A Decent Life (a short story)


HAROLD HAD KEPT in his mind the image of the newspaper’s doubled face, the luxurious automobile below the fold, and the latest disaster from across the world above. From the livingroom he regarded the quiet dignity of his neighbourhood and congratulated himself for his accomplishments. He felt he lived in one of Amigary’s finest neighbourhoods, in a very respectable Tudor home. He thought of the things he would like to do over the summer, perhaps install a swimming pool or a deck. The neighbour’s dog barked. Harold reorganized his mental list, adding Fence at the top and moving Pool below Deck. His wife would want to know how he proposed to pay for these: but never mind that, he thought to himself. She was always worrying over nothing. They would do fine, he’d say. Harold could smell the dog shit in the air and wondered, Would the others smell it too? The thought that they would embarrassed him and made him only more determined to build the fence. Never mind that a fence would never stop a smell. It was something, a start. In the meantime, they would be polite and pretend not to notice.

“They’ll be here soon,” said Meg from the kitchen. Harold disliked it when she spoke to him like this, across rooms, and he told her – but as always, he concluded, to no avail. In a tone more grumpy than he’d meant, he called back:
“How soon is soon?”
Meg replied, “At noon, or thereabouts. Try not to sound so pleased!”
Harold was again tempted to bark something back, but instead he crossed his legs and opened the paper across his lap. It was now 10 am and already the heat of the day would be apparent. He considered his perfect lawn (nearly perfect: he would have to work at it a bit more) and worried over the possibility of drought. No rain today, he decided, looking out the bay window at the strip of sky. The paper was no help. It reminded him of the inevitable disasters elsewhere, things one couldn’t help, and he preferred not to know about the war and floods, the drought and devastation. It was really none of his business. Nothing he could do about it, his mind repeated. It was terrible that people were dying from elemental things like wind and rain and hunger but —
Harold put down the paper and admired his watch, which he’d bought through the mail for what he called “a steal.” From Palo Alto, or Pamona, he couldn’t recall which. He preferred to think it was Pamona, which recalled Moira Goller, a woman he had known many years ago. They had dated four months, in high school, and then her family moved to California and that was that. And although he had – well, Harold thought, love is such a strong word – feelings, Moira had discovered she did not mind saying goodbye. He gathered that she had travelled, to Russia, Mexico, Thailand. And others which were to him unclear. Places all he had never seen, and probably never would.
All of this nostalgia, if that’s what it was, made him feel awkward. Of course he loved his wife, and of course he was happy. He looked again at his watch and admired the gold logo of the investment firm and his own name, HAROLD ENNIS, stamped boldly beneath in red letters, as specified in his order. He’d seen the ad in a business magazine. Harold suggested that the company could perhaps consider the watches for the entire staff, but beyond this nothing had happened. He looked again out the window and felt for a moment something within him (a rising wave? he thought) as he wondered, What had become of Moira?
All around the neighbourhood now people were bringing out their mowers. Across the street Robert Graham seemed to attack his shrubbery. Perhaps it was the thin legs, lost beneath the coarse fabric of his rayon trousers like a scarecrow’s, that made Robert seem to Harold menacing. It was like watching a living skeleton with a chainsaw. Everyone admired Robert’s lawn, to which he was dedicated (or so it seemed to Harold) full-time. Once Harold had turned to Meg and said, “He goes a bit overboard, that Robert, don’t you think?” But it was far worse, they agreed, not to keep up with the Standard.
No one in Amigary, no one respectable at least, dared to be seen as slack. Harold told himself the effort was all worth it. He regarded his home and his neighbourhood and thought well of his accomplishments. He was only fifty-two and had many years ahead. Having thought this, Harold touched wood and then laughed to himself for being so superstitious. Still, he thought, he’d been lucky. His two children were grown and the family, which included five grand-children, were all healthy. He had nothing to look forward to but peace and –
“Do you have plans for today, Harry?”
He was startled by her sudden entrance, which dislodged a reply. But then he remembered Pog and added that he was thinking about a trip to the office.
“Only a thought,” he said, ‘but still I ought to get some things tied up.”
Normally she would protest (The office Harold? On a Saturday?) but she preferred in this instance to have him gone. He meant well but could come off a bit gruff. Her friends after all had been to College, and she felt this made them uncomfortable around plain-spoken men like Harold. Only she would never say this out loud – not the last bit about the “men like Harold” and being uncomfortable, or the plain-spoken bit either – because she would no doubt be misunderstood, even though they would not be meant as insults. Practical men, men of the world. Perhaps that’s what it is?
