To love and be loved is the greatest joy on earth, greeting from a Hallmark card.

Susan works in her garden and waits for her lover. He’ll be gone two weeks, and while she digs she thinks of him. She came out early this morning with a spade and sunbonnet, looking, she thought, peacefully industrious, but now she’s put aside the trowel, and the sun bonnet has slid off her short, dark hair. She likes to keep her hands busy. She likes to find and break apart the clods of dirt. Her lover has been gone three days now, and Susan is digging up the rosebushes. They’re gnarled, dead things that were in the backyard when she and her husband bought the house, and she’s glad to root them up. She’s going to plant red and orange dahlias where the rosebushes stood.

Susan leans back on her heels and wipes her hands on her skirt. Her nails are caked with dirt. Every evening while she waits for the phone to ring, she files and cleans them. Her husband is in Seattle. He’s at the Ko-Pack Plastic Plant setting up a powdered die. His name is William, and when he worked for Andersen, he helped make the first all-brown window. Susan understands none of this, but he told her it didn’t matter; anyone who’s been to technical school would know what he’s talking about. The all-brown window was the first personal thing she learned about him; second was that his nickname, instead of being Bill or Will, is Bull.

Bull will be gone all summer. He calls her every other night. They miss each other. She sits by the phone and answers it on the first ring. With her, there’s no pretending. She always tells him she loves him, and this always prompts him to ask her to come to Seattle. “Come to Seattle for the summer,” he tells her, expansive as a slogan, “where the air is cool.” He knows how much she hates the hot, muggy summers of West Virginia, where the clouds from the chemical plants hang like dirty wash in the sky. But she always says no. Once, they very nearly argued.

“I don’t believe you really love me,” said Bull. “Or else you’d come to Seattle.”

“Of course I love you! But me? Seattle? Besides, I can’t leave my ferns.” She was referring to the ferns she’d just bought for the dining room. They’re called double fluffy duffies and are very large. She’s careful to keep the soil moist and the fronds misted.

“Come to Seattle where they grow wild,” he persisted, but she laughed, pretending it was a joke. Bull doesn’t know she’s waiting for her lover to return.

Susan thinks her lover is a puzzle. He’s different from any other lover she’s ever known. For one thing, he’s left her for his mother. Not permanently, but for a two week trip to Missouri to visit the Mammoth Caves. Susan hasn’t been to Missouri, but she’s been to the Smokehole Caverns, and she knows that, at the very most, you could only spend two days there. And then you’d have to be a cave freak. Two weeks? Well, there is Virginia, he admitted, they might go there, too. His mother has always wanted to see Monticello, especially the dumb waiter in the dining room. He feels obliged to please his mother. Her name is Ruth and she’s been a widow for two years. His father? Her lover thumbed his mustache when he spoke of him. His father wasn’t brutal, but he liked to have his say. When he was alive there were many things his mother couldn’t do. This is Ruth’s first vacation in twenty years.

Every day, Susan waits for a postcard but none arrives. She doesn’t like to admit this, but lately she been placing a great deal of emotional focus on the mailman. She wonders intensely what he has in his sack. She knows he has letters, but sometimes there’s a slant to his shoulders, a slight bend to his neck that suggests he carries more. He is a short, heavyset man who’s responded to her sudden friendship by bringing the mail to her wherever she is in the yard. He’s near retirement age and likes to stop and talk.

She glances at her watch. Sometimes he’s as early as ten o’clock. She stands up and shakes her skirt out in anticipation of meeting him, and, yes, there he is, coming up the street. Today he’s brought her a slew of political flyers, a Ross and Simon’s catalog, and utility bills. She thumbs through the catalog, and a card falls out. She bends over and picks it up. Susan is wearing a long denim skirt and a white peasant blouse with vines and blue flowers. It has a scoop neck. She bends from the waist. The card is shiny white, embossed with green and gold leaves. TREE SERVICE BY DON. She slides it under the elastic in her sleeve and looks at the mailman. He’s talking to her about his grandson in the first grade. The boy is a whiz; he’s already reading on a fifth grade level. The school is searching for special materials right now. The teacher isn’t sure where she’ll find them; she’s going to phone the ERS. He pauses after each initial, waiting for her to ask, but Susan stares back, glassy-eyed. What is so important about the Mammoth Caves that her lover can’t drop her a line? ERS stands for Educational Resource Systems, the mailman tells her proudly, and stands waiting. When she doesn’t respond, he walks away.

