See Now Then
By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2013 Jamaica Kincaid
All rights reserved.
See now then, the dear Mrs. Sweet who lived with her husband Mr. Sweet and their two children, the beautiful Persephone and the young Heracles in the Shirley Jackson house, which was in a small village in New England. The house, the Shirley Jackson house, sat on a knoll, and from a window Mrs. Sweet could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake, a man-made lake, also named Paran; and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green Mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where sometimes she could attend a civic gathering and hear her government representative say something that might seriously affect her and the well-being of her family or see the firemen take out the fire trucks and dismantle various parts of them and put the parts back together and then polish all the trucks and then drive them around the village with a lot of commotion before putting them away again in the firehouse and they reminded Mrs. Sweet of the young Heracles, for he often did such things with his toy fire trucks; but just now when Mrs. Sweet was looking out from a window in the Shirley Jackson house, her son no longer did that. From that window again, she could see the house where the man who invented time-lapse photography lived but he was dead now; and she could see the house, the Yellow House, that Homer had restored so carefully and lovingly, polishing the floors, painting the walls, replacing the pipes, all this in the summer before that awful fall, when he went hunting and after shooting with his bow and arrow the largest deer he had ever shot, he dropped down dead while trying to load it onto the back of his truck. And Mrs. Sweet did see him lying in his coffin in the Mahar funeral home, and she thought then, why does a funeral home always seem so welcoming, so inviting from the outside, so comfortable are the chairs inside, the beautiful golden glow of the lamplight softly embracing every object in the room, the main object being the dead, why is this so, Mrs. Sweet said to herself as she saw Homer, lying all alone and snug in his coffin, and he was all dressed up in brand-new hunting clothes, a red and black plaid jacket made of boiled wool and a red knitted hat, all clothing made by Woolrich or Johnson Bros. or some outdoor clothing outfitters like that; and Mrs. Sweet wanted to speak to him, for he looked so much like himself, to ask him if he would come to paint her house, the Shirley Jackson house, or could he come and do something, anything, fix the pipes, clean the gutters of the roof, check to see if water had leaked into the basement, because he appeared to be so like himself, but his wife said to her, Homer shot the biggest deer of his life and he died while trying to put it in the back of his truck; and Mrs. Sweet was sympathetic to the worldly-ness of the dead, for she could make herself see the army of worms, parasites, who had, without malice aforethought, begun to feed on Homer and would soon reduce him to the realm of wonder and disillusion so sad, so sad all of this that Mrs. Sweet could see then, while standing at the window of the house in which Shirley Jackson had lived and across the way was the house in which old Mrs. McGovern had died and she had lived in it for many years before she became old, she had lived in her house, built in a neoclassical-something style that harkened back from another era, long ago, long before Mrs. McGovern had been born and then became a grown-up woman who married and lived with her husband in the Yellow House and made a garden of only peonies, big white ones that were streaked with a wine-dark red on the petals nearest the stamens, like an imagined night crossing an imagined day, so had been those peonies in Mrs. McGovern's garden and she had grown other things but no one could remember what they were, only her peonies were committed to memory and when Mrs. McGovern had died and so therefore vanished from the face of the earth, Mrs. Sweet had dug up those peonies from that garden, "Festiva Maxima" was their name, and planted them in her own garden, a place Mr. Sweet and the beautiful Persephone and even the young Heracles hated. The Pembrokes, father and son, mowed the lawn, though sometimes the father went off to Montpelier, the capital, to cast votes for or against, as he felt to be in the best interest of the people who lived in that village in New England, which even now is situated on the banks of the river Paran; and the other people in that village, the Woolmingtons lived always in their house, and the Atlases too, and so also were the Elwells, the Elkinses, the Powerses; the library was full of books but no one went into it, only parents with their children, parents who wanted their children to read books, as if reading books were a mysterious form of love, a mystery that must remain so. The small village in New England held all that and much more and all that and much more was then and now, time and space intermingling, becoming one thing, all in the mind of Mrs. Sweet.
