by Alice Munro
from Dear Life
This story first appeared in this year’s Tin House Summer Reading issue. I put off reading it until now simply because it is the last “fictional” piece in this new collection (the remaining four stories are apparently sort of nonfictional pieces, though I’m sure they will still sound like Alice Munro). If this happens to be the last “new” piece of fiction I read from Alice Munro (I still have a lot of her old stuff to work through, and I will), it is a great piece to go out on. It’s not my favorite of the collection, but it’s strong, mysterious, and invasive.
The story begins peacefully, just what you don’t expect when the subject is a planned double suicide.
That fall there had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Franklin being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time, we had naturally made plans for our funerals (none) and for the burials (immediate) in a plot already purchased. We had decided against cremation, which was popular with our friends. It was just the actual dying that had been left out of up to chance.
But they are driving around and see a little used, but, importantly, used, country road. This was perfect as it would give them the privacy to do what they felt they should do while ensuring someone would find them relatively soon. What stops them is a minor debate they have about whether or not to leave a note. He says no. She says yes: “And that very fact — our disagreement — seemed to put the possibility out of his head.” It manages to unsettle her quite a bit, his pushing the thought out of his mind, even though she seems to have misgivings about the procedure:
I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen in our lives. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed anymore.
He said that we had just had an argument, what more did I want?
It was too polite, I said.
The story then goes in a very different direction, as Munro’s stories are wont to do. One day, Gwen, also an elderly woman, knocks on the door, looking to sell cosmetics. She and the narrator sit down and discuss other things, and in the process we see a stark difference between the two. The narrator is sophisticated; she taught mathematics for years and is now a biographer of Canadian authors. Gwen uses poor grammar and obviously comes from a stressed home, where it appears she might be saddled with her young grandchildren.
When Gwen returns to deliver the product the narrator purchased, her car ends up breaking down. Franklin comes down to help:
Both she and Franklin then were struck at the same time.
“Oh my Lord,” said Gwen.
“No it isn’t,” said Franklin. “It’s just me.”
And they stood halted in their tracks.
See, we’ve learned that Franklin is a rather successful poet, famous primarily for one “raw” poem he wrote about a woman he met during the War. It’s coincidental, but he has now run into that woman again: Gwen, only he knows her as Dolly.
At first an unwilling participant in the general “merriment,” the narrator becomes distressed, feeling threatened by this return.
I don’t want to spoil anything that’s coming, but while the story does proceed in a manner we might expect (the jealousy, because afterall this is the man’s muse who’s just appeared out of thin air) it’s all subverted by the ending. Obviously this couple still has time to feel joy and pain just as purely as they ever did.