I came out of my writing room only wanting what I was thinking of as a small break from the tedium of composing, endlessly composing, but actually just sort of sitting there, sitting in there, I mean, though earnestly sitting, reverentially sitting, you could almost say, though actually unable to get out of my mind that line in the Joyce Carol Oates memoir A Widow’s Story, the line that goes Why did you not fall in love with the many others with whom you did not fall in love? which I have found is a darn intriguing line to be thinking about whether you are me or some other party. Why, yes, why? is what I was in there thinking, that being the very same thing Joyce writes that she was thinking after the death of her husband of four decades—among other related questions she—and I, yes, after the death of my wife of four decades: what we were thinking. And also thinking, What next? Is there a next, and if so,What? Then it dawned on me that maybe it was time for a well-deserved release from all that composing, or non-composing if such is how you prefer to see the matter, if, that is to say, you want to be absolutely literal about something that is none of your business in the first place. Except that it is your business, I guess, if you’re reading this.
So that was the situation, up to a certain moment. Which certain moment arrived the very moment I quit that room. A woman I know, know very well, have known and loved through forty years, have been unreservedly intimate with a minimum three thousand times, that being her estimate—three thousand, just imagine!—and these physical encounters existing as the merest prelude or introduction—the landscape!—to the intimacy aggressively present in the entire frontier of intimacyas known and practised by those of us so fortunate . . . when . . . when this same woman places herself directly in front of me, places herself between me and where it was I thought I was going, so close I dare not move, I dare not breathe, and what she says, says in this serious, no-nonsense way, is Listen here, you, don’t monkey with me, I know exactly why you’ve abandoned that room, I can see it in your face, you are quitting that room because YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, you cannot figure it out, you have not THE REMOTEST IDEA, and DO NOT think to blame it on me, do not so much as consider blaming it on JOYCE CAROL OATES, or on your father or mother or children or on our dog or cat.
That is precisely what she said. And I, who at any other time might have claimed to always know what happens next, was now blind and dumb in that regard.
Her appearance was unanticipated, lovely—a thoroughly inconclusive—next.
Katherine Mansfield arrives in a yellow cab. She’s wearing a nice hat. Look at her. A nice yellow hat with gold piping—a garden party hat! She’s trying to pay the driver with a concrete poem found this morning in a broken teacup. Among the tea leaves! Who broke that cup? D. H. Lawrence broke that cup. What did he call her? He called her loathsome! A reptile! A loathsome reptile! Let’s say no more about that. We may not, because Katherine’s taxi driver is speaking. “Not today, lady!” the driver is saying. “No poems today!” No one should talk this way to Katherine Mansfield. They should not say, as this driver does, “I will, however, accept as payment your pretty hat.” “Not my hat!” shouts Katherine. “I am going to a garden party!”
This is outrageous. Someone must intervene. Jump up! I’ll pay the man! My wife is speaking, heroic even in death—“All right, Katherine, the nasty people have gone. Here, darling, take this chair. Relax. Don’t even think of seducing anyone today.”
Too late, too late!
Leon Rooke’s new short story collection, Wide World in Celebration and Sorrow, was published this October.