Commentary Magazine


The Illusionless Man & the Visionary Maid

Once upon a time there was a man who had no illusions about anything. While still in the crib he had learned that his mother was not always kind; at two he had given up fairies; witches and hobgoblins disappeared from his world at three; at four he knew that rabbits at Easter lay no eggs; and at five on a cold night in December, with a bitter little smile, he said goodbye to Santa Claus. At six when he started school, illusions flew from his life like feathers in a windstorm: he discovered that his father was not always brave or even honest, that Presidents are little men, that the Queen of England goes to the bathroom like everybody else, and that his first-grade teacher, a pretty round-faced young woman with dimples, did not know everything, as he had thought, but thought only of men and did not know much of anything. At eight he could read, and the printed word was a sorcerer at exorcising illusions—only he knew there were no sorcerers. The abyss of hell disappeared into the even larger abyss into which a clear vision was sweeping his beliefs. Happiness was of course a myth; love a fleeting attachment, a dream of enduring selflessness glued onto the instinct of a rabbit. At twelve he dispatched into the night sky his last unheard prayer. As a young man he realized that the most generous act is self-serving, the most disinterested inquiry serves interest; that lies are told by printed words, even by words carved in stone; that art begins with a small “a” like everything else, and that he could not escape the ruin of value by orchestrating a cry of despair into a song of lasting beauty; for beauty passes and deathless art is quite mortal. Of all those people who lose illusions he lost more than anyone else, taboo and prescription alike; and as everything became permitted nothing was left worthwhile.

He became a carpenter, but could see a house begin to decay in the course of building—perfect pyramid of white sand spreading out irretrievably in the grass, bricks chipping, doors sticking, the first tone of gray appearing on white lumber, the first film of rust on bright nails, the first leaf falling in the shining gutter. He became then a termite inspector, spent his days crawling in darkness under old houses, lived in a basement room and never raised the blinds, ate canned beans and frozen television dinners, let his hair grow and his beard. On Sundays he walked in the park, threw bread to the ducks—dry French bread, stone-hard, would stamp on it with his heel, gather up the pieces, and walk along the pond, throwing it out to the avid ducks paddling after him, thinking glumly that they would be just as hungry again tomorrow. His name was Henry.

One day in the park he met a girl who believed in everything. In the forest she still glimpsed fairies, heard them whisper; bunnies hopped for her at Easter, laid brilliant eggs; at Christmas hoofbeats shook the roof. She was disillusioned at times and would flounder, gasp desperately, like a fish in sand, but not for long; would quickly, sometimes instantly, find something new, and actually never gave up any illusion, but would lay it aside when necessary, forget it, and whenever it was needed, back it would come. Her name was Lorabelle, and when she saw a bearded young man in the park, alone among couples, stamping on the hard bread, tossing it irritably to the quacking ducks, she exploded into illusions about him like a Roman candle over a desert.

“You are a great and good man,” she said.

“I'm petty and self-absorbed,” he said.

“You're terribly unhappy.”

“I'm morose . . . probably like it that way.”

“You have suffered a great deal,” she said. “I see it in your face.”

“I've been diligent only in self-pity,” he said, “have turned away from everything difficult, and what you see are the scars of old acne shining through my beard; I could never give up chocolate and nuts.”

“You're very wise,” she said.

“No, but intelligent.”

They talked about love, beauty, feeling, value, life, work, death—and always she came back to love. They argued about everything, differed on everything, agreed on nothing, and so she fell in love with him. “This partakes of the infinite,” she said.

But he, being an illusionless man, was only fond of her. “It partaketh mainly,” he said, “of body chemistry,” and passed his hand over her roundest curve.

“We have a unique affinity,” she said. “You're the only man in the world for me.” “We fit quite nicely,” he said. “You are one of no more than five or six girls in the county for me.” “It's a miracle we met,” she said. “I just happened to be feeding the ducks.” “No, not chance; I couldn't feel this way about anybody else.”

“If you'd come down the other side of the hill,” he said, “you'd be feeling this way right now about somebody else. And if I had fed squirrels instead of ducks I'd be playing with somebody else's curves.”

“You're my dearest darling squirrel,” she said, “and most of all you're my silly fuzzy duck, and I don't know why I bother to love you—why are you such a fool? who dropped you on your head?—come to bed!” On such a note of logic, always, their arguments ended.

She wanted a wedding in church with a dress of white Alençon lace over cream satin, bridesmaids in pink, organ music, and lots of people to weep and be happy and throw rice. “You'll be so handsome in a morning coat,” she said, brushing cobwebs off his shoulders, “oh and striped pants, too, and a gray silk cravat, and a white carnation. You'll be divine.” “I'd look a proper fool,” he said, “and I'm damned if I'll do it.” “Oh please It's only once.” “Once a fool, voluntarily, is too often.” “It's a sacrament.” “It's a barbarism.” “Symbols are important.” “Then let's stand by the Washington Monument,” he said, “and be honest about it.”

“You make fun,” she said, “but it's a holy ceremony, a solemn exchange of vows before man and God.”

