A Simple Question

There was something in the late winter light that tugged Anna’s mind to that day and she wasn’t sure why.  Over twenty-five years had passed and yet there it wasa gray winter afternoon and a long-ago friend. They were in the parking lot across from the theatre—the Colonial—she remembers that part clearly, and she had to walk carefully to avoid lingering patches of ice. She wasn’t wearing her boots, having opted to risk the good shoes, but then was sorry not to have the security of hard rubber traction. It was a Sunday in late February and the whole day had felt like dusk. The show crowd had thinned and the last of the cars were filing from the lot. They had gone to see Death of a Salesman, the matinee, and while walking around before the show, had actually seen Hal Holbrook sitting in a restaurant. Was it really him, they wondered. How could he eat? They stared too long because he smiled and raised his hand. She will never forget that, the image returning so clearly with the recent news of his death. But that day, in the city with Muriel, their words and laughter muffled by scarves and coat collars, it had made her recall seeing a striking man on Charles Street years beforean elegant camel hair coat and trimmed moustache. She told Muriel she knew it was either Walter Cronkite or Captain Kangaroo and after a stunned pause had let out a loud involuntary Walter Cronkite! He turned, smiled and waved and she was so relieved she hadn’t screamed Captain Kangaroo! They laughed and then Muriel said she had something she wanted to askhow had she said it? I want to ask you something or I have a question. Then she said that perhaps it would be better to wait until they were seated, or after the show, better without all the distractions. She said this when Anna stopped to study the menu of a restaurant, suggesting they eat there some time, perhaps the next time they met for a show. 

At the time, Anna was thinking a lot about her apartment, a small one bedroom, fourth floor walkup. She was thrilled not to have a roommate but also missed having someone to share her life, someone that is, other than Muriel who people might very well have thought was her mother. Muriel got divorced later that year so it could have been something about that, maybe she’d known it was coming and wanted to run her thoughts by someone else. And she often talked about her son who had left college in the middle of his freshman year and moved back home—so there was another possibility. 

Anna had thought often what unlikely friends they were—Muriel was twice her age—and yet, they had a lot of common interests and taught at the same junior high school, both in language arts. They both loved walking around the city, going to the theatre and museums, and they both disliked their principal, a man who stood too close and explained everything in exaggerated enunciation as if talking to a toddler or dog. Or imbecile, Muriel once added. Anna was barely 25 when she took that job and had known no one so she had welcomed seeing Muriel each day, the wry glances at meetings and laughter at lunch. 

It had been only natural that they began to get together outside of school. In those early years, Muriel was encouraging in all ways, telling Anna she would have a host of friends in no time, that she was a stellar teacher, that she imagined Anna would soon have all kinds of dates, and then who knew where life would take her. Enjoy this window, Muriel had said and laughed. You won’t believe how quickly things can change. Muriel seemed old at the time, a husband and a child in the seventh grade, a house in the suburbs; she often brought baked goods—bread or cakes—for the break room at school. That was in the very beginning and Anna relied on her maternal goodness, the care and hopeful future projections of what Anna’s life might bring. They laughed over Anna’s domestic mishaps—the time she purchased MSG for a recipe, the fact that she didn’t know a dryer filter had to be cleaned or that you shouldn’t put grease down the sink. Back then, Muriel had said that she was the happiest she had ever been and felt closer to her husband than she ever dreamed possible. Their son had some challenges in school, but he was about to turn thirteen and doing so much better. They had hired a tutor; they were hopeful. Such a relief for him to have a friend, she had said. 

Anna wasn’t domestic at all then, but she loved everything about her first tiny apartment except the pigeons roosting on the windowsill and the squirrels living in the walls. At night she could hear them, acorns rolling, nails scratching, even though the landlord had assured her that he had it all under control. He said he really doubted they would find a way into the apartment. He said it had only happened once in the thirty years he’d been there; he could set a trap, and would if it got worse, but that really is a horrible sound, he said, not to mention that they’d all be smelling it. It’s a quandary, he kept saying. And remember—squirrels are not rats and it’s almost spring.  

It was a breezy February day. Valentine hearts and cardboard cupids decorated the window of a stationery shop from the week before and she recalled Muriel commenting about the groundhog having seen his shadow—more cold coming. She doesn’t remember telling Muriel about the squirrels in the wall and the way she could hear them scratching right near her bed, but she must have, especially with the mention of another rodent. 

