In A Lonely Place

In A Lonely Place

I stared at the ocean that spring until my eyes turned blue.  I could make that sound like devotion, because my husband was on the other side in Europe, in the Army, in the war.  But I barely knew
 him, and had already pretty much forgotten him and fallen in love with someone else.  It's funny, how nothing alive and warm on the Earth is blue, except a few human eyes.
 
We came here by train from Minnesota, and until then I'd never seen an ocean, only lakes, which had no passion in them. My husband had been assigned to basic training on Long Island, and the idea was that I could stay with his aunt nearby. We could have her beach cottage all to ourselves when he had leave. Two days after we arrived, though, he volunteered for flight school and was sent to Texas and left me by myself. For what seemed like an endless string of days I just sat on the beach in the dim sunlight, alone on the sand, while the ocean roared with desire. It was an odd way to be married, and we hadn't been married very long.

At noontime, I would go up to the main house and eat dinner there. Aunt Trudy still buys as much gin as she ever did for the parties no one has any more, and when she drinks it, she gets sentimental about the war. She gets started on weepy speeches about boy soldiers, their sweet bodies ripped by Nazi bullets, sacrificed to defend from ungrateful foreigners the American way of life. Aunt Trudy had waited too long for a man to divorce his wife, a story that had ended with the wife a widow and Aunt Trudy a spinster. She has a house now, and a little income, and a blue star in her window, even though it isn't actually her son that's at war.

When she was really soused, she'd put on her hat and her CDVO volunteer corps badge and go around to houses reminding people to save up their tin cans and copper wire for the war effort. I went with her; there was nothing else to do. I got to know every old lady in town, as well as details about their use of canned goods.

  

   



 
By the first June of the war we had pretty much cleaned out everybody's basements of any conceivable scrap metal. A few houses, however, had been closed up for the war, and they were Aunt Trudy's greatest frustration. Through their windows she could see great scrap trophies; one had an old steel washing machine in view in the basement. Sometimes, when Aunt Trudy had been drinking more heavily than on other days, she wanted to bust into them like a cat burglar. It would have been for a good cause, and I don't know if I could have talked her out of it.
 

 
I was happy, then, to see the door to the washing machine house ajar one day, and the window shades up. I walked back a few steps to Aunt Trudy, who was looking through the windows at the scrap in somebody's garage, and told her that the house was open.

"It can't be open," Aunt Trudy said. "There's no flag out front."

But it was open, the front door was open, and there was someone inside. Aunt Trudy knocked on the door frame and went in without waiting for an answer. I followed her, a little embarrassed.

In the front room was a very pretty dark-haired woman, cutting a huge piece of orange fabric in half. She had freckles, and she was too old for freckles. She was the first person my own age I'd seen since my husband left town.

Aunt Trudy stopped short. She stepped back.

"Mrs. Doyle?" said Aunt Trudy.

The dark-haired woman looked up.

"Mrs. Doyle, why aren't you flying the colors?" Aunt Trudy asked. She seemed a little flustered. She kept talking without giving Mrs. Doyle time to answer. "What are you doing with so much fabric?" she said. "You know, fabric is a very precious commodity. I predict fabric will be rationed. You must use it wisely."

"It's just a bedspread," she said. "It was a very nice bedspread, but my husband won't be back for awhile." She grinned at me. Mrs. Doyle had a very bright smile. "It's probably better if I don't have such a good-looking bed while he's gone," she said.

I think she thought I would find that funny. I just stared at her.

"These are blackout curtains," she told Aunt Trudy. "One of the ladies told me I needed curtains so the enemy couldn't spot light from my house."

Aunt Trudy had recovered enough to introduce me. "Mrs. Joseph Doyle of Massachusetts, this is my niece by marriage, Mrs. Andersen of Minnesota. Her father is the president of Thousand Lakes Savings Bank in Minneapolis. Mrs. Doyle arrived from Boston last week."

"Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Andersen," said Mrs. Doyle, not extending her hand. She was struggling a little with the big piece of fabric.

"Mrs. Andersen's husband," said Aunt Trudy, "my nephew, is in Italy now. He's making an enormous contribution to the war effort."

I looked around at the house, which was full of odd-looking old furniture. It was horribly dusty. I noticed Aunt Trudy looking around the room, too, and I could guess what she was thinking.

"This was Mrs. Keane's house, wasn't it?" Aunt Trudy said.

