Slip of the Tongue

Slip of the Tongue
Vince was slipping.

Through her living room window Violet watched the lavender snow.

"Vince is slipping, Mom. He's slipping fast." Her son Roy had said over the phone last night. Funny that she heard the news from her son, her judgmental son. 'I thought you were a feminist. Mom. What are you doing taking up with a married man?" His words hurt. They resonated with her own nay-saying voices. She'd slapped Roy. Just about the only time she hit her son. He'd been all of 20. now at 32 he felt no shame at exploiting her relationship with Vince to advance as a corporate lawyer on the fast-track at Vince's old firm.

The snow had thickened but still was not blowing. It fell like blurry rain.

There was nothing to do but keep going, the same way she had kept going after Harry, good, old, selfish Harry had blown out his brains and gone off on his final sail in a closed casket. She pictured the casket dangling over the grave, floating on an invisible wave of air on that bright spring day. Why hadn't he just dropped everything he hated about his life (even her) and stuck with sailing. There were so many things one could do if nothing mattered enough to want to die. So many wonderful, meaningless things to do so much like dying.

Now it was Vince on his deathbed. She imagined him dying on his marital bed. She imagined an enormous king sized bed so big Vince and Vivian never touched each other in her fantasies. She saw him lying, shriveled from the tumor in his brain that must by now have sucked up all the fat, what there was of it, a little bit around the middle, along the triceps, in the inside of the thighs. Vince had always been lean, long limbed and hard muscled from the youthful athletics when he and Harry had gone out for track together in college light years ago.

Violet put her legs on the red hassock and stretched them. She settled into the brocade armchair. Through the translucent lavender curtains she saw the purple snow begin to swirl. Wind now. The snow had fallen all day. She'd watched. One hand clutched the bright red crochet square she had not advanced by one stitch, the other rested on her lap only inches from the white telephone sitting on the table by the stack of leaflets for the demonstration outside Ridge Hospital.

STOP STERILIZATION ABUSE NOW. The black letters floated on the long, pink sheets of paper. She hadn't gotten around to dropping the leaflets off at the usual places, the library, the College, the Women's Center. She pictured a sparse picket of the stalwarts. The young mothers. Dana, Sara, Meg, Magdalena. The phone clicked on. She heard her own voice answer, then a deep voice she didn't place at first. Dana. "I dropped two reams of paper at the Center. You'll have to call to schedule making copies of the fact sheet. Or get someone else to go in. Late evenings are the best time. Unless you raised the money to get it offset, then someone will have to get the paper over to FemPress. I'm wondering with the snow if we hadn't better call the picket off? Word's been out though, and people will be pissed if they show up and we don't. Better be consistent on a small scale. That's what you always say. Oh. Bring the networking sheets to the meeting."

Violet laughed. Dana could have all voices of a conversation by herself. She closed her eyes. This was one time she was not going to be redeemed by good, hard work. Those merciful, repetitive, endless, minuscule tasks had always delivered her to the next passage, reassured her of her own existence even when pain had blasted her out of body. One month to the day after Harry's death she'd gone back to teaching English at the Center and taken on the organization of the local chapter of the Island Solidarity Committee. She'd called meetings in the Presbyterian church basement, visited the usual progressives, talked the pastor into joining. She'd made phone calls, lobbied, leafleted, defused angels on the heads of pins debates. Selflessly. Her self had been eaten away by grief.

The call that Vince was dead would come if not this day then the next. She had been waiting for it for three weeks since the last time Vince had called when he was still well enough to call her himself.

The lavender snow sky turned to night's near gray darkness. The evergreen shrubs were weighted with thick snow shells. She entered the trance-like in between state, between one joy and the next, one connection and the next, one despair and the next, one miracle and the next. It was her ability to endure this state that had enabled her to survive. Yes. She had endured and survived Harry's death and now she would endure and survive Vince's.

The telephone rang. She raised the receiver to her ear. "This is Vivian. Someone wants to speak to you." In the pause she heard a distant, unintelligible conversation. She could barely recognize Vince's hello. She felt a shiver on the back of her neck where Vince would never kiss her again. "Vi come see me. It's fine by Viv."

"I'll get on the next plane."

She ran upstairs and tossed slacks, two sweaters, red yarn, needles, and the article she was writing comparing sterilization abuse patterns on the Island with those of Islanders in the City, into the overnight bag she'd had waiting on the armchair by her bedroom window since Roy's call. Vince had been sitting in that chair, his long arms stretching beyond the chair's arms, his legs crossed at the ankles on the bed the day maybe seven years ago when he told her he'd asked Vivian for a divorce.