She recalled how she had envied those like Muriel with so much of life fixed and decided in their suburban backyards, garage doors that magically opened to a kitchen the size of her whole apartment, a life partner, a child, a pet. She was only at Muriel’s home a few times, the son’s bar mitzvah her first and she was only invited because she mentioned in the teacher’s lounge that a friend had broken a date and she had nothing to do. Muriel even arranged a ride for her with another teacher in their school. Anna remembered how Muriel’s husband had raised a glass and said today you are a man and tomorrow you go back to seventh grade! Muriel and her husband stood together that day, arms entwined, their son out on the dancefloor laughing with a new confidence to have this moment of popularity. Another time, Anna was shopping out that way and stopped by to return a book Muriel had loaned her and was invited in at what seemed a stressful time; there was an uncomfortable pause when she found the three of them in the kitchen, sitcom laughter in some distant room. The son was in high school then, applying to schools, smoking a lot of pot. Muriel said that every time she tried to talk to him, to understand what was going on in his life he said: You want to know what’s wrong with me? How about what the fuck is wrong with you? 

The question Anna recalls vividly was the one he asked at his party when he was thirteen and reading aloud from a book of riddles he’d received as a gift. The spotlight was on him and it was clear that his parents were enjoying his getting attention as much as he was. There were all the silly riddles of course—hands and legs/clocks and chairs—but the one Anna recalls was: what is the question you can ask anywhere in the world, get different answers each time and yet always be correct. She could see him there, hair cowlicked, crust of chocolate cake on the edge of his mouth. He was an awkward kid who came into the room and everything was instantly topsy turvy, lamp shades crooked and rugs flipped up; it seemed he was always on the verge of nervous laughter because he had a secret or knew something you didn’t.  

In high school, there were suspensions and drugs. He told his mother that he wished he was dead, and then later that he wished she was dead. Muriel had told Anna that while they were walking Beacon Hill on the third Thursday in May—a day devoted to the annual garden tour when they made their way along the uneven brick sidewalks to peer into tiny often sunless spaces transformed into paradise—brickwork in elaborate patterns, mirrors and fountains and statues. They read aloud the descriptions in the program, the various plant names like incantations that might open the wrought iron gates and heavy ancient doors that led to other lives: trumpet vine and bleeding hearts, astilbe, pulmonaria, laurel, lilac, euonymus. What can a mother say to that? She asked. God. 

Another day, they made up their own tour based on Muriel’s idea—apartments of long dead writers—three on Pinckney Street alone: Alcott and Thoreau and Hawthorne. Plath on Willow and Frost on Mt. Vernon. Muriel’s idea was that they should read something at each stop, and she had books in her tote with pages carefully marked. They had stood at the foot of Pinckney Street, the river at their backs, before climbing up the hill and it was there Muriel had pointed to a third floor bay where she had once lived with two other young teachers, a view of the river and a preschool across the street where at recess, kids all bundled in snowsuits, held onto a long rope with a teacher on each end; if one started to slip on the icy bricks, they yanked the rope and popped them right back up.  

“I wish you could have known my son when he was a toddler,” she had said and smiled but it was hard to pull together the image of a windblown, bundled cherub with the awkward, riddle telling boy, and especially not the angry young man who wished her dead. “When I was your age and up in that window,” she paused, then shook her head as if to dispel whatever words were coming next and reached for one of her many quotes selected for the dayPlath’s numb as a fossil. Tell me I’m here to Alcott’s I hate ordinary people. She never let the somber tone last too long, always looking for something that might bring a smile, and perhaps that was what was different on that February day. The lifts were getting harder and harder to find.   

And for Anna, it was getting harder and harder to listen to the sadness and the denial in her voice, the blame of the boy’s father, his teachers. It was hard to respond to the regret and grief, that episode his freshman year; everything seemed okay and then. And then. How many times had Muriel told that story? He drained his bank account and got out on the highway. They had no idea where he was, and it was days before he called from a motel in Tucson without any money. Her husband had called her an enabler, said he couldn’t take it, and then got a divorce, a new wife, a new life but that was all later of course, and information Anna only heard second hand from another teacher in the school who lived in the same town. That day at the theatre, Muriel had checked her phone often, a weak smile if she saw Anna notice.  

But what was the question? There’s something I want to ask you, she had said. Did she wait for intermission, or did they never circle back? They had great seats, Hal Holbrook completely transformed into Willy Loman, and afterward, when they stood in the parking lot and talked about the play—how Linda Loman said: “he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor;” they marveled at the power of those words and the effect of staring at the set—the house where they had lived and struggled—lived—while also seeing what was not on stage, the distant crash of Willy’s car wrapped around a tree, the shocking end of it all and what about those haunting last words we’re free. A mortgage all paid. Something completed, and yet. And yet. Anna will remember that for the rest of her life, that February day, the sharp smell of the river ready to thaw, exhaust from the Turnpike trapped in the low ceiling of gray. We’re free

At some point in one of the many conversations along the way, Anna had voiced horror that Muriel’s husband kept a gun locked in his closet; she’d told Muriel she would never live with a gun in the house and that it was absolutely clear her son needed treatment, perhaps serious medication or tough love as she’d read about recently and seen on television, Oprah or Jane Pauley, someone talking in the background while she straightened her apartment for another day and looked forward to going out with friends her own age. Finally, friends her own age, too many friends it seemed and a relationship that would carry her into the future and her real life. “I bet once he gets straightened out, his dad will want to return and then you’ll have a decision,” she had told Muriel. “That will be a big decision, won’t it? Whether or not you let him come back. And what about some day when your son gets married? You can tell all these stories to his fiancée and everyone will laugh.” Now, she shudders with the thought. 

