In Sight of the Lake
Excerpt from Dear Life: Stories
A woman goes to her doctor to have a prescription renewed. But the doctor is not there. It’s her day off. In fact the woman has got the day wrong, she has mixed up Monday with Tuesday.
This is the very thing she wanted to talk to the doctor about, as well as renewing the prescription. She has wondered if her mind is slipping a bit.
“What a laugh,” she has expected the doctor to say. “Your mind. You of all people.”
(It isn’t that the doctor knows her all that well, but they do have friends in common.)
Instead, the doctor’s assistant phones a day later to say that the prescription is ready and that an appointment has been made for the woman – her name is Nancy – to be examined by a specialist about this mind problem.
It isn’t mind. It’s just memory.
Whatever. The specialist deals with elderly patients.
Indeed. Elderly patients who are off their nut.
The girl laughs. Finally, somebody laughs.
She says that the specialist’s office is located in a village called Hymen, twenty or so miles away from where Nancy lives.
“Oh dear, a marriage specialist,” says Nancy.
The girl doesn’t get it, begs her pardon.
“Never mind, I’ll be there.”
What has happened in the last few years is that specialists are located all over the place. Your CAT scan is in one town and your cancer person in another, pulmonary problems in a third, and so on. This is so you won’t have to travel to the city hospital, but it can take about as long, since not all these towns have hospitals and you have to ferret out where the doctor is once you get there.
It is for this reason that Nancy decides to drive to the village of the Elderly Specialist – as she decides to call him – on the evening before the day of her appointment. That should give her lots of time to find out where he is, so there will be no danger of her arriving all flustered or even a little late, creating a bad impression right off the bat.
Her husband could go with her, but she knows that he wants to watch a soccer game on television. He is an economist who watches sports half the night and works on his book the other half, though he tells her to say he is retired.
She says she wants to find the place herself. The girl in the doctors office has given her directions to the town.
The evening is beautiful. But when she turns off the highway, driving west, she finds that the sun is just low enough to shine into her face. If she sits up quite straight, however, and lifts her chin, she can get her eyes into shadow. Also, she has good sunglasses. She can read the sign, which tells her that she has eight miles to go to the village of Highman.
Highman. So that’s what is was, no joke. Population 1,553.
Why do they bother to put the 3 on?
Every soul counts.
She has a habit of checking out small places just for fun, to see if she could live there. This one seems to fill the bill. A decent-sized market, where you could get fairly fresh vegetables, though they would probably not be from the fields round about, okay coffee. Then a Laundromat, and a pharmacy, which could fill your prescriptions even if they didn’t stock the better class of magazines.
There are signs of course that the place has seen better days. A clock that no longer tells the time presides over a window which promises Fine Jewellery but now appears to be full of any old china, crocks and pails and wreaths twisted out of wires.
She gets to look at some of this trash because she has chosen to park in front of the shop where it is displayed. She thinks that she may as well search out this doctor’s office on foot. And almost too soon to give her satisfaction she does see a dark brick one-story building in the utilitarian style of the last century and she is ready to bet that is it. Doctors in small towns used to have their working quarters as part of their houses, but then they had to have space where cars could park, and they put up something like this. Reddish-brown bricks, and sure enough the sign, Medical/Dental. A parking lot behind the building.
In her pocket she has the doctor’s name and she gets out the scrap of paper to check it. The names on the frosted glass door are Dr. H. W. Forsyth, Dentist, and Dr. Donald McMillen, Physician.
These names are not on Nancy’s piece of paper. And no wonder, because nothing is written there but a number. It is the shoe size of her husband’s sister, who is dead. The number is O 7½. It takes her a while to figure that out, the O standing for Olivia but scribbled in a hasty way. She can only recall faintly something about buying slippers when Olivia was in the hospital.
That’s no use to her anyway.
One solution may be that the doctor she will see has newly moved into this building and the name on the door has not been changed yet. She should ask somebody. First she should ring the bell on the off chance that somebody is in there, working late. She does this, and it is a good thing in a way that nobody comes, because the doctor’s name that she is after has for a moment slipped below the surface of her mind.
