Friday, September 19, 2008

Damn Good Writing

From Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man:

The summer nights are so pleasant in Caulfield. They smell of heliotrope and jasmine, honeysuckle and clover. The stars are warm and friendly here, not cold and distant, as where I came from; they seem to hang lower over us, be closer to us. The breeze that stirs the curtains at the open windows is soft and gentle as a baby's kiss. And on it, if you listen, you can hear the rustling sound of the leafy trees turning over and going back to sleep again. The lamplight from within the house falls upon the lawns outside and copperplates them in long swaths. There’s the hush, the stillness of perfect peace and security. Oh yes, the summer nights are pleasant in Caulfield.

But not for us.

The winter nights are too. The nights of fall, the nights of spring. Not for us, not for us.

The house we live in is so pleasant in Caulfield. The bluegreen tint of its lawn, that always seems so freshly watered no matter what the time of day. The sparkling, aerated pinwheels of the sprinklers always turning, steadily turning; if you look at them closely enough they form rainbows before your eyes. The clean, sharp curve of the driveway. The dazzling whiteness of the porch-supports in the sun. Indoors, the curving white symmetry of the banister, as gracious as the dark and glossy stair it accompanies down from above. The satin finish of the rich old floors, bearing a telltale scent of wax and of lemon-oil if you stop to sniff. The lushness of pile carpeting. In almost every room, some favorite chair waiting to greet you like an old friend when you come back to spend a little time with it. People who come and see it say, "What more can there be? This is a home, as a home should be." Yes, the house we live in is so pleasant in Caulfield.

But not for us.


We've fought this thing. How bitterly we've fought it, in every way that we know how. In every way there is. We've driven it away, a thousand times we've driven it away, and it comes back again in a look, a word, a thought. It's there.

No good for me to say to him, "You didn't do it. You've told me so once. Once was enough. No need to repeat it now again, this late. I know you didn't. Oh, my darling, my Bill, you don't lie. You don't lie, in money, or in honor, or in love--"

(But this isn't money, or honor, or love. This is a thing apart. This is murder.)

No good, when I don't believe him. At the moment that he speaks, I may. But a moment later, or an hour, or a day or week, again I don't. No good, for we don't just live within a single moment, we can't. The other moments come, the hours, weeks, and oh God, the years.

For each time, as he speaks, I know it wasn't I. That's all I know. So well, too well, I know. And that leaves only--

And each time, as I speak, perhaps he knows that it wasn't he (but I cannot know that, I cannot; there is no way for him to reach me). So well he knows, so well. And that leaves only--

No good, no good at all.


"Here, take this. Drink on it. Drown it. Drown it until it's gone. One of us did do it. It doesn't matter. It's done with. Now let's get on with living.

And striking himself on the chest, "All right, I did it. There. I was the one. Now it's settled. Now it's over at last--"

And then suddenly our eyes looked deep into one another's, our glasses faltered in mid-air, went down, and it was back again.

"But you don't believe that," I whispered, dismayed.

"And you do," he breathed, stricken.

Oh, it's everywhere, it's everywhere.


It's in the very kiss we give each other. Somehow we trap it right between our lips, each time. (Did I kiss him too strongly? Will he think by that I forgave him, again, just then? Did I kiss him too weakly? Will he think by that I was thinking of it, again, just then?)

It's everywhere, it's all the time, it's us.

I don't know what the game was. I only know its name; they call it life.

I'm not sure how it should be played. No one ever told me. No one ever tells anybody. I only know we must have played it wrong. We broke some rule or other along the way, and never knew it at the time.

I don't know what the stakes are. I only know we've forfeited them, they're not for us.

We've lost. That's all I know. We've lost, we've lost.

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