Solomon Grundy XVI

There are dozens of them, miserable buggers, all over town. Widows and widowers, all under 30, all Grundys by name or by marriage. They never marry again. They’re no good to anyone.

It was a rotten business. I never spoke up – it wasn’t my place to. But other people, people who went to that circus over and over, people who had to live with those Grundy spouses, they joined forces once there were enough of them. They told Sol and Mary the First that enough was enough.

You’ve made your pile, they said. Just shut yourselves up in your lakeside McMansion. Go at it like rabbits if you want. But if anything comes of it, keep it to yourselves. You’ve put half the bloody town in mourning. Don’t make it worse.

I remember when they first moved into town from that fibro shack in Archibalds’ spud field. Old Sol used to hang out the window with a bell. The bell clanged and the doors banged. People ran around shouting, and the queue formed fast.

After Carol Clancy’s son Troy lost Mary XXIV and ran his ute into that tree, the council and the cops made them keep it out of sight. You had to race in round the back. Sol paved over the yard and put in posts and chains for queue management. They crammed those people into their lounge-dining area, with some up the stairs and standing on chairs at the back. You could pay a bit less and watch it in the yard on a big screen.

Nowadays it’s just a billionaire’s helicopter thwacking in with no warning, or some university’s white vans bowling through town. People lock up their sons and daughters anyway – tie them up, some of them, chain and padlock – before we know if it’s a Solomon or a Mary. Marrying’s the worst, but even watching is bad, we all know that.

And the younger you are, the worse it is. The speed of it. The beauty time lapse blossoming in front of you – and then being snatched away. It tears you apart. Circus addicts will tell you: see it too many times and your life drags and lumbers and turns duller than you can stand, beside that flash, beside that glory and that gone-ness.

Once was enough for me. I was young; younger than they’d let you watch now. The first three days were amazing. By the time we got in, Little Sol XVI was already chewing on rusks and fattening up nearly the size of one of our newborns. He was a cute little guy, blue eyes, floss hair. He lengthened out, crawled a bit, pulled himself up. Fell over three times total and then he was fine, running from person to person, laughing, drinking in the sight of us.

I hadn’t expected that, how much he’d enjoy us. His questions tumbled over themselves, and all our answers thrilled him. In our teens and 20s, we laughed and enjoyed him back; older people shook their heads, and some of them wept. Whatever we did, the growing lad was perfectly happy with us. He never cried a single tear. He didn’t have time for that.

In those days Sol and Mary did all the work – collected the money, kept the kid fed and clothed. They’ve got help now. They sit back and watch. They don’t attach to the child like they used to. Better to think of it as a nice chunk of superannuation, a scientific experiment, a curiosity.

Mary used to like the day three matchmaking, plucking some trembling young thing out of the crowd who couldn’t believe their luck. She liked the wedding. The solemn priest, the shortened nuptial service. The young fellow standing still for a bit, shoulders broadening into the wedding jacket, beard thickening down his chest. The girl radiant beside him. They always looked their best, the partners, in their umpteenth-hand wedding togs and quickly styled hair.

I saw it myself, what a mistake the bride was making. All of us saw it. Still we envied them. We threw confetti and cheered them into the bedroom, into the night that would be their whole married life, and –

We went home then, tired out from the mad rush, the dressing and re-dressing, the chatter and activity of little-to-big Sol. Now we had time to sigh at the soaring purity of his life, at how simply he grasped hold of it, at the wonder and cheer in his charming-to-handsome face. The ponderous sun slid down, and step after slow samey step we walked into another evening. We had so many evenings to spare! And all we felt was wistful, that this boy, racing for the grave, should get nothing but perfect moments, unrepeated, all the way.

Some people didn’t go back the next day. Backyard people filled their places. I wanted the full picture, though. I remember how she smiled, the ruined girl. Young Sol twinkled back at her as she trimmed his nails, as his mother cut his hair. He’d stopped growing – that was restful. In the afternoon he even shrank a little, and his shoulders stooped. Still, he got up to dance once or twice, and he sang the several songs we’d taught him. Towards evening he wanted to go outside – it often took them like that. We escorted him up Water Tower Hill. He looked out to the edges of his universe. Streetlights flowered across the town. Stars crowded above. Old Sol brought a stick with him. His son needed it to lean on from halfway down the hill home.

I remember all this, Solomon XVI’s short life, as the bell tolls, as the motorcade sweeps out of town, as the chopper rattles away. Young people laugh and call in the street, choosing companions for the long years ahead. But the widows and widowers, their perfect marriages long behind them, they stay out of sight in their houses. And grieve, and grieve.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 5, 2020 as "Solomon Grundy XVI".

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Margo Lanagan writes short stories and novels. Her most recent book is Stray Bats, a collection of micro-fiction published by Small Beer Press.

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