Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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Sam saw Hannah turn and beckon to him. He had stopped to watch her slide across the snow the way, years ago, those figures in the Munich Glockenspiel had seemed to slide out and turn so delicately before disappearing behind the face of the big clock. And Hannah always wore, it seemed, just the right colors to bring out that abundant blue of her eyes, the blue of those dancers in the Glockenspiel, of those dresses the Frauleins wore while holding the great steins of beer in all those postcards Sam had bought then. Earlier, as they were strapping on their skis, Sam had looked into Hannah’s eyes, and had felt himself for a second falling into the vastness of that blue.
He figured he had spent most of his life dreaming of women like Hannah. They were casual, innocent dreams, of course, the kind that will endure even in men confident they had already married the right girl. Yet, here stood Sam Travers, sixty-seven years old, a widower, believing he had found in Hannah Sievertsen the flesh-and-blood embodiment of all those innocent dreams. How odd had been his relentlessness in seeking after some flaw, weakness, some lie, that would have exposed Hannah as just another woman. And how troubled and confused were his feelings when this careful and biased search had come up empty.
Hannah beckoned again. The resolve Sam had begun the day with settled over him again like a warm blanket. And as Sam began to pole and kick along the trail, he sought the words he hoped would be the right ones later.
“Having some trouble keeping up with your spring chicken, I see,” Hannah said when Sam reached her. He recoiled at her use of the possessive. He tried to avoid her eyes, which seemed to be searching his expectantly, but it was like trying to avoid the sky while flying a kite.
Sam tried to joke. “Spring chicken? Listen, you’ve been collecting social security as long as I have.”
“Yes, dear, but I don’t spend half of mine on Maalox.”
Sam was aware that her playfulness today stung rather than amused or pleased; her way of making his ailments sound like endearments left him with a disturbing sense of defenselessness. In a tone shorter than Sam had intended, he said, “We better get moving or the Stowes will start worrying.” Immediately, he saw the surprise and confusion in her face and dodged it. “So let’s see which one of us can get there without needing oxygen.” He saw her confusion melt into a warm smile, and he motioned amiably for her to continue on.
Potts Stowe had introduced the two of them a year ago. Lilly had been dead two years by then, but Sam was still dogged by the recurring dream that had begun shortly after her death. In the dream Sam heard footsteps, except they didn’t sound like footsteps at all; instead, they made the same sudden, muffled sound the book had made when it had fallen from Lilly’s lap the night she had died. The day Potts had introduced Sam to Hannah (“she’s the best years you thought you left behind”), the dreams had suddenly stopped.
Nearing the Stowes’ cabin, Sam purposely dropped behind of Hannah so she would reach the back door first. As the shouts of welcome died, Sam speeded up and reached the open door as Hannah disappeared inside. He could already hear the teasing about the two “love birds,” and he wondered how he could have ever been comfortable around such frank kidding, how he could have ever deceived himself there could be anyone after Lilly. When he entered the cabin, it was as a thief trying to return stolen goods without being discovered. “Oh, and how he had gone on about that frozen-over swamp,” Hannah was saying to Jenny, and slapping her palms to her thighs as Sam and Potts entered the living room. “Honestly, you’d have thought it was the Bataan Death March or something.”
Sam would acknowledge one major difference between Hannah and Lilly. Hannah would make a joke about anything. In the thirty-five years Sam and Lilly had been married, however, he could not recall a single joke, tease, or humorous remark she had ever made. It wasn’t that she was completely humorless; she could take a joke and see the humor in someone else’s. But Lilly had always viewed life as full on its own given terms; humor, sadness, and joy, especially joy, were affections people added to fill the empty spaces in their own lives. Lilly had no empty spaces, no planes of immateriality that needed filling in. For her, humor was a steamer trunk, and Lilly had always travelled light.
“Your boyfriend’s awfully quiet today,” Jenny observed as Sam had hovered over the tray of wine glasses a moment too long. He realized his monkish silence was having the opposite effect than what he had intended.
“He’s been strange all day,” Hannah said, shooting a quizzical, but still too expectant smile toward Sam.
“Maybe something’s on the old boy’s mind,” Potts added, smiling suggestively. “You know how some men get when they have certain ideas in their heads.”
Sam wanted badly to deflect the conversation, but it was as if his mind had suddenly freeze-framed. All he could think of, all he could see at that moment, was the look on Lilly’s face the day he had come back to their hotel room in Munich holding those great bundles of beer hall postcards.
“What gives, Sam?” Potts asked. Potts leaned toward Hannah and winked.
“Nothing,” Sam said and shrugged. “Just a little winded from the skiing, maybe. Hey, these are nice cakes.” Sam devoured three of them in rapid succession so that his bloated mouth would excuse any further response. He fixed his eyes on the platter of cakes, but when he looked up, he saw all eyes were fixed quietly on him.
“What’s the big deal here?” Sam asked, squirming a bit in his chair. “Why is everybody acting so strange?”
“Not us. You, Sam,” Hannah said. “Why, I’ve never seen you so . . . so agitated.” Her expression lacked the earlier expectancy. “Is everything all right?”
But Sam couldn’t answer. The frame had frozen again. Now he could hear Lilly speaking. “What are you doing with all those cards? And all of the same thing? With all these beautiful mountains and villages, you buy nothing but postcards of beer halls. What has gotten into you, Sam Travers?”
