Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mr. Olson

Mr. Olson was one of those old, old men who had somehow retained his physical power despite the years. Past eighty, he was still often seen in his driveway, loading or unloading his pickup, or working in the yard with a shovel or a rake. But no one mistook him for a young man: his skin was colorless, his cheeks fell slightly inward, and his head was mostly bald, although it was inevitably covered with a weathered gray fishing hat.

In contrast to her husband, Mrs. Olson, still youthful at sixty-two, was a small round woman with pink cheeks. The pair would have been cause for comment, had they gone out on the town together or given the occasional dinner party. Looking at them was like seeing two photos side by side – one in black and white, the other in color.

Now you might think that marrying someone twenty years older would entitle you to no end of stories and advice, based on the collected wisdom of your mate, but Mr. Olson wasn't much of a talker. In fact, for Mrs. Olson this was one of his most attractive qualities, since she came from a fairly quiet family herself. Yet Mr. Olson had a quiet that was deliberate, and bordered on a religious conviction. He thought that speech dishonored thoughts; or rather, that non-verbal communication was a much nobler form of expression.

Mr. Olson was a man of great emotion, however, and he made Mrs. Olson feel lucky to have him. Without words, and maybe in part due to their absence, he could bring to her that feeling of unconditional acceptance that all lovers crave. He had a way with gestures, both large and small.

She had a Schnauzer named Clarence that, for the most part, Mr. Olson just tolerated. Last summer, though, when the dog got sick, Mr. Olson spent two sleepless nights worrying and carefully nursing him back to health, and since then she had come home on occasion to find the two of them asleep together on the sofa. The sight always filled her with tenderness.

On the other hand, having outlived all his friends, Mr. Olson had developed a feeling of correctness that at times seemed like arrogance, as if he felt, "I have survived, so I am right.” It was a quality that sometimes disturbed their happy home.

The two usually spent their Sundays in the park with Clarence. But that spring Mrs. Olson's mother died, and after the funeral, a well-attended gathering of her mother’s dear friends, Mrs. Olson began to dress up and go off by herself on Sunday mornings, to the neighborhood church. She said it was just a way to feel closer to her mother now that she was gone, but in truth she also enjoyed the kind of easy, purposeless talk that always followed mass. Mr. Olson took it poorly – he had no room for religion, having suffered in a Jesuit boarding school in the thirties.

And so Mrs. Olson paid for her new association with the friendship of her husband; not all at once, but gradually. One day she realized that more than a week had gone by without a word passing between them. On its own, this wasn't so odd, but Mr. Olson had begun to deny her his non-verbal kindnesses as well – and it began to hurt Mrs. Olson's heart.

His displeasure was there in his face, a gloomy shadow of his silent responses to her everyday questions. His nod said Yes, but also said, You let me down. His shrug said I don’t know, and also said, I am not happy.

One Sunday morning, convinced that something had to change, Mrs. Olson decided to wear the special dress. The dress he had had made for her. The one she made sure she could always fit into. It was hand-embroidered with a beautiful pattern of red roses, which bloomed on an elegant black background. The dress meant a great deal to both of them. She took it off the hanger and put it on. On her way downstairs, she stopped in front of the mirror and toughened up a little to face him.

Downstairs, she found him holding Clarence and looking out the window. He looked over as she walked to the center of the room and raised an eyebrow in acknowledgment of the dress – she hadn't worn it for some time. She turned herself around slowly, and briefly extended her arms, and then she smiled at him and curtsied. Mr. Olson put Clarence down. A bitterness welled up from where his pride lay coiled inside him. He felt it was patronizing the way she thought she could use his heart to change his mind – to hell with that, he thought. He made his face calm, took a step toward her, then shrugged a shrug that answered "I don't give a damn" to every priest anywhere who ever dared to ask “Have you been saved?”

Mrs. Olson was crushed. The dress was them both, was their lives; it was the common face of their union that they showed to the world, and it was above the world, above their individual tastes, their individual concerns, even their individual beliefs. She saw him putting his resentment of the church above their love for each other, and it made her senseless with emotion. The room blurred. She took off the dress. She threw it in the kitchen trash. She went upstairs and put on the first thing she saw and then left for church crying.

Mr. Olson sat down on the sofa and stroked at his chin numbly; his anger was gone. He couldn't think of what this would all mean. He sat there for some time, and then went out to work, to see if he could begin to regain his balance. He went to the shed in back and got out the mower and wheeled it to the front yard. He bent and yanked the cord, looking forward to the solitude that the hammering engine always provided him. He pulled again. The engine wasn't catching. After a third try he checked the gas and the oil, but both reservoirs were full. The spark plugs were new. It occurred to him that he wasn't pulling hard enough. He bent and yanked the cord again and again, but he could not get the engine to turn over. He felt like a sick man struggling to open a bottle of pills. He sat down where he was in the grass, unbelieving, and his shoulders shook as he cried.

Returning from church, Mrs. Olson found him sitting on the front steps. The sight of him made her chest full again, but his peculiar aspect made the feeling less sharp. As she walked up the path, his expression made her stop, and he motioned for her to wait there. He went into the house, and returned shortly carrying a large bowl and a good clean towel. He led her the rest of the way to the front steps and sat her down there gently, as he crouched in front of her. He undid the buckles of her shoes, and she smiled, confused. As tenderly set her feet in the bowl, her smile broadened, and then she gasped as he lifted a large bottle of Chanel No. 5 out of the pocket of his overalls, and poured it over the tops of her feet. She heard the neighbor's rake across the street stop scraping, and then the pair of them laughed out loud for some time, as he washed her feet with the perfume.