There are two things I will not do. I will not pry, and I will not tell a secret. It’s hard enough to find a little privacy in this world, and if someone trusts me, well, that means something. I owe someone the decency to keep my mouth shut about her private affairs. If there is one thing I cannot abide, it’s a gossip — one of those women who flits around like birds after church, looking for someone to tell the latest thing they heard about so-and-so’s son or medical condition. I imagine that in Hell, the Devil announces these people’s secrets to all the other damned souls.
I don’t like hypocrites either, and I try not to be one, which is why I don’t go around trying to get people to tell me things they don’t want to. That’s the reason it took me so long to find out who my husband was writing letters to.
“Where do I start? Big things or small?”
It’s embarrassing to recall how excited I used to get for Saturday afternoons, the time we set aside to write letters. I polished my glasses, washed my hair, and put on a dress. I sat at my little wooden desk that faced the wall, and Michael sat at his, which faced the window overlooking the lake. There was nothing else in the room except a potted fern. Michael said the bareness helped him concentrate. I liked it too, because it made the whole thing feel more pure. When we wrote, you could hear our pens scratching loops on the paper. I felt so close to Michael.
On the day I’m thinking of, I wrote to my brother Samuel as usual, but I couldn’t concentrate on what I was saying. I told him how Rodney had come to class wearing his father’s pants, and how the pants were big enough to fit half of my students in with him. I asked how Alex’s piano recital went. I told him that aphids had appeared in the tomato crop, and some other malarkey about my garden. What I was thinking about, though, was how yesterday Michael went out in the canoe with a notepad again. As I watched him from the window, I got sad — but really I had no reason to be sad, and the whole thing seemed so darn silly that I didn’t mention it to Samuel at all.
I looked at Michael as he hunched over his desk. For the past few Saturdays, he had written letters until dusk; afterwards, he didn’t send them, just filed them away in his drawer. When I asked him about it, he said they were a kind of diary, and then he gave me a sheepish little shrug. I never asked who he was writing to; it was obvious that he didn’t want to tell me.
“She had this hardness. A hardness and this sort of dirty shine. Like quartz that you find at a lake.”
I met Michael at the Merrimack Boat Shack. I was thirty, living alone for the first time in my life and cut off from home. My father was still angry I had gone to college. He had wanted me to stay on the farm until I got married. I didn’t have any close friends in New Hampshire, but I was close to my mother’s sister, who lived about 20 minutes away. In the winter we took walks in the snow and looked at the Christmas decorations, and in the spring we went to Merrimack and rented canoes. I saw Michael talking with the shack’s owner a few times, but I never really noticed him — he was short and plain-looking, and I was quite sure that I was only attracted to tall men. One day, though, he walked up to us as we unhitched a canoe.
“You shouldn’t take that one,” he said. He pointed to another one and looked at me. “That one fits you better.”
“How do you know?” I said. I couldn’t tell a bit of difference between the two boats.
“Well,” he said, “I built that one.”
I looked at Michael closely. His smile was unsettling — a bit too familiar, really. After that, though, I began to come to the boat shack on my own. I found out that Michael had given the canoe to the shack for free, along with two other boats. He made his living building furniture. “If I sold my boats,” he joked, “I wouldn’t have anything for a hobby.” I never understood that.
There were other things I didn’t understand. Most of all, I couldn’t understood why Michael was so darn private, even after we became involved. Sometimes when he was sad, he let me hold him, but he wouldn’t say what was wrong. And he almost never talked about his past. I knew he had worked as a guide along the Shenandoah River in Virginia before coming to New Hampshire, but when I asked why he left Virginia, he shrugged and said it was a long story. Then he changed the subject.
I won’t pretend it was easy to accept that. I was living with him, for heaven’s sake, and I hardly knew anything about him. I wondered what had happened to him in Virginia all the time. But I didn’t let my imagination run wild. When I caught myself thinking about it too much, I stopped — there’s no point in torturing yourself with something you can’t know. Michael wasn’t keeping things from me to hurt me. If anything, he had been hurt.
“Sometimes I feel like me and Mallory are up on a stage, and you’re in the audience.”
Michael and I sat at the wire table by the garden. He was eating a green apple, I was finishing the cheese on my plate, and we were both looking at the lake.
