Mavis Gallant is a supremely sophisticated writer, elegant, cunning, intelligent, like Henry James and Edith Wharton. Somehow, her story “Florida” is about language, mothers, sisters, sons, daughters-in-law, striving, failure, Florida, Montreal, that is, difference, or home, place, displacement. In any Gallant story, life or reality is curious, daunting, often frustrating, sad or tragic. And, she’s funny, too, in her way. And uniquely mysterious. The reader does not know what will happen in a sentence, in a story, but not out of deliberate obfuscation or a rising plot, but because Gallant operates her own airplane, and it flies in strange directions.
Gallant sets off relationships with subtle traces of discontent. In a world off-kilter, her characters are, and so her stories have a sly and shifting momentum. The breadth of her mind and skill as a literary thinker let her perform miracles. I mean, she can, as she does in “Florida,” join “electrical shocks” caused in Florida, where Marie sees her son, Raymond, to “crackling” in Montreal, when Marie returns home. The relationships between son and mother, sister and sister, are like none I have ever read. I may have experienced or noticed in others something that comes close to the impenetrability of these relationships she creates, but Gallant fills me with wonder at the way she sees and understands human behavior.
I have an aversion to telling “the story” in a review or essay, because a story is how it’s written. Gallant does something that very few writers can: she connects ideas with psychologies, without explanation. In a Gallant story, a reader such as myself is induced by it, led to find herself in fields of possible meaning. A sentence might appear simple, the language plain, but never is. It works through an angle of vision, the slant of juxtaposition, syntax, language.
Here’s an example:
“Raymond said something in English. Marie did not know what it meant, but it sounded disgusting. ‘Raymond,’ she said, ‘apologize to your wife.'” (P. 218, from Varieties of Exile, NYRB Classics.)
I don’t know, but to me “sounded disgusting” is perfect, and perfectly like Marie to think that, and yet entirely unexpected as a response, the word “disgusting” ugly on the page, from Marie’s mouth. Raymond’s wife, by the way, is called Mimi, and Marie had no idea of her existence until she landed in Florida. What then is the state of Florida?
Florida by Mavis Gallant
Berthe Carette’s sister, Marie, spent eight Christmases of her life in Florida, where her son was establishing a future in the motel industry. Every time Marie went down she found Raymond starting over in a new place: His motels seemed to die on his hands. She used to come back to Montreal riddled with static electricity. Berthe couldn’t hand her a teaspoon without receiving a shock, like a small silver bullet. Her sister believed the current was generated by a chemical change that occurred as she flew out of Fort Lauderdale toward a wet, dark, snowy city.
Marie had been living with Berthe ever since 1969, the year her husband died. She still expected what Berthe thought of as husband service: flights met, cabs hailed, doors held, tips attended to. Berthe had to take the bus out to Dorval Airport, with Marie’s second-best fur coat over her arm and her high-heeled boots in a plastic bag. Through a glass barrier she could watch her sister gliding through customs, dressed in a new outfit of some sherbet tone—strawberry, lemon-peach—with everything matching, sometimes even her hair. She knew that Marie had been careful to tear the American store and union labels out of the clothes and sew in Canadian ones, in case customs asked her to strip.
“Don’t tell me it’s still winter,” Marie would wail, kissing Berthe as if she had been away for months rather than just a few days. Guiding Marie’s arms into the second-best-mink sleeves (paws and piecework), Berthe would get the first of the silvery shocks.
One year, when her son Raymond had fallen in love with a divorced woman twice his age (it didn’t last), Marie arrived home crackling, exchanging sparks with everything she touched. When she ate a peppermint she felt it detonating in her mouth. Berthe had placed a pot of flowering paper-white narcissi on Marie’s dressing table, a welcome-home present reflected on and on in the three mirrors. Marie shuffled along the carpeted passage, still in her boots. She had on her Florida manner, pretending she was in Berthe’s flat by mistake. As soon as she saw the plant, she went straight over and gave it a kiss. The flower absorbed a charge and hurled it back. Berthe examined the spot on Marie’s lip where the shock had struck. She could find nothing, no trace. Nevertheless Marie applied an ice cube.
