She was in the airport, waiting for her flight to be called, when a woman came to a phone near her chair. The woman stood there, dialing, and after a while began talking in a flat, aggrieved voice. Gloria couldn’t hear everything by any means, but she did hear her say, ‘If anything happens to this plane, I hope you’ll be satisfied.’ The woman spoke monotonously and without mercy. She was tall and disheveled and looked the very picture of someone who recently had ceased to be cherished. Nevertheless, she was still being mollified on the other end of the phone. Gloria heard with astounding clarity the part about the plane being repeated several times. The woman then slammed down the receiver and boarded Gloria’s flight, flinging herself down in a first-class seat. Gloria proceeded to the rear of the plane and sat quietly, thinking that every person is on the brink of eternity every moment, that the ways and means of leaving this world are innumerable and often inconceivable. She thought in this manner for a while, then ordered a drink.
The plane pushed through the sky and the drink made her think of the way, as a child, she had enjoyed chewing on the collars of her dresses. The first drink of the day did not always bring this to mind but frequently it did. Then she began thinking of the desert which she was leaving behind and how much she liked it. Once she had liked the sea and felt she could not live without it but now missed it almost not at all.
The plane continued. Gloria ordered another drink, no longer resigned to believing that the woman was going to blow it up. Now she began thinking of where she was going and what she was going to do. She was going to visit Jean, a friend of hers, who was having a hard time – a third divorce, after all, Jean had a lot of energy – but that was only for a day or two. Jean had a child named Gwendal. Gloria hadn’t seen them for over a year, she probably wouldn’t even recognize Gwendal, who would be almost ten by now. Then she would just keep moving around until it happened. She was thinking of looking for a dog to get. She’d had a number of dogs but hadn’t had very good luck with them. This was the thing about pets, of course, you knew that something dreadful was going to befall them, that it was not going to end well. Two of her dogs had been hit by cars, one had been epileptic and another was diagnosed early on as having hip dysplasia. That one she had bought from the same litter that Kafka’s great-niece had bought hers from. Kafka’s great-niece! Vets had never done very well by Gloria’s dogs, much as doctors weren’t doing very well by Gloria now. She thought frequently about doctors, though she wasn’t going to see them anymore. Under the circumstances, she probably shouldn’t acquire a dog, but she felt she wanted one. Let the dog get stuck for a change, she thought.
At the airport, Gloria rented a car. She decided to drive until just outside Jean’s town and check into a motel. Jean was a talker. A day with Jean would be enough. A day and a night would be too much. Just outside Jean’s town was a monastery where the monks raised dogs. Maybe she would find her dog there tomorrow. She would go over to the monastery early in the morning and spend the rest of the day with Jean. But that was it, other than that, there wasn’t much of a plan.
The day was cloudy and there was a great deal of traffic. The land falling back from the highway was green and still. It seemed to her
a slightly morbid landscape, obelisks and cemeteries, thick drooping forests, the evergreens dying from the top down. Of course there was hardly any place to live these days. A winding old road ran parallel to the highway and Gloria turned off and drove along it until she came to a group of cabins. The cabins were white with little porches but the office was in a structure built to resemble a tepee. There was a dilapidated miniature golf course and a wooden tower from the top of which you could see into three states. But the tower leaned and the handrail curving optimistically upward was splintered and warped, and only five steps from the ground a rusted chain prevented further ascension. Gloria liked places like this.
In the tepee, a woman in a housedress stood behind a pink formica counter. A glass hummingbird coated with greasy dust hung in one window. Gloria could smell meatloaf cooking. The woman had red cheeks and white hair, and she greeted Gloria extravagantly, but as soon as Gloria paid for her cabin she became morose. She gazed at Gloria glumly as though perceiving her as one who had already walked off with the blankets, the lamp and the painting of the waterfall.
The key Gloria had been given did not work. It fitted into the lock and turned, but did not do the job of opening the door. She walked back to the office and a small dog with short legs and a fluffy tail fell in step beside her. Back in the tepee, Gloria said, ‘I can’t seem to make this key work.’ The smell of the meatloaf was now clangorous. The woman was old, but she came around the counter fast.
The dog was standing in the middle of the turnabout in front of the cabins.
‘Is that your dog?’ Gloria asked.
