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She Fell To Her Knees And Other Stories by Karen Brown Gonzalez A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Dr. John Fleming, Ph.D. Dr. William T. Ross Rita Ciresi, M.F.A. Date of Approval: April, 2004 Keywords: women, sex, adultery, love, loss Copyright May, 2004, Karen Brown Gonzalez
i Table of Contents She Fell To Her Knees and Other Stories Abstract ii Introduction 1 Beautiful 11 Unction 29 The Living Room Show 45 The Ropewalk 62 Mouth of Friend and Stranger 82 Confession 92 Manifold 107 She Fell to Her Knees 123
ii She Fell To Her Knees and Other Stories Karen Brown Gonzalez ABSTRACT These collected stories repr esent a culling from a portion of work that shares a similar theme of lossits manifestation, its channeling, by various fi ctional characters, into the palpable and sensate, into the physical world of the body. They are people, mostly women, who have lost their hold on th e world to which they are accustomed, who become entangled in situations where their bearings are skewed, th eir judgment faulty, their decisions based solely on a physica l, most often sexual, attraction that simultaneously depletes a sense of wo rth, while providing its semblance. The loss stems, at times, as in Man ifold, from beyond the control of the character, from the world of adults who ca nnot, for their own reasons, handle their own despair. It comes from the unavoi dable presence of me ntal illness, and the inability of the character to perceive, amidst the confusion of change, a stab le view. Often, as in She Fell to Her Knees, there is no reference point upon which to base a way to live. Memory is only a trigger for more lo ss. The characters own choices bring about loss in other waysan abandoned infant, promiscuity, an en counter with a strang erall choices made in an effort to ease, and which result in compounding precarious situations. Brief solace in sex results in inevitable emptiness. Rela tionships are sought for the safety of their impermanence. The respite from loneliness is always temporary, and almost always
iii sought with the hope that from the physic al will emerge the gift of emotional commitment. The stories seek to reveal, not th e histories of the characters, but the maps of their emotional pasts. They attempt to por tray the routes from which the women have stumbled, and in this way illuminate the emotional present of each story.
1 INTRODUCTION The need to invent stories was a refl exive one, triggered by childhood insomnia. I was the oldest of five children all close in age, and bedtime, for my mothers sanity, was always six p.m. In New England, winter night s fall at four-thirty, and I submitted to sleep in the lull of darkness. But in the summer m onths, with the color of twilight, and the sounds of the neighborhood beyond the window screen, I realized I had been duped. I cannot say now whether my sleeplessness sp rang from resentment, but I was aware, finally, that there was no gett ing around it. I would not be released from my room, and something would have to fill the time. I found th at I could create stories as aids to sleep, that from night to night I might repeat one, embellish and alter it, until it became a running serial that I might re turn to, and never lose. Those first stories arose from early tele vision images and fairy tales from nursery school story hoursFlash Gor dons black and white bravado, a handsome costumed hero, the science fiction world. Before I coul d write them down, they emerged in pages of coloring I spent days creating, all in narra tive order, each crayoned image capturing a frozen sceneKings and Queens in royal courts the battlements of castles, the subjects arrayed, the protagonist a lost princess, or a poor girl deserving of a chance. Once I could read, I wrote, and everything I wrote I save d. I do not know why. I still have my first poem, rhyming quatrains on the provided theme: If all the flowers were yellow, and only I was red some teachers lesson in diversity circa 1967, written in what must have been a
2 newly acquired cursive script. Around fourth or fifth grade I received a manila folder, and on the cover I wrote Poems and Stories Here is where I saved the bulk of my childhood writingplays penned for neighborhood shows, The Memory of the Fleetfoot Sisters a musical with songs and lyrics that never wa s performed, a short story called The Glass Heart, published in our fifth-grade literary journal, the two poems that won first and third prize in our local librarys poetry cont estLife is a Stream and The Fawn, both full of rhyme and bad metaphor, interesting only now when I realize that in third grade I felt the need to explain something unnameable with the things around me I could name. I still have the series of angst-ridden poems I wrote when I was thirteen on a steno pad my mother purchased for me. I know my age because it was then that I started keeping track of time, and the dates are there, scrawled at the top of the page like an afterthought. I would not have written if I hadnt read. All of my early writing is inspired by my childhood reading. I had two close friends who sh ared my interest, and a summer day for us was highlighted by a trip to the librar y, and a stack of new books, and an afternoon sitting around reading them. We found an author that we like d and read everything theyd written. We often read out th e lines of characters in play s we found in an old college literature text. (Later, in college, I would r ead a play by Synge, and suddenly realize why it was so familiar). We read The Glass Menagerie and The Adding Machine. We did not have many books in our house, but what we had I read, and of them I remember Pearl Buck, and the two lone editions of the Harvard Classics ( The Iliad and Shakespeare). I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and wrote forty pages of a bad romance (the only thing I have ever physically torn up). I di scovered Shelley and K eats and Coleridge and
3 Tennyson. I memorized The Lady of Shalott and Kubla Khan, and Hopkins The Windhover. I read Auden and Elio t and Yeats. I fell in love with the sounds of words. My uncle was a poet, living in New Yo rk City. He was published regularly in The New York Quarterly but at the time I didnt know this as an accomplishment. He arrived, off and on, to visit, and he asked for my poems and read them. He never gave me advice. He read them out loud to Thanksgiving guests in his booming voice, as if they were real and finished and important. As if he admired them. He always grinned at me and told me to keep at it. He gave me a directory of litt le magazines and journals, and told me to send things out. I was thirteen when I attempte d this, and I received comments back from editors who said my poems were too flori d, the metaphors trite. So I changed the way I wroteresorting to spare lines, and obscu re references. The comments came again: Too vague! What? I wasnt discouraged. I learned I coul d alter my style and not risk what I needed to say, that I could combine words in other ways and come up with something not better or worse, but different. At some poi nt I stopped submitting and just wrote. And then, for some reason, I stopped writing. I ha ve nothing saved for a number of years. My evolution as a writer, then, is br oken into two parts. In high school, I produced very little, a poem called After th e Rain, published in the schools literary magazine. Except for Salingers Nine Stories nothing I read compelled me to write, and the impression made by Salingers collection wo uld not be revealed until much later. The only other writing I did was in the form of le tters to friends, long ones, often twenty to thirty pages. I met one of these friends recently and she told me she had saved the letters, but that they had been lost when her hous e was destroyed in Hu rricane Andrew. I dont
4 know what the letters might have recorded, and I often think about them, but when I began college at the age of twenty, that time of my life became a point of departure, an unknown I tapped for stories I woul d again begin to write. At Hartford College for Women I took a composition course taught by Dr. Oliver Butterworth, who wrote the childrens story The Enormous Egg He was older, ready to retire, and receptive to my writing, a teacher who became another of the teachers whose comments had encouraged me throughout my sc hool years, who served, essentially, as my audience. For him, I wrote a short story that Ive somehow lost in my move to Florida, but I know it was set in my ch ildhood suburban neighborhood, that I wanted to achieve a certain tone, and it was the first time I had ever worked to do thisthe influence of Salingers stories emerging. At U SF, in Composition class, I received an F on a paper for a comma-splice. I wrote prose from the sounds of words, like poetry, and the sentences fell together in phrases (like lines ). I found it impossibl e to write nonfiction, so I fictionalized my essays, using fake scen arios. My struggle with prose, with the complete sentence began here and ended, finally, in Dr. Sanders fiction course, where I was told, among other equally important things to purchase a grammar text and study it. At the time, I thought that grammatically corre ct sentences had little to do with my art. And I was correct. I received a C on my first sketch, and remembered the editors comments on my poetry submissions. But I knew I had to write, and that there would be a way to write well, and that I could learn it. Dr. Sanders met with me on one occa sion, in the old coffee shop on the second floor of Cooper Hall. He gave me an intent, fo rceful glare. Is this what you want to do?
5 he asked, his hands folded on top of the plastic tablecloth. This was the first time writing was presented to me as a real vocation. I fe lt the power of his que stion. It required a commitment, an unwavering belief. Did it assu me a talent? Was it spurred by some secret knowledge of my ability to succe ed? And now, I cannot remember if he ever said I was good. There were only a lot of bad things th at I was doingtoo much attention paid to things of little value, a diffusion, too many words, too much, basically, of everything. He told me to read Hemingways short stories. I went to the library afterwards and checked out collections. I changed the way I wrote, not poetry this time, but fiction. I imitated the short, spare lines. I found the one thing to describe, simply, to evoke the feeling I wanted to create. I worked on style before I ever had a real story to tell. Eventually, the Hemingway lines gave way to other imitations (Toni Morrison and Garcia Marquez) anyone who worked with the sounds of words. I wrote sketches and stories, took Narration and Description and Fiction I through III. My audience continued to be the professors who read everything I wrote, and it had expanded to include the participants of workshops, some who continue d to read my writing after the semester ended. I mention these people because I wrot e for them. In the long years of creating stories, of storing them away in an accordi on folder, they were the people who waited to read what I wrote, and I belie ve they were as necessary, in their waiting and obliging me, as the daily writing itself. Eventually, I submitted stories, and so me were published, and many were not. Publication afforded a wider audience of ed itors and readers, some validation. This is good enough it seemed to suggest. At Cornell Un iversitys MFA program, I met other
6 writers dedicated to writing, worked with auth ors whose lives were devoted to their art, and I began a novel constructed, much as my early writing was constructed, of lines of poetry, of small vignettes, like stories. I l ook back over this completed work and I see much that I like, and I see, too, that I was still writing stories The story form allows me to visit a place, to come upon, almost accidentally, a situation. It gives me the chan ce to invent people who have c ontributed to th is situation, who must react and wonder, whose histories n eed only be slightly revealed in glimpses. The story form is delicate and fragile. It happens and disappears. I like catching its moment. And I like forgetti ng it, abandoning it for another. I found that I admired Salingers tone, but also his ch aracters, distanced and bruised, shown in their weakest and somehow, sweetest, moments. (The brothe r in War with the Eskimos offering the chicken salad sandwich from his pocket, Seym our Glasss obsession with the childs feet in A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Mary L ou bumping her leg in her drunken rush to Ramonas bed in Uncle Wiggly in Connectic ut.) These characters actions reveal an underlying turmoil, but not an incomprehensible one, or one that was beyond my own experience, but some tragic aspect of th e everyday. As a young writer this helped me recognize the potential of simple action to re veal character. The stories collected in Nine Stories encapsulated a sense of loss, the impossibility of return. This became the thing I most wanted to reveal. To accomplish this, though, I had to discover a way to write, and the characters to use. Through reading, I knew what I could not do. I did not have the encyclopedic knowledge and attending vocabulary of Updike, or the dark humor of T.C. Boyle, but I
7 did want my stories to arrive at a simila r emotional place. I wasnt concerned with following the traditional story narrative, but I also didnt want to experiment with language and form to the extreme. My firs t stories used young protagonists, and I was told I used them effectively. That well of t eenage years, all unwritten, was vivid to me. I enjoyed poking into it, remembering the odd, so metimes perilous event, creating people to relive it, and making it mean something to them in the end. I also found that most of these stories be gan with a place, usually one Id visited. It was an easy jumping off pointone I be lieved I invested with meaning and manipulated to become a suitable backdrop. Ou t of the place characters emerged. But I have come to see my use of place differently. It is safe territory, a way into the story. It comes now imbued with its own meaning, and I ve learned to trust its leaningstoward sadness and neglect, toward an impersonal va cancy, or high tension, or impending loss. I am particular about the season. An establishm ent of place, atmospherically, is important to me. I am careful about what smells are in the air and what might be blooming, and what this means to the sense of the story and its characters who must live there, and breath in the smells, and feel the outdoors on their skin. I am not interested in citing an abundan ce of specific detail. I was urged away from this years ago, and have trained myself to choose, carefully, one or two things to notice in a room. I admire writers who are able to extensively list specific details that hold my interest. I am not able to do it wit hout sensing I am drawi ng attention away from my story. Somehow, my story lies elsewhere. Place establishes expectations, and it carries, too, other distinctions particularly cla ss. I like the way Cheever and Updike
8 evoke suburbia, how their characters move within this world, both contradicting and satisfying what we expect from them. Because it is a world with which I am familiar, I look to these authors to dispel its myths, a nd I am never disappointed. But I am not this kind of writer. At some point I know I should arrive at what it is that compels me to write at all. Is it simply putting words together to create something beautiful? Should it need to be more than that? Each story I write is almo st always influenced by something Ive read, usually poetry, where meaning is conveyed by brevity, where one line tells the whole story. It might be Robert Lowell, Is the one unpardonable sin our fear of not being wanted? or Jane Hirshfield on dying, Lik e a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life, or Jeffrey Skinner, It is the middl e of the day but your hair has that scrubbed protein smell once locked in the center of a star. Ill read Roy Porters Flesh in the Age of Reason or an account of living with Carthus ian monks in Arlington, VT, and what I read may match the place Ive chosen for a new story. The image and the place will click and become the thing the story is about. Place comes first, and this is stored in memorya motel Ive driven past for years, an abandoned Novitiate I visited once in rural Connecticut. Random events combinewhat Im reading, the teenaged boy wandering up and down my street one morning, the yellow blooms on the trees, a gr ay day that looks, impossibly, like snow. Though I will never know what events will occur to combine in ways that interest me, I am assured of their occurrence. I am always patient, and happy to wait for them. If I can begin the story with the right tone and voice in the first paragraph, most of the work is
9 done. The story and I are on even ground. Wh at I intend, and what the story says, coincide. The character knows what will happen and when. My work becomes choosing the words, and they way they sound strung together on the page. This is rarely the case. I have misstarts. I tell the story the way I want, and the character is lost, misplaced in my wish to pin her down, to make her think, specifically, what Ive planned for her. She is no more th an the woman I passed walking to my car in the elementary school parking lot. I haven t done anything to make her real. I havent given her any motive to speak. Then, this comp licates. I move the story on without her. What she does is meaningless (Mary Lou ru shing drunken to Ramonas bed without the reader knowing why Mary Lou is so intent on pushing her daughter into the middle of the bed, into the space Ramona leaves for her imaginary friend.) I am the only one who knows what my characters gestures reveal. I have given them to her for a reason I have neglected to lay out. It will take me weeks to recognize this error. Or longer. Or never. Some stories remain in the accordion folder, or in its more contemporary counterpart the computer hard drive. They la nguish there, with their parts that lure me back in, and their confounding parts that force me to resist. I cannot say what makes one worth the effort of revising, how I am calle d back to one, and know to leave another alone. These failures are ephemeral things to which I cannot give a voi ce. I regret that I did not fulfill their promise, that I no longe r remember what it was that drove me to discover them, half-formed in their just-glimpsed state. A nd once I am off track, I am, really, as lost as the character. Both of our gestures are unworthy of the words that comprise them.
