In Memory of a Lovely Afternoon

Corinne Demas

So maybe the hat was ridiculous. June had placed
it on her head tentatively, and was studying her reflection when
her sister came into the hall.

“Coming?” asked Vera.

June’s hand was still on the straw hat brim, indecisive,
when she turned towards Vera. Vera would not come out and say, “Do
you really mean to go to town like that?” Still the judgment
was there. June saw it: the tip of Vera’s tongue darting out to
disengage an unseen speck of crumb from the corner of her lips,
a gesture so subtle only a sister might notice.

Had Vera smiled, June might well have smiled,
too, and slipped the hat back on the peg in the hall rack, where,
with its pink band and cluster of fake apple blossoms it looked
more like a decoration than an article of attire, but something
stopped her and she patted the hat firm on her head, instead. It
was the voice inside her head, entirely unbidden, the voice of Steve
from years ago, before they were married, saying, “Why do you
always let her bully you?”

She walked out to the jeep with Vera and got in
the passenger side. The seat’s headrest knocked the hat brim, so
June took the hat off and placed it on her lap. Her palm against
straw, she felt the smugness of defiance, a feeling from childhood,
when all her triumphs over her sister were small, secret ones. The
four-year gap between them had made all serious competition impossible
then. There was nothing she was better at than Vera, except that
she was the prettier one. Vera, secure in her superiority, had been
a generous big sister, oblivious, it seemed, to the rivalrous feelings
June harbored.

The summer house they shared now, a house they
had vacationed in as girls and inherited jointly, was on a dirt
road, but the jeep was more an affectation of Vera’s than a necessity.
June was content to let Vera do the chauffeuring when they went
to town, and left her own car at the end of the driveway. In the
first years after Steve died she had continued to drive their large
sedan. Last year she had traded it in for a new, small import, the
first car she had ever bought herself in her life, and she was protective
of its newness. The road was narrow, one lane with occasional turn-outs,
and brambles grew close to the sides, scratching up her beautiful
blue finish. When June had suggested they ask the highway department
to cut them back, Vera was horrified. The brambles, the ruts in
the road, the absence of a sign at the entrance, helped discourage
people from driving down it. Though the beach at the end was town
property, Ve r a regarded it with even greater ferocity than had
she held title to it herself.

Clouds of road dust billowed up behind them, but
June knew it was pointless to comment on Vera’s driving. Of course,
Vera bullied her, and she allowed it. What occurred to June now
was that though Steve pointed this out to her, he was unaware that
he bullied her himself, and she allowed him, too. Vera, though unaware
about herself, noticed it in Steve. “He doesn’t take you seriously,”
she had said to June more than once. “He doesn’t take women
seriously.” Men had always taken Vera seriously. No doubt her
unswerving determination to be taken seriously had impeded her ability
to fall in love, a trade-off she seemed content with, if she was
aware of it at all.

It was only nine fifteen and already town was
throbbing. You could tell the day was going to be hot and everyone
was scrambling to get errands done and head to the beach. It was
just as well she hadn’t taken her own car, June thought, since there
were no parking spaces left. She arranged to meet Vera in front
of the fish store at ten thirty.

As Vera’s jeep disappeared around the curve of
Main Street, June felt a giddy relief, like a kid set free from
school. She set the hat on her head and crossed the street, where
the Wellfleet Library’s annual used book sale was spread out on
the lawn beside Town Hall. Her light mood was short-lived, for the
crowd thickened as she got close to the sale. People were pressing
against the ropes, waiting for the opening, straining to see the
neatly lettered signs, which spelled out “Music,” “Psychology,”
“Mysteries,” “Children’s.” For ten minutes there
was an air of belligerent anticipation, competitors checking each
other out before a race. And it was a race, for as soon as the rope
was untied people charged to their favored table and immediately
began grabbing books.

