘So, that brings us up to these days, doesn’t it? What about some of the other issues?’
‘What other issues?’ asked Isabel.
‘Miz C, you said that you’d been in love with Miz G for a long time, even before you were really together?’
‘Ah,’ said Isabel. ‘Yes. The thing about that was, I did not understand what those feelings quite were back then…’
The Awkward Summer Retreat
They were in the middle of the coming-home years, when James Curley was Mayor of Boston. Going back in memory to those shining times, Flora Greenleaf and Isabel Crowninshield saw themselves in their minds’ eyes as teenage girls for the first time in quite a while. In some surprise they remembered.
It was Vermont, and it was summer. Lake Champlain was shining under a high sun, and a gaggle of girls had gathered on the veranda of a lake house under the auspices of one of their families. Isabel, thirteen, was awkward and gangly and pimply, her hair and eyes still strikingly black and blue nevertheless. Flora, fifteen, was a little more full in her development, more comfortable in her skin but perhaps not quite so pretty.
At this moment Flora was pestering Isabel, poking at her ridiculously serious face with long thick fingers, trying to get her to admit that something was funny. Nadine Bartleby, an older girl, considered very beautiful and desirable as friend or—apparently, to the boys—as girlfriend, was sitting in a chair a few feet away laughing at the tableau. This was Nadine Bartleby’s house; her father owned it; so she was, indeed, rather acting as if most of what was happening on the veranda was happening for her own amusement.
And, truly, it was rather amusing. Aside from Flora and Isabel teasing each other (‘Oh, Flora, really, stop. Do you want me to tell Nadine about what happened at Rockport last year?’) there was also the spectacle of the never-ending drama of Alberta Weld and Florence Ellet Gardiner. Both sixteen—indeed, they shared a birthday—Alberta and Florence absolutely loathed each other, or that was their claim. Right now, they were acting more as if this were in fact the case than usual, and Flora, Isabel, Nadine, and the other girls all thought, if only as a grudging admittance, that given what was going on right now it may in fact very well be true.
It was two weeks after the Fourth of July. When Flora had got the invitation from Nadine to come up here for a week with some other of their high-school friends she had been elated and had asked only that she be allowed to bring Isabel along with her. Flora had always loved the mountains, particularly Vermont and New Hampshire, and though she had not been to Lake Champlain before she had heard all sorts of wonderful things about the cool waters and beautiful sunsets. She wanted to see it and she wanted her best friend to see it with her.
The only issue was that Isabel was still in junior high and Nadine did not know her. They would have met at Flora’s fifteenth birthday party back in March but Isabel had been horribly ill with the ‘flu and had instead done something on her own with Flora once she had got better. So it had taken some doing convincing Nadine that Isabel would be a good addition to this vacation.
Now, Nadine, Florence, Judith, and Emma all liked Isabel a lot. Mary was so quiet that she had not interacted with Isabel enough to form even a slight opinion and Alberta was not fond of her. Overall, on the third day of the vacation, Flora felt that Isabel’s presence was a good thing, was working out well. Nadine had even said, at one point, ‘Flora, Flora, Isabel is impressing me dreadfully. She is so much more elegant and articulate at that age than I was.’
‘She actually has a bit of trouble in life sometimes,’ said Flora.
‘Well, of course,’ said Nadine. ‘She is, after all, at that age.’
‘Isabel,’ Flora was moaning now as she prodded her friend’s face, ‘why are you taller than me? You’re younger than me; I’ve had my growth spurt.’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel. ‘So have I, by now.’
‘So why are you taller than me?’ Flora whined. ‘You’re taller than me and prettier than me too. Why?’
‘…Because I am?’ said Isabel flatly. ‘Does it bother you, Flora? You have a perfectly fine body yourself, you know.’ She looked down at her flat chest and the odd zit on her hand and then over at Flora. ‘Better than mine.’
‘Oh, my, girls!’ Nadine Bartleby called from her chair. ‘Have you got boys you are interested in for such purposes?’
Isabel frowned and Flora looked a bit blue. Nadine was so…normal. It had a tendency to destroy funny little moments like this.
Flora, to break this sudden thrill of tension over Nadine’s higher levels of normality in general and interest in boys in particular, brought her hands together and said ‘I have a peachy idea!’
‘What is that?’ asked Mary Shaw, speaking for the first time to-day.
‘Why don’t we all go and get ice cream?’ asked Flora with a smile. ‘Mary, you could use some sweetness in your life right now, your face is so long!’ She felt manic, somehow. ‘We should get you something with a lot of fudge. Are you keen on fudge, Mary?’
‘I…fudge is certainly all right…’ Mary said softly, her dark hair flopping down from her hair band as she hung her head bashfully.
‘All right then!’ crowed Flora. ‘Nadine, what do you think?’
‘I think that’s an A1 idea,’ said Nadine. ‘Isabel?’
‘What?’ Isabel was getting a little annoyed with this sudden manic rush for ice cream. It felt…a bit like a bank run in the old newsreels from twenty years ago, somehow. As if Flora was panicking over something to forestall some crisis, heavens knew what exactly that might be.
‘Would you like ice cream as well?’
‘Oh.’ Well, if it was a question of her getting ice cream… ‘I am not above that,’ Isabel Crowninshield, age thirteen, said.
Nadine furrowed her brow. ‘Nobody…nobody said you were ‘above’ it, Isabel.’
‘Right,’ said Isabel. ‘Sorry about that. It is not as if—not as if I was claiming that…’ She was embarrassed. Her father was not bringing her up normal, exactly; Godfrey Crowninshield wanted a bean-counter for a daughter, since his son wasn’t working out quite well. He had also raised her with, she was coming to be old enough to recognise, a bit of a worrisome superiority issue.
She really was not above this. She was still young, younger indeed than anybody else here. She needed to remember that sometimes. Flora was helpful, actually, in keeping that in her mind. Flora impelled her along fun and silly and sometimes perhaps even downright childlike lines. She made Isabel keen on things that she thought she had put away years ago. It was lovely. It was the most sudden and dear feeling to her, when these things happened and she was able to laugh and be young and not sullen. –And what did Flora get out of Isabel’s company, Isabel wondered? ‘Fun’ was one answer. Flora was listless and easily bored when Isabel was not around. In seven years of being friends, now about half of their lives—a little more than half in Isabel’s case, a little less than half in Flora’s—the older girl had grown almost overly reliant on the younger in that sense at least. ‘Isabel, this is boring!’ had been a constant refrain from around 1943 to 1946, at which time Flora had become old enough to realise how irritating this was and stop doing it.