10 I have spent these last two years writing stories. The places they originated are logged in journals, evolved from notes and quotes of poetry and remarks on the weather. I can trace the stories back to their inceptions and find the pieces that influenced what they eventually became, but I cannot retrace the moments I spent putting their words in order, making the sounds fit, hoping the one thing Id chosen to describeice dripping into the sand, little girls painted fingernails, jacaranda petals on black asphalt, oily parts in metal bins, arms slipped from the sleev es of a leotard, a di shwashers coughmight do justice to the people Ive invented. I will continue to be drawn to this business I adopted as a child, making up worlds and peopli ng them, because I have learned that if I am honest enough I can place the reader within the truth of the story, and the story becomes more than something I can makeit is, then, something I can give.
11 BEAUTIFUL She was just Lorna when she applied for the job. She wore bangs and cut-off jean shorts and flip-flops. She went with her ne w friend, Yolie, who wa s already a bartender there, her exposed skin sticking to the seat of Yolies car in the Florida heat. Yolie told Lorna he would like her, not to worry, a nd she pulled her through the door into the darkness of the club, the expanse of it empty and wide and dank, the oval-shaped bar, lit underneath by yellow bulbs, up on a dais in the center of the room, and all around sections with booths cordoned off with brass railings. He came out from the back, from the office. His eyes in the dark held a phosphorescence. His shirt was a blue oxford, untucked. He wore leather slippers. Arlo, Yolie said. He seemed as if he would walk past them, jingling his ring of keys. Oh, he said. He stopped and Yolie put her arms around his neck and kissed his unshaven cheek. This is Lorna, she said. He looked ove r at her, and she heard him breathe, one breath in, then out. The keys in his hand shook. Yes, he said. He looked down at the keys. They followed him back to the door into the office. Inside, under garish fluorescent light, sat a glass-topped desk a nd a leather armchair behind it, and on the
12 floor, dingy gold sculptured carp et. The walls were paneled, the kind people put in their 1970s refinished basement. A full-length mirro r leaned against one wall, by a door that led into a small white-tiled bathroom. He t ook a leotard from its wire hanger and handed it to her. Youll have to try this on, he said, l ooking at the shimmering thing held in the air between them. He appeared hesitant, al most apologetic. When she took the leotard from his hand their fingers touched, and she st ared at his face, pale and damp under the new beard, waiting for him to look up, but he di d not. Yolie pushed her, grinning, into the bathroom, and shut the door. In the dim ba throom light she was alone, and her heart raced. The leotard, red with wh ite stripes on the bottom, blue on top, with white stars, looked like a Wonder Woman costume. She mo ved quickly, taking off her clothes. She could not wear anything under the leotard becau se of the high cut on the legs, the scoop at the neck and back. You need to come out, Yolie said. She did not want to leave the white-tiled bathroom with its dull light. In the mirror over the sink she saw her flushed cheeks, the sheen of sweat along the top of her breasts. She saw her chest rise and fall with her own frightened breath. But she needed the job, and it didnt matter, she told herself, wh at anyone thought. So she opened the door and stepped barefoot onto the gold carpet, into the spotlight of overhead fluorescence. He looked at her body in the leotard, but not her face. He stared at her so long she looked down at herself. What? she asked, masking her embarrassment with anger. And then he looked up into her eyes, his ow n eyes creased and pained.
13 You are beautiful, he sa id, quietly. The way he said it made it something she believed for the first time in her life. Months later, the club will close and reopen under new ownership as a country and western saloon. One night, Lorna will be on the back of a boys motorcycle, riding very fast on a major thoroughfar e, and the streetlights and th e headlights of cars and the storefronts in the strip malls and the white line s on the road will all seem bright smears. It will be early spring, the air sharp, carrying the smell of exhaust and the perfume of women in cars with the windows rolled down, a nd further off, orange groves in bloom. She will hold the boy tightly around his waist, feel his stomach muscles under his thin Tshirt, press herself up against his back, and sh e will both want and f ear the speed at which they travel, believing, because he has told her he loves her, that he will not do anything to harm her. He will slow down in front of a strip mall and pull into an empty parking lot and tell her to get off. Come on, he will say, as if time is pressing. It will be late at night and no one will be around. Tell me you love me, he says. Lorna will look at him, his hair blown back, his soft, brown eyes, the chin with the cleft. You know I do, she says. His face will reflect a dawning despair. He will take off on the motorcycle without her and ride headlong toward a stucco wall at the e nd of the lot, and not slow down, or attempt to stop until the last moment, when he applies the brake and slides to the side. He will right the bike and head back to where she sta nds, with her hands over her face. Were you watching? he will ask. What are you doing? she will want to know. Tell me you love me,
14 he says again, and he gives the bike some ga s and the back wheel spins on the black tar lot. And she will hesitate because suddenly she doubts her love for him at the moment that she must not, and he will see and accelerate toward the wall, his speed even greater this time, the sound of the engine rising at an increasingly higher pitch, until she finds her breath stopped in her chest. But he will pull ba ck like before, at the last minute. He will ride back to her, and look up at her, tear s streaking his face. I love you, she will say, and he will tell her to get back on the bike, a nd she will, her arms around his waist shaking with something she will never identify for sure Fear? Love? Desire? Or are they all, she will wonder, the same? At first, Lorna worked afternoons at Ar los club to learn the job. But it was so slow she didnt learn much. There was always someone else with her, to show her things: This is the soda gun, for ginge r ale and club soda and all, each small buttons code long eroded. You just remember, you know, top is C oke, left is soda, right is ginger ale. That was Susie, who set her long blond hair in electric rollers so it bounced and swung around when she moved, wiping out ashtrays, restacking glasses, checking the stock in the beer cooler. She spoke quickly in a highpitched voice, her blue eyes darting up and down the bar, watching the only three custom ers. This is the well, you know, it goes vodka, gin, rum, bourbon, tequila, and then the grenadine and the triple sec. Lorna nodded at everything, and promptly forgot it afterwards. Why dont you go see if that guy wants another one, Susie said. She lit a cigarette. Lorna dreaded confronting the man. Sh e wasnt used to herself in the leotard,
15 the required LEggs Sheer Energy suntan pa ntyhose, the high-heeled shoes. She had taken on a role she could not perform. Susie gave her a look. Go, it said. Lorna walked down the length of the bar and stood in front of the customer. He wore a golf shirt and his thinni ng blond hair swiped to one side. The sun had freckled the bridge of his nose. The skin around his eyes was puffy and white where his sunglasses sat. Ive been waiting for you to come over, he said, under his breath. She didnt know what to do with her hands so she placed them on the edge of the wooden bar. She smiled, but his eyes, moving from her face to the blue-backed stars on her chest, unnerved her, and she felt the smile falter, and knew he saw. Would you like another drink? she asked. If you bring it to me, he said, and put th e glass to his wet lips and tipped his head all the way back to drai n it. He placed it back on the ba r and the ice resettled. Im drinking rye, he told her. She took the gla ss in her hand and he put his hand on hers to stop her. His hand was heavy and cold, and he gripped hers tightly, so she could not walk away. Im not going to even ask your name, he said, his eyes intent. I just know you know what we would be like together. And Im going to give you this card, and he pulled a white business card out of his shir t pocket, and I want you to call me. He placed the card on the top of the bar. Lorna l ooked down at it, and the customer still held her hand. Take it, he said, his voice low, me lodious, laced with thr eat, and she picked it up with her free hand, and he let her go.