‘I’ve never seen it before,’ the woman said. ‘It sure is not,’ she added. ‘Go home!’ she shrieked at the dog. She turned the key in the lock of Gloria’s cabin and then gave the door a sharp kick with her sneaker. The door flew open. She stomped back to the office. ‘Go home!’ she screamed again at the dog.
Gloria made herself an iceless drink in a paper cup and called Jean.
‘I can’t wait to see you,’ Jean said. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m all right,’ Gloria said.
‘Really,’ Gloria said.
‘I can’t wait to see you,’ Jean said. ‘I’ve had the most god-awful time. I know it’s silly.’
‘How is Gwendal doing?’
‘She never liked Chuckie anyway. She’s Luke’s, you know. But she’s not a bit like Luke. You know Gwendal.’
Gloria barely remembered the child. She sipped from the paper cup and looked through the screen at the dog which was gazing over the ruined golf course to the valley beyond.
‘I don’t know how I manage to pick them,’ Jean was saying. She was talking about the last one.
‘I’ll be there by lunch tomorrow,’ Gloria said.
‘Not until then! Well, we’ll bring some lunch over to Bill’s and eat with him. You haven’t met him, have you? I want you to meet him.’
Bill was Jean’s first ex-husband. She had just bought a house in town where two of her old ex-husbands and her new ex-husband lived. Gloria knew she had quite a day cut out for herself tomorrow. Jean gave her directions and Gloria hung up and made herself a fresh drink in the paper cup. She stood out on the porch. Dark clouds had massed over the mountains. Traffic thundered invisibly past in the distance, beyond the trees. In the town in the valley below, there were tiny hard lights in the enlarging darkness. The light, which had changed, was disappearing, but there was still a lot of light. That’s the way it was with light. If you were out in it while it was going you could still see enough for longer. When it was completely dark, Gloria said, ‘Well, goodnight.’
She woke mid-morning with a terrible headache. She was not supposed to drink but what difference did it make, really. It didn’t make any difference. She took her pills. Sometimes she thought it had been useless for her to grow older. She was thirty-five. She lay in the musty cabin. Everything seemed perfectly clear. Then it seemed equivocal again. She dressed and went to the office where she paid for another night. The woman took the money and looked at Gloria worriedly as though she were already saying goodbye to those towels and that old willow chair with the cushion.
It began to rain. The road to the monastery was gravel and wound up the side of a mountain. There were orchards, fields of young corn . . . the rain fell upon it all in a fury. Gloria drove slowly, barely able to make out the road. She imagined it snowing out there, not rain but snow, filling everything up. She imagined thinking – it was dark now but still snowing – a line like that, as in a story. A line like that was lovely, she thought. When she was small they had lived in a place where the little winter came first. That’s what everyone called it. There was the little winter, then there were pleasant days, sometimes weeks. Then the big winter came. She felt dreamy and cold, a little disconnected from everything. She was on the monastery’s grounds now and there were wooden buildings with turreted roofs and minarets. Someone had planted birches. She parked in front of a sign that said information / gift shop and dashed from the car to the door. She was laughing and shaking the water from her hair as she entered.
The situation was that there were no dogs available, or rather that the brother whose duty was the dogs, who knew about the dogs, was away and would not return until tomorrow. She could come back tomorrow. The monk who told her this had a beard and wore a soiled apron. His interest in her questions did not seem intense. He had appeared from a back room, a room that seemed part smokehouse, part kitchen. This was the monk who smoked chickens, hams and cheese. There was always cheese in this life. The monastery had a substantial mail-order business; the monks smoked things, the nuns made cheesecakes. The monk seemed slightly impatient with Gloria and she was aware that her questions about the dogs seemed desultory. He had given up a great deal, no doubt, in order to be here. The gift shop was crowded with half-priced icons and dog beds. In a corner there was a glass case filled with the nuns’ cheesecakes. Gloria looked in there, at the white boxes, stacked.
‘The Deluxe is a standard favorite,’ the monk said. ‘The Kahlua is encased in a chocolate cookie-crumb crust, the rich liqueur from sunny Mexico blending naturally with the nuns’ original recipe.’ The monk droned on as though at matins. ‘The Chocolate is a must for chocolate-fanciers. The Chocolate Amaretto is considered by the nuns to be their pièce de résistance.’