She stopped doing it, however, in favour of spinning complex and excruciating puns indicating exactly the same thing, from ‘this is slowly making a hole in my soul’ (which she had learned recently, having only recently become familiar with the second meaning of the verb ‘to bore’, an odd gap in her otherwise brilliantly precocious comedic vocabulary) on down to words that had nothing to do with boredom and in fact indicated other states of mind entirely or things that were not states of mind at all, but which Flora used to indicate boredom by way of advertising the fact that she was actually putting her effort into making puns out of them. For a rather sheltered fifteen-year-old girl of the ‘Boston Brahmin’ class, who had never been outside of New England and only four or five times beyond the borders of Massachusetts, to put her energies into making puns on such subjects as the new Secretary of State Mr Dean Acheson and the South’s ‘Jim Crow’ indicated that Flora genuinely was either incredibly bored or simply lethargic a great deal of the time. Lethargy was not it, as lethargy led the list of poor habits and traits that Flora Greenleaf could not in any seriousness be accused of; so boredom it must be. Helping Flora with boredom was not an especially productive or wise thing for Isabel to spend her time doing by normal standards of productivity and wisdom, but it kept things interesting for both of them. When Flora’s life was interesting, so was Isabel’s. She always swept up Isabel along for the ride. Isabel’s thoughts became jumbled and confused and almost feverish around Flora sometimes. She began to think in shorter sentences, even. Little bursts more appropriate to the age than the courtly, byzantine thought patterns that usually imposed themselves upon her through the books that she read and the people her father spent time with. Her heart tended to beat slightly faster, though not as fast as it did when she was running.
This was probably because Flora was an inherently exciting and interesting person, even if her enthusiasm could at times be excessive. Isabel was sure that Nadine or Mary or anybody else felt the same way around her, with this sudden thrilling roar of blood in the head. It only stood to reason, since Isabel was not as strange a girl as all that.
Right? Wasn’t that how things worked in this world—?
And so they went for ice cream. The nearest place was in Colchester, two miles or so away; it was lucky that Nadine had just begun to be allowed to drive. The roads were still mostly hard-packed dirt rather than asphalt up here, but Nadine seemed to be used to dealing with it. She’d been here for a lot of the summer even before this week, after all.
Flora, in the end, lost interest in poking Isabel’s face and set about having a relatively normal conversation with her instead. They discussed several things, it seemed, all at once. Flora’s mind was not particularly there, but nor was it in her usual space of groaningly bad puns and cleverly-placed mentions of things that she was not supposed to know. It was in the altogether stranger and more dangerous territory described by her eyes, which were following the curve of Isabel’s neck, very pale and smooth and unlike her face without the blemishes of pubescence, up to her ear and across to her profile.
Flora and Isabel shared a nose, the centrepiece of the face serving to indicate their distant relation—both great-granddaughters of one Baldwin Weld and his wife Dorothy Standish—where almost nothing else about them did. That nose loomed in Flora’s mind as a sign of their basic similarity, and that basic similarity, another aspect of it, was what made her worry and think herself in the wrong for feeling the way she did. She thought that her feelings were wrong and she did not know how she felt.
Then the two realised. It was very simple and would probably take them some time to make complex enough even to put into specific thoughts, but they realised, and they chatted on, each with the most important person to them.
‘All-l-l-l right!’ Nadine Bartleby said, oddly excited for her cool image. ‘We’re here? Isn’t ice cream grand?’
‘Yay,’ said Mary Shaw, a little weakly. She had spoken, at least in public, more to-day than in the first two and a half days of the trip put together.
‘I want chocolate-chocolate double-chocolate everything,’ said Flora. ‘Do they have chocolate-chocolate double-chocolate everything?’
‘Flora,’ said Isabel with a smile, ‘that’s only at that one place in Brookline.’
‘It should be at more places also.’
‘Well,’ joked Isabel, ‘you could grow up and run for President and make other stores carry it. I think that is what is called the ‘bully pulpit’. I suppose presidents do what they have to do to keep their comforts in that place.’
‘She can’t run for President,’ Nadine said in a tone of voice that wanted very much to be older-and-wiser. ‘Girls can’t grow up to be President, Isabel.’
‘You mean we don’t,’ said Isabel. If Nadine wanted to play at worldly-wise superiority then Isabel was more than game for it. ‘There is nothing in the Constitution saying that we cannot. I would be a-wonder if preventing it did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, also the Twentieth.’
‘One could almost call them,’ said Flora, ‘Constitutional A-women-d-women-ts.’ Isabel flinched. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Flora delicately. ‘I am glad you’re enjoying your civics class, Isabel my dear.’ Isabel smirked; it was a ‘don’t worry, it’s fine’ smirk.
‘Right,’ said Nadine. ‘All right. I dare say that is not the point of the conversation or why we are here anyway.—Flora, they do have a particularly rich chocolate that you can get with a lot of hot fudge. Would that be acceptable?’
‘Would it ever!’ said Flora. ‘What do you want, eh, Isabel?’
Isabel thought for a while and then said ‘This ‘maple walnut’ flavour seems really quite enticing.’
‘I’ve had it,’ said Nadine. ‘It is very good.—I think it is in any case.’
They went into the ice cream parlour and came back out again with their respective flavours. Flora indeed got the chocolate ice cream with as many different forms of chocolate in the toppings as she could get away with; Nadine supported this full-throatedly despite her own pistachio cone, Alberta and a couple of other of the girls said that they found it a bit gauche, and Isabel merely worried about her already high levels of activity and energy.
Perhaps it was indeed a large and important part of Isabel’s identity and selfhood to follow Flora about and help her in her little hobbies and excitements, but that did not mean that she was always able to, putting it simply, keep up with her, nor even that she necessarily wanted to if it meant maintaining such an absurd energy level. Flora was only fifteen and already Isabel worried that her enthusiasm would drive her into an early grave if she did not settle down once reached adulthood. She probably would but there was no way to be sure of this. Surely everybody who knew Flora worried about her as much as Isabel did. Surely the sick feeling that she got whenever anything bad happened to Flora was simple caring for a friend.
Isabel had no idea what she was even trying to convince herself of any more. She wondered if Flora’s own thoughts were so muddled right now, whether about this or something else.
Flora’s thoughts were indeed muddled. Mainly it was concern for Isabel, who looked upset about something or other. There was some enjoyment of the ice cream in there, certainly, along with general happiness with how this trip was going so far. The main confusion was about what, exactly, Isabel looked so disturbed over. Was it people not liking her?—But they liked her perfectly well. Was it about something in the news of which Flora was unaware? That was certainly a possibility, and it would not be the first time, but Isabel seemed shaken on a much more personal level than she usually was about that sort of thing. Flora could tell just by looking at her.
‘What is it, Flora?’
‘Are you all right?’