“God won't be there, honey; the women will be weeping for their own lost youth and innocence, the men wanting to have you in bed; and the priest standing slightly above us will be looking down your cleavage as his mouth goes dry; and the whole thing will be a primitive and preposterous attempt to invest copulation with dignity and permanence, to enforce responsibility for children by the authority of a myth no longer credible even to a child.”

So . . . they were married in church: his hands were wet and his knees shook, he frowned and quaked; but looked divine, she said, in morning coat and striped pants; and she was serene and beautiful in Alençon lace; the organ pealed, weeping women watched with joy, vows were said, rice thrown, and then they were alone on the back seat of a taxi, her lips seeking his, murmuring, “I'm so happy, darling, so terribly happy. Now we'll be together always.”

“In our community,” he said, “and for our age and economic bracket, we have a 47.3 per cent chance of staying together for twenty years.”

She found for them a white house on a hill in a field of red poppies and white daisies, with three tall maple trees. There they lived in sunlight and wind, and she began to fill their life with fragile feminine deceptions, worked tirelessly at them, and always there was something new. She concealed the monotony of eating by variety, never two meals the same, one morning French toast in the shape of their house, the next a boiled egg with smiling painted face and a tiny straw hat; cut flowers on the table, color and sweetness blooming from a Dutch vase, as if unrelated to manure; Italian posters on the wall as if they had traveled; starched white curtains at the windows, as if made of a brocade too rich and heavy to bend; morning glories covering the outhouse with royal purple. When he came home at night she would brush the cobwebs from his hair, make him bathe and shave and dress—to appear as if he had not worked in dirt. She made wonderful sauces, could cook anything to taste like something else, created a sense of purity by the whiteness of tablecloth, of delicacy by the thinness of crystal, would surround a steak with parsley as if it were not flesh but the bloom of a garden, supported her illusions with candlelight and fine wine, and smiled at him across the table with lips redder than real. In the bedroom candlelight again, and yet another nightgown to suggest a mysterious woman of unknown delights, and a heavy perfume, as if not sweat but sweetness came from her pores.

Being an illusionless man, he admitted that he liked these elegant mirages, found them pleasant, that it was good to sleep with her fine curves under his hand, her sweet smells in his nose, that he slept better now than when he lived alone. He became less gloomy, but not much.

_____________

One sunday afternoon, walking hand in hand in sunshine through the poppies and daisies, he noticed her lips moving. “What are you saying?” he said. “Do you love me?” “I'm fond of you,” he said; “love is an illusion.” “Is there anybody else? I'm terribly jealous.” “Jealousy is the illusion of complete possession.” “Do other women attract you?” “Yes.” “Some men are not like that.” “Some men are liars,” he said.

She became pregnant, bought baby clothes, tried out names, was always singing. “Please be happy,” she said. “By 1980 the world population will . . .” “Oh be quiet!” she said.

She prepared a room for the baby, hung curtains, bought a crib, read books, became apprehensive. “Will he be all right? What do you think? Will he be a good baby? He doesn't have to be pretty, you know, that's not so important, but I'd like him to be intelligent. And will he have two eyes and the right number of fingers and toes? I want him to have everything he needs and nothing too much. What do you think?” “Some minor congenital aberrations are inevitable,” he said; “the major malformations are less . . .” “Don't say such things,” she said, “why do you scare me?”; “I was just . . .” “Oh . . . and will I know what to do?” she said, “. . . how to take care of him? What do you think? Will I be any good at it?”

One night he felt her lips moving in his hair. “Praying?” he said. “Yes.” “What did you ask?” “That someday you will say you love me.”

She felt weak, became sick; in bed she looked pale and scared. “Will the baby be all right?” she said. “Don't ever leave me. What are you thinking? Tell me.” She began to bleed, was terrified, lay very still, but lost the baby anyway.

She was depressed then, her face motionless and dark. “I lost it because you don't love me,” she said.

“There is no established correlation,” he said, “between the alleged state of love, or lack of it, and the incidence of miscarriage.”

“I'm not wanting statistics,” she screamed.

“What then?”

“Nothing. Everything. It's not enough . . . just being ‘fond.’ I hate fondness. What's the matter with you? It wouldn't have happened . . . I want to be loved!”

“You're being hysterical,” he said, “and you're not finishing your sentences.”

Suddenly, all at once, she looked at him with a level detached gaze and did not like what she saw. “You were right,” she said; “you are petty and self-absorbed. What's worse, you have a legal mind and there's no poetry in you. You don't give me anything, don't even love me, you're dull. You were stuck in a hole in the ground when I found you, and if I hadn't pulled you out you'd be there still. There's no life in you. I give you everything and it's not enough, doesn't make any difference. You can't wait to die, want to bury yourself now and me with you. Well I'm not ready yet and I'm not going to put up with it any longer, and now I'm through with you and I want a divorce.”

“You've lost your illusions about me,” he said, “but not the having of illusions . . .”

“While you,” she said, “have lost your illusions about everything, and can't get over being sore about it.”

“. . . they'll focus now on someone else . . .”

“Oh I hope so!” she said; “I can hardly wait.”

“. . . you waste experience.”

“And you waste life!”

