By ELIZABETH POLINER
That summer, even before she took up mowing, Suzanne was doubting herself, an uncertainty that set in when her husband began to notice the Mandlebrauns’ oldest daughter, Alison, soon to finish college. Alison, who lived in the only other house on their riverside lane, was home in Middle Haddam for the summer and came by to play tennis on their court with their daughter, Michelle, also soon to finish college. The girls, never close friends to begin with, had drifted further apart during their time away at school. It was surprising, then, to see them suddenly pair up, even if only for tennis.
At first, in early June, Denny had merely noted Alison’s serve, consistent and well-placed, something he’d casually mention as he glanced up from the Hartford Courant and gazed out the breakfast room window, down to the court, which rested on a flat strip of land just above the riverbank. Beyond the court lay the river itself, glistening in the morning sun. This was Denny’s habit—reading and glancing—and because he’d do this regardless of whether anyone happened to be playing tennis or not, Suzanne knew that what drew him, too, was the flow of the Connecticut River, that inscrutable snake of a waterway that, while forever speeding past them, simultaneously gave off the appearance of remaining ever constant, ever the same.
Soon Denny commented on Alison’s backhand, two-fisted and firm. But out of propriety, or so Suzanne figured, he didn’t mention her tan muscular legs, her bouncing brunette ponytail, or her inviting laugh, which came just as readily at a missed point as one she’d gained. But how could he not notice?, Suzanne wondered, as she, too, began lingering at the breakfast table, staring out the window, the Courant opened and forgotten, eyes glued instead to the competition below.
And how fiercely the girls played. They’d hop in anticipation of a serve, whack it back, rush the net, bat the ball away with a short, swift smack. Or they’d serve, grunt, ace. If a ball came up short, they’d run, racing and reaching, and half the time, it seemed to Suzanne, they’d make the shot only to scramble across the court in desperate chase of the next one. Occasionally, one or the other would drop forward, head to her knees, momentarily exhausted, then suddenly, upright and bouncing once again, instantly revive. All June they played three times a week, a series of sets that usually left them evenly split in points. But sometimes one would have a bad day and the points would lean heavily in the other direction. Suzanne was sorry to see that this was more often than not Michelle, whom she knew had inherited her own unpredictable insomniac tendencies. In contrast, Alison’s energy was as constant as the river’s.
After a week of observing from inside, Denny began to take his morning coffee and paper outside, on their front porch. Soon, he relocated farther down the hill, near the narrow lane that divided their hilly plot from the flat one of the tennis court. Finally, he crossed the street and sat at the court’s edge, sprawled on a plastic outdoor chaise that he’d dragged, incrementally, on each stage of his descent to the court, his legs resting idly, his head turning left and right, left and right. The girls began to count on him to umpire, and he—a former college all-star—began to coach them, urging Michelle to throw the ball higher with each serve, urging Alison to rush the net, to take more risks.
The last Wednesday in June, while sitting alone at the breakfast table and taking in the happy commotion below—“Get it get it get it!” “Out!”—Suzanne felt for the first time the vulnerability of having her best days, physically speaking, behind her. But she was only forty-eight, she then reminded herself. Unlike many of her women friends, she’d not had a single hot flash, nor had she gained a pound of the dreaded weight of middle age. Her periods, she noted, were perhaps not as robust as in her youth, but they were almost as regular. She wasn’t old, she insisted, lifting her hand to her hair, the same mahogany as Alison’s, except that hers, she’d realized just that week, had lost its luster now that it was flecked with gray. Not old, she repeated, drizzling syrup on one of the slices of French toast she’d prepared that morning specially for Denny and that, in his haste to get to the girls, he’d not bothered to eat. She ate that slice, glanced down at the court where the girls were sprinting and hopping, and then took another slice, this time drenching it in syrup, and ate that one too.
According to Denny, it didn’t matter that he got to work those mornings a little late. His business, manufacturing netting, was his own, and he could call the shots there just as easily as here. Or so he seemed to think. Or perhaps, Suzanne concluded, he wasn’t thinking. After all, minutes later, when Denny decided to take the girls on—rising at last from the comfort of the outdoor chaise and playing first Michelle, then Alison, then once again Michelle, then, his last game, Alison—Denny couldn’t have been thinking. For despite how Alison whizzed cross-courts past him, despite his breath long gone, his chest heaving for air, his left arm noticeably stiffening, his body obviously possessed by dizziness—and despite Suzanne’s calling to him to stop already! Stop!—he insisted that he was fine, at the top of his game.