Of course, Sam had enjoyed the Bavarian countryside that their son, who was stationed in Munich, had shown them. But those beer hall cards, with those gleaming, worryless faces of the Frauleins in their blue dirndls, had fascinated Sam in a way postcards of the Alps never had. The real Alps simply looked just like the cards. And ever since that trip, Sam had kept all those cards in a shoebox under his bed. He used to leaf through them regularly, but had not touched them since Lilly had died.
“Come in the kitchen and help me,” Jenny finally said to Hannah. “I think Sam is going to be a party pooper for a while yet.”
Alone with Potts, Sam quickly put his wine down and whispered, “Listen, I have to ask you something. Uh . . . I, that is, Hannah. I mean . . . geez, I don’t know how to put this, Potts, but I think Hannah has fallen in love with me.”
Potts fell back in his chair and roared. Stricken, Sam glanced at the kitchen door, then back at Potts. “Please!”
“You old coot,” Potts said, but had lowered his voice. “You mean you haven’t realized she’s been in love with you since the day she met you?”
Sam stammered. “Well. . . . I should say I . . . er, hadn’t . . . really thought of it.” He nervously was playing with his wine glass.
“I think the question is,” Potts said, “are you in love with her?”
What Sam wanted to say was that it was crazy to even be thinking of love at his age. He’d been married to Lilly for thirty-five years. For thirty-five years he had lain next to a woman who had worn gloves and a pair of his wool socks to bed each night during the winter. For thirty-five years he had promised to move south, only to have her balk each spring, grousing about hot, humid summers. Love? It was like asking a man who had just retired from a long career if he planned to go back to school to study medicine. But the women’s return to the living room erased any hope Sam had of making Potts understand how ludicrous the whole idea of love was.
It did become a comfort to Sam that all the wine they drank that afternoon prevented their attention from being focused on any one topic for too long. When it was clear that the spotlight had shifted from Sam and Hannah as Sam-and-Hannah, he found he could relax and enjoy the rest of the day. He decided to put off telling Hannah anything now. In giving him no more expectant or questioning looks, she may have already grasped, at last, his “position,” even though he was still a little fuzzy himself on what precisely that “position” was. To talk about it now would only stir the simmering coals and force him to make a decision. And of all the things that troubled him about Hannah, making a decision about her troubled him the most.
But outside the Stowes’ cabin, as they were putting on their skis to go home, Hannah said, “What was it you and Potts were talking about while I was in the kitchen? It sounded pretty raucous.”
Sam looked abruptly up from his skis and his eyes met Hannah’s. There was expectancy again, but that did not bother him this time. In the lengthening afternoon light, with the memories of a perfect afternoon only moments removed, the blue of Hannah’s eyes suddenly seemed strangely more brilliant; instead of feeling himself drawn toward it, though, it was as if all the cerulean blue was hurtling toward him. Sam stepped backwards and fell over his skis.
“Sam!” Hannah exclaimed.
Sam did not move. His mind had not freeze-framed this time; on the contrary, it was moving in fast forward. Whatever words formed in his throat trailed too far behind the blur of images reeling through his mind.
“Sam Travers! What has gotten into you?”
And Sam was suddenly watching the blue brilliance of her eyes hurtle past him and disappear. He lifted himself up, and positioned himself toward the trail. “Nothing has gotten into me,” he said and pushed off.
“I think you are hiding something from me, Sam Travers,” Hannah said when they reached the frozen swamp. The expectancy was still there, but Sam had already reached a decision.
“Hiding? Not hiding, Hannah. All right. You want to know what I was talking about to Potts? It was Munich. I was telling my friend Potts about Munich.”
“Why are you speaking to me that way?” Hannah asked. “It sounds like you’re talking to a stranger.”
“What do you mean? You see, I bought some postcards while I was there. Well, I didn’t know why I bought them back then, but I do now. I bought them because they didn’t have anything to do with anything I had seen there. When my son took me to those beer halls, those Frauleins were all worn, haggard, their blue dresses faded and stained. And not one of them was pretty. Why, some of them could break up fights between men almost twice their size.”
Sam could see Hannah’s eyes filling. “Don’t you see? The girls in those cards with those bright smiling faces and bright blue dresses weren’t real.”
Hannah looked woodenly at Sam for a moment, then turned and continued through the swamp. They skied the rest of the way in silence. When they reached the car, Hannah opened the door and sat stiffly forward.
“Well, I certainly did enjoy myself today,” Sam said, sliding behind the wheel. “That Potts sure has an ideal little place.”
When Sam stopped in front of Hannah’s house, Hannah said, “I think dinner would be inappropriate now, don’t you?”
Sam did not answer but observed the buoyancy in his step as he walked Hannah to her door. She turned to him, the blue in her eyes washed out and rimmed in red. “I don’t understand what happened today, Sam, but you are keeping something from me, and I won’t stand for deceitfulness. I think it would be better if we didn’t see one another for awhile.”
Sam said evenly. “Yes, it might be for the best.”
Hannah pulled the storm door and glanced back at Sam. She shook her head and closed the door behind her.
Sam stared at the door, then turned and walked back to the car. The moon was out and the snow was a blanket of blue on the fields, the blue of those dresses on the postcards under his bed at home. Sam looked out over the fields knowing that blue would never again be associated with anything in Hannah’s eyes. He wouldn’t have to worry anymore about trying to forgive Lilly for thirty-five years of unhappiness, nor himself for putting up with it. He wouldn’t be getting rid of those cards under his bed either. Everything now could go back to the way it had always been. Breathing deeply and easily, Sam smiled; he got back into his car and drove home.