The Memorialist

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The heart-shaped pink granite headstone he had picked up south of Boston made it hard for Alex to sidle his pickup truck into a parking spot near his wife’s apartment.  The granite weighed half a ton, and Alex was conscious that it shifted the truck’s center of gravity as he swung first the flatbed, then the cab into a metered space on Commonwealth Avenue.  After many years of small-town driving, he had lost the habit of parallel parking.  He worried that Leslie could be watching as he struggled to align the truck to the curb, but when he finished and looked up at her building, he saw no interested faces looking down.  He realized he didn’t even know which window was hers.

He had purposely arrived early so that he could catch a few words face to face with Leslie before their son Teddy finished packing his duffle bag for the drive home.  Now Alex stood at the parking meter and wondered how many minutes he should hope for.  He dropped a quarter into the slot and dug in his pocket for more, but was interrupted by Teddy’s familiar “Hey” from behind him.  Alex turned to see his tall, skinny son ready to go, his bag slung over his shoulder, earbuds plugged in as always, their tail tucked into his hooded sweatshirt.

“Hey,” Alex said, casting his eyes over Teddy’s shoulder, looking for Leslie.  “You’re already packed?”

“Yeah,” said Teddy.  “Mom told me to wait in the lobby till I saw you drive up.”

“She’s not coming down?”  The parking meter ticked over: fourteen minutes left.

“She said she has to get ready for her African dance class.”  Teddy opened the door of Alex’s pickup and stuffed his bag behind the passenger seat.

“What about the schedule?” Alex asked.  It didn’t seem right that he had trimmed his beard and washed his truck just to park unnoticed for two minutes outside Leslie’s building.  “Did she say when I should bring you out here for your next visit?”

“She said she’d email you.”  Teddy climbed up into the passenger seat and pulled the cab door shut behind him.

Alex turned once again to look up at the blank windows of Leslie’s building.  It was an unremarkable block of cream brick, like most of the other buildings on the street, with limestone cornices and windowsills and slate steps leading up to the locked front door.  For this she had left their little granite house in Hudson, its lintel adorned with lilies and ivy carved by Alex’s great-grandfather.  She wanted to be anonymous, she said; she was tired of being known to everyone in town just as Alex’s wife or, worse yet, Mrs. Bilodeau, though she had never legally given up her name.

Alex considered the memorial stone that was strapped to his flatbed and remembered the stout, well-dressed couple who had driven in from Hopedale to order it.  They had been arguing before they walked into Alex’s shop; he could tell by the wife’s self-effacing smile and the husband’s sullen refusal to do anything more than grunt in assent as they paged through Alex’s sample book.  Neither was sick, as far as Alex could see.  They were just being sensible, preparing for the inevitable, making sure their children wouldn’t be burdened with deciding how or where to bury them when the time came.  Still, as often happened, when confronted with page after page of headstones and memorial sculptures, the common sense that had led them to their appointment with Alex gave way to the finality of what they were doing.  When at last the wife pointed to a picture of a heart-shaped marker with a line from Psalm 23 carved above its base, and the husband shrugged in his surly way and said, “Whatever you think,” Alex closed the book and saw that the woman’s eyes were brimming with tears.  In one well-practiced motion, he reached behind his desk for a box of tissues and slid them onto the table between her and her husband, as if unsure which of them might be in need.  “I know you’ll be happy with this design,” he assured the couple as he filled out their order forms.  “The rose granite costs a bit more, but it’s worth it when you see the results.”  The woman took a tissue and smiled weakly at Alex as she dabbed her eyes; the man reached inside his jacket for his checkbook.  Despite their differences, Alex would carve their names and their birth years into the stone, side by side, leaving a blank space below, and the marker would stand in the village cemetery in Hopedale—once a utopian outpost, now just another dying mill town—until their remains were ready to return to the earth.  Alex hoped that the marker would bring them comfort in the intervening years, that knowing they would be interred together would keep their quarrels in check.  He took one last look at Leslie’s building and climbed into the cab beside his son.