"I said, Viv, I want a divorce." His gaze was fixed on the bird nest resting on the bookcase. "Viv just looked at me. She was wearing her mink stole. We were on our way to a benefit dinner for Legal Defense. She said, 'It's Vi, isn't it?' That's it. That's all she said. She'd never mentioned it before and she's never mentioned it since. That was six months ago. We've never discussed it again."

Violet imagined Vivian in her mink stole looking at Vince put on his dinner jacket. She pictured them walking in silence to their car and then talking to all the right people at the dinner. Seven years ago. After that Violet let divorce and marriage become just a running joke.

The uniformed doorman announced Violet into the telephone and nodded. She walked the marbled, glassed in lobby to the shining chrome doors of the elevator. Through the glass she saw a fountain with a sculpture of a mermaid in a little garden. "Six, please." She smiled at the elevator man, a short, dark Islander. She studied this man who saw Vince nearly every day. This man had a greater intimacy with Vince than she did, who'd seen him for one weekend a month, for twelve years, mostly indoors, mostly naked.

Vivian opened the wide door and stepped back to let her in. Her long silver hair was pulled back. Despite what must have been six months of pain watching Vince get ready to die, her narrow, serene face still glowed. She looked steady and wise the way she had even in the college days when Vince first introduced her to Harry and Vi. A white uniformed nurse crossed the hallway behind them and entered what must be the room that held Vince.

Vivian took Violet's tiny suitcase. "Your room is this way. She led the way down a carpeted hall. "You'll probably need more than this. You can use my things. We're about the same size, I think."

Violet followed Vivian's high-heeled footsteps muffled by the thick pale blue carpet. "You expect me to stay?" Violet's voice echoed in the resonant silence. The apartment felt suspended in an inhalation.

"He wants you here." Vivian turned to Vi with a smile. "His dying wish." She opened the door and motioned Vi into a room with white laquered bookshelves and a big white laquered desk. She pointed to a wide pale blue velvet divan. "It makes quite a comfortable bed." She set the suitcase on a pale blue velvet chair and drew the narrow slats of the pale blue blinds against the view of a mirrored high-rise glowing shell pink in the rising sun.

"You must be tired. You traveled all night. Vince fell asleep about an hour ago. Why don't you rest and I'll wake you as soon as he wakes up." She opened the doors of a white cabinet above the divan and took white blue striped sheets and a matching down quilt. The two women made the bed together in silence. "I'll have Isa bring you a cup of chamomile tea."

Vivian pried open the slats of the blinds and studied the shell pink building. Beyond them were rooftops and high-rises. Vince and Viv had lived in this condo in the City for years, even after he became semi-retired. That only meant he did less paid legal work and more pro bono; spent less time in the office and more time on his political work.

She kicked off her high heels and wiggled her stockinged toes into the thick blue pile. She breathed deep. She picked up the faint odor of Vince's pipe tobacco. "His study." Living alone so many years she was used to talking to herself out loud. The room was nothing like what she'd imagined. This was the room he sat in when he called her. She touched the pale-blue push button phone, the one he called her from. She sat in the blue swivel chair on which he must have sat through those long phone-calls, first daily during the early obsessed stage of their love affair, then monthly to announce his visits, and then in the early days of his panic at his illness, nearly every day again.

Carefully, as if her sounds could penetrate the walls and break the held-breath silence of Vince's apartment, she opened the top drawer of her desk. She sat abruptly, felled by the recollection of Harry at his own study that last spring morning, the top of his head blown away, the leather chair drenched in blood already brown and caked by the time she found him when she got back from her antiwar coalition meeting at the Women's Center. She had imagined Vince's study brown, leathery, manly in the unimaginative way she had set up Harry's. After all these years she still revisited with the same, sharp terror that last moment of the living Harry, that is, the Harry she'd expected to find still living when she pushed open his study door. Long ago she had stopped hoping she might ever forget, stopped trying to predict when the memory and the pain would lash her.

She held her chest and rocked forward and back. This too would pass. It had happened once when Vince was with her, soon after Harry's death, in the early days of their affair when Vince had undertaken to take care of her, make sure she invested Harry's insurance money(he'd contested and defeated the company's challenge of her benefit, because of the suicide), see that widowhood didn't land her in the poorhouse and unable to finish ushering the nearly grown Roy into adulthood.