16 Lorna had no idea what making the drink entailed. She looked at the liquor bottles on their mirrored shelves, reading all of the labels. Susie watched her. Rye, she said, annoyed. When Lorna could not find the bottle and glanced up at he r in defeat, Susie grabbed one from a top shelf and made her the drink. You be nice to that girl, Susie, the cu stomer called from the end of the bar. I like this one. Susie handed the drink to Lorna. She smiled, showing all her teeth. She flounced her hair. Lorna brought the man the drink and pl aced it on a white napkin in front of him, enduring his stare, his wet grin. She took the ten he handed her, his fingers lingering on the bill, along her palm. She couldnt remember the price of the drinks. They hadnt let her do the money yet, so she gave the bill to Susie. The rest of that is for you, the cust omer yelled. And Susie-Q, her ass is sweeter than yours. None of this mattered, Susie said. Th ey pooled their tips. Lorna worked two afternoons with Susie, and didnt see Arlo at all. There was another man there, named Larry, who was the assistant. He would lean on the bar and smoke cigarettes and ask her questions about herself. Where are you from ? he would ask, and Lorna would pretend to be busy, wiping the top of the bar with a damp rag. And you left because ? She would lift his cigarette out of the red plastic ashtray and dump the butts, then replace the cigarette and set the whole thing back in front of him. Because I wanted to, she told him. Do you always do what you want to do? he as ked her. He had a wide mouth and dark eyes that were always only half serious. Sh e looked at him, and he blew his cigarette
17 smoke out of his nose. I mean, look, Lor, its really slow in here, and were both doing nothing, so what do you want to do right now ? he asked, the words carrying a significance she would pret end not to understand. On the third afternoon Lorna worked with Yolie, and both Larry and Arlo came into the bar. Arlo wore hi s usual shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest as if hed forgotten to finish dressing. His hair looked dirty. He s huffled past the bar without acknowledging her and approached Larry. Who the fuck is that? he asked. Larry looked up at Lorna with mild surprise. Afterwards, Yolie laughed, reassuring he r. That afternoon he hired you he was out of his mind, she said. Youre just lucky. Arlo came out of the office and stopped at the bar. He was slight and almost delicate, like a boy, but older than the boys Lorna knew. His hair hung in wisps over his eyes. He always held a cigarette. Sometime s his hand shook, other times it didnt. On this afternoon he stood in near darkness and watche d her bring a drink to a customer. With his eyes on her now, Lorna felt awkward, hideous He whistled under his breath. Oh baby, he said. You have amazing legs. She wanted to turn on him, and strike him. She wanted to take his face in her hands and kiss his mouth. After the country and western saloon cl oses, the club will become a Chinese Buffet. Lorna will work as a hostess at the ai rports revolving rooftop restaurant. She will wear a long, black Lycra skirt, and se at elaborately dressed couples on their
18 anniversaries, businessmen in dark suits, th eir hair cut cleanly ar ound their ears. She will lose track of the tables as the restaurant turns, spill Tom Collinses onto a womans silk lap. But she will meet a man who will call her L o and take her out in his Ferrari. They will eat outside at an iron table on the leafy patio of a hotel restaurant, and he will pour her wine and light her cigarettes and they wi ll talk. The hotel will be a famous one on the beach, and they will watch the sunset, which will strike her as overly pink and orange. She will tell him how different the beaches are where she grew up, and he will ask the differences, his head cocked to one side, hi s eyes warm and interested. She will explain the ones she can articulatethe sand on the beach is coarse and brown, littered with mussel shells and seaweed, and the water is da rker, and colder, more green. She will not be able to tell how the debris that washes up, the pieces of trees, the milk cartons, the occasional shoe, makes the beach feel like suffering. But he will intuit a kind of sadness in the way she describes it, and look at her with compassion. He will have graying hair and a wry smile that she likes because it reminds her of someone else. At the end of the night he will tell her she has a beautiful heart, but it will be just her body that he desires, and only that one weekend in a room in the pink hotel on soft, expensive sheets, and then he will not see her again. When she got the job at Arlos club, Lorn a lived in an apartment complex with a pool surrounded by a hibiscus hedge, which fo r her was its most alluring feature. She shared an apartment with a girl she met so me weeks before, temping at an insurance company, and spent her free afternoons lying out in the sun by the red flowers and the
19 chlorinated blue pool water. Here, dragonflie s dipped and circled her body on the chaise, their wings opaque and gold-veined, thei r hovering movements timed, it seemed, to inaudible music. She slit her eyes against the sun and watched them, their appearance in such multitude like a portent. She dreamed about Arlo, how she might kiss his smooth chest, the softness above the button of his pants, how his mouth would slide into his smile, one side first, tentatively, fearful of revealing too much. She had already forgotten her boyfriend, w ho had brought her to Florida, run out of money, and gone back up north without her. She told him to go because his only skill was as a painter, and it was too hot, he whin ed, to paint here, and anyway, she did not love him, and did not want to support him. The only problem with his leaving was that now she had no car. Her roommate was never ho me, so Lorna could not ask her for rides. One day, Yolie picked her up for work at the club, but the other days she asked a neighbor to drive her. She had seen him in the afternoons at the pool, pretending not to watch her climbing out of the water. She saw him leave the complex at night in a silver Fiat, the top down, his hair slic ked back with gel. When she approached him at the pool about the ride, he was lying on a striped to wel on a chaise, his torso oily, smelling of coconuts. He stared at her bare stomach, considering, then back up to her face. He grinned. Well, sure, he said. He drove her, willingly, almost joyfu lly, his hand sliding on the stick shift, his legs reveal ed in shorts, covered with curl y hair. He would shave first, and put on a pressed shirt before he picked her up, and she realized, with an almost faraway kind of acceptance, that she woul d owe him in some way. One day he would exact a price.
20 This happened when Arlo decided to cl ose in the afternoons, and no one called her to let her know. She arrived at the club in the Fiat with the nei ghbor, and he slid his hand between her damp thighs and leaned ove r and kissed her. She turned away, but his mouth moved into her hair, and in her confus ion and surprise she sprang from the car and slammed the door and stalked off. The Fiat sent up gravel at the park ing lot exit before she realized the club was closed. From there sh e walked to the 7-Eleven in her high heels and suntan hose and cut off shorts, the leot ard hot and clinging underneath. She called her roommate from the pay phone, knowing she wa s not home. She called Yolie and left a message. She wasnt able to think of anyone else. The manager of the store came out twice and asked her to move on. And then a car pulled in, a black 280Z. The boy ambled into the store in gym shorts, the back of hi s T-shirt wet with sweat, and came out, tapping his pack of cigarettes onto the palm of hi s hand. He made a sad face at her, one she accepted as sincere. And she thought this is OK, to be pitied. Need a ride somewhere? he asked. And she gratefully got into the car. The upholstery was slippery and cool. She told him the name of the apartment complex, which was all the way across town, a ro ute that she had never paid attention to as a passenger. He took the interstate, humm ing to himself, and everything suddenly looked unfamiliar. She had never seen those houses with the tin roofs before. Which way are you going? she asked. He looked at her, and shrugged. The only way I know, he said.
21 His cheeks were chubby. His mouth was small, the lips pursed. He was whistling, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. He sm elled of scented deodorant. He asked her name and she told him Lorna, but he didnt h ear, or he didnt listen. Do you work at the club back there, Laura? he asked. Her heart pounded in a place at the base of her neck. She put her hand on the door handle and imagin ed leaning on the door, jumping out onto the swiftly passing shoulder. She was sorry she slammed the neighbors car door. She was sorry she didnt allow his kiss, his gr oping between her legs, as payment for the weeks worth of rides. She wanted the airconditioned darkness of the club. She craved Arlos face, pictured it like a salve, the dr y edges of his lips, his sorrowful brows, the reddened rim of his nose. She was sure she would never see him again. She was sure she would suffer now, at the hands of this strange r whose car maneuvered skillfully at high speed between lanes of an interstate she did not know. And then, Here we go, the boy said, and they pulled into the complex with its withered tropical plants, its asphalt radiating heat. He gave her a piece of paper with his name and his phone number. She took it from him with a trembling hand, her eyes wet with unshed tears. You really ar e pretty, he told her. And she recognized his pity again, his genuine sadness mixed with checke d lust, and despised herself. As the Chinese Buffet, the building that once housed Arlos club will finally achieve some success. People will flock ther e from the surrounding office complexes for inexpensive lunches. Lorna will go with some coworkers from Suncoast Realty one afternoon, and she will not realiz e it is the same place, until one of the men mentions the
22 outfits the bartenders wore there when it wa s a club, and another one recalls a night when he got into a fight in the parking lot. The two women will shake their heads and roll their eyes, and Lorna will look around the interior of the restaurant and make out the old brass railings, see where the bar has been replaced with a sushi ba r in the center of the room. She will recognize the same air-conditioned darkness. She will foolishly admit she worked there, and the women will raise their eyebrows and glance down into their plates, and the men will stop chewing their food a nd never look at her the same way again. Really? one will ask. They will have trouble be lieving she served drinks when she is so inept at the copier and the coffeemaker, and though everyone will laugh, a new tension will invade their group, one that prevents the wave of memory from suffusing her. They will nervously stack the white plates with the remains of rice and Lo Mein, gather their purses and pull out their wallets, preparing to leave. Later, the men will begin to ask her out, and she will refuse them, even those she likes, who she has dreamed about alone at night, because she does not trust their attention, their eagerness to have her. Suddenly, the only thing she will have that they desire isnt the thing she will desire to give. The leotards had been Arlos last ploy to draw customers, but business was slowing down for good. There was still mone y on weekend nights, when a band came in and played on the stage up front, and people filled the tables in the sections beyond the brass rails, and their bodies moved together on the dance floor, lined ten deep at the oval bar. Larry told Lorna that Arlo wanted her to work Friday and Saturday night. She could
23 make a rum and Coke and a Jack and C oke, a Seabreeze and a Screwdriver. Yolie showed her how to make a vodka martini. That should be good enough, she said. The first night she stumbled around behind the bar, in everyones way. Six girls worked, three on each side, all of them with weighty hair and whip thin legs, their leotards crawling up in back like thongs. Lo rna acquired a reflexive motion of tugging hers down that customers found beguiling. She th rilled them in her idiocy. Id like a Kamikaze, someone might say, and she woul d look at them, And that is ? and the customer would throw his head back and la ugh. Yolie, working next to her, would place her lips near her ear, Vodka, sp lash triple sec, splash lime . The bottles still felt heavy and slippery in her hand. She still pushed the wrong button on the gun. She miscounted change in her hurry to get out of the drawer But, by Saturday night she became used to approaching the people at the bar, their faces part of a larger blur that was the rest of the club, the band on the stage, the hum of bodies pr essed in close. She liked the make up she wore, her glossed lips, the way whatever she did, filling glasses with ice, tipping a bottle and replacing it in the well, bringing a dri nk to a customer, became timed to the bands music, her body its own song. She took the money the customers pushed toward her across the bar, or folded into the palm of he r hand, their eyes teasing and sly. She sensed the bargaining going on, none of it having much to do with the drinks. They paid, and they waited, and they never got what they wanted. Behind the bar, she was untouchable, on show, like a museum piece. She aroused the fury of the other bartende rs. They looked over at Arlo where he sat at the bar, wondering when he would not ice her incompetence. But he said nothing,
24 continued to sit and sip his dr ink, his eyes glassy and elec tric, following her movements. Now, Lorna wanted his eyes on her. She leaned over the bar and lit his cigarettes, and he gave her his slow-motion smile. He chatted with customers, ignor ing the running of the club, the bands lengthy breaks, the scuffle er upting on the dance floor, Larrys pleas to return to the office and speak with someone on the phone. Arlos eyes, watching her, felt like a caress. At the end of the night he called her in to the office. He sat under the fluorescent light in his leather chair coun ting out one of the register drawers. Larry was there, with his half serious expression. Arlo had the drawers stacked on the floor, and lines of cocaine on the glass top of the desk. He told Larry to get Lorna a drink, and Larry looked at her, smirking, and asked, So, do you know wh at you want? She stared at the top of Arlos bent head, waiting for him to finish the line. When he looked up his eyes were watering and red. What should I drink? she asked. She sat in a chair across from him, her legs curled up underneath her, her tips in the blue Crown Royal bag be side her on the floor. She played with her hair, piling it up on top of her h ead, and letting it fall. Grand Marnier, he said. He settled back into his chair and they looked at each other. She did not know what he saw when he looked at her, but when he did something in his face broke and smoothed out, some slack ening of disdain, a softness he didnt offer anyone else. She sipped the drink that Larry brought her in a tiny glass. It burned her throat, tasted of oranges, and deep down, an amber-tinted sadness. Arlo said nothing to her at all. The drawers stayed there stacked on the gold carpet, and he leaned back in his
25 chair and tipped his head and watched her. She memorized his face, the shape of his hands, the soft hair on his arms below his rolled up sleeves. He put his hand over his mouth, and they stared at each other endlessl y, until Larry began to count the drawers, muttering to himself, and Yolie came in a nd told her she was ready to go home. Eventually, even the Chinese Buffet will fa il, and the club will become an empty building with a sign for sale, and weeds gr owing up through the parking lot. Lorna will marry a man who makes the claim that he loves everything about herher intelligence, her humor, the smell of her skin, because he wi ll know, at the time, this is what she will want to hear. She will learn the truth when she discovers her role involves clothing and hairstyles and, among his friends, a certain sile nce. He will become immune to what he saw as her beauty when she allows gray to thread her hair, and lets her body lose its firmness, when too much dreaming pulls down the corners of her mouth. They will live in a house in a new subdivision, where the houses are different, but oddly the same, stucco homes painted in the hues of pastel Easter eggs. There will be her own pool, with a screened enclosure, and beyond that a pond wi th water spraying up out of a fountain at the center. There will be woods that she will see in the distance, and other neighbors with young children in strollers and leashed dogs, th eir porches and front lawns decorated for each holiday. She will conceive two children but never carry them. She will have an affair with a man, simple and straightfo rward, with no pretending he wants her for anything more than the one thing she has lear ned to give, expertly, with no trace of herself. She will meet him at his apartment on his lunch hour, and when they are in bed
26 together he will ask her if she is happy. What is happy? she will say. What you pretend when you have everything you thought you wanted ? He will turn his head on his pillow, decidedly miserable, and tell her he shouldnt see her anymore. And then one afternoon she will come out into her suburban yard and find the dragonflies again, their dance among the one trees branches and the bird-of-paradise. They will not have meant anything until that moment, their pow er to foretell delayed by years. She did not go home with Yolie that ni ght. Larry counted th e drawers and put money in zippered bank bags for the deposit. He stood in the doorway to the office, terse and concerned, for once completely serious. Y ou all set? he asked Arlo. Arlos head seemed heavy, his eyelids weighted. He wave d Larry away with his hand. Larry made a noise under his breath and turned and left. You know why youre here? Arlo asked her. She had finished her drink and all the dark lines on the paneled walls wavered. She stood up and crossed the gold carpet, kn elt down in front of him in his leather swivel chair and put her hands on the tops of his legs. His brows knit together. He pulled back and took her hands in his. Dont do th is to me, he said. He shook his head and laughed, softly, the laugh catchi ng in his throat. He looked away from her so she could not see his eyes. I have nothing to offe r you, sweetheart, he said. She kissed him anyway, and he put his hands along her face, and Lorna, standing on her manicured lawn sees herself again, sli pping the leotard off her shoulders, each arm
27 pulled from its sleeve, the outline of her ba thing suit marked by her tan, the string ties, the cups of white. How she looked, loving hi m, her eyes shining with it, her mouth trembling on his, and then his mouth, we t and roaming, his hands on her shoulders shaking with the tremors of what he used to know as desire, the memory of it stirring in his head and nowhere else. He told her he wasnt worth it. He begged her to stop, and then said not to. He wished he could be w ho she wanted. She told him she loved him the way he was. But nothing she said or did was any use. His body, drained and wasted, refused them, and none of it, he assured her af ter they had tried and tried in the cold, airconditioned office, was her fault. His eyes took her in. You are something, he whispered, sorry and sickened, his hands damp with regret al ong the side of her face. Just forget this, he told he r. Forget everything I said. But watching the dragonflies she remember s. She sees how he must have called her into the office that night to let her go, how Larry had to do it the next day, telling her on the phone that they were cutting back, business was too slow. She recognizes her grief, the taste of oranges and bitterness mixed with his saliva in her mouth, all of it, in her confusion then, a betrayal. Now, st anding in her front yard by the blooming plumbago, she can read his tortured eyes, f eel his skin under her fingertips, hear his hoarse pleas against her neck, in her hair, and see how she ha s spent a long time foolishly searching for him in the faces of others. Ho w could she have realized it was her love, expended that night, breathed out into the shoddy office, worn down under the
28 fluorescent lighting, that would emerge flailing and beating, the most beautiful thing she has ever known?