"Yes, she was Doyle's grandmother."

"Mrs. Keane was known for being very frugal," said Aunt Trudy, taking off her gloves. "She very rarely threw useful items away. I wouldn't wonder that there is some very interesting scrap material in your basement."

"You're welcome to look," said Mrs. Doyle.

Aunt Trudy found her way back into the other room, and I could hear her opening the cellar door.

Once she was gone, Mrs. Doyle put down her scissors and ripped the fabric in half.

"Aren't you hot in those clothes?" she said suddenly.

"I've been down by the beach," I said," and it's cooler there." It was the first thing I'd said in the house.

"Well, it's hot up here. Besides, there's no use dressing up when this whole place looks like a ghostie's house. Isn't it a horror?" Her hair was falling out of its bun. 'We inherited this house, and that was lucky, because we never could have afforded one on our own. Doyle's not much for working."

Aunt Trudy was back. "He's a fine boy, I'm sure," she said. "Isn't he in the Navy?"

"Yes, he's in the Pacific."

"Then he won't meet the German army. My nephew is fighting the German army." Aunt Trudy told us. "Could you hold the cellar door open for me, Helena?" she asked me. "I don't have a lantern."

I followed her through the dusty house. She opened the cellar door, and pulled me with her down onto the steps.

"That's Merrilyn Doyle," she said. "She talks to the handymen. And I don't mean that she greets them, I mean she talks to them. I heard all about it at church."

"I didn't see her at church," I said.

"She goes to the Catholic church," said Aunt Trudy. "Be very wary of her."

 
I thought about Merrilyn Doyle as Aunt Trudy poked around the basement. I was wondering how she found men to talk to, anyway, since as far as I knew there weren't any nearby except for fishermen and teenagers and old men who thought they could fight off the Nazis with muskets and baseball bats. Aunt Trudy didn't find anything else of use in the cellar that we didn't already know about, and I helped her back up the stairs, where we found Merrilyn basting the blackout curtains with huge, careless stitches.

"You have a lovely broken washing machine in your basement which would be very helpful to our scrap drive," Aunt Trudy told her. "I'll send some children to pick it up in their scrap wagons."

"I don't think it's right to make children carry it all," said Merrilyn.

"Oh, they'll enjoy it. It's their contribution to the war effort. They get points for it at school."

"Then send them by," said Merrilyn Doyle. She had very blue eyes.

 
"That woman," said Aunt Trudy, "is loose. She does not respect the institution of marriage."

"And you don't like her because of that?" I said.

"I don't like her because she's not flying the flag," said Aunt Trudy.

   


That night, I decided to write a letter to my husband, a real one, not my usual strained effort filled with news about the weather and not written, as they usually were, as big as possible to take up space. I would write him a good letter, a good wife's letter.

He had written to me a couple of times, tiny, machine-shrunken V-mail letters. They were all dotted with black marks, footprints of the censor, who crossed out everything having to do with location or troop movements. That left only questions, mostly about people in Minnesota, and we hardly knew any of the same people in Minnesota.

 

My family hardly knew anyone, because we socialized very little. My father was always busy at the bank, my mother in her room with her headaches, and I spent most of my time out of school alone downstairs, looking out of the window. If my father hadn't arranged for me to be a debutante, I would have never gone to the dance where I met my husband, a quickly-arranged winter mixer that was supposed to substitute for the canceled spring debutante ball. It was right after the attack, when we'd all been so excited and angry and ready to fight. This seemed like my part in it all, marrying him and coming here to write letters and save up his army paychecks.

That night, I wrote him everything I could think of about the people in Minnesota. I wrote him about how awful everything was in this poky small town, and how lucky he was to be in Europe. I was starting to come back to the weather again when, my hand hurting from the effort, I signed my name. I signed it Helena, and then crossed it out and shortened it to Lena, and then added Love.

 
I took the letter to the post office first thing the next morning; it always seemed important that I get his mail to him as quickly as possible, before he had time to be shot or killed or made crazy by a gas attack. I walked up the street to the little brick post office, and every house I saw was flying a flag.
  
At the door of the post office I met Mrs. Doyle, coming out. Her cheeks were pink with excitement, and she was wearing that same horrible tight dress, and I realized I didn't like how pretty she was. Her arms were full of opened letters.

