This is the city park, where three apathetic deer are imprisoned or protected, whatever the city fathers like to think. The park is quiet this morning, the deer hidden from view. They come out in the evening for children throwing half loaves of bread for them. I’ve seen them; they scramble for the torn-off pieces of white bread, without ritual, having forgotten freedom.
Even on Saturday nobody comes out here early. Later on youngsters will play softball out on the glade mowed flat, after the dew is off the grass. I have come because of a promise. But the park is a familiar sanctuary of mine, so I don’t mind being here even if nobody else shows up.
Two cars have already passed the gate since I entered crunching on loose gravel. If someone comes in I should be doing something. A woman, alone early…. I was born in the wrong half of the century, hesitating to enter taverns, striving for propriety, and muddled with inhibitions. I shove my hands into my jeans pockets, taking a few steps around a tree so as to look busy. My fingers in my pockets feel coins and a matchbox from last night’s work, and the hard warmth of my thighs. Here I am: internalizing the park, as the case-history jargon reads: I don’t swallow it (I think with a laugh), but it does become my own, mine to guard, as if I have recently discovered it. From the tree a squirrel scampers impatiently, comes to upright attention, stands peering. Who goes there? As if on cue, an automobile is creeping through the park entrance. It is a pumpkin-colored coupe, the sun flashing in its wide eyes. “I’ll get this one,” I tell the squirrel, “You relax.”
A large and smooth and silent Oldsmobile, late model gas-guzzler without a doubt. Why do Fiat drivers feel superior? I take a deep breath, trying to attain humility, preparing my approach to the Oldsmobile driver.
The car purrs in so close that in one step I can reach and unlatch its door, just as a hand inside gropes over to push it open. “Hello, hello, hello,” he calls in falsetto greeting. “Sorry I am late.” Leaning down and looking up at me, glasses and dark skin under the visor of a cap with a leaping fish on its front, the type of a cap a real fisherman wouldn’t wear. There are questions I won’t ask: Where is your mail uniform today, Mr. Bunsen? The white shirt, the tie? No, let it go and listen to the man: “I had to take a load to the dump,” he is explaining. “I forgot to mention that to you, and because of that I had a late start, for I had already missed it last week; I suppose I should not have bothered. I’m frequently late for many things on the weekend.” He is going on at some length, joking.
“We could have set a better time,” I say, “but my Saturdays aren’t that free either, only until noon. I have trouble finding time; my weekend mornings are all I have, so I have to be a breakfast person.”
“Now is fine. Now is fine,” he placates. “I only thought I could get that job in, seemed such a common – a thousand apologies.” His voice is thin and his English precise. This is not your small town Good Old Boy, with two apologies.
“Can we park the car and just stay here?” I ask, anticipating an invitation. “It’s quiet here,” I assure him, “and private. Just pull over onto the grass a little.”
I stand waiting while the car creeps ahead and stops, and the man emerges. Walking from it toward me those few steps, he is again the cameo I have appreciated a dozen times during the past months: shoulders already back, head already high, straight and wiry his stance, creamy-maple his color. (I do have a unique concept of beauty). I have turned and gone back to the bike by the time he reaches me and have retrieved a thermos from the Fiat. And I walk with it further up the slope to one of the bigger trees, standing in a sunny area of its own, and the man follows me there. At the base of that tree we sink and settle together, leaning side-by-side against the trunk, our elbows touching. The open thermos, I pass sideways to him.
“Well,” he exclaims, after a sip, a quaver in his voice, “well, this is interesting; this really is interesting. Surprising. Wine, is it not? Hot rose wine?”
“A breakfast drink,” I agree. “More interesting than coffee by a long shot. More appropriate, I hope. You add water and cinnamon sticks. You heat it in a coffee pot. It gets better as it gets older but at my place it never gets much older.” I take the thermos back from him. Thermos openings don’t fit lips well. “My sister doesn’t like it much. Fishin’ buddies do, though. Of course, they’ll drink anything.” I try to begin anew, catching up the old tread if there was one: “So you live by yourself, in a woods in the country by a river, but all those things which everyone longs for and tries to achieve, do not bring happiness?” Small talk is for lightweights, and time is passing.
“Do you know the place?” he asks. “It’s mostly woods, no mowing, but there is a steep grade up from the road…difficult to dig out in the wintertime.” Winter comes out “vinter” – a definite German sound. But Dutch, I know, since he’s from Guyana of varied ancestry, as I learned hurriedly one evening at work as the elevator ascended to the fourth floor, the second time I saw him close.
“Can’t say I know the place,” I say in the manner of a Vermont farmer. “Once Lucille told me a little about it, in one of her better moments, which are few. D’you know, the other day, I counted, and marked on a paper while I was rolling cigarettes. Sixty-one times she asked for a smoke. Sixty-one times in a row. I have never in all my days seen such a short attention span.”
