Cass and Charlene

Ann Beattie

Fall 2018

They got old. Of course they did. We’d met them in the nineties, and Charlene was nearly ten years older than Cass. My husband, Nally, likes Cass, though he’s irritated by Charlene. To this day, Nally construes her corrections of any story her husband tells as an attempt to steal the scene. (“If she might have noticed,” Nally groused the last time we saw them, “we were discussing the significance of the next argument before the Supreme Court.”) Cass—who’d walk through the room waving his hand as if shooing flies while his guests were debating philosophical positions or imagining the thoughts of the newest frightening dictator in the most recently jeopardized country . . . Cass was often on the way to the kitchen for a drink refill (his, vodka on ice; hers, merlot), glasses held aloft as he gestured. If the glasses weren’t completely empty, an ice cube or two might fall to the floor. They had a cat named Princess Margaret who loved ice cubes; she’d dart in and knock between her paws any that fell. “Refill your own damned drinks!” Cass told guests, and he meant it. He’d never pour you a third drink.

Early in our marriage, when I’d needed a new car, they’d sold us Charlene’s thirteen-year-old Ford for a dollar. Who could endure people coming to the house to stare at the car and ask unanswerable questions, when what they really wanted was a brand-new Mercedes, and whatever we said in the ad, it was never going to be anything but a Ford. Just take the thing!That arch way Charlene had of speaking: now she’s lost a breast to cancer, and she has a little crater in her nose where a melanoma was removed. She speaks as if she’s as distinct from others as italics are from regular type.

We (Cass’s former students, friends, past and present neighbors, and respected adversaries) had been invited to gather in Connecticut for the seventy-seventh birthday of Casswell Duncan Damaris by his wife, Charlene Andresson. (It’s important that a woman retain her maiden name, even if the concept of “the maiden” has been tainted by simple-minded people who’ve invented nonsense about the symbolism of unicorns and the plights of dashing knights). Charlene contacted us months ago to request our presenceOther people—young people—tolerate Charlene just fine, as I pointed out to Nally on our way to the party. Nally thinks that, as intelligent as I am, I’ve let my life become a soap opera, playing handmaiden to Cass and his opinionated wife. But Cass taught me all I know about literature! She gave me their car!

Still, I’m more on Nally’s side than I let on. Even if I gossiped—thereby admitting that our interaction was the soap opera he thinks it is—people would yawn and turn away. Nobody wants to hear about old people, who already don’t exist in younger people’s perception of the world. Cass and Charlene might be merely odd, if not for their loyalty and generosity, as well as their gifting the always gifted, from MoMA to Sloan Kettering. They not only sponsored children in foreign countries, they trekked to see them, once taking an accordion—the first one the villagers had ever laid eyes on (found in Charlene’s mother’s attic), and it resulted in an entire band getting formed! (“Maybe when she went native, she could have danced until she fell down dead,” my husband said).

Since I don’t believe humans are only the sum of their charitable acts (though that’s what people in our social class are so often told, overtly or covertly), I won’t enumerate, though certainly Charlene and Cass were creative and thoughtful in the way they bestowed gifts and (accordion aside) prescient about what someone needed, or could profit by having. When Charlene called with the invitation, she reminded me of their ages and said that one last gathering of those who meant so much to Cass would really cheer him. His doctor had told her so, privately. They had no other family: Cass and Charlene had no children. Their parents were long gone, of course, as was Cass’s beloved aunt, who’d succumbed to the bends after scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef. We were all alive, though (as she emphasized). Here’s who she invited to the party:

Ann Beattie has received the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in the short story, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and was included in John Updike’s Best American Short Stories of the Century. Formerly the Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the Univer-sity of Virginia, she lives in Maine and Key West, Florida, with her husband, Lincoln Perry.

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