Shirley Graves Cochrane
Kate notices them at once. They sit at a small table in the curve of glass. Beyond the glass the frozen garden shines in mercury light. They are so old they seem ageless, yet beautiful. The woman’s hair is like meringue. Once she was probably considered beautiful, or maybe the pug nose marked her down to pretty. Now her looks have aged to cuteness, yet with style. She wears a kelly green dress; the man wears tweeds from another era–like their owner, ageless. Army, Kate decides; retired general. She has never seen them at the Club before.
Kate’s host leads her to her chair. Congressman, everyone calls him, title serving as first name. Usually he takes a woman by the elbow, but if he knows her well, he places his hand on the small of her back and conducts her by magnetic touch. He lets his wife find her own chair.
Congressman has kept his looks: Women glance at him; stare. Once dean of the delegation, he is no longer even a congressman. Defeated by a “boy” of thirty who once enjoyed his patronage, he was for awhile a Broken Man. Then he recovered, recrowned himself Dean of the Delegation. He reigns here at the Club, among other places
Congressman’s seating policy is : put husbands and wives directly opposite each other. Kate looks across at Steve, tries to see him as others must: a handsome man grown portly, hair curled like a Roman Statue’s about carefully chiseled ears. He is “the only living congressman who knows how to smoke a cigar sexily. ” In some newspaper story Kate has read those words; agrees. But there is something in his eyes—need? Kate sees Congressman watching her steadily, trying to read her as she reads Steve. Any day now Congressman will take Steve aside (Dean of Delegation to Seasoned but Younger Congressman), tell him for his own good . . . What? Kate longs to be an invisible presence at that Dutch-uncle talk.
Congressman makes his standard speech: A believer in marriages (especially his own), he hates to separate couples at table. But since society demands this, he puts them opposite each other so that they can kick each other under the table. His wife laughs. Kate wonders how many times she has laughed at this pre-dinner speech. Is Congressman’s wife named Bea? Kate is never sure.
She turns to watch the old people, leaning toward each other like benign conspirators. All the years her husband climbed the military ladder, the woman would have stayed home. “Two fine children”–daughters. Kate gives her daughters–the General’s career would have been too hard on sons. When she was not busy with her daughters, the woman (her name is Elizabeth, Kate decides) did volunteer work in hospitals, went to matinees, had lunch with unfashionable women who were not wives of generals. One concession she would never make to her husband’s career–she would not let it determine her friendships.
During courtship and early marriage the General and Elizabeth had been in love. Then somehow, after the girls were born, things changed. The General acquired a mistress, then another. Elizabeth waited for this life phase to end. Willing herself not to feel jealousy, she tended her daughters, went to book and author lunches. In the evenings she sipped sherry while her husband had his highball. She waited. Even then there had been a total serenity about her.
World War II. Her husband–named Jack, Kate decides–had gone to . . . Italy’s soft underbelly? Normandy? Wherever, he had gone. Elizabeth saw the girls off to college, closed her home, moved to an apartment hotel on upper Connecticut Avenue. During vacations the girls and sometimes Jack came home, and she opened up the house.
And so Elizabeth’s past spins out inside Kate’s head.
“The girls . . . the girls. . .” At Kate’s table the Senator’s Wife is passing her wallet with its album of pictures. Actually she is the Senator’s widow, but here at the Club she retains her original title, even though she has remarried (a lobbyist who looks like a professor in a midwestern university.) She is elegant but wasted looking, face bones skulling through mother-of-pearl skin. Her hair is like angel hair on a Christmas tree and slightly pink, as though illuminated by tiny lights placed under her coiffure.
Now Congressman’s wife is passing her pictures. Bea. Yes, Kate remembers, her name is Bea. She displays her older son, her younger son, her middle son–stair-stepping them, though all have grown equally to six feet, married, had two children apiece. The Senator’s wife has four girls.
She gives their histories: beauty queen . . . honor roll . . . tubal pregnancy . . . Each is shorn of her privacy. One is a niece, adopted. Surprisingly she resembles the Senator’s Wife more than the others.
Kate feels she must produce pictures–the necessary show of maternity. She reaches into her purse, finds comb, keys, coat check; then realizes she has left her wallet at home. She looks at Steve: “Pictures?”
His wallet contains everything: old movie stubs, laundry receipts. He lays each item beside his plate. There are only two pictures. A dog-eared one shows the five of them around a Christmas fireplace in a house they have not lived in for seven years. The boy, a baby just sitting up, wears candy striped feepers with padded feet, matching night cap. “What did you do with all those pictures I gave you?” Kate asks. Betsy as junior high May queen, Peggy in Tatania costume, Marc the Cub Scout . . . Steve shakes his head.