He had watched her bending over with pain and made no attempt to intervene, no attempt to console, no attempt to touch her, to alter what could not be altered, what would be forever part of her. He witnessed. Then, when he saw the pain subside he played an old Aretha Franklin record from their school days together and he held her, after a while he slowly began to dance. He danced with her without saying a word, kissing her while they danced, undressing her while they danced, caressing her while they danced. He had gotten them both naked and then gotten himself into her as they stood.

That had been the solace and consolation and connection and closeness. It was enough. She'd known Vince such a long, long time. They had both just turned fifty as Harry would have if only he'd hung on to watch the tide rise again. It did, it always did. She remembered Vince full inside her, deep inside her, thrusting from behind as they both stood. "We're witness to the longevity of lust." He'd laughed. That laconic, lanky man, who would have suspected his passion? She would never cradle him in her legs again. The size of this thought was bigger than her mind. She closed her eyes and moaned softly.

In the top drawer there was nothing of interest. Maybe his interesting possessions were in the office he still kept in his old firm. Maybe he had none. There was a blank appointment book bound in brown, tooled leather. There were several pens, ball-points, gold pens, a black Mont Blanc.

Violet answered a soft knock at the door and accepted from the Islander houseworker, must be Isa, a tray with a pot of chamomile tea, bread, butter and guava marmalade. Violet wiped her tears and thanked her. Did Isa know she was Vince's mistress? The Other Woman. His other significant other. Had Vivian during all those years of regular monthly abandonment by Vince, late at night, confided across class lines the secret she might not confide to her peers? Surely Vivian could afford a therapist for her confessional needs. She set the food on the desk untouched. She longed for her own bedroom, her own bed, her own window, for the barren tree now weighted with thick white clumps of snow, the long lawn below it covered by sepulchral white.

Still fully dressed she stretched out on the divan beneath the blanket with the too crisp, too new cover. She closed her eyes onto the full blackness behind her eyelids that in seconds gave way to splotches of red and then the designs formed by her blood vessels that surely must be the origin of mandalas. She breathed slowly with her child birthing breath. So often in her life she'd had to birth her own next moment. She remembered the sting of Roy's head bursting from her. Life began and life ended. After Roy's birth this thought would pop up unbidden. She'd picture her own dead hand mummifying under the earth.

Soon Vince would breathe out his last breath, expire. She saw a running reel of images of her acquaintance with dear, humorless Vince paling at the college bar beside Harry's boisterous, manic joking; wedding serene Vivian at the botanic garden; writing contracts at his glass topped desk in his City law office; discovering himself to be a workaholic; exploiting his own addiction to work to become wealthy; revealing that first morning after their first night, when they made love long and slow this time on the bed she'd shared with Vince, how all his life he'd nursed a secret lust for her, his best friend's girl, then wife...Vince a breathless body, a rotting carcass dissolving...Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

She jumped up to answer a louder knock. Through the door Vivian said, "Vince wants to see you now." She opened Vince's door for Violet who stepped into the thick scent of disinfectant over a faint scent of human waste. "I'll leave you alone." Violet held Vivian's gaze for an instant. Vivian's cheek twitched; next instant her face was once again serene. She closed the door when she left and slowly, slowly Violet approached his bed.

People died in the winter, except Harry who couldn't endure another spring. Or did they die around the solstices? She made a quick mental survey of her deaths, and yes, yes they were always around the 20th of December, March, June...She could feel it now, as the winter solstice approached, the energy leaking out of the world, the universe even, feel the planet unable to carry its full load, spinning off the moribund to their deaths.

'Violet I love you and have loved you very much but I feel I can't go on...' It had been on a 20th of March she'd pasted Harry's good-bye note into her journal. The paper had browned around the clumsy, almost childish print.

Up close she heard Vince's soft moan, like an infant's coo. He faced away from her, toward the window with its blinds drawn against the morning light. His eyes were closed. A red poinsettia sat on the table by the window side of his bed. She studied his face, longer, impossibly thinner than the one she had last seen nearly six months ago.

"Hello sweetheart." She sat on Vivian's bedside chair, took his bony hand and sobbed. He barely stirred. His hand was cold. When he turned to face her, he opened his eyes and searched her face as if trying to place her. She saw the utter terror in his eyes and felt rage shudder through her, grip her throat and make it seize up.