Another idea. Isn’t it quite possible that this person – the crazy-doctor, as she has chosen to call him in her head – isn’t it quite possible that he (or she – like most people of her age she does not automatically allow for that possibility) that he or she does operate out of a house? It would make sense and be cheaper. You don’t need a lot of apparatus for the crazy doctoring.
So she continues her walk away from the main street. The doctor’s name that she is after has come back to her, as such things are apt to do when there is no longer a crisis. The houses she walks by were mostly built in the nineteenth century. Some of wood, some of brick The brick ones often two full stories high, the wooden ones somewhat more modest, a story and a half with slanting ceilings in the upstairs rooms. Some front doors open just a few feet from the sidewalk. Others onto wide verandas, occasionally glassed in. A century ago, on an evening like this one, people would have been sitting on their verandas or perhaps on the front steps. Housewives who had finished washing the dishes and sweeping up the kitchen for the last time that day, men who had coiled up the hose after giving the grass a soaking. No garden furniture such as now sat here empty, showing off. Just the wooden steps or dragged-out kitchen chairs. Conversation about the weather or a runaway horse or some person who has taken to bed and was not expected to recover. Speculation about herself, once she was out of earshot.
But wouldn’t she have put their minds at ease by this time, stopping and asking them, Please, can you tell me, where is the doctor’s house?
New item of conversation. What does she want the doctor for?
(This once she has put herself out of earshot.)
Now every single person is inside with their fans on or their air-conditioning. Numbers on the houses appear, just as in a city. No sign of a doctor.
Where the sidewalk ends there is a large brick building with gables and a clock tower. Perhaps a school, before the children were bused to some larger and drearier center of learning. The hands stopped at twelve, for noon or midnight, which certainly is not the right time. Profusion of summer flowers that seem professionally arranged – some spilling out of a wheelbarrow and more out of a milk pail on its side. A sign she cannot read because the sun is shining straight onto it. She climbs up on the lawn to see it at another angle.
Funeral Home. Now she sees the built-on garage that probably holds the hearse.
Never mind. She had better get on with things.
She turns onto a side street where there are very well kept places indeed, proving that even a town this size can have its suburb. The houses all slightly different yet somehow looking ail the same. Gently colored stone or pale brick, peaked or rounded windows, a rejection of the utilitarian look, the ranch style of past decades.
Here there are people. They haven’t all managed to shut themselves up with the air-conditioning. A boy is riding a bicycle, taking diagonal routes across the pavement. Something about his riding is odd, and she cannot figure it out at first.
He is riding backward. That’s what it is. A jacket flung in such a way that you could not see – or she cannot see – what is wrong.
A woman who might be too old to be his mother – but who is very trim and lively looking all the same – is standing out in the street watching him. She is holding on to a skipping rope and talking to a man who could not be her husband – both of them are being too cordial.
The street is a curved dead end. No going farther.
Interrupting the adults, Nancy excuses herself. She says that she is looking for a doctor.
“No, no,” she says. “Don’t be alarmed. Just his address. I thought you might know.”
Then comes the problem of realizing that she is still not sure of the name. They are too polite to show any surprise at this but they cannot help her.
The boy on one of his perverse sallies comes swinging around, barely missing all three.
Laughter. No reprimand. A perfect young savage and they seem to positively admire him. They all remark on the beauty of the evening, and Nancy turns to go back the way that she has come.
Except that she does not go all the way, not as far as the funeral home. There is a side street she ignored before, perhaps because it was unpaved and she had not thought of a doctor living in such circumstances.
There is no sidewalk, and the houses are surrounded with trash. A couple of men are busy under the hood of a truck, and she has an idea it would not do to interrupt them. Besides, she has glimpsed something interesting ahead.
There is a hedge that comes right out to the street. It is high enough that she does not expect to be able to see over it, but thinks she might be able to peek through.