Steve’s other picture shows the girl Kate no longer is: Katie Perry, at the Big Game. Squinting into the sun. Holding a chrysanthemum bouquet like a baby. Some time back Steve had the picture laminated; under the lamination her face has become silvered. Kate starts the outdated Christmas picture on its rounds; hands the other back to Steve. He stares at it for a moment before fitting it back into his wallet.
At the table by the window Jack and Elizabeth are choosing desserts from the pastry cart, like children making careful moves in checkers. Jack says something to the waitress; Elizabeth laughs–the laugh of a much younger woman. They sample their pastries, commend them to each other; halve and swap.
After she had closed up her home and gone to live in the apartment hotel on upper Connecticut Avenue, Elizabeth felt a wild joy. She walked around, especially in the early morning and at twilight, noticing the quality of light at the tops of buildings. She felt the exhilaration of the freed–she could do anything, go anywhere. Her apartment had a Parisian view, and at close range a Cathedral caught the morning sun in its round windows minting gold coins from it. There were many such miracles. Sometimes Elizabeth found herself daydreaming: taps at Arlington, she and the girls standing by the coffin in a light rain. A young soldier would give her the triangle of flag, she would pass it to her older daughter . . .These daydreams filled her with a sweet pain.
“Katie . . .” Steve’s voice slices into her daydreaming. He repeats his question-carefully, as for a deaf person: the children-how old now? Kate gives the figures: Marc nine, Betsy fourteen, Peggy seventeen next month. He relays these facts to Bea, who begins listing Problems of Adolescence. She is a great maker of lists, Kate remembers.
The Lobbyist, Husband of the Senator’s Wife, begins telling a joke about a politician. “This particular politician had a phenomenal ability to remember names.” The Lobbyist is urbane, scholarly. He lobbies for educational causes, not strip mining and the like. Jupe, the Senator’s Wife calls him. It is obvious to Kate that she is fonder of him than she ever
was of the Senator. Upe is giving the lengthy background of his joke: “This man could read a name in a phone book and ten years later . . .” Kate tunes him out, looks over to the table by the window. Jack the General is staring straight at her. The intensity of his look makes her jump. Elizabeth follows her husband’s eyes over to Kate and smiles. Kate smiles back. The General looks away, out to the frozen garden. In a moment he begins talking again to his wife.
In Jupe’s story the politician with the remarkable memory for names has been chided for not introducing his wife at a banquet where he has run through his paces, astonishing all not only with names but birthplaces. The punch line is coming. Jupe pauses, gathering his audience in: “I would have introduced her but I’ve forgotten her name. “
Laughter from the men; the women smile wryly. Too true to be funny, their looks say. Kate glances at Steve; glances away. The joke parallels a quarrel they had while dressing for dinner. You never, you never . . . Her own voice rising, enumerating the things he never did. Specifics. Graphics. Sins of omission. At the back of her mind, the steady venomous whisper: she, she, she.
Kate tethers her mind. Maybe there is no mistress anymore. Maybe there has only been the one. One you could forgive. Think about Elizabeth.
One day Elizabeth had gone to a little Greek restaurant around the corner from her apartment hotel. As she ate her dessert a young man came over to her table, asked if he could order her a cordial.
“Why, that would be splendid,” she said, moving her things so that he could sit down. In this first moment she thought of him as a young man a daughter might bring home–hardly more than a boy. “I’m peculiarly fond of cordials,” she told him. He was always to remember this extravagant way she had of talking: “peculiarly fond,” “excessively devoted.”
They had cordials and several cups of coffee. Then the young man said: “Would you like to come over to my apartment and see some prints I bought in New York last week?”
“Are they modern?” Elizabeth asked, remembering the old joke about etchings. “I don’t know very much about modern art.”
“I can tell you everything you need to know,” the young man said.
And so they became lovers. At first there was only the joy. Friends noticed Elizabeth’s new beauty, the constant sounding of her laughter. So happy! And Jack–any day he could be killed in the war. For did he not take great risks, sticking close to his men at the fighting front? It was all in the papers. Or he could be captured. By the Germans. By a woman. For had there not been stories? One had even appeared in a syndicated gossip column. A WAC, his constant companion . . . The voices go on inside Kate’s head, gossiping the gossip of the forties.
Elizabeth’s daughters were angry about their father and the WAC. In letters, on long distance, they beseeched Elizabeth: Do something, Mother, can’t you do something? She soothed them: Men in wartime . . . Some day you will understand. Sometimes, waking in the night beside her lover, Elizabeth would think of her husband. Once the thought came to her; His death would solve everything.
But the young man—Kate realizes she has neglected one detail. He would have been in the war. Attached to the Pentagon, straining to get into battle. A request for change of orders finally came through. Irony: He would become attached to the General’s staff. Meet the WAC? Kate experiments with endings. She is certain of only one thing: in the end the General and Elizabeth came back together. Years later a picture of the young man (now graying) with his wife, four children, would appear in Time magazine–a promotion to chief-of something. How nice, Elizabeth made herself say. And slowly, with that special discipline of hers, she made herself feel it: How nice, how right for him.