Racing down the hill, across the road, through the court’s open gate, and over the hurdle of plastic chaise, Suzanne felt her movements to be as graceful and athletic as those of the two twenty-one-year-olds crouched beside Denny, who, a moment later, lay stricken and bent. If only he’d been thinking, she urged silently, had remembered that he, like she, was no longer at his physical peak. Yet here she was, down in a flash, defying age, as timeless suddenly as the river. When her eyes met Denny’s, her surprise matched his. “I’m here,” she told him, not sure how this had even happened. “No worries, Denny. No worries. We got you. You’ll be okay.”
She hadn’t mowed before this event. But while Denny recuperated following his brief but lifesaving hospitalization, spending weeks putzing about the first floor of their house, where he also now slept, or lying for hours on their living room sofa, uncommunicative and sullen since he took sick, she decided to give the mowing a go. During those weeks she read to him, cooked for him, and drove him to and from an endless stream of doctor’s appointments. Countless times she raced to the pharmacy, miles from their home in Middle Haddam, to fill his several new prescriptions. For the first time it was she who scrutinized and paid their bills, including the hospital’s massive ones. She also took calls from his office and decided which messages to pass on to him and which to save for later. She cancelled any lunch dates with friends as well as her cherished volunteer work at Middle Haddam’s tiny but active library—the job that was to make up for all the jobs she’d wanted over the years but, lacking a college degree, had never dared seek. As before, she did the laundry, dusting, and vacuuming. Come evenings, when Michelle returned from her summer waitressing job, Suzanne held her close and told her again and again that Denny’s heart attack wasn’t her fault, that sometimes things just happened—unpredictable, unacceptable things. Often, Suzanne sat on the edge of Denny’s sickbed, and though he didn’t seem to notice her, she took his hand and hummed to him the consoling lullabies of her childhood.
She did all this, and then one day, the second Thursday in July, she did the mowing. The need was urgent: their grassy hillside was overwhelmed. Midafternoon, rising from Denny’s bedside, she looked out and found herself shocked by the overgrowth’s implication of all that had passed her by in the last weeks. Did time even exist? She knew it did, and yet now she knew it didn’t sometimes, too. Because the task of mowing had been Denny’s, she knew of no one off the top of her head to call. And Michelle, as always, had allergies that took her out of the running. So Suzanne went, waving an unanswered goodbye to Denny as she did. From the garage she dragged out their rusty mower and, once she’d yanked the ignition cord, to her surprise she felt moved to let the thing rip.
At first she mowed tentatively, just in front of their house, in the tidiest of rows. She then began on the area to the house’s west side, then the back, then the east side. This resulted in their house—an old, turn-of-the-century Victorian, all peaks and eaves—rising from a small circumference of clipped grass like a castle from a moat. Beyond this circle, the grass was growing almost wildly already, swaying in the soft breezes of the Central Connecticut River Valley as it never had before. A week into the mowing and Suzanne knew she needed to get out there, into the thick of it, into what was once, when Denny handled the matter, her coifed, tame lawn.
Strangely, though, she was afraid. When she turned the mower toward the hill leading down to the lane, she couldn’t help but peer over the mower’s handlebars with anxiety. She’d rarely seen her lawn from this steep and intimidating an angle. The dread was the same as she’d experienced so many years ago when she’d tried, for Denny’s sake, to take up downhill skiing, but she found the initial pitch forward, off the chairlift’s landing platform and down onto the mountainside, a perplexing threat.
She wasn’t athletic. Certainly not in the way Denny was: a lifetime of tennis and skiing and excessively long bicycle trips. No, she liked to sit. Indeed, when she’d met Denny, the summer she’d turned nineteen, she’d been sitting for hours on end, paging through an array of novels, ones by Twain and Wharton, interesting American writers, the kind she hoped someday to teach. She knew she was wearing thin the cushion of the rocker she’d claimed as hers, one of several on the porch of the cottage her family had rented at Connecticut’s Lake Topaqua. Ostensibly, she didn’t notice Denny, who, one porch away, raced about, from porch to lake, lake to hiking trail, trail to tree house, tree house to land. Occasionally he’d sit, reading the newspaper, whistling cheerfully as if all news was good news, which of course it wasn’t. Then, all news was Vietnam, and Denny, an obvious flirt, was soon to go there.
Ostensibly, Suzanne was reading book after book. But as the days of July melded with those of August, forming a nearly complete summer, as time passed and time pressed, the drama next door became more poignant than those of the pages on her lap. Denny, she saw, should always be so carefree, boyish, and goofy. His smiles, open and spontaneous, directed at her each and every time they passed on adjacent porches, should always be so toothy, she reasoned, so innocent. No one should have to face what Denny was soon to face. What if he died? Or returned the way some did, fearful and changed? What if this summer, which brought her the surprise of the most perfect, albeit quiet, romance she’d ever imagined—stolen glances and shy smiles and reddening cheeks—what if this really came to an end?