“I’ve got some … files to read, to write” Harold said, noting her silence.   Perhaps also, he added, there would be numbers to crunch.
A nice phrase. It gave him a physical sensation along his flanks. Why, he wondered, wasn’t it possible to crunch words, or even letters, as well? Was it that words lacked substance? He imagined eating his words, tried to construe a flavour. What did money taste like?
“How is – is it Korea, Harold, you were worried about?” asked Meg, less out of real interest than to drive away her guilt, having earlier wished him gone.
“Yes, South Korea you mean.” Harold suspected she was only making chat, but he was carried along by his enthusiasm over prospects.
“The fundamentals need to be sound. They need stability and the rule of law. We should wait it out. After the structural adjustments, perhaps.”
Meg gathered things would get better and that there was nothing to worry about. The market goes up, and the market goes down. Then up again. After a lifetime of going up and down, you got somewhere, which was called progress.
She heard Harold say something about an IMF and nodded approvingly. Harold hadn’t much success getting clients in the two years he had been an investment consultant, but she knew that would change. She need only support him.
“We should wait it out,” he said. “It will be fine.”
Meg longed for the lost feeling of security. Sometimes she wished they could go back to the days when Harold was a plant manager with a good salary. Not that it would never happen, or even should. The factory was gone now; it had moved to Mexico. The need to be competitive, she remembered Harold explaining. It didn’t seem right, but it was wrong to complain. The severance money helped them continue to live in comfort. Things could have been worse, Meg reminded herself. Some of the money was invested, and some they were using to meet their expenses. But it wouldn’t last forever, the Down. They would go Up, eventually.
“We?” asked Meg. “You mean we have investments in South Korea?”
Harold took a moment to piece together her meaning. Oh yes, he thought, she’d only misunderstood his use of the pronoun. He explained that he’d meant We only rhetorically, as an assurance to his clients that he was part of a team – a team working together toward prosperity.
“We have some Indonesian holdings,” he said, and Meg thought that was close enough.
Harold pondered the phrase structural adjustments. How professional it sounded, almost mysterious really. Harold felt proud to be in an occupation that was so influential and so useful. He could speak with authority about debenture stocks and government bonds, T-bills and derivatives, arbitraging and zero coupons. He could say with great certainty that public deficits were bad and that socialism had been tried and proven a failure. He had a book that explained it all.
What times they lived in! How far the world had come in the work of democracy and capitalism, for which his father had fought in the War. Walls coming down and the Web everywhere. Astonishing times. New ideas, a new millennium. A global society. It made one feel quite important.
“It’s 10:30, dear. Shouldn’t you be getting ready for company?” he asked.
She took “dear” as a mild scold; he always called her a dear when he was getting impatient. But she ignored his efforts to, as she saw it, hurry her along. She smiled and said only, “I’m already finished.”
And with that Harold excused himself. “Then I guess you won’t be needing me. I’ll be on my way.”


Everything would be just right. Meg looked with moderate anxiety at her new hairdo and noticed a fleck on the mirror, which she was soon attacking with ammonia and paper toweling (Why the hell, she recalled Harold once asking, do you call it paper “toweling”?). Drops fell to the floor which she then pursued, following the tiles to the precise edge of the tub, where she noticed a stray pubic hair. Her eye having thus been seduced she continued to seek out the escaped dirt and to polish. She rearranged the covers on the toilet paper rolls and then went beneath the sink to get her bathroom gloves and a can of aerosol. She didn’t care for the texture of the gloves, which came in a bag that boasted Velvety Lining. Putting them on, it felt more to her like a cat licking her fingers.
Her eye followed the descent of the spray as it passed through sunlight, and she studied the back of her wrists as she wiped. On the gloves the words Made in Indonesia were stamped in uneven black ink, and she wondered if Harold had invested in Indonesian velvety-lined gloves. The thought seemed to her a bit silly, but then, he must have invested in something. Why couldn’t it be velvety-lined gloves? (Was velvety the same as velvet? she wondered. Or did it mean a semblance only?) She pondered the prosperity, hands going into toilets. How many millions of hands, how many millions of dollars? she wondered. Could it be, say, a billion hands a day? And was that then a billion dollars? Or more?
It seemed too high a number, but then the world was a vast place. She knew only Amigary. Anyway, something like that must be how prosperity worked, and she made a mental note she would have to bring up the question of Indonesia again when Harry returned.
