Not Always Easy
by Vincent Mannings
In blesséd paradise, here on Earth,
Peaceful now, and free –
My every breath and all my spark
I’d give for her to be.
(Anon., c. 1825, England)
“Got it, Dad.” Sam emerged from the garage into the light with the bike in his hands. His father had showered, and his mother had gone out to town. Dad was wearing slacks and a shirt and tie. He sat a few yards from the garage door, at a wicker patio table beneath the kitchen window. He’d just opened the newspaper. There was some iced tea in a glass before him and he was about to eat a good breakfast. “Wonderful,” he replied to his son, folding the paper again and picking up his knife and fork. “I assume you know what you’re doing. I’ve no idea why you’d need two bicycles but the truck’s keys are here whenever you want them.” They were beside the paper and he tapped at them.
“Thanks,” said Sam. He was distracted, gazing at the old bike. He’d propped it on its stand in front of the garage and he was walking around it. He squeezed both grips and tried to push. The brakes were good. Next he pumped the tires and he spent the best part of an hour cleaning off the dust and the spider webs. That bike was kind of rusty. And, it was a guy’s bike. He ran his fingers through his hair, remembering. Mary: she had been wearing overalls a couple of days before, when he’d met her at her garden gate.
By the time he’d driven the six short blocks to Carmelo Street and Lopez he’d decided for sure that he’d be the one who’d be riding his brother’s old bike. He’d be lending his own bike to Mary. She had just now seen him arriving from part-way down her front yard. She’d not been doing much, just touching at her flowers, fussing with them; that and some light watering with a can. She’d been enjoying the morning fog and listening to a digest of the day’s news; a white iPod wire was dangling from her left ear. She’d put the watering-can down when she’d noticed Sam and she’d begun to walk up a gravel path toward the garden gate. Sam had parked the truck at the curb, a black Toyota pickup that his Dad had owned for thirty years. He’d stepped around to the back of the truck and he was beginning to unload the bikes as Mary reached the gate.
She waved, grinning, calling to him, the iPod bud now in her hand: “I do have my own bicycle, you know.”
“I figured,” he replied, turning to face her. He’d felt strong, energized by his busy morning. But when he looked at Mary she surprised him. He almost lost track of what he’d been about to say. “I guessed you’d have your own bike,” he continued, “but I didn’t know for sure and I don’t yet have your number.”
He stopped, and she smiled. She’d opened the gate and had stepped out onto the sidewalk; she seemed tentative and she’d not yet closed the gate behind her. She had on a pair of white shorts and a loose red cotton blouse. No overalls this morning. She was barefoot and she clutched a straw summer hat in her hands; her hair was up, all tamed and pinned. Two days ago, when they’d sat together on a fountain wall, Sam had decided that Mary could not be more beautiful, but she was more beautiful today. He could see the bone structure in her face, the long and graceful neck, the lovely shoulders.
“How is your mother?” he asked.
She turned and glanced behind. She looked down into the mist, across the sloping yard, through the flowers and the shrubs, toward the big front door and quickly at a downstairs window. Her house was on a cliff that overlooked the sea and the pair of them could hear the fog-muffled thumps of waves crashing on the whitesand beach below. Turning back to Sam, she shrugged. “She’s fine. Just a little tired. Like I told you on Wednesday it’s not always easy being descended from writers hoisted by everyone upon such lofty pedestals; it can be difficult and it sure doesn’t always help my mother.”
“Come on, Ms. Mary Shelley,” he said, smiling, “let’s go for a ride.”
The fog had been stubborn but the sun had started to clear it away as he stared at her; patches of blue sky were appearing overhead and the trees near the gate were suddenly a vivid green. He held his bike with his left hand and gestured with his right.
Mary turned her head. She closed the gate and glanced at the house for just a couple seconds more before looking back at Sam. He continued holding the bike for her.
“And I thought maybe we’d get some breakfast,” he added, “if you like: at the Brown Pelican.”
She grinned a second time and walked toward him in her bare feet. She lifted the straw hat above her head and let it dangle behind from a cord around her neck. She was close to him. He could smell perfume and he looked again at the hair.
