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by Jennifer Blair


The Montréal Review, February 2011


"Candice" by Steven Assael at Galerie de Bellefeuille (1367 Greene Avenue Montreal, Quebec, H3Z 2A8)




During the eulogy, Lila's eyes drifted up to the vaulted roof, as if it might be possible to detect the exact shade of sky beyond it. Soon her gaze drifted back down to the front, the red candle holders and irresponsibly sized wreathes. They'd all be looking at her-watching her to know what to do. This was her loss. Her tragedy. And tragedy made one royalty. For a minute. There was no casket (ashes to ashes, rather quickly, Horace had instructed), but the sermon was earnest. Not that eulogies ever did for the dark. But they did nicely for these gathering, these few moments. Went along well with the fern frond on the fronts of the programs, the obligatory Psalm: "Yay though I walk.." As the minister talked, she tried to concentrate, but found it hard to pay attention. Religion was easy, after all. The real trick was days. Days and what one did in them. Mosaic law, those stone tablets what did they diminish down to-really-after one had descended the mountain? How to fold your shirt and set it on the chair at the right slant-the back draped over just so. Saying expected things aloud ( I'm so grateful ). Remembering to pick up your umbrella and drop every one of your silly grudges at the stoop. What was he up there rattling on about now? Oh, the charities, the kindness. Those in need never had a better friend. Afterwards, Lila sat and sat as they came and told how her darling husband had come up beside them, shouldered their burdens, carried their troubles. Paid for their ride home, then sat in the back, his arm around them. While she was-where? Waiting. Wondering how much longer to tell the housekeeper to tarry-and then. But one cannot say what one thinks. Not exactly. All society depended on it-you stalling, holding your breath, stifling your own nasty opinion, swallowing your own disagreeableness.

Afterwards, they had all come up, gathered round, patted her shoulder, offered their two shillings and awkwardly gone on. Fine. But the prattlers-the ones who did not know him (or her!)-thinking she wanted word after word-and that their praises were a comfort, never guessing how they were adding to the quiet fury already wrapped round the base of her spine. At last she was saved-taken out to the cab by Mrs. Drew, who, all that morning had been bustling about in a black dress with a lace collar that kept rolling up on the left side. Dear Mrs. Drew! An old school chum and just what she needed. Someone perfectly unsentimental. Fat, serviceable and ruddy, even in death, she would have waltzed right up to Christ on the cross to ask, "Are you quite done with this nonsense yet?" One of the few bodies time rolled right away from, like droplets off a duck. What was done, was done-and now to shut the shade and check the gate latch.


Jack stroked his white mustache thinking Lila looked the same as he remembered her. Small, impossibly small. Frail and stoic. Carrying on, carrying on, despite all the furies of the French Revolution roaring down her street. He had read the news in the paper, and decided he should attend. His late wife Charlotte had been Horace's cousin, and he and Horace had also served on the same Hospital Improvement Committee for five years. Horace, a bear of a man with a rather beakish nose and a booming (but not unpleasing) voice had been instrumental in getting the New Day Surgery Wing approved. And Horace did indeed-(as all the speakers that day said)-have the gift of compressing the greatest amount of meaning into the smallest gesture-the way his brown eyes shined-the way he grabbed your shoulder passing your table, patted you on the back-always on his way somewhere else, yes, but the sincerity more than made up for the brevity. One of those types who everyone else in the room wants to talk to, one of those who you keep track of even as you talk to someone else, filling out the air with meaningless chatter just to keep the chance of even a brief encounter alive. By contrast, Horace's wife had always seemed-well, more like a shadow. Dark hair pulled back and held in place by what seemed a thousand pins, as if her scalp needed punishing. Frown line around the mouth, pale. Dully nodding before you had even made your point. Subdued and anxious and ready to be gone from you.

