The afternoon the machine finally worked, Ross had the men over for cards—Eugene and Clarence from the Rotary Club, Lewis from church, Francoise’s brother, Maurice. Maurice arrived late and gave his sister a peck on the cheek. He smelled like whiskey, tobacco, and sour-sweat despair. Francoise didn’t like the look of his red-rimmed eyes, the way he wore his grief like a noose, nearly suffocated by it even now. It’d been five years after Margaret died, and two after his only grandson, Jack, died on the other side of the world in a place Francoise grew up calling Indochine. She may have said something. She may have pulled her younger brother aside and addressed without embarrassing him—neither her husband nor his other friends had the slightest grasp of the French language—but there was a telltale rumble from the basement. The machine had produced.
Francoise caught her husband’s eye. “Gentlemen, you will forgive me,” she said. “I must attend to something downstairs.”
“Are things all right?” asked Ross. He had no shade of concern, not even the scrap of interest Maurice drunkenly tossed her way. Her husband would never understand. Maurice would—he lacked the science, but he had enough poetry to understand. She suspected he hadn’t the capacity to handle the machine, in all its beautiful, terrible potentialities. Even if it worked. And in nearly sixty years, it had never worked.
She smiled. “Of course. Just my project,” she said. “You will offer our guests the snacks on the counter? Yes?”
He nodded. She crossed the kitchen and opened the door.
The basement stairs were warm, the air electric. She gripped the handle to remind herself to go slowly, despite the anticipation. Her legs were still lithe, well-shaped, agile—she’d always been a bit vain about them—but they were nonetheless the legs of a woman a few weeks and a breath away from eighty. Overhead, she heard the chairs rumble across the floor as the men settled around the game table, and the baritone timbre of her husband’s voice. He would be making excuses for her, those women, their projects. He wouldn’t tell them about the nature of the project, because Ross couldn’t understand the nature of the project.
He was a sweet man, a good Congregationalist, a lifelong Vermonter. He’d spent his whole life less than five miles from the lumber company, where he’d kept the accounts and made sure the men in the mill had plenty to eat, even in the darkest times. The only time he’d left Burlington was in 1918, when he’d followed his patriotic duty into the trenches as the Great War was ending.
He’d found his way to Paris on his way home. That’s where they met, fifty years ago. Her, a 31-year-old widow, mother of two small children, a researcher at the University. Him, a gangly, carrot-headed 26-year-old who looked about sixteen. He was impossibly gentle and absolutely smitten from their first meeting, outside a bookshop in the French Quarter where he’d come searching for a Western to read on his trip home. She accepted his invitation to dinner because she was sure she’d never seen eyes so kind. And with so much sadness, so much ugliness in the world, kindness seemed the most valuable asset in a man. She married him as much for her children and shell-shocked brother—Ross assured her Maurice could find work in the lumberyard—as for herself. She packed her books and her degrees, her young children Etienne (acquiring the nickname Steve upon leaving Europe) and Heloise (Ellie since first grade).
She thought she’d cry when they arrived in the New York harbor. Instead, it was two two days later, in the upstairs of Ross’s mother’s boarding house in Burlington. I left Paris for this. Ross held her as she sobbed. She imagined ways she might slip off in the night to jump in the lake, then realizing if she did, she would miss the view. It was a lovely view, beyond the scrim of yellow birch and flaming sugar maples at the edge of the lawn. When they finally moved out of his mother’s house, Ross had built that house for her and her children, he’d let her dictate her needs for a space—a lab—to do her research. He employed her brother. He saw him through the difficult years, when Maurice fell in and out of his spells, then in and out with a gang of Quebecois rumrunners, landed in jail, then into improbable wedlock with pretty Margaret Cornish, a minister’s daughter, as inclined to forgiveness as Maurice was to collapse. Ross had been a good father to her children—the only father either of them could remember—and never complained that she was unable to give him one of his own, even though she suspected it saddened him. He let her have days alone, uninterrupted, in the lab with the machine. She once tried to explain. He said, “You’re too smart for me, old girl.” He never asked again.
It was hard to explain, the machine. Not just the mechanics. Not the formulas. Not the material object—ostensibly simple enough, just black metal and graphite, a collection wires rigged to do impossible things. It was an impossible thing. No less a person than Marie Curie herself had once, when confronted with a young Francoise’s plans, had deemed it a fairy tale, a myth, not science but alchemy.
She gave the machine a loving smile before removing her cardigan and sliding on the lab coat, the radioactive mitts, the safety glasses. She unlocked the door to the lab. The machine hummed, a low purr that warmed the space, conjuring the long-lost peace of summer days at her grandfather’s house in Bonnieux, where she and Maurice had spent the early years after their parents died. They’d climbed cherry trees in the orchard behind the farmhouse, fingers sticky with pink, and forgotten their sorrows in the taste of spring, its promise of miracles or rebirth or romance, on their tongues. Maurice had been moody, often angry and defiant, but cradled in the branches of Grand-Mere’s trees, he would settle into sweetness, a dreamy smile unfolding on his round boy’s cheeks. When he would fall to grief about her mother, he tasted each new fruit with the feigned seriousness of sommelier. Too ripe! Too new! Too round! Too flat! and instructed her to do the same. The perfect cherry eluded them until one evening in early June, late enough that the sky had purpled and they could hear Grand-Mere’s dinner summons through the leaves, when she pulled a cherry from the fine and presented it to her brother. He admired its heart shape, the glow of its skin, and when he tasted, he closed his eyes, Magnifique, and handed her the other half of the cherry round the pit.