"Vi, my love, doesn't look like we'll ever get married." He twisted his lips into a grimace she knew meant to be a smile. When she got to know him she discovered he wasn't humorless at all, only that Harry's big laughs had left no room. She laughed with him. "No need to get a sense of humor at this late date." She leaned to him and kissed him on the lips, on the cheeks, on the eyelids.

He tugged at her hand. "Lie down with me." She lay alongside him on the hospital bed. He smelled faintly of sweet pus and sour sweat. She nestled her head into his chest and propped his arm around herself and sobbed into his armpit. And what if Vivian, or Isa, or the nurse walked in?

"This stinks. I thought this time for sure I would go first. I'm sick of surviving and enduring, of knowing how to get up again the next day. Sick of it, Vince. Just fucking sick of it. How could you do this? How could you go and die on me like this? She felt his chest rising. He was trying to laugh.

Vivian sat at one end of the glass-topped dining table. Violet sat alongside her facing the wide picture window that gave onto rooftops and in between two tall buildings, a piece of river. They ate in silence the food Isa had brought them, food for anorexics in their early sixties: skinless chicken, steamed broccoli, red lettuce salad dressed with lemon juice and sprinkled with some herb, maybe rosemary. Last night Violet dreamed she was roasting a leg of pork and bright red sweet potatoes. In the dream she'd actually smelled the food. In waking life food didn't matter. She couldn't feel hunger.

She spoke to Vivian in her mind and imagined her lover's wife did the same. But their dialogue didn't spill over into their voices. Not yet. Isa served them honeydew for dessert. Had Vince told Vivian this was Vi's favorite fruit? She poured them decaffeinated cappuccino with nonfat milk. Violet sipped the hot milk. "Has he had a lot of pain?" Vivian glared up from her plate but didn't answer. Violet shook her head. "Of course he has." She felt herself begin to cry.

"I offered to have you, you know. He never asked." She stirred sweetener from a packet into her coffee. "All these years I'd known although he never said. I knew him so well it was hard for me to imagine that he could have room in his life for someone else. That there was another Vince with a whole other life."

"Did it ever threaten your life with your Vince?"

"At first. I was sick that first night my unconscious made me realize what it was he did when he was away. It was soon after Harry...after Harry. I'd dozed off watching some old movie. I always slept better when Vince was away, before you. I enjoyed a wholeness when he was gone, a sense of me. But in my dream I saw him making love to you. Standing. A goat like animal lovemaking like we never had together. I woke up with total intuition about everything. I vomited." She raised her eyes from her cup and looked straight on at Violet.
"I wanted him to leave you and marry me."
"Any woman would have thought she had to want that even if, like you, she really didn't."
"It didn't matter after a while."
"I said nothing when he got back. I raged inwardly thinking he was a hypocrite because there was no perceptible change. But then months went by and I saw that it was true. There was no change. What existed between him and you was separate, another reality. It had nothing to do with what existed between him and me. Sometimes I forgot all about it. Except every so often I remember hoping you would marry some other man. I'd remember that goat mating and know with you he was having the young man's passion he never had when he was young. It was as if in middle age he finally got rid of the embarrassment, the shyness that kept him from fucking like a goat when he was young and then he got lucky enough to find a grown woman who'd let him."
"Fucking like a goat." Violet laughed.
"That's the first time I say fuck out loud. How do you like that? Fuck. Fuck.Fuck.Fuck. I'm having breakfast with the woman my husband fucks like a goat."
"Did you hate me?"
"I did and I didn't."
"He never spoke about you. Sometimes we'd talk about what it would be like when we got married."
"If I had gone first."
"It used to be a sort of running game, a joke I started because it helped me to laugh at the two of you. And yet, the effort of setting up an entire life with somebody was more than I could begin to imagine after Harry. I had suitors. But I didn't want that. I didn't want another marriage."

The nurse announced herself with a cough. Vivian introduced her as Carol, from the outpatient hospice. "He's calling for you." She looked at both women. They filed ahead of Carol and entered the room, first Viv who took possession of the chair and clasped his hand, then Vi who knelt by the poinsettia. "He wants you to take his hand," Vivian whispered. Vi saw her eyes were closed. Vivian could cry without moving any muscles in her face. Her tears squirted from the shut eyes. Violet took his hand.
"You have both been good to me." He fell silent. "I wanted to be a good man." The women studied the near stillness of his chest. He was unconsciousness, but he was breathing.