29 UNCTION They gathered each morning at seve n oclock in the bookbinding machine shop, in the back where the parts were stored in long, narrow metal bins and stacked on metal shelving to the ceiling. Fans spun the dusty heat They drank cups of dark coffee. They moved, their teenaged bodies dull and inartic ulate, to the plywood counter where thick sheaves of computer printouts listed the parts they needed to count. It was a summer job, this inventory. Lily was pregnant, sevent een, and no one knew, not Orlando, the young draftsman, who taught her to drive his Renaul t, or Tish, the owners niece, who brought in bags of the watermelon candy Lily secretly craved, not even Matthew, with his soft hair in his eyes, with his bashful glances that made her feel a part of herself had come undone, a blouse button, the clasp to her shorts, the silent, swift unrav eling of her heart. There were six of them hired to work th e inventory. At first, Lily did not spend much time getting to know any of them. She took her list and went off into the aisles of shelving, working on deciphering the language of screws and pins and bolts and clamps. She found time went faster this way. At lunc h she bought a sandwich from the truck that came and parked in the lot. Later, the notes she penned would bring th em all together in ways they would come to wish otherwise, but until then they ate at the long tables in the lunchroom, and wandered the aisles flanke d by tall shelving, knowing nothing about each other.
30 The machine shop used to manufacture the bookbinding machine parts, but it had been closed for two years. Only a husband and wife ran the shipping department. There was Matthew, hired to build the wooden crates, to operate the forklift, and pack things up to ship. A few machines remained operable. Tw o men ran those. Most parts were made in another of the owners factor ies down by the Connecticut Rive r, a bigger, more efficient place. The sense of the small bookbinding machine shop was of desolation, and decline. Its dirt and grease, ground into the brick fl oor, were ancient, from another time. The sun lit the high row of narrow windows filmed by du st, a pinkish orange. There was no other source of light beyond the hangi ng florescent lamps. Each morning Lily came into the heat of the shop and felt a new, raw wave of despair. They worked without supervision. After a week they grew bored. There was no one to please with their progress through the stacks of computer printouts. The notes were Lilys idea, grown out of the bore dom and the impossible state of her body, its languidness, its inconceivable se cond heartbeat. She did not know for sure about herself until July, when the heat in the machine s hop was the worst, and the black grit settled grimly on the handrails of the tall rolling la dders they moved up and down the aisles of shelving, seeking out the parts. Her breasts hurt. She drank her coffee in the morning, and promptly threw it up. Only Matthew noticed wait ing outside the ladies room for her, the worry in his eyes something they pretended wa snt there. He would brush her hair from her face. He would grin wildly, to make her smile. In the afternoons he would sit on one of the high ladders and draw caricatures of all of them, or the comic book superheroes he created. His body, large and ungainly, would curl in on itself, double over. His arm bent
31 along the wide white paper moved lithe and s upple, like the appendage of someone else. He would present the drawings to her, rolled up into long tubes, pape r clipped at the ends. She sensed her happiness was, to him, of the utmost importance. No one seemed to care that she did the least amount of work. She sat with Jamie at the plywood counter amid the printout s, thumbing through them, organizing them, pretending to mark things off. They separa ted the work into piles for everyone. Jamie smoked Camels, dropping his butts on the floor and grinding them with the toe of his boot. He kept his blond hair cropped short. His eyes perused her when he looked, lingered, needy and intent on her face, her m outh, on the slope of her shoulders down to her breasts. This is unendurable, he would say, his eyes fastening on her bare legs spread out under the counter. She looked back at hi m, and shook her head, refusing him, her body taken over by an inexpressible lethargy, an emptying of desire. She felt drawn into a current of deep and swirling water. One afte rnoon it began to rain. The rain on the shop roof was like something rising and building to a heightened pitch, the sound of it hollow and metallic. Its thrumming made her lonely. She felt slighted by the condition of her body, as if it no longer had any other use than the one that now occupied it without her permission. She did not know who the father was. Ther e had been a succession of boys at the time. She would leave her parents house and walk the three blocks to the center of the small town, to the outdoor mall and its f ountain, onto the town greens damp evening grass, and meet her friends, and wait for th e boys. They would appear like gliding birds
32 in their cars, paint jobs shining from a new waxing, the tires thick and ready to grab the parking lots black asphalt. They stuck thei r heads out of car windows, their hair wet from the shower, from a quick swim in ova l-shaped pools, from the lake in Suffield where some of them skied and a few would di e in a boat accident the following summer. They lived without any fear of death. Th ey stuck their heads out into the wind and grinned and promised a fearlessness that sh e would desire more than the inexpert movements of their hands on her body, thei r mouths wet urgency, their rising heat beneath her sliding palms. They would never force themselves on he r. She was practiced at how to make them want her. It became a simple game. Each boy was a new beginning. Each had an eventual parting, signaled by a new girl in the passenger seat of his car, or a general disregard that she learned to intuit, never an angry rebuff, never with any malice, just a folding away of himself from her, a closing off that made her sad at first. She would remember the smell of his upholstery, the salty taste of the skin on his throat, the way his mouth parted, or how he used his tongue. She would pine for the pla ces they parked: the meadow beyond the reservoir, the smell of th e grass dampened by rain. She would miss his groans, his efforts moving inside her, the way he fell panting afterward. She held their faces the same in her hands. She gazed into their eyes. They all ha d a way of not looking back, of shielding themselves, as if from the force of her love. That afternoon she came around from the b ack of the rows of shelving and found Jamie with his cigarette at the counter. He gave her a look and then glanced over at Geri, moping on one of the ladders, her fingers flay ing her hair. Geri was tall and had a long,
33 bushy mane of hair that she spent time twis ting and piling and clipping back. She wore her boyfriends UCONN T-shir ts. Even these, Jamie announced, could not hide the bouncing effect of her large breasts. Geri wa s good-natured about Jamies observations. She would stick her tongue out at him, and disappear down an aisle of shelving. Do you think she wants me to follow her? he would ask Lily. We could fuck in D row, under the Smyth sewer bolts. Lily suspected that Jamie was working th e job, like she was, as some form of penance. He had been hired under similar circumstances through a friend of his father. A safe occupation for the summer. He wasnt rese ntful. With his paychecks, he claimed, he would put a down payment on the Trans-Am his father had already refused him. Lily had been hired to work in the shops front office that winter. She got the job from her school disciplinary counselor, who met with her one afternoon after she had been discovered inebriated in French class. It had been Fren ch V, Advanced, and the other students, with their straight A averages and bowl-shaped ha ircuts and polyester button-downs, had been shocked. Madame Dorn had led her by the hand out of the room. She had chastised her in French. You disappoint me, shed said. They st ood in the beige brick hallway, on the pale and shining waxed floor tiles. Lily remember ed the bright blue of her eyeshadow, the way her small hands had clung to he r wrists, the sound of the verb, decevoir like an unending and upturned sadness. The disciplinar y counselor was gruff and stocky with a broad face. He was missing half of one of hi s thumbs. He set up the interview with the bookbinding shops office manager. You need this, he said. Keep you out of trouble.
34 She worked every day after school making blueprints on the large machine. All the drawings of parts were stored flat in long metal file drawers. She kept them in order, filed by their part numbers, some of them ve ry old on tobacco-colored paper worn at the edges. She found that making the blueprints, the mindless feeding of drawings into the big machine, its emanating heat and hum and ammonia smell, kept her content, and she was grateful, in a way, for the job. When th eyd assigned her to the summer inventory, she found shed become good at accepting whatever she was given. On the roof, the rain kept up its thru mming. Geri moped on the tall ladder. I like that big head of hair, Jamie said. I want to put my hands in it. Lily tore a piece of the computer printout She wrote this down with one of the pencils, in cursive script. Put it in a bin on her list, she said. Add something else, he told her, grinning. Lily wrote what she believed Jamie would want from Geri, what he wanted to do to her. I cant keep this a secret I am overcome with lust. Jamie stubbed out his cigarette. He l ooked over Geris aban doned list, and took off down the aisles. She didn t find the note at first. They watched her, waiting. They went off with their own lists, keeping an ey e on her. Lily climbed to the top of a ladder and found the heat had collected there. She took the bin down to the floor and spent the afternoon counting and losing tr ack and recounting three hundred and twenty feeder nuts, finally placing them in piles of twenty-five on the brick floor. At the end of the day lining up to punch out, they noticed Geris face, flushe d, distracted. Tendrils of her hair stuck to her forehead. She said nothing about a note. But Lily saw her eyes take in the fine sheen
35 on Orlandos dark skin, the way Matthews pants had slid down on his hips. She saw them sweep across the broa d space between Jamies shoul der blades. Lily saw her wonder what his back looked like without his sh irt. In her eyes was lit a kind of startled heat. That summer, few of the office workers ever came to the back. Lily knew that up in the front offices women in accounts receivable gossiped and split blueberry crumb cake, purchasing agents lounged in each other s offices, sipping from cans of soft drinks, tipping cigarette ashes into c upped palms. The office manager carried on an affair with a file clerk, the blinds to his office drawn, and a receptionist sa t at a switchboard facing the double glass doors, by the American flag in it s stand, waiting to greet the mailman. There were foreign engineers, three of them, spread out in cubicles, thei r suit jackets draped over the backs of their chairs, their drawings clipped to slanted tables, their ashtrays spilling over with the ends of hand-rolled cigarettes. Once in a while the Russian engineer w ould saunter through the shop. He would make a point of walking over, and stop, and as k for Lily. He needed a blueprint made. He couldnt find a drawing. He wore his dark suit pants and polished shoes. His shoe leather creaked, making his footfalls menacing. Matthews face reddened when he saw him approaching. They made up excuses so Lily w ould not have to speak to him. That spring, the engineer had asked Lily to model, to pos e wearing a nautical shirt and white shorts and a sailors hat, with a bow thruster he had developed and patented for the owner as a side job. She had agreed, flatte red at first. Celie in purchasing had done her make up in the ladies room. The engineer had taken th e photos himself with a Nikon. He stood, stiff
36 and unfriendly, issuing orders. He had her stra ddle the design, something that looked like a heavy, riveted pipe. Then, she stood up besi de it with one hand on her hip. Frustrated, he gripped the fleshy part of her arm above her elbow to position her, and his thumb and forefinger left a darkening print. They took the photos in the machine s hop. The late afternoon shone serene and unconcerned through the high row of windows, and the dust swirled about. She was not ready to reveal to the adu lt world her own knowledge of sex, and so she pretended she did not read anything in hi s eyes movements over her body, his positioning of her, roughly, in the poses of his liking. She could en dure his gaze under this pretense, her hips and mouth prodded to assume falsely, awkwar dly, the expression of seduction. Later, the engineer tried to persuade her to attend a trade show with them in Boston and hand out brochures, offering to pay her hotel room, her traveling expenses. But the office manager intervened, pointing out that she was a minor, and Celie had taken her aside. Dont go, shed said, grimacing. I wouldnt if I were you, fully convinced of Lilys ignorance concerning the engineers in their suits, their thick waists and formality, their other uses for her they were not telling. The engineer improvised with a photo ma de into a life-sized cut-out to stand alongside thei r displayLily in a sailors hat, a hand placed on her outthrust hip, her look conveying a disarming innocence. Matthew had been in the shop during the shoot. They took the photos once everyone left for the day, and he stayed under the pretense of worki ng late, suspicious of the engineers intentions from the first. Later, he drew a scathing caricature of the Russian holding his camera, his over-sized head stern, his one exposed eye, sly and
37 lascivious. During the summer inventory, Ma tthew would draw a whole series of his characters. They were heroes from fantasy stories, men and women who had survived the last battle on earth, who lived to fight a latex-suited foe from space, or mutant animals, lion-mouthed, vulture-winged, left to inhabit earths dark recesses. The human survivors wore only remnants of their old clothing. Th eir near-naked bodies swirled in motion, spun on muscled calves, swung weapons that looked cumbersome and medieval. Their faces tightened in anger or horror or pain. Th eir eyes glared or softened or filled with tears. Matthew would bring th e drawings to her, shyly, wh en the others werent around. Lily had never seen anything so beautiful em erge from a pencil on paper before. She held the drawings in her hands and her hands s hook. The characters looked back at her from the tumult of their movements, frozen in the midst of their unfolding stories. She wouldnt say much. She would hand them back and look at him and smile, and she could see he knew what she felt, that she believed his ability was a gift, something that resided in some self other than the one maneuvering a forklift, stacking castings on wooden pallets, searching out one hundred and five Casing-In bolts. His caricatures of all of them brought out their beauty, the small defect in each of their personalitiesOrlandos simpering, his debonair nose, Tishs crossed eyes and selfdeprecating smile, Geris horsy face, its lack of imagination, Jamies rakishness, a Camel hanging from his bottom lip. Of herself, Lily could only sense a kind of tragic weakness, her eyes too wide, too seemingly childlike, and she believed he had gotten her wrong. He would not draw any others of her, only real sketches he would not show her until later, near the end of the summer.