August 14. Two weeks of vacation to go, and he finally spoke to her.
“I could row you out to the islands. There’s raspberries there. I’ve been eating them all week. I can’t tell you what you’ve been missing.”
But he didn’t need to tell her. She felt the lacking in her body. A second later she was off the wicker. She followed him down to the water, onto the dock, and into the boat.
“Suzanne,” she said, thrusting her arm forward as if this were a business engagement, cutoff blue jeans and halter top aside, rather than the culmination of a summer’s infatuation.
There was so little time, after all. They had to get to the bottom of this quickly.
So when he met her that night at the community tree house, a roomy cabin arrived at by ladder, she whisked from his hands the caramels and Cokes, the stuff of kids, that he’d kindly brought with him. There was no time for sweet talk or sweet foods. She’d made a choice, she realized, some time ago while idly flipping the pages of a Twain story, the writer’s nineteenth-century Midwest, that dreamy Mississippi, dimming beside the light of home, here, now shining from next door. If this boy needed love, she’d be there to love him. Indeed, she did love him. Sometime back in July, that lifetime ago, he’d overtaken her dreams.
And so when Denny arrived, Suzanne placed herself, already naked, under the moon’s dim glow. Politely, Denny averted his eyes. Yet the courtesy only made her longings more insistent. This. Now. Her body had never spoken with such clarity and temerity. She waited, almost panting, until, stripped of his own clothes, he reached for her.
Afterward, silent and dazed, it was as if a pact had been made between them. Nothing that happened in war, nothing that happened beyond this moment, would equal in magnitude the wonder of this, their first sex.
But when she woke in the morning, beside him, she realized how naïve she’d been just those few hours ago. For she wanted him again already. And this time the need seemed even greater than the night before, the desire more ferocious. Sex was a force, she realized, hardly a nice thing, a caramel or a Coke. All this love she’d conjured up in her mind had channeled into a physical form, was in fact a kind of violence, a power as potent as warmaking. And how ironic that here she was, attempting to save him from all that, but in fact she’d made him all the more ready. She’d stripped him and initiated him into a world more primal and complex than the polite one they’d left behind.
“Oh, fuck,” she said out loud, sadly.
“Say what?” Denny responded, still half-asleep. Staring at him, she thought he seemed the same as the night before, relaxed, even blissful. She lay back down, wondering how it was he could soundly sleep when all the world had turned so completely.
In the morning light she noticed the splash of freckles that ran across his shoulders, the scar on his chin, the surprisingly long eyelashes. As she continued to take stock—his gangly arms, the crooked part in his hair—an array of birds began their morning calls. As on most mornings, the leaves in the oaks and elms shook gently as occasional breezes passed. Not everything about the world, apparently, had changed. Trees and birds and air still functioned, amazingly, as trees and birds and air.
Eventually Denny, still in a dream state, reached for her. She allowed herself to be held by him, though by now she thought of him as a stranger—freckles and scars and eyelashes she’d never seen before—an unknown entity with whom she’d foolishly shared her entire being. Confused, she longed to join the chatter of birds, calling out her dismay to a foreign world in a foreign tongue: I didn’t mean for so much to change.
The mower’s roar was pleasing: lionlike and huge, gutsier than any sound her own modest physiology could muster. Tugging the ignition cord, she looked forward to the moment when the machine would take, putt-putting into action, building to a nice, steady growl.
And off she’d go. The hill, that mound of riverbank they called their front lawn, was no problem now that she was weeks into the mowing. Her beginner’s tentativeness, that early uncertainty, had given way to a newfound freedom. Mowing, she came to see, provided a great escape from the house, which was especially valuable now that Denny so relentlessly occupied it. Moreover, a person could think while pacing behind a machine that howled. A person could get quite worked up and compose a commanding speech in her mind—something like, “Get up already, you self-pitying fool!”
More tenderly, while under the spell of mowing, Suzanne could remember those first pangs of love for the now self-pitying fool, her rush toward sex, the pregnancy that soon followed, the war that so compelled all this, the relief when Denny received an eleventh-hour draft deferment for college. It was 1972. The war couldn’t have been less popular. Or Nixon. Watergate was bubbling to the surface. Two years later, the deferment over, both Nixon and the draft were gone.
