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An Experiment

Just as Eleanor Winters was sitting down at the head of the supper table that had been set up outside, beyond the shore and, against all desires of her family, on the wooden dock, she looked at her husband, Xavier, as he tucked his serviette under his collar like a mutineer. His attachment to me, she thought, it must be imaginary. For one, of her several husbands past, great men all, Xavier was the most difficult husband to catch in the act of greatness. He had his sea legs, his Coleridge, his meetings as Chair of the Common Usage Council, but what was he doing letting Quintin clamor with the silverware? What would Quintin become? Would he ever learn to pair his own socks? The dock gave one of its enlivening creaks. Ah, the little titter—the little titter that follows any attempt at movement, any fictocritical burst of material self-wonderment. Yes, Eleanor knew well this titter of wood and—what, steel?—constantly coming to its grinding halt against passing waves of the Atlantic. But how, thought Eleanor, how does one engage invention and cut a serious figure?: how does one conduct oneself critically This was the reason for Eleanor’s having chosen the dock. Against every scotch and percontation mark in the blitz of familial chaos, she had managed to get them all together, in more or less rectilinear space, on a creaky wooden dock, seated at an errorless arrangement, the heroic flowers strewn bloomfully about the table with the two slightly chilled bottles of vin doux naturel and the duck pie she had worked on all day. She touched eyes with Xavier, just a flash, as to say, Here we are, surrounded by rainbow water. For is the sun not at its charismatic best? And just think what nonsense is our daily habit of eating indoors. Here we are instead, partaking of a painting. Should I not have met ways with means in the manner I had, should I not have conducted the foolish dalliances of our children with such exceptional grit, we would be sitting indoors as on every other night. Lucille, Pricilla, James, Quintin, our neighbors, Yasmina and Sid Ley, Mrs. Haley, all shoulder-to-shoulder on the dock, passing the sharp pie spatulas. Mrs. Haley was discussing with Lucille and James something frank about the colorations of Jupiter’s moons, saying somewhere along the way, And that, James Blankley, is what is called an hypothesis. Eleanor had been amiss with the old hose—Mrs. Haley, after all, had said during her weekly moment of tenantlike concision that she would water the masses of pink yarrow that billowed between their three proximal structures, the big house, the boat house and Yasmina and Sid’s ramshackle cottage, the latter being set back from the grasses and castings of sand. Nearby were those wonderfully heavy concrete anchors with the salt-chewed chains. It is what is called a hypothesis, Eleanor thought, allowing her eyes to settle sleepily on Yasmina’s mouth as it took in an unrationed portion of vin doux naturel. The Leys had two summers been neighbors, had each of those two summers been closed up in their small single bed like balsam match sticks. Xavier often required help with the fine print of certain Common Usages, whereupon Sid would arrive by way of the garden path and disturb the door of our little solarium, bringing along his youthful pedantry and what he called his quilting pin, a large exophthalmic magnifying glass, helpful for measuring the weight of words. Whenever this occurred—as it would invariably clock the day and lead to sherry—Eleanor would grab Yasmina and the two would trek barefooted along the shoreline to Langshaw Lagoon. Here they would push out the dory and stabilize themselves upon the waterproof cushions and look out at the land. So much of Eleanor’s summers were, it seemed, framed by the cygneous curvatures of Yasmina’s neck, shoulders. Yasmina had no children; she and Sid were still young. The wine should be passed along. Sid was asking, as Pricilla was only recently twelve, whether she was not too young to be taking anything besides finger-licks of wine, let alone her own full pours, whereupon Xavier whipped his hand at the ocean, as though to mark, At this table, twelve years is years enough to know the bite of living. The bite of living, as Xavier often said. Yasmina’s goblet tocked on the table. “Quintin,” said Eleanor, exasperated, “enough with that. Behave.” Xavier looked at his wife, interrupted from a brief but perturbed silence. Was he having a laugh? Having a laugh with death—that was the way of things. The sun was setting—have a laugh. Stones were grinding into sand—have a laugh. The duck—it had, by a series of obscure accommodations, died for us. Shall we have a laugh at that? That little Pricilla, sitting to my right, ate too carefully, stared off toward the east, toward Akkad, Sumer. Shall we have a laugh about that? Remember the sound of the war guns?—and now these drinks named after that sound, clinking dully against the full-throated seethe of liquid fire, curling up and falling down against the shore, wave after wave. The philosopher who had vested his work with the sensuous body of the wave—the same wave upon the same shore—it is unlikely he ever knew sameness and all the manners of sameness’s coming, of sameness’s staying. The same was in fact a monumental deceiver. Someone had to get everybody out at sea. Someone had to set up everything on the dock. Eleanor got it in her to gaze upon Yasmina. Was there anchorage? Spinsters Xavier Winters and Sid Ley were discussing the organization of dictionaries. Xavier is a focused man, thought Eleanor. Such fine hemming along the ridge of his thoughts—but what did he know of being a mariner? Tonight, out in the dory, Eleanor Winters thought. She would have an experiment with the concrete anchors, the salt-chewed chains.

Albe Harlow is a 2019 graduate of Columbia University’s Writing Program and lives in New York City.