July, the air grassy and mild, the sort of morning Sadie waits for through the deep of Buffalo wintersmornings when it seems the city has surrendered to pleasure, to color and light. The harsh seasons are unimaginable. It's as if this is how all of life is meant to be; as if drinking coffee and reading, gardening and casual piano playing, are her true occupations; as if cardinals flashing through the yards and the lush green of lawns and the maple's fat leaves signal a permanent arrival. There are dahlias on the dining table, yellow and red, late strawberries. It's still early, and Sadie has an hour, maybe two, before the day's obligations intrude. The easy time, she thinks, the garden time. It's something she associates with marriagenot the image of a couple in the garden, but the luxury of time alone at her own house. A luxury apparent only after her mother's death, for which of course there is no compensation; but here is the second summer of such mornings, a time not yet occluded by children. She is twenty-four years old. Here is her coffee, the morning paper; in the back hall there are red geraniums to plant in a window box. The day is already bright, and she opens the living room drapes to the grass and pansies and oaks, and stops. There's a man on her lawn: light brown suit, cigar in hand, facing away from her. Slim and coltish, an impatience in his stance, a lack of definition she usually associates with faces but here sees even in the posture, the lines of his shoulders. It's Irving, her baby brother.
She glances at the new aqua-colored divan. The smallest of diversions, the look away. Close the curtains, she thinks, try again later. As if he will vanish. As if in ten minutes or an hour she'll open the curtains onto a lawn empty of everything but border pansies and white petunias. Pretend the man on the lawn is instead a strolling neighbor pausing to relight his cigar. Because the cigar is out. But Irving makes no gesture to relight it, and he is in fact Irving: Sadie has only one brother and there is no mistaking him. Irving, whom she did not expect to see at all today, let alone at this hour, miles from the family house, dampening his shoes in the grass.
She wishes it were noon. She wishes he were standing in a coffee shop: she is often happy to see him in coffee shops, in the company of pastry. They could eat Danish and argue about new pictures, and Irving could imitate Chaplin, walking with fast small steps and tipping his hat to make her laugh. Irving on the lawn cannot be a good thing.
In her nightgown and robe she opens the front door. A spread of bright petunias hems the grass. "Irving?"
He turns, ashes the burnt-out cigar, checks the bottom of his shoes, as if he has stepped in something unpleasant. For an instant he's a puzzled tan flamingo. And then he is Irving again, but he doesn't look her in the eye. What? A death? He'd have spoken by now if it were, and no one's been ill; there's evasion in his manner, but not the air of drowning. That half-embarrassed staring at his shoeit's more than a small gambling debt. A girl in trouble? Which would be dreadful, of course, more than a little shocking, but not out of character.
"Have some coffee," Sadie says. And now he glances at herstill the puzzled lookcrosses the thick grass, wipes his shoes on the front mat, and follows her voice through the hall to the dining room. She seats him at the head of the table, makes a ritual of pouring the coffee, stirring in the sugar and cream. He could be like this when he was a boy, couldn't he? Quiet, half-elsewhere until he'd had his breakfast, though at her table he fidgets, toying with his spoon until she sits down next to him.
"Haven't seen Goldie, have you?" he says.
Goldie, their oldest sister. Goldie, who lives with him, with their father and the others. "Goldie?"
"Hasn't been home for a while. Three days, actually."
"What do you mean?"
"She went outto shop, I think, or Celia thinks. She had a shopping bag with her, Celia said."
"But Celia doesn't know."
"No. Celia doesn't."
"But she thinks Goldie went shopping."
"Went shopping and didn't come back."
"Three days ago."
"Well, two or three days."
"Three days ago was Sunday. Where does she shop on Sunday? She's never shopped on Sunday."
"She went somewhere then. Maybe"and here Irving hesitates"maybe to the Falls."
"And didn't come back," Sadie says.
"She often does go to the Falls," Sadie says. "Often has."
She pours more coffee, and focuses on the burgundy rings edging the saucers, the lips of the cups. One teaspoon of sugar for Irving. "Did she go to the Falls alone, or go shopping alone, whatever it is she did?"
"No one called? No one came by for her?"
He fiddles with the unlit cigar. "I was out. I wasn't there."
"For three days you were out."
"More or less," he says. "Asleep when I was there."
"But you must have noticed."
"Goldie harps," he says. "I avoid her."
Other members of the family are prone to disappearing, usually in absurd ways. Celia's age means nothingshe's twenty-seven but impulsiveand she turns up on docked streetcars and in speakeasies and sometimes at barbershops after following men. When Irving disappears, he returns whiskey-soaked. But Goldie's smart, the oldest, the responsible one, thank God uncrazy: she does not disappear. Maybe she told Celia she'd visit a friend and Celia forgot. Or Celia changed the story, blending it with other stories, as is her habit. And anyway what does shopping mean? On a Sunday in a city bursting with Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, a city bound to Sunday as the Lord's day. True, Goldie might have gone to a Jewish shop, or to the bakery: Celia could mean bakery by shopping. Sometimes you have to unravel Celia's code. Last year she called Goldie's piano lessons harbor walks.
Sadie hesitates. The crisis has begun and will be with them now. But she can stir the sugar in slowly, she can wait and drink coffee and slowly dress and then the control of speed will end, all control will end. She'll have to give over to this thing, this disappearance and its ripple effects, to the strangeness of her other sisters, to her father's strong will or denialyou never know which it will beto Irving wandering and returning, with rumor and inebriation. Give over and do what must be done. Do not speculate.
So she delays. The two of them, Sadie and Irving, sit leisurely over coffee, suspend the moment, as if nothing is happening and someone else is actually in charge. July. There's a brief ease that feels lifted from childhood, when she and Irving seemed a family within the familya relaxed, affectionate little clan apart from their older sisters. Yet even as Sadie recognizes the sensation it fades, and she offers him jam and toast, the newspaper to read while she dresses for the day.
Alone in her bedroom, she senses that the morning has already become brittle and opaque, as if coated with burned milk. There's a bright fast ribbon of glee at the thought of canceling dinner with her mother-in-law, then the brittleness again.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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