But by then a person was married, with child—her firstborn, Peter, followed by, some years later, Michelle. A person didn’t ever go to college—no, she didn’t. In time, a person said “all right” when this other person wanted to move the family into that almost decrepit Victorian falling apart on the banks of the Connecticut River. He had a vision for them there. A cleaned-up house and a tennis court where the bank flattened close to the river, where the grass grew especially thick. Then a high school gym teacher, Denny relentlessly worked and saved and, in the early years, did the landscaping and renovations himself. A person said “all right” because this other person, the near-stranger she married, was in fact a dear friend by then, reliable and handy in a way she never imagined. He was resourceful, too, working devotedly toward the family home of his dreams. The icing on the cake, the extravagant embellishment he drove them toward, was the tennis court on the riverbank. They didn’t even have any money! The plan, which had turned out so well, was initially nothing but a ridiculous leap of faith. The kind of leap, like that over a gymnast’s vault, that Denny was so good at but that she could barely manage. All they had, then, was Denny’s desire, a kind of optimism that came bound with his exuberant physicality. Denny’s desire: when Suzanne thought of their married sex, how it differed from those early bewildering bouts of passion, she compared it to the steady and calming flow of the river. Who knew? Who knew you could get used to a force like that winding so continually through your life? Who knew the wilderness of bodily love became comfortable, comforting, as tamed as a mowed lawn?
These were mowing thoughts. This was mowing clarity. Mowing, which brought new metaphors and new definition. By now she’d pushed the machine down the hill, across the lane, where she could trim the edges of Denny’s vision, his court. Who knew?
First week of August, Denny still on the couch, and Michelle and Alison were on the outs. Suzanne could tell from the way they walked briskly past each other as they switched sides of the court. Sometimes they’d stop to hand over balls, but mostly they walked right past each other, not bothering to chat as they used to. Still, their games were dramatic, their services sharp, their ground strokes low, their bodies tirelessly racing and reaching.
Suzanne decided to take Denny’s place on the chaise, which was still courtside, right where he’d left it as if, rising from it that near-fatal day, challenging one girl and then the next, he’d meant to promptly resume his relaxation afterward. Even the newspaper Denny had dragged down with him, opened to an article about the legalities of Bush v. Gore, was still tucked into the plastic. Suzanne pulled it out. The Courant was stained and cracked. The chaise needed brushing off too, having gathered dust from the court’s surface.
She watched Michelle bang an ace, which left Alison momentarily dazed. Thirty-love. Michelle then cranked for another serve. Alison hopped in anticipation, then walloped a good one to Michelle’s backhand. Michelle crouched low before swinging hard, issuing a soft “Oh” as she did. And that was the extent of the girls’ verbal communication. “Forty-love” gave way to “Game,” which, as it turned out, was the match.
“Okay,” said Alison, more to Suzanne than Michelle. “I’ll catch you next time.” And she walked off determinedly, as if a day crowded with appointments lay ahead.
“You girls have bodies like goddesses,” Suzanne said, motioning Michelle to join her. “You look beautiful out there. You look like pros.”
“She’s flashier. She plays like a jock but looks like a ballerina.” Michelle pulled off her T-shirt and stood before Suzanne in her cotton athletic bra. Her stomach was flat and muscular. The sweat on her neck and chest glistened in the sunlight. Suzanne, wondering if she’d really birthed this astonishing being, almost gasped.
As Michelle sat at the chaise’s lower end, toweling herself with her T-shirt, Suzanne breathed in Michelle’s sweet, salty scent. So often Denny smelled just like this, she recalled with a sudden pang of nostalgia.
“You both look great to me. Come on, tell me—what’s happening?”
“You used to have fun, the two of you. Now it’s grim. You’re not even speaking.”
Michelle shrugged. She had short hair, reddish like Denny’s. She had Denny’s freckles, too, rather than Suzanne’s darker complexion.
“It’s like we’ve found out too much about each other. I know all her weaknesses and she knows mine.”
“It’s become routine. Is that it?”
“No. It’s more than that,” Michelle answered. “Now that we know each other’s weaknesses, we keep playing to them. I feel like she’s picking on me. And she feels the same, probably. I think we’re both pissed.” Michelle lay down beside Suzanne, her head falling on Suzanne’s lap.
“Maybe you two need to do something different,” Suzanne said, stroking Michelle’s hair. “Go to a movie or have lunch. You know, find a new dimension.”
“It’s not a fucking relationship,” Michelle complained, but despite her language she did so calmly, dreamily, her head snuggling deeper into Suzanne’s lap.
Suzanne smiled, amused by Michelle’s swearing, so much like her own at that age. She glanced ahead, and there it was: that glistening stillness in time, or that flow of time that remained, strangely enough, still. From the river, a pair passing in a canoe waved to them, and Suzanne reached out, automatically, to wave back. This was river hospitality, something she’d learned long ago.
“Isn’t it interesting how the river’s always changing, while at the same time always the same? You ever notice that?” she asked Michelle. “I notice it all the time.”