At the other table Kate sees the General rise, go behind Elizabeth’s chair. Leaving, Kate thinks; then sees Elizabeth’s face registering: No, I cannot. Something is wrong. What is the General doing—unfastening her beads? His hand fumbles at the neck of her dress, the other supports her head. He looks around the room, summoning help.
Kate rises, sets down her wineglass. The other people at her table turn. From other tables come murmurs, questions. “Is she choking?” someone wants to know She is not choking—Kate can see
“There’s Pierre,” Bea says. “He’ll know what to do.” She turns back to her plate with the smugness of a well-raised child who knows it’s rude to stare.
Pierre, the miniature major domo, rushes to the table by the window. He signals waitresses, raps on the glass to attract Andy, the car-park man. Elizabeth’s eyes are closed now. Her face still says: No, I cannot.
A large waitress has taken the General’s place, holds Elizabeth’s head. Pierre flaps the cloth he carries across his arm. Cornmands. Directs. It is a ballet. Andy and one of the waiters lift Elizabeth’s chair, carry it out The stout maid runs behind, supporting her head. Feet dangling, Elizabeth looks like a tiny girl.
Bea commends the staff, its competence. She remembers the time someone had had an epileptic fit. Congressman waves both hands at her, in a goose-shooing motion. Shut up, his motions say. Bea persists, tells of other Club disasters—a suicide, another mysterious death . . . Shut up, Congressman signals, mouths the words: S-H-U-T U-P. She subsides. In the silence Kate watches Bea examine her rings. They are small, insignificant. World War II vintage. Congressman wears no wedding band. She moves from the rings to an examination of her nails, the silver, her wineglass, emptied. Her hands stray over the table, touch silver, crystal, as though these things once belonged to her. Her life? Is she examining her life?
Now the General passes their table. A man walking off the battlefield, his best men shot.
Pierre comes back, activates the waitresses, sends two of the most lively ones over to their table. The waitresses move like dancing girls, refill wineglasses. They laugh, offer services. Pierre directs it all, covering over the intrusion.
It seems like hours before the ambulance screams through streets, howls at intersections, turns into the driveway, lights revolving, siren whirring down to silence. The stretcher bearers move to the side entrance, walking as though there were plenty of time.
Again hours seem to go by. When they come back out, Elizabeth is on the stretcher, uncovered. Why had they not wrapped her against the cold? Kate wonders. Unrushed, they put her in the ambulance. Once, at the entrance, the siren whirs. Kate listens for the screaming back through the streets. Instead, silence.
Congressman rises, directs the party to one of the small parlors. Gold on gold. Drambuie around the fire. Waiters move tactfully. Congressman urges John to speak in his old district, support the candidate who might unseat the man who’d unseated him. Old bitternesses pour out. Bea points out that this is all water over the dam. Shut up, he gestures.
The talk continues. Bits and pieces. Kate cannot put them together. Someone offers the year 1947; Kate takes it.
It was in 1947 that the General came home. Elizabeth opened up the house. Their daughters—beautiful, brittle girls, not warm like Elizabeth–had married, divorced, remarried; better matches the second time. They forgave their father his WAC, brought him grandchildren as special offerings. And Elizabeth?. . .
Andy the car-park man stands in the doorway—the signal that it is time to leave. Kate moves with the other women to the ladies’ lounge. The other two hand the attendant their tickets, get their coats. Only two are left: Kate’s and beside it a handsome black lamb’s wool of indefinite vintage. Kate finds the ticket for her coat. Now only the black lamb’s wool is left. Who will come back for it?
Congressman’s car comes first, then the Senator’s Wife’s; Steve’s last—Club seniority. They say their thanks, their good-byes.
Steve stands talking to Andy, gestures as with a constituent, then listens intently.
Kate waits behind the glass walls until he gets in the car, then joins him. They ride through a part of town already asleep.
“That woman who had the attack?” Steve begins.
Andrew says she was a famous physician. Anya somebody—Polish name. Her husband’s a biochemist, less famous.”
No. Elizabeth. Kate holds to that identity like child to mother.
In the first months after the General’s return, Elizabeth read less, took up needlepoint for the Washington Cathedral, became semi-religious. She was almost content with this nun’s life. And then one night the shadow of her husband fell across the threshold of her room
. . .
Steve is making the turn into their neighborhood—ghost houses, frozen gardens lighted by mercury street lamps.
Once, years ago, she and Steve had ridden over country roads, past winter fields silvered in moonlight, frozen corn stalks making weird birds. Only the two of them awake in all that world.
She turns to him now. “Do you remember . . .” she begins.