In Absence

Catherine Gammon


She walked to the beach and her cell phone rang.

Odd, she thought—her phone rarely rang, she discouraged anyone, everyone, from using it.

The caller was on the East Coast, thousands of miles away.

It was a wrong number—or at least an unintentional call—the caller was not a stranger.

—Odd, he said. —I thought I was calling Sheila.

Sheila, she thought—she remembered Sheila.

—Well, anyhow. Since you’re there, I mean here, he said, how have you been?

—How have I been? she said, or thought—how on earth was she supposed to answer that question?—it had been fifteen years since she’d seen him, or more—eighteen? Twenty? Yes, twenty—and five, at least, since they’d spoken on the phone.

—Are you still beautiful? he asked, the same as last time—she had thought he would be more original.

Five years ago she had answered that she had gained some weight—asking herself, though not him, was I ever beautiful?

The ocean, meanwhile, rolled in, rolled out, blue and green and salty and cool, and seagulls swooped and ravens cawed, while out over the water a pelican dove and she thought she saw a seal bobbing under the waves.

Five years ago the question had surprised her and she had come to afterthoughts, asking herself whether if she had been less honest, or more flirtatious—or wasn’t it actually more honest—if she had said what she was really thinking, when was I ever beautiful?—would she then have heard from him again?

Now she says, —Are you original anymore? Do I know you at all?

She isn’t sure he’s still on the line until she hears him say, —Well, I’ve been fine, pretty good anyhow, thank you for asking; not so depressed anymore, and I’m getting married again.

—Since you’re here, she says, there I mean, I wonder, I have to ask, really—well never mind, maybe I don’t—but really, she thought, he had been married more often than anyone she knew and was depressed more often than anyone she knew, had tried more various antidepressants than anyone she knew—but really, really, she thought, there was something altogether other at the bottom of him that she would never grasp.

What she said was, —Sheila. I remember Sheila.

—Oh no, he said. —I’m not marrying Sheila. I was just calling her.

He was not a stranger, for all his mystery—she knew this just calling person very well. Thousands of miles away, on another coast, decades of another life, a life entirely beyond her grasp, and yet there was still and always had been this knowing between them. She almost acknowledged it—the strangeness and the knowing, the peculiar luck of his accidental call at a moment when her phone would ring and she would hear it, which it rarely did and she rarely could, to tell her again, as he had so often told her, at one of these many turnings, that he was leaving his wife, or starting with another, or changing his meds, or more depressed, or less.

I was just walking to the beach, she thought about saying—it’s the only place my phone works—but paused and breathed and looked out at the water.

—Maybe you’d better call Sheila then, she said, and watching the swooping bird and bobbing seal said again goodbye.


The water laps pink and silver on the shore after the sun drops below the tree line across the harbor. Gliding seagulls catch a gleam of gold. He had stayed out all night and got home to a silent, empty house. He ignored his sense of panic and went to bed.

—I can’t believe you did that. What were you thinking?

Cries. Voices from across the water.

—Well, somebody had to do it.

Later he woke up and saw the flowers, the lavish, many-colored lilies she brought in from the garden every day.

—That’s not the point.

—And the point would be?

The smell of smoke, charcoal, barbecue mingling with the salt air and incense and lavender—

—You. You. Why did you have to do it?

But she was gone.

He made some coffee, night was coming on.

—You don’t know me at all, do you?

Lilies closing up shop for the night, pink, blush, orange, luminous red in the after-sunset light.

He would go out again and stay out again and be alone in the silent empty house again.

—No. Not really. Evidently I don’t.

The water lapping silver still, rings circling out from the myriad tiny moored boats.

One white sail slowly passing.

From now on.

Late Afternoon

The late afternoon sun through the window glass was blinding. Her leg hurt and she was hungry for dinner. Outside a woodpecker hammered at a tree. She didn’t know where she was, or who she was, or what she was doing, sitting in cold sunlight, blinded.

Someone came near her, bringing something that almost smelled like food, seemed to be food—her stomach responding.

She seemed to remember this person. She seemed to remember better food.

—What is it? she heard herself ask, but she meant to ask Who are you?

—Tomato soup, said the woman—she understood this was a woman.

—And a grilled cheese sandwich, the woman added, the voice somewhere behind her now, above her and far away.

Odd, she thought, and she noticed that the bright sunlight had shifted, and she was colder than ever, and her leg no longer hurt and her hunger was gone and she could no longer smell the sandwich or the soup or hear the voices that she somehow nonetheless sensed were still whirling about her, more of them now, as if that were possible.

Somewhere behind and above and far away there was light again, a different sort of light, almost a rainbow, maybe, and she remembered something, a thing like a grilled cheese sandwich, but it had no taste or texture or body.

—Tomato soup, she said and tasted the words as if they filled her stomach and tasted that she had no stomach.

—Who is it? she said and —What are you? but all she heard was laughter, and music.

She remembered nothing but saw miracles of color and flavor and texture and heat and coolness and knew there were no words for these things, for this, no word for any of it. She remembered nothing but heard a person, felt her, knew her, a woman—a daughter? a mother? a sister?—no word for this woman, no remembering, just the feeling and the knowing.

The woman came near her, nearer, and passed right through her or she passed right through, or there was no through and no place for passing.

She didn’t know who she was or where she was or why she was blinded in the cold light.

In time she heard a hammering, as of nails, as of a coffin.