“It’s never the same. That’s a fucking illusion.” Briefly, Michelle lifted her head and glanced toward the river as if to confirm her assessment.
Suzanne continued consoling Michelle, who was experiencing with Alison the brick wall of human foible, something not at all unlike every day of marriage, past a certain initial stage. She thought of Denny then, on the couch, these days often refusing food, refusing even minor exercise, refusing, most importantly, to talk. They were beyond foible, into trouble. Feeling a flick of panic, Suzanne reached for Michelle, pulling her into a tight hug.
“Honey, your language, please. You’re such a beautiful girl.”
“Mama, your dreams, your dreams.”
When the idea of mowing beyond their property line first seized her imagination, Suzanne shook her head. Such a crazy notion. Clearly, it was trespassing. A police officer could appear suddenly along their otherwise deserted, dead-end roadway, calling, Lady, we’ve caught you red-handed. Cut the engine and let the grass alone, now. But no police officers in Middle Haddam actually spoke that way, she reminded herself next, and that was because police officers in such a tiny village barely existed.
The likelihood of interference, then, was negligible. Really, she figured, who would know? The only other home along their road belonged to the Mandlebrauns, who were as private as their secluded house, tucked into woods. The owner of the property between theirs, an expansive and overgrown bank of grass, was a mystery. This was choice river-view real estate, a plot ever increasing in value, but the owner had never built on it, nor did he, or she, ever show up. A metal pole near where the woods started, way up the hill, marking the property line, constituted the only literal stake in the land.
Which needed mowing. She could see that now.
She started slowly, as she’d done earlier that summer with her own property. She inched the mower into the near thicket of grass. When the machine choked on the density, she pulled it back and then started in more gently than before. Over the days, she made progress, albeit in tiny bouts. Each time Michelle left to wait tables for the evening, driving two towns east for her job, Suzanne handed her an empty one-gallon tin for gas. Would she fill it on the way?
“Again?” Michelle remarked, more than once.
If Denny had been alert, had been himself, he surely would have been onto her excesses in an instant. From his years of renovating and landscaping, he had a feel for their property similar to a mother’s for her child: a nurturing, integral involvement. He’d gone so far as to invent the netting he’d raised around the court—a clear, nylon netting, rather than a metal fence, something that would catch stray tennis balls but wouldn’t obstruct the river view. Some fifteen years ago, the netting, ingenious, had brought him his first big business break. Soon he’d left teaching for business, for which he discovered he had a knack. Life had a way of unfolding for a person like Denny, she saw, a person whose core personality was so clear that it took only sticking with what he loved most to create a life fluid and whole.
But Denny wasn’t himself. The night before, restless with insomnia, she’d gone to the kitchen to brew some chamomile tea. When she flicked on the light she nearly jumped, for there was Denny, head in his arms. When he raised his head, blinking to adjust to the light, she could see he’d been sleeping. In twenty-six years of marriage she’d never found him in the kitchen in the middle of the night.
She implored him to let her help him, get him some water or food, console him, if that’s what he needed. Whatever he needed. “Please,” she said, “tell me what to do.”
She switched off the light and lit two candles.
He looked up at last, his eyes rimmed with dark bags she wanted desperately to wipe away.
“Want to go outside? The raspberries are ripe. We could pick them by candlelight.”
But he didn’t. He flicked his hands, suggesting he wouldn’t mind if she left him alone.
So she went out by herself, taking only the company of her tea with her, sipping it at first while sitting on their front porch steps. The night was warm, but she tightened her robe anyway, as if she’d just caught a chill. With her insomnia she was used to the midnight kitchen, yet the actual midnight, its starry vastness, was a mystery. Eventually, taking to the darkness, she wandered down the hill and across the road. She opened the gate to the court and dropped onto the chaise. She could only just make out the square of netting surrounding her, which, in the night breezes, flapped like a loose sail. In her mind’s eye she could see Michelle and Alison whacking tennis balls, racing, hopping, swinging. She could see Denny, too, in just the same way: vigorous and able. His illness, she had to acknowledge, suddenly feeling the weight of it, was all kinds of loss: identity, for example, as much as capacity and spirit.
She glanced at her house, where the kitchen now seemed as vacated and dark as Denny’s mood. Where had he gone? she wondered. And why, wherever he was, did he have to remain so stubbornly unreachable?