When the bathroom was just so, Meg cast an impatient eye to the mantle clock. Elli, she knew, would be late, and Barbara as well if she came with Elli, as she usually did. Pog of course did everything with care and took great pride in being punctual. Something I learned in college, Pog would say. (“It was as if she had learned everything in college, or rather thought she did,” Harold once observed.) And anyway, Pog would add, she had been raised that way.
Not that Meg, or any of them, had been raised differently. As she waited for her friends to arrive, Meg thought of her father, Cornelius McAughley. A “solid pillar of the community” – the very words they had used at his funeral. A Presbyterian and an earnest spokesman (it would never have occurred to him to say spokesperson, Meg thought) on behalf of propriety. Propriety, proper, appropriate: his favourite words. They meant working hard, being responsible, and making something of your life. For a time she had rebelled. His world had been restrictive, or had seemed that way. Father – he was never Daddy or even Dad – worked in insurance. The perfect line of work for him, Meg thought. He tried to be prepared for whatever could come.
He was tall and handsome even late in life. After the wake, Meg’s mother said that all the other girls had wanted him. But she overcame them all, she said. It had been hard for Meg to watch her father waste away from the cancer. Her mother spoke little of his illness, both before and after he’d died. She was the strong and silent sort of person. Abigail, Beebee to her closest friends. She wore her hair in a bun and had dark, serious eyes. Meg knew her mother had a brilliant mind and a sharp tongue too when she cared to use it, but Abigail was mostly a reserved person. Her dark features made her seem to some mysterious, and Meg was sure her mother had used this to her advantage. She couldn’t recall her mother ever having raised her voice, though she must have, Meg thought. She could recall her laughing – really laughing – only a few times. Meg wondered how her mother had come to be called Beebee. It didn’t fit at all the image of the person she had known. There must have been a secret past in her mother’s life about which the children had not known. Perhaps it was better that way, she added guiltily.
Meg looked at her clothes. Did the skirt flatter her, or make her seem pursy? It was so hard to tell in the mirror. She couldn’t help but feel she was looking old, even though Harold protested she was as beautiful as ever. “Of course you would say that,” she answered. She took up the wedding photograph that sat on the chest of drawers. Harold stood beside her with visible pride, and they both looked so young and happy and full of promise. Someone told her that day that she looked like Jackie – that she had the same elegant face. Harold was then, as now, big-chested and stout. His eyebrows were heavy and everything about him made him look strong. Her parents had protested the match in the beginning and felt that Harold had only meager prospects. But Meg believed he would go somewhere and kept stubbornly committed to him until even her mother had relented. Now, thirty-three years later, they had Susan and Meagan and the three grandchildren also. How fortunate she had been, she told herself, and how happy.
Her thoughts turned to their home. She would look around one more time to make sure everything was in order. She adjusted the floral prints in the living room and the plates hanging in the kitchen. She aligned the Norman Rockwell books and turned slightly the new china figure she’d put at the front of the cabinet. She reminded herself she would have to bring her newest acquisition to the attention of her guests. They’d shown such delight over her other pieces, she knew they would adore this one too. And anyway, she’d had to put up with Barbara’s silly thimbles, and act glad about it too.
Pog arrived on-time and was loudly announcing herself from the driveway, turning slightly as she did and gesturing behind, a purse swaying from the crook of her arm.
“Well, Meg – what do you think?”
Meg saw the automobile and said, “My gosh, Pog! You never even mentioned.”
“I wanted you to be surprised,” Pog said.
“Well I am.” Meg’s figurine seemed insignificant now, but she added, “What a nice surprise.”
“Come and have a look,” Pog said.
Meg followed on her slippered feet and offered the necessary compliments as Pog explained the luxurious features and said how exquisite it all was, carefully placing the accent on ex. She knew only a little about cars, she admitted, but fortunately her husband Roy had given the lecture many times in her presence to all his friends.
“It’s lovely,” Meg said.
Pog told her at length how she and Roy had made their choice. Roy had always bought General Motors, but nowadays their cars weren’t made in America so it hardly seemed as if jobs were at stake. It wasn’t as if General Motors would disappear, and in any case they liked the ads. She said she couldn’t quite put it into words. It was the look of the ads, she said, which got their attention.
“Oh, I’m not putting this very well at all,” Pog said. “And to think I went to college all those years.”
“I know what you mean. It’s really a lovely car, Pog.”
They went into the house and decided to wait for the others before taking a drive, and soon Barbara and Elli arrived, Elli carrying a small, plain box and Barbara peering into the strange car, her fingertips playing about her chin. Barbara saw something in the back seat which gave Pog away, and turning to Eli she said something to which Elli blurted in reply Oui! Meg and Pog arose at the sound of their approach and were already at the door when Barbara said, “Is it yours, Pog?”
