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Authors: Stefan Merrill Block

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The Storm at the Door

BOOK: The Storm at the Door
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ALSO BY STEFAN MERRILL BLOCK

The Story of Forgetting

The Storm at the Door
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2011 by Stefan Merrill Block

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

R
ANDOM
H
OUSE
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
LLC for permission to reprint “Waking in the Blue,” “Epilogue,”
and seven lines from “Dolphin” from
Collected Poems
by Robert Lowell,
copyright © 2003 by Harriet Lowell and Sheridan Lowell.
Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Block, Stefan Merrill.
The storm at the door: a novel / by Stefan Merrill Block.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-679-60510-2
1. Marriage—Fiction. 2. Psychiatric hospitals—Fiction.
3. Self-realization—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3602.L643S75 2011
813′.6—dc22
2010026777

www.atrandom.com

Jacket design: Lynn Buckley
Jacket images: © David E. Scherman/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images (couple), Mary Evans Picture Library (foliage)

v3.1

For my grandparents

Listen
,

How quickly your heart is beating in me
.

—from “Any Case” by Wisława Szymborska

I have sat and listened to too many

words of the collaborating muse,

and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,

not avoiding injury to others,

not avoiding injury to myself—

to ask compassion … this book, half fiction,

an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting
.

—Robert Lowell, from “Dolphin”        

Contents
AUTHOR’S NOTE

This book is a work of fiction inspired by my grandparents’ true history. This story does not depict my grandparents’ actual lives, but it does incorporate some of their real letters and pictures, a few of my memories and the memories of those who knew them, and historical details from a number of books and articles. I use this documented history as a point of departure into the story I imagine. For your patience, generosity, and openness in my interviews, and also for your gift of the freedom to diffract your stories through the prism of myself, thank you Roberta Gatehouse, Melissa Waldie, Lyn Waldie, Betty Hall, Betty Campbell, Sydney Hall Jr., Joanie Singer, and Carol Avery.

In my attempt to comprehend what my grandfather’s life inside of a psychiatric institution in the 1960s might have been like, I found the following works particularly useful and inspiring:
Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America’s Premier Mental Hospital
by Alex Beam;
Under Observation: Life Inside the McLean Psychiatric Hospital
by Lisa Berger and Alexander Vuckovic, M.D.;
Girl, Interrupted
by Susanna Kaysen;
Life Studies
by Robert Lowell;
Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell
by Paul Mariani;
Anne Sexton: A Biography
by Diane Wood Middlebrook;
A Beautiful Mind:
The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash
by Sylvia Nasar;
The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath; and
The Mental Hospital
by Alfred Stanton and Morris Schwartz.

The Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill is my fictional rendition of McLean Hospital, the real institution in which my grandfather resided. Today, McLean Hospital is one of America’s leading mental health facilities and its invaluable work has helped many people and saved many lives. My depiction of the treatment of patients at the Mayflower Home in the 1960s does not describe actual conditions at McLean. The poet Robert Lowell was a patient at McLean Hospital, but the Robert Lowell of this novel is a fictional character, and—with the exception of his poems reprinted here—the actions, thoughts, and language I ascribe to him are products of my imagination. The other patients, staff, and administrators who populate the Mayflower Home are entirely fictional and they do not represent any real people.

I wrote part of this book as a Fellow at the idyllic Santa Maddalena Foundation; thanks to the generosity and support of the great Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori.

Bill Clegg, David Ebershoff, and Lee Brackstone: once again, your insightful, creative, and diligent work has gladdened every page. If not for your passion, kindness, and guidance, this book would not exist. Thank you.

For springing me from self-imposed solitary confinement, thank you, thank you, thank you, my brilliant friends, readers, teachers, and publishers.

Mom, Dad, and Aaron: to say how much I owe to you would require a whole new vocabulary.

1

There is the house in the wilderness. The house, Echo Cottage, with the lake spread before it, a quivering lattice of light in the late afternoon. Beneath the mossy portico, a placard displays Echo’s flaking name.

An overcast-pale porch rings Echo Cottage, and at its far corner is an aging chaise lounge, rusted aluminum supporting an avocado vinyl cushion. Sticking to the vinyl, my grandmother dozes beneath the brown-gray nest of her hair.

The air along the shoreline is dense with an insectival mist, the gnats hovering. From time to time, my cousins pierce the droning quiet with their yelps, as they tackle one another in the water. Thirty years before, my great-grandmother rested on Echo’s chaise; years later, my mother will ascend to the recumbent throne. But it is 1989, and the chair belongs to my grandmother.

My grandmother’s calves unsuction from the cushion as she wakes. Her stalwart New England face tightens, the fine wrinkles drawn taut. The translucent shells of her eyelids part to reveal her eyes, which can hold light in a nearly impossible way, as if her irises were twin concavities, blue geodes. My grandmother’s eyes look out to the lake; her gaze is as inscrutable as ever.

There is my grandmother, Katharine Mead Merrill. What do
I know of her? That she was so often in that chair. That in the afternoons, she often slept. That, one afternoon, in the summer of 1989, she woke from a nap to make the vexing decision that she made.

2

Katharine has been dreaming. Of what? Of her husband, of Frederick. Though the specifics of the dream recede into the static of wakefulness, a feeling of certainty remains. Not one of anger or sadness, but perhaps born of both. A simple knowledge of what must be done.

Katharine knows, suddenly, the rightness of what she must do.

Still, she takes her time. She rises slowly, pauses to receive the diffracting late afternoon light as she enters the house. Katharine passes through the musty, tenebrous living room, which always seems resentful of sunlight, seems to be the place nighttime gathers to hide out from the summer’s unblinking sun stare. As she enters the kitchen, the smell of stale coffee prompts her to empty the filter into the trash. She pulls a box of Lorna Doones from the cabinet, slips one whole into her mouth, as she used to as a child, letting it dissolve on her tongue. Increasingly, in these last months, she performs such behaviors that, if not exactly childlike, are not quite as prim, quite as austere in her familiar matronly ways. On this summer day of 1989, Katharine is sixty-nine; the early traces of Alzheimer’s have begun to fray the edges of her attention and intention. For a moment, pausing at the
kitchen sink to observe my cousins diving off the dock, she remembers her certainty but forgets its object; for a moment, she thinks she woke, simply, resolved to swim. But, no, no. It was something else; the idea of a swim does not fill the space opened by her resolve.

BOOK: The Storm at the Door
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