"Look," she said, "they're all from my family. I think they all sat in the kitchen and wrote to me the moment I left. You'd think they could have put them all in one envelope and saved on stamps. Boston seems far away, doesn't it?"

"Hello," I said.

She lifted some V-mail envelopes up to the light. "These are from Doyle, my husband, in the Navy. He's on Tuvalu," she said. "That's an island near Australia, believe it or not."

I couldn't help being curious. "How do you know where he is?" I said.

"We have a code. The first letter of the second sentence in every paragraph spells out where he is." She looked at the letter again. "Tu-va-lu," she said.

I moved my letter from one hand to the other. My heart was pounding; she was so pretty, and I didn't know what to say to her. There was a telegraph boy's bicycle leaning against th e wall, and I leaned against the bicycle.

"Can I ask you something?" she said. "What do you do all day? There's no one here to talk to, no one to play cards with, nothing. There's no one to cook or eat with."

"There isn't, I guess," I said.

"Can you come visit me?"

"I could," I said.

"Today," she said. "Today, please. I have no one to talk to."

She had a very warm smile, and the day was a little bit cold. I walked with her in the sunshine back towards her house, which had its orange blackout curtains up now. She'd taped a newspaper picture of a flag above her doorbell. I never did mail my letter to my husband.

   


  
Her first name was Merrilyn because she was born on the 25th of the month, though not on Christmas, and she was a Catholic, which is a sort of person I had never met before. She had five brothers, all of whom helped her father on construction projects; she'd come to live in the house in town because Mrs. Keane had been her husband's great aunt, and the war in a way was a blessing for them because his steady salary from the army would give them an income nice enough fix up the house with. I found that out just on the walk up to her house. I didn't mind her talking so much, because it meant I didn't have to say anything at all.
 

 
The house was a worse mess than the last time I'd been there. Merrilyn had bits of clothes lying all over the place, some of them underclothes. I guess she'd been unpacking.

In the kitchen there were pails full of mussels and clams she must have bought from the fishermen that morning. I sat in the kitchen while she put them in a pot. I guess they were lunch, although it was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. I got the feeling she ate whenever she wanted to. The old stove was fired by wood, and it did make the house hot, even on a cool day. I could understand why she'd been wearing so little clothing.

There was a pleasant kind of silence inside the kitchen. I could hear birds outside, and waves in the distance. Aunt Trudy would have been horrified to find me there.

"Your husband's a pilot, isn't he?" Merrilyn asked me.

"Yes."

"You have to enlist on your own to get those good jobs," she said. "Did he enlist on his own?"

"Yes."

"They picked Doyle up in a movie theater. I didn't even know he'd been drafted - he just threw the letter away when it came. They came to pick him up, and we didn't even know what happened to him. When they pick you up, they don't even let you call your family. He just went to the movies, when he was supposed to be going to work, and a few days later we got a letter from a naval base in San Diego. But that's Doyle."

She poured the clams into a bowl.

"I just got my sugar ration. I can never save it for more than a couple of days. I'm going to make fudge." She ripped open the sugar and got the milk out of the icebox. "I can't find a saucepan in this horror house," she said.

Merrilyn put the clams on the table, and we started cracking them open. At home, we never had seafood in the summer, and so it didn╝t seem quite proper. But it would have been bad manners to say anything about that, so I ate them anyway, in silence.

"I'd like to break you open like a clam," she said. "What are you so quiet about? It can't be that interesting."

"I'm not quiet," I said.

We ate in silence for a while. In between clams, Merrilyn got up to stir the fudge.

"What's he like, your husband?" she asked me.

"I don't know. I don't know him very well."

"Oh, come on," she said. "You'd know him if he sat down next to you on a bus, or something."

"He's handsome," I said. "And he's from one of the best families in St. Paul." That didn't seem to mean much to her. "He tells jokes," I said.

"Good jokes?"

"No, mostly old jokes. Aunt Trudy even knew some of them."

She sat down across from me with a spoon full of fudge mix. "What's he like in the sack?"

"What?"

"I mean, is he good at sex?"

Merrilyn Doyle was an awful woman, I decided.

"It can take time before you start liking it," she said.

"Well, he left before I started liking it."

She got up to start pouring the fudge mix into a flat pan.

"I dream about it every night, with all different people," she said. "Doyle says I'm a deviant. They've been showing him movies about deviants in the service."

"How does he know what you've been dreaming?"

