Squinting against the sun that was defying her forecast, Charlotte tiptoed into the hospital room just in time to hear the social worker, seated with her back to the door, say to Charlotte’s mother, “Hospice care could keep you comfortable and give you personalized attention.”
“And all I’d have to do in return is be willing to die just a trifle sooner than necessary,” Charlotte’s mother said, lifting her chin in a secret greeting as Charlotte’s thick fingers made donkey ears behind the social worker’s head.
“It’s the quality of life,” said the social worker. “You wouldn’t have to worry about being dependent on machines.” Her springy red-gold hair sparkled in the sunlight. Unfair for such vividness to come with such a sappy mind, or was it overwhelmingly fair, a sort of compensation? Charlotte wondered.
Charlotte’s mother was emaciated and eighty, twice Charlotte’s age and scarcely half her weight. She pushed herself up against the pillows and asked the social worker, “How did you get to the hospital today?”
“What? I drove.”
“Do you worry about being dependent on machines?” Charlotte’s mother said, lifting her chin again. “Charlotte, dear, please tell this lovely young woman I’m not quite so eager to croak as healthy young people think I should be, and if this hospital ever pulls the plug on me, you’ll sue the pants off it.”
“My mother is not quite so eager to croak as healthy young people think she should be, and if this hospital ever pulls the plug on her, I’ll sue the pants off it,” Charlotte said pleasantly, stepping over to the bedside.
The social worker said no one had any intention of violating their wishes, she was only trying to find out what they were, and asked if Charlotte was an attorney.
“She’s a philosophy professor who likes to think she’s a meteorologist, but she knows plenty of lawyers.” Charlotte’s mother pushed her silver-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. “And now may we be alone, please?”
Getting up to leave, the social worker said how wonderful it was that Charlotte visited her mother every day.
“My mother is one of the two most interesting people I know,” Charlotte said, settling her hundred and eighty pounds in the vacated chair, “and the other one doesn’t have this much time for me.”
“And where would I be without such birdbrains to keep me on my toes?” Charlotte’s mother said as soon as the social worker was out of earshot, or possibly a bit before. “And speaking of birdbrains, dear, take a peek at this.” She handed Charlotte a magazine opened to an article titled “How Accepting My Mother’s Dying Helped Me Grow.” The article was part of a series titled “Real-Life Drama.” “Charlotte, dear,” said her mother, “promise me you will never use my . . . illness as a spiritual stepladder. Or any other kind of stepladder,” she added, and Charlotte promised, her eyes filling as if the cold front of her forecast were passing through her head.
A moment later, Charlotte’s mother was telling her to stop crying. “I’m going to walk out of here, you know. So why don’t you talk about that Republican you seem so enamored of? I still can’t figure out how I raised a daughter who could fall in love with a Republican.”
Charlotte nodded and, since they were no longer on the subject of her mother’s illness, permitted herself a glance at the sky. The sun had slipped behind a cloud, but it was too late. The temperature was already in the 60’s. Charlotte’s maximum had been 58. She prided herself on exact predictions. She hated forecasts that hedged by saying things like “High around 60, chance of precipitation.” “Look,” she said, “if I can tell myself he’s secretly in love with me, telling myself he’s not really a Republican is a piece of cake.”
“What kind of cake?”
“Chocolate, of course, with chocolate frosting.”
“I do believe I’m going to walk out of here. I merely have anemia; that’s why I’m in this delightful place,” said Charlotte’s mother, who had chronic leukemia that had stopped responding to treatment. “It’s called the denial mechanism. I call it the greatest thing since the wheel.”
