Reading 15

The following passage is adapted from the short story “In the Gloaming” by Alice Elliot (© 2001 by Alice Elliot).

  1. He wanted to talk again, suddenly.
  2. During the days, he still brooded,
  3. scowling at the swimming pool from
  4. the vantage point of his wheelchair,
  5. where he sat covered with blankets
  6. in spite of the summer heat. In the
  7. evenings, though, he became more
  8. like his old old self, really. He
  9. became sweeter, the way he’d been
  10. as a child, before he began to gird
  11. himself with layers of irony and
  12. clever remarks. He spoke with an
  13. openness that astonished her. No
  14. one she knew talked that way – no
  15. man at least. After he was asleep,
  16. Janet would run through the
  17. conversations in her mind and
  18. realized what it was she wished
  19. she’d said. She knew she was
  20. generally considered sincere, but
  21. that had more to do with her being a
  22. good listener than with how she
  23. expressed herself.
  24. A month earlier, after a particularly
  25. long and grueling visit with a friend
  26. who’d taken the train down to
  27. Wynnemoor from New York, Laird
  28. had declared a new policy: no
  29. visitors, no telephone calls. She
  30. didn’t blame him. People who hadn’t
  31. seen him for a while were often
  32. shocked to tears by his appearance,
  33. and rather than having them cheer
  34. him up, he felt obliged to comfort
  35. them. She’d overheard bits of some
  36. of those conversations. The final
  37. one was no worse than others, but
  38. Laird was fed up. He’d said more
  39. than once that he wasn’t cut out to
  40. be the brave one, the one who would
  41. inspire everybody to walk away
  42. from a visit with him feeling uplifted
  43. shaking their heads in wonder. He
  44. had liked being the most handsome
  45. and missed it very much. When he’d
  46. had enough he went into a self-
  47. imposed retreat, complete with a
  48. wall of silence and other ascetic
  49. practices that kept him busy for
  50. several weeks.
  51. Then he softened. Not only did he
  52. want to talk again; he wanted to talk
  53. to her. It began the night they ate
  54. outside on the terrace for the first
  55. time all summer. Afterward, Martin
  56. —her husband—got up to make a
  57. telephone call, but Janet stayed
  58. in her wicker chair, resting before
  59. clearing the table. It was one of
  60. those moments when she
  61. felt nostalgic for cigarettes. On
  62. nights like this, when the air was
  63. completely still, she used to blow
  64. her famous smoke rings for the
  65. children, dutifully obeying their
  66. commands to blow one through
  67. another or three in a row, or to
  68. make big, ropey circles that
  69. expanded as they floated up to the
  70. heavens. She did exactly as they
  71. wanted, for as long as they wanted,
  72. sometimes going through a quarter
  73. of a pack before they allowed her to
  74. stop. Incredibly, neither Anne nor
  75. Laird became smokers. Just the
  76. opposite they nagged at her to quit
  77. and were pleased when she finally
  78. did. She wished they had been
  79. just a little bit sorry. It was part of
  80. their childhood coming to an end,
  81. after all.
  82. Out of habit, she took note of the
  83. first lightning bug, the first star. The
  84. lawn darkened, and the flowers that
  85. had sulked in the heat all day
  86. suddenly released their perfumes.
  87. She laid her head back on the rim of
  88. the chair and closed her eyes. Soon
  89. she was following Laird’s breathing
  90. and found herself picking up the
  91. vital rhythms, breathing along. How
  92. many mothers spend so much time
  93. with their thirty-three-year old
  94. sons? She had as much of him now
  95. as she’d had when he was an infant
  96. —more, because she had the
  97. memory of the intervening years as
  98. well, to round out her thoughts
  99. about him. When they sat quietly
  100. together, she felt as close to him as
  101. she ever had. It was still him in
  102. there, inside the failing shell.
  103. “The gloaming,” he said suddenly.
  104. She nodded dreamily, automatically,
  105. then sat up. She turned to him.
  106. “What?” Although she’d heard.
  107. “I remember when I was little you
  108. took me over to the picture window
  109. and told me that in Scotland this
  110. time of day was called the ‘gloaming.’”
  111. Her skin tingled. She cleared her
  112. throat, quietly, taking care not to
  113. make too much of the event that he
  114. was talking again. “You thought I
  115. said it was ‘gloomy.’”
  116. He gave a smile, then looked at her
  117. searchingly. “I always thought it hurt
  118. you somehow that the day was over,
  119. but you said it was a beautiful time
  120. because for a few moments the
  121. purple light made the whole world
  122. look like the Scottish highlands
  123. on a summer night.”