"I tell him. When I write him I tell him everything that's on my mind. You know, they never censor sex talk. They only censor talk about military movements. I think they think it's good for his morale."

She was fanning the fudge with her hand.

"I can't wait for this to cool," she said. "Try some."

I put a spoon into the soft chocolate. It was still hot.

I let it cool a little before I put it in my mouth.

"Ugh!" I said. I spit it out into a napkin.

"It tastes like fish," I said.

"Let me try," she said, taking a spoonful.

She made a horrible face, but she swallowed.

"Oh, God," she said. "Did I wash out the pot when I was done with the clams?"

I looked at her, and I started laughing. I couldn't help it. She was so silly, and so pretty, and she was laughing too.


  
She was someone to talk to. Of course, I never told Aunt Trudy we were acquainted. Merrilyn and I spent most of our time inside Merrilyn's house, or at the beach near my cottage, and I never went out with her at night. It didn't matter much, because it was summer and the days were so long.

 
It wasn't until the Fourth of July that anyone knew we were friends. I'd gone with Aunt Trudy to the town picnic. She quickly left me behind, however, for the ladies of the Women's Civil Defense Auxiliary, who had picked almost all the park's wildflowers for their hats. Merrilyn came and sat beside me, and I couldn't tell her not to, because everyone was welcome in the park that day, the first Independence day of the war .

"I wonder where Doyle is today," she said.

There were dozens of miniature flags lining the path through the park, and the sound of birds and crickets, and the smell of hot dogs. Merrilyn sat beside me with her ankles crossed in the green grass. There was a ladybug in her hair.

"He's happy, though. I'm sure of it," she said. "I always know how he's feeling, even from so far away. The one half always knows what the other is feeling."

A few yards away from us, a man walked across the grass, disregarding the path entirely. He was one of the local handymen, out working even today. His pants were all dusty. He winked at Merrilyn, and waved at her.

"Who's that?" I said.

"I played cards with him," she said. "I played gin rummy."

"You talk to him?"

"I had him in my house. No one will ever know."

Across the park, I could see Aunt Trudy with her auxiliary ladies, gathered around the picnic table, talking in whispers.

"The whole town talks about how you behave with these dirty men," I told her.

"They do?" she said.

She was quiet for a moment. She took all the leaves off of the dandelion, and then she put it in her mouth, chewing on it a little.

"Well, what if I had only played cards with him?"

I looked at her, frowning with a dandelion in her mouth.

"I love my husband, you know," she said. "I think it's a sign of love, that I need someone else to fill his place."

She tucked her knees beneath her chin, and uprooted another dandelion.

I lay back on the grass myself, and looked at the sun. It seemed all upside-down, that Merrilyn could love her husband and not even be faithful to him, and I could be faithful to mine and not love him at all.

A band started playing in the corner of the park. It sounded off-key and lopsided. Half the musicians were probably in the service.

"It's crazy to have this whole big picnic just for ourselves," Merrilyn said. "They should have gone out to Fort Totten and invited some of the servicemen."

"Oh, the servicemen. I'm so sick of the servicemen. They're not the only ones whose lives were ruined by this war."

Merrilyn looked at me skeptically.

"Well, it's true," I said. "A girl in my position doesn't have much time to have fun, and I've missed it all."

"You can have fun later."

"No, I can't. I'm married."

She laughed.

"I'll never be a debutante," I said. "I'll never go down the steps of the Minneapolis Club in a white dress. I'll never meet people and make friends."

Merrilyn tried to look sympathetic.

"I would bet," she said, "that this is what Hitler had in mind all along."

"What do you mean?"

"Was there some German girl who wanted to wear your same dress? That's probably what set him off," she said.

I looked at her, still a little bewildered.

"I'll bet you're the cause of this whole war," she said.

"Stop it," I said. I was starting to laugh.

"The whole world was put in peril just because you had to wear a goddamn white dress."

"Stop, stop, stop." I was really laughing now, too hard to even care about the profanity.

We forgot all about the bar, and about the ball, and were laughing and it was a beautiful day. I was telling Merrilyn about the day a bat got loose in the Minneapolis Club when Aunt Trudy finally came back for me, frowning, and insisting that the Auxiliary ladies needed help serving food.

"Are you a bird, dear?" she said, as we walked away.

"What?"

"Birds of a feather flock together," she said.

She stopped and turned to look at me, her eyes in shade from the brim of her hat.