She felt no pain and she was not hungry but knew dinner was coming, a dinner for her and of her and on her, all in her honor and beyond her. The late afternoon sun in the glass blinding, and there was no sun and there was no glass and no late, no afternoon.


She went to see her mother, who was dying. She didn’t know she was dying, she or her mother, they only knew she was sick and old—mostly old.

Eucalyptus rose along the road, their gray, green, and sometimes red and silver leaves rising, falling, dying in the dust.

—It is not OK.

—Did I say it was OK?

They are ancient trees, and their smell is strong, that sharp bright pungent tang, that unique eucalyptus smell.

When her mother arrived to live with her she seemed older suddenly—much older. A month or two later she fell, a month later, and two months later, and another month after that.

—You’re ignoring me again.

—Honey, it’s not ignoring you. I’m just busy. You need work of your own.

—You’re kidding, right?

A bell rings in the distance, the near distance, rolling slowly up the valley, a big deep temple bell.

She needed more help, they needed help. She couldn’t take care of her mother alone.

The sun has not yet risen, moonlight the only illumination, the gray green red and silver all moony-toned and cool.

—Did I say I was kidding?

The first bird trills, sings, then another.

—I think this is over now, I really think this is over.

She started smoking, and then she stopped.

A wind starts to rustle leaves, a wind as if from nowhere, from the dust.

She sat with her mother, and then her mother died.

Rain falls, a drop here, a drop there, a mist more than a rain, cool on the cool skin.


—I want your permission to tell her what you just told me.

The stove was crackling but the room was cold, flames eating wood, but giving off no heat.

—My permission?

A little boy wearing a rainbow knit cap and a book bag walked with his mother to the beach. On the way he saw a horse and a dog.

—It will help the situation. I think it will help.

Outside, the rain poured down, drumming on the roof, in the trees.

Only the fire and the lightning cast color into the room, first hot, the illusion of hot, then white, or lavender, and cold.

At the beach, his mother met a man.

He did not know the man, and stood behind his mother, clinging to her long blue skirt.

A wind rose up, you could hear it, through the trees, a howling and a beating against the glass panes.

—I don’t feel so comfortable with that, having you repeat it, speaking for me.

The darkness of the night was absolute, except in the bursts of light.

—You don’t trust me?

His mother was very pretty and the man made her cry.

—It’s not that.

The boy kicked the man and kicked sand at the man and ran away from his mother and the man and her pretty blue skirt and ran back alone, past the dogs and the horses, and he knew his mother would chase him and the man might chase him too, and when he was sure no one could see him he ducked off the trail and into the woods and behind some big rocks and dropped himself down and hid.

Smoke began to pour back into the room, or the smell of smoke, lavender and gold and white.

—You won’t stand by your words?

More wood on the fire, all the wood at once, to raise the flames, to bring up the heat, to make it through the night.

On the trail they found the rainbow cap and the red book bag, but his sandwich wasn’t in it and the little boy was gone.

In the Heat of the Day

You sit in the heat of the day, the breeze blowing close, light shimmering, flies and flowers dancing in their skin. You want to move, to walk, to run, to join the dance. But you are tired, find yourself again and again in the heat, in the glow, in the density of air and stillness, tired.

The barking dog doesn’t quit—where is the action?

You get up from your chair, your chaise lounge in the shade with the bright bouquet on the table and the late afternoon birds sailing on the wind, the four o’clock bell chiming from the church tower.

You get up from your chair. You have someplace to be—where? You turn your gray head to the white butterfly, and another, and another.

From the window we see your confusion, only confusion, your turning head.

—Grandma! the little one says.


The little one, blue and pink and green with orangey hair and big eyes that stare at you calling out that word to you, as if it’s your name, more and more excited—we can see, and the little one crying now—why?

You look at us, up here in the window, you blink in confusion and turn away.

White butterflies circle your gray head; your curls in the bright light become your curls, as if your curls. You look every which way, lost, like a little girl lost, without moving, as if you have somewhere to go, but where? Because you cannot move, you are held in that fixed state of your last hour, your last breath. You would get up if you could, get up from your chair, from what is left of your life, and you would leave us, who seem to you to be on the other side of a window—and we are.

The church bell chimes the late afternoon hour—the five o’clock birds sailing on the wind, and a cat runs past to pounce at what—bird, butterfly, mouse, shrew? The barking dog starts up again, and you are tired in the fading heat and the darkening glow.

You are ready to join the dance.

You are ready to shimmer, to fly in the breeze, to shed your dying skin.


Choral song from the church across the street, helicopter overhead, child’s cry and laughter—all came through the loft window on the morning breeze.

—He told me to get off the train.

—Why would he do that? I don’t understand.

—How should I know? Maybe he was just wrong.

The white and brick plaster walls shimmered and shadowed with sunlight and leaves.

He got up that morning and left the house. He knew he would not be back.

Bacon, pancakes, maple syrup, coffee—strawberries and cream—first a sight, then a smell, then a taste, and the dense heart of satiation.

—Maybe he’s a bully, is what I think.

The yellow table gleamed.

He didn’t know but he knew it was the end of this particular life.

—I don’t get you; why would you think that? He’s a perfectly nice man.

The stainless steel glistened.

He walked out the door into the bright morning.

—Oh yes. Perfectly nice. Picks a fight with you and throws you off the train.

—Did I say that?

The glass shot diamonds onto the walls.

The clock struck one.

He stepped into the street.

He crossed.

He turned the corner and disappeared.

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