‘I am fine.’
Flora frowned and narrowed her eyes and peered closely at Isabel. Isabel, she noticed, was wearing some sort of skin product that smelled of bayberries. Funny how Flora noticed these things. But only with Isabel. That struck her as really queer and she was not sure why it should be. ‘You don’t look as if you’re fine, Isabel,’ she said softly.
‘Well, I am.’ Isabel primly took a lick of her maple walnut ice cream and flipped her hair back over her shoulder.
‘Isabel,’ moaned Flora. ‘I’m serious. If you are fine, do not pine like that.’
‘I am not pining, Flora.’
‘You look very much as if you are.’ Flora wiped a smudge of Isabel’s ice cream off of her upper lip. ‘Fixed this for you,’ she said with a smile. ‘Really, Isabel, what is there that is bothering you so on a day like this?’
Isabel decided on honesty. ‘It’s you,’ she said. ‘I feel rather odd around you and I am not sure why.’
‘Bad-odd?’ asked Flora. ‘Good-odd? I’m not sure what you mean by ‘odd’ here and whether it’s that big of a problem…’
‘Just odd,’ said Isabel. She looked up into the piebald blue and white of the sky beyond the lake and the buildings and the trees. ‘A questioning feeling.’
‘Yes, but questioning what?’
‘I’m not sure I want to talk about it,’ said Isabel. ‘I wish I could but I am still not really sure what these feelings are.’
‘Really?’ said Flora. ‘You have feelings that you aren’t sure of what they are?’
‘Yes. Why is that so surprising?’ Isabel took a slurp of her ice cream. ‘Flora, I am thirteen, as were you until just a year and four months ago. If you claim that you did not have self-doubt in the years just before you entered high school, then…’ She shook her head. ‘I would hate to accuse you of lying, Flora.’
‘Then don’t. That’s not what I said. There’s a difference between having self-doubt and flopping and gaping around whatever you’re feeling like a freshwater fish.’
‘It would not be an odd feeling if I could immediately recognise it and explain it to you at your command, Flora!’ Isabel snapped, raising her shoulders in a subtle, subconscious gesture of wanting to be left alone.
Flora, apologetic for her specific words and actions but still wanting to know what was going on, pressed forward. ‘Please don’t think I don’t care,’ she said, ‘or am not serious in caring.’
‘I do not think that,’ said Isabel, ‘at all. Don’t worry about that.’
‘So why aren’t you telling me…?’ Flora pursed her lips and brushed back her tangled brown hair. ‘Isabel? Are you by any chance feeling a bit less ‘odd’ and a bit more ‘queer’?’
‘What is that supposed to mean? What’s the difference?’ Isabel asked.
‘Never mind,’ said Flora, whose vocabulary was rather, shall it be said, bohemian for a girl of her age and station thanks to the sort of political positions that her father had come to espouse. She was sure that what her pun insinuated, at least to people who were familiar with the double meanings involved, was not true of Isabel; it had only been a joke and she felt bad for making it even if Isabel had not, mercifully, understood.
Flora was not really sure what this feeling was either but unlike Isabel she did not see this as a reason for any particular concern beyond the normal. It was how it was right now and it could be dealt with later if need be. This was not how Flora thought about everything but it worked in this case.
‘How is your ice cream?’ Nadine abruptly asked.
‘It’s good,’ said Flora.
‘Mine is also,’ said Isabel.
Nadine frowned. ‘What is the situation here all of a sudden, girls?’ she asked, twisting her lip in mildly annoyed concern.
‘Isabel’s being a bit odd with her feelings,’ said Flora. ‘I am not sure if this is something that you would necessarily want to be involved in, though, Nadine.’
‘Ah, really?’ said Nadine. ‘I see, I see.’ She went off back into The Emperor of Ice-Cream’s gaudy storefront for some napkins.
‘Thank you for that, Flora,’ said Isabel. She leaned her head over against Flora’s. ‘If we absolutely must talk on these things I would rather it be us talking, you see.’ She threw her head back and looked up into the clouds again. Isabel, Flora had long since noticed, often looked thus at the clouds in reverie when she was nervous but not in a bad mood exactly.—Good. She was relieved that this was apparently such a time.
After ice cream, they went back to the Bartlebys’ villa.
‘Would anybody like to play some Monopoly?’ Nadine asked. ‘I am fairly sure that we have two separate copies of the game here.’
Florence Ellet Gardiner stretched herself out on Nadine’s couch and said ‘I would like to go to the cinema if that is an option. We are relatively close to Burlington, are we not? Does anybody know what they might have playing?’
Flora, who was relatively attuned to current movies, thought for a minute and then said ‘There is a Little Women film out. It has Elizabeth Taylor in it. I am not sure who she is but tales of her being a bright young promising actress have been reaching my ears a bit. Also something called The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, which is a Western that does not seem to have much of a serious quality about it.’
‘Is there anything possibly a little lighter, Flora?’ asked Isabel. ‘Not The Beautiful and-such-and-such. Anything with Cary Grant or Tracy and Hepburn or anybody along those lines?’
‘There is Neptune’s Daughter which is some sort of beach musical,’ said Flora, ‘and there is a comedy that will be shown beginning next month with Cary Grant involved in it. It is called I Was a Male War Bride; grant, O God, that it may carry the box office, because that sounds frightfully amusing.’
‘Are there any more, ah, serious Westerns out?’ asked Florence.
‘I am not sure,’ said Flora. ‘Have any of you got a newspaper that might have any form of film news or reviews in it?’
‘No,’ said Nadine. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s all right, it’s all right,’ said Flora, waving her hand. ‘We could simply go to the cinema and see what they have—or even go into something random and hope to get lucky.’ She turned to Emma Norwood, who was not particularly involved in the conversation, just so that she could ask ‘Would that be such a sin, Emma?’
‘I am not even following this conversation,’ Emma said swottishly. ‘Might you want to ask somebody else?’
‘Oh, you’re no good sport,’ Flora groused.
‘Too bad,’ said Emma. ‘I’m sorry but I really have not been paying attention.’ She stood up, smoothing her skirt around her knees, and walked into the kitchen. ‘I can bring over some of the lemonade that Judith and I made, though, if any of you would like some.’
‘That would be peachy!’ said Nadine, clasping her hands with a smile.
‘Fine,’ said Flora. ‘Fine.’
Now Flora was in the odd position of being more annoyed at something than Isabel was. Isabel was not particularly invested one way or another in going to the cinema or in what to see if they did; but Flora really wanted to have some sort of plan in mind to do so, and really wanted to execute it to-day, if possible.
‘Do you girls want to do a matinee or something in the evening, if we go to the cinema?’ Flora asked.
