By Brendan Wolfe
The bottle remains in the dining room corner cabinet, empty. I finished it just the other day, Covid Day 25 or thereabouts, after realizing I’d blown through all of my whiskey. I actually drove to the state liquor store, the one next to Kroger, to restock—a rare excursion out of self-quarantine—but the lights were dimmed. A Kroger employee on break, his mask around his neck while he smoked, delivered a big, gap-toothed grin. “Closed till tomorrow,” he said. “They’re fumigating.”
“For what?” I asked, but he just smiled again.
I returned home to those final three fingers of aquavit, which had been left untouched for years. They tasted like gasoline.
This is Norwegian liquor, distilled from potatoes, aged in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks, and then—according to the Linie corporate website—“sent on a sea journey across the world to mature.” Like a character in some cheap turn-of-the-century novel. It was a duty-free gift from Annie after she, Bebe, and my in-laws returned from Sweden in the summer of 2014. We had looked forward to that holiday for many months, our first overseas trip together—our journey across the world—but then The Day happened. That’s how I subsequently labeled it on my Outlook calendar; my single concession to melodrama. The Day. Last summer I changed jobs and so switched Outlook accounts. Now, without my calendar, I can no longer remember the day of the week or even the month, just that it was late springtime.
The start of something new.
I first met Annie fifteen years ago, in Iowa City, where we both wrote stories and test questions for an educational publishing company. (In what way does the passage’s tone convey the protagonist’s rancid nihilism?) After undergraduate study at the University of Virginia, she had recently dotted the i on a poetry MFA at Iowa, an experience that had fairly cut her down to size. I was married to Jules, an experience that was accomplishing much the same. Annie had spent her formative years on the North Shore of Boston, wrapped tightly in the folds of a middle-class family with old-money roots. A great-great-great-grandfather—give or take—had owned a prominent shipping firm, the same company that in the mid-nineteenth century had transported some of my own relatives from the west of Ireland. Annie’s grandmother, a supremely crusty, and class-conscious old blue blood, once casually waved her hand in the direction of a small wooden side table, as if it didn’t mean a thing: “A wedding gift from the President and First Lady. Franklin and Hugh roomed together at Groton. You knew that, didn’t you, dear? Franklin never was much good at sports.”
On one particular visit, we waited until Grandmum had finally turned in for the night, then climbed into one of the house’s several attics. After a fair amount of searching, Annie found a long, white flower box and flipped open the lid. Inside rested the elegant dress sword and sash once worn by Robert Gould Shaw, the Union Army colonel who died leading black troops into battle during the Civil War (the Matthew Broderick character in Glory). Annie’s little brother had taken it for show-and-tell in grade school.
“This should be in a museum,” I whispered.
“So should Grandmum,” Annie said.
Annie could trace her paternal line using little else but Wikipedia, The New York Times, and the Social Register, although she seemed less interested in actually doing that than me. My people were immigrant farmers, and I took both of my degrees from the state school before editing an alt-weekly in Iowa City, before being sacked in Maine, before spending an unhappy year in the libertarian wilds of New Hampshire and an eventful one on the crowded streets of South Korea. Now I had returned to Iowa City, where Jules studied the law and I posed to otherwise blameless, unseen students important questions like, How does excruciating irony play a role in the protagonist’s unexpected bout with self-realization?
Annie and I started meeting up after work for wings and buckets of beer. After a couple years in our respective cubicles, I made her a studiously hip mix CD for a going-away party thrown by her friends. Sadly, I was in my lounge-music phase then. A few weeks later, after she had quit the publishing business and driven home to Charlottesville, where her parents and brother now lived, I quit too. And followed her.
I had fallen in love with Annie—despite her on-again, off-again boyfriend with the handlebar mustache and Joyce dissertation who always greeted me (I’m not making this up) by pinching my nipples; despite her habit of cheating on him and the other people she dated; despite her noticeably tepid interest in my writing and her impatience with my enthusiasms (music and history, in particular); despite her general misanthropy. Or no, actually because of that. Annie’s droll animus toward so much of humanity (what they wore, what they said, what they published), but not me in particular, lent our relationship a certain private glow. Although to be fair, I also loved her for the colorful scarf she sometimes wore as a belt; in fact, what I remember from the moment I realized that I loved her—we were walking down Dubuque Street in the company of some friends toward a restaurant at which she sometimes waitressed—is that scarf. (What a curious takeaway. Not some snatch of witty repartee, not a look in the eye, not even the color of her eyes. Instead, a scarf, like the cape in a bull fight.) The romantic in me loved her for being a poet, and I was convinced my literary-minded mom would love her for that, as well. “She’s a spoiled little girl,” Mom later pronounced, but that slight note of vitriol more properly belongs to the postlapsarian world. To life after The Day.
