It's Getting Dark Buy from other retailers

Publication Date: Dec 14, 2021

240 pp

Hardcover

List Price US: $22.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-030-2

Trim Size: 5.25 x 7.80 x 0.84 in.

Ebook

List Price US: $13.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-031-9

It's Getting Dark

Stories

by Peter Stamm Translated by Michael Hofmann

Marcia from Vermont

It wasn’t exactly a mad dash, but I have to admit it was a relief to get out of the valley at the end of two months. Early on in my time there, I had once or twice climbed one of the hills in the vicinity for a change of perspective, but there was nothing to see but other, higher hills and wooded mountainsides. Then, once the weather turned at the beginning of December and the snow came, there was no possibility of getting anywhere except by tramping along the plowed roads. Even on the foundation’s grounds there was nowhere to walk except the footpaths connecting the individual buildings, which were kept clear by some mysterious agency.
I could have saved myself the expense of the rental car, I made no use of it at all during my time there, but then I hadn’t known how else I was going to get from New York City to this place in the back of beyond. On the morning of my departure I was a long time looking in the big parking lot behind the main building before I saw it, buried under deep snow that took me the best part of an hour to clear away sufficiently that I could get into it and drive. When I went back to my room to pick up my bags, my hands were red and swollen from the cold. I went in the bathroom and held them under the cold tap. It felt like the pricks of a hundred needles.
I drove off, without seeing or speaking to anyone. Most of the others had left already and I hadn’t had dealings with any of them much, nor with the staff, who did their work but otherwise seemed to keep themselves to themselves. The young woman who laid out the breakfast buffet every morning and who replied to my greeting with a nod and some incomprehensible mutter, I had never heard to speak at all. Only sometimes I saw her whispering to one of the cooks, with an expression on her face as though she had just seen or experienced something absolutely awful.
The car skidded on the icy driveway, but the actual road was happily in good condition. There was just one spot behind a bend where my lane was buried under a heap of snow that must have slid off the steep side of a hill overnight. I had to brake sharply and use the opposite lane.
I had thought I would stop for breakfast at the first coffee shop on my way, but the places I passed all looked uninviting, and I was driving for an hour before I saw somewhere that looked semi-civilized. But even that turned out to have just the usual shrink-wrapped bagels and gluey muffins with watery coffee. The person at the till asked me where I was from and if I was here on vacation, but I didn’t feel like talking, or had forgotten how, during the past weeks of silence.
And that, even though I’d been looking forward to my stay at the foundation and had been longing for exactly what I found there, tranquillity, a place outside of time, and nothing to keep me from my work.
There was nothing on the radio except a couple of geezers yacking about car repairs, to their vast amusement. I punched through the stations till I found one that was playing jazz, interrupted by the odd weather update and ads for water beds and agricultural machinery. I thought of Marcia, and how we’d met one Christmas many years ago. I was very young at the time and had gone to New York full of ambition. But before a single year was up, I was out of money, and I had achieved nothing and nothing seemed any closer to being realized, and I had to write to my parents for money for the flight home. They had hoped I would be back for the holidays, but probably from sheer cussedness I had booked my flight for early January.
I spent Christmas with a Brazilian couple I knew in Queens, and their kids; I had no idea I would never see them again. I have no memory of the occasion, but it must have been lunchtime, because when I left my friends’ place, it still wasn’t dark.
I was slightly the worse for wear, and thought I’d walk it off. I stopped at a corner to get my bearings. I had just lit a cigarette when a woman accosted me and asked if I had one to spare. When I lit it for her, she sweetly cupped her hands around mine. She looked at me and smiled. It was her birthday, she said, and if I had twenty dollars, we could buy a few things and party.
“Sorry,” I said, “that’s more than I’ve got.”
She said that didn’t matter, and I should wait for her there. She’d go to the shop, and would be back in a second.
“Fancy having your birthday on Christmas day.” “I guess,” she said, as though it hadn’t occurred to her. “There is that.”
She walked off down the street, and I knew it wasn’t her birthday and that she wouldn’t come back. “Wait,” I called out, and quickly bounded up to her.
She made her purchases like someone who was hungry, high-calorie foods, cheap brands, big packets, no fruit or veg. To begin with she kept count of the total, told me what it was, and looked at me. “That’s okay,” I said finally, “I’ve still got one or two travelers’ checks.” I put a bottle of cheap whiskey in the trolley. “Why not?”
Her place was in a decrepit-looking house down a dark side street. We walked up four flights of stairs.
There was a weird smell I couldn’t place, but even weirder was the total silence on all sides. You couldn’t even hear the street anymore, just the creaking of the treads which was so loud you thought they might collapse at any moment. In the apartment it was cold and dark. We kept our coats on as we ate in her kitchen, white bread with peanut butter and sliced turkey. Finally, when she had had enough, she got up, took off her coat, and looked at me with a mixture of sadness and challenge. “Are you a saint?” she said. “That would frighten me even more.”
“I’ve had too much to drink,” I said.
She grinned. “I would have too, if I could afford it.” “But it’s your birthday.”
“Right,” she said, “I almost forgot.”
I don’t remember the color of Marcia’s hair or eyes, or if she was short or tall, curvaceous or slim. Nevertheless, I think I would recognize her if I ran into her on the street. There was a confidence and directness about her that impressed and attracted me.
We were lying in her bed. The blanket was thin, and I pressed against her, less to be close to her as simply not to be cold. “I don’t make a habit of this, you know,” she said, and suddenly started laughing. “You don’t care, do you? But I really don’t. Christmas is the saddest day in the calendar, and I’ve got no money and I didn’t want to go to bed hungry.”
The whiskey had loosened her tongue and made her sentimental. She talked about her family in Vermont, whom she hadn’t seen for years, and her brother, her little handicapped brother, as she said.
“You don’t mean that, do you?” I said. “That sounds like one of those awful Christmas sob stories. You sleep with me to get money to pay his prescription drugs.
And at the end, we all of us sit together around a scrawny Christmas tree and sing carols, you and I, your parents, and your little handicapped brother.”
“My little brother’s been dead for a long time,” she said, “and my father’s stinking rich, and I have no intention of introducing you to him.”
For a while neither of us spoke. “Is your name really Marcia?” I asked. “I thought it was just people on TV had names like that.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” she said. Again, no one spoke, then Marcia asked me what my most unusual Christmas was. I sensed she had had a fair few herself and was only asking me to get a chance to tell me about them. “Marcia from Vermont,” I said. “You’re probably my strangest Christmas present.”
I lit cigarettes for us both. Marcia reached across me to fill our glasses. Her breasts brushed against my arm. “I know I’ve had worse whiskey,” she said. I pulled her down on top of me. “What’s that?” she asked. “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree . . .”