When Jack mused aloud about the couple to Charlotte one night, she replied, "Oh, well, it's harsh to say, but I doubt they are happy." Here, she paused from brushing her long light hair to consider her words. "I suppose," she added, setting down the brush on the mirror topped tray. "Lila is the one who has never seemed happy. Or maybe it's just that she was always so serious. Even when we were young. It's like she just skipped right to being old, all at once." Then Jack laughingly suggested Horace must have done something once-a big night out on the town-and Lila had never forgiven him. Or maybe it was smaller. Perhaps he had not cleaned out the sink after shaving. Charlotte chuckled and said punishing people and never telling them why had always been a great family tradition. At that, Jack remembered pulling her closer, silently thankful she was not like her family, at least in that respect. He had needed her grace and mercy, constantly, especially in those first years, when he had the dim idea a wife was a much younger mother you weren't related to.


Mountains of cakes in the kitchen. Biscuits. Currant scones. Sealed jars of lemon curd and Devonshire cream. A treacle cake in dubious form, the shape of some prehistoric monument whose ultimate purposes could never be agreed upon. Mrs. Drew said it would be good to have some extra foodstuffs, for those who might be dropping by paying respects. She smiled and told Lila that if she had to be pleasant to near strangers, she could at least have the comfort of a decent snack. As Mrs. Drew rearranged platters, Lila glanced at her nails. She had cut them right before the funeral, noticed they were long and gone to it. She supposed she could manage visitors well enough. She knew all the ones she had seen before (at banquets, groundbreaking, and rallies), even if it had only been once, and just in passing. For her memory was impeccable. Every crumb swept away and locked up. So neat and precise, one could eat a meal off its floor. Horace relied on her- had relied on her-to remember his sister Mary's birthday-his secretary's anniversary-all the vital details that always eluded him. Nothing escapes you , he exclaimed once, admiration over-brimming his voice. One of the few compliments he'd given unabashedly (Her memory. An exacting relentless power of picking up husks and re-clothing the air-conjuring up the past until ghosts tumbled out of the stairwell and banister grain-good. Except for the burrs that clung, old barbs still hot and rankling. Good for everything.but forgiveness).


Jack didn't think much of the funeral until two days later when he was clearing off the kitchen table and saw the program, half folded up. He had brought it home so Charlotte could see, as she had been unable to attend the service. He picked it up and glanced. Donations were to be made to hospital charities, of course. He supposed Horace had left enough for Lila and given most of the rest away to his pet projects already. They had no children so there would be no nasty fighting over a will. After Charlotte's comment Lila and Horace were probably unhappy, Jack had thought on it a few times-even remembered the comment briefly a few months later when he saw Horace at the Chemist's buying some tar soap. He had been concerned by what Charlotte said. But not much. Horace was what his own mother would have called a life-force. Whatever the case may have been, you didn't just lean over and give un-asked for advice to a mountain.


The cards were still coming, but starting to dwindle now. She glanced over at the ones on the sideboard. She liked counting them. Twenty-six, twenty-seven, as if she was back in school, loudly reciting. Counting dollies, friends. She barely even looked at the names when she read them. She wanted to organize them some way, friend of Horace or friend of her. No, no that was too combative. Maybe ones with flowers over there on top the walnut cabinet, the small fleet of sailboats quarantined on the corner table. Or perhaps ones who said it was a shame distinguished from those who said he was a wonderful man. Most of the handwriting seemed rushed, but that was to be expected. How much time did she ever take to write a card? Honestly, truthfully, how long could one look away from daily concerns, pressing needs? Once the soul caught itself in the mirror-played the coquette- and smiled, one was already disenchanted. But by then-too late, too late. The hook was already sunk in the hand, desperate seedling grown to ancient Oak grove. One was-after that-unforgivably fond. Always nominating one's own self to be Donne's first mover to be twirled and spun about by til one finally grew disgusted-and almost eddied off--but not before momentarily re-gathering even more power-more false importance.


Evening came again. That water stain on the ceiling was really insufferable. An undercooked egg sliding off to nowhere. They had decided to ignore it and in return it always grew slightly worse. But now Lila had almost grown used to it. So why couldn't she sleep. All this room in the bed at last and no snoring, but it was too quiet. Was knowing, really knowing, the suffering of others impossible? She could guess. Insofar as existence was the same experience, she knew. Waking up and splashing cold water on a stunned face, being bewildered on the morning walk by the rain still dripping off the shrubs-sun hitting the droplets and flaring them up into the visionless eye. The constant surprise. At how the world always managed to wash itself clean again with one good cry.