“I’d like to get in the canoe today,” I said. He didn’t hear me, and I didn’t bother repeating it.
A few seconds later he turned to me and said, “What?”
“It would be nice to take the canoe out.”
He didn’t respond immediately, and then he said, “Let’s write our letters in the canoe next week.” I didn’t say anything. “What’s wrong?” he said.
He looked at me for a minute. “Are you okay?”
I don’t like that question. In my experience, if someone is asking me, he already knows I’m not. But there’s no way to answer without sounding childish. Whenever Michael asks me, I think of myself trying to coax something out of one of my first-graders.
“Yes I’m okay,” I said.
“Is it the letters?” he said. I didn’t respond. “Mallory — I’m sorry.”
“A long time ago, when my dog Hunter died, my mom told me he would come back as another animal — a squirrel maybe, or a rabbit. I spent the next month building a pet-door for my room. If Hunter came back, I thought, he’d be able to walk right in and sleep on his spot on the rug. Building it made me feel better.”
“No more letters!” said Michael. He was wearing his work overalls, and a hammer hung from the belt. “I’m going to build a box for them.”
“Why?” I said.
“To put them in!” he said.
Michael never threw anything out. Our basement was filled with alphabetized file-drawers and crates piled on top of each other. He had made a map that described the contents and location of each crate. I would have just as soon pitched the lot of it.
Michael hadn’t worked in two years, and I was nervous that he would hurt himself. As soon as he started, though, he worked and acted like he used to. He began to hum again. One night, while we were brushing our teeth, he poked me in the side, and when I looked at him, he just smiled. Another night, before we went to sleep, he gave me the softest kiss on the forehead.
It was Sunday, a week after he started his project, and Michael was working in the front yard. I decided to work in my garden, which starts outside the bay window and wraps around the house, up to Michael’s shed. I went outside and began to weed the cucumber crop.
I liked it when Michael and I were working near each other on separate things. I don’t think we would have been able to live together if we couldn’t have done that. It gets so tiresome to talk to the same person all day, and it’s even more tiresome to be silent. When I’m in the garden, I can just relax. I closed my eyes and listened to the bangs of Michael’s hammer.
Then I sat back on my rump. Now, I’m not some used-up old woman who sits by the window knitting sweaters, indulging in fantasy and memory — let me make this clear: I’m not old, I don’t indulge in anything, and I don’t knit — but I do sometimes fall into daydream. That day I imagined I was planting a garden with my children when they were still young. Harrison (named after Michael’s grandfather) wanted only carnivorous plants, Venus fly traps, sundews, and bladderworts. After we planted them, he caught a mouse with a trap under the porch, chopped it up, and tried to feed it to them. Later I had to explain to him why we don’t kill animals unless we have to. Val and Inna (we named all the girls after my side of the family) just wanted pretty plants — Peruvian lilies, dahlias, anemones — but Victoria, of course, wanted to grow whatever was hardest. She planted orchids in the walk-in closet of the basement. Michael and I helped her set up the lights. The orchids died later from fertilizer burn, but I suspected that Harrison had fed them chopped rat.
Sometimes I feel old.
“My dad used to say that you should always choose what’s hardest. The question is: what’s hardest?”
School let out in June. The cucumber tendrils produced fat, spiny fruit in July, and Michael produced a small, corrugated wooden box.
“Are you done?” I said.
“Almost,” he said. “I want this to be just right.”
I harvested my garden in August. The tomatoes came out fine after all. I pickled the cucumbers we didn’t eat. Michael started to build a bigger box.
“Is this really just for a few letters?” I said.
“It’s just something I have to do.”
One day in September, I came home to an empty house. I found Michael in the basement, sitting on the floor, in the middle of some open crates. He had put their contents in neat little piles all around him. In one hand he was holding plastic Mardi Gras beads, in the other a note that I had never seen. He startled when he noticed me.
Michael didn’t say much to me in the month of October. On Halloween I watched him dress the fern up as usual. He put a cowboy hat on top of the leaves and balanced a plastic six shooter in the soil, and then turned around to see me watching him.
“I haven’t seen you all day,” I said.
He smiled, said he was sorry, and went into his shed.
The first freeze came in November. I gathered the plants that didn’t survive into a compost heap. Michael said he was starting over.