"I hope I don't have to tell your husband's family that you are acquainted with that sort of woman," she said. "They would think less of me if they knew I'd allowed it."

We were there in the sunny park that day while the whole world was spinning out of control, while bodies were being blown to pieces and cities were left in ruins, and every ordinary good thing in our own lives was being sucked out and shot to vicious bits. Looking at Aunt Trudy, her lips pursed in an expression of wrinkly moral outrage, I started laughing all over again. A flower fell off of her hat.

   


After that I started spending evenings with Merrilyn too. There was no electricity in the beach cottage, and because of that no radio. Mostly, we just played cards in the candlelight. Merrilyn liked a fierce game of gin rummy. Sometimes we just sat talking in the dark, so we could take up the heavy blackout curtains on the hottest nights.
 

 
We had an air raid drill on a night near the beginning of August. It was probably the third drill that week. The town had appointed some teenage guard air observers to watch the skies, and they were always seeing things. That night, though, it was hard to imagine they could have seen anything at all. It had been raining steadily for hours.

"It can't be a real raid tonight," Merrilyn said. "They'd end up bombing the ocean."

"Maybe they're after the ships."

"Oh, they couldn't see the ships either," she said.

The siren was still sounding, its long, soaring moan still rising and falling like an bird's extended wings.

"I don't want to go out to the shelter in the rain," she said.

I put my head out the door of the cottage. It was a dense, heavy rain.

"It might be real," I said.

"Come on," Merrilyn said. "Let the Nazis come get us."

I put out the candle we'd been burning, just in case, and we sat in the dark. Merrilyn told me a long story about her brother the priest, and how he'd won half a Studebaker playing poker. The other half of the Studebaker turned out to belong to a mobster, and at one point he'd found a bloody corpse in the back seat and had succeeded in giving him extreme unction right there, kneeling on the wheel bump. I told her a ghost story I'd heard about a bald man who loved his red-haired wife. When she died, his hair started growing, growing back red.

No planes came, but no all-clear sign came either. For a drill, the all-clear sign was usually up within fifteen minutes. It had been at least a couple of hours, though there was no way of knowing the time for sure. It was too dark to see anything at all.

"It couldn't be a real raid, could it?" I said. "We'd have heard something, wouldn't we?"

"We'd hear airplanes," said Merrilyn.

"I wish we had a radio," I said.

I'd heard on the radio about cities in flames, about buzz bombs and anti-aircraft fire.

Now, I couldn't hear anything except the rain.

"They could come in ships," I said. "Ships would be quiet."

"It's not ships that come near here. It's U-boats," said Merrilyn.

"Can soldiers come ashore from a U-boat?" I said.

Out there in the beach cottage we were so cut off from the town, from everything, by night and fog.

"I don't see any ships," said Merrilyn. "I don't see anything. I'm going to walk home."

"You can't go out. They have air wardens all over the streets. They'll think you're a saboteur or something."

I could hear her fidgeting around in the dark.

"I think I'm just going to sleep here," she said. "You must have an extra nightgown."

"I don't," I said.

"Well, I can just sleep without one."

"I only have my wedding night gown," I said. "My negligee. It's packed away. I'll have to light a candle again to look for it."

"Oh, light one. I don't believe in Nazis."

I tried to shelter the candle's light a little with my hand. I found the negligee in a box beneath my bed.

She got into bed, and I got into bed way over on the other side, feeling very confused. Finally, the all-clear siren came, but I didn't want to ask her to go home, and she didn't volunteer.

She got into bed, and I got into bed way over on the other side, feeling very confused. Finally, the all-clear siren came, but I didn't want to ask her to go home, and she didn't volunteer. It was still raining outside, a softer, steady rain, with a cold mist that was making its way into the little cottage. I slept, just slept, as I had never done, with someone's arms around me, and my heart like a balloon filling with air.


  
Merrilyn wrote to Doyle nearly every day. He sent letters to her, too; he told her he had written her name on an exploding shell he'd fired into the ocean while aiming at some Japanese. I tried to write to my husband, but had nothing to say. The weather hadn't changed. I still got his tiny V-mail envelopes from time to time, but after a while I stopped opening them, and they started making a pile in a corner of the cottage.