That is not necessary. When she gets past the hedge she finds that the lot – about the size of four town lots – is quite open to the road she is walking on. It appears to be some sort of park, with flagstone paths diagonally crossing the mown and flourishing grass. In between the paths, and bursting from the grass, there are flowers. She knows some of them – the dark gold and light yellow daisies for instance, pink and rosy and red-hearted white phlox – but she is no great gardener herself and here there are clumped or trailing displays of all colors that she could not name. Some of them climb trellises, some spread free. Everything artful but nothing stiff, not even the fountain that shoots up seven feet or so before falling down into its rock-lined pool. She has walked in off the street to get a little of its cool spray, and there she finds a wrought-iron bench, where she can sit down.
A man has come along one of the paths, carrying a pair of shears. Gardeners are evidently expected to work late here. Though to tell the truth, he does not look like a hired workman. He is tall and very thin and dressed in a black shirt and pants that tightly fit his body.
It has not occurred to her that this could be anything but a town park.
“This is really beautiful,” she calls to him in her most assured and approving voice. “You keep it up so well.”
“Thank you,” he says. “You’re welcome to rest there.”
Informing her by some dryness of voice that this is not a park but private property, and that he himself is not a village employee but the owner.
“I should have asked your permission.”
Preoccupied, bending and snipping at a plant that is encroaching on the path.
“It’s yours, is it? All of it?”
After a moment’s busyness, “All of it.”
“I should have known. It’s too imaginative to be public. Too unusual.”
No answer. She is going to ask him whether he likes to sit here himself, in the evenings. But she better not bother. He doesn’t seem an easy person to be around. One of those who pride themselves, probably, on that very fact. After a moment she will thank him and get up.
But instead, after a moment he comes and sits down beside her. He speaks just as if a question has been put to him.
“Actually, I only feel comfortable when I’m doing something that needs attending to,” he says. “If I sit down I have to keep my eyes off everything, or I’ll just see some more work.”
She should have known right away that he was a man who doesn’t like banter. But still she is curious.
What was here before?
Before he made the garden?
“A knitting factory. All these little places had something like that, you could get away with the starvation wages then. But in time that went under and there was a contractor who thought he was going to turn it into a nursing home. There was some trouble then, the town wouldn’t give him a license, they had some idea there’d be a lot of old people around and make it depressing. So he set fire to it or he knocked it down, I don’t know.”
He’s not from around here. Even she knows that if he was he’d never talk so openly.
“I’m not from around here,” he says. “I had a friend who was, though, and when he died I came up just to get rid of the place and go.”
“Then I got hold of this land cheap because the contractor had left it just a hole in the ground and it was an eyesore.”
“I’m sorry if I seem inquisitive.”
“That’s all right. If I don’t feel like explaining something I don’t do it.”
“I haven’t been here before,” she says. “Of course I haven’t, or I’d have seen this spot. I was walking around looking for something. I thought I could find it better if I parked my car and walked. I was looking for a doctor’s office, actually.”
She explains about not being sick, just having an appointment tomorrow, and not wanting to be running around in the morning looking for the place. Then she tells him about parking her car and being surprised that the name of the doctor she wanted was not listed anywhere.
“I couldn’t look in the phone book either because you know how the phone books and the phone booths have all disappeared now. Or else you find their insides ripped out. I’m beginning to sound quite silly.”
She tells him the name of the doctor, but he says it doesn’t ring a bell.
“But I don’t go to doctors.”
“You’re probably just as smart not to.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
“At any rate, I’d better get back to my car.”
Standing up when she does, he says he will walk with her.
“So I won’t get lost?”
“Not altogether. I always try to stretch my legs this time of the evening. Garden work can leave you cramped.”
“I’m sure there’s some sensible explanation about this doctor. Do you ever think that there used to be more sensible explanations about things than there are now?”
He does not answer. Thinking perhaps of the friend who died. The garden perhaps a memorial to the friend who died.
Instead of being embarrassed now when she has spoken and he has not answered, she feels a freshness, a peace in the conversation.
They walk along without meeting a soul.