Gloria bought the Chocolate Amaretto and left. How gloomy, she thought. The experience had seemed vaguely familiar as though she had surrendered passively to it in the past. She supposed it was a belief in appearances. She put the cheesecake in the car and walked around the grounds. It was raining less heavily now but even so her hair was plastered to her skull. She passed the chapel and then turned back and went inside. She picked up a candlestick and jammed it into her coat pocket. This place made her mad. Then she took the candlestick out and set it on the floor. Outside, she wandered around, hearing nothing but the highway which was humming like something in her head. She finally found the kennels and opened the door and went in. This is the way she thought it would be, nothing closed to her at all. There were four dogs, all young ones, maybe three months old, German shepherds. She watched them for a while. It would be easy to take one, she thought. She could just do it.
She drove back down the mountain into town, where she pulled into a shopping center that had a liquor store. She bought gin and some wine for Jean, then drove down to Jean’s house in the valley. She felt tired. There was something pounding behind her eyes. Jean’s house was a dirty peach color with a bush in front. Everything was pounding, the house, even the grass. Then the pounding stopped.
‘Oh my God,’ Jean exclaimed. ‘You’ve brought the pièce de résistance!’ Apparently everyone was familiar with the nuns’ cheesecakes. They didn’t know about the dogs except that there were dogs up there, they knew that. Jean and Gloria hugged each other. ‘You look good,’ Jean said. ‘They got it all, thank God, right? The things that happen . . . there aren’t even names for half of what happens, I swear. You know my second husband, Andy, the one who died? He went in and he never came out again and he just submitted to it, but no one could ever figure out what it was. It was something complicated and obscure and the only thing they knew was that he was dying from it. It might have been some insect that bit him. But the worst thing – well, not the worst thing, but the thing I remember because it had to do with me, which is bad of me, I suppose, but that’s just human nature. The worst thing was what happened just before he died. He was very fussy. Everything had to be just so.’
‘This is Andy,’ Gloria said.
‘Andy,’ Jean agreed. ‘He had an excellent vocabulary and was very precise. How I got involved with him I’ll never know. But he was my husband and I was devastated. I lived at the hospital, week after week. He liked me to read to him. I was there that afternoon and I had adjusted the shade and plumped the pillows and I was reading to him. And there he was, quietly slipping away right then, I guess, looking back on it. I was reading and I got to this part about someone being the master of a highly circumscribed universe and he opened his eyes and said, “Circumscribed.” “What, darling?” I said. And he said, “Circumscribed, not circumcised . . . you said circumcised.” And I said, “I’m sure I didn’t, darling,’’ and he gave me this long look and then he gave a big sigh and died. Isn’t that awful?’
Gloria giggled, then shook her head.
Jean’s eyes darted around the room, which was in high disorder. Peeling wallpaper, cracked linoleum. Cardboard boxes everywhere. Shards of glass had been swept into one corner and a broken croquet mallet propped one window open. ‘So what do you think of this place?’ Jean said.
‘It’s some place,’ Gloria said.
‘Everyone says I shouldn’t have. It needs some work, I know, but I found this wonderful man, or he found me. He came up to the door and looked at all this and I said, “Can you help me? Do you do work like this?”
‘And he nodded and said, “I puttah.” Isn’t that wonderful! “I puttah . . . ” ’
Gloria looked at the sagging floor and the windows loose in their frames. The mantel was blackened by smoke and grooved with cigarette burns. It was clear that the previous occupants had led lives of grinding boredom here and that they had not led them with composure. He’d better start puttahing soon, Gloria thought. ‘Don’t marry him,’ she said, and laughed.
‘Oh, I know you think I marry everybody,’ Jean said, ‘but I don’t. There have only been four. The last one, and I mean the last, was the worst. What a rodent Chuckie was. No, he’s more like a big predator, a crow or a weasel or something. Cruel, lazy, deceitful.’ Jean shuddered. ‘The best thing about him was his hair.’ Jean was frequently undone by hair. ‘He has great hair. He wears it in a sort of fifties full flat-top.’
Gloria felt hollow and happy. Nothing mattered much.
‘Love is a chimera,’ Jean said earnestly.
‘I’m pronouncing that right, aren’t I?’ Jean said, laughing.
‘You actually bought this place?’ Gloria said.