 

Alex drove out of Leslie’s neighborhood, past block after block of faceless apartment buildings, laundromats, and take-out pizza places, and found the onramp for the Pike, which would take them back to central Massachusetts.  When he glanced in his mirror, he saw the city receding behind him, the cold, gray sky reflected in its tallest glass tower.  It was lunchtime on a Monday—Teddy’s school was closed for faculty training, but other districts were open—and traffic was light.

Teddy kept his earbuds in, rocking his head almost imperceptibly to the beat of his music, shaping the lyrics to himself under his breath.  The electric thud of the bass line reached Alex distantly, working its way into his brain like a burrowing worm.

“Hey,” Alex said, after waiting unsuccessfully for a break between songs.

Teddy kept on nodding, mumbling the song to himself like a member of some monastic order, one whose members all wore their baseball caps turned backward and who knew each other by the earbud rosaries they displayed around their necks.

“Hey,” Alex said again.

No answer.  Alex reached over and grabbed Teddy’s shoulder, shook him, and shouted “Hey!” a little louder than he had intended.

Teddy sat up, blinked, and looked at Alex as if he had just been woken from meditation.  “What?”

“I can’t drive with that incessant noise coming out of your ears,” Alex said.  “Can’t you turn your music off when we’re in the car?”

Teddy shrugged.  “Mom lets me.”

“Well, I’m not Mom,” Alex said.  “And when I’m driving, you need to keep the music off.”

Teddy turned off his music and reluctantly took out his earbuds.  Then he slouched low against the seat and crossed his arms tight over his chest.

Alex was startled by the sudden silence.  “Thanks,” he said, relieved that Teddy hadn’t defied him.

They drove on without talking for several miles as the barren tree branches on either side of the road flickered by, a monotonous expanse of brown.  Alex waited for Teddy to say something about the weekend, about Leslie.  No words came.

“We could listen to the radio,” Alex suggested, when the silence between them became too much to bear.  “I think Talk of the Nation is on.”         

Beside him, Teddy shrugged and made a non-committal grunt.  Alex decided to take this as a yes.  The self-assured, rational tone of public radio always steadied him, and as the show’s host introduced his guest speakers, Alex glanced sideways at Teddy and caught a glimpse of alertness in his eyes, a slight shift in his posture that gave Alex hope he was paying attention.  The topic of the day was the presidential primary campaign, and Alex was momentarily lost in the memory of explaining the election cycle to Teddy when he was starting sixth grade.  Back then Teddy was always brimming with questions, talking so excitedly that Alex had had to make a new rule for the road: don’t ask about the Republicans when Dad is trying to merge into traffic.

They listened together in silence as the two guests reviewed and dissected each candidate’s latest gaffes on the campaign trail.  He and Teddy laughed at the same jokes made by the host and his commentators, and gradually Alex felt his sense of inner balance returning.  Above them, a red-tailed hawk wheeled and glided across the sky, its outspread wings catching each successive current as it rose higher and higher on the wind.

It was coming up to the half-hour, and the talk show host paused for news and station identification.  Immediately, the perky voices of the local station’s morning show hosts cut in, describing their Valentine’s Day fundraiser:  a bouquet of long-stemmed roses from a high-end florist, which could be sent to the listener’s beloved for a pledge of seventy-five dollars.  “You know you need to send these,” a woman’s voice said cheerfully, “and when you do, not only will you make your special someone happy, you’ll be helping to keep public radio on the air.”

“That’s right,” said a man’s upbeat voice.  “You can send these to your wife, your husband, your girlfriend, boyfriend, mother or grandmother as a way to say ‘I love you’ and support your favorite station at the same time.”

“They really are beautiful flowers,” said the woman.  “We have a gorgeous bouquet here in the studio, and I know if my husband had these delivered to me on Valentine’s Day, I would definitely be swept off my feet.”

The man on the radio chuckled.  “So call right now and support public radio while you sweep your loved ones off their feet.  A seventy-five dollar donation is all it takes.”