The next afternoon, when she yanked the mower’s cord, the sound of the engine, puttering to life, worked to release her own building despair. Her sighs, heavy and sad, soon blended with the engine’s growl. She wondered how it was possible that the upshot of Denny’s heart attack was a distance she’d never known from him. A moment later, blurry-eyed and tired, she wheeled the machine to the hill next door, pushing the mower easily through the winding path she’d already cleared. When she finally reached the place where she’d left off, the work began. She inched the machine forward, then yanked it back before it choked, stalling on the overgrowth. She continued this way, progressing steadily but slowly, writing with the mower in what had to be the clumsiest of cursive scripts. Denny would never see the message, she knew. The surrounding grass was too high and thick, and, besides, a person would have to be on the river, facing the banks, to really see it. Yes, this note was but more of that river hospitality. Something that emerged automatically when you saw a stranger drifting past. When she’d finish—would she ever finish?—the whole hillside would be calling out Hello.
“I’m thinking of ordering a sit-down mower,” she told him one night, soon after the illicit mowing had begun. They were lying in bed—their bed, which he’d returned to recently—but, as on so many nights of late, both were having trouble sleeping. She knew she couldn’t talk to him about his illness, still too touchy a subject, but perhaps mowing was all right. “It’ll make it easier, going up and down the bank. Don’t you think? I’ve got plans, Denny. Mowing plans.”
After a time he said, quietly, “I didn’t mean for you to have to work so hard.”
She turned to him, but he stared straight up at the ceiling.
“Are you apologizing?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Am I?”
“Oh, Denny, mowing’s not hard, and I don’t even think of it as work. Truly, I don’t. And of course you didn’t mean it.” She paused, then dove in. “You were ill. We didn’t know. That’s why it’s called a heart attack. It takes you by surprise.”
When he didn’t respond, she continued anyway, weeks of unspoken words spilling forth. “For God’s sake, Denny, there’s nothing to be sorry for. I was out of my mind, thinking you’d left me. I’m so grateful. So terribly grateful. You were lucky that day. We were lucky. It could have been otherwise. So easily otherwise.”
He sighed heavily, but otherwise didn’t respond.
She inched closer and took his hand, rubbing it as if it were cold, but of course it wasn’t. The fan in their room did little to alleviate the summer heat.
After what seemed an interminable pause, Denny said, “Peter’s been calling almost every day.” His voice had lightened in tone.
“When?” she asked, as surprised to hear about her son’s calls as she was to hear Denny’s old voice returning.
“When you’re out there, mowing.”
“How does he know when I’m mowing?”
“I gave him your schedule. Your strict schedule. Didn’t you know it?” He chuckled lightly, which caused her heart to leap.
“So what’s Peter have to say?” she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“‘Hi.’ That sort of thing. He wants to know how his old man is doing.”
She nodded, sure of her son’s concern. And grateful, too, that he at least was getting through.
Denny continued staring at the ceiling. Sleeplessness was like this, she wanted to explain to him: full of dense pauses and fogs of waiting. Insomnia, if that’s what they were sharing, demanded an arduous patience.
Denny’s silence continued. In its midst the fan’s whir caught her attention, and she looked through the darkness, to the window, as if she could actually see the machine. But of course she couldn’t. She focused then on the cotton sheet she lay under, fingering its worn softness. When Denny murmured, she jerked up, but he waved her down, muzzling her eagerness to talk.
“Denny?” she finally said, just to say something.
“You know, Suz, when this kind of thing happens at, say, sixty-seven, it’s a little easier to take.”
She nodded. Of course it was. And at least she finally knew what bothered him: he thought he was old. Join the club, she almost said. Her body, she noticed, was warming.
“Sixty-seven-year-olds fall prey to this kind of thing,” he continued, and she continued nodding, more vehemently. As she did, her body temperature spiked. She was hot—terribly and weirdly so.
“But I’m not even fifty,” Denny argued further. “I’m forty-eight, for God’s sake. I wasn’t even thinking yet about fifty. Maybe our kids are grown, but we’re not old.”
“No?” She let go of the bed sheet, then frantically kicked herself free of it. Where was he going? she wondered. And why was she so extremely, extremely warm?
“We just started in so damn early,” Denny told her, turning her way. “You were in such a hurry. You were a kind of steamroller, if you’ll recall. You were filled with something, some fuel, those books maybe. Those twisted plots. Yes, you were all over me. That first year. That second and third and so on. And you were so beautiful. Steamroller—you see what I mean?”
She was propped now on an elbow, startled. Her face had broken into a full sweat, as did her neck and upper back. She? A force? Fueled? Why, he was the steamroller, she wanted to tell him. This, this house and bed and river and tennis court: wasn’t it all his dream?
“That wasn’t me. That was sex. These things happen, Denny. Please!” She sat up. Undone by her body’s heat, she whipped off her pajama top.
“See what I mean?” he said, staring at her bare chest. “Suz, what the hell?”