‘Oh, it’s crazy,’ Jean said, ‘but Gwendal and I needed a home. I’ve heard that faux is the new trend. I’m going to do it all faux when I get organized. Do you want to see the upstairs? Gwendal’s room is upstairs. Hers is the neatest.’
They went up the stairs to a room where a fat girl sat on a bed writing in a book.
‘I’m doing my autobiography,’ Gwendal said, ‘but I think I’m going to change my approach.’ She turned to Gloria. ‘Would you like to be my biographer?’
Jean said, ‘Say hello to Gloria. You remember Gloria.’
Gloria gave the girl a hug. Gwendal smelled good and had small gray eyes. The room wasn’t clean at all, but there was very little in it. Gloria supposed it was the neatest. Conversation lagged.
‘Let’s go out and sit on the lawn,’ Jean suggested.
‘I don’t want to,’ Gwendal said.
The two women went downstairs. Gloria needed to use the bathroom but Jean said she had to go outside as the plumbing wasn’t all it should be. There was a steep brushy bank behind the house and Gloria crouched there. The day was clear and warm now. At the bottom of the bank, a flat stream moved laboriously around vine-covered trees. The mud glistened in the sun. Blackberries grew in the brush. This place had a lot of candor, Gloria thought.
Jean had laid a blanket on the grass and was sitting there, eating a wedge of cheesecake from a plastic plate. Gloria decided on a drink over cake.
‘We’ll go to Bill’s house for lunch,’ Jean said. ‘Then we’ll go to Fred’s house for a swim.’ Fred was an old husband too. Gwendal’s father was the only one who wasn’t around. He lived in Las Vegas. Andy wasn’t around either, of course.
Gwendal came out of the house into the sloppy yard. She stopped in the middle of a rhubarb patch, exclaiming silently and waving
Jean sighed. ‘It’s hard being a single mother.’
‘You haven’t been single for long,’ Gloria said.
Jean laughed loudly at this. ‘Poor Gwendal,’ she said, ‘I love her dearly.’
‘A lovely child,’ Gloria murmured.
‘I just wish she wouldn’t make up so much stuff sometimes.’
‘She’s young,’ Gloria said, swallowing her drink. Really, she hardly knew what she was saying. ‘What is she doing?’ she asked Jean.
Gwendal leaped quietly around in the rhubarb.
‘Whatever it is, it needs to be translated,’ Jean said. ‘Gwendal needs a good translator.’
‘She’s pretending something or other,’ Gloria offered, thinking she would very much like another drink.
‘I’m going to put on a fresh dress for visiting Bill,’ Jean said. ‘Do you want to put on a fresh dress?’
Gloria shook her head. She was watching Gwendal. When Jean went into the house, the girl trotted over to the blanket. ‘Why don’t you kidnap me?’ she said.
‘Why don’t you kidnap me?’ Gloria said, laughing. What an odd kid, she thought. ‘I don’t want to kidnap you,’ she said.
‘I’d like to see your house,’ Gwendal said.
‘I don’t have a house. I live in an apartment.’
‘Apartments aren’t interesting,’ Gwendal said. ‘Dump it. We could get a van. The kind with the ladder that goes up the back. We could get a wheel-cover that says mess with the best, lose like the rest.’
There was something truly terrifying about girls on the verge of puberty, Gloria thought. She laughed.
‘You drink too much,’ Gwendal said. ‘You’re always drinking something.’
This hurt Gloria’s feelings. ‘I’m dying,’ she said. ‘I have a brain tumor. I can do what I want.’
‘If you’re dying you can do anything you want?’ Gwendal said. ‘I didn’t know that. That’s a new one. So there are compensations.’
Gloria couldn’t believe she’d told Gwendal she was dying. ‘You’re fat,’ she said glumly.
Gwendal ignored this. She wasn’t all that fat. Somewhat fat, perhaps, but not grotesquely so.
‘Oh, to hell with it,’ Gloria said. ‘You want me to stop drinking, I’ll stop drinking.’
‘It doesn’t matter to me,’ Gwendal said.
Gloria’s mouth trembled. I’m drunk, she thought.
‘Some simple pleasures are just a bit too simple, you know,’ Gwendal said.