Muriel smiled, or what at the time seemed a smile, as if to say, oh yes, how smart, you are so right. As if suddenly, the light blared through and she realized something she hadn’t seen before and yet, now isn’t it obvious that what she was really thinking was, oh my dear ignorant friend, you know nothing. Wait until you have children; wait until the person you have vowed to share through thick and thin can’t take it anymore. Just you wait. But she also was above saying such a thing. The words just you wait, would not have occurred to someone like Muriel. 

What time is it? That was the answer to that long ago riddle, the universal question that yields different answers but all correct. A thirteen-year-old boy stands in the spotlight, his five minutes of glory, proud parents with their arms entwined, kids from school gathered around him, new suit, shiny belt and shoes, a tie purchased just for the occasion. His party, his celebration, his step into manhood. On that day, he had friends and proud parents and the gift of not knowing all that lay ahead of him.

And here she is, years and miles from that day in a town not unlike Muriel’s where children wait in front of the house for the school bus to arrive. A place where the local news reports are the kind that get laughed at by the rest of the world: someone dumped trash in the recycling bin at the grocery store—a squirrel was in a tree acting strange—heads of cabbage were tossed around and left on the school ground. Why?

Now, standing at the sink, making the bed, staring out the window, grading papers, the thought of all the words not spoken seizes her. Dear Muriel, she thinks. Dear Muriel, and she thinks how sometimes the Universe gives an answer before we understand the question. There in the dark theatre, there at the end, they sat in silence. The scene plays and even knowing what is coming, they are shocked by the crash, shocked by the humbling sense of loss and awareness of how vulnerable each life. Muriel has been dead for several years now, her son as well, and yet each time Anna remembers there is shock. By the time she heard about Muriel’s illness, Anna was at a different school, and it was only by chance she ran into an old colleague who mentioned it—Muriel’s years with her son and the sad choice he made, then her own health issues she kept to herself. This question comes to Anna: if she went to the city and walked those same steps, would she see something? Hal Holbrook in a restaurant? Death of a Salesman on the marquis? Willy Loman resurrected and once again filled with hopeful promises? Would she see her young single self step from her dark apartment and hurry along the city streets to see Muriel waiting there on the corner with a big smile, hands deep in the pockets of her down coat?

They sat that day, elbows touching, not a sound to be heard in the theatre as their minds fixed on the imagined accident in the distance, the same way her mind now can’t think of Muriel’s old house without seeing her son, hanging there in the mudroom where a Little Tykes tractor had grown invisible over the years. But that day, after the curtain call, after the lights came up, they walked outside where it was almost dark and lingered in the parking lot. It was their last outing. Anna is almost sure of that now, and what did she even do in her apartment that she rushed back to that day? She was eager to get home, hands in pockets and head bent to the cold, an urgency in her steps as she walked the many blocks. Did she stop in Blockbusters for a rental? DeLuca’s for something she couldn’t afford to eat? Did she call her still living parents or wait until the next day to avoid the slow blue Sundays that plagued her for much of her young life. Did she watch something mindless on television? Knit? Grade papers? Did she even wonder what it was Muriel had wanted to ask or was she distracted by the fact that there were squirrels in the walls and a pigeon roosting on her bedroom windowsill that overlooked an alley and dumpster, and she had boxes to pack, a move up ahead; she was moving into her life. It was a dark Sunday in February when she had no husband, no children, no mortgage. Her parents were alive and far away, healthy enough that she could complain about hearing from them and not worry for a minute. She hadn’t known what it felt like for a parent to die or for a marriage to feel threatened, for a child to lash out in anger; she hadn’t known how sometimes you just need someone to listen. That day she had walked quickly, protecting shoes she tossed out twenty years ago, then climbed the four flights of stairs to her dark tiny space where an old radiator whined and some creature with no sense of time clawed at the walls to get free.  


  • Jill McCorkle’s has published seven novels and four collections of short stories, and her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories several times, as well as The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Five of her books have been New York Times Notable books, and her novel, Life After Life, was a New York Times bestseller. She has received the New England Booksellers Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. She was a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard, where she also chaired the department of creative writing. She is currently a faculty member of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and is affiliated with the MFA program at North Carolina State University.

  • Stills from M, directed by Fritz Lang, and starring Peter Lorre. The film's screenplay was written by Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, and it was Lang's first sound film.