The Visit

Picture this: a guy at a service station, say an Exxon, gassing up his battered blue Volvo on an April afternoon, a fresh breeze is blowing, his short brown hair is shuffling around on his head, the lapels of his worn tweed sport-coat are flapping a little now and then as if counting the seconds in a Salvador Dali painting, and the tears yes tears are running down his face in two identical streams. Okay. Meanwhile, the traffic on the suburban street beside him fumes along as usual. The fuel pump clicks away the gallons and their appalling price. The thick black hose trembles. I assume all this is familiar enough. The man, however, is not paying much attention, no, he’s looking out from under the corrugated tin roof of the fuel plaza at the light grey sky of the North Carolina piedmont, his eyes likewise grey, though glistening of course from the tears he makes no effort to wipe away, but instead allows to flow as they list, down his cheeks and on either side of his short blond beard. So there he is. Do you see him clearly now? Maybe I should summarize: Man. April. Tears. Which raises certain questions. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like enumerating those questions right now, much less trying to answer them, so I’ll move on to mentioning that the last time the man was here, that is to say, at this particular spot on the Earth’s surface, he was a much younger man, say half the age he is now, which we’ll reckon at about forty, and the Exxon station did not exist at all. In fact, had the names of the streets not remained the same, that man would have no idea where (the hell) he was. But he is most definitely here, in his hometown, beside a busy road whose name recalls certain rather silly European folktales, here, that is, pumping gas and weeping silently but openly with his pale face upturned and the cool, moist spring wind buffeting his eyelashes. Let’s leave him where he is for a while, he’s obviously not going anywhere, he’s obviously in no hurry now, if he ever was, so let’s leave him where he is and zoom down a side-road and off into the shaded suburban labyrinth of an old neighborhood to a modest house with huge willow-oaks in the front yard and a sunny porch in the back. An older woman with a kind, sempiternal, nordic face, now approaching her mid-sixties, is putting a pair of teacups into the dishwasher and closing the door. Now she’s wiping her hands on the fresh pink dishtowel and smiling to herself. Well! It was a pleasant visit after all. To be honest, she had been a bit apprehensive, yes indeed, sufficiently apprehensive to have broached the topic with her husband the evening before. Jack had reassured her that there was nothing to be concerned about, though he offered to take an early lunch at home so that he could be there too when the man arrived. No, no, she said, she was just being silly. And so she had faced the man alone through the screen door after he had knocked at the precise moment of their appointment. How strange it was to see him standing there again, all grown up now, more than grown up, actually a bit worn, though by no means faded, in fact quite handsome, handsome, yes, but not as he had been before, as a teenager and a young man. Then he had been handsome in the way all healthy, athletic, self-confident and academically gifted young men were handsome, especially to the mothers of beautiful daughters. He still had his hair, she noticed, though it was darker now. Or maybe it was that his skin was lighter, quite pale actually, and drawn, his face almost gaunt, his flesh having sunk into itself and hardened, and his eyes, were they not less green than grey now? Time does such strange things to people. Some it puffs up, others it whittles down. She invited him into the sun room, and seated him on the couch so that he could enjoy the view out the big windows into the back yard and garden, just now at its most aureate and bright with the forsythia bushes in bloom. She took her favorite reading chair opposite him. Only then, as his quick gaze took in the room, did she realize he had never been here before. They had added the sunroom the year after their younger daughter had finished college, now almost twenty years ago. Yes, they had made a lot of improvements since then, a lot of changes, all the things they’d talked about for so long but could not afford. Now it was different. Their work as parents done, they could devote themselves to the quiet pleasures of late middle-age, to gardening and volunteer work, to the Lutheran Church of which they had been members now for more than thirty years, and to the anticipation of grandchildren coming for a visit. It was a good life, she thought to herself as she sat opposite the man, a life whose goodness was evidence of its rightness, for indeed, they had done everything right as spouses and parents, and everything had worked out according to their best and by no means extravagant wishes. Then all of the sudden, in the midst of these private reflections, while her mouth was continuing to produce its lively stream of polite and well-rehearsed chatter about something or other, all of the sudden she had become aware of his attention, as he sat across from her, his unwavering attention, which seemed not entirely polite, she had been forced to admit to herself, no not entirely polite, but in fact rather unnerving. He was, in short, entirely too attentive, having apparently forgotten at some point in the intervening years that these kinds of situations must be navigated with extreme obliquity and lightness of touch. Not that his presence was in any way ponderous or clumsy. Quite the contrary, really: for in an odd way he seemed not quite to exist, as he sat there on the couch with his legs crossed and his spine erect and his hands cradling the cup and saucer in his lap directly beneath the abstract painting of which she was so fond––or to exist only in the form of his attention, which burned there like a small, white, unwavering flame. And as she had risen smiling and walked past him to fetch the photo album from the study, it had struck her indeed how small and white and still he was, as if poised on the edge of some invisible abyss, or like a man who has just fallen from a certain height and is resting a moment there before he beings to investigate the question of whether or not he is paralyzed. What happened to him? she wondered, or rather, half-way wondered, for she was already grasping the photo album, the mere heft of which reminded her of how proud she was, of how relieved she felt to have seen her offspring safely into adulthood and married life; and when she sat down beside the man, who, she noticed casually, had put his tea-cup down on the coffee-table while she had been in the next room, when she sat down beside him and opened the photo album, all these feelings rose once again in a flush, such that her fine nordic cheeks felt warm and moist. Their daughter had looked so beautiful, more beautiful than ever, and so happy on that day, now almost––could it have been so long?––a year ago. Here she is, and here and here; and here they all are and doesn’t Jack look proud? and here of course the other one, the elder daughter, giving a speech at the rehearsal dinner, she was wonderful, yes she still talks with her hands, with her fingers, you can tell from the picture––Oh? You didn’t know? Of course, I forget, how would you know, I should have mentioned it before. Yes, she got married too, three years ago now, her husband, you’d like him, he’s a lot like you. I always said to her, look, you’ve found another one like him! Which is very funny, because he’s a doctor. They have a good life, yes, a very good life, no children yet, but what’s the hurry? she asks with a smile, a smile identical to the smile he remembered.