Some conversations are so brief they seem not to leave a mark, yet in the case of the unnamed woman sitting at the card table, whose words I only heard as I was already turning away, the words left a trail.
Words, not a conversation; at best a two minute monologue, pushed up by that pressure that builds when the speaker has been living a long time alone.
She might have told her husband or a good friend, but neither being available, she told me—a stranger who barely paused in passing the card table.
Since I don’t remember her exact words, I will paraphrase:
It seems that she had an older friend, not a particularly close friend, but a woman she had known for years in the casual, apparently meaningless way that we know people who pop up from time to time in our lives.
She heard that the friend—or acquaintance, really—had died, and was quite surprised when someone called to tell her she had been named in the dead woman’s will.
It wasn’t money; the woman had only a modest income, and a large family that expected it.
No—it was a sort of present, which was delivered.
She accepted a small, plain box. When she opened it, she found a tiny jeweled piano, a trinket that might have stood at one time on a glass-topped coffee table.
She didn’t remember seeing the piano, but she remembered a room that could well have housed trinkets along with family photographs and dried flowers.
The lid of the piano lifted, she realized. Inside lay a small, nondescript ring of no particular value.
For a moment she was baffled. And then she remembered an afternoon some months earlier when she had been absorbed in the care of her husband, who was dying.
She had run into the woman at some gathering—she was going then to any gathering she was invited to, to escape the atmosphere of death at home—and because she had been working hard, and was lonely (her husband was no longer able to communicate though he could groan), she had complained, briefly and bitterly, that she was never able to play her piano because of the demands of her care-taking.
She didn’t remember that the woman had been in the small circle listening to her, but apparently she had been. And when she, too, felt death approaching, she must have picked up the tiny piano and put it in the small plain box and marked it with my acquaintance’s name—which I didn’t know then and will probably never know.
By now I was almost out of earshot. She had to raise her voice to arc her last sentence to me.
“I went back right away to my piano and opened the lid and started playing.”
Now I’m reminded that once, a long time ago, someone in the family gave me a battered volume of short stories, written by the man known as O’Henry. A relative had read and re-read them because he came from the same part of the country.
Books were already precious to me and so I sat down and read the collection straight through. I only remember one of the stories, and its title has left me; it concerned a young couple, deeply in love but with no money to buy each other Christmas presents.
The husband had one possession, a prized gold pocket watch; the wife had as her treasure, her long hair.
Each determined to surprise the other. One Christmas morning, the wife gave her husband a gold watch chain for his pocket watch. He gave her a pair of tortoise combs for her hair.
She had cut off her hair to buy him the watch chain and he had pawned his watch to buy her the combs.
So the precious grains of sand collect, one by one by one.