Nine Times Gretchen King Is Mistaken on July 12, 1980

Marcelle Heath

  1. Gretchen King is mistaken about the temperature. It is sixty-seven degrees out, not the seventy-four degrees that she stated quite confidently this morning to her friends Sarah, Claus, Kay, and Emmanuelle, with whom she is on holiday. Gretchen King feels certain in her declaration, despite the lack of a thermometer. Though not familiar with the Fahrenheit scale, her friends are reluctant to believe her.
  2. Gretchen King is mistaken that her husband is a good man. Fitz, a late riser this morning, is a liar and brute. If he had been up to hear her claim that the temperature outside was seventy-four degrees, he would have called her an idiot, or a stupid cow.
  3. Gretchen King is mistaken that she loves her daughter. Pauline reads a postcard with a peekaboo view of a lake and the caption La Route des Lacs, Environ de Gérardmer, Vosges, asserting that as long as Gretchen’s grandson is without a father, Pauline will have to do without financial support.
  4. Gretchen King is mistaken about the number of calories she will burn on her walk through the woods with Sarah and Kay, believing it will be 784. If she had made it back to the cabin that afternoon, she would have burned close to five hundred calories given her height (5’ 6”), weight (118 pounds), and age (63). Gretchen fell in love with numbers as a young mother on long drives. When she wasn’t counting Buicks, clouds, men smoking pipes, dozing wives, hawks, police, hitchhikers in dungarees, or Carl Perkins on the radio, Gretchen enjoyed counting the number of times her daughter was being too clever for her own good.
  5. Gretchen King is mistaken that the Alsatian village they are heading toward conspired with the Nazis. Gretchen is conflating it with one resident from an adjacent hamlet, a poet she read at Incarnate Word School in San Antonio. When Sarah disabuses Gretchen of this belief, she replies in a bright tone, “Yes, of course!” In hearing of her mother’s uncharacteristic response, Pauline wonders if her mother had overexerted herself as usual and was not quite well.
  6. Gretchen King is mistaken that her friends enjoy her company. As they make their way around the lake in the woods, to buy cigarettes for Kay and a gift for Pauline, Gretchen tells Sarah, who is in love with another man, that she should confess her affair to Claus and beg for forgiveness. “Kay, what do you think?” Sarah asks, disappointed but unsurprised by Gretchen’s disapproval. Gretchen says Kay wouldn’t know a thing about it because she isn’t married. “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, a disgraceful wife decays his bones,” Gretchen says, misquoting the Bible rather huffily.
  7. Gretchen King is mistaken that the man approaching them from his car is a stranger. “Morning,” the man says, taking off his oily cap. Kay is startled to see her ex-husband, whom she hasn’t seen since she begged him to stop harassing her and Emmanuelle fifteen years ago. “Harold!” Kay responds. “What on earth are you doing here?” Harold tells them he’s taking some time off from his practice to travel Europe. “Quinn said you were vacationing somewhere in these parts, and so I consulted my handy map, filled up the tank, and here I am! Isn’t that something? Why don’t you let me take you out to lunch for my troubles? I’ll be out of your hair in a whistle.” “Think of that!” Gretchen says, entirely charmed by Harold’s whimsical adventure. “What a story,” Kay adds, without enthusiasm, politely declining his invitation. Gretchen tells her friend to go on ahead, it would be rude to say no. Sarah hooks Kay’s arm with her own and says they’re expected back. “Come,” Harold says, “I’d love to take some snapshots of the lake.” Kay, wanting to get back early for a swim with Emmanuelle, gives Sarah’s arm a squeeze before taking leave of her friends.
  8. Gretchen King is mistaken that Sarah is preoccupied by her illicit affair. Gretchen comments on the enticing pastries in a window (feeling lightheaded but triumphant over the shoppers consuming them), the perfect seventy-five degree weather (it is sixty-nine degrees), eliciting no response from her friend. When they’ve reached the end of the square, Sarah tells Gretchen she wants to head back and see about Kay. She hopes it’s nothing, but she has a bad feeling. “Good idea,” Gretchen says, thinking Sarah’s a fool. Gretchen enters a shop with figurines and other knickknacks in the window. Her eye lands on a dusty shelf of miniature horses. She picks up a Lipizzaner that so reminds her of her beloved childhood mare, Bess, that she must have it. The young man at the counter sells it to her for seven francs. She is elated as she makes her way back to the cabin, forgetting, of course, that she meant to find a gift for her daughter. Under different circumstances this might have enraged Pauline, especially since sweet Bess was oft-discussed in their home while she was denied a horse of her own.
  9. Gretchen King is mistaken that she knows how to get back to the cabin. Her lack of direction is particularly irksome to Fitz, who has dealt with the authorities more times than he liked to count. The sheriff’s office found her wandering and dehydrated in Palo Duro Canyon this past Easter, and last August she snorkeled her way from their group at Bight Reef and nearly drowned. Gretchen, clutching her little Bess, is so focused on her new treasure that she isn’t paying attention to her surroundings and soon finds herself on the opposite shore. This southernmost part of the lake is uninhabited because of its rocky terrain, and Gretchen has difficulty making her way to what she believes is their lodging. She does not notice that the incline is actually guiding her to the top of a cliff, which overlooks the still, green waters of the lake, and beyond that, on the opposite shore, a row of cabins tucked in the trees. Pauline will often wonder if her mother realized how far from home she was, and if, by any faint chance, she missed her. Did her mother try to make her way down and slip on the rocks? Or, realizing the impossibility of descending safely, decide to wait for someone to find her? Did she call out for help, alerting a coyote, wolf, or wild boar? Maybe she saw majestic white storks soaring above? Maybe, the wind in her hair transporting her to childhood memories of riding Bess through wide-open country, Gretchen felt free. Most likely, Pauline imagines, her mother stood on the edge of the cliff with Bess, looking out at the beautiful lake and thinking, if I dove in and swam to the other side, I could burn five thousand calories! Think of that!

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