Violet was halfway through crocheting a red square. She sat in the deep blue velvet armchair she imagined Vince sat in. Beside it on a small glass table his pipes hung from a rack, even the small white meerschaum relic from the 60s Vince used to smoke hash, the one he traveled with. Harry had given it to him in college. Vivian sat reading catalogues on the couch. Her knees touched the glass-topped coffee table with dark blue ceramic dolphins of many sizes.

"It helps me to observe Christmas. To shop like this. Gifts for Roy's children. They're Vince's grandchildren. You even gave him a child." She waved a catalogue from a City toy store.

"Roy and Rosemary didn't approve." Violet finished the red square and began to cast on another. "She had Roy tell me I was colluding in the oppression and the exploitation of another woman."

Vivian laughed. "The young people. They've reinvented Puritanism and don't know it. Roy knows you're here." Violet set down her needle and yarn. "I should call them. Do you want tea?"

This was the kitchen Vince cooked in. She put the stainless steel kettle on the steel restaurant stove. It was only when they cooked together that she longed for domesticity with him, a fleeting longing, like the longing for Harry to come back to life. There was always something one longed for.

Last night she had fallen asleep at last, knowing Vivian was sitting with Vince, with Vincent. Knowing she might not be with him when he died. Exhaustion swallowed her. She dreamed herself on a bed of snow fighting sleep, fighting the frozen sleep that took her. But it became an almost joyful dream. She'd opened a door in Vince's apartment of glass and stainless steel and found another hallway. Behind the doors that gave onto it Violet found a room filled with infants, on the floor, on an enormous diaper table, in playpens. Fat, happy infants. She found a room with rocking arm chairs by a bright red fire, empty, waiting for her. She found Harry and Vince together in another room, drinking yellow beer from bottles, just returned from sailing, telling light bulb jokes. When she woke up she'd forgotten where she was. For a few seconds in her half-sleep she'd been the college girl that Harry pursued and Vince pined for in silence, full of possibility, so happy. The girl who had remained immortal for so long.

The kettle whistled. Vivian, she'd learned, liked honey in her tea. Her lone indulgence. She spooned a heaping spoonful of honey for Viv. Her own tea she doctored with Vince's Wild Turkey, something else he traveled with. She set the mugs on the tray and felt the carpet swallow her footsteps. Vivian had stretched out on the couch and lay there, eyes closed. She pointed to the glass coffee table. "Set the tea right here."

Violet sipped the hot bourbon flavored tea. She fingered the red wool square and gazed at her own reflection in the glass window. It was a strong, well loved, brown face. She should call Roy, but it wasn't easy to leave the land of the dying once she'd entered it. A land so rarefied she and Vivian seemed to have only each other to share its peculiar air.

"I knew about you and Vincent because once he made a slip of the tongue. Amazing that he did it only once because our names are so similar, Vi, Viv. I knew he called you Vi the same way Harry did. He was helping me on with my stole. We were going to some benefit he didn't feel like going to and he'd forgotten his pipe. He sort of shoved the stole on my shoulders and ran back inside. We were by the elevator and he said, 'Hold on a minute, Vi, I've left my pipe behind.' I don't think he knew he said it. His back was to me. I don't think he noticed I sulked the whole night."

Violet took a long swallow of her tea. "Viv, Vi. I thought that similarity was very funny. I used to imagine running into you, or coming to see you, one of those movie wife and mistress scenes; a dramatic and cathartic and soapy moment that would have moved us all to the next thing. But I never did a thing. There was no next thing. Don't think I didn't think our scenario couldn't have unraveled many different ways. But there was a stillness at the core."

Vivian sat up. "But indecision is a way of deciding. It really is."

Violet put away her afghan squares. "I think I'll go call Roy."

"It's Mom. I'm here. With Vince."
"With Vince and Vivian, you mean."
"With Vince and Vivian."
"Some scene. Ro and I keep meaning to come see Vince. You know how it is. How's he doing?"
"He's still among the living. He wants to be seen."
"It's not so easy with the twins. Ro doesn't feel comfortable leaving them with sitters, you know how it is.'
"Then bring them."
"I'm not sure it's a scene for children."
"Children can handle the truth better than you think. Some children, that is."
"And some children handle more truth than they need." He coughed to interrupt himself. "Hey, Mom. It's rough for you, huh? Don't you want to get out, come down here, spend some time with the kids?"
"It's your place to come to me, Roy. I don't want to leave Vince."
"What have you gotten for all your devotion?"
She hung up. She waited by the telephone. She picked up on the first ring. "Ro and I and the boys will be there after dinner tomorrow. See you, OK? You know how it is. I'll call back again and tell Viv."
"I'll tell Viv."

