by HUGH GILMORE
Not too long ago I drove on a late spring morning to buy books from a widow in a nearby rowhouse neighborhood. With no parking allowed out front, I followed her instructions and parked in the alley behind her house. I found her gate and entered the back yard where a blue, flowered housedress, bra and panties hung on the clothesline next to the walk. I knocked on the back door.
Mrs. McBreen (a pseudonym) opened up and greeted me, and we walked through the narrow kitchen and dining room into the living room. It was 11 in the morning, and the place was only dimly lit, the only light coming in through jalousie-covered windows in the front and rear – true to widow practice among this Greatest Generation.
These folks survived the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and they don’t need to be sitting around in the daytime with the lights on. I’d seen this before and tried a few times to explain Seasonal Affective Disorder and the need for light to keep your spirits up, but they’d say, “Oh, I couldn’t waste electricity like that.” I kept quiet this time.
Cherry wood bookcases occupied one wall of the sunroom. Some whatnots stood in front of the books on the middle shelf. The top of one case held three easel-propped framed photographs. A glance was enough. I told her the books were more modern than what we usually “can use for our customers,” but if she didn’t mind, I’d go ahead and dig in, maybe “find a treasure.”
Nice books. Good taste. This family had been readers. Book lovers, but not collectors. Among the children’s books, some Tasha Tudors and Arthur Rackhams, but recent printings. Good fiction, of the “literature” kind: “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Razor’s Edge,” several Dickens novels, and so on. No bestsellers. A few Thomas Merton titles, predictable on thinking-Catholic bookcases, some Caribbean travel guides from the 1970s.
The pictures on the bookcase included a black-and-white headshot of Mrs. McBreen as a good-looking young nurse. And another where she stood in full uniform, showing a nice figure, the kind a 1940s foxhole crooner might have had in mind when he sang, “You’d be so nice to come home to.”
I also saw a photo of what I assumed was Mr. McBreen, a fine looking young Irishman, reminiscent of a youthful Fred MacMurray or Patrick O’Brien. Strong jawed, self-assured. The leader of the band. I stepped back from the bookcase and looked at another picture of him over the mantle in the living room. And then another, within a cluster of pictures on the wall, this one a wedding picture where he stood beside his bride.
The former bride now sat at the gloomy dining room table, her head bent, looking at a neat list of things to do before moving to a retirement home. She was already sweating at the start of what was supposed to become a hot day.
Love always ends badly, I thought. No matter how much in love you are. No matter that you survived the war, went to work every day, never cheated on one another, gave the kids three squares and clean clothes every day, made love a lot or a little – no matter what, it will end badly. Usually the husband starts to go first, and the wife must watch her partner enter the world of pained grimace, and turn inward like a plastic clock on the other side of a burning wall.
“Mrs. McBreen,” I said, “I’m sorry, but there are only two books I can use. I’ll pay you $35 for them.”
I’d found a “Mother Goose” and a “Hans Brinker,” later editions, but bright copies. The money was half of what I thought we could sell them for. She looked up from her list and said, “Well, that’s better than nothing – I’ll take it.”
At the dining room table I wrote a check for the books, and, since I had some time, I remained seated and asked Mrs. McBreen about herself. I like to talk to older people. They look ordinary, but they’ve always led interesting lives. I once met a man who’d survived a famous hotel fire, another who’d served on the USS Intrepid, another who said he’d swum the Hellespont, and a woman who said she’d had six offers of marriage in five years before she chose her Harry.
Older people also know things that you’d have to trade your life away to learn: What’s it’s like to work for Schmidt’s Brewery or Tasty Baking Company for forty years? Or raise a Down syndrome child? Or be an electrician, plumber, or policeman?
Or be a nurse, like Mrs. McBreen.
And have your husband commit suicide while the four kids were still young.
“He was … bipolar’s what they’d call it today,” she told me across the table.
I said, “You can’t see it in his face, not from those pictures in the other room.”
“No,” she said. “When he was up, he was really outgoing. People liked him. That’s why they were all surprised.”
She got up to go toward the picture cluster on the wall and I followed.
I took a chance and asked, “How many good years did you have?”
I thought she’d need to think a moment before answering a question like that, but she must have reckoned the answer a long time ago.
“Three,” she said. No hesitation.
Then, as if she knew my next question, she added, “We were together for twelve. Then he killed himself.”
“You were still a young woman,” I said. I pictured the panties and bra and dress on the line outside, blowing emptily in the backyard breeze.
“Yes, I was, with four young children to support. Shift work. It wasn’t easy.” She leaned in a little closer to the pictures. “But,” here she turned and looked at me, and with a determined quaver said, “I loved my job. Outside of the kids, it was all I had.”
We went back to the dining room table and talked some more. She grew up near the coal region upstate, came down here, met McBreen, such a handsome, outgoing guy. She felt a tender spot for him. There was something about him. He was adopted. He’d been in a Catholic orphanage, but was abused by the other children there, and the supervisors took pity and saw that a good family took him out and adopted him.
“The poor man,” I said, “Poor you, so young, only three good years.”
“The poor children,” she said, “they never had the normal life they deserved. It was hardest on them.”
There was a small silence.
Then she said, in that funny, mock-dramatic Irish way, “So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”
If I could have wound time backwards, I’d have offered to marry her, she was that lovely a woman and fellow mortal.
But since I couldn’t, it was either become lifetime, call-every-day friends, or it was time to go. Only late morning, and the place would stay dark all day unless the grandkids came over to play with that wicker basket of toys I’d seen in the corner. I was going back to work. She’d go on with her chores in that stuffed little house until she moved to the retirement home she and her daughter, who was helping her, were looking for. Disposing of the books was but one step along the way.
I went into the sunroom to get the two books I’d paid for and took another look at the picture of her and McBreen and then at McBreen alone. I’d wondered, when she tightened up her eyes and said, “I loved my job” with such emphasis what kind of nurse she’d been. I could have understood either way, hard or soft, because there was ample reason for either, or both.
Then I noticed that McBreen’s pictures were all in semi-profile, a good profile it was, too, but none of them looking right at you, so you could read him head on, all looking toward the future, the bright path his elegant suit and strong chin and noble forehead implied he’d lead them down.
You never know, do you, what you’re getting as a go-with when you lie down for pleasure with another human soul?
I shook hands with Mrs. McBreen and wished her well, which I really did, and headed home.