June, although positioned well for a chance at
“Rare,” paused too long and lost her place, so she headed
to “Fiction,” instead. The cogniscati had brought their
own bags or boxes. They scooped up books and selected them afterwards,
like trawlers discarding the undesirable from the catch. Some worked
in pairs. June had forgotten to bring a box, but she was glad of
it: she would not be tempted to acquire more than she could carry.
She already owned far too many books-in fact she had given away
several box loads to this very sale-yet she could not turn them
down. In the piles of books she recognized some of her own. A fat
man with a sunburned bald spot had her cast-off (duplicate) Borges
in his stack. She wanted to touch his arm and say, “That book
was mine. I hope you like it,” but of course did not.

After the first hour, the crowd relaxed. The dealers
and collectors had skimmed off what was truly of value, and the
early arrivals had gotten more books than they could carry. People
were even stopping by the bake and plant tables at the periphery
of the sale, or standing on the sidelines to chat, straddling their
boxes of treasures.

June bought a book on pruning, some paperback
mysteries, and a small collection of short stories by Elizabeth
Bowen. She already owned the Complete Stories, but had not actually
read it. The book was too large to hold comfortably, and overwhelming,
750 pages long. This little volume, The Cat Jumps, was one-hand
size. And it was a lovely red cloth-bound book with a gold three-leaf
clover stamped on the cover. She bought a cookbook for the house,
and a book on architecture for her son Danny, even though it would
be a year before Danny would be in the States again, and it would
make no sense at all to send it to him in Hong Kong, where he was
working now.

Vera was late. She blamed the traffic on Route
6, but June knew better. Vera was never early because she did not
want to be the one waiting, and she habitually cut things too close.
The back of the jeep was filled with bags of peat moss and dehydrated
cow manure, and a Scotch broom, which had been marked down.

“Any good finds?” asked Vera.

“Nothing special,” said June. Vera was
not interested in books, and it was clear she was eager to head
straight home. The jeep was too noisy for a decent conversation.

It wasn’t until late that afternoon when June
discovered the inscription in The Cat Jumps. In a hasty script it
said: “Saturday 23rd May For Susan, In memory of a lovely afternoon.”
The signature was unclear, but June was experienced at deciphering
student handwriting. The first name was “Elizabeth,” the
second began with a “B.” Why “Bowen,” of course,
thought June and laughed at herself. She had found the book in an
ordinary pile on the table of fiction. When they set up the book
fair no one had noticed it was autographed and had saved it for
the “Rare” table, and all those collectors had passed
it up.

June settled back in her lounge chair and shut
her eyes. She thought about the lovely afternoon that had occasioned
the dedication. She pictured an English country house, tea out in
a gazebo, a walk through gardens and down a wooded path to a gentle
river, a small boat-yes, they would go boating. There would be swans,
and a dragonfly would alight on Elizabeth’s arm, the sun shimmering
on its wings.

A memory. The whole afternoon reduced to a few
words. Gone absolutely in spite of all its languor, all its loveliness.

June laid the book aside and went inside to fetch
Vera.

Vera had taken the back parlor as her study. She
was retired now from her municipal job, but she still worked hard
as ever. She was on the town board of health and a consultant, pro
bono, for several conservation groups.

“I thought it might be nice to go for a swim.”

“It is time for a break,” said Vera,
pushing back her chair. “Let’s have some iced tea in the garden
first, and then a swim. But not too long. I want to get that broom
planted.”

After five summers sharing the kitchen, they worked
well together. Vera automatically got tea, ice cubes, and lemon
slices ready; June got the tray, napkins, and plate of cookies.
June brought the story collection to the table.

“I wanted to show you something I got at
the book sale that was rather a find. Here, look,” June said,
opening to the title page, “it’s an autographed copy. Elizabeth
Bowen.”

Vera patted her fingers dry on her napkin and
took the volume. “Are you sure that’s Bowen?” she asked.

“What else could it be?”

“The ‘B’ is clear and the ‘o’ but the rest
just trails off,” said Vera. “It could be anything. ‘Booth,’
maybe.”

“But the book is written by Bowen.”

