Now that sounds like the first bright idea you ever had, my father said when I mentioned leaving. I cant find any memory in which he held my gaze as long as he did that day. I packed my bags and never saw Kentucky again.
On the bus ride to California, I studied the mountains ascent into a line of clouds and saw where, as if set upon those clouds, even higher mountains loomed. I had never seen a sight like that in all my life. It was as if the world had been enchanted all along and no one told me.
As for the favor the man asked of me, it was perfectly simple: he just wanted me to write letters. About the girls around me in the shipyard and the planes and conversations I overheard, everyday rituals: what we ate, what I wore, what I saw. I laughed to think what good it would do him. Now I can only laugh at myselfthe government must have been looking for suspicious activities, but he didnt tell me that. He told me to pretend I was keeping a diary. I did my duty; I did it even when I left my first job to become a WAVEonly a few other girls from a community like minespreading Noxzema on our pimply faces, the girls rears shaking to the radio, getting used to Coke instead of rationed coffee and Chinese food instead of hamburgers. I sat there every night and tried to write it all down, but I found my own life lacking; it hardly seemed worth telling. Like so many people, I was deaf to my own stories. So I made them up.
My life wasnt interesting to me, but Id read books that were, and that is what I put down, with details stolen from Flaubert and Ford and Ferber, intrigues and sorrows and brief colorful joys: a beautiful work of fiction for my country held together with silence and lies. That is, it turns out, what holds a country together. I did my job well, in the handwriting my mother had taught me, tall and loyal and true, signed with the special slipknot P for Pearlie I invented at the age of nine, mailed to Mr. William Pinker, 62 Holly Street, Washington, D.C.
What did you do in the war, Grandma? I lied to my country, pretending to tattle on friends. Im sure I was just one of thousands; Im sure it was a clearinghouse for lonely hearts like me. Imagine the ad jingle: Be a finker . . . for Mr. Pinker!
Then the war ended, as did the factory work for women and our jobs as WAVEs. I had long since stopped writing my notes to Washington; there was so much else to worry about and I had my position doing piecework sewing to pay for meals. And one day, alone down by the ocean, I walked right by a sailor on a bench, sitting with his book facedown like a fig leaf on his lap, staring out to sea.
I knew very little about men, so I was startled to see such despair on his square handsome face. I knew him. The boy whod held my hand all the way to Childress, whose heart I had, at least briefly, possessed. Holland Cook.
I said hello.
Well hi there, Sarah, hows the dog? he said amiably. The wind stopped, as if, like Holland, it did not recognize me. Sarah was not my name.
We stayed there for a moment in the oyster-colored air, with his smile slowly sagging, my hand holding the flap of my coat to my throat, my bright kerchief tugging in the wind, and a sickness building in my stomach. I could have moved on; merely walked away so he would never know who I was. Just some strange girl fading into the fog.
But instead I said my name.
Then you recognized me, didnt you, Holland? Your childhood sweetheart. Pearlie whod read poetry to you, whod taken piano lessons from your mother; that was the second time we met. A sudden memory of home, opening like a pop-up book. He chatted with me, he even made me laugh a little, and when I said I had no escort to the movies that Friday and asked if he would come, he paused a while before looking at me, saying quietly, All right.
Excerpted from The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer. Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Sean Greer. Published in April 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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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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