Polymorphous [story] by Joyce Hinnefeld

By the time she was 20, with a little baby and a household to run, Joan had already started to seem like some sort of local exotic to her friends from high school, home from college on their breaks. All because she canned her own vegetables and sewed her own clothes and breastfed her son, at a time and in a place where those things wouldn’t come back into fashion for a good while. Now, forty years later, she still gardened and canned and sewed. She’d even gone back to school and finished her own degree eventually, with a nice and useless and exotic major in English. But by now the thing that made her colorful in the eyes of her friends and neighbors was her weekly outing with her eighty-year-old neighbor, a gay man named Richard Meredith.

Richard and his partner Bobby had been among the earliest of the weekenders from New York to arrive in their corner of Bucks County, Pennsylvania back in the sixties, when Joan was a teenager. Now the whole region was dotted with tastefully remodeled stone farmhouses and lavish gardens, weekend homes for people from New York and Philadelphia, many of them, in the preferred idiom of the older locals, “boys” and “girls”—which seemed to be an easier way to speak of it than the more distasteful “gays” or “lesbians.” People who just hadn’t quite grown up yet, but never mind, that was all right. They were good neighbors; they took good care of their places and kept the local economy humming along. No one wanted to stir up trouble by being offended by them.

By this summer—the summer of 2010, when Joan would turn sixty—Bobby had been dead for twenty years. Today was Joan’s day to take Richard for groceries and their usual stop at the library. Richard had never learned to drive, and for nineteen of the years since Bobby’s death it had been Joan’s mother Elsa who drove him to town each week. She’d done it until a year ago, until the week before she died. And now it was Joan’s job, though she couldn’t say exactly why.

She’d tried to make the best of it. After the supermarket and the library they might go to a restaurant in Doylestown, to one of the places Richard liked because the waiters were young and handsome and doted on him. And Joan didn’t mind, because the food was generally good if ridiculously overpriced, the coffee strong and hot, the way she’d make it at home.

At a little after ten she strapped on her seatbelt and started the engine of her old Dodge. The truth was she was settling into the role of local eccentric—the quiet reader; the shunner of modern conveniences; the woman who, even though her kids had grown up and moved away, was only minimally involved in her church; the luncher with one of the old New York boys—finally deciding, at nearly sixty, that it suited it her. All right then, she thought as she turned around in the driveway and headed down the gravel lane: time to embrace this person she’d become. Once again she’d be Richard’s chauffeur and, mostly, his audience, as he generally did most of the talking. All right. So be it.

Today would surely be different though. Just three days ago she’d driven an irritable and impatient Richard home from the hospital, where’d he’d spent two days and a night undergoing a battery of tests, all of which had come back negative. “I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been, as I kept trying to tell them,” he complained as Joan drove him home. “If they’d only been willing to listen to me, they might have saved us all a great deal of time and money and maddening inconvenience. But of course it’s the insurance money they’re after, as we all bloody well know.” Joan said nothing; it seemed better just to let him rant, though she wondered if it was good for him, going on that way.

He’d had a dizzy spell. “Just stood up too quickly from weeding the garden,” he said. His niece, visiting from Long Island for the day (“She’s had her eye on my antiques since she was a teenager,” Richard had told Joan the week before, when the niece called to say she wanted to visit him), had been watching him from his kitchen window. She saw him wobble as he stood up, reaching for the cottage wall to steady himself, and insisted on driving him to the emergency room.

“I only agreed to go to get away from her,” he said as Joan drove him home from the hospital. Today, three days later, Joan had called to suggest that he just give her his shopping list and a list of books he wanted from the library. No need for him to make the trip into town that week, she said.

But “Don’t be silly,” he’d told her. “I’m fine. I’ll look for you at ten, as usual.” And he’d hung up the phone.