She raced to the window fan. “Hot!” she cried, soothing her face, then neck, then back with the fan’s cool breeze. “So hot, so hot. And as for you, Denny, so what? I mean, whether you ever met me or not, you might have had this very heart attack. The very same one you just had. There were no indications. No high blood pressure. No fatigue. Our life didn’t create your heart attack. You’re not saying that, are you? That our marriage has made you sick?”
She continued rotating her body, crazed to do so.
Moments later, as she returned to the bed, she began to reach for the light switch, but he batted her hand down.
“Of course I’m not saying that. I’m saying the opposite. I’m aware that I’m just so lucky. That this is better than anything I could ever have imagined.” He waved his arms randomly. She hoped his “this” referred to their life together.
“That’s what I’m saying. That I’d be lost if I’d never met you.”
Though she was still craving the fan’s breeze, for his sake she stayed put.
“But, Suz,” he began, his words slower than before. “Everything’s so fragile now. Every move we make. Don’t you see? It’s all changed. We’ll have to live so carefully, differently. Burdened. That’s what we are. And we’re only forty-eight. We’ve been stripped of a kind of innocence.” He glanced at Suzanne as if her stripping the moment before was of the very innocence he spoke of.
And it was an innocence, she knew, feeling the exhaustion of what had to be her first hot flash.
They were different now. Burdened.
When she spoke, her voice was drained. “We were spared, I’d think, of a kind of tragedy.”
“Stripped,” he said, as sadly as she’d ever heard him say anything.
She’d cooled some. Almost comfortable, she reached for her pajama top and slipped it on. After a time, she added, “Stripped and lucky. Don’t forget lucky.”
She thought of him then as he always had been before, galloping upstairs, say. Stripped. She realized she shouldn’t talk him out of it.
The next bout of silence was friendlier. He held her. As he did, her body temperature zoned in on normal.
For the first time in months, she released a contented sigh. “Did you know there was a brief moment, maybe a day, maybe a week, when I was jealous of your staring at Alison Mandlebraun?” She laughed. “Then I realized it was me staring.”
“I stared too. And at Michelle. Seeing them was like seeing us, twenty-five years ago. Suz, were we ever that spectacular? That’s what I wondered, watching them.”
“I wanted to be them,” she said sleepily, the weight of insomnia lifting at last.
“I thought I was them,” he answered, pulling her close.
A brief vision of a much younger Denny, cheerful despite the war draft, came to mind. “You always were overly optimistic,” she said. After a pause, she added, dreamily, “And spectacular. Unquestionably. Denny, of course we were that spectacular.”
The sit-down mower also proved to be spectacular. The seat was surprisingly comfortable and the motor’s roar delightfully crude. Yes, Suzanne could think big behind a machine like this. She could flatten the neighbor’s tract in but one sitting.
Which she did.
“Mom, you’re loco,” Michelle remarked, grasping Suzanne’s shoulders and shaking her.
Perhaps she was nuts, but she felt inspired. “I have an idea,” she said, glancing between the plot next door and her daughter. Her voice was almost giddy. “I can’t help it,” she feebly explained.
As it turned out, Michelle, too, had an idea. She and Alison were building a raft to race down the river. In the midst of their battles, they’d taken Suzanne’s advice: found a new dimension, left land for water. They’d entered the annual raft regatta down the Connecticut, which required a vehicle of original design. In years past they’d seen any number of rafts, a mess of highly engineered and hilariously slipshod ones, bump and wind their way along. The girls’ plan was to build a raft of two wooden platforms with logs of Styrofoam stuffed in between.
But they needed Denny’s handyman know-how, and, to Suzanne’s delight, this was the final push to get him out of the house, across the mowed lawn, down the hill, and onto the north side of the tennis court that now served as a makeshift carpenter’s studio.
In the end, because there was extra paint in their garage—the green of their house’s trimming—they named their raft Deuce, and they decorated it with the white lines of a tennis court. Denny even added his signature netting around its edges, should anyone begin to slide off.
Once built, Deuce tested riverworthy, and the Saturday of the race, a cloudy August morning, they hitched it to a trailer to transport it to the starting line. With wire slipped through the raft’s wooden slats, the girls had attached two plastic chaise longues, the one from the court and another bought for the occasion.
“I love it,” Suzanne cried, wriggling onto her chaise. Behind her was a tiller, hers to steer. Sitting in a low, plastic beach chair, also wired onto the raft, Michelle would paddle portside. Alison, similarly situated, readied herself to paddle starboard.
Denny was to read the paper if he liked. There was a basket wired to the deck next to his chaise containing bottles of water, fruit, a portable CD player, and earphones should he want to listen to Mozart, say, while the Deuce was being raced. His was the seat of honor, cushioned more than Suzanne’s, with a pillow strapped to the chaise’s backside. His one task, short of being with them—extant, alive—was to yell directions.