38 The days in the shop stretched endless as the sheaves of prin touts. Orlando was the only one who could describe the parts th ey sought, their size and shape, what to actually look for in the narrow bins. But on ce the notes started they grew weary of consulting him, and they counted anything, th eir hands oily from the screws threads, gray with dust from the castings piled up on th e floor, their part numbers raised metal that no one, in the dim lighting, could truly read. If it looked like a lever arm, Jamie said, then it was the lever arm on the list. The notes unsigned, unmentioned would become the mystery that kept them searching in the bins of parts. Lily wrote confessions of desire and Jamie placed the notes in bins on everyones list. Yesterday, I couldnt breathe, watching you, and, I want, more than anything ri ght now, to taste your mouth There was a certain stealth required, a cruel urge to unsettle and disconcert. Tish had come in each morning, primly, in a different colored sleeveless blous e, carrying her canvas tote bag. Her father wanted her to learn the value of hard wor k, she had told them, crossing her brown eyes. She would leave each afternoon, her face shining, her blouse ringed with sweat under her arms. Now she wore lipgloss, which she r eapplied every hour or so, her thin lips glimmering and suddenly soft. Orlando grew a small, slim mustache and wore sleeveless tank tops. Geri arrived one morning in a halt er, her breasts pressing the V of the front, spilling out over the edge of the fabric. Jami e leaned back in his chair, ecstatic. Only Matthew seemed unchanged. He sti ll gave her his quiet, thoughtful glances. He still waited for her in the mornings out side the ladies room, his back pressing the brick wall, his arms folded patiently acro ss his chest. He drew her when she least expected it. He would need only one or two quick looks, a nd those he would take while
39 she was busy, unaware. Once in a while, she woul d catch him, and they would meet each others expression without knowing what their own reflected, hers sorrowful and lost, his fueled with love. Sometimes, Celie would come to the shop to check on things. She wore bright floral skirts and high heels and dangling earrings. She seemed uncomfortable in the dark shop, as if she might become soiled. She would stop in at shipping with her stack of paperwork, and then head to the other end of the shop, where the parts were kept, and the six of them would take off into the maze of shelves, pretending to look busy. Orlando had the best performance. He would hold the printout like a book in his arms, and thumb through it. He kept a pencil be hind his ear, and always seem ed to appear from around a shelf, at the appropriate mome nt to report in to her. Weve got all the Rounder Backer parts accounted for, hed say. Celie would smile at him, making a speci al effort. Her earrings shook and made a sound like small bells. Wow! shed say, shaking her head. Good. Orlando had applied as a draftsman ju st out of trade school. The summer inventory was the only job open, but they had emphasized there was potential to learn, and the possibility of a later position. In the beginning, Orlando worked to entrench himself. He brought the engine ers samples from his familys bakery. He made a round of the front offices daily, presenting himself, an affable employee. Lily begged the driving lessons from him. She knew he would have to steal time from the company he was trying so desperately to join, that he did not want to do it. But she saw, too, that summer there was something about her that no one could refuse. Matthew wheeled the big ladders
40 around for her. Tish brought her the wa termelon candy. Matthew and Orlando, finally, unbolted the green vinyl couch from the break rooms linoleum floor. They carried it to the back wall of the shop, beneath the high row of windows, hidden away behind the last aisle of shelving. They said it was for ever yone to take turns. Jamie offered to double up with Geri. But they relinquished it to Lil y, who fell asleep every afternoon, her eyelids heavy, her limbs lifeless, her body drawn under invisible tidewater. A few days a week, after lunch, Orlando le t her drive in circles around the empty back lot where the machinists used to park. Orlando gripped the door handle when the car jerked and stalled. Sometimes, he cried out in Portuguese, and put his hand over his heart when her foot confused the clutch and the brake, and she came too close to the shops brick wall. Lily liked the smell of his car the afternoon sun warming up a mixture of talcum powder, and the baked crust of the bread hed brough t in that morning. She liked the way she could confuse him, how in the lit tle car with her he stammered, no longer the expert. All day, Lily ate the watermelon candies, pl acing them one after another into her mouth, letting them dissolve on her tongue, and wrote about wh at hands would feel like on someones chest, sliding up a smooth st omach, riding down below the curve of a waist, the rise of hips, the warm, damp place between legs. She felt her body surge and slip into some region of wakefulness, a kind of knowing that mixed with the smell of the oiled parts, the paper and ink of the comput er printouts, the ar tificial watermelon, the plywood counter where she piled th e candys cellophane wrappers.
41 Tish believed that Matthew had penned he r notes. She came to Lily with them all smoothed out and pressed togeth er, in a kind of order. Look at these, she said. Lily looked. She already knew what messages they held. She had, she realized intended her to believe that Matthew had written them. She had mentioned his large Catholic family, the three sisters, the four br others, the nieces and nephews, the value he placed on their closeness, the uncreased and simple sacrifice. Lily had thought they would make a nice couple. She had wanted Tish to pursue and capture him, to spare him from herself. In Matthews notes she had wr itten things she believed Tish might reveal. Her respect for her fathers stringent rules, he r mothers alcoholism, her loss, at fifteen, of a boyfriend to leukemia. Some of these were things Lily had learned. Others, she had made up. She held the scraps of paper in her hands, and saw, through the disguised handwriting, the thoughtlessness with which she allowed the no tes to lead lives of their own, assume their own history, their stories stretching out to cont ain moments that had not even happened yet. What should I do? Tish asked. Her small lips trembled. Lily shrugged, wordless w ith regret. The notes were unanswerable, their messages misconstrued. Already, Jamie had tried to appr oach Geri and been rebuffed. Now, sitting at the top of her tall ladder, twirling her hair, Geri looke d down at Orlandos head bent counting over a bin, with a wistful longing. Orlando thought his notes came from Tish. He confided in Jamie and raised an eyebrow, and ran his tongue over his lips. I can taste that gloss, he said.
42 Jamie became surly. Im done with this, he said. They stopped writing and hiding the notes. He sulked for three da ys, refusing to count anything, smoking his cigarettes and dropping his fist down on the counter top. Soon, the spell of the notes faded and was replaced with Jamies irritableness. No one had the nerve to approach anyone else. No one knew how to feed all th eir wanting. Lily felt responsible, her own body, she believed, immune. But then she fell asleep late one af ternoon on the green couch, and when she woke she could tell, from the slant of light, the way it colored the grimy brick, the gray metal shelves, that it was later than shed ever slept. Matthew was there, near the top of one of the rolling ladders. I didnt want to wake you, he said. Hi s voice floated from above her, resonant and strange. She knew the shop wa s empty, that everyone had gone. What time is it? she asked. She imagined her mother waiting outside in the parking lot to pick her up, her exasperation, he r refusal to go inside and inquire, the easy assumption that Lily had left with someone el se. Now, she imagined her parents sat at the dining table, silent and still assuming that Lily was with a friend, or at the mall, or any number of places that Lily had invented in the past to appease them. Their cutlery clanked against the china. Her father glan ced up occasionally as if to speak. In the flickering crystals of the chande lier, in the polished handles of the silver, the colors of the room bled, the magenta of her mothers blouse her fathers Kelly green golf shirt, the still brilliant but wilting cen terpiece of flowers, all of it tinged with presentiment. I can give you a ride home, Matthew sa id. He descended the ladder. She slid over on the couch, and motioned for him to s it beside her. He hesitated, then dropped
43 onto the vinyl cushion, casually, looking awa y. He let his hands rest on his thighs. She stared at the curve of his neck, his ch eek. He would not turn to face her. Dont do that, he said, barely a whisper. Lily could see the twilight slipping through the narrow windows, its sifted particles converging. She felt the air in the shop like a presence on her skin. She rose up onto her knees. She turned his face toward her with her hands. He was caught there, and resigned, he allowed her to look at him. Hi s face stayed impassive. His eyes confounded her, like those of his characters. She slid her hands down his shoulders. She felt the tops of his arms, their hardened muscles. Her hands came to rest on his. Why didnt you write to me as you? he asked. She felt a conflagration of loss. She felt consumed. He did not know, exactly, what to do with he r. But he had a res tless sense of what he needed, and how to get it. His mouth wa s soft and clumsy. His hands, large-knuckled, tentative, touched her face, her eyes and mouth, her nose and ears. They smelled of the oil from the bins. They settled on her body like a blessing. She felt the ac he in her rise to the surface of his fingers. She had, she admitted, allowed herself to imagine this. She had even created the story of what might come afte r, his large family ready to take her in, to tend to her, to accept her body and its child as his. She saw bureau drawers layered with tiny, pastel-colored clothes, lamplight in an attic room, a window looking out into the ruffling dusk of waving leaves. She saw hersel f relent to this unf olding, her loneliness purged in soft breath and fine hair and the lu lling scent of milk. But lying with him on the vinyl cushion, their hipbones pressed together, hi s need released, his love at her disposal,
44 she felt only the betrayal, keen-edged, merc iless, and knew nothing in her grasp would ever ward against loss. She did not finish out the summer. He would never know how her body swelled, or didnt. Her breasts filled, or not. She kept only one of his drawings, that of herself just awakened on the couch. He drew it that day fr om above, on the ladder. In it, the twilight is a color on the brick. The vinyl couch casts its own darker shadow. Her legs are folded, one on top of the other. She looks up. In he r eyes he has placed a perfect, earnest love. She leans on one arm and the other curves in a motion of possession over her abdomen. Everything, then, still part of the story.