“—you have become a great cigarette-rolling expert –” Arthur Bunsen says gaily.
“—and another thing I’m amazed at,” I add, handing back the wine, “is your own patience. You sit alone waiting for her, in her room, while she hangs around the desk for twenty minutes to collect her smoke-of-the-hour. Nothing to read; you just sit there alone in her room.”
“We do the things we must do,” he says drily.
“I guess we do, all right,” I murmur. “I’ll tell you something about my own self, though. I must be a shallow person. I don’t think I could stand to come and sit to see the deterioration of somebody.”
“Well, what is it,” says Arthur Bunsen, “to drop in daily, on one’s way past, to bring flowers to a sick person? And there are others, too, you know; people are watching…”
“I don’t know,” I answer with new resolve. “Very few of our patients get company. Right now on fourth floor, nobody but your Lucille gets company every day. If that’s really what is necessary then nobody else in the place is getting what’s necessary.” I’m assuming that some of the solicitude is couched in guilt. I’m assuming it’s my concern, which it is not. “As for the ‘others’ – Lucille is a preferred customer; no doubt you are aware. Head day-nurse takes her shopping and takes her to lunch, did you know that? Is it the scent of upper crust? Occupational therapist comes to fourth and raves about what a wonderful typist Lucille is. Just the right touch of TLC and firmness, she says, brings this to pass.”
“Lucille can’t type,” blurts out Lucille’s husband.
“Maybe not,” I shrug. “And they go on about her IQ, seeking reasons for her condition. Looking for someone to blame. That’s the way it goes in the mental ward. And I go on listening to prognostication on prognostication, and I say to myself, ‘Everyone is trying to bring Mrs. Bunsen back. I wonder how it’s going with Mr. Bunsen.’” It’s a blithe explanation of why I have come, but in the undertow I know I am nothing more than a fool for having said it.
But my companion is chuckling. “Well. Florence Nightingale. That is very thoughtful. Where would the world be without people like you?” He is perhaps in awe of all the Good Women in the world. Or perhaps he is a woman hater. And I remain a fool.
Half the hot wine is left; the thermos is open in my hand. I pass it again sideways to Arthur, glancing at his nose, which is small, but wide in the African way. With an appreciative murmur he accepts the wine, turning his head, meeting my glance. “Friendly and discreet,” the man has already mentioned to me on the phone; “spontaneity and drama” he has already acclaimed, words describing what he has found, what he thinks he has found. “Affair” is a word he has not yet used.
I’m as curious about Lucile as I am about him. “Wonder how a person goes about being destroyed in two or three years, though,” I continue, “like Lucille did, and how people around them ever survive it. Or don’t’ they?”
Not unwillingly, but carefully, he picks a reply: “She was never a great housekeeper anyway. I don’t know when I began to notice. Perhaps I was too, uh, preoccupied,” rolling the word on his tongue, “with my own doings. That is, with my career and studies, I was absent, busy, every day, all week, several nights until fairly late: eleven or later. I would come home to sinks full of dishes, overflowing wastebaskets, unswept floors, nothing prepared in the way of supper. One time a neighbor woman down the road came to visit Lucille on a weekday afternoon. Lucille, she told me, could not seem to carry a conversation, could not stay on a subject, seemed always to be glancing about nervously. The neighbor woman thought she must be anxious and upset about something. Trouble in the family. Abuse. It seemed to me the woman was a busybody. I cut her a bit short …”
“Lucille spent every day alone at home; well, did she have a car?” It skips across my mind, a thought that Arthur Bunsen could possibly also cut me a bit short.
“She didn’t drive. She had taken a leave of absence from her job, I thought to attend summer school, but then she refused also to go there. I felt at the time she was making a mistake; we had words about it, then I left her alone.” Left her alone. He is sitting very straight, his back against the tree; there is deep furrow down the hollow of his cheek where his mouth is grimly drawn. His lips are barely moving with the sound of his voice. He could as easily be reciting mathematics in his classroom. His hand, on his knee, near my knee, is controlled, no movement at all, no emotional expenditure.
“Lucille grew very careless…unaware. Grew to taking no interest in changing her – well, taking off her, well, lounging clothes, left them on all day, you know. Ashtrays spilling over, dishes pilling up until the cupboards were bare. Of course, these are symptoms, are they not? But you see I was not looking for symptoms. I saw laziness. Indifference, spite, disregard. Hate and anger. I would come home rather late and tired, to all that. To nothing. Eventually, I ate out more and more frequently or brought something to eat along home with me. And I proceeded to sleep in my study on my cot.”
