Last of the Leaves
Arthur in darkness--drifting, drifting--the planet spinning toward dawn: he awakens in gray November daybreak to the sounds of running water and a great arm brushing the side of his house. The wind, he thinks, the wind; the end of autumn, the last of the leaves pulled away. The running water, he understands, was never real.
He lies in the dark of the bedroom he shares with his wife, waiting for the dream to fade--a dream in which, together, they sail over a cliff into blackness. What else? A sense of water below, a lake or stream, Miriam's hand in his, of everything loosed from the earth; a feeling like accomplishment, shapes fitting together with mathematical precision, all the equations of the heavens ringing. A dream of final happiness, in which they, Arthur and Miriam, together, at the last, die.
Arthur rises, takes a wool sweater from the chair by his bed, pushes his feet into the warm pockets of his slippers. He draws the sweater over his head, his twisted pajama top; he puts on his glasses and pauses, letting his eyes, cakey with sleep, adjust. In the feeble, trembling light (The moon? A streetlamp? The day is hours off), he discerns the form of his wife, a crescent-shaped ridge beneath the blankets, and knows her face and body are turned away from him, toward the window, open two inches to admit a trail of cold night air. How is it possible he knows he is going to die?
And that the thought does not grieve him? But the feeling, he believes, is just a tattered remnant of his dream, still near to him in the dark and cold of the predawn room, Arthur still, after all, in his pajamas; by breakfast it will recede, by lunchtime it will vanish altogether, dissolving into the day like a drop of iodine in water. Is it possible he is still asleep? And Arthur realizes this is probably true; he is fast asleep, standing in the icy bedroom, knees locked, his chin lolled forward into the downy fan of hair on his chest; he is, in fact, about to snore.
To snore! And with this his head snaps to attention, his eyes fly open; he is, at last and truly, awake, dropped as if from a great height to land, perfectly uninjured, here. The living, breathing Arthur. But to be fifty-six years old, and dream of death, and not be afraid; this thought has somehow survived the journey into Arthur's encroaching day, hardening to a kernel of certainty in his heart. He shakes his head at the oddness of this fact, then at the coldness of the room, Christ Almighty; even in the dark Arthur can see his breath billowing before him like a cloud of crystals.
Below the blue bulk of their bedding his wife adjusts herself, pulling the blankets tighter, as if to meet his thought; a hump disengages itself from the small of her back, travels the width of the mattress to Arthur's side, and vanishes with the sound of four paws striking the wide-plank floor. A flash of blond tail: the cat, Nestor, awakened from its spot between them, darts through the bedskirts and is gone. Enough, Arthur thinks; onward. He closes the window--a sudden silence, the wind sealed away from him--and departs the bedroom, shutting the door with a muffled snap. Behind it his wife will sleep for hours.
Downstairs, his mind on nothing, Arthur fills a carafe with water from the kitchen sink, pours it into the coffeemaker, scoops the fragrant dirt of ground beans into the paper filter, and turns on the machine; he sits at the table and waits. Dear God, he thinks, thank you for this day, this cup of coffee (not long now; the machine, sighing good-naturedly to life, exhales a plume of steam and releases a ricocheting stream into the pot), and while we're at it, God, thank you for the beauty of this time of year, the leaves on the trees by the river where I walked yesterday, thank you for the sky and earth, which you, I guess, in your wisdom, will have to cover with snow for a while, so we don't forget who's boss. I like the winter fine, but it would be nice if it wasn't a bad one. This is just a suggestion. Amen.
Arthur opens his eyes; a pale light has begun to gather outside, deepening his view of the sloping yard and the tangle of woods beyond. He pours the coffee, spoons in sugar, softens its color with a dollop of milk; he stands at the counter and drinks. Not a bad one, please.
Today is the day they will drive six hours north to see their son, a sophomore in college, lately and totally (or so he says, his voice on the phone as bright as a cork shot from a bottle: totally, Pop) in love. Arthur doesn't doubt this is the case, and why should he? What the hell? Why not be in love? He sits at the kitchen table, dawn creeping up to his house; he thinks of the long day and the drive through mountains ahead of him, the pleasure he will feel when, his back and eyes sore from hours on the road, he pulls into the dormitory lot and his boy, long legged and smiling and smart, bounds down the stairs to greet them. In the foyer with its bulletin boards and scuffed linoleum and pay phone, the young lady watches them through the dirty glass. Susan? Suzie? Arthur reviews the details.