“That doesn’t mean she was the one who gave
this ‘Susan’ the book. It doesn’t say, ‘with the author’s best wishes.’
No, it’s your fancy, June,” said Vera and she smiled. “How
much did you pay for it?”

“Fifty cents. It wasn’t with rare books,
just among the fiction.”

“See!” said Vera, “It couldn’t
be the author’s autograph, then.”

“They missed it.”

” You think the women who sort those books
are dumb? They probably pluck off the best for themselves.”
Vera laughed. “And if they are honest, since this is a fund-raiser,
they’d try to get as much for every book as they can.”

“I don’t know,” said June. “I think
it slipped past them.” But she felt disappointed as a child.
She had been too quick, too wishful. The little red volume looked
more faded, less glorious. “Let’s have our swim,” she
said.

It was a long, hot walk to the beach. A station
wagon full of kids and inner tubes came barreling past them where
the road was so narrow they had to squeeze against the brambles,
and they were covered with road dust. The beach was more crowded
than ever, and some guy with unstylishly long hair had brought his
dogs, two undisciplined Cape labs. When Vera reminded him dogs were
prohibited on the beach after May 15, he told her to “fuck
off.”

June didn’t wait for Vera to conclude her altercation.
She waded across the rocky shallows, grateful for her aqua socks.
The tide was half out and the sandbar was under a foot of water.
June squatted and plunged forward into the water. She swam out far
as she could on one breath and then turned and floated on her back.
Only then did she feel calm again.

She had been angry at Vera for spoiling her pleasure
in the book, but now she realized she had let Vera spoil it. What
did it matter whose signature it was? And what did it matter who
was right? Let Vera think herself right, since it gave her pleasure.
What pleasure did she have in life, after all?

This was the line of reasoning June had often
used in defending her sister’s ways to her husband. Marrying Steve
and having Danny had given her pleasures Vera never knew, never
would know. June actually pitied Vera, and her pity softened her,
made her more tolerant, though Vera would have been incensed by
the pity, if she had not found it incomprehensible.

The swim, the promise of a cool evening, made
their walk home more pleasant. June made dinner and gave Vera a
chance to plant and water the broom. Vera was an energetic, though
not particularly imaginative gardener. Someday Danny, if he decided
to keep the house, would inherit the product of Vera’s labors.

They retired early. Vera slept in a small bedroom
off her study; June had the upstairs bedroom, a dormer at the back
and a skylight that gave her a rectangle of stars. June brought
the Bowen collection upstairs with her. She read a few of the stories,
and before she put the book down for the night she studied the inscription
again. Of course it was Bowen. What else could that be but a “w”
and an “n”? She laid the book on the wicker nightstand
beside her bed and turned out the light. Downstairs she could hear
Vera running water in the sink and then closing the bathroom door
behind her as she left.

Two women, each alone in bed in a house at night.
So they had ended up the same.

In memory of a lovely afternoon.

The past was no more tangible than air, no different
from dreams. In spite of the fact that the memories were of things
that had actually happened, now, in the present, they were no different
from things that were only imagined. All that was different between
her and Vera was what they had once had and not had-Vera, no one;
she, her husband and her son. But Steve had been snatched from her
by death, and Danny had been taken from her slowly, insidiously,
by time, by manhood, by independence (the very independence which
she had fostered in him, never believing completely that it would
turn traitor). So all she felt now was sadness at her son’s remoteness,
and sadness for the loss of her husband’s love.

A memory, fresh, unremembered before, came to
her suddenly: a memory of being in bed with Steve on a night like
this summer night, a memory of his tongue in the hollow of her neck,
and as she wriggled close to him, her legs against his warmer ones,
the sand from their beach walk against his ankles.

But there was no pleasure in the remembering,
only a sickening feeling of loss. That was the way with memories,
they brought you only the sadness of the present.

Vera, downstairs, innocent of such pleasure, free
of such pain, slept. And who was to say which was the more enviable
life?

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The
Kenyon Review
and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

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