Gloria felt that she had been handling her upcoming death pretty well. Now she wasn’t sure, in fact, she felt awful. What was she doing spending what might be one of her last days sitting on a scratchy blanket in a weedy yard while a fat child insulted her? Her problem was that she had never figured out where it was exactly she wanted to go to die. Some people knew and planned accordingly. The desert, say, or Nantucket. Or a good hotel somewhere. But she hadn’t figured it out. En route was the closest she’d come.
Gwendal said, ‘Listen, I have an idea. We could do it the other way around. Instead of you being my biographer, I’ll be yours. Gloria by Gwendal.’ She wrote in the air with her finger. She did not have a particularly flourishing hand, Gloria noted. ‘Your life as told to Gwendal Crawley. I’ll write it all down. At least that’s something. We can always spice it up.’
‘I haven’t had a very interesting life,’ Gloria said modestly. But it was true, she thought. When her parents had named her, they must have been happy. They must have thought something was going to happen now.
‘I’m sure you must be having some interesting reflections though,’ Gwendal said. ‘And if you’re really dying, I bet you’ll feel like doing everything once.’ She was wringing her hands in delight.
Jean walked towards them from the house.
‘C’mon,’ Gwendal hissed. ‘Let me go with you. You didn’t come all this way just to stay here, did you?’
‘Gloria and I are going to visit Bill,’ Jean said. ‘Let’s all go,’ she said to Gwendal.
‘I don’t want to,’ Gwendal said.
‘If I don’t see you again, goodbye,’ Gloria said to Gwendal. The kid stared at her.
Jean was driving, turning this way and that, passing the houses of those she had once loved.
‘That’s Chuckie’s house,’ Jean said. ‘The one with the hair.’ They drove slowly by, looking at Chuckie’s house. ‘Charming on the outside but sleazy inside, just like Chuckie. He broke my heart, literally broke my heart. Well, his foot is going to slide in due time as they say and I want to be around for that. That’s why I’ve decided to stay.’ She said a moment later, ‘It’s not really.’
They passed Fred’s house. Everybody had a house.
‘Fred has a pond,’ Jean said. ‘We can go for a swim there later. I always use Fred’s pond. He used to own a whole quarry, can you imagine? This was before our time with him, Gwendal’s and mine, but the kids were always getting in there and drowning. He put up big signs and barbed wire and everything but they still got in. It got to be too much trouble, so he sold it.’
‘Too much trouble!’ Gloria said.
Death seemed preposterous. Totally unacceptable. Those silly kids, Gloria thought. She was elated and knew that she would feel tired soon and uneasy, but maybe it wouldn’t happen this time. The day was bright, clean after the rain. Leaves lay on the streets, green and fresh.
‘Those were Fred’s words, the too much trouble. Can’t I pick them? I can really pick them.’ Jean shook her head.
They drove to Bill’s house. Next to it was a pasture with horses in it. ‘Those aren’t Bill’s horses, but they’re pretty, aren’t they?’ Jean said. ‘You’re going to love Bill. He’s gotten a little strange but he always was a little strange. We are who we are, aren’t we? He carves ducks.’
Bill was obviously not expecting them. He was a big man with long hair wearing boxer shorts and smoking a cigar. He looked at Jean warily.
‘This used to be the love of my life,’ Jean said. To Bill, she said, ‘This is Gloria, my dearest friend.’
Gloria felt she should demur, but smiled instead. Her situation didn’t make her any more honest, she had found.
‘Beautiful messengers, bad news,’ Bill said.
‘We just thought we’d stop by,’ Jean said.
‘Let me put on my pants,’ he said.
The two women sat in the living room, surrounded by wooden ducks. The ducks, exquisite and oppressive, nested on every surface. Buffleheads, canvas-back, scaup, blue-winged teal. Gloria picked one up. It looked heavy but was light. Shoveler, mallard, merganser. The names kept coming to her.
‘I forgot the lunch so we’ll just stay a minute,’ Jean whispered. ‘I was mad about this man. Don’t you ever wonder where it all goes?’
Bill returned, wearing trousers and a checked shirt. He had put his cigar somewhere.
‘I love these ducks,’ Jean said. ‘You’re getting so good.’
‘You want a duck,’ Bill said.
‘Oh yes!’ Jean said.
‘I wasn’t offering you one. I just figured that you did.’ He winked at Gloria.
‘Oh you,’ Jean said.
‘Take one, take one,’ Bill sighed.
Jean picked up the nearest duck and put it in her lap.