Violet and Vivian crossed in the hallway. Vivian stood outside her bedroom door, a room Violet hadn't yet been in, the conjugal room. Or had they had separate bedrooms even before the hospital bed?
"Roy and Ro and the boys will be here tomorrow."
Vivian raised her eyebrows. "Tomorrow? To see Vincent?"
Their gazes held. They nodded. Both women doubted he would make it through the night.

Violet opened the shades to let the winter moonlight in. Vince stirred. In two days he'd grown thinner. His face was a skeleton now, his skin translucent. The look of complete terror would leave his face for long moments. It was gone now. She saw the slight tremor of his hand was a beckoning gesture and came closer. She could barely hear him ask for paper and pen. She found what he wanted in the drawer of the white lacquered night table. She raised the backrest of the bed, turned on the light and sat by him. From the corner of her eye she watched him labor to write. His will? A brief? A shopping list? A love poem? The effort exhausted him. He dropped the pen and slept again.

She heard the door push open and shoved paper and pen into the drawer.

Vivian approached the bed dressed in her pale blue robe, her long silver hair hung lose around her head.
"You look like an angel."
"An aged angel. Do you suppose angels age?"
They stood side by side smiling, watching Vince breathe.

"Vince wants everybody," Vivian said. She stood by the steps down to the living room and followed Rosemary's gaze to the boys. "He especially wants to see Hal and Vinnie, Ro. He's crazy about the twins. His beloved Thing One and Thing Two."

Violet had never seen Vivian beam. She knelt by the two boys. "Grandpa Vincent is very, very sick. You know that. He looks different. Like an old man in a fairy tale. But he's still your Grandpa Vince. Do you want to see him?"

Rosemary rushed to her children, knelt by them facing Vivian and put one arm around each boy. She looked at Roy. "You help me. It's not fair to ask five year olds to make a decision like this."

"Ro..."Roy spoke in a near whimper. "Everything, everything we have we owe to Vincent. We're teaching the boys fear."

The nurse entered and coughed. "He's calling you."

Vivian and Violet rose and followed the nurse into the Vince room. Roy took the boys by the h and and walked them in. Rosemary came in last. She held the door ajar with her body.
Vince was propped high on the hospital bed. His eyes were open. He looked better.
Hal, the plumper of the blonde twins, approached him with his arm outstretched. "I got a new transformer." He thrust the metal toy at Vince who dropped the toy on his lap. Vinnie followed his brother and climbed onto the bed. "Tell us a story. Can you tell us one?"
Vince tried to laugh. "Vi, find that pad, all right? Read it for me." She took the pad in the drawer and quickly read the clumsy print to herself.
"Read it."
She glanced at Roy by the window, Vivian in her chair, the boys at either side of Vince on the bed, and Rosemary leaning against the door frame. She read:

I dreamed myself young. I was young once.
Harry and I are sailing.
So then it's true we never really die? I say to Harry. Here we both are. He laughed and I laughed with him. Harry could always make me laugh.
This was Harry's answer: For ourselves we never die. Death is for the living.
We had a good strong wind and a clear sky.
He said, 'I'm glad you took care of my wife.'
I told him, 'She took care of herself.'
And he said, 'So then it's true a man can love two women?'
Rosemary lunged into the room.
"Roy, stop your Mother. Stop, her stop her." She covered her ears with her hands.
Violet kept on reading. Vivian watched.
"A strong wind rose and I woke myself up before the storm. I shouldn't have woken up. I should have gone sailing. I was angry when I looked around and remembered where I was. I want to write down this dream. I want to write down this knowledge to leave it behind. I'm tired. I've forgotten."

"That's not a good kind of story, Grandpa." Hal jumped from the bed and ran to his mother. Vinie followed.

"Vi, maybe you'd better stop for now," Vivian said.

"For Christ's sake," Roy bellowed. "What is this, psychodrama time? My father was a murderer, a self murderer but still a murderer. My Mother was used.."

"Shut up, "Vince bellowed.

"You're going to kill him," Violet screamed.
"Read on," Vince could barely speak.

"Do we have to accept this tyranny just because he's a dying man?" Ro said to Roy. He put his arm around his wife. They leaned together into the doorframe.

"The important thing is to make room for it all," Violet read on. "The important thing is to find the way not to avoid, not to close off. Intelligence is the true organ of love.."