‘Either one is all right by me,’ said Nadine with that placid smile of hers.
‘I would prefer evening, actually,’ Isabel said. Flora brightened so, so much at actually getting a response, from her best friend no less. Isabel brightened also in her brightness. Flora in these moments, purely happy and adorable, was a hymn to everything for which the race of man was worth not despising.
‘Evening sounds good,’ said Flora. ‘We might all me a bit more even-tempered then, no?’
‘Right,’ said Isabel. ‘I would say that that is a…’ she coughed ‘…sorry. That is a distinctly possible advantage.’ She sighed and leaned back in her wicker chair. ‘Wait, was that a pun?’
‘You’ll have to be more specific,’ said Flora.
‘Evening/even-tempered,’ said Isabel.
‘Ah!’ said Flora. She laughed. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It was. You’re getting awfully good at recognising those, Flora.’ She pouted and observed ‘It might not always be as fun if my secret puns aren’t secrets any longer.’
‘I can help keep them secret for you,’ said Isabel. She was not altogether sure why she was beginning to be in such a better mood, relative at least to her mood previously, but she very definitely was. That was good. Isabel, despite what some people thought, did not in fact like being unhappy or confused.
So she shoved the confusion down to deal with later, after they went about the rest of their day having fun and all being normal teenage girls together in the greatest and most victorious country in the world. How normal and happy they all were together! This idyllic life would not end or change, doubtless, doubtless.
She was young.
Flora was talking to Judith Lowell Corwin, making a pun on the word ‘stevedore’, a synonym for longshoreman. It seemed that she, too, had got herself into a better mood. Isabel was glad. She was so, so glad to be watching this happy and beautiful girl here.
As it happened, they saw The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, which none of them thought was very good. It got out at a little before nine. It was still light out, though most of the sun had dipped below the lake horizon and the sky was in the east dusky purple, in the west peach streaked with brighter red and golden clouds.
‘So, Flora,’ said Isabel.
‘Yes, Isabel?’ said Flora.
‘What would you like to do to-morrow?’ asked Isabel. ‘I thought we might go swimming.’
‘Why can’t we do that to-night?’ asked Flora. ‘I mean…’ She stood out on the veranda and gazed down at the lake. ‘It’s still sort of light out. It won’t be dangerous if we stay close to shore.’
‘The problem with that,’ said Isabel, ‘is that Mary is asleep already and all of our swimsuits are in Mary’s room.’
‘We could swim in our clothes,’ said Flora, ‘or naked. What else is there to do in any case?’
Isabel sighed. ‘No to both of those possibilities,’ she said.
‘Why not?’ Flora moaned.
‘Because I don’t want to get them sopping wet,’ Isabel replied, ‘and because that would be embarrassing, respectively.’ She walked up to stand beside Flora and said ‘You can swim if you’d like. I’ll join you if go again to-morrow.’
‘It wouldn’t be fun without you.’
‘Oh, well, thank you,’ I suppose, said Isabel. Immediately after saying this, yielding to the flood of beauty in the setting sun, gazing into eyes the colour of that sun she did something very stupid.
‘What…did you just do?’ Flora asked, wiping her mouth and gazing at Isabel in apparently totally genuine confusion.
‘I…kissed you?’ said Isabel. It confused her, too; not what she had done, obviously, but whatever reasons she had for having done it. It was somehow very distracting; it was hard to put into words but it still lingered on her lips. It was the oddest of many odd feelings she had had to-day.
‘Yes,’ said Flora. ‘You did. A merry kiss, miss. But what for, Isabel?’
‘You looked lovely in the setting sun,’ said Isabel. ‘I wanted to tell you so in some…way without words.’
‘You kissed me on the mouth. Rather deeply, I might add.’
‘Well, you don’t exactly seem that upset about it,’ Isabel snapped, now panicking a bit over the potential ramifications of what she had just done.
‘I’m not,’ said Flora, ‘but I share your confusion now.’
‘You might be in a different sort of confused state,’ Isabel said sullenly.
Flora gasped in mock-surprise, put her fingers to her mouth, and said in a stage whisper ‘I’m in…Illinois?!’
‘Now is not the time!’ Isabel snapped. She tried to run off; Flora went after her across the veranda and down on to the lush lawn that sloped down towards the pebbly shore of Lake Champlain. Isabel was not running in her occasional playful we; she was distraught, and Flora knew that she had made it worse. It made Flora’s heart sick to think that even inadvertently she had…
—She caught up to Isabel and put a hand on her shoulder, halfway down the swerving line of stairs made of old bricks and cinderblocks that swept from the house down to the waterline. Isabel turned. Her cheek was slick with tears in the rapidly fading light of the summer’s evening. She tried to say Flora’s name; could not choke it out. Flora went around her and embraced her.
‘Oh, Isabel…’ she whispered. ‘I never mean to hurt you.’
‘I know,’ said Isabel. ‘Nor I. I know.’
‘Are we still friends?’ asked Flora. ‘Friend-ing is better than ending, you know. Better than…’ She hugged Isabel more tightly.
‘Of course we are,’ said Isabel. ‘That is a silly question. Were we ever not, even for an instant…well, my whole world would collapse!’ She put her arms around Flora. There was nothing odd about it any more, in this very moment. It was peaceful and pure.
‘You’re my best friend, you know,’ Flora said. ‘My world would collapse too. That would certainly make my face fall.’
Isabel laughed a little and sniffled a little. ‘My word choice there was awful,’ she said.
‘Awful in the original sense,’ said Flora, ‘in that it provokes awe at how good you are at enabling my sense of humour.’
‘It’s…it is hard to cry, or be dramatic, when you are hugging me and saying such a set of—such a set of things that suits you so perfectly,’ Isabel said with a lopsided smile.
‘Isabel Crowninshield, you are amazing,’ Flora said.
‘You are quite amazing yourself,’ said Isabel. ‘We can…’ She wiped her eyes. ‘Can we discuss these strange feelings some other time?’
‘Of course,’ Flora replied. ‘We needn’t push ourselves. If we are in so much of a rush to clumsily handle emotions then we will end up as just reeds breaking in the rushing stream.’
‘And yet clearly you did,’ David Lenihan said.
‘Oh, of course,’ said Isabel. ‘Nothing in the story we just told you should indicate otherwise, David.’ She seemed mildly annoyed.
‘Sorry, Miz C,’ said David. ‘Sorry, Miz G.’
‘Nothing’s wrong,’ said Flora. ‘In any case, you have heard about quite a bit of our lives now!’
‘Yeah,’ said David, ‘but there’s still stuff like how you met that you haven’t really gotten into.’ He picked up a little rubber stress ball and bounced it up and down in his hand and against the old teak dining-room table. ‘For example,’ he said, ‘I still haven’t heard about how you met.’