 

Leslie had fallen in love with him, Alex liked to think, watching him in the sculpture studio of their college art department.  She sat on a high stool in the corner, wearing a HEPA filter mask and safety goggles, observing as he cut and shaped a block of sandstone for a competition sculpture, great clouds of stone dust shooting upward from the spinning blade of his diamond-edged saw.  His own face was hidden by his mask and goggles, his hands were covered by thick leather safety gloves, and he never felt more like a man than in those moments, with Leslie watching him from her corner, her body alert and taut as an archer’s bow.  He believed she could see more than his straining biceps as he handled the screaming saw (though he hoped she saw those, too, of course); he believed she could see his mind at work as he guided the blade over the edges and corners of the stone, that she could see the vision he carried in his very soul –for the sculpture and for the two of them, together, as they carved out their place in the world.  After these studio sessions they would shower down in their separate dorms, then meet in his cinderblock bedroom and fuck gloriously for the rest of the afternoon while his roommate Stuart sat downstairs at the security desk, his weekend work-study job.  When the sky outside the dorm’s plate-glass windows darkened, Alex and Leslie would gather their clothes, shower again, and then meet for dinner in the cafeteria, proudly exuding the aura of sex, at ease in their young bodies, connected from one end of the cashier’s line to the other by the spark that had leapt and arced between them in bed.  Alex was sure he had never been happier, before or since.

 

He looked over at Teddy, who was still staring straight ahead out the windshield, immune to the radio’s Valentine’s Day exhortations.  On either side of the car, pre-split granite loomed over the road, blue-knuckled icicles gripping its dark craggy face.  The local station’s host read out a few headlines, the latest stock exchange numbers, and the weather forecast: misty and cold, with a chance of rain.  The pledge drive hosts cut in again.  “You only have a few more hours to order roses for your sweetheart in time for Valentine’s Day,” the woman said.  “So do it now.  Show your love and affection, and show your support for the terrific programming you’ve come to expect from public radio.”

The man repeated the pledge drive phone number and urged listeners to call before it was too late.  Talk of the Nation came back on the air, heralded by the somber tones of its theme music.

Alex gripped the steering wheel, trying to stop the woman’s voice from running on an endless loop in his mind.  Your sweetheart, that special someone, say I love you, sweep her off her feet, show your love and affection.  He had known it was almost Valentine’s Day, of course, but he and Leslie had never celebrated it much in the past—a Hallmark-manufactured holiday, Leslie called it—so he hadn’t thought the day would make any difference to him now that they were living apart.  He caught himself on that phrase, living apart—one that he had used when explaining their situation to family and friends, even to Teddy himself.  We’re going to try living apart.  The thought of those words now was enough to bring tears to his eyes.  He blinked ferociously and glanced sideways at Teddy, who still showed no sign of understanding what was happening in his father’s heart, just a few inches away from his as they traveled at seventy miles an hour along the Mass Pike.  Alex was stilled by the thought that if he sent Leslie flowers this year, she might not even accept them, might tell the delivery man to take them back.  He imagined her standing in her apartment doorway, arms crossed, her face expressionless before she closed the door and the roses were taken away, and he felt unspeakably sad.  Beside him, Teddy laughed softly at another political comment on the radio, but Alex no longer knew if the topic was the Republican primaries, or if the discussion had moved on entirely.  He looked at his own eyes in the rearview mirror and saw that they were hollowed and hopeless.

 

He had been only half-joking the first time he asked Leslie if he could draw her in the nude.  They were alone in Alex’s dorm room, lying naked on his single bed under the blue thermal blanket he had taken from his grandmother’s basement, and Leslie was stretching her bare arm toward the ceiling, turning her hand slowly, gracefully, examining her own body as if it had been newly bestowed on her.  Alex could hear laughter in the hallway and the loud voices of other boys who lived on his floor.  A stereo in another room was playing “Close to Me” by The Cure.

“Arms are weird, aren’t they?” Leslie said at last.  Alex loved it when she came out with simple things like that, when she dropped her Econ-major persona and forgot her inclination to spar with him over his affection for socialism.  He turned his head and kissed her cheek, then ran his tongue along the outer ridge of her ear.