“I’ll see you at the Pelican,” she said, laughing. She slapped him on the shoulder, threw her left leg around the seat and over the crossbar and set off down Carmelo, changing gear right away to third, and fourth.
“Wait!” yelled Sam. He grabbed his brother’s bike, knocked the stand back with his foot; Mary was already half a block away, still laughing; she shrieked and her hat bounced up and down. “Wait!” he called again, bumping the old bike off the curb. He caught up with her near to Eleventh and rode alongside; she slowed, turning her head to smile. “Hey,” he said, returning the smile and catching his breath. They rode another four blocks south through a tunnel of cherry blossom trees, then swept on past Thirteenth and on to Santa Lucia; there, they turned right and continued a block west; this was steep; it took them down to the beach-road where they turned and headed north for half a block before continuing west toward the sea; a narrow footpath quickly opened up and surrendered to freshly-blown white sand. The tide was out. They stopped, got off their bikes, and listened.
The wind was strong; it whipped about their ears. The waves were distant but they were big and very loud. The fog had gone and the sun was bright. The sea was too loud for talking. Sam glanced at Mary, who closed her eyes with her face toward the waves, enjoying the winds, smiling as she tightened the strap of her straw hat. Her hair began to unravel. She opened her eyes again and looked at him.
“Come on,” she yelled. They walked the bikes up and over the dunes and made straight for the wet sand where they climbed back on and cycled along the edge of the sea. Mary led the way, and the Brown Pelican soon came into view. The place was an old snack-shack, basically a large hexagonal shed. It was Carmel’s take on a Martello fort, perched on the grassy dunes between the beach proper and the beach road, right about where Eleventh Street would have ended if a mansion and a quarter mile of tended rolling lawns had not been in the way. The Pelican had been on those dunes like a sentinel since the early nineteen fifties. It had weathered its share of Pacific storms and, though dilapidated, it possessed some character, honed well by the decades of salt and sand.
They propped the bikes against a low brick wall at the edge of the shack’s parking lot, and Sam bought two coffees and a couple of hot muffins. They were handed to him by a teenaged girl, through a hatch. “Thanks,” he said. He put the change into his wallet, stuffed a dollar bill into a plastic cup, picked up some napkins and sat down with Mary on a small bench at a tiled concrete table. The table was behind a short breeze-wall. They were facing toward the waves.
“So,” Mary announced. She’d shaken down her long black hair and had completed what the wind had started. She’d then lifted the straw hat up from behind her neck and had patted it down hard on her head. She seemed annoyed. “Two days ago you said there’s something you want to tell me.”
Sam hadn’t expected annoyance. He took a sip of his coffee, stalling, and put it back down on the table.
“There is something I want to tell you,” he began. “On my last day in New Mexico, I met with a Professor Ray Wasserman at the Taos Research Institute’s school of medical sciences.”
Mary cut in: “And I suppose he told you everything about my mother.” She’d said it with a casual air, picked up a piece of muffin, popped it in her mouth and washed it down with a gulp of coffee.
“Wasserman told me almost nothing,” said Sam. “That man is rather imperious, Mary. He’s not the chatty type. I was quitting, leaving graduate school after just one year. He’d seemed bored with me, barely listening until I mentioned my parents’ place here in Carmel and that sure got his attention. It jogged his memory. He simply said that he’d known your mother; that she’d been a professor and that she’d resigned from the Institute a long time ago and returned to her family’s old home in Carmel.”
Mary drank some more of her coffee. Now she was the one who was stalling. She put the cup down, reached out and put a hand on Sam’s knee, leaning in a few inches. The brim of her hat came close to his face. “Is that all Wasserman said?” she asked.
“Mary,” replied Sam, peeking beneath the hat. He surprised himself by placing his hand on hers, the one still on his knee. “That old guy gave no details, none at all, but he did suggest your mother had no choice but to leave the Institute. And that’s pretty much all he said to me.”
She slipped the hand away and sat up straight, folding her arms. Sam watched. She seemed to be taking in the information, absorbing it, processing it. The breeze tested her hat. She reached up, absent-mindedly, and pushed it back on. “Sam,” she said. It startled him. “You’ve been very straightforward so it’s my turn to be likewise and I am being straightforward when I tell you that now we both know about as much as each other when it comes to my mother’s career in New Mexico.”