Flora brightened immensely.
‘Flora, you handle this story, perhaps?’ said Isabel. ‘You remember it a mite more clearly than I do in any case. I am going to go to the corner store to get a Hoodsie. Would you like a Hoodsie, David?’
‘I’d love one,’ said David. ‘Thanks, Miz C!’
‘You are very welcome.’
Isabel left. ‘Well, then,’ said Flora to David, ‘imagine, if you will, being eight half a year after Pearl Harbor…’
The Garden Party~Endless Love
They were in the middle of the war years, and John Hynes was Mayor of Boston. Godfrey Crowninshield, up and coming in the Boston Brahmin social circles as well as Boston’s financial world, had recently come under the wing of the worryingly radical but absolutely brilliant Randolph Greenleaf. One of the East-Coast ‘wise men’ of the Elihu Root school, Greenleaf had for the past quarter-century alternated various roles in the governments of the United States and of Massachusetts with business and legal work here in Boston. After graduating from Harvard College in 1914 with a degree in Classics—the standard degree, even now, for a gentleman of his class and generation—he had married his sweetheart, the former Evangeline Cabot, coincidentally a first cousin to Godfrey Crowninshield’s own young bride, the former Adelle Alden. Straightway Randolph Greenleaf had gone to Washington, where President Woodrow Wilson and Senator David Walsh had told him that he had been recommended for a policy post in the Treasury advising Secretary William McAdoo.
This had lasted for three years. Randolph Greenleaf and William McAdoo had not got along at all, and Greenleaf had returned to Massachusetts with a new young family, his first two children Dorothy and William having been born in the District during those years, and not much else besides experience and money, which he valued less than most people would have in his situation. Hereupon he had been elected to one of the genteel part of Boston’s seats in the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court, where for six years the young man had debated and held forth beneath the Sacred Cod. He had had only one more child in these years, his second daughter Marion. Leaving the General Court in 1925, he had embarked upon a programme of investment and within the next four years had three more children, John and then the twins Laura and Barton.
Randolph Greenleaf got very lucky in October of 1929, in the sense of a surprising lack of any particularly bad luck at that horrible juncture in the nation’s affairs. He had been thirty-seven then, in the same year that Godfrey, a high-school boy, had met Adelle, a student at Simmons College. Laura and Barton were two months old when the markets crashed and their father was one of the few people not to lose next to everything. So he had started a savings and loan, because such things were still needed—especially so, even, solvent ones in those times. And he had, in 1934, one final child, his seventh and his fourth daughter, Flora. Flora was thus only a tiny bit younger than Godfrey and Adelle’s eldest, Peter, and apparently at roughly the same level of emotional and mental development, even though she was two years older, than their second-oldest, Isabel.
This day, in the June of 1942, a sweltering day in Boston though probably not as much as for the boys fighting in North Africa and Midway Atoll, Randolph and Evangeline had decided to invite the Crowninshields over to their house for a garden party. With Randolph’s younger brother Roderick heading up a small brass band for them in the back garden it really felt like something special. The food, mostly chilled fruit and summer salads with some chicken also set out for their eating delight, was delicious, though Peter, nine, was given to grouse as he sometimes did about the lack of his favourite food, pork chops.
Isabel had said ‘Well, of course there aren’t pork chops, Pete. Pork chops are too thick and rich for a hot summer like this. Eat the food that’s here and you won’t get sick.’
Isabel was rather a swot like that sometimes.
Isabel made her way to the corner store and leaned against one of the inside walls. The lights of the convenience store were fluorescent, which she normally would have hated, but in this instance they were oddly calming. The rows of packaged and processed foods, the paper towels and other household goods, the coolers along the back wall filled with bars and tubs of ice-cream and bottles of divers drinks…it all called to mind the shining but ultimately illusory world like a mayfly that she had flitted through with Flora so long ago. It was of course not the same—that world had fancied itself more refined, more of a ‘culture’ in the traditional snobbish sense of the word than this world of convenience stores and sports bars would ever even want to claim. But still…
That world had been like this one in how simple and dear it had been to itself and its own inhabitants—only the young in that time and place and manner. The children had been that world as now, if not the children, at least the young, at least those who were not old, were this. So, having been a child then, and being an old woman now, Isabel felt a surge of nostalgia and a keening desire for that gossamer past.
She knew exactly how the world as a whole was coming to move in these times. The clean shining simplicity here was as unreal now as it had been at the garden party in the time of ‘The Good War’. It was an artificial happiness thrown up against a world in which real happiness was hard to come by. This was a very abnormal place. It was places like Afghanistan, what with the war, or the Sahel, what with the drought, that were ‘normal’ in terms of the larger world. Years like bayberry-flowers passed in Isabel’s head as she stood there looking for the Hoodsies. It must be her life, it must be her love, or it was nothing at all, an empty shrine of happiness.
Yet it was there, all totally there! Primo’s Convenience Store became the back garden. The Lady Gaga playing over the tinny store radio became Marian Anderson singing in Washington and Roderick Greenleaf leading his band at the summer party before the fireworks. She was back there now, in the time where she still had suspicions that she might even so, even in light of everything, belong.
The girl was dark-haired, darker than she was, and Flora, age eight, thought that she looked in an awful mood as she tried to tug up a flower to put in the front pocket of her little dress.
‘Hello!’ Flora said with a smile.
The girl looked up at her, not smiling. ‘Hello,’ she said, not unkindly but not with any particular kindness. ‘Who are you?’
‘My name is Flora. My daddy is in the brown suit with the brocade waistcoat.’
The girl looked over at the grown-ups. Flora’s daddy was saying something about ‘…my work on the home front policy grouping…’, and a baby was squirming on his lap.
‘Your ‘daddy’, if you will, is holding Grace,’ said the girl.
‘My sister,’ said the girl. She held out her hand. ‘I’m Isabel. Isabel Crowninshield. My father is the young handsome man in the grey flannel suit.’ She pointed at her father. Flora thought that probably she was saying that her daddy was handsome because he was her daddy and not because he was handsome, and she said so.
Isabel slapped Flora. Then Flora lunged at Isabel and commenced tugging on her hair. They went down to the ground, nearly crushing the flowers, and rolled around on the grass grabbing and pulling at each other.
‘…President Roosevelt says that Detroit is the ‘arsenal of democracy’,’ Godfrey Crowninshield was saying. ‘What do you think of that, Mr Greenleaf?’
‘It’s accurate in that that is where the industrial production is taking place but there is of course more to democracy than industrial production. But what is being discussed is the war effort.’
‘You work on the home front, don’t you?’