Now, as Joan drove down the lane, a rock pinged her windshield and she winced, then relaxed, reminding herself that they could, in fact, afford a new windshield, or even a new car, if they truly needed one. The farm, or what was left of it, was theirs outright, and for years her husband Glen, a skilled carpenter, had had more work than he wanted or needed with all the avid remodelers who’d moved in around them. Now he had the luxury of turning down jobs when people called, but, still healthy and strong and happiest when he was in his shop, he rarely did. Joan pulled off their lane onto the county road, wondering idly why she found it so hard to relax and accept this newfound comfort and ease.

It was a pleasant morning, cool for June, and a month shy of a year since Elsa’s death. It had been a wet, cold spring so far this year, but the summer before there’d been a terrible drought, the second in three years, and though her mother’s death, on the Fourth of July, had been unexpected, in hindsight Joan wondered if Elsa hadn’t just decided she couldn’t face another parched and miserable summer; she’d hated the heat.

She’d especially hated the heat there on the farm—watching the corn and beans in the surrounding fields turn shriveled and brown, the creek bed dry as dust. But then who didn’t hate a drought? Elsa hated the winter too, because nothing grew then, and more often than not everything was coated with a thick layer of dirty ice. She could complain about any season. In the summer, the weeds and the poison ivy were going to be the death of her yet. The truth was, Joan knew, she just hated the farm.

Her heart simply gave out, the paramedics had said. It was Richard who’d found her, lying at the end of her bedraggled delphiniums, while Joan and Glen drove home from a barbecue with their son’s family in Philadelphia. And Joan had never quite decided whether she’d failed her mother by being gone that day or had, in fact, given her a kind of gift.

A mist rose off her neighbor’s cornfield as she drove the hundred yards to Richard’s drive, and there was a hint of hazy sunlight. It was the kind of day that could go either way. Up ahead she saw that Richard had walked down the short lane from his tidy, ivy-covered house, which, when Joan’s grandfather owned three times the acreage she and Glen now owned and oversaw a thriving “Pennsylvania Dutch” farm, had been a sharecropper’s cottage.

He stood next to the mailbox, leaning on his cane. Joan bristled at this affectation—her first reaction, but then she caught herself. What if Richard really was sick, what if there was something seriously wrong? He’d always seemed to her as strong as an ox, stubborn and bull-headed as some large animal too. She’d seen him age, of course, but it was hard for her to imagine him as sick or frail. Earlier that week, in fact the day his niece arrived, she’d looked out the kitchen window to see him bushwhacking his way up the overgrown path from the creek, where he’d gone to pick the jewelweed he liked to keep in a vase on his windowsill.

Now his old black sweater was buttoned to the neck, and he wore a jaunty black beret. He was, Joan assumed, trying to look like a contented country gentleman—French provincial maybe—idling there by his freshly painted mailbox on this damp and misty morning. But Joan recognized the impatience in the way he was gripping his cane. She was fifteen minutes late, and as he strolled across the narrow road to the passenger side of her car, she tried to decide whether or not to apologize.

“Ah, the slow, drowsy mornings of we happy retirees,” he said after he’d slammed the door and struggled into his seatbelt. “I trust you were lingering over a good cup of coffee and our illustrious local newspaper. Maybe you were as fascinated as I was by the contentious debate at last night’s Sewage Board meeting?”

The usual trace of an accent—something like Richard’s notion of England by way of Boston, the voice of someone like Henry James; this was what Joan always assumed he had in mind—set her teeth on edge. She rolled her window halfway down and sniffed the wet, green air, knowing the draft would bother him but for the moment not caring. “I’m not sure what it is you think I’m ‘retired’ from,” she said as she put the car in gear and continued driving. “And good morning to you too, Richard.”

As she drove she glanced over at him and wondered if he wasn’t a little paler than usual. When he coughed she rolled her window up and said, “You know, I wish you’d just let me get your groceries this week. You probably ought to stay home and rest.”

He shook his head and cleared his throat. “I’ve told you, Joan, I’m fine.” He unbuttoned several buttons of his sweater and glanced at her, then turned his head to gaze out his own window. “It’s just that it’s a little damp out today.” He paused, for only a beat. “And of course I had to wait quite a while for you to arrive.”