_____________

He wouldn't give her a divorce, but that didn't matter; for she couldn't bear the thought of his moving back to that basement, and anyway, she told herself, he had to have someone to look after him; so they lived together still and she cooked for him when she was home and mended his clothes and darned his socks, and when he asked why, she said, with sweet revenge, “Because I'm fond of you, that's all. Just fond.”

She got a job with a theater, typed scripts and programs, worked nights in the box office, let her hair grow into a long silken curtain curled up at the bottom below her shoulders, wore loose chiffon blouses with clown sleeves, trailed filmy scarves from her neck, and fell in love with an actor named Cyrus Anthony de Maronodeck. Her a's broadened and she affected a way of turning her head with so sudden a movement that it could not go unnoticed; no longer did she walk in or out of a room, she strode.

“Cyrus is so interesting!” she said, “makes everything an adventure, concentrates energy and passion into a moment until it glows!” She struck a pose: “‘When I die,’ he says, ‘I may be dead for a long time, but while I'm here I'll live it to the hilt.’” “A philosopher, too,” Henry said.

One Sunday night Cyrus borrowed a thousand dollars from Lorabelle for his sick mother; and the following day it transpired that he had borrowed also the week-end receipts from the box office and had taken his leave of the company. For several days Lorabelle wouldn't believe it, waited for word from him, bit her fingernails—until he was apprehended in Laredo crossing the border with a blonde.

She worked next in a brokerage house operating an enormous and very intelligent machine which tapped and hummed and whirred and rotated, sent its carriage hopping up and down and side to side, performed seventeen mathematical calculations without ever a mistake, took pictures of everything and had illusions about nothing—but Lorabelle did, and presently fell in love with her boss, Mr. Alexander Orwell Mittelby, a sixty-year-old man who loved her with a great passion, she told Henry, but who was married and unfortunately could not get a divorce because his wife was a schizophrenic, had a private nurse in constant attendance; the shock of divorce, Mr. Mittelby had said, would kill her.

“Alex is unique,” Lorabelle told Henry, “simply not like the rest of us . . . not at all. He has no interest in himself, has grown beyond that. I've never met a man so mature, so genuinely wise. ‘All my personal goals lie in the past,’ he told me; ‘the only thing left is to seek the common good.’ He has no patience with personal problems, complexes . . . that sort of thing . . . sees the romantic protest for what it is: adolescent complaining. Oh Henry, I wish you could know him. He faces life with so much courage—such a gallant careless courage. ‘Despair is a luxury,’ he says, ‘and I can't afford it.’”

Lorabelle wore short tight skirts, high needlelike heels, jeweled glasses, and her hair bouffant; she read the Wall Street Journal and Barron's Weekly, studied the new tax legislation, spoke out for laissez faire in discussion groups, and at an Anti-World-Federalist dinner chanced to meet Mrs. Mittelby who was not schizophrenic at all but a plain shrewd woman with a wrinkled face, gray hair, and a very sharp tongue. Lorabelle stared at her with deepening shock. “My husband's secretaries,” Mrs. Mittelby said, “always seem stunned by my sanity . . . then seek other employment.”

In her depression Lorabelle turned away from people, rented a cabin on an island, left Henry to look after himself, came home only on weekends, spent her days walking on deserted beaches, her nights alone writing an autobiographical novel by lamplight. “It's really a kind of self-analysis,” she said, “but I want so much to make it beautiful.”

After a few months she fell in love with a fisherman. “His name is Jim,” she said to Henry. “That's all, just Jim. And he's like his name, exactly: simple, strong, uncomplicated. I wish you could know each other.”

“Bring him to dinner!” Henry shouted. “Let him live here! Give him my clothes, my bed!”

“Don't be angry. You'd like him; you couldn't help it. He's so kind, so gentle, so much a part of the elements: in his eyes the wind and the ocean—you can see them!—in his hand the strength, the toughness . . . the grip on the helm in a storm, in his bearing the straightness of the tall pointed firs, in his character the solid rock of the coast.”

“If he had a foundation,” Henry said, “he'd be a house with a swimming pool.”

Lorabelle cut her hair short, wore boots and a sou'wester, scanned the sky for weather signs, studied navigation charts, hung a tide table on the wall. “I want a divorce,” she said. “No.” “Why? You don't love me.” “To protect you from your own bad judgment. You'd be married six times before you were forty if you were free.” “Then I'll run away with him,” she said.

And she would have, but the sheriff got there first, arrested Jim for bigamy: plain Jim had three last names and a wife with each, and while he sat in jail the three of them squabbled for the fishing boat, which was all he owned.

Lorabelle gave up the cabin, burned her manuscript, and moved back home; wept and wailed and could not be consoled. “There's something wrong with my sanity,” she said. “I can't do it myself. I'd better see a psychoanalyst.” “You'll get a whopping transference,” Henry said.

She went to a Dr. Milton Tugwell, took to analysis with great facility, worked quickly through her depression, went four times a week and wished it were more. “I'm so terribly lucky,” she said to Henry. “There are so many analysts, you know—good, bad, indfferent—I had no way of knowing . . . and he turns out to be the one analyst for me. No one else would be right.”

“It really is a kind of miracle, isn't it?” Henry said.