Pog only smiled and Meg asked Elli what she had brought along.
“Come in, ladies,” Meg said, as Elli offered up her coffee cake and apologized in advance for not having enough sour cream to do it properly.
“Nonsense!” Meg said, and they all agreed that Elli was one of the best bakers that they knew. “Anyway,” Meg said, “you shouldn’t have.”
Meg took the box and as she went into the kitchen she told the others they may as well sit in the TV room today, where it was cooler. Barbara remarked as she always did that Harold had the largest television she’d ever seen, and Meg said, choosing a number that seemed believable but impressive, that they got 153 channels. Pog wanted to know where she could get one, and wondered Did they come any bigger? As Barbara took the stairs Meg hurried to the cabinet, where Elli now stood. She took out the blue, white, and gold angel and called it to their attention. They all said again how lovely it was, and as the topic was volleyed in the air above them Meg relished her triumph, following the others as they went to the recreation room below.
Having sat, Pog introduced the weather into their conversation and wondered rhetorically had there ever been a hotter summer than this? Meg asked them, Did they think it was El Niño? Barbara had seen a TV documentary on the topic and assured them it was, but before she could finish Meg interrupted by asking just what was El Niño anyway?
“It’s wind,” Barbara said.
Then Barbara explained it all, and added that El Niño was a Spanish word which meant The Baby. Or was it The Child?
“Well,” Meg said, “either one, that explains it. You should see what my grandson does to the house when he visits.”
Everyone laughed and Meg excused herself to make the gin-and-tonics. Pog told Elli and Barbara again about her decision to learn to speak the French language, using video tapes she’d taken out of the library. Ever since she had lost her job at the hospital she and her husband had planned to travel to Paris, and perhaps even to live there part of the year, a proposition which delighted Barbara.
“I’ve heard there is terrible unrest in France these days,” Pog said importantly.
Barbara pointed out that sort of behaviour was everywhere these days, not just in France. “It’s not so bad if you keep to the beaten path,” she concluded.
Elli agreed to be polite but wondered to herself, What on earth was the beaten path of France?
Barbara went on about a French acquaintance of hers who lived in Provence and who was always begging her – in French, of course – to come for a visit.
“You really should soon,” Pog said, “as you’re not so young as you used to be. Not that you’re old, of course.”
They all laughed at that and Elli said she couldn’t stand the thought of life passing her by. She’d do anything not to sit around by herself growing old.
They felt suddenly awkward, as of course she was alone. Now her ex-husband Edward, of whom they never spoke, was married to a woman half her age. Barbara tried to change the subject.
“No,” Barbara said, “one must be upbeat and optimistic.” And it worked, she told herself. Her life was bright and interesting, and she lived in a decent and sane world.
“Really Meg!” Pog protested. “Can’t you sit still for one minute?” Meg handed the drinks to her friends and put down the china plates and forks as well. While she returned to the kitchen for the cake itself Pog said What lovely glasses! and not to be outdone Barbara explained they were Depression glass, you could tell by the colour. Barbara and Pog said they were lovely and marvelled over the beauty of the home in general.
“It’s a nice house,” Elli said. Then she thought, “We are all ridiculous. Our world is absurd.” But she couldn’t bear the thought of sitting at home by herself.
When Meg returned with the coffee cake she felt gratified. They had adored her figurines and had complimented her on her house. They were having a marvellous time, and it was all thanks to Meg’s skills as a hostess. She anticipated their every need, even bringing a pitcher of water for when they’d finished the coffee cake.
“You’re probably parched from the trip over in this hot weather, and the gin won’t help either,” she said.
Barbara asked Meg what perfume she was wearing and where she got it. The conversation was turned to the Hudson Bay Company and Barbara said she had learned all about the Hudson Bay area after she and Ted had taken a trip there many years ago on the Polar Bear Express.
“Not to the Hudson Bay, actually, but James Bay,” she said. “The Polar Bear Express – that’s the name of the train you take – goes all the way up to…oh, is it Moosonee or Moose Factory? I always get them confused.”
Then she told them about the Cree people and the Cree language, and mentioned also the origins of the Cree Bible.
“It was written by an Anglican missionary,” she said, “in their language of course, but using special letters he’d invented.”
“Could you have flown in, instead of taking the train?” Meg wondered. “Is there an airport?”
“Of course there’s an airport,” Barbara said. “It isn’t as if it were the heart of Africa.”
