The Sand Colored Subject
It was cold in the room and seven o’clock at night. There were chestnuts in the pewter tray in the toaster oven. From the lip of the fireplace Keats said ‘Who dares call down/ My will from its high purpose?’ A girl, in black equestrian pants and a black cotton sweater and black quilted vest and brown equestrian boots, laid beside the book from which he spoke. An eiderdown separated the vertebrae of her back from the hardwood.
A voice called from the kitchen.
“What?” The girl was in the process of kicking her left foot against her riding crop, a habit she often divulged in.
“They’re burning,” said the voice, “The chestnuts—you’re burning them.”
She stood. “I’m not burning anything.” She pulled one calve to her leg as she stood. “The oven’s burning them if they’re burning.” She set her crop beside the Copperfield Millbury ash brush set, and walked past the sunroom.
The sunroom was a simple room for its size and contained a considerably small sum of objects. It wore three windows arranged like a flattened coat, with the large one a rectangle and the other two slanted triangles like connected arms. They were done in yellow, geometric pattern glass. In afternoons they cast an amber hue that made people aged photograph subjects. They were dark, then, with night and made no film of the man in the chair.
The chair was one of a 1930 gray Deco set, bought with the house. Between them was a chest of drawers that might have, in another life, belonged to an Indian general. Parsons, the man in the chair, had a leather writing set and a packet of cigarettes atop the chest.
Eyde cut the chestnuts in halves. They were mahogany inside. She brought them in with milk to follow them with and thought they must taste like lead.
“Thanks.” Parsons took the plate.
“Thanks for the coal?” this to her equestrian toes.
Eyde sat and pulled one of her calves up on the seat with her. “Any good?”
Parsons bit into one. “Good.”
“You would say that.”
“I can stand them.” He leaned back in the chair, shifting a little the soft cover book he had tucked in the chair side. “Used to use newspapers for sheets.”
“France’s hardship,” said Eyde, pulling her calves tighter to her on the chair, “Tale of Alsatian boy turned New York poet. A story of depth and dejection—”
“The lost equestrian,” said Parsons, comfortably, “Failure on the New Hampshire circuit. Tale of long legs and a wall of unused helmets—”
“Mr. Atkinson,” she said, enveloped in talk, “The poet. A man of letters. A man of deficiency.”
“The lost equestrian,” said Parsons, “belongs to a rare breed of incapable liar.” He spoke fluidly. He was familiar with this activity, this habit they had of whittling the other’s Ego like birch or pine or oak. “She is unable to conceal emotion and carries a crop as means of defense against those whose murders she has let on about.”
“It is of the general opinion,” said Eyde, speaking more to the right sleeve window than anywhere else, “that the Poet would write clearer verse if he were to ease his use of stimulant.”
Parsons coughed. “Don’t you have to be up early?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“Maybe you should get to bed. And actually try and sleep some?” He stood and pulled his sweater, a light blue colored cotton sweater, over his head. “Try not and just stare up at the ceiling for an hour?”
“Maybe,” said Eyde. “You want the cards?” She was looking at the white line down from his shoulder, the scar from when he’d fractured his collarbone as a boy and had it reset.
“Any decent ones?”
“Yeah. Interesting one from Thursday.”
“You bring them up?”
Parsons went up to his office. It had two windows, one facing the lawn and one facing the driveway, the former giving the better view, but the latter interesting to watch guests through, guests adjusting coats and pant legs and limbs as people do upon sitting and standing. Through the other he could see the Hudson, blue, and gray sometimes in the fog.
His writing desk was one he was allowed when his father died après-guerre, darkened with years of water marks and a burn in one place where his brother had held a lighter. He felt the words as he sat, the French his brother kept like a pocket knife, sharpened always, used only in martial effort. Voulez-vous l'enfer, Parsons? Voulez-vous aller en enfer?Do you want hell, Parsons? Do you want to go to hell?