She smiled to herself, hearing that. But she didn’t apologize.

At the supermarket they went their separate ways as always, Richard steering his basket toward the deli counter, Joan lingering in the produce section. Later, Richard found her at the dairy case and helped her reach a carton of heavy cream far to the back of the high top shelf. At moments like this, Joan felt distinctly uncomfortable. Despite the difference in their ages, despite Richard’s clearly aging body, she felt small and weak when she saw herself through his eyes. And also rather dowdy. Normally she was fond of her long braid of reddish hair with its many strands of gray (another eccentricity: she chose not to dye her hair), her open face with its laugh lines and wrinkles from years spent working outdoors. But whenever she went anywhere with Richard, she wondered why she didn’t try to fix herself up more—put on make-up, dress in nice slacks and heels, like other women her age, instead of jeans and sneakers.

She felt it powerfully this morning, again, this time when Richard suddenly turned into the pharmacy section as she stood searching among the endless pink and purple boxes for a simple box of Kotex pads. She stood there as he wheeled his cart towards her, staring silently at him, suddenly remembering how she’d felt when Richard and Bobby had first started renting the cottage, back when she’d been a lonely, painfully shy girl, humiliated by recent changes in her own body, awash in questions she’d had no one to ask. She knew better than to pose them to her distant, bitter mother, whose answer to all her daughter’s private dreams and yearnings would have been to go to church, or get herself to that month’s youth group meeting for once. Even though she herself hadn’t been to church in years.

Odd to think of all that now—the way she used to feel around Richard and Bobby, like they knew so much more than she’d ever understand, like they could see everything about her. Bobby, in particular, had made her feel that way. She was tormented by how beautiful he was, back in those early years—his dark curls and long, dark lashes, his brilliant smile, his lean, olive-skinned body. She’d created elaborate fantasies around him, ones where he kissed her, ones where he led her deep in the woods and held her hard against a tree and then made love to her on a bed of pine needles. Alone in her room late on a Friday night, she would watch Richard and Bobby arriving at the cottage and unpacking whatever old car they’d borrowed to drive there; through her window she could just make out their separate outlines, pulling boxes and bags out of the trunk, in the dim light from the bulb next to the cottage’s back door. She always thought she might see them kiss or embrace, but she never did. And so she let herself imagine that in fact Bobby was waiting for her, waiting until she was a little bit older, when he would reach for her hand one day along the creek, and take her into the woods.

Now, wheeling his cart towards her, Richard seemed to take her silent staring as embarrassment at being caught in the feminine hygiene aisle. “Don’t worry, dear,” he deadpanned as he passed her cart, patting her arm. “We do know that such things happen, and we sympathize.”

You don’t know the half of it, she’d wanted to say. She wished she had the courage to tell him that that particular embarrassing thing hadn’t happened to her for a while now. What she needed the pads for were increasingly frequent issues with bladder control. Little trickles of pee in her underwear. Oh, the perils of growing older, she might say to him. Would he find that funny? But it was Richard who made jokes about people’s bodies, she thought, not her. So she only nodded and gave a half-hearted laugh as he rolled on past her.

He could be charming, and wickedly funny. But she hated to admit that, for some reason. She wasn’t sure why. It was certainly true, though, that in the year since her mother’s death, when Joan had taken over the job of checking in with Richard and driving him into town each week, he’d begun to annoy her even more. Her mother hadn’t minded Richard at all, it seemed; in fact, she’d seemed to relish his jokes about the neighbors, his pleasure in local gossip about train-wreck marriages and teenage pregnancies and drunk-driving arrests. She’d had too much contempt for her neighbors to gossip about them herself, but her mother would always listen to Richard—at the fence between their gardens, or over a cup of coffee at her kitchen table—a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Remarkable really, in a woman who hardly ever smiled.