Charlotte swallowed hard and touched her mother’s cheek. “Anything anyone does to make his life easier is a psychiatric symptom nowadays,” she said thickly, and then in answer to her mother’s, “Indulge yourself, dear, and go on about Dale,” reminded her that Dale had decided to register as a Republican partly because he’d been asked, “Democrat or Independent?” by someone handing out leaflets on his campus. Dale taught the weather-forecasting course Charlotte drove across the city to twice weekly, since the state college where she taught philosophy had no meteorology department. “He does like talking with me, I’m sure,” she said, “well, pretty sure.” The older and fatter she got, the harder Charlotte found it to gauge her effect on people. Could being interesting make up for what she looked like? How interesting was she, anyway? Dale talked with her about all sorts of things, laughed at her jokes as well as at many remarks she didn’t intend as funny, and was always telling her what exciting and unusual ideas she had. But maybe it was just advanced politeness. He was nice to everyone. Charlotte had gotten into the habit of imagining people in the forecasting course as weather elements, and Dale, she had said to her mother the previous week, was the sun, radiating warmth and light on everyone, when you wanted the warmth and light to be only for you. “Do you want the sun to shine only on you, dear?” Charlotte’s mother had asked, and Charlotte had giggled, saying, “At this point, the analogy breaks down,” but adding that, of course, possessiveness was part of love. You just had to be ready to give as much exclusive attention and loyalty as you’d demand. Now she leaned forward in her seat and said she felt like screaming when she heard people gush about Dale’s niceness, as if being an over-privileged hotshot with an international reputation for your research meant you deserved special credit for being nice, and besides, nice wasn’t the same as good. “I mean, I probably don’t even cross his mind as a romantic possibility because I’m ten years older and twenty or thirty pounds heavier, and if that’s true, it shows he’s crummy deep inside, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, dear,” said Charlotte’s mother as obligingly as if they had never had this conversation before, “but so are plenty of people, and you live in a nasty world, just in case you haven’t noticed. And I noticed the world gave you a little surprise today,” she went on, gesturing toward the window, “and I’m going to give you another one. I have a chance to be in a clinical trial.”
“You do?” Charlotte sat up straighter while her mother explained about the new, experimental treatment. “Evidently this place isn’t very well coordinated, or that charming social worker wouldn’t have come by today to offer me a golden opportunity to bow out gracefully before I can become even more of a burden,” her mother ended.
Charlotte’s mind barely grazed the surface of her usual thought about a sick person who would rather die than be a burden to his family. Either the family didn’t want him to die, so he wouldn’t be doing them any favors, or they did, so why should he give a damn about them? “How effective is the experimental treatment?” she asked. She did not ask, How safe? She already knew the answer. Safer than the alternative.
“That, my dear, is what they’re trying to find out. Would you believe Dr. Ketchum actually assured me that in any case I would be making a contribution to medical research?”
“I hope you replied that expecting you to think about contributing to humanity at this point is like asking the starving to give to charity.”
Her mother smiled. “Remember that documentary about the psychiatrist?”
Charlotte nodded. Two weeks earlier, there had been a television program about a psychiatrist who was training children with terminal cancer to counsel each other. “He made me see I was unhappy because I wasn’t helping anyone,” a photogenically frail twelve-year-old boy had said earnestly into the camera, and the next day, Charlotte’s mother had raged to a sympathetic Charlotte that the poor kid wasn’t even allowed to be unhappy simply because he was dying, for heaven’s sake. He had to be unhappy because he wasn’t helping anyone. But Charlotte didn’t want to go into that now. “Exactly what did Ketchum say about your chances with this new treatment?” she asked.
“The treatment is very experimental, and no one can predict the future.” Charlotte’s mother was mimicking a British accent. “I told him to try telling that to my daughter the meteorologist.”
“Well, you know what Dale says,” said Charlotte. “Everybody has to play the forecasting game.”
“Why is it called a game?” Charlotte was asking Dale in the weather laboratory the following week. She gestured at the posted list labeled “Forecasting Game” that placed her third of nineteen people scored on the accuracy of their forecasts. Everyone in the class was on the list; everyone had to turn in two forecasts a week. That was playing the forecasting game. It was, Dale had told her, how most weather-forecasting courses were run. “If a hospital ranked surgeons on how many lives they saved a week and posted the results, would that make it a game?” Charlotte continued. She ran her fingers through her hair and added, “Philosophers spend hours discussing that kind of stuff. It’s conceptual analysis. And it never gets resolved. That’s the great thing about weather forecasting: you’re guaranteed results every day, and you can stick your head out the window and see for yourself how well you did. It doesn’t matter what the biggest hotshot in the world says.” Dale laughed, the laugh she loved, unusually loud and lively for an adult.