In Charlottesville we briefly resided in a monkish spare bedroom in Annie’s parents’ house before they actually bought us one of our own—the house in which I am now confined, sitting on the mahogany leather couch they handed-me-down a couple years ago. We paid rent here, on Hill Street, and were married in a park downtown by the city’s black woman sheriff, all of us standing awkwardly in front of an equestrian statue of Stonewall Jackson. When Annie became pregnant, more closet space seemed advisable. We bought the ranch house on Old Forge Road, fed a screaming Bebe in the night, and in the morning drove off to our separate editing jobs.
During the summer of 2010 Annie’s boss and good friend, the managing editor of a widely celebrated lit mag, left his apartment downtown and hiked to a nearby coal tower, where he shot himself in the head. Accusations of workplace bullying led to national news reports, a university investigation, and a brief dissolution of the magazine. Two summers later, back in Iowa, my dad suddenly expired while sitting in his easy chair; the air conditioning had fritzed out and his neighbors began to sniff the result a few days later. The anger I experienced in the wake of Dad’s death—jarring, unexpected, overwhelming, long-lasting—bore little resemblance to the anger Annie experienced after Paul’s suicide, except in its deleterious effects. On each of us separately and, certainly, on us together.
From my perch on the living room couch today I can see Dad’s college ring on a shelf and his falling apart paperback copy of Confessions of an Irish Rebel by Brendan Behan, the writer for whom I was named. On the dining room wall are two framed colored illustrations of farm scenes, left behind by Paul from a manuscript he had edited years earlier in Minnesota. I have a few first editions of his as well, including The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley—the result of an alcohol-fueled, post-party distribution of his belongings among family and friends. My wedding band is up there on the shelf, too. A plain “golden ring” in the tradition of George and Tammy. I’m pretty sure it’s the one I wore during the Annie years, although to be honest I’m not sure. My memory for certain things represents just one more absence to haunt this house.
Here’s what I remember about The Day. I drove to work that morning feeling uneasy. A haze of grief and anger had descended onto our lives over the last four years, but this felt different somehow. Over an office lunch—Peter with his crusty bread and deli meat, my colleague Sue with one of her elaborate salads prepared right at the table, me with something nuked—I let my uneasiness awkwardly spill out. “Annie was in a weird mood today,” I said, in imitation of an actually casual person. “Probably distracted from figuring out how to leave me.” After politely insisting otherwise, my friends said it was me who was in the weird mood and maybe I should get out more. We all laughed. Then that same afternoon, upon my return home, Annie announced she was leaving.
She insisted her mind was made up. While there hadn’t been anyone else, she had been resolved to leave for awhile but hadn’t had the courage to say anything. I’d only just emerged from the dark tunnel of a two-year depression following Dad’s death.
“I was just starting to feel better,” I protested.
“Maybe that’s why I waited till now,” she said.
We fought some, to pointless effect, after which I phoned Peter and met him at our favorite pub. A mutual acquaintance bellied up to the bar next to us, preventing me from speaking freely. I returned home sooner than I had hoped and sulked angrily on the couch.
“Oh, you’re back,” Annie said, hoping to pick up where we’d left off. “It’s so typical. First you get angry, then you leave.”
So The Day ended.
What I keep coming back to, though, is that lunch and the half-joke that nearly ruined it. It’s exactly the sort of anecdote any decent editor would suggest cutting from the narrative—because of its extreme pathos but also because it features the sort of coincidence that tends to boot readers out of a story (no way that happened!) rather than squeezing them more tightly inside it. Well, that’s what did happen! my own writing students have protested, and I tell them that your story isn’t “what happened.” It’s not the individual pixels but how you place them, how you fit them all together. And it did seem ridiculous how I had both uncannily predicted the day Annie would leave and been absolutely bone-shocked by the event. I told myself then, and for years after, that I had never seen it coming. That we had always been perfectly happy.
There are certain absences in our lives that are signaled by a corresponding presence: my dad’s school ring, for example, or Paul’s first editions. The thing helps to name the absence and so to quiet our fears. Then there are absences that hide from us, like black holes, unnoticed or simply unnamed, that once fully realized, can swallow a life. The lack of love is one of those.
A few days later I asked Annie what we were going to do about Sweden. “You should still come,” she said cheerfully. “We’re a family.”
Earlier that spring, our last at Old Forge, I found myself staring up at our long, sloping front lawn. A pair of black oaks commanded the heights, such as they were, on either side of a snaking driveway that threatened to kill me with each winter’s snowfall. Although they were superb arboreal specimens, these oaks nevertheless dispensed their shade a mite too generously, leaving little more than twigs, crumpled leaves, and mud. And what green managed to survive grew tall and shaggy from my habitual inattention. As a general state of being, this worked better for me than for my wife or, for that matter, the denizens of greater Old Forge Road. Annie’s dad, pleased by our purchase five years earlier, had described the neighborhood as “executive,” a place he could be proud of even if neither Annie nor me resembled anything close to that descriptor. It was a refined sort of cul-de-sac, one that demanded a decent-looking lawn. And that day, staring at our lousy excuse for one, I had an idea.