She smiled. He’d no clue why she’d be doing that. In fact she was remembering the book she’d caught him reading a couple of days before, at his Aunt’s bookstore, just a few hours after she’d first met him at her garden gate. “Oh,” she said, “I’ve always known that my mother worked for some time at the Institute, but that was before I was born, and she never says much to me about those years.” She grinned and laughed out loud and touched Sam’s forehead, pretending to read his mind. She dropped her hand and folded her arms again. “Don’t worry,” she said, still laughing, “I never knew my father, and the Shelleys are on my mother’s side, but I have no unexplained stitches. There are no strange wounds and there are definitely no old scars.”
Sam patted her hand.
“Eat your muffin,” she said, “before it gets too cold.” She nodded in the direction of his plate. She’d more on her mind and a few more things to say. “These days, my mother’s just a writer, Sam. That’s pretty much all she does. She leads a quiet life but there’s an obsessiveness about her, and I’m worried.”
Sam had already filled his mouth with food. He held a napkin in one hand and his coffee in the other, about to take a gulp, and he felt silly. Mary saw his concern and she smiled: “Go on, eat,” she said. I’m talking enough for the both of us.” She glanced at the beach, giving him some time, and looked back. He was drinking. “Sam, I think my mother’s sick. I know this isn’t your problem; it’s for me to deal with but there’s something wrong with her. Whatever burden my mother carried when she was a professor, she sure as hell brought with her to Carmel. Something’s changed since then. It’s evolved, I suppose.” She smiled suddenly, trying to lighten things again. “I’ll figure it out.”
Sam drank the rest of his coffee. He remained quiet for several minutes. Mary had stopped talking. Sam already liked her. How could he not? All of his instincts told him to dive right in, to tell her how much he wanted to help. But his head told him the opposite and, being Sam, he settled for something in between.
“I’m going up the road to Santa Cruz,” he said, “this afternoon, to the campus: I’ve arranged to meet with a couple of English professors; someone called Seth Morton, and another named Wintour; Professor Jonathan Wintour.”
Mary flinched. He saw it. She recovered quickly.
“If you’re talking with Wintour, that’s good.” She’d said it with her mouth close to his ear, almost a whisper. “You’re your own man.” She sat back again. He looked at her. A teardrop was making its way down her right cheek. At last he heeded the smart voice that’d been lodged somewhere deep inside his head. He shut his mouth and he said nothing. He touched her hand and shuffled in closer before putting his arm around her. She leaned her head on his shoulder and he felt her hair brush against his face.
Suddenly, she got up. She collected their cups and went to the Pelican’s hatch. “Two refills, please,” she said to the girl, “and may I borrow a pen?”
Sitting down with new coffees she scribbled something on the receipt she’d been given and passed it to Sam: her phone number. Her eyes were still watery but she felt better. She’d put the iPod bud back into her ear and she flashed a smile that almost stopped Sam’s heart.
“Okay,” he said, as coolly as he could muster before storing the receipt in his wallet. He took the pen from her hand, wrote his own number on their sole remaining napkin and gave that back to her. “Hey,” he said, smiling: “Mom and Dad are having a garden party tomorrow. My brother and his family are settling back in town. You want to join us?”
* * *
By noon he’d showered a second time. He’d also brushed back his wet hair and had changed into some brown loafers, a pair of khaki slacks, a white button shirt and a beige linen jacket. The jacket was on the passenger seat beside him as he drove his Dad’s truck forty miles north around the bay to Santa Cruz.
Seth Morton turned out to be Dean of the School of Letters. Sam found himself being ushered from a reception desk to a wood-paneled waiting room by a tall and very direct executive assistant. “Professor Morton will be with you presently.” She’d said it just before turning on her heels. The door closed and Sam sat alone for ten minutes on a leather chair, gripping a saucer and a white china cup. That cup contained a pale herbal tea that he never once touched. He’d said “yes” when asked but it’d been from politeness only and he felt ridiculous, holding onto the cup and saucer. But he also worried he’d seem ungrateful if he just set them down on the table in front of him. He crossed his legs, the cup rattling. Slowly, he began to relax. A grandfather clock stood in one corner of the room. The tick was loud. He could see the pendulum swinging, hypnotic, soothing after the busy morning, and it lured him to a peaceful place before shattering his calm with a single great chime. One o’clock: the doors to an office suite swung open and Morton burst in.