“That tickles,” Leslie giggled.  She kept her arm raised high, twisting and turning it, joining her two middle fingers to her thumb to make a shadow-puppet coyote.  She whimpered like a puppy as she brought the coyote’s snout down to nuzzle Alex under his chin.

He laughed, and Leslie stretched up both her arms, trying to see which was longer.  “Don’t you think arms are weird?”

Alex loved the way her smooth skin absorbed the fading sunlight from the window between his bed and Stuart’s.  He could just see the fine blonde hairs on her wrists, the flexing patterns of carpals and metacarpals under her luminous skin.  Before he could stop himself, he blurted out an idea he had saved for his own private daydreams, for times when Leslie was in class or the library, or home with her parents in Swampscott.

“Let me draw you,” he said.  “Naked.”

Instantly he regretted saying it.  He waited for Leslie to laugh and call him a pervert, to shame him into disowning the idea as an adolescent fantasy.

Instead she lowered her two arms and turned her head toward him until they were eye to eye across the pillow.  Slowly, languidly, she gave him a mischievous smile.  “Only if you’re naked, too.”

His erection was returning, and he knew Leslie could feel it pressing against her bare upper thigh.  He blushed at the thought of revealing it in the open air, trapped behind a sketchpad while Leslie posed perfectly still.  “Can we fuck again first?” he asked, sheepishly, cringing at the querulous sound of his own voice.

Leslie raised her eyebrows playfully in response.  “No.”  She giggled as she threw back the blanket, exposing the lengths of their bodies to the ripening afternoon light.  She nudged him out of bed with her hip, then cocked her shoulder and brought her hand to her hair like a centerfold model.  “How do you want me?”

Alex stood motionless for a moment, naked, aching with desire while Leslie teased him with a series of pin-up girl poses.  At last he dived for his sketchpad, snatching it off his desk along with a stick of charcoal and a kneaded eraser.  He sat himself on Stuart’s bed, propped the pad on his knees to hide his waning erection, and flipped open the cover to a blank page.

 

Alex and Teddy drove on without speaking until Talk of the Nation was over.  After the show, the local pledge drive started again, with continued banter about Valentine’s Day.  “Everyone loves roses,” the perky woman asserted, “so send some now to that special person in your life.  Valentine’s Day is just a few short days away.”

Alex stared ahead through the windshield and clenched his teeth against the urge to tell the radio host to shut up.  Above all he did not want Teddy to know he was perturbed.  He had read plenty of Internet articles about separation and divorce, and rule number one was always Don’t Drag Your Children Into Your Marital Conflicts.  He clung to the hope that his son could emerge from this period in their family life unscathed, and he knew that behind this noble wish lay the delusion that he and Leslie could someday return to being the happy couple he had always wanted them to be.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” Teddy said, the first full sentence he had spoken since Alex made him turn off his music.

Alex pulled off at the next exit and kept the truck running while Teddy went into a gas station.  The radio pledge drive was still going, and by now the hosts’ insistently chirpy voices were grating against the sorrowful tissue at the forefront of Alex’s brain.  He glanced into the gas station and saw Teddy waiting outside the locked men’s room door, his earbuds plugged back into his ears, his eyes staring vacantly ahead as he nodded along to his music.  He took no notice of his father, outside in the parking lot, buffeted by the relentless chatter of the Valentine’s Day pledge drive.

The male host read out the station’s pledge line number again, and Alex pulled out his cell phone.  As the man’s voice repeated the numbers, Alex punched them in, knowing this was a misguided attack even as his index finger stabbed the last digit on the keypad.

An elderly woman answered, her slow voice wavering but cheerful.  “Thank you for calling the pledge line.  Would you like to send one or two dozen roses?”  Behind her Alex heard the murmur of other voices.

“No.”  Alex glanced toward the gas station, where Teddy was receiving a key on a long wooden stick from the man coming out of the restroom.  Alex watched as his son disappeared behind the door.  “I don’t want to send roses.  I just want the station to think about this pledge drive and how hard—how inappropriate it is for anyone who’s alone.”

