Castles in the sand

The characters in Amy Bloom's award-winning short stories are broken and redeemed by love. In this exclusive extract from her powerful first novel, `Love Invents Us', a marriage is dissolving as surely as footprints on the shore. Illustration by Matilda Harrison
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"Every couple has a life," Greta said. "Bury me."

Max stood up, staring at the ocean bleached and mirrored in the late afternoon sun.

"I know you thought ours would be a happy life, and so you are disappointed. Please bury me, I've got everything but my arm."

He put one foot out, pushed a little hill of sand toward her brown arm, and walked closer to the water.

Greta raised her voice. "Come, just a little more, Max. Just my arm. I am not asking for the world, you know, just a little sand."

He didn't move.

"I did think it would be a happy life. That is what people think. That's why they marry and have children. In anticipation of further joy, of multiplying happinesses."

"Maybe that's why Americans marry. People like me marry and have children because we are apparently not dead, because we are grateful, because we wish to become like the others. To experience normal despair and disappointment. Garden-variety unhappiness. So, I am not sorry. We have had a normal life together."

Max was not surprised, not even inclined to argue, when Greta described insomnia and agoraphobia, sex both dismal and frightening, and the death of their oldest child as a normal life, but he was not comforted.

"Do you know what I remember most when I came here? Betty Boop. They showed her all the time, late at night, early in the morning, some channel in New Jersey. They love Betty Boop. And Bimbo and Koko. And Shirley Temple, day and night. Polly wolly doodle. The Littlest Rebel. Did you see that?"

"No. I was selling shoes or still killing Germans. Whatever I was doing, I wasn't watching cartoons or musicals commemorating the good old days of slavery." He came back from the water and put two scoops of damp sand on Greta's arm.

"Do the rest, Max, just cover me up."

He did, and when she wiggled two long fingers, he covered those, and when they broke free again, to show that it wasn't enough, he mounded the sand six inches high on top of her hand and crowned it with a sprig of stiff black seaweed.

Greta smiled. "You're a good man."

"I don't think so."

"I know you don't. That's part of your charm, milacku."

Max smiled too; only his crazy wife could find him charming.

"I know you blame me for the accident," she said.

"I don't. We don't have to talk about it."

"You do. We do. Dr Shein said it would help."

"It doesn't help me."

"It helps me."

"Then by all means, if it helps you," Max said.

"When I went to see Dr Berg - you remember him?"

"The first one. Two before Shein."

"Very good. I told him everything I could remember about the camp. They were all happy memories. Can you imagine? Making daisy wreaths with another little girl, Marya. Where did we find daisies? Her name was Marya. The sun was always shining and it seemed to me that the evenings were quite cosy. We would walk to a grassy field, a group of us and my mother, and we would all hold hands and sing. I remember one of the girls had a harmonica. How could that be? We had no shoes, I know we had no shoes until winter, how could there have been a harmonica? They had taken everything. How could there have been singing in a grass field?"

Max put little shells on the sand over Greta's body, drew half-circles to indicate her breasts, and fanned out a cluster of brownish, dry kelp for her pubic hair.

"Berg said he understood, that it was a beautiful dream. You see, that I needed it to be -"

"I get it. Really."

"I was very careful in the car. I told Benjie to wear his seat belt. I told him two times. The first when he -"

"It's not your fault, Greta."

"Of course it is my fault. I am trying to tell you what I feel about it. And you believe it is my fault. As it is."

And Greta tried to talk about the wet leaves and the square, odd headlights of Vin Malarino's father's van and the audible hesitation of sound as the car moved into and under the old maple trees. Greta heard her own voice saying O boyze, and then the harsh cymbaline crash of the van's left side against the front of her car, its hood flying up like one of the boys' little plastic cars and the glass showering them as the wide green hands of the maple leaves pushed through, right to their faces, Benjie's white under the red streaming lines across his forehead, spitting out bits of shiny, bloody glass until he fainted and Greta thought, If he is dead, let me die now. And he was not dead, only briefly unconscious, and as he lay on the stretcher, his face wiped with great tenderness by the paramedic, he smiled at his mother. "It's OK, Mom. I'm OK." And for one minute, she was grateful as she had never been. Surviving the camps, in the golden arms of a big American, terrible white and red acne around his beautiful smile, she was not so grateful or sure as she was in that minute with Benjie that life was hers, that she was meant to live.