 
By August, the beach was never a lonely place. There were dozens of women alone, their lunches laid out on beach blankets, and hundreds of girls and very little boys screaming as they played in the surf. Some of the women from the munitions factories in the city came down on weekends and lay sleeping in the sun. They were city girls, most of them, and making more money than they'd ever made in their lives. Some of them wore jewelry to the beach.

Merrilyn was watching them one weekend as we sat on kitchen chairs outside the cottage.

"If we weren't married," she said. "we could run away to the city and get war jobs. They're easy to get and they pay a lot of money."

"Have you ever worked?" I said.

"I worked in a ladies' dress shop once. I got fired for wearing polka-dots."

We sat there together for awhile, listening to the sound of the waves.

"Besides, factory jobs pay more," said Merrilyn. "We could live together and tell people we were sisters. I have so many brothers and no sisters."

"But you're dark and I'm blonde," I said. "And we are married, so that ruins the whole thing right there."

I don't know why I said that. I liked having Merrilyn around, liked having her around all the time, more than I'd ever really liked having anyone around. I liked having her in the cottage with me. I always hated going to her house, with its dust and its monstrous old furniture and the hundred unsaid reminders that this would someday be Doyle's house, and she'd be spending her days and nights with him, not me. I was beginning not to like Doyle at all.

 


  
In late September, the summer ended. Suddenly the sun was gone, and there were always dark clouds looking in our window. The papers were full of battles and ships and sailors lost in the Pacific, and it seemed as if we would spend the rest of our lives at war, as if the rest of our lives would be permanently gray.
 

 
 
One day in October I woke up to sun again. I left Merrilyn in bed and went to cash some of my husband's army paychecks, with the idea of doing some shopping after lunch. I had promised Aunt Trudy I would eat dinner with her.

I didn't see Aunt Trudy much any more, now that she was so involved in her Women's Auxiliary, knitting for the navy and teaching people first aid for when the Nazis came.

Now that Aunt Trudy had so much war work to do, she didn't drink as much. She was much more herself, and I liked her even less.

We sat, just the two of us, at her long table, and waited as the cook set down the salad in front of us. The cook also had to serve as maid and butler, but Aunt Trudy was one of the few people in town who still had any servants at all. She had convinced the local planning committee that she needed them because of all her war work.

"I received a letter from your husband," she said. "You haven't been answering his letters. He wrote to me to ask if you're all right."

"I'm all right," I said. "I'm very well."

"Your husband," she said, "has killed six people with his bare hands. I can hardly wait until he gets back, so I can look at his hands."

The rain had turned into a thunderstorm. Behind her head, I watched the sky turn white with lightning.

"Of course, it seems as if almost anyone can be a hero these days. I saw a man in the paper who killed three Japs, but at home he was a coal man. He was the man who brought the coal! "

The cook took our salad plates away and was setting down the plates for the main course.

"It's terrible how people think they've come up in the world, just because we're pulling together to w in this war. The presumption," she said. "That Irish Catholic wife of that plant foreman tried to put herself up as the block leader for the wardens and the ladies let her, just because her husband's in the armor plating business. Pretty soon they'll have the colored servants seated at the table with us."

The cook was carefully ladling beef stew onto our plates.

"If Hitler had set out to destroy the social fabric of this country, he could scarcely have done a better job," Aunt Trudy said.

It had started to rain now, and we heard the first clap of thunder.

"I hope that Doyle woman will leave town," Aunt Trudy said, "now that she's a widow."

"What?" I said.

"I heard about it at the post office today. They took her the telegram first thing in the morning, and she wasn't even home."

I couldn't find words.

"I'd like to think she was out doing morning marketing, but I doubt it." Aunt Trudy said.

I wondered if I'd wished it. I don't think I had. I felt horrible, and at the same time almost horribly wonderful. Now I had Merrilyn all to myself.

"She can go back to her people by the very first train," Aunt Trudy was saying. "We don't need her kind here."

"Miss Helena," said the cook, interrupting. "there's a woman at the door for you."

It was Merrilyn, soaking wet, standing on the porch and sobbing.

I stepped out into the rain with her and held her while she cried and cried and cried.

"Oh, God," she said. "Oh, Doyle."

"Let's go back to the cottage."

"I want to go back to ou r house," she said. "Doyle's house, and mine."

"Come to mine," I said.

She was sobbing and holding her chest with both hands, as if her heart would come out.

"You have to come to mine!" I said.

