The hours, p.16
The Hours, p.16Michael Cunningham
‘‘I love you too, baby,’’ she replies, and although she’s said the words thousands of times, she can hear the flanneled nervousness lodged now in her throat, the effort she must make to sound natural. She accelerates through the intersection. She drives carefully, with both hands precisely centered on the wheel.
It seems the boy will start crying again, as he does so often, so inexplicably, but his eyes remain bright and dry, unblinking.
‘‘What’s wrong?’’ she asks.
He continues staring at her. He does not blink.
He knows. He must know. The little boy can tell she’s been somewhere illicit; he can tell she’s lying. He watches her constantly, spends almost every waking hour in her presence. He’s seen her with Kitty. He’s watched her make a second cake, and bury the first one under other garbage in the can beside the garbage. He is devoted, entirely, to the observation and deciphering of her, because without her there is no world at all.
Of course he would know when she’s lying.
She says, ‘‘Don’t worry, honey. Everything’s fine. We’re going to have a wonderful party for Daddy’s birthday tonight. Do you know how happy he’ll be? We’ve got all these presents for him. We’ve made him such a nice cake.’’
Richie nods, unblinking. He rocks gently back and forth. Quietly, wishing to be overheard rather than heard, he says, ‘‘Yes, we’ve made him such a nice cake.’’ There is a surprisingly mature hollowness in his voice.
He will watch her forever. He will always know when something is wrong. He will always know precisely when and how much she has failed.
‘‘I love you, sweetheart,’’ she says. ‘‘You’re my guy.’’ Briefly, for a moment, the boy changes shape. Briefly he glows, dead white. Laura remains not angry. She remembers to smile. She keeps both hands on the wheel.
She has come to help Richard get ready for the party, but Richard does not respond to her knock. She knocks again, harder, then quickly, nervously, unlocks the door.
The apartment is full of light. Clarissa almost gasps at the threshold. All the shades have been raised, the windows opened. Although the air is filled only with the ordinary daylight that enters any tenement apartment on a sunny afternoon, it seems, in Richard’s rooms, like a silent explosion. Here are his cardboard boxes, his bathtub (filthier than she’d realized), the dusty mirror and the expensive coffeemaker, all revealed in their true pathos, their ordinary smallness. It is, quite simply, the tenement apartment of a deranged person.
‘‘Richard!’’ Clarissa calls.
‘‘Mrs. Dalloway. Oh, Mrs. Dalloway, it’s you.’’
She rushes into the other room and finds Richard still in his
robe, perched on the sill of the open window, straddling it, with one emaciated leg still in the apartment and the other, invisible to her, dangling out over five stories.
‘‘Richard,’’ she says sternly. ‘‘Get down from there.’’
‘‘It’s so lovely out,’’ he says. ‘‘What a day.’’
He looks insane and exalted, both ancient and childish, astride the windowsill like some scarecrow equestrian, a park statue by Giacometti. His hair is plastered to his scalp in some places, jutting out at sharp, rakish angles in others. His inside leg, bare to midthigh, blue-white, is skeletal but with a surprisingly solid little fist of calf muscle still clinging stubbornly to the bone.
‘‘You’re terrifying me,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘I want you to stop this and come inside. Now.’’
She moves toward him and he raises his inside leg to the sill. Only the heel of that foot, one hand, and one fleshless buttock remain in contact with the battered wood. On his robe, red-finned rockets emit perfect orange pinecones of fire. Helmeted astronauts, plump and white as the Uniroyal Man, faceless behind their dark visors, offer stiff, white-gloved salutes.
Richard says, ‘‘I took the Xanax and the Ritalin. They work wonderfully together. I feel wonderful. I opened all the blinds, but still, I found I wanted more air and light. I had a hard time getting up here, I don’t mind telling you.’’
‘‘Darling, please, put your leg back down on the floor. Will you do that for me?’’ ‘‘I don’t think I can make it to the party,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m sorry.’’
‘‘You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.’’
‘‘What a day it is. What a beautiful, beautiful day.’’
Clarissa draws a breath, and another. She is surprisingly calm—she can feel herself acting well in a difficult situation— but at the same time is removed from herself, from the room, as if she is witnessing something that’s already happened. It feels like a memory. Something within her, something like a voice but not a voice, an inner knowledge all but indistinguishable from the pump of her heart, says, Once I found Richard sitting on a window ledge five stories above the ground.
She says, ‘‘Get down from there. Please.’’
Richard’s face darkens and contracts, as if Clarissa has posed him a difficult question. His empty chair, fully exposed in the daylight—leaking stuffing at its seams, the thin yellow towel on the seat embossed with rusty circles—could be the foolishness, the essential shoddiness, of mortal illness itself.
‘‘Get down from there,’’ Clarissa says. She speaks slowly and loudly, as if to a foreigner.
Richard nods, and does not move. His ravaged head, struck by full daylight, is geological. His flesh is as furrowed and pocked, as runneled, as desert stone.