“No, really! I mean it. There's a special affinity between us, I felt it the very first session. We speak the same language; sometimes he knows what I'm thinking before I say it—sometimes even before I know I'm thinking it. It's amazing. And he has the most astonishing memory, remembers everything. And the way—Oh Henry! if you could only know him, hear him talk!—the way he fits these things together! things you'd never realize were connected. . . .”

Dr. Tugwell made many excellent interpretations: Lorabelle learned about her orality, anality, penis envy, oedipus complex, and, as a kind of bonus, had many insights also into Henry and shared them with him, surprised at his lack of responsiveness.

_____________

One night at the theater she saw Dr. Tugwell in the company of a tall gray-haired woman with a hard face. His wife, Lorabelle thought, and something clicked for her, an insight all on her own: Dr. Tugwell was unhappy with this woman. So this was the source of that sad note in his voice. He deserved better. She wanted to make him happy, as a woman; and she could, she knew she could. She looked narrowly at Mrs. Tugwell. Then it occurred to her (the analysis must be taking effect, she thought; this was her second insight in an hour) that Dr. Tugwell might have some special feeling of this sort for her, and the more she thought about it the more obvious it became.

When in her next hour she talked of these matters Dr. Tugwell said nothing except “What comes to mind about that?” and she was disappointed, but then realized that he could not speak, that he was the prisoner of a professional commitment which required him to stifle his feeling for her. She walked in the meadow on the hill in sunshine, and knew in her heart what must be hidden in his; and someday, she thought, when the analysis was over maybe he would get a divorce and Henry would give her a divorce, and she and Dr. Tugwell would meet on a different basis. She picked a daisy, pulled the petals, and it came out right. Softly she tried his name on her lips, “Milton, darling,” and blushed, “sweetest Milt . . . honey,” felt him walk beside her, his hand slip around her waist, heard his deep beloved voice begin, “Lorabelle, there is something I must tell you. . . .”

The analysis lasted longer than any of her affairs, perhaps because, paying for her sessions, she valued them more than meetings with lovers, or perhaps because her illusions did not encounter anything hard enough in Dr. Tugwell's silence to cause breakage; but after five years Henry came to the end of his resources and tolerance, said he would pay for no more sessions. This proved him cruel and unfeeling, Lorabelle thought, and reported it triumphantly to Dr. Tugwell who, strangely, regarded it as reasonable.

Lorabelle wept through the last hour, tears making lakes in her ears, overflowing on the pillow, dripping from her chin as she stood up, shaking, to face him, her voice quavering as she thanked him for the changes in her, breaking as she said goodbye. Yet at that very moment she had the comfort of a secret vision: now that she was no longer his patient he was free to become her lover. But days passed and he didn't call, weeks and the vision was shaken, a month and she was desolate. She went back to see him; and this time, sitting in a chair before him, feeling oddly dislocated, really did see him. There along the wall was the green couch on which she had lain for so many hours, from which she had looked up at the blank ceiling, had raved, rambled, complained, and wept; and there—shrinking back slightly from the violence of her disappointment—was the man of her dreams who had listened, out of sight, behind the couch: dark suit of expensive cloth and cut, perfectly pressed, dark tie, silk shirt with white-on-white design, high cordovan sheen on calf-skin loafers, shell-rimmed glasses flashing a nervous glare. There was strain in his voice, she thought; he used jargon, was more detached than he need have been: a continuing transference problem, he said . . . not infrequent . . . might require further analysis . . . unresolved father attachment . . . he had committed her hours . . . could do nothing now . . . sorry . . . perhaps later . . . call him in three months.

For weeks Lorabelle stayed home in deep silent gloom, wouldn't eat, wouldn't dress; but bounced back finally, as she always did, got a job selling tickets at a carousel, and there met Adelbert Bassew, big game hunter—“What a man!” she exclaimed to Henry; “six feet six, all fire and brawn. Imagine!”—who asked her on a safari. And so it continued through the days and weeks of their lives, year after year: Catholic Church, Christian Science, yoga; Al, Bob, and Peter; Paris, Rome, and Nairobi; technocracy, mysticism, hypnotism; short hair, long hair, and wig; and whenever she would say, in that rapturous tone of hers, “I realize now . . .” Henry would know she had abandoned one illusion and was already firmly entrapped by the next. They became poor on her pursuits, lived in a basement; her illusions became sillier, shabbier, until finally she was sending in box-tops from cereal packages. Crow's feet appeared around her eyes, white hair among the gold; her skin became dry and papery. But as she got older something about her stayed young: the springing up of hope, the intoxicating energy, the creation of a new dream from the ruin of the old. From the despair of disillusion always she would find her way back: to a bell-like laughter with the rising note of an unfinished story, to a lilt of voice like the leap of water before rapids, to a wild dancing grace of legs and hips like a horse before a jump, to the happy eyes so easily wet with sympathy or love.