“You never tried to force the issue, to sit her down and talk,” I suggested to the man.
“I was working very hard,” he declares, with an impatient wave of his hand, “I had my own life. I would rather not have come home. There were times I would make a half-attempt at reconciliation.” The thermos lies untouched in his hand. “Some of the doctors have asked me about Lucille’s drinking. At the time, it seemed to me very possible she would purposefully take hard liquor as means of repelling any advances on my part.”
Against my teeth I realize the knuckles of my hand are pressing, holding back words, diverting my thought.
“I have often theorized that the trouble could have had its beginnings at the close of her first marriage,” he is going on, “which ended in a bit of trauma. One afternoon she returned from a shopping trip, walking, to discover her husband and his co-worker together in their marriage bed.”
Abruptly I begin to cough and I reach across Arthur’s chest for the wine, and I put it to my lips. Still his voice goes on, and then I am interrupting him. “I would surely say!” And then, confronted by my vehemence, he does finally pause. I’m staring at the thermos, and my voice is loud: “That’s a ‘bit of trauma’ alright. God, more dues than a human should be required to pay….“ And then I remember. I remember at the institution there was an ordinary day when Lucille and I were alone in the dining room, away from the others because she wouldn’t eat, and I was bribing her with the promise of a cigarette or threatening her with a cigarette withheld. We were in the dining room and I spoke about a rose she would find near her bed upstairs, a rose that Arthur had left for her. And I spoke about her good fortune to have a husband who cared for her. It was then she said, “I hate him.”
I said carefully, “It’s only because you have some bad feelings about being in this place.”
“No,” said Lucille as lucid as glass, “I hate him.”
“Try the Jell-O,” I chirped, once again the competent employee, but meeting her eyes, reaching for some truth.
“I still love my first husband,” she said, looking at the Jell-O while turning the ring on her finger. “He ran off with a cheap tramp.” There was no venom in her voice. Her words were practiced and empty.
I think I said something like, “Your reaction is understandable.” I was pleased to have drawn Lucille out even by accident. There was nothing in her chart about a first husband.
But now Arthur has pulled me back into our Saturday morning interview. He talks on: “—left him, taking the children and finding what work she could; she did have her parents to run off to. She was an only child and they denied her nothing, or so it always seemed to me. I could never provide her quite enough, in their eyes. Of for that matter, I myself was never quite good enough for Lucille,” and he gave a spitting sound, as if in disgust. “After two years of menial labor she borrowed money from the parents and enrolled in a teachers’ college in the same town.”
“There she was and there I was,” he says, jovial now, with his hand suddenly on my knee, “attending summer term. I met her – my impression was of an anxious and unsure, even naïve young woman. I felt protective, I suppose. Yes,” he says, “I perceived Lucille as fairly intelligent, hesitant – we seemed strangely planted there together, refugees in a way. Two loners drifting and bumping in the academic scene.”
The wine is coming to its end. I grope for the lid and cap the thermos. We do finally look at each other’s faces. In a nearby slough, a crow is calling with great vigor.
“My impression of Lucille,” says Arthur, “was of a helpless and troubled, very needful woman. I suppose I mistook our mutual distresses for compatibility. A rather common illusion with second marriage, I’m sure.”
“Because I was a widower,” says Arthur in a footnote.
“You might both have been in mourning,” I say, my wisdom splashed up from some secret pool. I hope his verbosity is not rubbing off on me.
“I saw us as a team,” he says, “Lucille and myself, a happy little family with our offspring. One hundred percent illusion.” His hand leaves my knee, waving in the air. “Her teaching career was short-lived.” Certainly he has said this many times to specialists and psychiatrists; he and they have categorized everything. Now will there be more? Answers now to unasked questions? Even the strong-hold of males doesn’t dwell on and on in the dark corridors of a murky and doomed situation. Their professionalism no longer pulls them into the confines that so fascinated Freud. They write their reports now and they quit easily.
“You had been married before?” I ask him.
“I had begun a new career after my wife’s slow death,” says Arthur. “I was forty-five. My daughters were teenagers. I was in business – now I teach it, technology, electronic….” He sniffs, a nonchalant sound, the way good old boys yawn, coolly disparaging their awesome accomplishments. “So that is what led me to the college where I met Lucille.”
“And your daughters?”
“I travelled weekends to see them. One I had farmed off to a neighbor. The older was at university. After Lucille and I married, I continued travelling across the state to be with my daughters. And then to Lucille in Illinois, where she had taken her first teaching job. Sometimes one day in each place and then back to school.” Arthur bursts into laughter. “Oh, yes, I did all that, and I suppose I would do it all again if I had to.”