In the years after he and Bobby first arrived, Joan had mostly felt free to ignore Richard. He’d been only a peripheral part of her life for most of the years he’d been her neighbor. Bobby, of course, was another story. When they first rented the cottage, in 1965, Bobby was twenty-five and by far the friendlier of the two. Richard had claimed to be the same age, and it was only after Bobby’s death that Joan realized he’d been lying, that he was, in fact, a good fifteen years older than Bobby. Back in those days, you really couldn’t tell. Richard was strong and vital; he’d looked far younger than he was. Not that Joan was looking at him much.

Soon after they rented the white-washed stone cottage Richard had set his sights on making it into a weekend showplace for their friends from the city. Within a few years its western wall was dense with well-trained English ivy that bordered the brick chimney, and the surrounding gardens were filled with delicate lily-of-the-valley and fiddlehead ferns in the spring, then Asian lilies and towering cosmos and giant yellow dahlias grown from bulbs that were an early gift from Elsa. She’d been unnaturally fond of Richard from the beginning, it seemed to Joan. Only later would it dawn on her that her mother and Richard were nearly the same age.

Maybe it was because Elsa and all the other neighbors called them “the boys,” but that was exactly how Joan remembered Richard and Bobby from those early years—as exuberant, youthful boys with brash and colorful friends. She remembered watching from her bedroom window on a snowy night just before Christmas as a whole crew of them arrived, well after midnight, rolling out of someone’s rusted old Cadillac and sliding giddily down the slope behind the barn to the ice-covered creek below. They often came with big groups in the summer, too, and then she’d hear them splashing and yelling in the creek. Further along in the woods was a place where the creek narrowed, then opened out to form a deeper pool, a place where, in the early summer after a spring with lots of rain, a person could actually swim. This, Richard had told her recently, had been dubbed “the pool of desire” by one of their friends.

When Bobby died no one had called it AIDS, though it clearly was. Richard never talked about Bobby’s illness or his death, but his grief was obvious. The most vivid sign of it was the fact that when he returned to the cottage the following spring, after an absence of several months (Bobby had died, they later learned, slowly and painfully, in a hospital in New York), and informed Elsa that he would now be living in the cottage full-time, Richard no longer looked, in any way, like a boy. Instead he looked like what, in truth, he was: a sixty-year-old man, bereft, robbed of his one great love. He was heavier then, and his thinning hair, now cropped close, had gone completely gray. He immersed himself in his gardens, and though a few friends still visited from time to time, he spent most of his days alone.

When they finished their shopping and some browsing at the library, Richard insisted on taking Joan out to lunch at a new place that he wanted to try. While they waited for their salads they talked about the books they’d checked out. Richard had a new book on Frank Lloyd Wright, one on English gardens, and one on interior design inspired by the Bauhaus group, artists he proceeded to tell Joan about in exhaustive detail, paying no attention to her glazed expression or the impatient tapping of her foot below the table. He liked to dwell on books like these, she thought, to punish her, because he knew she had little interest in things having to do with art and design. Or certainly no particular skill or understanding when it came to such things. What she cared about was making sure things worked (the car, the chimneys, the septic system), and having plenty of good food to eat. She was a vegetable grower, not a gardener; she’d kept Elsa’s beds pruned and weeded, to the extent that she had, out of some sort of loyalty to her mother, not any particular interest in flowers.

When at last Richard’s pasta arrived and he paused to take some eager bites, Joan started by telling him about the Margaret Atwood novel she’d checked out, an older one that someone in her book group had told her about, and then the collection of short stories by an Irish author named William Trevor. This one had been suggested by her friend Reeva, who’d been another “nontraditional student” in the evening college where Joan had finished her degree, slowly making her way through all the required courses, beginning back when her youngest daughter started school. It was a from a story in this collection that Reeva had learned the term “poofter.” Now when she called, after they’d exchanged news about their children and grandchildren, Reeva would sometimes ask, “And how’s the old poofter next door?” And then they’d both chuckle a little guiltily.