But these same years made Henry older than his actual age, more withdrawn, bitter, morose; his face haggard, lined; his hair gray. Every day he got up and went to work, but did nothing else—would not read a book or walk in the park or listen to music. In the evenings he would drink; but gin nourished no illusion, brought no pleasure, only numbness and finally sleep. Lorabelle felt anger and pity and contempt, all at the same time, and would rail at him. “Just look at yourself: drunk, dirty, head hanging like a sick cat . . . How can you stand yourself? What are you trying to do? make me feel guilty? . . . Well I don't. Playing the martyr? Is that it? What's the matter with you? Why don't you find someone else if you're so unhappy with me?”

Henry would shrug, thinking there are no happy marriages and it would be no different with anyone else; but sometimes, far at the back of his unhappy mind, he would come upon the truth: he stayed with her because, with all her witless pursuit of illusions, she nevertheless stirred him—like the wren, trapped under a house, that had flown in his face: he had caught it in his hand, felt the terrified struggle, the concentration of heat, the tremolo of heartbeat too faint and fast to count. Lorabelle brought him no comfort; but, holding her, he felt life, and would not give it up. And sometimes in the midst of her railings Lorabelle would know that she stayed with Henry—not simply, as she said, because he wouldn't give her a divorce—but because he was a rock and she leaned on him.

_____________

But even rocks may crumble, and one Monday morning Henry did not move when the alarm went off; he lay still, eyes open, looking at the empty face of the clock, thinking numbly of millions of termites burrowing in wood who would suffer no further interference from him.

He stayed in bed most of the day, ate little, drank much, said nothing. The next day was the same, and the next, and so all week; and on Friday it occurred to Lorabelle that—Henry having apparently retired from business—she must earn the living. After her morning coffee, therefore, she sat down at her desk to compose the fourth line of a jingle about soap flakes; first prize would bring a thousand dollars. Next she invented a hatpin that could neither fall out of a hat nor prick a finger; drew a careful sketch of the device, and addressed it to the U. S. Patent Office; this might make a fortune, she thought. Then she collected all her green stamps: not many, she mused, but enough for a present for Henry. She prepared his lunch on a tray, found him lying in bed staring at the ceiling; he would say nothing and would not eat. She put on her best dress, arranged flowers by his bed, and kissed him on the nose. “I'll be back soon,” she said.

It was a beautiful day, the sun shining, wind moving here and there among the trees like playful strokes of a great invisible brush. “I know he will be all right,” she said to herself, and posted her jingle and her invention, saying a little prayer for each. She went then to a fortuneteller, an old West Indian woman, who told her that someone dear to her was ill and would die. Lorabelle was shocked and left immediately, bought three sweepstakes tickets in Henry's name to fight the prediction, said another prayer, went on to the supply house and got a pipe and slippers for her green stamps. For a dollar she bought jonquils—because they were pretty and would make him happy—then counted her money. With the two dollars that were left she bought a steak to tempt his appetite.

At home she found him in pyjamas sitting at the table drinking gin. “Oh sweetheart!” she said, “you break my heart . . . I won't have it, I just won't have it . . . you understand? Cheer up now. I've got presents for you.” She put the pipe in his hand, brought tobacco, put the slippers on his bare feet—“There! You see? Aren't they nice? And so warm. A perfect fit! You like them?”—but he said nothing. She began to sing, trying not to cry, then broke off: “Oh, and I have something else . . . another wonderful surprise, you'll see. Now don't come in the kitchen,” she added, unnecessarily. She broiled the steak, put it on a heated plate, garnished it with water cress, put jonquils on the tray, a chef's cap on her head, lighted candles, and brought it in singing the Triumphal March from Aida, placed it before him with a flourish and a sweeping low bow. He turned away. “Oh please, do eat it,” she cried; “I got it just for you. It's delicious, you'll see! Try it. . . it would be so good for you.”

“Where's the gin?” he said.

“Don't drink any more; you'll get sick. I'm so worried. Eat now. You'll feel better, I know you will, really . . . I just know it. Here, let me feed you.”

She cut a bit of steak, waved it under his nose, held it to his mouth, touched his lips; he knocked it away, the fork clattering to the floor, the morsel skittering into a corner. She picked them up, took away the tray. In the kitchen she threw the fork at the calendar, kicked the garbage can, wept; then she composed herself and went back, humming, to the living room; Henry had not moved. Lorabelle put up a card table, took newspaper clippings from her purse, spread out maps of the city: she was working on a treasure hunt. Only three clues had been published, and already she had an idea where the treasure might be. The first prize was five thousand dollars; tomorrow she would take a shovel and go digging.

“Where's the gin?” Henry said.

“There isn't any more, sweetheart. And a good thing because you've had too much . . . you're drunk, you're ruining your health.”

“Give me some money,” he said tonelessly.

“We haven't any.”

He got up, walked unsteadily to the table where she was sitting, opened her purse and took out her wallet. A few coins fell to the table, rolled on the floor; there were no bills. He turned her handbag upside down: an astrology chart tumbled out, then a Christian Science booklet, a handbill from the Watchtower Society, Palmistry in Six Easy Lessons, dozens of old sweepstakes tickets and the three new ones, Love and the Mystic Union, fortunes from Chinese cookies (one of which, saying “He loves you,” she snatched away from him), a silver rosary, a daily discipline from the Rosicrucians, the announcement of a book titled Secret Power from the Unconscious through Hypnosis—but no money. He shook the bag furiously and threw it in a corner, surveyed the litter before him with unblinking bloodshot eyes, his face expressionless. “Stupid fool!” he said thickly. “Purse full of illusions . . . suitcase full of illusions . . . whole goddamned lousy life full of illusions . . .” He turned away, stumbled back to the table, put the empty gin bottle to his mouth, turned it over his head, broke it on the hearth.