Parents from Boston, JV field hockey first string (again the memory of his son's voice, brightly laughing: But her ankles aren't thick, the way they get, you know, Pop?); an English class they took together, Shakespeare or Shelley or Pope, and the way she read a certain poem in class, the thrilling confidence in her voice cementing the erotic bargain between them. (I mean, she looked right at me, Pop, the whole time, I think she had the thing memorized; you should have seen it, the whole class knew!) And Arthur knows what his son is saying to him: Here I am. Look. And Arthur does: Susan or Suzie (Sarah?), fresh from her triumphs of love and smarts in the marbled halls of academe, banging the hard rubber ball downfield on the bluest blue New Hampshire autumn day.
Sounds above: Arthur hears the bedroom door open, his wife's slippered trudge down the carpeted hall, the mellow groan of the pipes as she fills the basin with water to wash. Arthur pours himself a second cup of coffee and fills a mug for Miriam--extra sugar, no milk--positioning it on the table by the back kitchen stairs. Outside the sky has turned a washed-out gray, like old plastic; a disappointment. For a while Arthur sits at the table and watches the sky, asking it to do better.
Miriam enters, wrapped in her pale-blue robe, and takes the coffee almost without looking, a seamless transaction that always pleases him. She sips, pauses, and sniffs at the mug.
"This is sort of old."
"I've been up awhile," Arthur says. "I'll make a fresh pot if you want."
"No, I'll do it." But she doesn't; she takes a place at the table across from him. Her face is scrubbed, her combed hair pulled back from her face; she does not dye it, allowing the gray to come on without fuss, nor perm it, the way so many women they know have done. Arthur lets his eyes rest there, in the whiteness of the part of her hair, thinking of his dream, a vague disturbance that no longer creates in him any particular emotion, as the widest rings on pond water will lap the shore without effect. (Something about a lake? He no longer recalls.) She holds the cup of old coffee with both hands, like a hot stone to warm them, resting there on the table.
"What time is it?" She yawns. "Is it six-thirty?"
Arthur nods. "I thought we should get an early start. We can stop for lunch at that place in Northampton."
"Not there." She shakes her head. "Do you remember the last time? Please. Let's stop someplace else."
Arthur shrugs; he doesn't remember what was wrong with the restaurant. "I thought it was all right," he says. "We can try that place across the street. Or we can pack a lunch."
Miriam rises, dumps her mug of coffee down the sink, and begins to make the pot she has promised herself. Arthur watches his wife, full of a great, sad love for her; he knows this day will be hard. Not the drive, which they have made many times; not seeing O'Neil, their son. Arthur understands it is the girl she dreads. She tries to like the girls he likes, but it is always difficult for her.
"We have to be nice, you know."
Miriam stops rinsing the pot. "Quit reading my mind."
"Okay. But we do." Arthur rises and goes to where she is standing, her hands resting on the edge of the sink. He wraps his arms around her slender waist and smells the beginnings of her tears--a sweet, phosphorescent odor, like melting beeswax.
"It's stupid, I know."
"I don't think it's stupid at all. Why is it stupid?"
"I feel like someone in a play," she says. "You know, the mother? That old bitch, can't let go, nobody's good enough for her boy."
"And you're right. Nobody is. And you're not like that at all."
A heavy sigh. Still, Arthur holds on.
"She's just somebody he met in class. We've been through this--how many times?"
"They're probably sleeping together."
Arthur nods. "Probably."
"God, listen to me." She shakes her head and resumes cleaning the pot. "You probably think it's just great."
Arthur doesn't answer. The cat comes nosing into the kitchen and coils first around Arthur's feet and then around Miriam's, asking to be let out.
"That goddamned cat," Arthur says. He kisses Miriam's neck, still warm with sleep and the sheets of their bed. "You know, I had the strangest dream," he says suddenly.
Still facing away, Miriam tips her head against his. "I think I did too. So. Tell me about yours."
Arthur lets his eyes fall closed; in this interior darkness, his wife's body pressed against his, her hips and his hips meeting--always the old rhythm implied, the metronome of marriage--he imagines he is asleep and tries to return to his dream, following it down a long hallway, a trick he has used before.
"I'm not sure," he says after a moment. "I've already forgotten."
"Was it a bad dream?" She is stroking his hair. "I heard you muttering."
"I don't know." Arthur draws air into his chest. "Some of it."