‘That’s a harlequin,’ Bill said.
‘It’s bizarre, I love it.’ Jean gripped the duck tightly.
‘You want a duck?’ Bill said to Gloria.
‘No,’ Gloria said.
‘Oh, take one!’ Jean said excitedly.
‘Decoys have always been particularly abhorrent to me,’ Gloria said, ‘since they are objects designed to lure a living thing to its destruction with the false promise of safety, companionship and rest.’
They both looked at her, startled.
‘Oh wow, Gloria,’ Jean said.
‘These aren’t decoys,’ Bill said mildly. ‘People don’t use them for decoys anymore, they use them for decoration. There are hardly any more ducks to hunt. Ducks are on their way out. They’re in a free fall.’
‘Diminishing habitat,’ Jean said.
‘There you go,’ Bill said.
Black duck, pintail, widgeon. The names kept moving toward Gloria, then past.
‘I’m more interested in creating dramas now,’ Bill said. ‘I’m getting away from the static stuff. I want to make dramatic moments. They have to be a little less than life-sized, but otherwise it’s all there . . . the whole situation.’ He stood up. ‘Just a second,’ he said.
Once he was out of the room, Jean turned to her. ‘Gloria?’ she said.
Bill returned carrying a large object covered by a sheet. He set it down on the floor and took off the sheet.
‘I like it so far,’ Jean said after a moment.
‘Interpret away,’ Bill said.
‘Well,’ Jean said, ‘I don’t think you should make it too busy.’
‘I said interpret, not criticize,’ Bill said.
‘I just think the temptation would be to make something like that too busy. The temptation would be to put stuff in all those little spaces.’
Bill appeared unmoved by this possible judgment, but he replaced the sheet.
In the car, Jean said, ‘Wasn’t that awful? He should stick to ducks.’
According to Bill, the situation the object represented seemed to be the acceptance of inexorable fate, this acceptance containing within it, however, a heroic gesture of defiance. This was the situation, ideally always the situation, and it had been transformed, more or less abstractly, by Bill, into wood.
‘He liked you.’
‘Jean, why would he like me?’
‘He was flirting with you, I think. Wouldn’t it be something if you two got together and we were all here in this one place?’
‘Oh my God,’ Gloria said, putting her hands over her face. Jean glanced at her absent-mindedly. ‘I should be getting back,’ Gloria said. ‘I’m a little tired.’
‘But you just got here, and we have to take a swim at Fred’s. The pond is wonderful, you’ll love the pond. Actually, listen, do you want to go over to my parents’ for lunch? Or it should be dinner, I guess. They have this big television. My mother can make us something nice for dinner.’
‘Your parents live around here too?’ Gloria asked.
Jean looked frightened for a moment. ‘It’s crazy, isn’t it? They’re so sweet. You’d love my parents. Oh, I wish you’d talk,’ she exclaimed. ‘You’re my friend. I wish you’d open up some.’
They drove past Chuckie’s house again. ‘Whose car is that now?’ Jean wondered.
‘I remember trying to feed my mother a spoonful of dust once,’ Gloria said.
‘Why!’ Jean said. ‘Tell!’
‘I was little, maybe four. She told me that I had grown in her stomach because she’d eaten some dust.’
‘No!’ Jean said. ‘The things they tell you when they know you don’t know.’
‘I wanted there to be another baby, someone else, a brother or a sister. So I had my little teaspoon. “Eat this,” I said. “It’s not a bit dirty. Don’t be afraid.” ’
‘How out of control!’ Jean cried.
‘She looked at it and said she’d been talking about a different kind of dust, the sort of dust there was on flowers.’
‘She was just getting in deeper and deeper, wasn’t she?’ Jean said. She waited for Gloria to say more but the story seemed to be over. ‘That’s a nice little story,’ Jean said.
It was dark when she got back to the cabins. There were no lights on anywhere. She remembered being happy off and on that day, and then looking at things and finding it all unkind. It had gotten harder for her to talk, and harder to listen to, but she was alone now and she felt a little better. Still, she didn’t feel right. She knew she would never be steady. It would never seem all of a piece for her. It would come and go until it stopped.