45 THE LIVING ROOM SHOW The living room shows were rumored to have started on New Years Eve a year ago. They took place in Doug Brannons Span ish Mediterranean, in the bowling alleylike living room that held little more than a fireplace at one end, and a pair of long, moss green couches arranged in an L at the other. The band set up in front of the fireplace. They placed two mounted speakers on either side, and Doug and the other guitar players set up their amps, and brought in an array of guitars on chrome stands. The drummer, J.B. Levine, placed his red sparkle Ludwig kit in the middle of it all, and whenever enough people had arrived, or the band members grew bored milling around, or it was just late enough and everyone was drunk enough, they would play. Margaret Carr told us about the shows, and after accompanying her to one they became a monthly part of our social rou tine. Margaret is one of my husband John Rushings old friends, a divorced woman w ith no children, whose own Mediterranean, acquired in the divorce settlement, was just be ginning to fall into disrepair. The awning in the front had torn, and the pool deck was cr acked and discolored with mildew. There were porch lights with broken gl ass, and a lichen-colored runoff from the roof streaking the exterior of the house. The night of the living room shows was always a Saturday, and it would always start with drinks at Marg aret Carrs. Wed sit out by the pool under the frangipani and the fifty-foot high cluster of bamboo and ha ve various Martinis stolen from the menu of one of the newer restaurants. She served them in over-sized plastic
46 Martini glasses tinted different hues, and th e success or disaster of the evening was something I associated with the color of my glass. The night of the last show, a chartreuse night, took place in early April, and the air was thick with blooming jasmine and tangerine s rotting in the grass. A cat was in heat somewhere in the lush overgrowth of Marg aret Carrs landscaping, and John decided to have an argument with Margaret Carrs new boyfriend, Manuel, about his mint 85 Corvette. He made an unkind comment, something like, What would make you want to collect a car like that? and Manuel, believing the question to be in earnest, began detailing all of the cars speci al features. He was in his twenties, with dark eyes and a wide mouth and a chiseled tors o that strained against the fr ont of his cotton shirt. John gave him one of his looks, part disdain a nd part feigned shock, and he waved his hand and turned away from him in his chai r to ask Margaret where she found him. Behind the register at your hair salon? Handing out towe ls in the country club? Margaret flushed, because as usual John was close enough to the truth to make her uncomfortable, and she had told me earlier she met Manuel in the country club entryway, where he was waiting with an a pplication for a waiter position at The Nineteenth Hole. At this point Manuel realized his error and jumped up in anger, and John stayed in his chair with his legs crossed, his pants perfectly creased, sipping from his Martini glass. Margaret stood quickly, a nd placed her hand on the front of Manuels shirt, and whispered something in his ear and led him off into the house. Through the open door I could hear her mules clacking on the Saltillo tile, and Manuels voice, its urgent pitch, fading in to the houses depths.
47 We left for Doug Brannons around ten-thir ty, following Margaret with Manuel in his Corvette. The Mediterranean faced a fou r-lane street and its grounds, separated from the same street by an ivy-covered wall, took up nearly a city block. The driveway was in the back, and the parking exte nded to the narrow streets behind the house, where the cars queued up along the curb and snaked th rough a neighborhood of tiny bungalows and cement block homes. Everyone went in up the driveway, through the back kitchen entrance, and on this night we parked behi nd a sizable line of cars, and joined a group heading down the sidewalk. We passed the he dge of gardenia and the two Magnolia trees flanking the driveway, and the darkness was balmy, scented with their flowers, tinged with a nervous excitement that took ove r everyone as we entered the kitchen. Doug Brannons house was built in the twenti es of terracotta block covered with heavy stucco. From the outside it was an im posing two-story structure with an arched portico and an odd carved relief of a ship at sea over one of the windows. The flat, pebbled roof could be accessed from a door way in one of the upper bedrooms, and it created a porch along the front of the house, where bougainv illea climbed and shed its fuchsia petals all over the front walk. Gues ts would not see this, approaching at night from the back. Inside, they would remember the plaster walls, painted colors like saffron and squash and clay, and the high ceilings and oak floors, and the living room itself, which was forty feet long and lit by a large crystal chandelier dimmed by a switch near the door. On one wall three arch es led to the kitchen, the di ning room, and a small alcove, and on the other a bank of windows faced the four-lane street and a major intersection
48 with a light, where the waiting cars, if th ey had their windows down, would be able to hear the living room show going on. In the kitchen, people left their bottles of Jack Daniels and Absolut and Sapphire gin, their mixers, unloaded beer into a few coolers of i ce on the floor. You didnt know who was there until you went into the living room itself, wher e the amps were set up, and the guitars waited shining on their stands, and everyone gathered in clusters, or claimed spots on the couches, or if it was crowded, m oved into the adjoining room that held a large screened television th at I imagined Doug watched when he was alone, but on the nights of the shows was never on. I left John Rushing in the kitchen mixi ng his drink, and Marg aret taking Manuel through the butler door to the dining room on a tour of the house. I stepped up onto the stair landing, and down again, through the archway into the living room that shimmered with people, the chandelier light glinting in the glasses in their hands, off the bottles of beer, the watches and bracelets at their wrists. The stereo music played, and the mens voices were laughing and loud, th e women in their circles more calculative, their murmurs focused on lipstick shades, and the a ttractiveness of shoes. I recognized nearly everyone there, having seen them at the grocery store, or waiting for a table at Bellas, or take-out at the Thai Palace. I knew a few from the after noon pick up line at St. Johns school, saw others at one time or another in the mall parking lot, slidi ng in or out of their new Navigators, their BMW convertibles. I didnt have a drink because I knew J ohn Rushing would bring me one, and I stood by the arched entry waiting for him, when Alicia Hardcastle came up beside me
49 and clung to my arm. The wine in her gla ss sloshed out onto the wood floor. She wore a sundress and sandals with high, spiky heels, wh ich she tottered in, still clinging to me. I didnt know Alicia well, but when we drank t ogether at fundraisers and private dinners we would become friends for the evening. She had wispy blond hair that always seemed to fall into her face, and small, tanned fr eckled shoulders. Her husband, Guy, was new to John Rushings firm, a young attorney with l ongish hair the color of his wifes, and a kind, gentle manner the others imitated behind his back. Listen, she said. She s lid her arm around my shoulders and whispered in my ear. I want to have sex with Doug Brannon. I looked at her, and widened my eyes. Alicia bit her lip and app eared desperate and at a loss. Tonight, she said. We both looked over at Doug Brannons mi crophone, at his aquamarine guitar on its stand, and Doug Brannon himself stepped out from the shadows of the dining room archway, moved past the cables and leaned forward toward the mike. Hey, he said, his voice throaty and am plified. What about it? Are we ready? He wore a gray silk shirt and his arms hung loosely by his side. He had sideburns and shaggy hair, like a boy. His eyes, even in th e shadowy room, shone bright and blue. Around him, the other band members appeared an d stepped into place, dipped their heads under guitar straps, and made noises on the strings. Oh God, Alicia said. John Rushing came up beside me and handed me a glass, its sides wet from the ice, then moved past me without saying a wo rd. I watched him disappear into the crowd
50 in the adjoining room, where he would pr obably continue on through the French doors that led to the courtyard, wh ere a fountain ran, and garden torches gave off a bluish, smoky light, and everyone sat in folding chairs or gathered in groups with cigarettes. Alicia still held onto my arm. She brought her wine glass up to her mouth and took a large swallow, her eyes on Doug Brannon, tuning up his guitar. It was not difficult to find someone you wanted at the living room shows. Once you walked into the house and the band bega n to play, the rules changed. I cannot say why, or how everyone knew it, but the air b ecame charged, the music absorbed into the plaster walls, into the planks of the floor. It followed you outside into the courtyard and beyond, to the pool, where it became a steady, unnamed urge in your body. Now, as Doug Brannon leaned into the microphone, and the drummer counted out the first song, everyones head, men and women, sw iveled in that direction. They were all there for the band. The men sh ed their suits for faded jeans or khaki shorts and topsiders. They pretended th ey were young again, with no children or responsibilities, and th ey eyed the women and joked and bobbed their heads to the music. After the band finished a set the men would cal l one of the members over and invite them into their groups and tell them they should put out a CD, that their cousin worked at MCA records, that they might know of a backer to help them get started. They offered them cigarettes out in the courtyard, br ought drinks around from their stock in the kitchen. The band would stand within these groups, with someones arm draped over their shoulder, and grin awkwardly, even Doug Brannon, whose acquisition of the house
51 was always the object of speculation, who was asked at every show its square footage, how many bedrooms? The band was more at ease with the wo men. They dropped their guard and their smiles grew sly. We leaned our bodies into them, grabbed their ha nds and pulled them down onto the couches, tugged them into co rnersthe living room alcove, the dining room, where the only light came in from the streetlights outside. Cornered by us, the band was always ready to be taken, but only a few of us actually knew the places to suggest. It was not just the band members we ended up with. The other husbands there were potential objects of desire as well, though that was much more tricky, and didnt occur until near the end of the night, when you lo st track of who you came with, when the rooms blurred and you couldnt remember how you got outside. Margaret Carr and I knew more about the house than anyone else. Knowing the house was like learning Doug Brannon. The r ooms downstairs were open and public, where nothing could really happen except whis pered exchanges, or hands lingering in places unnoticed in the cover of the crowd. Ma rgaret Carr found the library, a small room with a couch off the dining room, on the ground floor but private enough because of a narrow French door that kept it separate from the rest of the house. There were ceilinghigh shelves of Doug Brannons books, Pa scal and Bertrand Russell, Kafkas The Castle a collection of Chekovs stories, Kerouacs On the Road a set of Shakespeare, and a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull with its original cover There were the thick American and British Literature anthologi es, a survey of Medieval History, books required by the local college for courses Doug mu st have taken. Scattered in with these I
52 found glossy, hardback books on boats and Arnold Palmer that were probably gifts, and romance paperbacks from the supermarket, which I imagined were left by the women who spent a weekend with Doug Brannon out by his pool. Sometimes a book would be left on the end table by the lamp T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays and I liked to sit on the library couch with my drink and read the last page Doug Brannon read, marked with the book flap. Margaret Carr like d to take men into the library in the beginning of the night, when they had just had a few drinks, and she wanted to know how their mouths felt on hers, decide if she want ed anything else to do with them later. The most private room downstairs was the laundry room that led from the downstairs bath at the foot of the stairs. Mo st people thought it was a closet, with its simple painted door. Once, on a periwinkle Mart ini glass night, I took the drummer, J.B., into the laundry room, and even he hadnt known it was there. We set our drinks on top of the dryer, and he pressed me up agains t the wall to kiss me, his hands roaming under my clothes. J.B. is funny and friendly and wears madras shir ts, and is more unlike John Rushing than any man I have ever met. Bu t even now, as he winked, and waved a stick in my direction, I remembered little else of the night except the smell of laundry detergent, and thinking that up close, that would be the smell of Doug Brannons T-shirts, his khaki pants. On another night, or maybe the same one, J.B. took me out to the poolroom. This was through the courtyard gate, a part of th e house connected to the garage, with its own set of French doors and an awning covered w ith jasmine, and pots of geraniums on the cement step. At the doors, J.B. produced a key. Inside, amidst the jumble of band
53 equipmenta drum kit and amps and mike stands and cables coiled on the floor, and overturned ashtrays and rows of empty b eer cans, he found a couch. The poolroom was dark and silent, and you could pretend no one was outside, treading the grass by the door, or beyond the screened enclosure, lounging in the chaises by the pool. You could lie down and spread out and take off clot hing you may or may not find afterwards. The upstairs was one of the most convenient places to go, but also the least secretive. Almost anyone would see you clim bing the stairs off the pass-through archway between the kitchen and the living room, and though there were bathrooms up there it was evident where you were headed with some elses wife or husband. Only two of the bedrooms were furnished, if that mattered to you at all. The stereo music would boom up through the floor, or the bands music, if you were with someone other than the band, which might be something to experience, if you were lying down on the bare heart of pine floorboards. I had only been upstairs once, the ti me I followed John Rushing, who had Margaret Carr by the hand. They went into th e guest bedroom, which held two twin beds and a bureau, and had the bare, impersonal tone of a motel room, except for the door to the roof, and the set of long casement window s that faced east and looked out over the pool. I am not sure why I followed them. Maybe I had to see for myself, to watch them together out of curiosity. At th e time, I believe I wanted them to know I knew, as if that would make me part of their secret. But we are almost always wrong about what we want.