Jack sighed looking at the paper thrown on the kitchen table and then started to absentmindedly tap his fingers against his mustache. A small boy had been found abandoned on a park bench in Winchester. All he told the authorities was that his mum told him to behave while he waited, not fidget. The main reason Jack sighed, however was the date on top of the paper. A fortnight had already gone by, and he still hadn't seen Lila. He and Charlotte should see her this week, before any more time passed. He tried to think of some news he could tell her-tidbits that might be of interest to someone who didn't go out much anymore. The new road signs. A pigeon flying into the gallery who wouldn't be caught before it had the chance to perch atop a priceless Holbein. Younger, Elder, Oldest? One of them.

"What's the matter?"

He looked up and found Charlotte staring at him.

"Something bad in the paper?"

"No," he answered, then corrected himself. "Well. yes. Always. But I was just looking at the date. It's been a fortnight and I just realized I still haven't gone to see Lila."

"What about today?"

"No, I can't. I'm meeting Bill, remember?"

Horace's old office partner-a dentist-William Sebastian-had recently retired and been to Turkey, and he was brimming with tales to share of the Blue Mosque and Cappadochia. On the phone he informed Horace they had bought a rug for his foyer at the bazaar in Istanbul, but when they got home rolled it out, they found a woman splayed out upon a bed, wearing nothing more than a ruby glistening in her throat and a palm branch in her pale hand.

"Of course I was game, but Maggie didn't much care for it."

Horace chuckled. "So it was sent back."

"Yes. Maggie said the foyer was too small."


How like George Morgan to come at the wrong time of day without calling. He entered the room in his usual way, face scrunched up tight as if he had just been touring a pulp mill-ears stuck out like two unrepentant florid handles. As he talked, she studied his front chipped tooth; he kept running his tongue over it, as if he needed constant reassurance it was still there. Why was the one front tooth a duller brown than the other? Shouldn't they both be the same color? Not a dragon slayer, he. When he had taken up her hand, his own had been unctuous and cold. He told Lila she was looking well when she wasn't. Yes. Just like him.

But maybe she should make allowances. After all, George had worshipped her husband. Years back, when they were both starting their practices, Horace had lent him a thousand pounds, giving him some apparently solid advice about "sound investments." From then, George had considered himself family. Lila knew George's wife. A bit. She knew that George had hired the best nurse after the accident, and then found reasons to be gone. To be everywhere but in those few rooms where he needed to be. She had thought well of him. Thought he might do more. But that was like a man, perhaps. So solid, so composed and sure. But utterly absent at midnight, the testing hour. This afternoon he had worn argyle socks (not the same two, Mrs. Drew later noted). And he had a dribble of some type of meat sauce on his coat sleeve. Strong features. With nothing behind them. Tall as colossus but what did it matter? Another reputable pillar toppled over by the slightest gust.


Lila sat there after George left, glad for a moment to herself. Surely no one more would drop by today. She was proud of herself, inordinately, for remembering his children's names. (Christopher. Sarah. Kate.) She hadn't lost her power, then. But could she follow the line back. Further and further. When she finally reached her childhood, what was there? Her grandfather cutting rhubarb in the garden. A three pronged steel fork. A small beaded purse from Beijing. Brought by a visitor. Shining clasps. Black tassels. The old phonograph. She and her cousins putting on plays in the attic, charging their tired mothers sixpence for their forced enthusiasms, their intentionally too loud clapping. Oughtn't there to be more? But then, what need had there been to remember, to make up a grand account? Then, she had been perfectly content. Then, there was no need.