Charlotte glanced out the plate-glass window. Starting out clear, then becoming cloudy later, she had predicted two days before, and the world was cooperating. So far. She turned back to Dale, liking his appearance because it looked as if he cared little about it, which might mean he wasn’t crummy, after all, and cared little about other people’s appearance, too. He was a trifle dumpy and always wore rumpled pants with a nondescript jacket. Even his longish hair and beard, which on most professors Charlotte would have considered signs of academic trendiness, appealed to her because they weren’t what you’d expect of someone who would register as a Republican. They showed his politics weren’t just part of his outfit. She could hardly look at him without smiling, and now she could feel her face growing hot and red as the morning’s sunrise. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Dr. Ketchum had given a warning, Don’t expect miracles; but what would she do without the denial mechanism, greatest thing since the wheel? Surely not stand here happily, with no immediate worries beyond whether she could get up the willpower to end this conversation herself, so she could imagine that Dale, who in fact often talked with her for much of the hour until the class, would today feel deprived by the loss.
And even this problem was getting solved, temporarily at least, as Dale opened a package of Life Savers, held it out to Charlotte (who took two), and said he had been invited to speak at a conference in Tel Aviv next winter. Hadn’t Charlotte once mentioned she’d visited Israel? What did she have to say about it?
“Well,” Charlotte rolled the Life Savers around her tongue, “you’re not Jewish, so Israelis will admit you’re a foreigner. They didn’t with me. I mean, there I was, halfway around the world, and I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know Hebrew, and I couldn’t find my way anywhere. And everyone kept saying to me, ‘Now that you’re in Israel, don’t you feel that you’ve come home?’” Dale burst out laughing again, and she said, “I liked it there, though. A country where three times as many people smoke as jog obviously has plenty going for it.” Neither Dale nor Charlotte smoked. But Charlotte liked the idea of smoking, the big taboo.
“Nice to hear there’s someplace left nowadays where people know the difference between virtue and a low pulse rate,” Dale said. He was barely thirty, but he used the word “nowadays” a lot. Last week, he had shown her a clipping about a California college student who had devised her own interdisciplinary major called “Understanding Myself.” It involved courses in psychology, sociology, human biology, American civilization, and women’s studies. “See what passes for education in California nowadays,” he had said, and Charlotte had replied, “You mean still. That type of thing was much more common fifteen years ago.” Now he was saying, “Have you got a dilemma of the week? I can’t get through a week without one nowadays.” He rocked back on his heels, a motion Charlotte had found she was unable to duplicate without losing her balance.
“This one actually happened,” she said, and told him about Lucy, the philosophy department secretary who displayed on her desk a plaque saying, “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” “And guess what. Her fiance jilted her last week, and the other secretary said, ‘Remember, Lucy, success is getting what you want, and happiness is wanting what you get.’ Lucy was furious. So what do you think? Who’s the real villain of the story?”
“What do I think? I think you come up with the most amazing situations, Charlotte.” Dale rocked back on his heels again and said he wouldn’t have used Lucy’s slogan against her himself, but he sympathized with the secretary who’d done it, because that slogan was a reproach to people who got things no one could want. “Someone should have told Lucy to hang it in a cancer ward.”
Charlotte looked away. She had never told Dale about her mother. Telling him would be too much like using her mother’s illness as a stepladder, and anyway, how could it work? What was he supposed to say, Your mother is dying; therefore, I pity you; therefore, I love you? “I couldn’t agree more,” she said. “Most people I know who are miserable have lives that would make me miserable.”
“We’re definitely on the same wave length,” said Dale.
So why aren’t you in love with me, you twit? Charlotte thought. “Well,” she said, “I’d better go get started on my forecast.”
She walked over to the wall where various kinds of weather maps hung beneath the typed quotation, “‘A forecaster’s heart knoweth its own bitterness, but a stranger meddleth not with its joy.’—Sir Napier Shaw, 1854-1945.” Charlotte had memorized the quote the first time she saw it, but she kept forgetting to ask who Sir Napier Shaw was. She took down several maps and laid them out on a long laboratory table. “How do you make a forecast?” her mother, a retired milliner, had once asked, and Charlotte had said, “How do you make a hat? There are patterns and standard techniques and rules, and one of the main rules is not to follow the rules too closely. You’ve got to have a knack.” While she and Dale were talking, the room had been filling up with students, innocuous little fillers, like puffy, fair-weather cumulus clouds. All around her now she could hear voices exchanging numbers—58, 64, 62, 65—that could be temperature forecasts or possibly college basketball scores. The students liked sports. They treated forecasting like a sport. Charlotte preferred to think of it as a kind of magic. She even had an old thesaurus that listed “weatherman” and “meteorologist” under “oracle.”