“Eat,” he said. “How can you be sad if you know this kind of perfect exists in the world?”
Nine-year-old Francoise ate. It tasted like sunlight, sugar, and scarlet. It tasted like the last time she hugged her mother. It tasted like the first time she saw her brother smile since her mother died, the day they arrived in Bonnieux, and he saw the cherry trees.
Seventy-nine-year-old Francoise, slid her gloved fingers around the machine’s door and gently pulled it open. She gasped and clutched her heart.
She thought I have done it.
Her safety glasses went salty with tears.
It was 4pm when the men began to drift away from the table. Lewis first, then Eugene, then Clarence. She’d learned the dialect of their footfalls as they crossed the den floor to the back door, then the chorus of goodbyes. She heard her brother’s slurred vowels, he hardly sounds French anymore unless he’s been drinking.
She pulled a tray from under the lab counter. It was not a specimen tray, but a platter, the kind of thing a grandmother in Vermont might keep for Christmas party hors d'oeuvres. She was a grandmother in Vermont. She removed the object from the machine and placed it in the center of the platter.
She climbed the stairs, only pausing at the top to remember her forgotten cardigan. It was still warm though, unseasonably. Indian Summer, they call it. She opened the basement door and slid the platter on the counter, partially obscured by the toaster. She called for her husband.
Ross rose, bones cracking, and smiled into the kitchen. “Everything okay downstairs?”
“Is my brother still here?” she asked, though she knew he was.
“I haven’t chased him away.”
She nodded. “Would you give us a moment, him and I?”
Ross rubbed his head, freckles and liver spots like a constellation over his bald scalp. “Of course,” he said. “I’ll just go out to the garage, check for more beer.”
He shuffled past, and when he reached her edge of the counter, she kissed him, lightly, on his papery cheek.
Maurice breathed heavily. We are all so very old, though she didn’t always feel that way. She was nervous, passing over the threshold, looking at the slumped form of her brother, his white shirt rumpled, his glasses askew, his thinning white hair mussed from his clumsy fingers, always seemingly searching for one ghost or another to hold onto.
“I have something for you,” she said
“What is it?” he asked. “A lecture about the drinking.”
“Non,” she said, lip trembling, as she crossed the room, platter perfectly balanced, draped with a napkin. She sat beside him. He fumbled for a cigarette. She touched his hand.
“Maurice,” she said. “I have spent my life, studying, learning, building, trying to make something impossible. Do you know what that is?”
He waved her off. She cleared her throat loudly.
“I want to make us happy,” she said. “I want to make you happy.”
“Impossible in this life,” he said, but his eye on the platter. “How can I be happy without them?”
“You said that about Mama, too,” she said.
“I meant it.” He blinked, touched the rim of his glasses.
“But you were once. You could be.” She thought again about the orchard. They’d chopped it down when Grand-mere died and the farm was sold. Francoise and Maurice, truly alone then, truly orphaned, had been sent with the proceeds to school in Paris, to University, to the Army, to the unfolding clamor of the 20th century. Neither child had even had a chance to say goodbye to the orchard, to their childhood, to the last material relic of shared history.
The October sun through the den window felt almost as warm as spring in Bonnieux. She slid away the napkin covering the platter.
“Voila,” she said.
Maurice gave the platter a long, suspicious glance. She could see his lips turn, as if to shrug off her achievement with sarcasm, but he stopped. He stared. He raised his eyebrows, his hand in astonished recognition
“What is this?” he asked.
“A memory,” she said. “A memory made flesh.”
“A lifetime. A machine I could not begin to explain.” She leaned closer. “Please, you must taste.”
He reached for the cherry. For a moment, she could see the boy’s fingers in the old man’s trembling hand. He looked again, are you sure?
He took a bite of the fruit. He closed his eyes. “Magnifique.” He handed her the uneaten half, the pit exposed, and said, “You must.”
She took a bite. It tasted like sunlight, sugar and scarlet. It tasted like the last time she hugged her mother. It tasted like her wedding night. It tasted like the last time she saw Jean-Pierre, her first husband, healthy and smiling. It tasted like seeing her children for the first time. It tasted like Ross, trying to tell her she was beautiful in French in 1919, in 1929, in 1959, this morning with sleep in his eyes. It tasted like the golden beech leaves and the sugar maples flaming beside Lake Champlain. It tasted like a life well-lived and well-loved, in spite of the furious howl of loss. And we have lost so much.
She opened her eyes and sees her brother, beside her, eighty-one years old, his heart full of grief, but there is wonder, there is hope. There was something like a smile.
She put a hand to his cheek. “How can you be sad when this kind of perfect exists in the world?”