George Morgan just shown out and here was another offender. Jack Upton! Here at almost tea time! With Charlotte, Horace's cousin who she had never been particularly close with. Saying something about a dentist who had to cancel an appointment and them being in the neighborhood and all. Well, that was like him. Almost as inconsiderate as George. Look at them standing there, Jack still incessantly fondling his mustache, like he needed to make contact each time he had a new thought. And Charlotte silent as usual, in perfect judgmen, no doubt. She knew Charlotte had said cutting things about Lila back when Lila and Horace were about to be married. She had said Horace was marrying no one in marrying her-just a puppet he could control. She had heard it all from Trudy who knew Charlotte's best friend Claire. Lila watched Charlotte now. She had never visited much before and here she was taking inventory. Her eyes, without roving, condemned everything from the chandelier to the coasters, her glare scorched the table top, made the dusty feet on the corner ottoman curl inward with shame. A knack. Lila wished they were not family. She'd rather take some strangers over them. Like that man who lived in the shabbier flats down the road. Lila had noticed how he always helped his wife so carefully down the stairs, and the wife always looked as if she had just run a marathon, then seen a horrible thing (Balding and earnest. Dear man, he! The very shape of his frame an apology. After his birth, he had probably kept his mother at hospital an extra day, going round, making sure he said a proper sorry to every doctor that he had imposed his skull into existence, was now robbing breath he had no right to).

Eventually, Lila found she could listen to Jack and Charlotte talking about their recent trip to Dover while engaging herself in some other minor occupation. As she smiled and nodded, she kept slipping back to her childhood again. What else.what else was there. Her mother in a white cambric gown with velvet leaves twined about the hem. The dish wearing the pleasant scene of Nuneham Courtney, the fish gurgle jug they were never to touch, blue with its tossed tale and open mouth, so that she always imagined a man stuck in there, his legs sticking out the top and wildly kicking. The small diamond pane, a wreathe of holly painted on it. Hung low on the pine branch. She had lay there and stared up at it for hours, the gleam. That was the first time. Something swam into her eye, came over her. Something delightful and awful. Something she had no name for. She had gone to bed and cried and cried. Inconsolable, goodness knows why, her Aunt remarked later to her Uncle, as they picked up emptied cups.

She reluctantly turned back to her present situation. Jack babbling on now, and what about? Some silly rug with a nude splayed upon it. A bird flapping about some old painting. Indiscretions. One grew tired of them after awhile. After awhile, one even grew tired of hearing of other's downfalls, other's sins. The smug feeling of satisfaction, the thinking the worst and then being confirmed, it staled.

"May we see him before we go? I heard that.I mean is he-" here Jack paused, looking awkward.

Lila tried her best to understand him.

"I mean Hor---uh.the."

"Oh," she waved her hand.

"Yes," Jack began again, "Since Charlotte wasn't there and all."

"No, no, he's not here. I mean, we don't have the.remains.just yet."

Jack looked uncomfortable. He briefly rested his pointer finger on his mustache, then straightened up and took his wife's hand.

"Sorry to bother."

"Oh, no bother to me. It was lovely of you to come."

After Jack and Charlotte had been shown out, Lila sat there, stunned. Listening to something rapid fluttering on the roof of her wrist. Was it true, then? Had she decided upon something, and only then-only after-thought upon it? Was it possible. She never thought so. But she had not thought. Not needed to think. She would not let them see him. He who had always been so perfectly convivial to everyone but her, stayed late being agreeable, asking after other's children, while his own disheartened ones were sent to bed, and the peas cooled, and were re-stirred and heated and cooled, and the roast toughened. He who never had any time, was now busy. Busy making amends.

She went to her room where the urn was sitting, still in its ridiculous purple bag with gold tassel. She had set it down next to her jewelry box, days ago.

"You'll just have to wait," she told the urn, and no in particular, with perfect satisfaction.

She who had shared him, and not ever been asked if she wanted to share, not even by him, would have him all to herself. She would bring him there into the drawing room after she and Mrs. Drew ate. After Mrs. Drew left and she picked up the novel her sister had sent. He could sit on the mantle and join her, if she thought of it (With her memory, it was likely she would).


Jennifer Blair is from Winterville, GA and teaches at the University of Georgia. Her chapbook of poetry All Things are Ordered is out from Finishing Line Press.


Illustration: Steven Assael

Steven Assael was born in New York, New York in 1957. He attended Pratt Institute and presently teaches at The School of Visual Arts in New York. Mr. Assael balances naturalism with a romanticism that permeates the figures and surroundings of his paintings and drawings. The focus of his work is the human figure, either individually or in a group, rendered in glowing relief by gentle beams of warm and cool light. Steven Assael's classical talents are as rare as they are essential to the diverse art world of the late Twentieth Century.


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