It will be afterward I’ll piece together this fragmented documentation of Arthur Bunsen’s transition: hurriedly into a second marriage the way so many estranged men move, a bravado proof of their worth, their desirability.
“It got easier after she got a job. Then we bought this country place and I had only to travel to Milwaukee to see the younger daughter. But I’ll tell you this, dear lady,” (it isn’t a term of endearment but a practiced trick of speech, as I’ll find out when I know him better) “my own children were never made to feel welcome here. They were outsiders in this home I had bought, can you imagine? If they had had to live here ithe would have been terrible. And Lucille’s children did not accept me. It was a paralyzed place.”
“You all had so much adjustment,” I feel Arthur back, with the ease I use in my work.
“Lucille’s boy spent his time with a neighbor, a shallow fellow who fancied himself an outdoorsman. I don’t doubt Lucille encouraged him to go over there. Certainly she became a steadily worse companion for him herself. At times I would plan activities and games for us, but the boy would disappear. She would take his part.”
Arthur becomes agitated. His face turns away, anger and frustration disrupting his composure, hands restless now so that I place my hand over his, to my surprise.
He’s running down. “I had painted myself a picture, never to materialize into anything but a bitter and stupid memory,” he concludes.
A Mickey Mouse verse is skipping in my head:
“The fire was really a great success.
The house? Well, it burned down, I guess.”
I shift my sitting; my back is aching, my seat is damp. I pull my legs around to the side and lean on one arm. Arthur continues to lament the fate of his marriage. But I know so few men who are able to vent their feelings and perceptions. They are Gary Cooper copycats, stingy and silently turning away, guarding their emotions, admitting to nothing. Later I will marvel at his pouring-out of words. I will mistakenly credit myself.
“You seem to have been ambitious,” I say, “demanding so much of yourself and of others, too.”
This he thinks over. He says, “I suppose I tend to be a perfectionist and, yes, expect others to measure up. Expecting people to measure up is the only way they will learn. In teaching, this is plainly true.” It is his creed, and hard for me to disagree. I’m not a teacher; most of us don’t have to deal with expectations every day.
Somewhere church bells are jingling, an automatic off key commercial playing at eleven in the middle of the town. Simultaneously a dog howls in protest. Across the ball field now a child runs from a Plymouth station wagon toward the deer pen. We can see one deer rise and several geese flapping and honking toward the fence.
I have raised myself to kneel, looking across at the child and tightening the top to the wine. My body language, therefore, speaks of the morning drifting to a close.
“But here I have usurped your precious time,” exclaims Arthur Bunsen, “good listener that you are to all these burdens of mine.” I look to see a smile on his face.
“It was a good idea,” I assure him, “and I’m glad we did it.” Stumbling to my feet, I turn to him offering both of my hands to help him stand. His hands in mine are cool and spare; I can feel bones, knuckles, no softness. Facing me then, hat pushed to one side, he continues to grip my hands. “You are an unusual woman,” he says evenly.
“You are an unusual man,” I reply. We have both found our truth for the day.
“My intentions toward you,” he says, “are less than honorable.”
“Well,” I smile, “that’s good.” I have grown never surprised by men but sometimes intrigued by a new twist. Arthur’s eyes seem steel-grey and his cheekbones are angular and his face severely thin, held militarily above mine. He lets me pull away and I retrieve the wine flask at my feet. As I start down the slope I feel him at my side, his fingers touching my elbow. Our steps are easy, though; unhurried. Everything hasn’t yet been said. “How long,” I ask clearly – I don’t especially want to repeat it – “since you’ve been with a woman.”
We’ve reached the cars. In his thoughtful silence, I glance smiling at him. His tongue moves across his upper lip. Slowly. “Two years,” he says. “No. Thirty months. Thirty-three, I think.” His fingers are at my elbow and then his other hand at my shoulder.
“Excuse me,” I say. I’m warm. I back away from Arthur, stretch my arms, pull the sweater off over my head, shake the shirt back into place, tie the sweater to my waist. I toss the thermos on the seat and consider climbing in, but then think better of it. “We aren’t alike,” I say to him. “We would turn out to be bad for each other.”
“Probably so,” he agrees amiably.
We look away from each other, across the ball diamond and across the glade as if we are a pair of undercover agents in the murmuring of a tryst. Presently he pulls his hat brim straight. He asks, “May I call you?”
“Well,” I say to him, “today or tomorrow on fourth floor, we’ll probably run into each other.”
“Yes,” says Arthur, “of course.”
Windows open, past the scent of heavy barbeque sauce from a family grill near the park entrance, I head homeward. Without his suit coat, the back of the man is lean and tantalizing in a racial and sexual way. And his rump is nicely rounded. I can’t remember when I’ve ever liked a man’s back before.