She waited until midnight before calling Raymond, to get the benefit of the lower rate. His line was tied up until two: He said the police had been in, investigating a rumor. Marie told him about the plant. He made her repeat the story twice, then said she had built up a reserve of static by standing on a shag rug with her boots on. She was not properly grounded when she approached the flower.
“Raymond could have done more with his life,” said Marie, hanging up. Berthe, who was still awake, thought he had done all he could, given his brains and character. She did not say so: She never mentioned her nephew, never asked about his health. He had left home young, and caused a lot of grief and trouble.
On Marie’s eighth visit, Raymond met her at the airport with a skinny woman he said was his wife. She had dark-blond hair and one of those unset permanents, all corkscrews. Marie looked at her, and looked away. Raymond explained that he had moved back to Hollywood North. Marie said she didn’t care, as long as she had somewhere to lay her head.
They left the terminal in silence. Outside, she said, “What’s this car? Japanese? Your father liked a Buick.”
“It belongs to Mimi,” he said.
Marie got in front, next to Raymond, and the skinny woman climbed in behind. Marie said to Raymond, in French, “You haven’t told me her name.”
“Well, I have, of course. I introduced you. Mimi.”
“Mimi isn’t a name.”
“It’s hers,” he said.
“It can’t be. It’s always short for something—for Michèle. Did you ever hear of a Saint Mimi? She’s not a divorced woman, is she? You were married in church?”
“In a kind of church,” he said. “She belongs to a Christian movement.”
Marie knew what that meant: pagan rites. “You haven’t joined this thing—this movement?”
“I don’t want to join anything,” he said. “But it has changed my life.”
Marie tried to consider this in an orderly way, going over in her mind the parts of Raymond’s life that wanted changing. “What sort of woman would marry an only son without his mother’s blessing?” she said.
“Mom,” said Raymond, switching to English, and perhaps forgetting she hated to be called this. “She’s twenty-nine. I’m thirty-three.”
“What’s her maiden name?” said Marie.
“Ask her,” he said. “I didn’t marry her family.”
Marie eased the seat-belt and turned around, smiling. The woman had her eyes shut. She seemed to be praying. Her skin was freckled, pale for the climate; perhaps she had come to one of the oases of the heart where there are no extremes of weather. As for Raymond, he was sharp and dry, with a high, feverish forehead. His past had evaporated. It annoyed him to have to speak French. On one of his mother’s other visits he had criticized her Montreal accent, said he had heard better French on the streets of Saigon. He lit a cigarette, but before she could say, “Your father died of emphysema,” threw it out.
Mimi, perhaps made patient by prayer, spoke up: “I am happy to welcome any mother of Raymond’s. May we spend a peaceful and mutually enriching Christmas.” Her voice moved on a strained, single note, like a soprano recitative. Shyness, Marie thought. She stole a second look. Her eyes, now open, were pale blue, with stubby black lashes. She seemed all at once beguiling and anxious, hoping to be forgiven before having mentioned the sin. A good point, but not good enough to make her a Catholic.
Raymond carried Marie’s luggage to a decent room with cream walls and tangerine curtains and spread. The motel looked clean and prosperous, but so had the others. Mimi had gone off on business of her own. (“I’m feeling sick,” she had said, getting out of the car, with one freckled hand on her stomach and the other against her throat.)
“She’ll be all right,” he told Marie.
Alone with Marie, he called her Maman, drew her to the window, showed her a Canadian flag flying next to the Stars and Stripes. The place was full of Canadians, he said. They stole like racoons. One couple had even made off with the bathroom faucets. “Nice-looking people, too.”
“Your father never ran down his own kind,” said Marie. She did not mean to start an argument but to point out certain limits. He checked the towels, counted the hangers, raised (or lowered; she could not tell) the air-conditioning. He turned his back while she changed into her hibiscus-patterned chiffon, in case they were going out. In a mirror he watched her buckling her red sandals. Berthe’s Christmas present.
“Mimi is the first woman I ever met who reminded me of you,” he said. Marie let that pass. They walked arm in arm across the parking lot, and he pointed out different things that might interest her—Quebec licence plates, a couple of dying palms. On the floor of the lobby lay a furled spruce tree, with its branches still tied. Raymond prodded the tree with his running shoe. It had been here for a week, he said, and it was already shedding. Perhaps Marie and Mimi would like to trim it.