Soon they reach the main street, with the medical building just a block away. The sight of it makes her feel somewhat less easy, arid she does not know why, but after a moment she does. She has an absurd but alarming notion that the sight of the medical building has provoked. What if the right name, the name she said she could not find, has been waiting there all along. She moves more quickly, she finds that she is shaky, and then, having quite good eyesight she reads the two useless names just as before.
She pretends to have been hurrying to look at the assortment in the window, the china-headed dolls and ancient skates and chamber pots and quilts already in tatters.
“Sad,” she says.
He is not paying attention. He says that he has just thought of something.
“This doctor,” he says.
“I wonder if he might be connected with the home?”
They are walking again, passing a couple of young men sitting on the sidewalk, one with his legs stretched out so they have to move around him. The man with her takes no notice of them, but his voice has dropped.
“Home?” she says.
“You wouldn’t have noticed if you came in from the highway. But if you keep going out of town towards the lake you pass it. Not more than half a mile out. You go past the gravel pile on the south side of the road and it’s just a little farther on, on the other side. I don’t know if they have a live-in doctor there or not, but it stands to reason they might have.”
“They might have,” she says. “It stands to reason.”
Then she hopes he doesn’t think she is copying him on purpose, making a silly joke. It is true that she wants to go on talking to him longer, silly jokes or whatever.
But now comes another of her problems – she has to think about the whereabouts of her keys, as she often does before getting into the car. She is regularly worried about whether she’s locked the keys inside or dropped them somewhere. She can feel the approach of familiar, tiresome panic. But then she finds them, in her pocket.
“It’s worth a try,” he says, and she agrees.
“There’s plenty of room to turn off the road and take a look. If there’s a doctor out there regularly, there’s no need for him to have his name up in town. Or her name, as the case might be.”
As if he too is not entirely anxious for them to part.
“I have you to thank.”
“Just a hunch.”
He holds the door while she gets in, and closes it, waits there until she is turned to go in the right direction, then waves good-bye.
When she is on her way out of the town she catches sight of him again in the rearview mirror. He is bending over, speaking to the couple of boys or young men who were sitting on the pavement with their backs against the wall of the store. He had ignored them in such a way that she is surprised to see him talking to them now.
Maybe a remark to be made, some joke about her vagueness or silliness. Or just her age. A mark against her, with the nicest man.
She had thought that she would come back through the village to thank him again and tell him if it was the right doctor. She could just slow down and laugh and call out the •window.
But now she thinks that she will just take the lakeshore route and stay out of his way.
Forget him. She sees the gravel pile coming up, she has to pay attention to where she is going.
Just as he has said. A sign. A notice of the Lakeview Rest Home. And there really is, from here, a view of the lake, a thread of pale blue along the horizon.
A spacious parking lot. One long wing with what looks like separate compartments, or good-sized rooms at least, with their own little gardens or places to sit. A latticed fence quite high in front of every one of them for privacy, or safety. Though nobody is sitting out there now that she can see.
Of course not. Bedtime comes early in these establishments.
She likes how the lattice provides a touch of fantasy. Public buildings have been changing in the past few years, just as private houses have. The relentless, charmless look – the only one permitted in her youth – has disappeared. Here she parks in front of a bright dome that has a look of welcome, of cheerful excess. Some people would find it fakey, she supposes, but isn’t it the very thing you would want? All that glass must cheer the spirits of the old people, or even, perhaps, of some people not so old but just off kilter.
She looks for a button to push, a bell to ring, as she walks up to the door. But that is not necessary – the door opens on its own. And once she gets inside there is an even greater expression of space, of loftiness, a blue tinge to the glass. The floor is all silvery tiles, the sort that children love to slide on, and for a moment she thinks of the patients sliding and slipping for pleasure and the idea makes her lighthearted. Of course it cannot be as slippery as it looks, you wouldn’t want people breaking their necks.
“I didn’t dare try it myself,” she says in a charming voice to somebody in her head, perhaps her husband. “It wouldn’t have done, would it? I could have found myself in front of the doctor, the very one who was getting ready to test my mental stability. And then what would he have to say?”
