Reading 43

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