“Trim it with what?” said Marie. Every year, for seven years, she had bought decorations, which Raymond had always thrown out with the tree.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Mimi wants me to set it up on a mirror.”
Marie wondered what Raymond’s title in this place might be. “Manager,” he’d said, but he and Mimi lived like caretakers in an inconvenient arrangement of rooms off the lobby. To get to their kitchen, which was also a storage place for beer and soft drinks, Marie had to squeeze behind the front desk. Every door had a peephole and chain lock. Whenever a bell rang in the lobby Raymond looked carefully before undoing the lock. Another couple worked here, too, he explained, but they were off for Christmas.
The three ate dinner in the kitchen, hemmed in by boxes and crates. Marie asked for an apron, to protect her chiffon. Mimi did not own one, and seemed astonished at the request. She had prepared plain shrimp and boiled rice and plain fruit salad. No wonder Raymond was drying up. Marie showed them pictures of Berthe’s Christmas tree, this year red and gold.
Mimi looked for a long time at a snapshot of Berthe, holding a glass, sitting with her legs crossed and her skirt perhaps a bit high. “What’s in the glass?” she said.
“Gin does my sister a lot of good,” said Marie. She had not enjoyed her shrimp, washed down with some diet drink.
‘I’m surprised she never got married,’ said Mimi. “How old is she? Fifty-something? She still looks good, physically and mentally.”
“I am surprised,” said Marie, in French. “I am surprised at the turn of this conversation.”
“Mimi isn’t criticising Aunt Berthe,” said Raymond. “It’s a compliment.”
Marie turned to Mimi. “My sister never had to get married. She’s always made good money. She buys her own fur coats.”
Mimi did not know about Berthe, assistant office manager at Prestige Central Burners—a multinational with tentacles in two cities, one of them Cleveland. Last year Mr. Linden from the Cleveland office had invited Berthe out to dinner. His wife had left him; he was getting over the loss. Berthe intended to tell him she had made a lifetime commitment to the firm, with no leftover devotion. She suggested the Ritz-Carlton—she had been there once before, and had a favorite table. During dinner they talked about the different ways of cooking trout, and the bewildering architectural changes taking place in Cleveland and Montreal. Berthe mentioned that whenever a landmark was torn down, people said, “It’s as bad as Cleveland.” It was hard to reconcile the need for progress with the claims of tradition. Mr. Linden said that tradition was flexible.
“I like the way you think,” he said. “If only you had been a man, Miss Carette, with your intellect, and your powers of synthesis, you might have gone…,” and he pointed to the glass bowl of blueberry trifle on the dessert trolley, as if to say, “even farther.”
The next day Berthe drew on her retirement savings account and made a down-payment on a mink coat (pastel, fully let out) and wore the coat to work. That was her answer. Marie admired this counterstroke more than any feat of history. She wanted Mimi to admire it, too, but she was tired after the flight, and the shock of Raymond’s marriage, and the parched, disappointing meal. Halfway through the story her English thinned out.
“What’s she saying?” said Mimi. “This man gave her a coat?”
“It’s too bad it couldn’t have worked out better for Aunt Berthe,” said Raymond. “A widower on the executive level. Well, not exactly a widower, but objectively the same thing. Aunt Berthe still looks great. You heard what Mimi said.”
“Berthe doesn’t need a widower,” said Marie. “She can sit on her front balcony and watch widowers running in Parc Lafontaine any Sunday. There’s no room in the flat for a widower. All the closets are full. In the spare-room closet there are things belonging to you, Raymond. That beautiful white rodeo belt with the silver buckle Aunt Berthe gave you for your fourteenth birthday. It cost Berthe thirty dollars, in dollars of that time, when the Canadian was worth more than the American.”
“Ten cents more,” said Raymond.
“Ten cents of another era,” said Marie. “Like eighty cents today.”
“Aunt Berthe can move if she feels crowded,” he said. “Or she can just send me the belt.” He spoke to Mimi. “People in Montreal move more often than in any other city in the world. I can show you figures. My father wasn’t a Montrealer, so we always lived in just one house. Maman sold it when he died.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing that house,” said Mimi, as though challenging Marie to produce it.