“Come on, Michelle—the road’s pretty straight,” he’d complained, but Suzanne could see he was as tickled as she was to be taken for this ride, this journey down the Connecticut, traveling the Haddams. The route, from Haddam Neck through East Haddam, would take them past their house in Middle Haddam, finally bringing them past Haddam itself to Haddam Meadows, where they’d cross the finish line.
“If this is middle age,” Suzanne quipped to Denny, stretching her legs in comfort, sniffing at the river air, “you have to agree it has its benefits.”
Before them the girls paddled tirelessly. Suzanne steered, or didn’t; after all, the current kept them moving more or less in the right direction.
They passed through the waters of East Haddam, its fantastic white opera house, the Goodspeed, towering on its banks. Though Michelle and Alison had begun energetically, their competitive spirits obviously stirred by the blast of the starting gun, by the time they reached East Haddam they’d calmed down, taken to waving at rather than edging past their friendly competition. The regatta was a party, Suzanne noted, and the girls had finally joined in. Along with them, Suzanne now waved to the pair in the raft sliding past them, two men pedaling rather than paddling.
“Clever!” Suzanne called.
“Cheers!” one of them answered.
Soon they’d left East Haddam to drift past woodsy banks broken by the occasional home. Finally, they reached Middle Haddam. The tennis court was easy to spot, and there were the Mandlebrauns, Alison’s parents, beside the court, jumping as they spotted the Deuce.
The girls stopped paddling altogether and were now on their feet, eagerly waving back.
Denny was the first to point at the hillside that no longer read Hello but suggested as much with its clipped, rolling banks, embellished now with several striking flowerbeds. Over the summer weeks, Suzanne’s sense of river hospitality had become less literal, more conceptual. She’d had a vision, a rolling green bank bursting with cosmos and zinnias, and from her seat on the raft she could see that she’d realized a dream. Taking this in, she began to think bigger, to think tulips, to imagine early spring next year with a portion of the hillside as densely packed as a field in Holland, the rest of it mowed to a green velvet, but the girls’ exclamations—Alison’s “Amazing!” and Michelle’s “Un-fucking-believable!”—brought her attention back to the present.
“Steamroller,” Denny said, pointing. “See?”
Stunned, she said nothing.
“And you thought only the Mandlebrauns would notice.” Denny pointed to the endless stream of rafts ahead of, alongside, and behind them.
“I’ll do a title search,” she finally said, her eyes still wide. “I’ll track the owner down and confess, explaining it was all done for love. All that mowing. All that everything. For love! He’ll have to forgive me, don’t you think?”
But Denny wasn’t listening, nor was he looking at their home, which faded now in the distance. Already they were past Middle Haddam, traversing a calm, curvy stretch, woods on both sides, the scene as picturesque as a postcard. The clouds had lifted and rays of sun spread about, dappling the woods. But Denny had abandoned his study of landscape. Instead, he glanced over his shoulder, his face grim. He looked spooked, haunted, as if something awful were lurking right behind them, possibly gaining on them. This something, his eyes warned, could instantly, irrevocably alter the course of their simple joyride, their splendid river trip.
But of course nothing was behind them except more rafts as playfully made up as theirs.
Suzanne tapped Denny’s shoulder, which worked to shift his gaze. To her relief he no longer stared behind him but ahead, where the sun shone even more brightly than it had moments before. She longed to say, See? Nothing to fear. Luck is all around, all the time, if you just bother to notice. But Denny’s worry, his lingering wound of anxiety, nevertheless altered her ride, reminding her that, in the course of the summer’s events, her life had become so like the river’s, changing and fixed, all at once. As before, as always, the currents were pulling, the river was flowing, and they would reach the finish line at Haddam Meadows whether the girls, still paddling, tried to or not. As before, as always, and for however long it lasted, she and Denny would go on, friends in marriage, traveling together this curvy stretch of time. How foolish to have ever thought there was any point in hurrying. She nodded, then turned to the girls, expecting them to have permanently slowed, to have ebbed the flow of their constant competing. But in fact, rounding a bend, they’d dug their paddles in, picked up the pace. Denny was cheerful now, grinning, his old self. Yet her own mind now played tricks. Like how she could see them—strange visionary that she’d become—traveling on, the four of them, past Haddam Meadows, pushing farther and farther downriver, endlessly racing while all the while destined to lose the race.
Elizabeth Poliner is the author of the novel As Close to Us as Breathing, an Amazon “Best Books of 2016 So Far,” as well as the novel-in-stories, Mutual Life & Casualty, and the poetry collection, What You Know in Your Hands. A recipient of individual artist grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, as well as fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Wurlitzer Foundation, Poliner teaches in the MFA program at Hollins University.