* * *
All that was visible to Mrs. Sweet as she stood in the window, at the window, but so much was not visible to her then, it lay before her, all clear and still, as if trapped on a canvas, enclosed in a rectangle made up of dead branches of Betula nigra, and she could not see it and could not understand it even if she could see it: her husband, the dear Mr. Sweet, hated her very much. He so often wished her dead: once then, a night when he had returned home after performing a piano concerto by Shostakovich to an audience of people who lived in the nearby villages and so felt that they wanted to get out of their homes from time to time, but as soon as they left their homes they wanted to return immediately, for nothing was nearby and nothing was as nice as their own homes and hearing Mr. Sweet play the piano made them sleepy, their heads sometimes suddenly falling forward, and they struggled to keep their chins from landing on their chests and that happened anyway and there would be lurching and balancing and gulping and coughing and though Mr. Sweet's back was turned away from his rural audience he could sense all this and he could feel every twitch, every shudder, as it registered in each individual. He loved Shostakovich and as he played the music written by this man — "The Oath to the People's Commissar," "Song of the Forests," "Eight Preludes for Piano" — the grave sorrows and injustices visited on him flowed over Mr. Sweet and he was very moved by the man and the music that the man made and he wept as he played, pouring all of his feelings of despair into that music, imagining that his life, his precious life was being spent with that dreadful woman, his wife, the dear Mrs. Sweet, who loved making three courses of French food for her small children and loved their company and she loved gardens and loved him and he was least worthy of her love, for he was such a small man, sometimes people mistook him for a rodent, he scurried around so. And he was not a rodent at all, he was a man capable of understanding Wittgenstein and Einstein and any other name that ended in stein, Gertrude included, the intricacies of the universe itself, the intricacies of human existence itself, the seeing of Now being Then and how Then becomes Now; how well he knew everything but he could not express himself, he could not show the world, at least as the world turned up in the form of the population of some small villages in New England, what a remarkable person he was then and had been and in time to come, these people who wore the same socks days in a row and didn't dye their hair after it lost the natural color and the luster it had when they were young and they liked to eat foods that were imperfect, food made limp by natural pathogens or insects for instance, people who worried about the pilot light going out of the boiler and the pipes freezing because the house was cold and then the plumber would have to be called and that plumber would complain about the work of the plumber who came before him because plumbers always found each other's work imperfect; and his audience worried about all sorts of things Mr. Sweet had never heard of because he grew up in a city and lived in a large building that had many apartments in it and when things went wrong, someone named the Super was called to make it right: the Super could change a lightbulb, get the elevator to work again after it had ceased to do so, make the garbage disappear, scrub the floor of the lobby, call the utility company if the utility company had to be called, the super could do many things and in Mr. Sweet's life, when he was a child, the super did them and Mr. Sweet had never heard of them until he came to live with that dreadful woman whom he had married and was now the mother of his children, the mother of his beautiful daughter in particular. The piano concerto came to an end and Mr. Sweet shook himself out of the deep sympathy he felt for the composer of the music and the audience shook themselves into their duck-feather-filled coats, which had trapped the smell of wood smoke from the fires built in fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, that was a winter smell, that was a smell Mr. Sweet hated, the super would have taken care of that smell, this was not a smell of Mr. Sweet's childhood; a dining room in the Plaza Hotel, his mother wearing French perfume, those were the smells of Mr. Sweet's childhood and that then: the mother's perfume, the Plaza Hotel. And he said a good night to those people who smelled as if they lived in rooms where wood was always burning in the wood-stove, and immediately no longer thought of them as they drove home in their Subarus and secondhand Saabs, and he put on his coat, a coat made from the hair of camels, a very nice coat, double-breasted, that the beastly wife of his, Mrs. Sweet, had bought for him from Paul Stuart, a fine haberdasher in the city where Mr. Sweet was born and he hated the coat because his benighted wife had given it to him and how could she know what a fine garment it was, she who had just not long ago gotten off the banana boat, or some other benighted form of transport, everything about her being so benighted, even the vessel on which she arrived, and he loved the coat for it suited him, he was a prince, a prince should wear such a coat, an elegant coat; and so glad he was to be rid of this audience, he slipped behind the wheel of his own used Saab, a better one than most of the others, and he turned into a lane and then turned left onto another lane and after one quarter of a mile he could see his home, the Shirley Jackson house, the structure that held within it his doom, that prison and the guard inside, in bed already, most likely, surrounded by catalogs of flowers and their seeds, or just lying there reading The Iliad or The Library of Greek Mythology by Apollodorus, his wife that horrible bitch who'd arrived on a banana boat, it was Mrs. Sweet. But what if a surprise awaited him just inside the door, for even a poor unfortunate man as he, for so Mr. Sweet thought of himself, unfortunate to be married to that bitch of woman born of beast; the surprise being the head of his wife just lying on the counter, her body never to be found, but her head severed from it, evidence that she could no longer block his progress in the world, for it was her presence in his life that kept him from being who he really was, who he really was, who he really was, and who might that really be, for he was a man small in stature and he really felt his small stature so keenly, especially when standing beside the young Heracles, whose deeds were known and they were great and he was famous for them, even before he was born.