“Why should Berthe move?” said Marie. “First you want to tie her up with a stranger, then you want to throw her out of her home. She’s got a three-bedroom place for a rent you wouldn’t believe. It’s easier to find a millionaire with clean habits than my sister’s kind of flat.”
“People don’t get married to have three bedrooms,” said Mimi, still holding Berthe’s picture. “They get married for love and company.”
“I am company,” said Marie. “I love my sister, and my sister loves me.”
“Do you think I married Raymond for space?” said Mimi.
Raymond said something in English. Marie did not know what it meant, but it sounded disgusting. “Raymond,” she said. “Apologise to your wife.”
“Don’t talk to him,” said Mimi. “You’re only working him up.”
“Don’t you dare knock your chair over,” said his mother. “Raymond! If you go out that door, I won’t be here when you get back.”
The two women sat quietly after the door slammed. Then Mimi picked up the fallen chair. “That’s the real Raymond,” she said. “That’s Raymond, in public and private. I don’t blame any man’s mother for the way the man turns out.”
“He had hair like wheat,” said Marie. “It turned that rusty colour when he was three. He had the face of an angel. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him like this. Of course, he has never been married before.”
“He’ll be lying on the bed now, sulking,” said Mimi. “I’m not used to that. I hadn’t been married before, either.” She began rinsing plates at the sink. The slit of a window overlooked cars and the stricken palms. Tears ran down her cheeks. She tried to blot them on her arm. “I think he wants to leave me.”
“So what if he does leave,” said Marie, looking in vain for a clean dish towel. “A bad, disobedient boy. He ran away to Vietnam. The last man in our family. He should have been thinking about having sons instead of travelling around. Raymond’s father was called Louis. My father’s name was Odilon. Odilon-Louis – that’s a nice name for a boy. It goes in any language.”
“In my family we just have girls,” said Mimi.
“Another thing Raymond did,” said Marie. “He stole his father’s gold watch. Then he lost it. just took it and lost it.”
“Raymond never lost that watch,” said Mimi. “He probably sold it to two or three different people. Raymond will always be Raymond. I’m having a baby. Did he tell you that?”
“He didn’t have to,” said Marie. “I guessed it when we were in the car. Don’t cry anymore. They can hear. The baby can hear you.”
“He’s already heard plenty from Raymond.”
Marie’s English died. “Look,” she said, struggling. “This baby has a grandmother. He’s got Berthe. You’ve got Berthe. Never mind Raymond.”
“He’ll need a father image,” said Mimi. “Not just a lot of women.”
“Raymond had one,” said Marie. “He still joined the Marines.”
“He or she,” said Mimi. “I don’t want to know. I want the surprise. I hope he likes me. She. It feels like a girl.”
“It would be good to know in advance,” said Marie. “Just for the shopping—to know what to buy. Do you want to save the rest of the shrimp or throw it out?”
“Save it,” said Mimi. “Raymond hardly ate anything. He’ll be hungry later on.”
“That bad boy,” said Marie. “I don’t care if he never eats again. He’ll find out what it’s like, alone in the world. Without his mother. Without his aunt. Without his wife. Without his baby.”
“I don’t want him to be alone,” said Mimi, showing Marie her streaked face, the sad little curls stuck to her wet cheeks. “He hasn’t actually gone anywhere. I just said I thought he was thinking about it.”
Marie tried to remember some of the English Berthe used. When she was talking to people from her office, Berthe would say, “All in good time,” and “No way he can do that,” and “Count on me,” and “Not to worry.”
”He won’t leave you,” said Marie. “No way I’ll let him do that. Count on me.” Her elbow brushed against the handle of the refrigerator door; she felt a silvery spark through the chiffon sleeve. This was the first time such a thing had happened in Florida; it was like an approving message from Berthe. Mimi wiped her hands on a paper towel and turned to Marie.
“Be careful,” said Marie, enfolding Raymond’s wife and Raymond’s baby. “Be careful the baby doesn’t get a shock. Everything around here is electric. I’m electric. We’ll have to be careful from now on. We’ve got to make sure we’re grounded.” She had gone into French, but it didn’t matter. The baby could hear, and knew what she meant.
Copyright © 2003 by Mavis Gallant
Published by New York Review Books