‘I help set policy for the home front, Godfrey,’ said Randolph Greenleaf. ‘It is my job to help decide what ‘home front’ is and what it is to do.’
‘Mm,’ said Godfrey Crowninshield with a nod. He looked at the sky. ‘This is a lovely day.’
‘It is,’ said Evangeline Greenleaf. ‘Say—are our daughters fighting over yon by the oak tree?’
‘They are!’ cried Adelle Crowninshield. ‘Isabel!’ she shouted. ‘Isabel!’
Isabel heard and, straddling Flora, said ‘It’s my mother.’
‘Oh,’ said Flora.
Flora then kicked some dirt up Isabel’s dress. Isabel yelped and said ‘You’re mean!’
‘I’m older,’ said Flora.
‘What does that have to do with it?’
Isabel was an old woman and rather tired. She reached down with a somewhat creaky back and pulled two Hoodsie cups out of one of the big coolers. Making her way up to the counter, she nodded and said ‘This will be all.’
‘All right, Miss Crowninshield,’ said the clerk. The clerk was named Rajeev and was first-generation American-born; he had a little bit of an accent but not much, and he was a senior in a high school in Back Bay. Formerly most such clerks would have been Italians from the North End or Irish from the South, at least in Isabel’s admittedly limited and sheltered experience. How things changed.
‘How have you been, Rajeev?’ Isabel asked.
‘Ill-merited and dispirited,’ he replied.
‘Why?’ Isabel asked.
‘My girlfriend,’ said Rajeev, ‘Christina. She decided to break up with me because I was not being a stud enough for her.’
‘Well, that’s ridiculous,’ said Isabel.
‘Says the woman who’s been married for fifty-one years and can afford to…’ Rajeev said despairingly.
‘Technically,’ said Isabel pedantically, ‘five years.’
‘Well, you know what I mean. In the same relationship!’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel. ‘I’m sorry if that bothers you, Rajeev, but…’
‘It doesn’t bother me at all,’ Rajeev said. He leaned forward and put his chin in his hand and said ‘I think it’s beautiful.’
‘Really?’ said Isabel.
‘Certainly,’ said Rajeev. ‘I mean, it’s certainly remarkable that you have done what you have done. You had a charmed life, Miss Crowninshield. There has been a lot of beauty for you.’
‘I know,’ said Isabel. ‘Thank you, Rajeev. Thank you for saying it’s been beautiful. I hope you will have as much beauty as I have.’
‘I hope so too. Shall I ring up the Hoodsies?’
Rajeev rang them up and said ‘That will be three dollars fifty.’ Isabel plunked down a five-dollar bill on the counter; Rajeev gave her back a dollar coin featuring the visage of John Adams and two quarters, one an Oklahoma statehood quarter and the other a faded one that had been in circulation for over twenty years.
‘Thank you very much,’ said Isabel.
‘You’re welcome. You take care now.’
‘Well,’ said Isabel, ‘I am exhausted and my dress has grass stains, which might not ever come out.’
‘I have all of that,’ said Flora, ‘and you cut my forehead too.’
‘Then go seek out a bandage for it,’ said Isabel, lifting her index finger and closing her eyes as she spoke. ‘That’s the number-one thing you can do if you get a cut, you know. Wash it and bandage it.’
‘Wait,’ said Flora, ‘how old are you again?’
‘I’m six. What’s it matter?’
‘You know, you don’t have to be all fancy and talk all like that and make yourself look really smart when you’re a kid,’ said Flora. ‘I’m in third grade, and I’m learning the high part of the times tables. What are you doing, addition and subtraction?’
‘That, and I have learned to read,’ Isabel said.
‘You’re still doing it!’
‘If ‘it’ is knowing who I am and where I come from, I don’t ever want to stop,’ said Isabel, turning up her face.
Flora sighed. ‘Isabel,’ she said, ‘that’s the kind of thinking that makes the other big kids bully you! And I don’t want that.’
‘You bullied me just now!’
‘You slapped me first!’ Flora shouted. ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on, Isabel? We have to present a united front!’
‘Did you get that from one of the poplar-gander broadcasts?’ Isabel hissed. ‘You can’t possibly be saying that yourself.’ Flora was about to retort that poplar-gander didn’t sound like a real word to her but the younger girl continued. ‘A united front doesn’t mean not getting angry when older girls say mean things!’
‘I’m sorry for saying those things,’ said Flora. Her voice was flat. She meant it.
‘I’m sorry for slapping you and all that,’ said Isabel. She meant it too, in spite of her young child’s pride.
‘You want to be friends?’ Flora asked guilelessly.
Isabel let her guard down just long enough to say ‘Sure,’ and then looked embarrassed and blushed and stammered.
‘So we’re friends.’
‘Yes, I guess.’
‘What school do you go to?’ Flora asked.
‘Mellon Girls’ Academy,’ said Isabel.
‘I do too!’ Flora grinned and clasped Isabel’s hands. They stood there beneath the old oak tree with half-smushed flowers and a snail as witnesses, holding hands for the first time, smiling at each other broadly and genuinely for the first time.
They had found equals, or something like that.
‘We should eat together,’ said Isabel. ‘Lunchtime?’
‘Recess time!’ said Flora. ‘Yes! Lunch and recess! Let’s eat on the playground. We can’t do it right now, though. Because it is summer. And let me tell you I am a bit hot and bothered about that.’
Isabel laughed artlessly. ‘Hee, hee,’ she said. ‘You’re silly.’
While Isabel was paying for the Hoodsies at the corner store, Flora was taking a break from telling David this first and last story to start preparing some eggs for him. David liked fried eggs and Flora was very good at making them, as Randolph Greenleaf had been before her. David was a little tired. He had not slept much last night and to-morrow he had the first of his final exams.
‘Did you have a good Thanksgiving, David?’ Flora asked.
‘Yes, very,’ he said. ‘You? I haven’t asked, even though it’s been a couple weeks.’
Flora nodded. ‘Ours was quite well,’ she said, ‘quite well. Though it was more of a Franksgiving considering how many hot dogs my nephew Oliver ate.’
‘Christmas is coming,’ said David.
‘Yes, I know,’ said Flora with a laugh. ‘I don’t know what I should like to do this year, exactly, but I know that I want you to meet Charlie and possibly Dr Compton if he is able and willing to make the trip down from Vermont.’
‘I’d like that. I’d like that a lot, Miz G.’
‘I would like it too,’ Flora said. ‘I think you would like them and I know they would like you—and I like it when the people important to me know and like one another.’
‘I’m important to you, Miz G?’
‘Oh, of course! You’re VERY important. You’re of more import in our lives right now than even the Port of Boston for Isabel, I think.’