It thrives in the shade. It spreads easily and provides excellent ground covering. This is what I had heard, anyhow, and in the way that Annie’s dad might leap at the chance to take on a home-improvement project but that I, to everyone’s chagrin, constitutionally do not, I decided then and there to plant. It was as if some deeply recessive Iowa gene had suddenly swum to the surface. I took the black Honda to Lowe’s and loaded it up with seed and mulch. I changed into shorts—rarely do my knees see the sun—and covered my head with a Hawkeyes cap that befit the occasion. Then, after finding the proper tools in the garage, I began to dig.
That first shovelful of dirt is always the most magnificent, chock with vim and the noblest of intentions. Perhaps without even meaning to, I had come to expect a lush, windswept meadow like the one where Dorothy falls asleep in The Wizard of Oz. I should have known better. By the time I had forced my spade into the hard, dry earth three, four, five more times, my body and my imagination had turned against me. Blisters formed, burst, and formed again. Unaccustomed to exertion after two years of depressive lethargy, my joints screamed. Worst of all, I struggled to believe I’d ever be able to finish tilling the ground around the two—and now that I was out there and paying attention, actually three—oaks. A one-day project ballooned into more than a week. Eventually I stopped imagining the meadow and craved only the idea of dozing off. More than once I collapsed with exhaustion, content to lie spread-eagled in my front yard, heaving for air and oblivious to the possibility of the odd copperhead.
What got me through were audio books. I listened to Stone’s Fall by Ian Pears, although I had to look up the title just now. I only could recall a journalist in Dickensian London, except what actually qualifies as Dickensian? Apparently the novel is something of a spy thriller, moving backward in time from London in 1909 (post-Dickens actually) to Paris in 1890 to Venice in 1867 and focusing on the world of high finance (I don’t remember that at all). I’d read Pears’ The Dream of Scipio while in Korea, and then, more recently, An Instance of the Fingerpost, an absurdly intellectual murder mystery set in seventeenth-century Oxford. Or is it Cambridge? Sixteenth century? It was hundreds upon hundreds of pages, but entertaining. So I listened to Pears as I dug, apparently enjoying the world of high finance. The squirrels ceded to me, temporarily, some of their ancestral territory while our neighbors passed by on the street, walking their shih tzus and bull terriers and casting up at me curious, not always complimentary glances.
Clover. That’s what I heard.
What do you think, Helen? Is he having some kind of breakdown?
I also listened to Mothers and Sons, a collection of short stories by Colm Tóibín. What a rich vein that is, mothers and sons. In fact, the book was among my mom’s collection when she died, what now constitutes the Frances S. Wolfe Memorial Library in my back room. Hers is a paperback copy, inside of which happens to be tucked a thank you card dated November 26, 2007, in my handwriting:
i just wanted to say thank you—excuse me, WE just wanted to say thank you—for your visit, for the books, for the wonderful kitchen stuff, for the groceries and the casserole, for gutting it up O Hill, and for being such a great house guest in general. We really loved having you and miss you when you’re not here—
love Brendan & Annie
I can’t recall whether I finished the book but I do remember the opening story, “The Use of Reason.” An art thief lugs his Rembrandt out into the country, “to the great barren emptiness which lay south of Dublin,” where “there was absolute silence, a silence that came to him like power”—and he sets fire to the thing. All the while imagining the “vivid emptiness in the space where it had once hung.”
On that same trip when we visited Grandmum’s house and beheld the colonel’s sword, Annie and I toured the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—a gorgeous space that had been the famous collector’s home until her death in 1924. In the spring of 1990, thieves made off with three priceless artworks, including a Rembrandt, and because Gardner had insisted the arrangement of her home forever remain the same, the spots where the paintings hung have remained unfilled. Lights pointing at nothing. It’s one of the most beautiful museums I’ve ever visited (Mrs. Gardner would have taken self-quarantine in stride, I expect), yet this is what I remember most: what wasn’t there.
Once I finished turning over the soil, I still needed to plant and gently cover the seed, to water, and to mulch. There were so, so many bags of mulch. And a new sprinkler. An extension for the hose. The longer I worked, the more my body found ways to adjust to its new outdoor reality. My hands toughened up, the hatreds in my lower back calmed. And my ability to imagine something positive—negotiated down from Dorothy’s meadow, to be sure, but not entirely embarrassing, either—slowly reasserted itself. Something invisible and dark and heavy began, finally, to lift. On the day my clover first sprouted, I remember running inside to tell Annie.