Susan wanders back to her digging. She takes up the trowel and pounds with the handle, busting sandstone. She’s not a jealous woman, but she does have her pride. What if her lover has committed adultery? What if he’s committing adultery right now? The thought is shattering, and along the the sandstone, the spade goes flying through the air. She stuffs her hands in her pockets, realizing it wouldn’t exactly be adultery but a mistake. A big one. She’d never forgive him. Well, she might forgive him, but first she’d have to even to score.

Susan retrieves the trowel. It’s landed in the middle of the mail. She stacks the mail and slides the card back into the jewelry catalog. Everything must be orderly. Such extremities, papers strewn about, make her feel foolish and weak, especially in light of her recent behavior. She didn’t hear a word the mailman said!

When the mailman comes down the other side of the street, she makes it point to wave at him. Her hands flutter; she is petrified. What if he’s offended? What if he turns his head? But he responds at once, as though it’s the first time he’s seen her, and keeps waving until he passes her house. Susan takes up her trowel. Her eyes follow him closely and she sits very still.

Once she met a man on an extended fast. He was on his way to the moon. How do you get there? Susan had asked him. It’s a matter of will, he told her, that originates in the imagination. My head is filled with round things: clocks, mirrors, ripe plums. The third day was the hardest; I could scarcely keep them in. They claimed and pressed, but I persevered. Now I know I’m not going to the moon, he said, and leaned forward, his head almost touching the floor. The moon is coming to me.

Susan had always questioned the lucidity of this statement, but now she knows the part about the third day is true. She’d like to hold clock, mirrors, and plums in her mind, but instead she yearns for her lover. They’ve been apart for nearly seventy-two hours, and she thinks she’s losing her mind. She picks up the clippers and cuts a nail straight across, blunt wise. The phone rings and her legs fly out from under her. She skids across the room, catching her toe on the braided rug. She makes it on the fourth ring.

“Hello?”

It’s her girlfriend, Mildred, inviting her to go to a movie. Mildred is nervous because her teenager has filled her house with rock and roll.

“It’s Led Zeppelin,” Mildred tells her. “From the eighties, can you imagine? Whole Lotta Love, day after day. She’s only fifteen.”

Susan tightens her fingers around her toe to keep it from throbbing.

“She’s in her room with two more just like her. The door is locked. They’re probably smoking pot. I don’t care.” Over the phone, Susan can hear her light a cigarette. “Only fifteen. I’ve got three years. My God. Three more years.”

Susan says she’d love to, but really she can’t go to a movie. Or have one brought over, she adds hastily, remembering DVDs. She excuses herself badly, but she must be alone with her sorrow. She doesn’t want Mildred, her daughter or the problems of decadent youth brought in. She keeps hedging until she comes up with an illness, well, not an illness exactly. She is cramping; she has cramps.

“Really?” asked Mildred. Susan imagines her arching an eyebrow. Mildred has a habit of doing this.

Yes, really, the spasms start in her stomach and run down her legs, her muscles throb like guitar strings. Mildred laughs at her reference to rock and roll. There’s a silence, a deepening silence. Susan must make Mildred believe if only to get her off the phone! She decides to give her something she can relish; Susan decided to tell Mildred she’s getting old.

“You, Susan, how can you feel old?” Mildred’s voice is loud, wired with excitement. “This is some kind of joke, right? A woman cleans your house, you’ve never had kids, you go to spas, you–“

“Father Time,” Susan cuts in firmly, although she will deny saying or believing this later. “Time, age, whatever. It catches up with us all.”

to be con’t