"She's killing you," Greta said.

Max pressed his feet into the sand, noting the imprint of his whole right foot and his abbreviated left.

"The girl. I'm not criticising. I'm not criticising you or even her, but it's very cruel of her to leave you like that."

He didn't ask who, and he hoped Greta wouldn't say her name.

"What do you think? I don't see? I see. I saw. She never answered your letters, she never calls anymore."

Max put his hands out behind him and leaned forward, listening to the crisp gunshot crack of his vertebrae.

"I know it broke your heart, her going away. You haven't recovered. The mother's getting remarried soon, I heard. What is it you always say, the triumph of hope over experience?"

"That's what I say. More sand?"

"No, I'm fine. Very happy. Perhaps she's back in town for the wedding. Do you call her?"

Max kept watching the water, hoping for a few boats, but the ocean was on Greta's side. There was nothing to look at but the relentless bouncing light.

"Max, Maxie. You can tell me. Who else can you tell? You think I'm going to hurt you now? No, dearie, not now that you're in such pain."

Max felt like every B-movie prisoner of war offered a cigarette by the suddenly kindly Kommandant. If he talked, he'd get the cigarette and lose his self-respect. Probably, in the end, they'd kill him anyway. If he didn't talk, he wouldn't get the cigarette, he'd keep his self-respect, and they'd hang him as an example to the others.

"I'm not in pain."

Greta laughed, not a common thing, and Max smiled back. When she laughed, she sounded like Edith Piaf, Max's darling for the last 30 years. He had daydreams of playing Piaf for Elizabeth, and in them she sips red wine and sits without jiggling her feet.

"All right. But you're not hap-pee." Greta sings the last word.

"You said it's a mistake to want happiness."

"It is. But you do, you can't help it. And I feel bad for you, dearie. That's all."

Greta had learned most of her English from a Dover war bride in Jersey City and had been calling people "dearie" and "ducks" and "love" with Czech softness ever since. It was a thing that Max, even as he prayed for her immediate, painless death, even as he envisioned Elizabeth on Greta's side of the bed, found completely endearing.

"I think you should build a little shrine," Greta said.

"I think you're nuts."

"So? You have not been spared on account of sanity, have you? A little shrine. Her picture from the yearbook, the one you keep in your sock drawer. Maybe a few votive candles. I have those old pressed-glass holders, in the shape of hands. That would be nice, you could have those. And maybe some of the letters that came back to you, the ones in the garage. That would be good."

Max sat down beside her, poking a hole for her navel and laying shell bits out in a star pattern.

"And then what?"

Greta lifted a hand carefully, balancing the packed sand on her forearm.

"And then, in your own little apartment, you listen to Mahler and drink Scotch, you mourn. You could pray."

That Greta believed not only in a Greater Force but in an attentive, specific God was another source of astonishment to Max. "How can you, of all people?"

"It's the least I can do," she said, and moved from synagogue to synagogue, praying in the back until the night they asked her to join a committee.

"Am I going to be in my own little apartment? Is that what this is? You're telling me to move out?"

Greta clicked her tongue, as she did when the boys were being particularly difficult.

"You can stay. You can go. We could keep each other company. You, me, grief. But why, Maxie? The boys are almost grown. Danny could live with you, even. I'm not abandoning you, I just think it would be better." Greta turned her face towards the empty lifeguard chair. "I do get tired of watching you."

"You get tired of watching me? After all these years, watching you cry at every goddamned intersection, watching you scare the shit out of the boys, watching you break a sweat just thinking about grocery shopping?" Max stopped, he didn't even know why he wanted to go on. She was setting him free. He hated living with her; just two days ago, he'd written in his journal that he was serving a life sentence, with time added for good behaviour.

Greta shrugged, and chunks of sand slid down.

"I'm getting up," she said.

Max gave her a hand and dusted her off, wiping down the backs of her calves and thighs, trying to keep the sand from going into her suit bottom.

"I'm giving you the candle holders," Greta said

Amy Bloom 1997. `Love Invents Us' is published by Picador, pounds 15.99. To order a copy at the special price of pounds 9.99 plus 99p P&P, send a cheque to Macmillan, 250 Western Avenue, London W3 6XZ or call direct on 0181 324 5700

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