He says, ‘‘I don’t know if I can face this. You know. The party and the ceremony, and then the hour after that, and the hour after that.’’
‘‘You don’t have to go to the party. You don’t have to go to the ceremony. You don’t have to do anything at all.’’
‘‘But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then
another, and you get through that one and then, my god,
there’s another. I’m so sick.’’
‘‘You have good days still. You know you do.’’
‘‘Not really. It’s kind of you to say so, but I’ve felt it for some time now, closing around me like the jaws of a gigantic flower. Isn’t that a peculiar analogy? It feels that way, though. It has a certain vegetable inevitability. Think of the Venus fly-trap. Think of kudzu choking a forest. It’s a sort of juicy, green, thriving progress. Toward, well, you know. The green silence. Isn’t it funny that, even now, it’s difficult to say the word ‘death’?’’
‘‘Are they here, Richard?’’
‘‘Who? Oh, the voices? The voices are always here.’’
‘‘I mean, are you hearing them very distinctly?’’
‘‘No. I’m hearing you. It’s always wonderful to hear you, Mrs. D. Do you mind that I still call you that?’’
‘‘Not at all. Come inside. Now.’’
‘‘Remember her? Your alter ego? Whatever became of her?’’
‘‘This is her. I’m her. I need you to come inside. Will you, please?’’
‘‘It’s so lovely here. I feel so free. Will you call my mother? She’s all alone, you know.’’
‘‘Tell me a story, all right?’’
‘‘What kind of story?’’
‘‘Something from your day. From today. It could be the most ordinary thing. That would be better, actually. The most ordinary event you can think of.’’
‘‘Richard—’’ ‘‘Anything. Anything at all.’’
‘‘Well, this morning, before I came here, I went to buy flowers for the party.’’ ‘‘Did you?’’ ‘‘I did. It was a beautiful morning.’’ ‘‘Was it?’’ ‘‘Yes. It was beautiful. It was so . . . fresh. I bought the flow
ers and took them home and put them in water. There. End of story. Now come inside.’’
‘‘Fresh as if issued to children
‘‘You could say that.’’
‘‘Like a morning when we were young together.’’
‘‘Yes. Like that.’’
‘‘Like the morning you walked out of that old house, when you were eighteen and I was, well, I had just turned nineteen, hadn’t I? I was a nineteen-year-old and I was in love with Louis and I was in love with you, and I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful as the sight of you walking out a glass door in the early morning, still sleepy, in your underwear. Isn’t it strange?’’
‘‘Yes,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘Yes. It’s strange.’’
‘‘Stop saying that. You haven’t failed.’’
‘‘I have. I’m not looking for sympathy. Not really. I just feel so sad. What I wanted to do seemed simple. I wanted to create something alive and shocking enough that it could stand beside a morning in somebody’s life. The most ordinary morning. Imagine, trying to do that. What foolishness.’’
‘‘It isn’t the least bit foolish.’’
‘‘I’m afraid I can’t make the party.’’
‘‘Please, please don’t worry about the party. Don’t think about the party. Give me your hand.’’
‘‘You’ve been so good to me, Mrs. Dalloway.’’
‘‘I love you. Does that sound trite?’’
Richard smiles. He shakes his head. He says, ‘‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we’ve been.’’
He inches forward, slides gently off the sill, and falls.
Clarissa screams, ‘‘No—’’
He seems so certain, so serene, that she briefly imagines it hasn’t happened at all. She reaches the window in time to see Richard still in flight, his robe billowing, and it seems even now as if it might be a minor accident, something reparable. She sees him touch the ground five floors below, sees him kneel on the concrete, sees his head strike, hears the sound he makes, and yet she believes, at least for another moment, leaning out over the sill, that he will stand up again, groggy perhaps, winded, but still himself, still whole, still able to speak.
She calls his name, once. It comes out as a question, far softer than she’d meant it to. He lies where he fell, face down, the robe thrown up over his head and his bare legs exposed, white against the dark concrete.
She runs from the room, out the door, which she leaves open behind her. She runs down the stairs. She thinks of calling for help, but doesn’t. The air itself seems to have changed, to have come slightly apart; as if the atmosphere were palpably
made of substance and its opposite. She runs down the stairs and is aware (she will be ashamed of this later) of herself as a woman running down a set of stairs, uninjured, still alive.
In the lobby she suffers through a moment of confusion over how to get to the air shaft where Richard lies, and she feels, briefly, as if she’s gone to hell. Hell is a stale yellow box of a room, with no exit, shaded by an artificial tree, lined with scarred metal doors (one bears a Grateful Dead decal, a skull crowned with roses).
A door in the shadow of the stairwell, narrower than the others, leads outside, down a flight of broken cement stairs, to the place where Richard is. She knows even before she descends these last stairs that he is dead. His head is lost among the folds of the robe but she can see the puddle of blood, dark, almost black, that has formed where his head must be. She can see the utter stillness of his body, one arm extended at a peculiar angle, palm up, and both bare legs white and naked as death itself. He is still wearing the gray felt slippers she bought for him.