“Oh my dear,” Lorabelle cried, her eyes wet, “you keep waiting for the real thing, but this is all there is.” He turned ponderously, facing her, eyes like marble; she came to him. “These are the days . . . and nights . . . of our years and they're passing—look at us! We're getting old—and what else is there?”

“Bitch!”

She faltered, raising her arm, but recovered and went on to touch the side of his head where the hair was gray. “Do please come back to life, I don't want you to die, I'd be so lonely. I'd forget all the bad times and remember all the wonderful things . . . where have they gone? . . . you feeding the ducks, stamping on the bread—so sweet you were!”

“Get out.”

The gray stonelike face above her did not move, not even the eyes. A death mask, she thought; the fortune-teller was right. “Oh my dear! I feel so sad.” She cried, lowered her head; with a convulsive movement she caught his hand, pressed it to her heart. “It hurts so,” she said. “For years you've been cutting yourself off . . . more and more. I'm the only one still holding you, and now you're drifting away. Don't die, sweetheart, let me help you, hold on to me!”

He freed his hand and hit her in the face, sent her crashing into the wall, started after her, thinking, “Where's that broken bottle?” realized with a sense of numb strangeness that he wanted to kill her . . . paused. She stood looking at him, tears running down her face, then left the room. He turned back to the table, sat heavily, observed the hand that had hit her; the fingers felt numb. Before him on the table was the hatpin she had worked with that morning: long sharp pin, black plastic ball at one end, at the other an odd device of safety pins and scotch tape. “Illusion!” he said, grabbing it up in clenched fist and driving it deep into the table; the plastic ball broke, the base of the pin went through his hand, stuck out three inches on top. There was no blood. His hand hung there in mid-air, quivering slightly, like an insect pinned to a card. He moved his fingers: a white crab without a shell, he thought, impaled on a boy's stick. Blood appeared around the pin; the feeling of numbness crept up his arm; he wanted a drink, didn't want to die yet, wasn't ready. Numbness came now to the other arm. He began tugging at the pin, ten cold crab legs fumbling around a spike.

_____________

The next morning he shaved, got dressed, and ate breakfast; felt restless, wanted to do something but didn't know what. “Will you go for a walk with me?” he said. Lorabelle was tired, her eyes red, hadn't slept, but was never altogether without hope. “Yes,” she said.

They walked by rivers, over bridges, through forests, sat in dry grass and watched a tiny squirrel at the tip of a branch in a fir tree; walked through meadows, by cliffs, over dunes, along the beach, saw two sea stars in a tide pool waving their arms at each other; walked on streets between high buildings, through crowds, watched a little girl feeding pigeons by a fountain. Lorabelle was silent and dejected, her hair scraggly, her shoulders stooped. Something was moving inside Henry, pressing him; he wanted to say something but didn't know what.

That evening as they sat together in their basement room, silent and unhappy, the phone rang. Henry, having known since childhood that a telephone ring means requests, burdens, and obligations, did not move; and for the first time Lorabelle—to whom the same sound meant love, opportunity, adventure—did not answer. Henry looked up, saw that she was exhausted: “Let it ring,” he said. She nodded, but couldn't bear the sense of someone calling unheeded, began to hope as she walked, walked faster as she hoped, was soon running lest she be too late, and a few moments later was exclaiming in astonishment and joy: “What? . . . No! . . . Really? . . . Yes! yes! oh yes . . . he's right here . . . No, I have it . . . So much! That's wonderful! . . . Marvelous!” then flung herself in Henry's arms, weeping, laughing, “You've won the Irish Sweepstakes! $137,000! Can you imagine! My God . . .!”

Henry was pleased, but confused and vaguely disturbed; said it was hers not his, since she had bought the ticket. “No, no,” she said, “I bought it in your name, and it's yours, and I'm so happy I could cry . . .” She wiped her tears. “. . . you need it, darling, more than I . . . because I've always known about miracles but you haven't known, but now maybe you will, a little, and I'm so glad it happened for you. Isn't it marvelous?”

“It won't be much after taxes.”

“Oh but still a lot,” she said, “a very great deal. Just think . . .! We'll go to Paris and live in the Ritz, and you'll have a dark blue suit and a gray silk tie and cufflinks of lapis and maybe a black stick with a little silver. You'll stand very straight and swing the stick lightly, back and forth, as we stroll on the Boulevard St. Germain and the Rue St. Honoré, and I'll be so proud.” She sat on his lap, eyes glistening, hugged him, kissed the gray hair by his ear. “Then we'll get a Citroën and drive down the Loire, and come finally to beautiful sand and water. Oh, and Monte Carlo! We'll stand around the casino watching the Texas oilmen and the pretty girls and the diamond bracelets; we'll hold hands and look on at roulette and moisten our lips and be like poor cautious tourists, and nobody will know we're rich. Then you'll toss out a ten thousand dollar bill: ‘Red,’ you'll say. That's all, just that: ‘Red,’ in a quiet voice, and people will fall silent and stare, and the croupier's hand will tremble, and the wheel will spin and oh! . . . it won't matter whether it's red or black because it's just money either way, not love, and we'll go to Rome and rent a villa, and when . . .”