She stopped. "That's it Vince, that's as far as you got."

"What about the sailing Grandpa? That's the good part." Hal came close to the foot of the bed.

"Yes, tell us a Grandpa Harry sailing story. Tell us about Grandpa Harry sailing the Milky Way." Vinnie joined his brother. Hal climbed back onto the bed and Vinnie followed. "Tell us the one with Grandpa Harry sailing to the land of the egg people, or to the land of the tricky grown-ups, or the land of the dinosaurs..."

"Give me a message for Grandpa Harry. I'm going sailing with him soon." Vince struggled to get one arm around each boy.

"Ask him what really happened to the dinosaurs." Vinnie nestled into Vince.

Vivian and Violet looked at each other, then at Vince.

"He's tired now." Viv gently eased the two boys down. She picked up Hal. Vi picked up Vinnie.

"Kiss your Grandpa,' Viv said. Each woman held one child on either side of the dying man. They kissed him.

"How could they do this?" Rosemary screamed at Roy. The two stood in the living room by the enormous window. Isa had set a tray with tea and cookies on the coffee table alongside the ceramic dolphins. Hal and Vinnie sat on the floor on opposite sides of the table eating the cookies in silence.

"Get a hold of yourself, Ro. You're scaring the boys."

Vivian had returned to the Vince room to settle him into aloneness.

Violet crocheted a new red square.

"How could you let her read that terrible thing in front of the boys. How could she read it?"

Roy stepped back. "She's right over there. Why don't you ask her yourself? The boys heard their own tale, Ro. Their story about sailing." He spun around to face his Mother.

"What did you think you were doing, Violet?"

"Doing what Vince asked me to do."

"You mean what you're always doing."

She threw the crocheted square onto the carpet. "Drop it. Let it go now, Roy. You've got to let it go. you don't have to be so angry. You don't have to judge my life. It's mine. Even my mistakes are mine. You can choose to let it go."
Violet drew a square in the air with her hands. "You're a prisoner of your own small thinking. You avoid, just as Vince said. You didn't kill Harry. You're not responsible for his or my choices."
She drew him toward her. "Step out of it. Break away. You can choose to."
Ro tugged Roy back toward herself. "You want his approval? You people use each other to escape from your problems, to not confront them. You're advising him to get another woman on the side?" Ro was screaming. "Men have gotten away with this for centuries. Mistresses should have gone out when women's suffrage came in. We won't stop being oppressed by men until we stop colluding with their oppression."

Vivian stepped down into the living room and threw herself on the couch.

"Don't be a fool, Rosemary. There's a lot of room between one truth and the next and thank God for that. Vincent is sleeping."

She looked at Hal and Vinnie and the empty cookie plate. "Hey, Thing One and Thing Two, shall we read the Cat in the Hat?"

The boys rushed onto her lap.

"Why should one man have two such women?" Roy drew Ro to him and let her sob against his chest.

Vivian shut the door behind Roy, Ro and the twins. She leaned against it. She pounded on it with her fist.

"Get out of my sight." She looked away from Violet who stood beside her, watching. "I don't want to see you. What are you doing here? Who do you think you re."

She ran into the living room. She grabbed one of the ceramic dolphins from the coffee table and threw it against the wall. She threw another and another until they had all been smashed, making a rain of glistening dark blue slivers on the carpet.

"You wanted to take my husband because yours was fool enough to blow out his brains. You fucked, fucked, fucked up your own life and wanted to steal mine. I hated you. I wished you would blow your brains out. I imagined you smashing your car in a snowdrift. I imagined you lost in the woods, freezing to death. I wished you wasting away from some terrible sickness."

Violet lunged at Vivian and slapped her hard across the face. "If you had any guts at all you would have left a man who loved another woman better. Who thought of another woman when he close his eyes beside you at night. Who didn't desire you."

"There's more to a marriage than desire. Desire has nothing to do with it."

Vivian lifted her hand, her fingers crisped into claws, her red nails shining. Violet stopped her before the claws reached her face. She pulled with both her hands on Vivian's hair. Vivian pushed Violet's shoulders. She fell, dragging Vivian down. They rolled, shoved, pushed, pulled, bit, screamed, until they were spent and lay panting beside each other.

"What did you want with him. You had a life. You had your teaching, your political work. You had your child. I had nothing. My work was to be Vincent's wife. I would imagine you arriving to teach your English classes smelling of Vincent's sperm. O that terrible, goat fucking.