Now, for some reason, Joan felt like telling Richard about this. “You know,” she said as she buttered a slice of thick brown bread from the basket between them, “in Ireland they apparently refer to men like you as ‘poofters.’ At least that’s the term this William Trevor uses in one of his stories.” She coughed a bit then, choking on the piece of bread she’d stuffed in her mouth as soon as she’d made this studiedly offhand remark. She couldn’t quite believe she’d said it. They rarely went anywhere near the subject of Richard’s sexual orientation, or anything else as personal as that, during their lunchtime conversations. Not because Joan wasn’t curious. In fact she was intensely curious, and had been since she was a girl. There’d been all kinds of people back there in the “pool of desire,” she knew, at various times: men and women both, all ages, different races. Were the women always with the women then, and the men with the men? Bobby—trim, dark, boylike and movie star-handsome Bobby—too?

Richard stared at her, then blinked and looked down at his plate as he speared an oily sun-dried tomato. He held it near his lips for just a second, just long enough to reply “Well, yes, I’ve heard that term. And here’s one for you, a name men like me use for people like you, at our less charitable moments: we sometimes call you ‘breeders.’” With that he bit into the slippery tomato with relish and smiled at her. He chewed it two or three times, then added, “Rather like cows, you understand.”

His bluntness shocked her; he could take her breath away at times. But he also made her laugh—probably more than anyone she knew.

She laughed now, gratefully. “‘Breeders,’” she said as she dipped into her soup. “That’s good. Reeva will appreciate that one.”

And it was good. Certainly better than a word like “poofter,” which sounded like something a seven-year-old on a playground might have come up with. “Breeders,” on the other hand, was clever. Clever, and a little vicious, like Richard and his friends.

And like Elsa, who might well have referred to her daughter as a breeder. Or as a cat in heat. She did call Joan that once, one memorable evening when she’d found a condom in the upstairs toilet, one that Glen thought he’d managed to flush away.

Bitter as Elsa was about so much—an unwanted life of trying to run a farm, a husband who drank and left her not long after their daughter was born, neighbors whose sympathy only made her angrier—never, it seemed, did she direct any of her bitterness at her son-in-law or grandchildren. Or her happy-go-lucky boy tenants. Perhaps it was because of all the work Richard had done for her through the years, before Joan married Glen—though he’d bartered mightily with that work. One summer, before he and Bobby had saved enough to buy the cottage from Elsa and were still renting, he’d rebuilt the stone wall surrounding the farmhouse and barn; the next he’d repaired the barn’s leaking roof. Both times, Elsa had given up half a year’s rent in exchange. Richard became, in a sense, her mother’s right-hand man, until Joan married Glen. Odd as it was to think such a thing, in certain ways Richard had been like a husband to Elsa.

Thinking of that, Joan always came back to the same memory—of her mother’s death, of the whole series of strange, unfocused moments that day. What should have been a horror somehow hadn’t been, thanks to Richard. They’d gotten the call late in the afternoon and driven home immediately. At the end of their lane, they’d found an ambulance in the driveway. When Joan hurried from the car toward the front door of the barn, she’d heard Richard call her name.

He was sitting in a lawn chair by one of Elsa’s flower beds, beside her prone body. Behind him the paramedics stood at a respectful distance, waiting. He had straightened Elsa’s legs and smoothed her house dress, folded her hands at her waist, called the ambulance. Joan could picture Richard fussing over Elsa’s fallen body, the same way he methodically pruned and weeded his flower beds and swept his front porch every morning. He had closed Elsa’s eyes and tidied her hair. He had handled everything.

At lunch that day she thought of asking Richard about this. How is it that you thought to make my mother look presentable before they came for her, before Glen and I saw her? How is it that you’re a man and I’m a woman, and you found something when she died—something like beauty—that I never saw in her?