Barbara laughed, as the others did too, but Meg felt she’d been stung and for a moment wished they would all go away. Elli thought she should contribute something and wondered was it proper to say “Indian” these days, or were they called Natives? Barbara said it was improper and asked them if they knew what the Cree called Americans. They all said they didn’t.
“Big Knives,” Barbara said proudly.
“Oh, and speaking of knives,” Pog said, “I love your silver pattern.” Barbara agreed and added that the plates were very nice too. She turned one over and saw it was stamped “Made in Occupied Japan.” The conversation then turned to the War and how fortunate their generation had been for never having to fight. Meg pointed out the irony of making china in a war zone, but of course, she added, the war was over by then and the Americans were rebuilding things.
“And we’ve been lucky to have had peace ever since,” Pog said. “– in North America, I mean.”
Yes, Barbara said; theirs was a decent and sane life. The world was full of war and poverty and squalor. There was nothing to be done. It was so sad.
“It’s terrible,” Meg said.
“Wouldn’t it be something to live in a teepee!” Pog wondered. The others offered their consent with nods, and encouraged Pog continued, adding after she’d thought momentarily over the implications, “If you’re used to modern civilization, I mean.”
Meg had lost all track of time. The doorbell rang, and surprised Meg announced it was only the yardboy having come around to get his pay.
“I probably should stop saying boy,” Meg added. “He’s a young man, isn’t he. He wouldn’t like it, if he knew.”
“Oh! Bring him here,” Pog said. “Roy and I have been looking for a yardboy.”
Everyone laughed at Pog’s mistake, except Pog, who at last caught on. In Meg’s absence Pog explained that yardman somehow didn’t sound right either. Barbara and Elli agreed.
Elli thought, Why not just his name? But she said nothing. It was too obvious, she decided, to mention.
Meg returned shortly after with a tall man trailing behind. Pog guessed that he was about twenty-four years old, perhaps a bit younger. It was a game she often played: guess who I am she called it. A name, an occupation, an age. She believed she could deduce them all from a single, brief inspection.
She noticed first that his face was wet, probably she thought from the heat and the effort of riding a bicycle across town: he likely didn’t own a car, the poor fellow. A yardboy, yardman. By his angular features, the high cheekbones, the thin arms and vivid, dark eyes, he looked like – like a Victor.
It hardly seemed a logical name for a yardperson, and yet, she decided, it fit.
Barbara couldn’t bear the sight of perspiration and wanted to offer him a tissue, but she felt this was too forward. Elli smiled and said Hello.
“Juan,” Meg said, “this is Mrs. Ayers. She’s looking for some help.”
They heard Harold at the door and Pog mechanically checked her watch.
“Have we been here this long?” she asked, rhetorically.
Harold soon appeared and said his hellos. He agreed it was hot and wondered aloud Would it rain soon? He asked about the car, and Pog rehearsed her earlier performance. She was pleased to have again remembered everything, including even the exact gas mileage.
“How did your work go?” Meg asked.
Harold answered that he’d changed his mind and gone for a drive instead. On a whim, he had visited the grave of his mother. And he had driven about, to nowhere in particular.
Meg thought this a bit peculiar. It was unlike Harold to deviate from a plan.
Harold was surprised as well by his sudden desire. The truth was that he found it hard to return. Driving in the country he had felt at large in the world, undefined, alive. The feeling of motion on an open road was thrilling and intoxicating.
The oldest cliché in the language, Harold thought: driving into the sunset. The stuff of mid-life crisis. Would he next run off with a woman half his age? He felt ridiculous, smiled sympathetically at Elli.
Juan, who had been left to himself in a corner, coughed. He came again to their attention.
As they regarded him he had a glorious vision. What a grand life, this life of theirs. He would have it too, some day. He would make certain. To be able to talk, and eat, and do nothing in particular. To spend a day in idleness when elsewhere there is work to be done – this was the life!


Some time later Pog was entertaining her friends with stories about her Mexican yard worker. “I had no idea he would be Mexican,” she said to Meg. “Not that it matters. And really he’s turned out to be such a surprisingly good worker.”
Barbara talked about Mexico, and Pog said she’d seen something interesting about free trade on TV. Meg tried to change the subject before Pog could elaborate, but it was Elli who steered them elsewhere, wondering what the century would bring.
“Will the Information Age be as wonderful as we’ve been told?” she asked.
Meg said, Yes it all sounds so exciting, and felt she even meant it.
Barbara said that technology would do things they couldn’t even dream about. It would even bring greater freedom to America, she said.
Pog said, “I have an idea! Why don’t I take us all for a ride!”

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