Forty minutes later, Charlotte bounded up from her seat—a thunderstorm seemed likely, just the sort of tricky forecasting problem she loved. She started across the room, nearly colliding with Helen Melrose, a flat-faced nineteen-year-old with large, moist, round eyes, who was the only other woman in the forecasting class. Charlotte thought of Helen as a warm front, humid and sticky, casting weak wetness over a large area. It was a special bonus that Helen’s curly hair framed her face in little semicircles like the symbols for a warm front on a weather map.
“Hello, Charlotte,” Helen was saying. “Are you doing the phone forecast today?”
“Yes, and I’m going against MOS.” MOS was the acronym for Model Output Statistics, the computerized forecasts you were supposed to take into account or disregard as conditions required. Charlotte suspected that Helen simply followed these forecasts no matter what. “Just following MOS is like being fed intravenously instead of eating in the usual way,” Charlotte said. “The results aren’t as good and you miss all the fun.” She turned to leave.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you” (like many warm fronts, Helen took a long time passing through), “how does a philosophy professor come to take up meteorology?”
Charlotte had been asked this so often she sometimes envisioned getting little cards printed up with her answer. “About a year ago, I was driving in a rainstorm,” she said, “and it just struck me that it would be exciting, sort of practical and exotic at the same time, to do weather forecasting. For a long time, I figured this had about as much bearing on my life as the idea that it would be exciting to be Emperor of Japan. But when people began telling me I was so obsessed with it that maybe I should see a shrink, I decided it would make more sense to check out the nearest meteorology department instead.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Helen. “You’ve got your life all together.”
“Well, that part of it, anyway,” said Charlotte, and noted that the sky was starting to cloud up on schedule. When the world doesn’t bear me out, it’s wrong, she was fond of saying. “I’d better go do the recording,” she said. That was a fringe benefit of being in a well-known meteorology program. You could record your forecast over the weather laboratory’s telephone line, and people actually called up to hear it.
The recording took hardly a minute, and when she emerged from the booth, Dale was at the radar screen. Charlotte glanced at him hopefully. But, like the sky, she had apparently gotten her share of sunshine. Dale was talking with Helen and two of the male students, and looking as interested and animated as he had with Charlotte. I hate you, Dale, Charlotte thought, recalling how her mother had said, “Even if he wanted you, it wouldn’t work out, dear, because people so full of universal niceness aren’t capable of single-minded loyalty.” And now Dale didn’t look her way. His eyes were on the screen. And Helen’s eyes, moist and round and sticky as ever, were fixed on Dale like twin suction cups.
“Talk about Dale, dear,” Charlotte’s mother said, “and don’t stint on details. I need a distraction.”
Charlotte was sitting beside her mother’s bed on what was supposed to be the first day of the clinical trial. But Charlotte was skeptical. The first day had been postponed twice. She glanced out the window (the sky wasn’t doing badly, but it could use a few more clouds) and wondered what she could say about Dale that wouldn’t sound ludicrously trivial in this setting. But maybe her mother wanted ludicrously trivial. That would be the distraction, Charlotte thought, and began to describe how yesterday she had decided to try a bit of brinkmanship. And so she had told Dale she was going to ask him a personal question and added a lot of build-up about how he obviously didn’t have to answer it, but she hoped he would either tell the truth or simply say it was something he didn’t want to discuss with her, because this was an area where she wanted very much not to be misled. Charlotte stopped for breath, seeing Dale standing near yesterday’s weather maps, as agreeable and unsuspecting as if she were talking about her forecast or the dilemma of the week. “Naturally, he was supposed to wonder what the question was and whether it might even be how he felt about me or if he was involved with anyone else. But he didn’t, I’m sure. He didn’t because he couldn’t see me through my cloak of invisibility. It’s called being fat and forty, except that if I make a habit of saying trite things like that, I’ll have another cloak of invisibility. Why should I give people an excuse to overlook my mind as well as my body?”