The big voice flash-flooded the room. Morton was stocky, energetic, every bit the square-jawed man that Sam had seen on his website’s picture. He strode across the carpet. Sam put the cup down at last, too quickly. He’d done it as he rose from his chair, and he slopped tea into the saucer and onto his pants; it also got onto his hands and he wiped them on his jacket as Morton got up close.
“So you’re Sam Robertson! A pleasure to meet you. We’ll have you with our Romantics aficionado very soon!” Morton chuckled. He’d seen the mishap and, the chuckles done, shot out his right hand. The arm was firm and steady. Sam shook the strong hand. Already the blushing began. He’d expected to be led next into Morton’s suite but was instead rotated one hundred and eighty degrees by the professor’s left hand; together, they left the waiting room and stepped into the hall.
“This way,” said Morton. His right forefinger pointed at the corridor. They hurried along a tiled floor. Morton glanced at a wall clock, turned a corner and passed another secretary.
“Jonathan here?” The tone seemed sharp. Before the lady could begin to answer, Sam was being led into Wintour’s office where a middle-aged professor stood behind a desk.
“Jonathan: please meet the young man I mentioned.”
With that, Morton nodded at the both of them, made eye contact with Sam for a final time and left.
Wintour continued to stand behind his desk. He watched Sam. His expression seemed kind. He said nothing, so Sam tried first:
“Robertson, sir. Sam Robertson.” Sam took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, looking all around the room. The entire building was old and this room’s ceiling was very high. The office was large though rather cramped, and it was dark. In addition to the desk there were several tables laden with books and papers; heavy bookcases were against each of the walls and, a good six feet up the wall behind Wintour, a single small window. Sam touched at the collar of his shirt and held out his hand. He held it firm and steady, just like he’d seen Morton do it. But Wintour was no Morton. He removed the jacket he’d been wearing and came around the desk to greet Sam with a two-handed shake and a warm smile. A genial man; the eyes were bright and enthusiastic. His hair was gray and his face was pale from too much time in that gloomy room. Sam saw engagement but no trace of arrogance: the man seemed secure, happy in his own skin, with nothing to prove. Wintour scratched his head. He was trying to remember. He closed the office door and showed Sam to a seat across from his desk before settling with a contented sigh back into his leather swivel chair.
“Seth told me you’d inquired about Mary Shelley.” He clapped his hands, swung around in his seat and pointed to a coffeemaker.
Sam really did not want coffee but again for the sake of being polite he nodded.
Wintour snatched a couple of pods from a basket. He set about the brewing with his back to Sam, lifting his head and calling over his shoulder. “Seth also told me you’re from Carmel. Now!” – and he clapped his hands a second time – “would your being here today have anything to do with the Carmel Shelleys?”
Sam felt blindsided. He’d lived most of his life in Carmel without knowing anything at all about the residents of a house on Carmelo Street just six blocks from his home, and here he sat today with a professor who knew about both Mary and her mother.
Wintour continued, still calling across his shoulder: “I had the privilege of meeting those two fine ladies. Met them five years ago, not long after I began my tenure here.”
Sam leaned forward in his chair. “As a matter of fact, sir, I am here today because of them; because of one of them, at least: I’ve come to know the daughter.”
Wintour stopped fiddling with the coffee machine and turned back to Sam. “And now you want to know if those two are for real?” he asked with a mischievous smile. “Initially, as far as I could tell, that seemed to be the reason the mother wanted to see me. A fascinating woman. Extremely intelligent and very serious. Looked the part too, I can tell you. She was somewhat vague as to why she needed my help with her ancestry; she referred to a ‘disappointment’ but she never elaborated. She visited twice, the first time alone, the second time with her daughter. The younger Mary: well, she was just a teenager when I saw her and she was quiet, rather uncomfortable I thought.”