There was a silver framed photograph on the right; an image of he and his father and brother standing, stiff and formal before the Minnesota house which they called always ‘small house’ in wool coats and boots. The room was white and had bare walls. Although he’d used the address three years, the house belonged to Eyde’s family, and Parsons felt hanging anything invasive.
There was a knocking.
“Come in.” He was flipping through the index cards.
The knocking again.
“Should be open,” he said, not looking up.
Parsons stood and undid the latch and allowed Eyde into the well-lit room.
She handed him a new stack of cards, then folded her arms over her chest. Against her black equestrian pants and a black cotton sweater and black quilted vest, her skin looked stark white.
“Thanks.” He felt the white scar on his collarbone with his hand. His skin was cold to the writing. He’d done two lines. “Getting to bed?”
“In a minute.” She turned to go and took three strides before turning back. “Almost forgot.” She stepped into the office, crossing past the book case. She took from the pocket of her black quilted vest a large handful of almost ripe blueberries. “Gene brought them yesterday from Hebert’s.”
She put the blueberries on the worn, gray wood of the desk. Parsons was writing something and didn’t look up. The radiator was on and his hands cracked, as they always were in the winters, from the heat.
“I’m going to bed.”
“And don’t just and stare at the ceiling.”
“I’ll try and sleep.” When she went out she closed the door softly behind her and thought how she’d known his hands eight winters.
* * *
Parsons woke in the morning at his desk. He went downstairs, made himself an English muffin with apricot jam and sat in a chair in the living room. He saw the eiderdown beside the fireplace and loved Eyde for having left it. He loved her for strange things, and she him; for the manner their physical selves filled cotton sweaters and for the very dark brown hair they both had and for the small choler and sin each saw mirrored in the other’s cheekbones.
He sat quietly while she finished her session.
She had started the practice five years before, after the first miscarriage, when she decided if she couldn’t succeed in piecing life together, she might succeed in dismantling it, in analyzing it, in breaking it into bite sized, digestible pieces. She’d used her Wellesley degree to put up a “Psychiatric Services” sign. It was almost lunch time. She and the patient sat in the gray chairs.
“I mean a commodity,” she was saying. “Anything, I mean. Don’t you believe anything a commodity?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy. He was very thin and sand colored all over. His hair was a dull brown and his eyes a dull brown and his nose an equine one, small in size. He looked in every way what one would expect an English equestrian’s diminutive son to look like.
“What about sleep?” said Eyde, “Don’t you like sleep?”
“I guess so.” The boy pulled his legs onto the chair.
“And food? Don’t you like cold chicken and rice with butter melted in and granola squares? The granola squares with chocolate chips.”
“I guess,” this to the red lacquer chest.
“What I mean is, why don’t you try and get more of those things?” she said, standing, “Why don’t you try and focus yourself in on those things?”
“On granola bars and sleep and things. Simplicities.”
The boy took his sand colored legs down from the chair. “Why?”
“Some people find comfort in that, Wade. Solace. Solace in hot shower and sleep and cold milk and things like it. Some people find it takes away the grief. The heaviness of everything,” this she said tiredly, and though her practice was largely a distraction from herself and not an intended service, with the integrity of advice tried.
“Hot shower and sleep,” said Wade, also tiredly. “Okay.”
When the gold box clock on the counter said eleven o’clock Wade’s mother came. She was also largely sand colored and thin and it would be more correct to say she gathered him, because she completed life’s tasks by gathering instead of executing. This was a new appendage to herself, this gathering, and she’d been a decent equestrian, a person, before she succumbed to tending lawn basil and participating in the Westchester Botanical Society and following other idiosyncratic attempts at resurrecting her late husband.
“We’ve a lesson at twelve,” she said to Wade, rushing him, the neck of her beige wool coat like the ruffle close of a suet dumpling.
“At Mr. Schroeder’s?” said Wade.
“Yes. To learn some concerto today. Your cousins are coming for the weekend from Hanover and you’re to play some things.” She took a checkbook from her wallet, and a pen from her coat. “One-twenty?”
“What?” said Eyde, who’d been looking at Parsons.