‘That would make sense, her being retired and all.’
Flora frowned. ‘You didn’t…get it…’ She coughed. ‘Anyway, of course you are important to us! You are our helper, David, in our old age, and you show much more genuine interest in and liking for us than you have to!’
‘You’re the sort of women who made America great,’ said David without a hint of irony. Flora sat down, repeated this silently to herself, and then began to cry. She bent over in a flurry of heaving sobs.
‘Holy shit, Miz G, what’s wrong?’
‘Nothing’s wrong, David,’ Flora said, gazing at him fondly. ‘Nothing is wrong at all. I just…remembered something really important.’
‘What is it? What did you remember?’
‘I remembered that Isabel has always, always—’
‘—I’ve got your back, silly,’ Isabel said.
It was December 1943. Isabel would very soon be eight and Flora would a couple of months later be ten. Flora, now, was being picked upon by a girl three years older who hung about like a thug on the playground, and Flora was not as strong as she might sometimes seem.
‘I mean it, you know,’ Isabel said. ‘I have absolutely got your back. It won’t be necessary for you to cry like that some day, if I have any say about it. You’re my best friend.’
‘But I’m…dumb and annoying and…too old for you…’
Isabel pursed her lips and said in her arch and superior manner, ‘That is absolutely insane. You are smart and you are entertaining and your age does not matter to me since we get along so well. Do I act almost eight?’
‘Sometimes. Sometimes you act almost eighty.’
‘Thanks. That’s it. For us, it’s not the same, so maybe it doesn’t matter, I think.’
‘You’re the greatest, Isabel!’ said Flora, and practically flung herself around her friend. ‘I love you so much.’
‘You are great also,’ Isabel said. ‘What do you want to do after school to-day? The boys have offered a game of stickball but that is a bit more…I might not really like to be such a tomboy as that.’
‘Yes,’ said Flora with a nod. ‘I was just about to say that, yes. It’s not…really, really you. Well, how does a little bit of that and then some baking or something like that sound to you? I want you to teach me how to bake a cake.’
‘But I don’t know how to bake a cake!’
‘Well, then, I want us both to learn. It would be a very sweet thing to be able to do for people, for one thing.’ She laughed and after a minute Isabel laughed with her merrily.
‘Do you like to swim, Flora?’
‘I love swimming! You’ve known me for a year and a half and you don’t know that I love to swim? That rather dampens my spirits.’
‘Would you like to go to a swimming pool one of these days?’
‘It’s very cold out,’ said Flora. ‘It hasn’t been above freezing in almost two weeks.’
Isabel here socked Flora in the face. Flora rubbed her face and gave a ‘what-was-that-frown’. ‘I meant an indoors one,’ said Isabel. Flora nodded glumly and apologetically. Isabel knew this face well by now. Tripping the Greenleaf Flortastic was about living life with gusto, yes, but it was also about knowing when your friend had been, if not justified in hitting you, at least more justified now than she had been the first time she had ever done so.
‘I don’t like indoor pools,’ Flora said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Isabel. ‘We can swim next summer.’
‘But I’ll be bored after school now!’
‘We could,’ said Isabel, ‘instead of trying to make a cake, have your father buy us one and eat it with tea.’
‘Daddy would probably do that if we asked, yeah,’ Flora conceded. ‘So you want to come to my house after school and do that?’
‘Yes. I love having tea-times with you, Flora.’
Flora grinned and ruffled Isabel’s hair. She liked doing this, because it annoyed Isabel enough to amuse Flora but not enough to make Isabel hit Flora. Isabel, however, seemed to have come to expect it to the point of not being too bothered by it, and Flora was thus a little bit disappointed. Then Isabel stretched out her hand and waggled her fingers. Flora took her hand and they stood there, looking vaguely at each other for a minute, before the bell chimed for their next class.
‘I have to go to math,’ said Flora. ‘Sorry! I’ll talk to you at lunch. I promise, Isabel!’
‘I have to go to English,’ said Isabel. ‘So that’s fine. I’ll see you at lunch, Flora. We should play on the jungle gym!’
Flora nodded vigorously at this suggestion. ‘What are the second-graders doing right now?’ she asked. ‘I mean, just in English, what are you doing?’
‘We’re reading Johnny Tremain,’ said Isabel.
‘Oh! I hope you can handle that book,’ said Flora. ‘It’s really not that good, though I think you’ll like it. Wait. Have you started it?’
‘We are halfway through,’ Isabel replied, a bit snappishly. ‘I like it a lot. And I can handle it pretty well, or at least I think so.’
Flora laughed. ‘That is good,’ she said. ‘I like you a lot, you know, Isabel.’
‘I know. I also like you a lot.’
Isabel Crowninshield decided to take a morning constitutional around Beacon Hill. The day was whitish-green in cast and flavour; it was the beginning of December and the snows had not started yet but the dead leaves drifted in cold gusts along the streets. Wrapping her coat more tightly around herself, Isabel noted a mild pain in her left foot. It went away in a moment, and she moved on.
She decided to go walk about down by the Massachusetts State House, only about one and three-quarters blocks away from her and Flora’s home, and one from Primo’s. She reached the part of Myrtle Street across from the State House relative to Hancock Street and stopped. Her head was aching; she sat down a moment and decided to head back.
Flora and Isabel lived on Joy Street near its T-shaped intersection with Pinckney. It was a big house but not big in a way, or in a direction, that readily admitted of shortcuts. She would simply have to take the streets back around to the front door. Isabel Crowninshield sighed. She was in good health but not everything was easy at this age even so. Soon she would probably want to have David do some more of these sorts of things. But, on this day, flipping the brown paper bag with the Hoodsies in it up over her shoulder, she went off herself back towards home.
Life was very long looking forward and oddly, vertiginously short looking back. There had been so much to love about it, and so much love for Isabel herself. Some of the love had been for Isabel’s own good. What sort of personality she might have developed less Flora’s influence—how pompous and inanely grand she might have become—that scarcely bore thinking about. It was to the point where her very body, her modes of physical expression and movement, was under the influence of her history with Flora. All of the strange and oddly-named and obscure parts of the human anatomy Isabel had a more-than-usual knowledge of for a non-physician, since Flora loved so many of their rather ridiculous names.
‘My favourite body parts,’ Flora had pontificated to her once upon a time, ‘include the crescent of Gianuzzi, isles of Langerhans, crypts of Lieberkühn, canal of Gugier, circle of Willis, area of Cohnheim, pyramids of Malpighi, antrum of Highmore, spaces of Fontana, cistern of Pecquet, angle of Ludwig, Scarpa’s triangle, Gower’s tract, Goll’s column, pouch of Douglas, convolutions of Broca, and jelly of Wharton.’