By the time they drove home from Doylestown the day had turned sunny and warm. Even Richard seemed to be welcoming the sun with a kind of relaxed expansiveness. Joan could see that he was tired, yet he had left his sweater unbuttoned, his beret in his lap, and he’d unrolled his window a good two inches. They rode in silence for the first half of the drive.

But Joan was stuck on the past, on Bobby, on all those people swimming in the deep pool in the woods. She roused herself and glanced over at Richard. “So what kinds of things went on back there?” she asked suddenly, out of the blue, knowing he wouldn’t give her a straightforward answer. “Back in the pool of desire?”

He cleared his throat and sniffed. “Are you asking whether animals were also involved?”

She shook her head and laughed. “All right then,” she said. “Never mind.”

He sighed and gazed through the windshield. “Well of course there was a little of everything,” he said. “Breeders with breeders and poofters with poofters and sometimes breeders with poofters. The whole happy lot.” He looked over at her. “Surely you read some Freud in one or another of that endless string of college classes you took, Joan. As the great man said, we’re all polymorphous perverts at heart. Male, female, why all the categories and barriers? There’s room for a little of everything.”

She nodded as she slowed the car and turned on her signal for the approach to Richard’s cottage. She tried to imagine how Elsa might have felt about that, and about the goings-on in the creek on her property on those weekends years ago. She had to have known about it.

“I wonder what my mother would have thought about all that,” she said, anticipating his biting response.

But when he answered he wasn’t smiling, or laughing. “I’m not sure. If you wanted to know, you should have asked her,” he said. They had stopped in front of the cottage, and he rolled up his window and turned to her before he opened his door, adding, “She always seemed to enjoy herself, on the occasions when she joined us.” Then he winked at her and heaved himself out of the car, leaning heavily on his cane.

She turned off the engine and scrambled out of the car to help him with his groceries, shaking her head and laughing again, but more tentatively. “Right,” she said. “I can just imagine Elsa joining in on something like that.” Straight face or not, he was surely joking, she thought. Wasn’t he? But he was already several steps ahead of her, pulling a bag from the back seat and walking over to unlock the door.

Once inside the tidy little kitchen, Joan bustled around him, trying to help him put things away, getting in his way and getting on his nerves, she could tell. Why didn’t she just bring him a little supper later on? she said. But no, he said; he was looking forward to broiling the fish he’d bought. But first he wanted to stretch out on the chaise lounge in the garden for a while. He picked up one of his library books and shooed her toward the door.

She turned to him once more before he could close the door behind her. “You were kidding when you said that, right?” she said. “About Elsa enjoying herself at the pool of desire?”

“Well, as I said, Joan, you should have asked her about that. She’d have told you, I suppose. If you’d asked.”

He looked exhausted, Joan realized, as he closed the door. That’s what had happened to her mother too. Some dizzy spells, exhaustion—and a few weeks later she was dead.

After she put her own groceries away, Joan pulled on her old rubber boots and tramped along the creek, back into the woods, to the deepest part. The pool of desire.

It was so full and rich for June, so different from the summer before. She roused a couple dragonflies as she approached, and she stared down at what had to be hundreds of minnows, darting in every direction, senselessly. Driven by their own desires. She’d read or heard that phrase “polymorphous perverts” in some class, she remembered. The “perverts” part had bothered her.

She looked at the creek, rushing over the rocks before settling into the clear, still pool. She thought again of those afternoons years ago—ripping off her shorts and T-shirt, her bra and underpants, then clutching at Glen as he held her in the deep water—and a shiver of pleasure ran through her. She turned in the direction of the cottage, catching a glimpse of one white wall and the top of the chimney through the trees. She imagined Richard in his garden in back, alone, seated amongst his lilies, reading about beautiful things. And she wondered what she would do without him.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of William Trevor’s work, discussed here on NPR.]

 Joyce Hinnefeld is the author of the novels Stranger Here Below and In Hovering Flight, and the story collection Tell Me Everything. She is an associate professor of English at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA and director of the Moravian Writers’ Conference. Her website is www.joycehinnefeld.com.

Image by Susan Skylark