Arthur thinks. It is her voice he is following now; below him, without warning, he suddenly feels the tug of blackness, a yawning chasm as vast as a stadium. And something else: the smell of baking bread. He has never had a dream like this before, of this he is certain. The memory of it makes him feel strangely happy. He opens his eyes.
"I think you were in it." He shrugs at nothing; already the information is gone, as is his memory that she, too, has dreamt, and meant to tell him what. "I think you saved me from something, as usual. So it was a good dream."
She turns to face him then; her eyes still moist, she kisses him quickly and smiles. Up close he sees that her face is tired, and newly thin: his fault. Regret slices through him, and then, filling its wake, a pale and luminous awe. How many times has she performed this duty? He searches her gray eyes with his own. How many times has she been awakened from a sound slumber by a distant cry and made her fumbling way down a darkened hall, to wrap herself around a son or daughter whose arms flailed at nothing, saying, No, no, there's nothing to fear, none of it was real? He asks this, and for an instant he imagines that the children are asleep upstairs; but of course this is an illusion, a trick of time, like the pea that darts from shell to shell unseen, and so is in both places at once and also neither. No: it is morning in their kitchen, the children are grown and gone, O'Neil at college waiting for their visit, his sister, Kay--moody, mysterious Kay--married now and living her life in New Haven. The passage of years is amazing, a thing of wonder. He stands before it as, in the past, he stood outside the children's doors, listening to Miriam deliver the comforts he could not: a glass of water, a fresh blanket, Miriam holding the child's hand in hers to say, squeezing, See? This is real. How many times? A thousand? A thousand thousand? Count the stars in the heavens, Arthur thinks, and you will know that number.
"You're welcome," she tells him.
And their day begins.
Each of them has a secret. Here is Arthur's:
His secret is a letter, which he has delayed writing until this morning, at the office where he works--a letter he will never send. It is a letter to a woman not his wife.
Dear Dora, he writes.
How did it come about? Even Arthur doesn't know; could not say, precisely, how it is that on this morning in November he, Arthur, age fifty-six, a devoted married man for twenty-nine years, has fallen in love (is he? in love?) with Dora Auclaire. But he has; he does. Confusingly, he loves his wife no less because of it; he dares to think, knowing it to be a kind of arrogance--something terribly, destructively male--that he loves her even more. To think of Miriam is to think of himself, the span of his life and his children's lives, and to know what is meant by a common destiny. He is human, and therefore weak, but his weakness is for Miriam. He cannot look at her and not feel love, or the fear that comes with love: that someday one of them will be alone.
But Dora Auclaire: he has known her--how long? Ten years? Fifteen? Did they know one another when their children were small? Arthur allows himself the pleasure of thinking of her, and what she might be doing now, at ten-thirty in the morning on a Friday in fall at the busy clinic where she sees her patients: the young girls in trouble, the old men wheezing from years of smoking, the tiny babies who have cried, mysteriously, through the night. He sees her, moving from room to room--neither gliding nor marching, her stride merely purposeful--wearing her clean white coat with jeans and a sweater beneath (not much jewelry; earrings, perhaps, to complement her heart-shaped face, and a single silver chain), touching, advising, jotting notes on a chart in her fine, square print, before excusing herself to telephone the hospital in Cooperstown to reserve a bed for the teenage boy in the examining room whose two-day stomachache is almost certainly not caused by drugs, as his mother claims, but acute appendicitis.
Arthur, at his desk four blocks away, sees it all. (And before he knows it, there is Miriam too: plunking a due-date card into the stamper at the checkout desk, refiling spools of shiny microfilm, pushing a cart of books, heavy with facticity, through the quiet, dusty aisles.) She is a lonely, spirited woman in her mid-forties, a physician and a widow with two young sons--a woman who could chop a cord of wood one minute and swab a toddler's throat the next--and Arthur loves her. He loves her strong, thin hands, and her gleaming stethoscope, and her sadness, which she does not wear around her like a shawl--some garment of mourning--but inside, in a deep place he cannot see but feels: the same grief that he would carry if Miriam were gone. Her husband, Sam, was a carpenter who restored old houses, and it was an old house that killed him; six years ago, on a bright morning in May (Arthur remembers reading of it in the papers), he stepped from the window of a fourth-story cupola of a falling-down Queen Anne on Devereaux Street, placed his weight on a ledge that turned out to be rotten with moisture, and down he went in a rattling rain of tools and equipment, forty feet to the packed-dirt yard.
From the Trade Paperback edition.