“We're broke,” he said, “long before Rome. In Genoa we couldn't pay the hotel bill. Remember? Had to sell your jewels . . . and my walking stick.”

“Oh no!” she said, “there you go, already sad. . . . Then we remembered the other bank account—how could you forget?—found we had plenty of money . . . We go on to Rome, rent a villa and in the evening sit on the terrace holding hands, flowers blooming all around us, and to the west on the crest of a hill seven cypress trees in a row, an orange sun sinking between the black trunks, the whole sky a brilliant golden drum; and you'll feel a throbbing of your heart and a kind of singing rapture, and you'll press my hand and say, ‘I love you.’”

Henry was touched by her fantasy and felt some lightness of heart: it would be nice to have some money, he thought—how incredible!—and maybe they really would enjoy a trip. That night they slept in each other's arms and the next day the windfall was gone: it had been a mistake, the officials were terribly sorry, it was another man with the same name and almost the same telephone number, who owned a candy store and had five children, weighed three hundred pounds, and was pictured in the newspaper with his family, seven round beaming faces. Lorabelle was in despair, but Henry was tranquil, still felt that lightness of heart. He comforted Lorabelle and stroked her finally to sleep in the evening, her wet face on his shoulder. ‘It was an illusion,’ he thought, ‘and for a while I believed it, and yet—curious thing—it has left some sweetness.’ Throughout the night he marveled about this—could it be he had won something after all?—and the next day, crawling under the rotting mansion of a long-dead actor, he looked a termite in the eye and decided to build a house.

He bought land by the sea and built on a cliff by a great madrona tree which grew out horizontally from the rock, a shimmering cloud of red and green; built with massive A-frames, bolted together, stressed, braced, anchored in concrete to withstand five-hundred-mile winds, a house—in the best illusory style, he thought wryly—to last forever. But the cliff crumbled one night in a storm during a twenty-four foot tide; Lorabelle and Henry stood hand in hand in the rain and lightning, deafened by crashing surf and thunder, as the house fell slowly into the sea while the great madrona remained, anchored in nothing but dreams. They went then to live in an apartment, and Henry worked as a carpenter, built houses for other people, began planning another house of his own.

_____________

One evening after dinner Henry was sitting at the table, smoking a pipe, working on blueprints; across the room Lorabelle, at her desk, bent over a “Who Am I?” contest. (“We might win $3,500,” she had said; “just think of it! Wouldn't that be marvelous? Oh the things we will do . . .!”) She was humming now, a waltz from Die Fledermaus. Henry looked up, observed the happy face bent to the illusory task, the golden hair streaked with gray falling across her cheek, the wrinkles of laughter now indelible around her eyes, the putting of pencil to mouth like a child, puzzled . . . laid down his pipe. “I love you, Lorabelle,” he said. She looked up, startled: “What . . . did you say?” “I love you,” he said. She blushed, started to rise, the pencil falling from her hand: “But . . . but . . . you said it was an illusion.” It is, he thought, because love claims the future and can't hold it; but claims also the present, and we have that. Not wanting to confuse her or start an argument, he said only, “I love you anyway.” She ran to him, weeping with joy, “Oh Henry, I'm so happy, so terribly happy! This is all we lacked . . . all we'll ever need.” He took her and the moment in his arms, kissed her, and said nothing.

He built a house on a plateau in a sheltered valley, protected from wind and water; blasted a gigantic hole in solid granite, floated the house on a bubble of pure mercury for earthquakes, built walls of reinforced concrete seven feet thick, doors and cabinets of stainless steel, pipes and lightning rods of copper, roof of inch-thick slate. “Oh, Henry, I'm so proud!” Lorabelle said. “I'd like to see what could happen to this house.” “You'll see,” he said darkly. It cost a fortune and they couldn't meet the payments; the bank took it over, sold it to a university as a seismographic station; Henry and Lorabelle moved to an attic in the city.

One afternoon Lorabelle came home in a rapturous mood. “Oh, Henry, I've met the most wonderful man! A graduate student of Far Eastern studies and . . . you know, sort of a mystic himself . . . such a spiritual quality . . . name is Semelrad Apfelbaum . . . gives seminars on Buddhism.” “Sounds like the real thing all right,” Henry said bitterly. After dinner Lorabelle put on a diaphanous dress of black chiffon with a flowing lavender scarf, a gold chain around her neck, a sapphire on her finger, perfume in her hair. “Where are you going?” Henry said. “To meet Semelrad,” she said; “he's so wonderfully kind, and so generous . . . is going to tutor me privately till I catch up with the class.” “You're not going anywhere,” Henry said. “I'm not a child, Henry,” Lorabelle said with dignity. “But you are—precisely,” Henry said. Lorabelle reminded him that theirs was a relationship of equality, with the same rights, that she must live her own life, make her own decisions, her own mistakes if need be; and when this failed to convince him she tossed back her head, affected great hauteur, and marched out of the room. Henry caught her at the door, turned her over his knee, applied the flat of his hand to the bottom of his delight; and it was perhaps that same night—for she did not go out—that Lorabelle got pregnant, and this time didn't lose it: the baby was born on Christmas, blue eyes and golden hair, and they named her Noel.