“Anyone who overlooks you is merely betraying his own obtuseness, dear.” Charlotte’s mother was looking at her watch. “Aren’t they ever going to come? They’re already two hours late.”
“They don’t give a damn about patients here, do they?” said Charlotte.
“Oh, they do, dear; we’re right up there, ranking fourth after money, prestige, and convenience for the staff. What did you end up asking Dale?”
“I asked him what it was like to be a bigshot,” Charlotte said. “I said fifteen years ago it seemed as if I was going to be one, but it hadn’t worked out that way, and I wanted to know if I was missing a lot of thrills.” She giggled. “I bet no one ever asked him that before. And he said he could hardly discuss it with just anyone, but of course it was a thrill, especially for someone who’d been such a nerd in college that he couldn’t have gotten into a fraternity even if he’d wanted to. But he was afraid he was getting too dependent on it and that it wouldn’t last, and it was apt to make people like him for the wrong reasons, although that beat not being liked at all. So at least he has the concept of liking someone for the wrong reasons. So—”
She broke off as a nurse came into the room. Charlotte gripped her mother’s hand while the nurse described the procedure: two injections, which might cause sleepiness or nausea. “No real-life drama here,” Charlotte’s mother murmured. “I don’t feel a thing,” she said after the injections. But ten minutes after the nurse left, Charlotte’s mother abruptly reached for the basin. “If you think—this is disgusting—that’s just too bad,” she said unsteadily. “I couldn’t have put it better myself,” Charlotte replied, and held the basin in position until her mother decided she wouldn’t be needing it, after all. “Let’s assume the nausea means the treatment’s strong enough to work,” Charlotte said. “Talk some more, dear. Say anything,” said Charlotte’s mother, and Charlotte said, “You know how self-help books say people don’t know what they really want? I think that’s a line to keep people from realizing they know exactly what they want and aren’t getting it. I know what I want. I want you to get well, and Dale to be in love with me, and all my forecasts to come true, if you’ll forgive my mentioning these things in the same breath.”
“You didn’t,” said Charlotte’s mother, her eyes closing. “You took a breath before the forecasts. And I don’t mind as long as my getting well comes first. It’s my life, after all.”
“It does. I promise,” said Charlotte, but her mother was already asleep.
“I promise not to mention your forecast,” said Helen eight days later in the university cafeteria. “OK if I sit here?”
“Sure,” Charlotte said, not bothering to point out that the promise was automatically broken in the making. Well, maybe the weather betrayed me today, but it looks as if there’s going to be a warm front in my life anyhow, she said to herself. She would have liked Helen’s lunch to include something, a bowl of clear soup, perhaps, suggesting weak wetness over a large area. But Helen’s tray held only a grilled-cheese sandwich. Charlotte was having an all-chocolate lunch, chocolate layer cake and a brownie, to celebrate the fact that her mother’s blood count already was marginally better. Besides, Charlotte had made a point of eating fattening food in public ever since reading that most overweight people were too ashamed to—as if they supposed that seeing them eat sparingly might convince an observer it was a diet of lettuce and cottage cheese that was blowing them up like weather balloons. “Well, how are things?” she said.
“Awful,” said Helen, instantly jumping up several notches in Charlotte’s estimation for not chirping, “Fine, thanks, and you?”
“Do you want to say why?” Charlotte took a forkful of cake, avoiding the frosting, which she felt virtuous for saving till last.
Helen shut her eyes tightly. She opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again. She’s milking this for all it’s worth, and why not? Charlotte thought. It beat getting your real-life drama out of magazine articles about other people’s tragedies. “I’m sort of in love with someone,” Helen said, her eyes still shut. Then she opened them. “You know who it is, don’t you?”
Oh, no, Charlotte thought. “Oh, no,” she said. “How would I know?”
“It’s Dale. I was afraid you might have guessed from the way I acted.”
“No, I didn’t guess,” Charlotte said. “Does he reciprocate? Does he have anyone else?” she added so harshly that Helen gave her a brief, curious glance. But Helen’s expression was unsuspecting. I was afraid you might have guessed from the way I acted, Charlotte thought, and scooped up a forkful of frosting ahead of schedule.
