First they were friends, then they were lovers, then they were never friends anymore. When they weren’t friends anymore, they married and had a child, whom neither of them liked. The child was dark at birth and had a spangled eye. The woman’s mother was sure the child would come to no good.
When the child was two it skinned its knee and broke a bone in its ankle. The doctors put a pin in the bone, but it never healed properly and left the child with a hobbling walk. The child hobbled through the back yard. The father took to drink, the mother to affairs. In a few months, the woman was pregnant again. The father knew it was not his child and the mother knew it was not his child, but they kept it a secret from each other. The mother’s belly grew; the father switched from scotch to gin. When the child was born, it was small and weak and died of asthma in its fifth month. The woman was sure in all the world no one had ever suffered as much as she, and she told her lover this as she drew him near and left dark, mangled scratches on his back.
As the years went by, the man and the woman seldom thought of each other and even less of the child with the hobbled walk who grew to believe in God and planted lilies in the front yard in His honor. The woman began to steal gin from the secret place in the cellar where the man kept his supply. The man worried about growing bald and tried many things to keep his hair. He made liniment from oak tree leaves boiled on the stove and rubbed the brown residue on his head. Soon his scalp broke out in a sickly rash that oozed drops of brown and yellow liquid down his neck. The woman said she could not stand to look at him and looked away into the home of a neighbor.
The man felt very sorry for his sins and asked the child to teach him to pray, but the child was very busy planting bulbs and could not come inside, so the man started drinking again while the woman stayed out late at night watching TV with the neighbor. When there was nothing on TV to watch, she and the neighbor took to wearing party hats and drinking the gin she stole from the cellar at night. Once they appeared in the grocery store in their party hats, and the owner said he had never seen a more elegant couple than they.
When winter came, the child bought a pram with big black wheels and filled it with dirt and planted all her bulbs inside. She placed the pram in front of her bedroom window and tied back the curtains with a string. In the spring, a single crocus bloomed, and the child was very proud. She took her crocus for a walk in the early mornings and showed the neighbors what she had grown. One day she tripped on a rock and turned the pram over. The crocus fell out into the street, its petals tearing on the rough pavement. The child did everything she could to save the crocus; she slept with it, and talked to it, and put it in a glass of water by the windowsill. But gradually the roots of the crocus rolled off and fell to the bottom of the glass like seaweed.
In the spring, too, the man’s hair grew back, but only in jagged patches. He was very embarrassed and wanted to get a toupee, but the woman said she would leave him if he wore a toupee, so he began to rub cigarette ashes in his hair to cover the thin, bald places. When he was at the bank one day, the teller told him he looked very distinguished, and that evening he took to drinking his gin away from home.
The lump on the child’s ankle grew bigger and blue-veined, and when she couldn’t walk the man and the woman took her to the doctor who told them it was bone cancer and the child had a month to live. The woman tried herself to rub the lump away, but it grew thicker and turned black and finally burst one day.
“Your leg is awful,” the woman said.
“Awful,” the child said. She was looking at a catalogue of fall bulbs.
“We shouldn’t have to have such things in the house,” the woman said and put the child out on the porch until sunset when the man came home and let the child in to watch TV.
Because the child could not walk she often crawled down the stairs to the cellar, or out to the garden late at night to look at the moon. She was on her way down the stairs one day when she died. The man and the woman buried her in a cemetery near their house, but they rarely came to visit. The woman felt very bad about this and told her lover so the night she took all the man’s gin from his secret place in the cellar.
The man was very angry when he came home and found his cellar empty. He combed his hair and parted it neatly and went to see the woman at her lover’s home. The lover was smoking a Marlboro when he came to the door. The man demanded his gin. The lover said he had no gin. The woman came downstairs in a blue nightgown torn at the sleeve. “We’ve drunk all your gin and turned it to piss,” she said. The man was very mad and did not believe her, so she led him to the bathroom and pointed to the bowl filled with yellow liquid and the faint odor of gin.
“My gin, my gin!” the man cried, kneeling by the bowl, his arms around it, tears forming in his eyes.
