“I saw Maggie about a year ago. She says she’s leaving everything to an arts foundation,” says Maggie’s half-brother, Larry.
He’s talking to his father. Who was married, at one time, to Maggie’s mother. Larry’s father remains nameless, the Elder Pugh.
Just as he “has no real age” and seems to occupy a sort of limbo, certainly in Larry’s understanding and, possibly also in a broader reality, something post-war (and when he speaks of war, he speaks of the first one, having left France behind for America) as though perhaps he hasn’t recovered from that conflict.
The father is simultaneously a vague and formless character and a bold and presumptuous figure.
Critical of the neighbourhood in which Larry is house-sitting (it was once a good neighbourhood, before the war, the war which began in 1914), he isn’t above drinking the owner’s liquor. He simultaneously has little contact with his grown child and grown step-child (other than to receive sums of money from Maggie).
And, yet, Father Pugh has all the answers for the questions that Larry and Maggie have about how to live their lives.
Except that they do not ask questions like that.
And, if they did, they wouldn’t ask him for answers.
It seems even more likely that the conflict from which the Elder Pugh has not recovered – and the conflict that has left Maggie and Larry scarred as well – is the divorce between Father Pugh and Mother Pugh.
But, by now, it’s a hot and quiet summer in 1954, when Larry tells his father that Maggie has engaged a lawyer to arrange for her estate to benefit an arts foundation. Maggie, then, is Mary Margaret Pugh. The benefactor whom readers met in “A Painful Affair” (the previous story).
Father Pugh dismisses the idea when Larry shares the news. And he would know. (But, no, no: he wouldn’t know. He only thinks he knows.)
“Some men give their children sound advice about property and investment. The elder Pugh had the nerve to give advice about marriage – this to the son of a wife he had deserted.”
The story appears to revolve around this conversation in the summer of 1954. But one could argue that the root of the story resides elsewhere.
“His mother sat in profile, turned away, arms folded. She looked toward, but not at, the little glass shelves at the window, where she kept her collection of miniature cacti in pottery dishes. She wore the look of dark grieving no child can enter.”
Larry’s father took a portrait with him that day, on the day he left, left the family home, left the marriage, left Larry. When Father Pugh meets with Larry on this hot summer day, he asks Larry to pass on the portrait to Larry’s son, should he ever have a son. But the implication simmers beneath the statement, that Larry might decide to not have a son, to not be a father, because he hasn’t had much of an incentive, conveyed via his own (largely absent) father, the Elder Pugh.
Not much to Larry’s life, really, at least as the Elder Pugh views it. A series of transitions. Disappointments. And “I suppose you found out there wasn’t much to art in the long run,” he observes. (As jaded as Speck and Walter, the elder Pugh can’t be bothered to remember the name of the artist who painted the portrait, even though it is the one possession he views as being worthy of a legacy. Oh, dear: even that, not much to it.)
After the two men have talked for some time, the table — on which their glasses sat and sweated in the summer heat — has been marked by the condensation rings. Over the next few days and periodically, until Larry leaves at the end of August, Larry sands the surface of the table, trying to mend the damage. But the marks remain.
Dust sheets cover the furniture in the flat Larry occupies for the summer. But there is nothing protecting the surface of the table beneath their glasses. Nothing to fill the space of a responsible parent for Larry. No amount of sandpaper to ease the damaged bits.
It’s a very short story – only a few pages – and yet we have the sense of entire lifetimes having unfolded – and still unfolding – between and beyond these lines.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fifth story in Overhead in a Balloon. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “A Flying Start”.