She pushed open the door and turned on the lamp beside the bed. There were three sockets in the lamp but only one bulb. There had been more bulbs in the lamp last night. She also thought there had been more furniture in the room, another chair. Reading would have been difficult, if she had wanted to read, but she was tired of reading, tired of books. After they had told her the first time and even after they had told her the other times in different ways, she had wanted to read, she didn’t want to just stand around gaping at everything, but she couldn’t pick the habit up again, it wasn’t the same.
The screen behind the lamp was a mottled bluish green, a coppery, oceanic color. She thought of herself as a child with the spoonful of dust, but it was just a memory of her telling it now. She stood close to the screen, to its raw, metallic smell.
In the middle of the night she woke, soaked with sweat. Someone was just outside, she thought. Then this feeling vanished. She gathered up her things and put everything in the car. She did this all hurriedly, and then drove quickly to Jean’s house. She parked out front and turned the lights off. After a few moments, Gwendal appeared. She was wearing an ugly dress and carrying a suitcase. There were creases down one side of her face as though she’d been sleeping hard before she woke. ‘Where to first?’ Gwendal said.
What they did first was to drive to the monastery and steal a dog. Gloria suspected that fatality made her more or less invisible and this seemed to be the case. She drove directly to the kennel, went in and walked out with a dog. She put him in the back seat and they drove off.
‘We’ll avoid the highway,’ Gloria said. ‘We’ll stick to the back roads.’
‘Fine with me,’ Gwendal said.
Neither of them said anything for miles, then Gwendal asked, ‘Would you say he had drop-dead good looks?’
‘He’s a dog,’ Gloria said. Gwendal was really mixed up. She was worse than her mother, Gloria thought.
They pulled into a diner and had breakfast. Then they went to a store and bought notebooks, pencils, dog food and gin. They bought sunglasses. It was full day now. They kept driving until dusk. They were quite a distance from Jean’s house. Gloria felt sorry for Jean. She liked to have everyone around her, even funny little Gwendal, and now she didn’t.
Gwendal had been sleeping. Suddenly she woke up. ‘Do you want to hear my dream?’ she asked.
‘Absolutely,’ Gloria said.
‘Someone, it wasn’t you, told me not to touch this funny-looking animal, it wasn’t him,’ Gwendal said, gesturing toward the dog. ‘Every time I’d pat it, it would bite off a piece of my arm or a piece of my chest. I just had to keep going, “It’s cute,” and keep petting it.’
‘Oh.’ Gloria said. She had no idea what to say.
‘Tell me one of your dreams,’ Gwendal said, yawning.
‘I haven’t been dreaming lately,’ Gloria said.
‘That’s not good,’ Gwendal said. ‘That shows a lack of imagination. Readiness, it shows a lack of readiness maybe. Well, I can put the dreams in later. Don’t worry about it.’ She chose a pencil and opened her notebook. ‘OK,’ she said. ‘Married?’
Gloria looked at her.
‘Do you want to start at the beginning or do you want to work backward from the Big Surprise?’ Gwendal asked.
They were on the outskirts of a town, stopped at a traffic light. Gloria looked straight ahead. Beginnings. She couldn’t remember any beginnings.
‘Hey,’ someone said. ‘Hey!’
She looked to her left at a dented yellow car full of young men. One of them threw a can of beer at her. It bounced off the door and they sped off, howling.
‘Everyone knows if someone yells “hey” you don’t look at them,’ Gwendal said.
‘Let’s stop for the night,’ Gloria said.
‘How are you feeling?’ Gwendal asked . . . not all that solicitously, Gloria thought.
They pulled into the first motel they saw. Gloria fed the dog and had a drink while Gwendal bounced on the bed. He seemed a most equable dog. He drank from the toilet bowl and gnawed peaceably on the bed-rail. Gloria and Gwendal ate pancakes in a brightly lit restaurant and strolled around a swimming-pool which had a filthy rubber cover rolled across it. Back in the room, Gloria lay down on one bed while Gwendal sat on the other.
‘Do you want me to paint your nails or do your hair?’ Gwendal asked.
‘No,’ Gloria said. She was recalling a bad thought she’d had once, a very bad thought. It had caused no damage, however, as far as
‘I wouldn’t know how to do your hair actually,’ Gwendal said. With a little training this kid could be a mortician, Gloria thought.