* * *
Ah, no, no! Mrs. Sweet, looking out at the mountains named Green and Anthony, and the river Paran — its man-made lake interrupting its smooth flow — in the valley, all that remained of a great geologic upheaval, a Then that she was seeing Now and her present will be buried deep in it, so deep that it will never, would never be recognized by anyone who resembled her in any shape or form: not race, not gender, not animal, not vegetable nor any of the other kingdoms, for nothing yet known can or will benefit from her suffering, and all of her existence was suffering: love, love, and love in all its forms and configurations, hatred being one of them, and yes, Mr. Sweet did love her, his hatred being a form of his love for her: see the way he admired the way her long neck would emerge from her crooked spine and bent shoulders; her legs were too long, her torso too short; her nostrils flared out like a deflated tent and came to rest on her wide fat cheeks; her ears appeared just where ears should be but then disappeared unexpectedly and if an account of them had to be made for evidence of any kind, memory of ears known in one way or another would have to be brought forth; her lips were like a child's drawing of the earth before creation, a symbol of chaos, the thing not yet knowing its true form: and that was just her physical entity, as if imagining her as something assembled in a vase decorating a table set for lunch or dinner to be eaten by people who wrote articles for magazines, or who wrote books on the fate of the very earth itself, or who wrote about the way we live now, whoever we may be, just our tiny selves nothing more nor less. But no matter, hate being a variant of love, for love is the standard and all other forms of emotion are only forms that refer to love, hatred being the direct opposite and so being its most like form: Mr. Sweet hated his wife, Mrs. Sweet, and as she looked out on this natural formation of landscape: mountain, valley, lake, and river, the remains of the violence of the earth's natural evolution: she did not know it. "Sweetie, would you like me to ...," was the beginning of many sentences that were expressions of love for the dear Mrs. Sweet, for she was so dear to him, and Mr. Sweet would replenish her depleted glasses of ginger ale and many segments of oranges piled on a saucer for her as she lay in the bathtub filled with hot water trying to fortify herself against the horrid something called Winter, a season really, but it was not a thing that Mrs. Sweet had ever heard of in her life preceding the banana boat, ah the banana boat, the seat of her diminishment, ah! and so did Mr. Sweet present to her the fruit, the orange, native to the earth's heated belt as she lay in hot water in a bathtub in the Shirley Jackson house. Aaaahhhh, a sweet sigh, and that would be a sound escaping through the thick, chaotic lips of Mrs. Sweet, though sound itself never escapes, for it has no place to go but out into the thin nothingness that is beyond human existence, into something Mrs. Sweet cannot now or then see. But Mr. Sweet loved her and she loved him, her love for him goes without saying now or then, it was implied, it was taken for granted, like the mountains Green and Anthony, like the man-made lake called Paran and like the river so named.
What is the essence of Love? But that was a question for Mr. Sweet, for he grew up in the atmosphere of questions of life and death: the murder of millions of people in a short period of time who lived continents away from each other; on the other hand hovering over Mrs. Sweet, though she had been made to understand it as if it were a style of a skirt, or the style of the shape of a blouse, a collar, a sleeve, was a monstrosity, a distortion of human relationships: The Atlantic Slave Trade. What is the Atlantic? What is the slave trade? So asked Mr. Sweet, and he watched Mrs. Sweet, for she was at the window that looked out at the mountains named after Green and Anthony and the river named Paran and he was returning from an auditorium that was built to seat three hundred people and only ten or twenty people had been in those seats when he was sitting at the piano playing the music written by a man who was a citizen of Russia who wrote this music that so captivated the very soul, whatever that may be, of Mr. Sweet was in distress, knowing and yet not knowing death itself in all its not-knownness. What is the essence of Love? (Continues...)
Excerpted from See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid. Copyright © 2013 Jamaica Kincaid. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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