"I heard him slip into his study one night when he thought I was sleeping, to call you. I lifted the receiver in the bedroom.

"He was saying, 'I want you Vi. I want you. It fills me to think of you. It was an emptiness I didn't now I had. I want you.

"And you said to him, 'Undo your belt, zip down your pants, those warm fingers are my fingers, I stroke you now, so softly you think its sea breeze. We're sailing, lying naked under a blue sky. There are no clouds, only hot breeze from my hand. I kiss your cock. I slip my tongue around it. You think it's the sun. You think it's the beginning of time. You think it's the big bang.
"Phone sex by an English teacher. I could hear him moaning, moaning, almost singing, moaning and laughing at the same time."

They held each other and lay in silence on the carpet.

Vivian sat up. "O my God. We've left him a long time."

They rushed into the Vince Room. He was lying very still in the gray glow of the moonlight. They studied him, then looked at each other. Vincent breathed. Violet pulled a chair along the window side of the bed. Each woman sat beside him and took his hand.

"Sometimes I wish you would go and be done with your misery." Vivian bent down to kiss his hand.

Violet nodded. "I always imagined you and I alone at last when we were old. Funny the illusions I used to second guess the present."

He opened his eyes. He looked at Vivian. He looked at Violet. He looked straight ahead.

"And now from nowhere, there's wind." He sounded surprised. He didn't breathe again.

Violet awoke abruptly inside the blue dimness to the halting sound of her own shallow breathing. She swallowed and tasted bile in her mouth's dryness. "Now we are both widows." She curled up under the quilt. "Please God, deliver me to the next passage." She pictured herself drowning inside this lock of the canal, eyes fixed on the next rise.

There was a barely audible knock on the door. "I'm up," she called out. "Vivian came in with coffee on a tray. She was fully dressed in a navy blue suit, her gray hair pulled back and coiled on her neck, her face set into the serene rictus, and made up.

Vivian sat by the desk to watch Violet shed her flannel nightgown and step into the bathroom. She emerged naked and wet and with Vivian watching, covered her tall, lean body with Vivian's panties, stockings, bra, slip and dark gray dress. "Thank god for Vincent's instructions." Vivian said. Vi nodded. "Just as well he wanted no wake, no funeral." She smoothed back her hair. "We've been having his wake for weeks now. We can have a memorial for his friends but later, later."

"Only one more passage." Violet stepped out of the room and Vivian rose and followed her.

Vivian, Violet, Roy and Ro stood on the deck of the Pal Harry, Vincent's sail boat. The water was flat and gray beneath the shell pink gray sky. The boat rose and sunk lightly, like breath. Roy eased the boat into the slight breeze. They sailed. Vivian took a handful of the ashes and set it loose into the breeze. Violet clutched the ashes in a fist. She opened her fist upon the water.

Boxes stood lined up on both sides of Vivian and Vince's king-sized bed. Viv removed the last suit from its hanger and handed it to Vi who folded it carefully and rested it on the pile of suits inside one of the boxes. The radio was tuned onto the all news station, very low. They barely spoke.

Vivian moved to Vince's white lacquered dresser, opened the middle drawer and handed Violet a stack of shirts. Violet filled boxes with shirts, underwear, silk ties. They filled two boxes with Vince's huge Italian slip on shoes, his low boots.

" the tone 3:15, came from the radio.

"I want this finished before Roy comes at four to take you to the station. Before the truck from Goodwill comes at 4:30," Vivian said.

They went swiftly, without looking into the high shelves of Vince's closet. Viv handed Vi his sweaters. "Maybe Roy wants them." Vivian set aside for Roy on the bed dress cardigans, pullovers, and bulky outdoor sweaters.

Violet glanced at the books. Vivian shook her head. "Unless you want any." She left untouched the row of books on his night table. "He wasn't done reading them, thinking with them. It's like throwing away his mind."

They sat on either side of the bed. Vivian opened Vince's tooled leather jewelry box, closed it. She sobbed soundlessly, tears squirting out of her eyes. She opened the box again, reached into it then held her hand in a fist out to Vi. "Take this." Violet reached her hand and Vivian opened her fist. She dropped onto VI's palm a glistening yellow orb with a bright blue stone that matched exactly one she had at home. Violet studied it for some seconds before understanding. "Vince's college ring exactly like Harry's."

The women smiled and held each other's gaze.
"Where does the self go?" Vi whispered. Vivian looked away.

They could hear Roy's footsteps approaching, muffled by the carpet.