“He’s always very friendly,” Helen was saying. “But he never seeks me out or anything.” He seeks me out, at least to talk, Charlotte said to herself. “I’m really not sure if he has anyone else,” Helen continued, and bit into her sandwich, swallowing so hard Charlotte could hear her. “There’s a woman I’ve seen him with, but it’s hard to believe it could be anything romantic. She’s a lot older than him. About forty. She’s very attractive, kind of exotic-looking, but. . . .”
In class the previous week, Dale had explained how a cumulus cloud could turn into an explosive thunderstorm in barely an hour. Charlotte felt as if this were happening inside her now in barely an instant, and it had to be concealed, compounding the outrage. “So maybe he cares about looks, but not about age,” she said evenly. “That would make him only half crummy.”
“Just because she looks good doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like her if she didn’t,” said Helen.
“He’s breaking your heart and you’re worried about judging him unfairly?” Charlotte took a vicious bite of the cake. “Anyway, most men care about looks. So do most women, for that matter. Maybe it’s original sin or something, but you live in a nasty world, just in case you haven’t noticed.” She gazed out the window at the nasty world, as calm and bright as if it hadn’t even heard her forecast.
“But Dale isn’t nasty,” said Helen. “He’s nice. That’s why I’m so crazy about him. He’s so nice.”
Charlotte put down her fork. “Niceness is a vice masquerading as a virtue,” she said.
Charlotte giggled, then forced herself to breathe slowly and deeply. Her face felt singed. “What I mean is that if someone’s too nice to people he doesn’t much care about, he’s often apt to make them like and want him a lot more than he likes and wants them. So they end up feeling terrible, and he gets to look and feel like a good guy, and he gets loyalty he hasn’t earned.”
“But he earns it by being nice,” said Helen. “You can’t expect people to go around being mean just to make sure no one’s going to fall hopelesly in love with them.”
Having finished her cake, Charlotte was starting on the brownie. It was fudgy and dense. “They don’t have to be mean,” she said. “There’s a middle ground. There’s nice and there’s nice. Maybe they ought to be willing to forgo a little personal popularity in order to prevent some broken hearts.”
Helen had propped her chin on both fists and was staring at Charlotte. “But—”
“Actually,” Charlotte said hastily, “I don’t know Dale all that well. I was thinking of the man who supervised my Ph.D. thesis at Cornell.” She flicked a mental snicker at her dissertation adviser, a choleric ex-Jesuit about as likely an object of unrequited love as the square root of minus three, and tried to sound as if she were reminiscing. “He made so many people miserable, including me,” she said, “because he was so nice and concerned. So, naturally, we all wanted much more from him than we got. I was ashamed of being one of his victims, so on top of everything else, I had to struggle to keep my feelings hidden all the time. It was like being on a maintenance diet—all that effort, and you get nothing to show for it except the bad thing that doesn’t happen.” She decided against mentioning that she knew both sides of that equation. In her thirties, she had lost sixty pounds and kept them off for over a year until, like the dieters she saw written up as object lessons in women’s magazines, she had gained the weight back because being slim hadn’t made her attractive, let alone changed her life. The magazines made this sound pathological, but Charlotte considered it just common sense. If losing weight didn’t bring you happiness, shouldn’t you at least have the fun of eating what you liked?
“I still can’t believe you really think it’s bad to be nice,” Helen was saying.
Charlotte wasn’t sure how much she thought it, either, but there was a pinch of truth in there somewhere, and besides, she liked the way it sounded. It wasn’t what other people would say. Too bad she couldn’t try it out on Dale as the dilemma of the week. You come up with the most amazing ideas, Charlotte, he would say. Surely, that other woman was only a friend. If he didn’t care about age, wouldn’t he know where to turn?
“I’ll give you the dilemma this week,” Dale said in the weather laboratory two weeks later.
Charlotte was standing in a trapezoid of sunlight at the end of a dustbeam pointing toward her like a wand. She felt enchanted. Anything could happen. Hadn’t her mother gained three pounds? Weren’t her blood counts progressively improving? No predictions from the doctor, of course, no forecasting game. So Charlotte was playing her own. In her mind, her mother was already convalescing in Charlotte’s guest room, with the bay window and the view of the lake. Charlotte beamed at Dale; wasn’t he about to say, I’m in love with you, Charlotte; I’m in love with you, and I don’t know what to do? I’ll tell you what to do, Charlotte thought.