“Oh.”  The lady on the phone sighed, and the brightness faded out of her voice.  When she spoke again, she sounded fatigued, as if Alex’s demand had thwarted the momentum that had carried her into the radio station.  “I’m so sorry.”  She paused.  “Have you lost someone recently?”

And suddenly Alex could see her clearly, could see her surrounded by others in the station’s makeshift phone bank—probably just a conference room with some instant coffee and a box of doughnuts—trying to buoy herself amid a sea of aging women, widowed and alone, taking calls from strangers as a way of bridging the distance between her solitary life and the shoals of healthy, young humanity that streamed by her on the television, the radio, the sidewalk and street outside her apartment complex or her empty ranch home.

“No,” said Alex hurriedly.  “Not lost—she’s not dead, we’re just getting divorced.  Or separated, anyway.  I don’t know.”

The lady on the phone sighed again.  “I really am sorry to hear that.  And I’ll tell the volunteer coordinator what you said.  I hope that you and your wife will be all right.”

Alex imagined her face, kind as his grandmother’s, and her white hair, freshly permed.  He saw her sitting at the phone bank flanked by other white-haired ladies from her church or bridge club, all of them wearing radio station T-shirts stretched over turtleneck sweaters.  Maybe they would all go to lunch afterward; he hoped they would.  He wished he could be there to pick up the tab.  “It’s not your fault,” he said, abashed.  “I’m sorry I bothered you.”  He saw Teddy emerge from the gas station’s front door with a bottle of electric blue sports drink in his hand.

“Not at all, sir,” the woman said, regaining her pledge line politeness.  “I hope you have a nice day.”

Teddy opened the cab door just as Alex flipped his phone shut.  Warily, Teddy removed the buds from his ears and climbed into the passenger seat.  “Who was on the phone?”

“No one,” said Alex, shifting the truck into gear.  “I was just checking my messages.”

Teddy looked Alex in the eye for a brief moment, and Alex thought he saw a flash of sympathy and recognition.  “If you were talking to Mom, you don’t have to lie to me.”  He cracked open the cap of his sports bottle and took a long drink.

Alex waited until Teddy buckled his seatbelt, then pulled out of the gas station driveway.  “I wasn’t talking to Mom.”

 

Alex had found that first nude drawing of Leslie in the attic, along with a sheaf of others he had done over the years, sketches made in stolen moments when she was still enough not to mind being drawn: Leslie at their kitchen table, reading a book, her cup of green tea beside her; Leslie in the garden, wearing her wide-brimmed hat, kneeling to re-plant the narcissus bulbs that had outgrown their beds.  The last time she had posed nude for him was when she was pregnant with Teddy, and that drawing was bundled along with the others: Leslie standing, draped in an open robe, her face turned shyly toward her magnificent rounded belly, one hand resting on its side, the other cradling her face, as if she were contemplating the child inside her and the new life that was about to begin.

He and Leslie had argued about that drawing.  Alex wanted to sculpt it, the pregnant form, the face of a solicitous mother waiting for a new world to open.  He would make the features anonymous, he promised, so that it would be a universal portrayal of motherhood, not a personal portrait of her.  Leslie had cried over the idea, had told him that he didn’t understand what it felt like to give her body over to another being, to lose control of her balance, her energy levels, even her bladder and her capacity to sleep at night.  Alex said that making the sculpture might help him understand, and he told her he thought she was more beautiful than ever.  She said that if he sculpted her pregnant, she would never speak to him again.  So he put the drawing away, and massaged her feet until she stopped crying.  In the back of his mind he hoped her feelings might change after the baby was born.

Alex glanced sideways at Teddy: in profile, his face had the same shape as his mother’s, and the open, unclouded look in his eyes made Alex want to weep for the light that had gone out of Leslie’s.  He knew nothing except the certain weight of the headstone behind them and the steep turns on the long road ahead.  Facing forward alongside his son, Alex shifted the truck into higher gear and took the onramp toward home.

 

“000081” by s2art  licensed under CC BY 2.0