I must have been asleep. It was pitch dark, and I had no idea what the time was. Marcia was still awake, in the dark I heard her voice very close to my ear, as though she hadn’t stopped talking. “Tell me, what was the strangest Christmas you’ve ever had?” she repeated, as though it was an important question, and everything depended on my answer.
“Maybe I haven’t had it yet,” I said. “This is the first Christmas I’ve spent away from home.”
“Maybe it will seem unusual to you one day,” she said.
“And what about you?” I asked, reaching for her. In spite of the chill room, her body felt feverishly hot. “Come closer,” I said, pulling her toward me. “Aren’t you tired?”
“I never sleep,” she said. Her laugh sounded half eerie, half amused.
“And are your parents really rich?” I asked. “Loaded,” she said, laughing.
I got up and stumbled through the darkness to the toilet in a passage which was even colder than the bedroom. When I returned, Marcia had lit a candle end on a saucer by the side of the bed. She lay on her back and flung open the bedding. “Come on,” she said, “this woman needs a lot of loving.” I didn’t have the impression Marcia needed a lot of loving at all.
There was a silent tussle between us, she twisted in my arms, gripped me, but I kept feeling part of her was still uninvolved, or rather, as though she was watching us while we were making love. She sat on top of me, pressed me down on the bed, and looked at me with a strange smile. I was surprised by her strength. Marcia laughed. “Where I’m from, women have to be strong.”
The candle seemed to flare up briefly, then with a soft hiss it went out, and we lay in complete darkness again. In the last of its light, Marcia’s face seemed to have caught a glow, and briefly her features looked altogether soft, as though she was thinking of something, or remembering some moment of happiness. She laid her head on my chest and said, “We used to have the most amazing Christmases.” Marcia’s father was the publisher of a newspaper, but the family had been moneyed for several generations, I don’t remember where the money came from, or if Marcia even told me. She had grown up in Burlington, but the family had spent holidays and vacations in a village in the Green Mountains, in an old grain mill on a stream. She had had a brother who was a couple of years younger than she was, and he did have a slight disability. When he was five or six, he died, and it was her fault. She was supposed to look after him, but had read a book or fallen asleep instead, I don’t remember. Had he drowned in the stream, or fallen somewhere?
Or am I just imagining all that, and in fact he died of his condition? All I can really remember is the way Marcia always laughed when she talked about sad things. She told me most of her life story that night. I don’t remember if I told her mine as well, my ambitions, my various attempts, my reverses. “Lots of people fancy themselves as artists,” I said, “it doesn’t mean anything.” “My boyfriend is a writer,” said Marcia.
“You’ve got a boyfriend?” I asked in consternation. “Occasionally.”
As I say, this was all a long time ago, thirty years at least. I had forgotten a lot of it, and what I remembered probably didn’t have much to do with what actually happened.
For over two hours I’d been driving through sparsely inhabited country on small back roads, mostly woods and farmland, occasional small towns that didn’t seem to have much more going on in them than places back home. At the time I was living in New York, I hardly ever left the city, and on subsequent visits to the States, I’d only ever been in cities. I barely knew rural America, and I was amazed by how backward and impoverished it seemed to be. I was glad when somewhere near the state boundary I finally hit the interstate. I would make more rapid progress and wouldn’t have to concentrate so hard.


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