The coffee machine clicked and hissed. Wintour removed the first cup, swapped the pod and began the second brew. He got up and opened a small fridge below the high window and took out a carton of skimmed milk.
“I don’t have very long today, Sam, but I do have time to tell you what I know. It’s not particularly confidential; public record, really.”
Within a couple of minutes they were both relaxing in their chairs. Sam took a few sociable sips from his cup, and listened. Like Sam, the professor had drawn a blank when he’d searched online. “After that,” he said, “I enlisted the help of a former colleague, a chap I’d known during my previous position, at New York University. That colleague is married to a professional genealogist, a delightful and very sharp young woman named Annabel Stark. If you’re casting about for a career, Sam, do consider genealogy. I found it can be a most lucrative profession. Her clients tend to be the wealthy and the established; the Hamptons set; patrician types who are keen to prove that their blood is blue. Annabel took a third of my research account that year but I was of course intrigued. Absolutely astonished. Shelleys! Just forty miles from this office! Could it really be? You know exactly what I mean, huh?” He glanced at a clock on his desk and looked back at Sam. “Young man, I can tell you that my rather expensive genealogist did a very thorough job. The Carmel Shelleys are indeed descended from Mary Shelley: the Mary Shelley, that is. In fact there are three different lines they could have come along and still been her fourth- and fifth-generation descendants. And, it turns out, that’s exactly who they are. That’s all good of course but when the mother came back to discover what I’d learned, this time with her daughter, I realized that I’d wasted my money. Completely wasted it.”
Sam was confused. “Sir, but you said -”
Wintour broke in. “First, it became obvious the older Shelley was already quite sure of her ancestry. I’d merely affirmed it for her and I could sense that she’d not really been listening. My words seemed intended more for the ears of the young lady accompanying her. Second, well, here, take a look at this.”
He got up and walked over to the bookcase against the wall to the right of his desk. He reached, grunting, and pulled out a very large hardcover. Next he came round to Sam and slapped the book down on the desk in front of them. Sam looked at Wintour, took off his jacket and opened the huge book. He turned the pages slowly. Between long sections of dense text he saw photographs of birth certificates; they were for Byron, for Percy Shelley, and for Mary; he also saw facsimiles of the title pages from anthologies of poetry; there were maps of London, of Venice and of the shoreline of Lake Geneva; he saw gravestones in England and on the Continent; there were pictures of locks of hair; a funeral pyre in Italy; he saw museums and he gazed at portraits of Byron’s mistresses and, oval and tiny, portraits of the Shelley children. Sam lost himself in the pages as he turned from one to the next, first near to the front of the book, then at the back, then in the middle.
Wintour became impatient. “Page thirty-six, Sam. Please look at page thirty-six.”
Sam, slipping back into the role of the student, looked up again at the professor, who seemed fatherly, almost concerned. He turned again to the book in front of him and he followed Wintour’s instruction. The entirety of page thirty-six was a large color-plate reproduction of an oil painting from the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Sam was looking at Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She was eighteen years old, one year before she married Percy Shelley in 1816, and she would have been pregnant by him for a second time. The painting was all dark tones. Mary was seated on a plum-colored couch, the wall behind her unlit. She was visible only from the chest up. She wore a black dress. Her shoulders were bare and her long dark hair framed a sad and serious face. This beautiful lady didn’t just resemble the young woman with whom Sam had shared breakfast at the beach shack that morning; she looked precisely like her. Sam forgot all about Wintour now and he stared at the picture. His heart raced, but gradually he became calm again. He reached out with his hand. His movements were slow and he touched the color plate, running his finger across it; in his mind he changed the mournful clothes into something bright; he brushed the soft and lovely hair back from the young lady’s face; gently, he slipped an iPod bud into her ear; and he saw her smile.
Although Vincent Mannings is American, he was born in Liverpool, England, and was raised in Cheshire by Irish parents. Twenty years ago, he moved from London to Pasadena, where he’s lucky enough to live with his wife, Helene. He has a Ph.D. in an arcane discipline, and he works at the California Institute of Technology.
Vincent has edited a textbook, published by the University of Arizona Press. He’s also recently completed a couple of novels and is about to brace himself and try to get them published.