‘Are any of those real body parts?’ Isabel had asked.
‘They all are.’
‘Yes.’ Flora laughed. ‘Isabel, Isabel, my love. Would I lie to you?’ She brushed her hair back up into her hair band.
‘Well…no, but…’ Isabel looked vaguely uncomfortable. ‘Flora, you are telling me that there is a place in my body called the crypts of Lieberkühn? Forgive me, but that makes me feel a little more like a sci-fi warlord than I would like.’
‘I’ll admit it’s a cryptic little bit of anatomic knowledge, yes. They’re enzyme glands in the intestines.’
‘…I see,’ Isabel had said. ‘That is lovely.’
‘Do you want to know what the jelly of Wharton is?’
Back on the day upon which they had met, Flora and Isabel had to go inside and clean out a scrape that Flora got clambering on the big old oak tree. They washed it in the bathroom sink and wiped it off with a washcloth and then Mrs Evangeline Greenleaf came and taped a gauze pad to her daughter’s leg.
‘Do you think you have found a friend, Flora?’ she asked.
‘Mm-hm!’ said Flora brightly. ‘Isabel is fun. She gets all angry and blustery and it’s really silly!’ She giggled.
‘Just don’t go making her angry and blustery on purpose,’ Evangeline chided softly. ‘There are ways to have fun without making people mad, even if it is funny when they are.’
‘I know that, mom,’ said Flora.
Isabel, in the corner of the bathroom, said ‘Why are you talking about me like that? I’m still here.’
‘Sorry, Isabel dear,’ said Evangeline.
‘It’s fine,’ said Isabel with a sort of grumbling frown. ‘I—like your daughter a lot, Mrs Greenleaf.’ She looked down with a blush. Isabel was not used to expressing approbation of people. Even at the age of six she had had it hammered into her that she need not tell anybody that she liked them because she was special, she was better. And she was. She thoroughly believed this. But being special and better, she was learning, to her absolute surprise, did not make spending time with Flora Greenleaf any less fun, even if they had started with a fight.
She thought that they would be very, very good friends—for a long, long time. It was a great feeling of heart-pounding excitement that she had. She looked from her horizon in the past over the whirling nature of time and space to another horizon in the future. The Isabel on the horizon in the future looked back in joy, so happy she could cry. Flora was there with her on that horizon, watching her simple and pure self in the past untroubled by thoughts so far beyond her age as Isabel had. That older Flora stood on a high hill looking down at the girl playing in the valley, a smile on her grey and wrinkled face. How she could be here! How it all could come together!
‘Here!’ Isabel’s voice cried on the future horizon. ‘Quick! It’s all coming together!’
‘What is?’ asked Flora’s voice on that peak.
‘Love was always here.’ Isabel stumbled into the door of their old brick mansion. She was exhausted from her walk. David came and took the Hoodsies from her and put them in the freezer.
‘It was,’ said Flora. ‘Welcome back, Isabel. How was your walk?’
‘The horizon seemed rather odd,’ said Isabel. ‘—Sorry, I mean skyline, not horizon.’ She shook her head. ‘I’m kind of tired.’
Flora went out into the front hall and gave Isabel a hug. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I should have told you not to go out like that. You didn’t sleep well last night, did you? And we need to get some more aspirin.’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel. She tightened the hug. ‘But, you know…right now I just want to say I love you.’
‘I know,’ said Flora. ‘I love you too.’
Isabel smiled. The last thing that she heard before her heart seized up and gave out and she collapsed backwards away from Flora and hit the hardwood floor of the front hall a hundred and twenty-two pounds of dead weight was Flora’s laugh, that timeless and ancient and seemingly, perhaps, eternal giggle that had not changed in sixty-seven years. She was happy, and because she was happy she could not, did not even want to, stop the tears from falling.
Now the whole world was cupped in the palm of a pale hand, and King Death with his septarchy of grey horses came for the soul, bearing it flying to Heaven over the rocks and storms of the world, a blue bird of paradise soaring upwards bathed in pure light the white-green colour of bayberries. In that whirling space she turned and looked down and saw a golden bird rising to meet her. They looked—and everyone was there. Everyone. Everyone.
At first slowly, and then loudly as the whole universe joined in, the welcoming blessed Flora and Isabel. To-day, the twilight chapel of their love saw its fulfilment and dawn. The floating and the racing time advented and wed in this place. They flew up together, up the flow of sparkling watery light and into the endless world.
Fainting from shock, Flora had stuck her head against the corner of the bottom stair of the staircase. While relatively spry, she was still seventy-five years old, and so this had put her in a coma instantly and killed her within three minutes. David came and was with Flora and Isabel as they both lay there dying, trying to make Isabel, who was still slightly conscious and groaning a little, as comfortable as he could in these her ending moments. David was sure that he would be very, very sad very quickly, and he was sure that it would fall to him to help make the news known to the other people to whom Flora and Isabel had been close, but for now he could barely even think or feel anything. It was just inherently absurd, he thought, to be sad, except for his own sake and the sake of the others among the still-living. Surely he was not sad for them. To think that such a trifle as death would prevent Miz G and Miz C from loving each other, more and more and more even as eternity marched on towards some far-flung idea of rapture, would have raised the question of whether he could even claim that he knew anything about them at all. So for them, David wasn’t sad. He moved their bodies to the living room for the time being, not quite thinking clearly about issues of ambulances and police and coroners right now. It was a simple instinctive drive to make them comfortable in their old age. The true world was meeting, that world which was in one hand physical and the everyday world of the delicate spiral of daily life and in the other hand the world of the shining lands and sparkling rains of a vista beyond all that, a world made simply and entirely of, and consisting solely of opportunities for, love.
So what call was there to be upset on their account as opposed to his own or others’? Soon he would call around and deal with what had just happened. For now, he ate one of the Hoodsie cups and, noting that tears were just beginning to trickle from his eyes, said a quick prayer over the bodies, a small portion of a Rosary. He knew that neither of them had been Catholic but they had no need to be made to feel better about the situation. David did.
His flowing and racing tears would not dry up any time soon, he knew that now. He sat on the couch and hung his head down between his knees. There was so much beauty here, now, around him, all the furniture and the antiques under the grandfather clock’s vast eye. They were leaving so much behind for the still-living as they journeyed into a simpler love and grace. They’d had so much in this house…they’d had so much in life, but they had been so good. Might an exception to the general rule be made? Might…?
‘Lord,’ said David, ‘there are two rich women coming to You.’ He choked back a heavy sob. ‘Because they were rich, I have to specifically ask…’ He sniffled. ‘Send not, send not, those two empty away.’
11 February—31 March, 2011