“Do you ever go to the botanical gardens?” Dale said.
Charlotte nodded, wondering what he was leading up to. She had always provided the dilemmas before. “I’ve been there twice this year, and I haven’t run into a dilemma of the week there yet,” she said.
Dale laughed and rocked back on his heels. “That’s probably because you haven’t had someone interrupt a conversation there. My girlfriend and I were sitting by the lily pond and talking about a problem she’s had with her work lately, and a man came along and asked how to get to the greenhouse and then to the wild flower garden. I gave him both the directions, but it took a while, and afterward, my girlfriend said I should have pretended I didn’t know. ‘You put a stranger ahead of me,’ she said. Once she put it that way, I realized she was right. It’s a matter of priorities. So what do you think?”
What do I think? I think the two of you should freeze to death in a blizzard I deliberately didn’t mention in my forecast. Charlotte’s mind itself seemed to be freezing over, with all the details horribly in place like separate icicles. So he did have someone, someone like Charlotte, someone Charlotte could have been. Should have been. She had values like Charlotte’s, values most people would disapprove of, was as demanding as Charlotte wished she could get away with being, found issues in unlikely places just as Charlotte did. And Dale loved having a girlfriend like this. His face was shining. Charlotte’s own face felt ready to burst. “But you seem so universally nice,” she said. “You don’t seem the type to pretend you don’t know directions.”
“Being universally nice when loyalty isn’t at stake doesn’t mean you’re going to be that way when it is,” said Dale.
So he was capable of single-minded loyalty, and he was giving it. To someone else. Someone very attractive and exotic, the woman Helen had seen? Charlotte gripped the edge of a long table. “I think your girlfriend has terrific judgment,” she said. “I—this is fascinating. Tell me more about her. Is she a meteorologist, too? How old is she? How long have you been together?”
“She’s a violinist and she’s forty-two. We’ve known each other for five months,” said Dale, who had known Charlotte for seven, “but—”
But Charlotte had decided that she couldn’t stand to hear any more. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” wasn’t merely a stupid cliché; it was false. Like “Beggars can’t be choosers.” “Do you believe beggars can’t be choosers?” she said. “I think that’s a terrible idea. Of course, beggars can be choosers.”
“What?” Dale said. “Is this part of the same dilemma?”
“No, we’ve covered that one. This is the one I have for you.” She was talking too fast. Did he notice? “Why do people believe beggars can’t be choosers?” she said.
“I suppose the idea is that beggars have no leverage or they wouldn’t need to beg,” said Dale. “So if they try to be choosy, they’re apt to end up with nothing.”
“Maybe not.” Charlotte felt giddy. “Maybe they can take the leverage. Maybe if you show you won’t settle for just anything, people will realize you’re entitled to a choice. You just have to take a risk.” She was always taking risks with her forecasts, going for long shots. Her mother was going for a long shot. “Do you see what I mean?”
“I’m not sure,” Dale said. “Do you have any examples?”
“No, I guess I haven’t really thought it out.” All at once, Charlotte felt calm and confident, her mind closing over the girlfriend like water over a stone thrown into a lake. Suppose Dale had mentioned the girlfriend to tantalize Charlotte and make her jealous. In a few hours, Charlotte would manage to suppose this, not so she would bet on it, but so she could at least fall back on it in her imagination. What harm could this stranger do her? A forecaster’s heart knoweth its own bitterness, but a stranger meddleth not with its joy.
Charlottes joy increased steadily during the next three weeks. Dale didn’t talk about the girlfriend again. Perhaps he had invented her, the way Charlotte might have invented a boyfriend in the hope of piquing Dale’s interest, if she hadn’t been afraid of getting confused and inconsistent about details. Instead, Dale talked about his work. He was afraid of losing his momentum, never making his great contribution, having his spurt of glory dry up almost before it began, like a summer cloudburst. “It can happen,” Charlotte said. “It happened to me. You put up with it because you have to, which is what people seem to like to call maturity, but you never stop wanting to make a grand dramatic gesture to show you don’t have to settle, after all.” “Do you want to make a grand dramatic gesture?” Dale asked. “It varies,” said Charlotte, recalling how her mother had said, “Certainly, you shouldn’t settle, but grand dramatic gestures look ridiculous and pathetic except to someone who’s already interested in you, dear.”