“One-twenty? For the session.”
“One-twenty?” she adjusted her attention. “Right. Yes. One-twenty.”
The checkbook was blue with the names and lines in black. The sum was written and slid across the table. There were toasted crumbs on it from Parsons’ English muffin and a coffee cup filled halfway and cold. “We’ll see you next week, then?”
Eyde nodded. “You wouldn’t want any tea? I was going to put a pan on for black tea.”
“That’s alright,” said Wade’s mother. “Wade’s a piano lesson.” She stepped her thin, sand colored body so more was outside than inside the glass door. “You have a good day now. You and Parsons.”
“See you Tuesday.”
“See you Tuesday.” She nodded out the door.
Parsons joined Eyde in the kitchen. He took out the leather box of index cards. “You have today’s?”
“In on the seat of the chair. I filled two.”
“With anything decent?”
Parsons went to the chair. The card heavy with words more or less the same, more or less expounding on fear and exhaustion and “thirty chews before swallowing” and insomnia. Eyde hadn’t thought of the cards, it was Parson’s idea, but she hadn’t thought against it either.
The sessions were a distraction and she’d always been thorough in her distractions. She was so thorough in them they become concrete by her attention. And so, like any mistake or like any deliberate action, things pulled in the sessions, from the depths of the boy’s sand colored mind—she’d taken to viewing it as a grain field, his mind—were set down, clear and exact. This same practice was followed with other patients, but the sand colored Wade was the most analyzed subject. He had been for three months, since his father had killed himself by hanging.
“You say you were making tea?” said Parsons.
“Yeah. Black. Unless you want green. I can make both.”
“Black’s fine. Can you call me when the water’s ready?”
“Yeah,” said Eyde, “I’ll call you.”
Parsons went with the cards to his office. Eyde went to the back lawn and he watched her from the window. They had a little over an acre, most of it on the hill, and she went to the bottom part of it, where there was a granite bit and where snow came down the rock face in streams. She packed snow into the pan and returned inside, thinking how pure each color was in their acre, the snow very white and the slate very gray and the trees hunter and solid.
She turned the stove on and let out the smell of gas through the valve and let flames into the air, blue and white and orange waving like silk scraps in unnatural wind. She brought the tea and set the cup down beside his radiator abused hands.
“Thanks,” said Parsons to the cup.
“Tell me if it tastes like lambskin. I used lambskin gloves this time.”
He took a pen from the face of his butternut wood desk and stirred the tea, to let some of the heat off. “I talked to Ian yesterday,” he said.
“Yeah. They’re good people, he and Emily.”
“Yeah, they are.”
“They asked again why we weren’t there Sunday. How we weren’t at church and how we haven’t been a while.”
Eyde coughed. “We’ll go sometime,” she said, looking down at her feet, “Yeah. Tell them that we’ll go sometime. We will.”
“Okay we will. I’ll tell Ian we will.” He said it with his face lowered over the writing set. He would. He’d tell Ian but he wouldn’t mean it.
They didn’t go to church. They’d been before, though, and the pastor liked them. When they had a child three years later the pastor came to the house to look in the crib, came also in sickness one time to bless him. He knew Parsons would die without a religion and that he’d exist in his stanza when he passed. He knew Eyde too would die Godless but that she’d be featured in a series of photographs at the Smithsonian. He knew the child would become a known radio debater. They were not a family concerned with morals.
The child one time would bury his father and do a radio show the same day. The pastor would listen.
Parsons and Eyde and the child, Francis, yet unborn, were, of course, unaware of such things. Eyde knew little beyond that she lived by simplicity, that she lived by the way the snow in the pan died slowly from mountain to lake. Parsons knew a lot and he lived by a lot; by more than what five men’s minds put together might live by. He was writing a new chapbook, a revolutionary thing of many forms—tanka and senryu and haiku and ode—about the sand colored Wade and his father, the equestrian dead and hanged.
The reviews called it full of torment and truth. There was something human in his work, they said, something raw others couldn’t get down on paper.