 
I came back to the table soaking wet and sat down. Aunt Trudy looked at me carefully. I just sat there staring at my food, holding my fork in midair.

After a moment I got up and left her sitting at the table, left her behind, Aunt Trudy, and my husband, and his family and my family and everyone else in the world, left everyone behind me and went to find Merrilyn.

 
 
I found her lying face down on the bed where I had left her that morning, sobbing, crying so hard she was sweaty. I put arm around her, and my cheek against her sweaty, teary cheek.

"I'm still here," I said. "Honey? I'm still here."

She just cried. I held her for a long time, smoothing down her hair with my hand.

"I couldn't even feel it," she said. "I didn't even know it had happened."

"Merrilyn," I whispered, after a while, "what are we going to do?"

"I'll go back," she said. "to Boston. To my family." She was still choking on her tears. "Everyone who knew Doyle is in Boston."

My heart was pounding.

"I'll come with you," I said. "I can come with you to Boston. Don't worry. We can find an apartment there. There must be war jobs in Boston," I said. "I'll come with you."

She looked up at me.

"Why?" she said.

"I want to be with you," I said.

"Don't be crazy," she said, sitting back.

"I don't care. I don't care about my husband. I want to be with you."

"I'll be with my family," she said. "I won't need you any more."

I held her for a second longer, a colder second, and then let her down onto the bed. I got up and sat in a chair across the room.

That night she cried and cried, for somebody who wasn't me. It was her husband, who she loved, who she'd been thinking of the whole time we were together.

It rained all night, but it wasn't the warm rain I remembered. When she finally fell asleep, I moved over and sat by the side of the bed as she slept. Finally, I slept too.

 

 
I woke up to the air raid siren. I sat in the dark for awhile, listening to it, and to Merrilyn's regular breathing by my side. In the haze of sleep I almost reached over to her. Then I remembered, and I sat back, listening to the siren. This time I almost wished it would be for real. I felt like dying anyway.

But the all-clear signal came, this time like just like every time. I got out of bed and put on my robe. Going back into the main room, I lit a candle, and saw my own husband sitting at the kitchen table.

Startled, I dropped the candle. I reached down and picked it up, the flame intact. He didn't move.

"Toby?" I said.

He wasn't even looking at me.

"It's so quiet here," he said. "And it's cold. I thought by the beach it would be warm."

He looked just like he had before, as if nothing had changed, even though so much had changed. Then he turned to me and opened his mouth, and I realized his front teeth were gone.

"What happened?" I said. "What are you doing back here?"

"Didn't you get my letters?"

"No," I said, lying.

I sat down at table, across from him. It was odd to see him again in the form of a person, not a thought. I looked at his hands, like Aunt Trudy had wanted to. They were trembling.

"I probably shot down the pigeon carrying the mail," he said.

He grinned, a sickly grin, but in it I could see a bit of the man he used to be, the man who came from one of the best families in St. Paul, a man with square shoulders and a uniform, which he wasn't wearing now. They had him in what looked like army-issue civilian clothes, a stiff greenish shirt. He looked like a living carcass in the flickering light of the candle.

I got up and got him some coffee, which he wouldn't drink. I had some. I was terrified. Did he know what I was thinking? People who were really married always knew what the other was thinking, Merrilyn had said.

Oh, Merrilyn. Merrilyn was in the next room, in my bed, in his bed.

I went to wake her up. She was sleeping with her hair all spilled out across the pillow, and for a moment I watched her, trusting and defenseless, like I had so many times that summer.

Then I reached down and shook her hard.

"Merrilyn, you have to go," I said.

She was sleepy and confused, and her blue eyes were swollen from crying.

"Merrilyn, Toby's here. My husband's here. He's alive, and he's home."

She looked up at me, bewildered.

"Didn't you want to go back to Boston?" I said.

"Who's here?" she said.

"You wanted to go to Boston!" I said. "Now go!"

 
I sent her out into the cold October night. I sent her home. My husband didn't even ask who she was.
 
Toby needed sleep, and I put him to bed in Merrilyn's place. Alone in the front room, I unpacked his duffel bag, putting his loose army medals in a row on the kitchen table. I knew I would have to pack it again soon when we moved away somewhere, moved someplace together. I drank the rest of the coffee myself, my lungs filling with air, with the sound of the waves in the background and the beach right outside our door, and the daylight only a few hours away.


  

Library of Congress copyright TKU 636740 1997