And every day, her mother was getting stronger. Every day, she spent more time out of bed. “Her response is encouraging,” the doctor told Charlotte, “but remember, her immune system is still depressed. Any little infection could be dangerous.” Already Charlotte had washed her guestroom curtains and gotten a new bedspread in her mother’s favorite shade of dusky pink. “The results so far are clearly favorable,” said the doctor, “but we can’t predict the future.” Then maybe you should try predicting the past, Charlotte wanted to say. She was first in the forecasting game now, insulated with her mother and Dale in a clear bubble where even the weather—like a snowstorm in a glass paperweight—was under her control. But one day, she came home from a drive along the lake to find a message on her answering machine. “There’s an emergency with your mother. Come right away.” The message was two hours old, and it was too late.
You could be too desolate to cry, just as it could be too cold to snow. It was three days before Charlotte left her bed except for necessities, three days before it even occurred to her that she had scarcely thought about Dale since the message from the hospital. But now, reading over the newspaper obituary (“Ruth Corenthal, 80, retired milliner,” naming Charlotte as the survivor), she imagined him reading it, too, and wanting to comfort her. Pinpoints of guilt and excitement flared within her like a fireworks display, but she forced them down.
The weather laboratory was unchanged, of course, except that she was no longer first on the forecasting game list. No one was in the room when she returned, and then, a moment later, there was Dale. Again she fought down the excitement.
“Glad you’re back,” he was saying. “Did you have the flu like everybody else?” His voice was rich and warm, the voice he always had. For everyone.
“Yes,” she said. But Dale’s eyes were already on the maps. A cold front was headed their way, a front that would give rise to storms and leave things clearer in its wake. Charlotte shivered. Why, that’s me, she thought dizzily; I’m a cold front! Starting now. And she shivered again and gripped the edge of a long table and spoke before she could think anything else.
“No,” she said. “I didn’t have the flu. My mother died last week. Of leukemia.”
Dale looked at her, the sun facing the front. “I’m very sorry,” he said. “I had no idea.” Charlotte said nothing. “How long did she have the leukemia?” Dale asked.
“Not long enough,” said Charlotte. “Better dying than dead. That’s how she felt, too.”
“Hardly anyone admits that nowadays,” said Dale. He paused. “I’m really sorry about your mother.” There was a longer pause. “Are you doing the phone forecast?” he asked finally.
“Yes,” Charlotte said. “Yes, I’m doing the forecast.” She laughed—a thick, almost unrecognizable sound. “There’s a cold front coming. Right now. Can’t you see? I’m the front. No, I’m not cracking up. I’ve just gotten used to thinking of people in terms of the weather. And you,” she continued with a dreadful sense of release, not caring that she was almost screaming, no, glad of it, “you’re the sun, shining your warmth and light on everyone, as if ‘I’m very sorry’ were enough, because you naturally never bothered to think about me long enough to suspect that all along you were making me want—I wanted you to—” She turned, running from the laboratory and into the bathroom, all her stored-up tears streaming down, making her face red and puffier than ever. For a long time she sobbed, then stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, knowing what she had done, contemplating the risk, the evilness, and the betrayal, but at least she wasn’t settling anymore, and her mother hadn’t wanted her to settle, had she? And so half an hour later, eyes swollen but dry, Charlotte returned to the laboratory, no longer fighting the excitement, just holding herself carefully to keep from shivering again.
Dale was alone in the room. He was standing by the window. She walked over to him.
“Dale,” she said, “I’m sorry about screaming at you. I. . . .”
Dale turned around but didn’t meet her gaze. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “When your mother dies, you’re not supposed to act like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I took down the maps if you want to do the forecast,” he added, gesturing toward a long table.
A dead sickness flooded through Charlotte. She had betrayed her mother, trying to use her death as a stepladder to Dale, and gotten nothing in return. To sell your soul and gain nothing, maybe that was justice, after all. But in her mind she could hear her mother’s voice saying, Justice has nothing to do with it, dear. It’s simply that grand dramatic gestures look ridiculous and pathetic except to someone who’s already interested in you, and he likes talking with you but he’s chosen someone very attractive and exotic, and you live in a nasty world, just in case you haven’t noticed.