Henry built a house of solid brick in a meadow of sage and thyme, and there Noel played with flowers and crickets and butterflies and field mice. Most of the time she was a joy to her parents, and some of the time—when she was sick or unkind—she was a sorrow. Lorabelle loved the brick house, painted walls, hung pictures, and polished floors; on hands and knees with a bonnet on her head she dug in the earth and planted flowers, looked up at Henry through a wisp of hair with a happy smile; “We'll never move again,” she said. But one day the state sent them away and took over their house to build a freeway. The steel ball crashed through the brick walls, bulldozers sheared away the flower beds, the great shovels swung in, and the house was gone. Henry and Lorabelle and Noel moved back to the city, lived in a tiny flat under a water tank that dripped continuously on the roof and sounded like rain.

Henry and Lorabelle loved each other most of the time, tried to love each other all the time, to create a pure bond, but could not. It was marred by the viciousness, shocking to them, with which they hurt each other. Out of nothing they would create fights, would yell at each other, hate, withdraw finally in bitter silent armistice; then, after a few hours, or sometimes a few days, would come together again, with some final slashes and skirmishes, and try to work things out—to explain, protest, forgive, understand, forget, and above all to compromise. It was a terribly painful and always uncertain process; and even while it was under way Henry would think bleakly, “It won't last, will never last; we'll get through this one maybe, probably, then all will be well for a while—a few hours, days, weeks if we're lucky—then another fight over something—what?—not possible to know or predict, and certainly not to prevent . . . and then all this to go through again; and beyond that still another fight looming in the mist ahead, coming closer . . . and so on without end.” But even while thinking these things he still would try to work through the current trouble because, as he would say, “There isn't anything else.” And sometimes there occurred to him, uneasily, beyond all this gloomy reflection, an even more sinister thought: that their fights were not only unavoidable but also, perhaps, necessary; for their passages of greatest tenderness followed hard upon their times of greatest bitterness, as if love could be renewed only by gusts of destruction.

Nor could Henry ever build a house that would last forever, no more than anyone else; but he built one finally that lasted quite a while, a white house on a hill with lilac and laurel and three tall trees, a maple, a cedar, and a hemlock. It was an ordinary house of ordinary wood and the termites caused some trouble and always it needed painting or a new roof or a faucet dripped or something else needed fixing, and he grew old and gray and finally quite stooped doing these things, but that was all right, he knew, because there wasn't anything else.

Noel grew up in this house—a dreamy, soft-spoken girl, becoming more and more beautiful—wore her long hair in pigtails, practiced the piano, sang in a high true voice, played in the meadow, caught butterflies among the lilac. At nineteen she fell in love with Falbuck Wheeling who wore a tattered brown leather jacket and roared in on a heavy motorcycle dispelling peace and birds and butterflies, bringing noise and fumes and a misery Henry felt but could not define. Falbuck had a hard bitter face, said little, would sit at the kitchen table sullen and uncomfortable, and Henry could never get him into conversation because whatever the subject—literature, government, justice—Falbuck would sit staring at him, silent and disbelieving, until finally with a few labored and nasty words he would assert some rottenness behind the facade; then, as if exhausted by this excursion into communication, he would get up, taking Noel as if he owned her, and roar away. Noel spent her days with him, and soon her nights, wore jeans and an old army shirt with the tails hanging out, let her hair hang loose and tangled, smoked cigarettes in a long black holder. Henry and Lorabelle talked earnestly to this wild, changed girl, now hardly recognizable as their daughter, advised caution and delay, but to no avail: she married Falbuck and went to live with him in a tiny room over a motorcycle shop. Henry and Lorabelle were left alone in the house on the hill, in peace now, with butterflies and the sound of wind in the three trees, and wished she were back.

Every morning Henry took his tools and went to his work of building houses—saw the pyramid of white sand spreading out in the grass, the bricks chipping, the doors beginning to stick, the first tone of gray appearing on white lumber, the first leaf falling in the bright gutter—but kept on hammering and kept on sawing, joining boards and raising rafters; on weekends he swept the driveway and mowed the grass, in the evenings fixed the leaking faucets, tried to straighten out the disagreements with Lorabelle; and in all that he did he could see himself striving toward a condition of beauty or truth or goodness or love that did not exist, but whereas earlier in his life he had always said “It's an illusion” and turned away, now he said “There isn't anything else” and stayed with it; and though it cannot be said that they lived happily, exactly, and certainly not ever after, they did live. They lived—for a while—with ups and downs, good days and bad, and when it came time to die Lorabelle said, “Now we'll never be parted,” and Henry smiled and kissed her and said to himself, “There isn't anything else,” and they died.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.