The man looked at her, stricken. I dont know, he said finally.
For some reason, she believed him. She was sure that he had all the information: perhaps his wife had had enough of his meanness; perhaps she had a lover; maybe she didnt like the fact that he was the kind of man who cared about fashion. Vivian believed that he understood the facts, but that, still, he didnt know.
Vivians mother lived for another three years, until Vivian was seventeen and almost finished with high school. Toward the end, she began to lose her eyesight. The doctors said that this was a result of the tumor growing backit was pressing on nerves. Surgery was out of the question; the tumor was clinging to the brain like a child to its mother, as if it didnt really believe that it was a separate thing in and of itself. This time, Vivians mother told her that she was definitely going to die. She didnt want Vivian to think that because a miracle had taken place once it might again.
And now we know, her mother said. It wasnt a miracle after all.
Strangely, those last years were some of the happiest Vivian could remember. Her mother threw caution to the wind. They ate dinners of crackers and canned cheese if they felt like it. They watched movies until three in the morning, even on school nights. Her fathers business was beginning to fail, and occasionally he brought home jewelry for Vivian and her mother. Vivians mother would protest, but he rationalized these gifts, saying that he would have to lower the prices so drastically to make a sale that he might as well not sell the pieces at all.
When I ordered this, he said, fastening a necklace around his wifes neck, I imagined how it would look on you.
Vivian remembered him making the same gestures with the woman in the store that day, and it occurred to her that she might have misunderstood what she had seen. Her father might simply have been generous with a stranger. But she did not really believe this. As she watched her mother admire her new necklace in a mirror, Vivian realized that she would always have to choose what to believe, and that chances were, more often than not she would be wrong.
In the last month of her life, Vivians mother took up smoking. She was completely blind by then. She had always wanted to smoke, she said. She thought that a woman with a cigarette looked elegant, even if it gave her cancer. Vivian bought a pack of Parliaments on her way home from school one afternoon. Her mother put a cigarette in her mouth and Vivian lit it for her with a long kitchen match. Her mother, too weak to sit up in bed, lay against her pillows and inhaled deeply. She coughed, and they laughed, but soon enough she got the hang of it, except that when she exhaled she did a funny thing: she blew out again and again, like a woman practicing for childbirth. She looked silly and not at all elegant, but Vivian didnt say anything because her mother seemed so happy. When her father came home that evening, he watched his wife enjoy her cigarette.
What is that youre doing? he said, as she exhaled.
What? she asked, her thin voice made even thinner by the stress of the smoke in her lungs.
You look like a fish, sweetheart, he said, and he put his lips to her cheek and blew out puffs of air until she giggled. For a second, Vivian caught a glimpse of what her mother had looked like as a little girl.
But I cant see. How do I know when all the smoke is gone? Vivians mother said, her voice coy, flirtatious.
You dont have to worry about that, he said, brushing a strand of hair from her cheek. Itll all come out in the end.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...