“There is no more,” the lover said and flushed the toilet. The man heard the sucking, hollow, vacant sound and then the rush of water. The man’s suffering was full and complete and he was sure his heart would break. He looked at the woman, who kicked him in the leg and told him to leave. He left by the back door and went down the alleyway to the liquor store. He banged on the door and soon a woman came and opened the door.
“We are closing,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “May I buy a bottle of gin?”
The man found the kind he wanted and paid in one dollar bills. He tried to give the lady a quarter for her kindness but she refused.
The woman and her lover watched the man through the window as he walked home, drinking his gin, and they were jealous. They put on red pajamas and followed after him, asking for a drink. The man refused and clutched his bottle tighter, and when he opened the door to his house, they came in behind him.
“We want some gin,” they said, dancing in a circle.
“You won’t have any,” he said, holding the bottle high above their heads.
The woman was angry and demanded the gin. The man said no and ran up the stairs toward the bedroom. On the top stair, he tripped and fell on the bottle of gin and sliced open his neck. Thick red blood dripped from his body and puddled at the base of the stairs.
The woman told the neighbors the man had committed suicide, and they were very sorry for her. They told her they had never seen a life so full of tragedy and that she was very brave. The woman liked being told she was brave and always smiled politely when she said thank you.
The woman’s lover grew very bored with drinking gin and watching westerns on TV, and soon he left her for a woman down the road who brewed pots of spicy orange tea. The woman was very sad and did not like being alone. She wished she had her lover back, but she did not know how to brew spicy orange tea or bake the little cinnamon pies she could smell on her lover’s breath as he passed by.
She got so lonely that she decided she would take another lover and went to the grocery store to find the clerk who had admired her when she wore her party hats. She bought bags of bubble gum and flirted with him, but he told her he was too tired to have an affair and needed to be home by nine. The woman felt very rejected and let the bubble gum harden before she threw it out in the front yard for the birds. She tried all the neighbors, but they were busy too and had no time for her. Once she thought she had a lover when a man rang her doorbell, but he was selling ten‑year subscriptions to Time and she was not interested.
She bought Dixie cups at the grocery store that had the flowers of each month imprinted on them, and all through July she drank from larkspurs and all through August from zinnias. When September came, she was very lonely indeed to be watching the leaves change and have no one with her. She thought of visiting the child’s grave and the man’s grave, but she knew no one was there. Once she sent herself a telegram and read it several times with a glass of gin and Gunsmoke on in the background, but even that was not enough, nor dying her hair, nor buying new dresses, nor eating lobster and petite crab claws at the most expensive restaurant in town.
One night while she was watching TV and writing a letter to herself, the man who was selling Time came up on her porch and knocked on the door. She let him in because he promised a new reduced rate on subscriptions and because she was very, very lonely. She poured him a glass of gin but he said he did not drink, so she drank his glass of gin and hers while he spread out the issues of Time, month by month, in the full array of a year. He showed her the newsmakers of last year, the big events of the summer and the fall. He showed her how peace had been won and lost in parts of the world whose long silky names were printed in block letters across blue and orange maps of the world.
He spread out so many magazines that soon her kitchen table and her kitchen floor were covered with Time. He took her into the living room with the latest issue and discussed armament and détente, words that sounded to her like frozen desserts. She offered him spaghetti and he came into the kitchen, stepping carefully over the magazines on the floor. While she made spaghetti sauce, he spread more Time on the counters and talked of the movie sections, the book reviews, the focus on sports and entertainment. She chopped black olives; he talked of AWACS and ICBMs. She set a place for them at the table amidst the issues of Time, moving magazines aside to put down bowls and glasses and baskets of thick, dark bread. She ladled spaghetti sauce, and he talked of import quotas and technological drift. He talked of so many things that soon she began to cry, her tears splashing off the crust of bread that lay on the side of her plate. The man felt sorry for the woman’s sorrow and took her in his arms. He stroked her hair while she cried, her head on his shoulder, her eyes falling on an issue of Time in which the leader of a third world nation said that if his country ever got the bomb they would blow up the world.