At the moment there is no doctor to be seen.
Well, there wouldn’t be, would there? Doctors don’t sit behind desks here waiting for patients to show up.
And she isn’t even here for a consultation. She will have to explain again that she is making sure of the time and place of an appointment for tomorrow. All this has made her feel rather tired.
There is a rounded desk, waist high, whose panels of dark wood look like mahogany, though they probably are not. Nobody behind it at the moment. It is after hours of course. She looks for a bell but does not see one. Then she looks to see if there is a list of doctors’ names or the name of the doctor in charge. She doesn’t see that either. You would think there would be a way of getting hold of somebody, no matter what the hour. Somebody on call in a place like this.
No important clutter behind the desk either. No computer or telephone or papers or colored buttons to press. Of course she has not been able to get right behind the desk, there may well be some lock, or some compartments she can’t see. Buttons a receptionist could reach and she can’t.
She gives up on the desk for the moment, and takes a closer look at the space she has found herself in. It’s a hexagon, with doors at intervals. Four doors – one is the large door that lets in the light and any visitors, another is an official and private-looking door behind the desk, not that easy of access, and the other two doors, exactly alike and facing each other, would obviously take you into the long wings, to the corridors and rooms where the inmates are housed. Each of these has an upper window, and the window glass looks clear enough for anybody to manage to see through.
She goes up to one of these possibly accessible doors and knocks, then tries the knob and cannot budge it. Locked. She cannot see through the window properly, either. Close up the glass is all wavy and distorted.
In the door directly opposite there is the same problem with the glass and the same problem with the knob.
The click of her shoes on the floor, the trick of the glass, the uselessness of the polished knobs have made her feel more discouraged than she would care to admit.
She does not give up, however. She tries the doors again in the same order, and this time she shakes both knobs as well as she can and also calls out, “Hello?” in a voice that sounds at first trivial and silly, then aggrieved, but not more hopeful.
She squeezes herself in behind the desk and bangs that door, with practically no hope. It doesn’t even have a knob, just a keyhole.
There is nothing to do but get out of this place and go home.
All very cheerful and elegant, she thinks, but there is no pretense here of serving the public. Of course they shove the residents or patients or whatever they call them into bed early, it is the same old story everywhere, however glamorous the surroundings.
Still thinking about this, she gives the entry door a push. It is too heavy. She pushes again.
Again. It does not budge.
She can see the pots of flowers outside in the open air. A car going by on the road. The mild evening light.
She has to stop and think.
There are no artificial lights on in here. The place will get dark. Already in spite of the lingering light outside, it seems to be getting dark. No one will come, they have all completed their duties, or at least the duties that brought them through this part of the building, Wherever they have settled down now is where they will stay.
She opens her mouth to yell but it seems that no yell is forthcoming. She is shaking all over and no matter how she tries she cannot get her breath down into her lungs. It is as if she has a blotter in her throat. Suffocation. She knows that she has to behave differently, and more than that, she has to believe differently. Calm. Calm. Breathe. Breathe.
She doesn’t know if the panic has taken a long time or a short time. Her heart is pounding but she is nearly safe.
There is a woman here whose name is Sandy. It says so on the brooch she wears, and Nancy knows her anyway.
“What are we going to do with you?” says Sandy. “All we want is to get you into your nightie. And you go and carry on like a chicken that’s scared of being et for dinner.
“You must have had a dream,” she says. “What did you dream about now?”
“Nothing,” says Nancy. “It was back when my husband was alive and when I was still driving the car.”
“You have a nice car?”
“See? You’re sharp as a tack.”
“In Sight of the Lake” from DEAR LIFE: STORIES by Alice Munro, copyright © 2012 by Alice Munro.
Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.
All rights reserved.
From Dear Life by Alice Munro published by Vintage. Reproduced by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. ©2013
Excerpt from Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro. Copyright © 2012 Alice Munro.
Reprinted by permission of McClelland & Stewart
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