“What are you doing in there?” I said. “You built canoes in less time.”
He gave me a sheepish shrug.
“I think I want Mal to walk into the shed. Is that too easy?”
I woke up disoriented. Usually I have a very good sense of time, even when I wake up in the middle of the night, but I couldn’t tell if I had just gone to sleep or if the sun was about to rise. Michael was gone — he had taken the time to put the covers back and smooth them out — and I knew that he was in the shed.
I closed my eyes. No point in losing sleep over his absence, I thought. But I couldn’t fall asleep again. Every time I tried to relax, I found myself wondering what had happened with Michael and the woman from Virginia — I was sure that this all had to do with a woman — and every time I told myself to stop thinking about her, I was wide awake again. I pushed off the covers and walked downstairs. As I passed the living room, I saw that his desk drawer was open. Had he finally decided to send the letters?
In the kitchen, I made myself a glass of warm milk and looked outside. My mother used to tell me that if you make a wish when the third star appears, it will come true. Too late for that, I thought; there were too many stars. Then, before I thought anything else, I opened the side door and walked outside.
I was wearing a bathrobe and slippers, and it was probably 20 degrees outside. Normally I do things spontaneously, but when I do, I try to at least prepare for the weather. That night I didn’t care. The wind bit me through my bathrobe and I kept right on walking, all the way up to Michael’s shed. I listened at the door, didn’t hear anything, and pushed it open.
Michael was standing there with his back to the door. In front of him, I didn’t see the small, fancy box that I had envisioned — I saw the makings of a casket.
I felt as if someone had snatched my bones right out of my body in one quick motion, the way a magician snatches a tablecloth from a fully set table. My insides plopped around without anything to hold them and my legs wobbled; I would have fallen onto the ground if I hadn’t grabbed Michael’s shoulder.
Michael turned around and steadied me. He said my name and tried to look me in the eye, and I probably shook and carried on like I had found him dead inside the casket, instead of standing there comforting me — but the truth is, I don’t remember exactly how I acted.
He led me to the blue bench and waited for me to calm down. There were so many questions I wanted to ask that I couldn’t say anything at all, so I just waited for him to speak.
“I’m not — I didn’t — I’m not going to kill myself,” he settled on. “This isn’t for me.”
I kept looking at him.
“It’s for the letters.”
I didn’t say anything and I didn’t need to.
Michael looked down. “If you want,” he said, “you can read them.”
“Thirty-one years. That’s a lot of years. And in all those years, I never forgot an anniversary or a birthday. I never even forgot her mother’s birthday. I hurt her in a much worse way — I never had kids with her. I just couldn’t do that with her when I still thought about you. Now it’s time to bury you.”
Life is funny. If my story were in a book, Michael would have committed suicide, and I would have found him in the casket with his head tucked under a bundle of his letters. But that’s not what happened.
I told Michael that I certainly did not want to read his letters, so he explained everything to me right there in the shed. Somehow, we managed to move on. It was different after that, of course, but we did it. Now I was the hurt one. I noticed the change in small ways: he would get up after dinner, not me, and say, “Why don’t you read while I get the dishes.” Now he would wait for me to fall asleep. Now he would watch me sometimes while I was absorbed in something else.
Michael continued to build the casket, but he worked on it when I was out of the house, and we never talked about it. The funny part is, he died of a heart attack before finishing it.
I think a lot about something Michael did in the shed. “I still miss her,” he said, and then banged his hammer on the casket to show how much. The echo rang in the casket’s hollow. It’s the most true thing he ever did — I know, because that’s the exact way I miss Michael.
Don’t think I’ve finally become that used-up old woman who sits by the window, indulging in memory and fantasy. I get on with my life. Every morning I get up to teach, and every spring I go outside to plant my garden. Sometimes I fall into a daydream, but I try not to let myself stay there for long, and lately I’ve had more self-discipline. Maybe it’s because I’ve been attending church more often.
I don’t fool myself. I know that I’ll die too in a few years, but I don’t fear it, and I try not to look forward to it. I’ll get through the afterlife the same way I got through life. And if I go to hell when I die, and if the devil starts to announce someone’s secrets, I’ll plug my ears, because there are some things I just don’t want to know. n
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