54 As the band began to play on the night of the last show, and Alicia Hardcastle held onto my arm, I wondered what sh e wanted from Doug Brannon. She might have heard from the other wives that he would be seen occasionally playing golf at the club, that from their tables at the Nineteenth Ho le they would watch him and not recognize him at first. She would hear he went to Little Monkeys coffee shop with his paper, picked up his cleaning from Morris Fonte, worked dur ing the day from his house, though no one, really, knew what he did. Outside of his hous e he could easily be mistaken for the boy in wrinkled khaki pants, ordering his girlfrie nd a Colosso at the Dairy Joy, and once he stepped from behind the microphone at the liv ing room shows he could mingle with the crowd and safely be overlooked. I could ha ve warned her Doug Brannon knew how to slip in and out of an embrace and leave you untouched by the end of the night. But singing with the band in front of his firepl ace, with the guitars melody reverberating through the room, and the bass coming up thr ough the floor, he handed you something, like a gift you could not resi stpart song, part himself. Dougs band played its own songs. Occasiona lly, near the end of the night, they might do a request of another ar tists music, but this was rare. The bands music was so good that no one cared, a kind of sixties, psyc hedelic rock, with melodies that followed jangly guitars, and lyrics inspired by the librarys holdings, Kerouac, and Pensee and Eliots Quartets. There were bars and cl ubs where you could hear Stranglehold, or Rolling Stones covers, where the front man c ould pace a stage and pretend to be a rock star. On the night of the last show the band started up and the music invaded conversations. The people in the courtyard, John Rushing among them, moved back into
55 the house and filled the space in the living room bringing the smell of the oil from the torches, the jasmine, their cigarettes. It wa s so loud no one could speak. They pressed in close and Doug Brannon sang, and Alicias eyes were on him again. I just love him, she said into my ear and I knew she would find him that night in the crowd and grab hold of his gray silk shirtsleeve and tell him this, that he would smile at her and shake his head, his eyes slit with doubt. It would be somewhere dark and advantageous for her to whisper in his ear, to slide her lips along th e curve of his neck and taste his skin. Her husband Guy stepped up beside us, and his arm fell comfortably across Alicias freckled shoulders, and I m oved off into the crowd, where everyones cologne mingled, and I could smell the lime in their drinks, where I di d not have to think about Alicias misguided love for Doug Brannon. After a while, I decided to look for Marg aret. I wanted to te ll her about Alicia, knowing the story was one she would apprecia te, and I found her out at the pool in a chaise with Manuel. They were sipping from one of her Martini glasses, brought along with her in the car. No one was outside at the time, and it was a warm, spring night, and the potted tropical plants waved in the breeze and the smell of orange blossom came from across the fence in th e neighbors yard. Look whos here, Margaret said. She ra ised her eyebrows at me. Her blouse was all the way unbuttoned, and her feet were bare. You know Alicia Ha rdcastle, I said. Why, should I? Margaret asked.
56 Manuel looked up at me, drunk, his wide br own eyes glazed, and placed his hand on my bare leg. I stood there and suddenly di d not want to say a nything. Manuel slid his hand up under my dress, and I stepped back and stared at them both on the chaise. Well? Margaret asked. And I knew then that Margaret had planned for me to have Manuel. She smiled and winked, her eyes lonely and full of the ma sked guilt that kept her seeking ways for me to pay back John Rushing, as if I stil l believed being unfaithful would hurt him. I glanced down at Manuel, the comb marks etched in his hair gel, his white shirt front stretched across his chest, and I felt the emp tiness of the four martinis, the carved out place the vodka inhabited, vast and sorrowful. So I shook my head and turned from them, pretending to need another drink. I walked back across the lawn, through the gathered people in the courtyard, with Margaret calling me back, and Manuel piping in, Im sorry, as if that had anything to do with it. The band had stopped playing, and I watched the groups of people for Alicia and Doug Bra nnon and I didnt see them, and I realized that he had given in to her, maybe her ey es, her admission of love. He had taken her somewhere, though I did not know where until la ter, when I saw Guy Hardscastle coming down the stairs. He was pale, and expressionless. His sandy blond hair covered his eyes. I assumed he had seen them go up, or someone else had seen them. I imagined it might have been John Rushing, who approached by Guy looking for his wife had not been able to resist. He would have pulled him aside, and spared nothing, and Guy would not have believed him.
57 Go look for yourself, then, John would ha ve said, dismissing him, moving off to a group of friends to tell the story, just as I had. And Guy had gone up the stairs to the fi rst door, which was the guest room, and not found anything. Perhaps he heard her voice that certain quality it held during sex, soft and full of secrets, or something else th at moved him forward to the door that led to Doug Brannons room. The hall light was off, and he could have opened the door and they might not have seen him standing ther e, watching them. No one followed him down. He came furtively, clutching th e banister, and brushed past me heading into the living room to mingle with the others. And eventually the band started back up for one last set. It had to have been near two AM. I had seen Alicia come down, carryi ng her shoes, but I had not waited to see Doug round the stair landing. Guy Hardcastle, whose face remained white, who held a glass of iced-down scotch, stood in a small group of people he did not know in the TV room, and nodded at things they said, his eyes underneath his blond hair scanning the crowd for Alicia. As the band began to play she went right up to him, her dress rumpled, smelling, probably, of the palm s of Dougs hands. Guy looked down at her and asked her a question. I never found out what it was. The music and Doug Brannons voice filled the rooms, spilled out into the courtyard and drifted up past the billows of cigarette smoke, and Guy turned from Alicia a nd put his fist through one of the French door panes. If you didnt see it happen, you wouldnt have known anything had, and because of the crowd, and the music, no one reacted, except one or two people out in the courtyard, whose faces exaggerated shock, and who moved through the doorway and walked off, laughing.
58 Most had already headed in to the living room once the band began, but there were a few who had lingered, who noticed the bl ood, and Alicia bending over him, trying to squelch it with the botto m of Guys shirt. I stood near th e back of the group that slowly gathered around Guy, who decided to take hi m out into the courtyard because he was making a mess, the blood pooling and seeping in to the cracks of the wood floor. Outside, in the light of the garden torches, Gu ys face appeared ghostly. There was some confusion about what to do, with Guy assuri ng everyone he was fine and trying to walk away, and Alicia pulling him back. At some point he must have weakened and sat down, and I noticed, before I went back inside, th at several people had cell phones out to call the paramedics, but no one among them knew the address. They all had operators on the line, telling them different things Doug Brannons house, someone said. The Spanish Mediterranean on the corner ofwhat was it? I looked at Guys face, the hopelessness in it, and imagined what he must have seen in Doug Brannons bedroom. The casement windows would have been opened, and he may have even felt the night air from wher e he stood at the door with the bed in full view. He may have watched for a while, th e lights around the roofline shining in and lighting up their clothes on the floor, their bodies moving on the bed, their faces and the expressions on them. It had been winter when I had followed Margaret and John up to the guest room. The windows had been closed, a nd the room was filled with the scent of Margarets perfume. That time the hallway light had been on, and I had opened the door and seen them clearlyJohn holding her b ack on the bed, looking like the posed and passionate movie stars in old f ilms. Margaret had lif ted her head off the bed and squinted
59 into the glare of the hall light without recognition, but John turned and saw me and gave me his look of irritation and to ld me to shut the door. I do not know what my face had registered. I shut the door and moved on to the next door, which was Doug Brannons room and gone inside and lay down on Doug Brannons bed. The band played downstairs, and gradually my eyes adjusted to the roofline lighting and I could see the bureau top littered with thingsscraps of paper with song lyrics, matchbooks from different bars, golf tees, and a photo of Doug and two other people who may have been his brother and sister, who may have been anyone, standing on a pebbled driveway, their shoulders touchi ng. Behind them was an old, restored truck, its paint job shining in the sun, and behind that an ivy-covered house with mountains rising up around it, shrouded in mist. Doug s face looked out of the photograph at the person holding the camera, or at someone else beyond that, with his blue eyes and the same expression he wore when he performed in his living room, and glanced up and caught you looking at him. Now, downstairs the music filled ever ything. Margaret Carr sat on one of the couches, her shirt only half-buttoned. Her eyelids were heavy, and every so often she would nod off. Beside her a woman had passed out sitting upright, her head tipped at an awkward angle. I stood in the alcove beside Manuel and he took my hand, and I didnt say anything because it was two or three dri nks later, and his hand felt warm and callused at the creases, and his shoulder smelled like starch, and John Rushing had moved in beside Margaret on the c ouch, and she was laughing and looking around the room for
60 something, maybe us together in the alc ove, maybe the small group gathered around Guy in the courtyard. The bass thudded up and down the plaster walls, the crystals on the chandelier shook, and somewhere the ambulance maneuvered between rows of cars parked on the narrow neighborhood streets, while Guy Hardcas tle bled onto the c ourtyard tiles, and Alicia knelt beside him, her hand over he r mouth, disbelieving the amount of blood, the whiteness of his skin. I would never know what it had been like, if what she wanted from Doug Brannon could be found in a night. What we didthat groping under clothing in the laundry room, those hands, cold from cl utching iced glasses, finding skin on the poolroom couch, was not the sex she expected from him, had nothing, really, to do with love. Manuel threaded his fingers in mine. As I stood there I didnt know it would be the last living room show, and I watched Doug sing, the rueful chandelier light moving across his face, his voice straining with th e longing that shifted everyones mood, their heads turning, eyes riveted. Now, I realize th at the Doug Brannon I had tried to picture, the one with the women out at the pool, the one whose golf clubs lean ed against a wall in the garage, who had read Eliot, whose ashtra y in the poolroom overflowed with cigarette butts, whose aquamarine guitar was just then slung across hips, had a life beyond one I could ever imagine, filled with his own loss and sadness, the spikes of happiness and endless regret, things of his that I will ne ver come to know. But that night, I watched him sing with the force of the band behind him, felt the song on his voice move through me
61 and break my heart. And I have to believe you di d not need to taste his skin to have what you wanted from him.