That night Gloria dreamed. She dreamed she was going to the funeral of some woman who had been indifferent to her. There was no need for her to be there. She was standing with a group of people. She felt like a criminal, undetected, but she felt chosen too, to be here when she shouldn’t be. Then she was lying across the opening of a cement pipe. When she woke, she was filled with relief, knowing she would forget the dream immediately. It was morning again. Gwendal was outside by the unpleasant pool, writing in her notebook.
‘This was happiness then,’ she said to Gloria, scribbling away. ‘Where’s the dog?’ Gloria asked. ‘Isn’t he with you?’
‘I don’t know,’ Gwendal said. ‘I let him out and he took off for parts unknown.’
‘What do you mean!’ Gloria said. She ran back to the room, went to the car, ran across the cement parking lot and around the motel. Gloria didn’t have any name to call the dog with. It had just disappeared without having ever been hers. She got Gwendal in the car and they drove down the roads around the motel. She squinted, frightened, at black heaps along the shoulder and in the littered grass, but it was tires, rags, tires. Cars sped by them. Along the median strip, dead trees were planted at fifty-foot intervals. The dog wasn’t anywhere that she could find. Gloria glared at Gwendal.
‘It was an accident,’ Gwendal said.
‘You have your own ideas about how this should be, don’t you?’
‘He was a distraction in many ways,’ Gwendal said. Gloria’s head hurt. Back in the desert, just before she had made this trip, she had had her little winter. Her heart had pounded like a fist on a door. But it was false, all false, for she had survived it.
Gwendal had the hateful notebook on her lap. It had a splatter black cover with the word composition on it. ‘Now we can get started,’ she said. ‘Today’s the day. Favorite color?’ she asked. ‘Favorite show tune?’ A childish blue barette was stuck haphazardly in her hair, exposing part of a large, pale ear.
Gloria wasn’t going to talk to her.
After a while, Gwendal said, ‘They were unaware that the fugitive was in their midst.’ She wrote it down. Gwendal scribbled in the book all day long and asked Gloria to buy her another one. She sometimes referred to Gloria’s imminent condition as the Great Adventure.
Gloria was distracted. Hours went by and she was driving, though she could barely recall what they passed. ‘I’m going to pull in early tonight,’ she said.
The motel they stopped at late that afternoon was much like the one before. It was called the Motel Lark. Gloria lay on one bed and Gwendal sat on the other. Gloria missed having a dog. A dog wouldn’t let the stranger in, she thought, knowing she was being sentimental. Whereas Gwendal would in a minute.
‘We should be able to talk,’ Gwendal said.
‘Why should we be able to talk?’ Gloria said. ‘There’s no reason we should be able to talk.’
‘You’re not open is your problem. You don’t want to share. It’s hard to imagine what’s real all by yourself, you know.’
‘It is not!’ Gloria said hotly. They were bickering like an old married couple.
‘This isn’t working out,’ Gloria said. ‘This is crazy. We should call your mother.’
‘I’ll give you a few more days, but it’s true,’ Gwendal said. ‘I thought this would be a more mystical experience. I thought you’d tell me something. You don’t even know about makeup. I bet you don’t even know how to check the oil in that car. I’ve never seen you check the oil.’
‘I know how to check the oil,’ Gloria said.
‘How about an electrical problem? Would you know how to fix an electrical problem?’
‘No!’ Gloria yelled.
Gwendal was quiet. She stared at her fat knees.
‘I’m going to take a bath,’ Gloria said.
She went into the bathroom and shut the door. The tile was turquoise and the stopper to the tub hung on a chain. This was the Motel Lark, she thought. She dropped the rubber stopper in the drain and ran the water. A few tiles were missing and the wall showed a gray, failed adhesive. She wanted to say something but even that wasn’t it. She didn’t want to say anything. She wanted to realize something she couldn’t say. She heard a voice, it must have been Gwendal’s, in the bedroom. Gloria lay down in the tub. The water wasn’t as warm as she expected. Your silence is no deterrent to me, Gloria, the voice said. She reached for the hot-water faucet but it ran in cold. If she let it run, it might get warm, she thought. That’s what they say. Or again, that might be it.
Originally published in Granta 28, 1989
‘The Little Winter’, by Joy Williams. From The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams. © 2015 by Joy Williams. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC., and Profile Books.
Artwork © Alberto Ortega, Baseball game, 2017, courtesy of Blue Spiral 1 Gallery