She descends these last stairs, sees that Richard is lying amid shards of broken glass, and takes a moment to realize it is simply the remains of a shattered beer bottle that had been lying on the concrete already, and not some consequence of Richard’s fall. She thinks she must pick him up immediately, to get him off the glass.
She kneels beside him, puts a hand on his inert shoulder. Gently, very gently, as if she fears waking him, she pulls the robe down from around his head. All she can make sense of in
the glistening mass of red, purple, and white are his parted lips and one open eye. She realizes she has made a sound, a sharp exclamation of surprise and pain. She covers his head again with the robe.
She remains kneeling at his side, uncertain about what to do next. She returns her hand to his shoulder. She does not stroke it; she simply rests her hand there. She tells herself she should go call the police, but doesn’t want to leave Richard alone. She waits for someone to call down to her. She glances up at the ascending rows of windows, the hanging laundry, the perfect square of sky bisected by one thin blue-white blade of a cloud, and begins to understand that no one knows yet. No one has seen or heard Richard fall.
She does not move. She finds the window of the old woman, with its three ceramic statuettes (invisible from so far down). The old woman must be at home, she hardly ever goes out. Clarissa has an urge to shout up to her, as if she were some sort of family member; as if she should be informed. Clarissa puts off, at least for another minute or two, the inevitable next act. She remains with Richard, touching his shoulder. She feels (and is astonished at herself ) slightly embarrassed by what has happened. She wonders why she doesn’t weep. She is aware of the sound of her own breathing. She is aware of the slippers still on Richard’s feet, of the sky reflected in the growing puddle of blood.
It ends here, then, on a pallet of concrete, under the clotheslines, amid shards of glass. She runs her hand, gently, down from his shoulder along the frail curve of his back. Guiltily, as
if she is doing something forbidden, she leans over and rests her forehead against his spine while it is still, in some way, his; while he is still in some way Richard Worthington Brown. She can smell the stale flannel of the robe, the winey sharpness of his unbathed flesh. She would like to speak to him, but can’t. She simply rests her head, lightly, against his back. If she were able to speak she would say something—she can’t tell what, exactly—about how he has had the courage to create, and how, perhaps more important, he has had the courage to love singularly, over the decades, against all reason. She would talk to him about how she herself, Clarissa, loved him in return, loved him enormously, but left him on a street corner over thirty years ago (and, really, what else could she have done?). She would confess to her desire for a relatively ordinary life (neither more nor less than what most people desire), and to how much she wanted him to come to her party and exhibit his devotion in front of her guests. She would ask his forgiveness for shying away, on what would prove to be the day of his death, from kissing him on the lips, and for telling herself she did so only for the sake of his health.
The candles are lit. The song is sung. Dan, blowing the candles out, sprays a few tiny droplets of clear spittle onto the icing’s smooth surface. Laura applauds and, after a moment, Richie does, too.
‘‘Happy birthday, darling,’’ she says.
A spasm of fury rises unexpectedly, catches in her throat. He is coarse, gross, stupid; he has sprayed spit onto the cake. She herself is trapped here forever, posing as a wife. She must get through this night, and then tomorrow morning, and then another night here, in these rooms, with nowhere else to go. She must please; she must continue.
It might be like walking out into a field of brilliant snow. It could be dreadful and wonderful. We thought her sorrows were ordinary sorrows; we had no idea.
The anger passes. It’s all right, she tells herself. It’s all right. Pull yourself together, for heaven’s sake.
Dan wraps his arm around her hips. Laura feels the meaty, scented solidity of him. She is sorry. She is aware, more than ever, of his goodness.
He says, ‘‘This is great. This is perfect.’’
She strokes the back of h
Laura says to Richie, ‘‘Did you make a wish, too?’’
He nods, though the possibility had not occurred to him. It seems he is always making a wish, every moment, and that his wishes, like his father’s, have mainly to do with continuance. Like his father, what he wants most ardently is more of what he’s already got (though, of course, if asked about the nature of his wishes, he would immediately rattle off a long list of toys, both actual and imaginary). Like his father he senses that more of this is precisely what they may very well not get.
‘‘How would you like to help me cut the cake?’’ his father says.
‘‘Yes,’’ Richie answers.
Laura brings dessert plates and forks from the kitchen. Here
she is, in this modest dining room, safe, with her husband and child, as Kitty lies in a hospital room waiting to hear what the doctors have found. Here they are, this family, in this place. All up and down their street, all up and down multitudes of streets, windows shine. Multitudes of dinners are served; the victories and setbacks of a multitude of days are narrated.
As Laura sets the plates and forks on the table—as they ring softly on the starched white cloth—it seems she has succeeded suddenly, at the last minute, the way a painter might brush a final line of color onto a painting and save it from incoherence; the way a writer might set down the line that brings to light the submerged patterns and symmetry in the drama. It has to do, somehow, with setting plates and forks on a white cloth. It is as unmistakable as it is unexpected.
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