62 THE ROPEWALK I never named my daughter. She lives with her father on the coast of another state where it snows, and the snow melts as it lands on the salt marsh, on the brackish still water of North Cove, on the gambrel roof of the house we bought together. When she was born I handed her over, a small bundle weig hted with sleep. I remember only a red, wrinkled fist, the smell of milk on my blous e. Now, she may have a new mother whose hands smooth down hair I imagine is my husbands color. She has my grandmothers eyes and smells of the Lily of the Valley that grows, secretly, behind the hedges at the front of the house. She goes out in the dinghy wi th her father and he tells her the stories of the sea captains housesPratt, Hayden, Bull, and Starkeyof the square riggers and schooners that came to the Essex port, their cargos of ivory and silk, sandalwood and teak. He tells her about the drawbridge and the road through the great meadow. They will take the dirt path and have pi cnics on the big rock overlooking the river. Her hair is long, to her waist. She writes her name on the rock with a small stone shining with mica. I am filled with longing for this other life, but w ho knows what I would have longed for if Id lived it? Where I work the patrons come in for dr aft beer and wait for someone to single them out for a game of darts, or pool. It might be a weekday, or a weekend afternoon, the heat and the sun slipping in through the door w ith them, the humidity curling the posters tacked to the walls Thursdays, Ladies 2 for 1, Dollar Draft Friday Nights. It might be
63 the dinner hour, when only a block away people are waiting for a table in the new French Vietnamese restaurant, or sitting down in dining rooms with wives or husbands and children and cloth napkins in their laps. Here in the bar they light up a cigarette and wedge it into the notch in the plastic ashtra y and let it burn down, forgetting. They switch to bourbon when it grows dark. They tell me about the women they love, the men they despise, casually, as if it is the most normal thing in the world to love anyone that obsessively, to plot the ruin of someone who has hurt them. Th ey twist the truth to invoke sympathy, or to hide from me their dire ne ed. They are desperate people and they do not know it. The owner of the Tap Tavern approached me eight years ago and offered me the job. He sat down next to me on a bench in the neighborhood park, newly landscaped with palms and Bird of Paradise and Caladium, its life-sized concrete lions spitting water, and children running through it bare foot, their nannies holding tiny socks and shoes. I felt out of place in my clothes from the evening before He was a stranger, and I ignored him. It was a December afternoon, with a breeze. There is a sculpture in the park made entirely of keys, thousands of them strung on thin, dangling wires that I could hear from my apartments balcony, and we heard it then, sitt ing there on the bench. He cocked his head, listening. Imagine every one of those keys depr ived of their tumblers, he said. I looked at him, surprised. I may have smiled, thinking about what he said. He took my hand then, and introduced himself. He had damp palms a nd wore jeans with bleach stains. A full white beard covered his chin. He held my hand in his endeari ngly, and squinted at me in the warm winter sun. I remember his hand s hook with tremors, and I thought he was a
64 gentle old man who had mistaken me for someone else, or a lonely person seeking solace in conversation. He is none of these things. His name is Dr. Chambley. At one time, he practiced veterinary medicine. He still retains the manner of treating pe ople calmly, as if they, like hi s animal patients, held the potential of sudden revolt with nails and teeth. Now he is an alcoholic who imagines himself a poet. He bought the Tap Tavern two da ys before he saw me on the park bench. He had noticed my silk Prada pumps, the way my slit skirt showed my thighs. His plea for me to tend bar was initially a pick up line, an elaborate one that had me standing that evening in my heels and skirt, pouring draft beer, while he posed as my first customer. He sipped from his frosted glass and told me I looked like the woman in The Bar at the Folies-Bergere The wet glass left water droplets on his beard. He had changed to one of the Brooks Brothers shirts th at hung in the small back room, still wrapped in the dry cleaners blue plastic. I had my own drink beside the well, and I thought the game was slick of him, and I planned to play it all th e way through, just to see where it would take me. I am still here. The Tap Tavern is on a narrow brick-lined street in the heart of a neighborhood built in the twenties by wealthy citizens. The large two-and three-story bungalows had known a long period of decline. Paint chipped off wood siding, jaunty striped awnings decayed, porches with elaborat e balustrades sagged, and the heart of pine floorboards, rare and expensiv e, succumbed to termites. During this time houses were split into apartments, and less affluent pe ople moved in, and a few eyesores popped up, buildings that now, since the neighborhood ha s been so impeccably restored, everyone
65 pretends arent therea frame shop, a nd an accountants office hidden by kudzu, overgrown philodendron, and wild, climbing jasmine. They remain signless, and known only to the people who have frequented them for years, and by word of mouth. The Tap Tavern is one of these, a small, windowless, concrete block building, with an old wooden screen door and an appropriate se nse of the forlorn about it. Inside the door there is no opportunity to assemb le yourself to make a good impression, to peruse the crowd without be ing noticed. There is just the one room, twenty-five feet by fiftypool tables to the righ t, bar to the left. Di rectly in front of you against the wall is a refrigerator, an ancient white Frigidaire that Dr. Chambley inherited from his deceased mother, and between the door and the back wall are some round tables with metal chairs. The floor is pine boards darkened and swollen with age and spilled liquor. Ceiling fans spin the cigarette smoke overhead. Two air conditioners cool the place off, even in the winter months when the metal door is left open, and the screened door lets in the smell of the neighbors orange blossom. I like the odd, homey sense of the place, as if you have just walked into someones kitchen. I like the people who co me every night, and the newcomers who pop through the door expecting something else, th e looks on their face s, startled, then amused. We get couples in evening clothes, tired of the party at an associates house. There are young people, tattooed and pierced, and pale shaking ones who appear at all hours collecting their drugs. And on weekends, the men and women who work in offices, as legal assistants, as real estate agents, as secretaries and marke ting experts, searching each other out, seated on the stools at th e bar. Some of them, like me, live in the
66 apartments made from the old houses. Some live in the newer lofts and townhomes built in the empty lots left by houses that were torn down. They slide their fingers up bare thighs, play with shirt collars, flatten their hands against ches ts, order pitchers of drinks they teach me how to make. They keep me, conditionally, on the fringes of their lives, and I rarely see any of them outside the bar. Darla isnt an exception. She has been coming here for two years. Her blond hair flips out at her shoulders, si xties-style. Freckles sprinkle her narrow, upturned nose. She carries herself with a dancers torso, and I am almost certain she came from a family that taught her to smile at cashier s and cab drivers, and say, Y es, Maam, to anyone older, regardless of class. She wears expensive jeans, and flimsy halter tops and looks like she has a regular job, which I know she does not. Sh e lives off the child support provided by her ex, the clothes leftovers from her life be fore. She has two childre n, little girls whose blond hair she must have had as a child, fine and white. I have seen the photos she pulls out late at night, when they are supposedly with their father, and she is particularly unhappy with her life. At times, it has been during closing, and I am the only one in the bar to show them to. I try not to reveal to her th e wrenching feeling I get, looking. How the photographs of her daughters chart for me the passing of unredeemable time. Other nights, a crowd will gather, kindly and respectful. This ones Ada, shell say, pointing her manicured finger, And this is Lenore. At two a.m., no one can see the image too clearly. But the women will make their cooing noises, and sigh, and remark on the girls beauty, and one of the men will say Darl a looks too young to have two children, and
67 another will mention how much they resemble her, to which she will give a watery-eyed smile. Dont they? shell say. Shell fast en her look on the man, and he will know he has scored a point with her, that maybe, sin ce the kids arent there, she will take him home with her. I am a little saddened that most kindnesses in a bar are calculated, that everything that happens here blooms from the alcohol. There arent any sudden and unplanned instances of love. Dr. Chambley is friendly to Darla, but he keeps his distance, which surprises me sometimes, because I know his type. I often point out women he might love, and he tries to pick them up. We do not pr etend to only want each other, but I choose the women halfheartedly, and when he is successful I feel a vague unease. I find someone from the bar for myself, though I still do not know if he r ecognizes this as retaliation. One Friday night, after Darla had left a nd we were ready to close up, I asked him why he didnt go for her. Why should I? he asked me back. He was zipping up the money pouch, a little unsteady on his feet. Shes tr ouble. He looked me right in the eye, the way he did before he planned to kiss me, or take a splinter of glass from my finger. I stepped back. Shes just like everyone else , I said, though as I said it I realized it wasnt true. The room was smoky, and the door was open, and I wanted to get near the air. He took my arm then, and turned me ar ound. He gave me the look, wary and serious, of someone considering my best interests. He had lined the empty bottles up on the top of the bar, and turned off the lights and le ft one of the air c onditioners running. Dr. Chambley is annoyingly meticulous at times. He has to follow the same patterns every
68 night, counting the drawer two, sometimes thr ee times, checking the door twice before he walks away. I am never sure if I should tr ust his advice, knowing these weaknesses. He still has a wife and three gr own children and a membership to the country club. He lives four blocks away, in one of the renovated bungalows. He was undeserving of his wifes love, hed said. We were in bed in my apartm ent at the time, on one of the first occasions wed slept together. He told me my set of rooms was once part of a stucco villa that belonged to the man who brought the Pepsi fran chise to the city. The room was dark, and the streetlight came in through the old casement window glass, and the air conditioner hummed from the other room. Whose love do you deserve? I asked him. I slid my body over his, pressed my forehead to his chest. He laughed. No ones. Why is that, do you think? He sighed. Dont try to fi gure yourself out with my story. Go to sleep now. But his presumption angered me. I had tried to keep my past a secret, a nd already he assumed he knew it. I grabbed my clothes and slam med the apartment door and dressed on the stair landing, in the light of a weak, yellow bulb, and the neighbors cooking smells. I went down the stairs and out in to the courtyard and knew that up in the room he was still in my bed, expecting me to come back, that at that moment I might choose to return to the room and tell him my story, listen to myself telling it and understand, finally, what I ever meant by my leaving, feel his mouth on mi ne afterwards like fo rgiveness. But I did not, and then he came down the stairs and got into his car and left, and I missed, instantly,
69 the softness of the bed, the weight of him bala ncing the mattress. I missed the smell of his fingers, like limes, the way they smoothed the hair from my forehead. You can miss anything, I saw. It didnt mean it made you happy. That night after I mentioned Darla, Dr Chambley and I stood together in the parking lot. He did not offer me a ride home, which meant that he did not want to sleep with me. It was summer, and the air was heavy. Thunder rumbled, distant and almost comforting. My apartment was only a block awa y, close enough for me to walk. I did not usually drive to work. Dr. Chambley always dr ove the four blocks back and forth to his house in an old Stingray convertible he bought after he sold his prac tice. On the nights I had someone waiting for me, Dr. Chambley would walk purposefully to his car, preoccupied with his keys, and he did that now, though there was no one waiting. I wished there was someone to lu re into my life, to take hom e and wonder what he thought of me, watch his face during sex with the detachment you get watching an accident happen to someone else. The crumbled shells of the parking lot shone white and bleached in the streetlight. I dreaded the walk home abandoned to the nights looming rain, the interminable sound of the sculptures keys marking the empty place Dr. Chambley made when he chose not to be with me. A few nights later, Darla came in early, at five oclock. I felt the afternoon heat come through the door with her, smelled it cli nging to her bare arms and shoulders, heady as her Guerlain. She had already been dri nking. I smelled that on her, too. She put her arms around me and hugged me hello. She wore her hair plaited in two small braids. I
70 imagined the little girls at hom e with their plates of Spaghetti-Os and bread and butter, sitting in front of the television alone. She w ould have given them their bath, and patted them each with powder. The evening news wa s on the TV over the bar. Darla lit up one of her long, thin cigarettes. She offered me one and I took it, and as she leaned in with her lighter I saw her eyes well up, and as she sat back I saw she had begun to cry. Beaus trying to take the girls away, she said. She wiped under each eye with a finger to stop her mascara from running. Beau was Darlas husband. We had neve r talked about him before. I just remembered the name from times she had used it in passing. Beau took the girls to Sanibel, shed said. Beaus moth er is getting the girls ears pierced today, she told us all once with a wounded pout. Dont you think thats my department? Tonight, I made Darla her Old Fashio ned and brought it over to where her cigarette burned in the ashtray, and she sat wi th her face in her hands. I touched one of the braids with my fingers. I knew I wouldnt ha ve to say anything, that I could just listen to her while she had her drink, and the place would fill, and someone else would appear to tell the story to, and I would overhear it told two or three, maybe four times before she left, each telling revealing the variety of ways in which she is taken advantage. The regular patrons would all offer their advice, and some of it would be good, and some wouldnt, but none of it woul d matter. Darla, I assumed, would end up doing nothing, and her life would simply happen to her. Some times, I know, this comes as a relief, this resignation, this kind of surrender.
71 Years ago, I took the walking tour of the town where my husband and I bought our house. He had grown up there, and I knew no one, and he was often away on business. I was visibly pregna nt, and the guide, a retired ma n, kept glancing back at me with a nervous smile. Our small group made its way down Pratt Street in the new spring light, beside the patches of bri ght grass, beneath the wheeling of gulls, and he told us the story of the old Ropewalk. It was eight hundred feet long, he said, raising his arms to show the span, a low wooden shed with small windows. Inside, the workers made rope by hand, twisting the hemp into heavy hawsers, in to bell ropes and string used for kites, the room alive with ropes spun from the great whee l. They made the rope for ships in fathom lengths, drawing it through the doorway and out into the street. The guide recited Longfellow, Human spiders spin and spin, Backward down their threads so thin and I remember his voice, how the sun was warm on my head and shoulders, the way the wind sounded in the elm leaves. We paused at my husbands familys house, and the guide pointed out its handsome federal style, its r oofs shallow pitch, its double chimneys, its original owner who ran the block and spar business. I stood outside of the house on the sidewalk with the others, marveling. In the end, I would not choose that life, its wealth and history like a closed wheel, but standing there at the time I did not know it yet. I felt only a small swell of uncertainty, the babys kick, my hearts quick ening. In the Tap Tavern, my hair full of smoke, and my hands smelling of spilled bour bon, I knew that the ropes were like lives stretched out infinitely into the sunlight, that it didnt matter which life you picked. The
72 one you didnt was yours anyway, drawn out alongside the one you lived like a possibility. He says Im incompetent , Darla whispered. She gave me a wide-eyed look, and bit into a piece of ice. He thinks Im neglecting them. We both knew she was neglecting them, but we maintained the pretense that she was not, that her love for them cancelled out all irresponsible actions on her part. I put on my shocked expression. I lit another cigarette. And the place filled up, and I became too busy to placate her. Dr. Chambley came in la ter, and she was still at the bar, and he sensed her story in the air, lik e the fine, silver tension before a fight. He cornered me at the back of the bar and asked me what was ha ppening. His eyes glitte red in the light from the beer sign. He wanted the satisfaction of seeing a prediction fulfilled, and I did not want to hand it over to him. But I knew he would find out from someone, and so I told him. He watched my face with his penetrati ng look. Most of the time, I loved this about him. And what will she do? he asked me. I shrugged. She didnt say. Because, he said, she doesnt have a leg to stand on. We had never disagreed about anyone in th e bar before. It was never an issue to care about them too much. When her husband sent in someone the following night to inquire about her visits to the bar, I avoided him. I did not want to tell the truth, but Dr. Chambley was there, listening, and there were other regulars the man talked to, and it wouldnt have helped for me to lie. The man fit in, and had seemed like a new patron at
73 first. He wore a seersucker sports coat. Hi s hair was thinning, and he kept flattening it with his hand. His nose was large and he was perspiri ng. I thought he was a drunk, a salesman, a traveler. We get those, occasionall y, as if there is some kind of beacon on the place. He gave me a sad, conciliatory smile, and leaned on the bars surface, his coat sleeve sopping up the condensation from his beer. She pretty wasted when she leaves? he asked. His upper lip shone. His eyes moved, for a moment, toward the V of my blouse. I glared at him, and did not speak. He wa ited until my silence forced him to turn away. Later, Dr. Chambley pulled him aside and they talked for a long while sitting at the corner of the bar. I shoved the bottles into the well with unnecessary force. Two glasses slipped from my hands and shattered in the metal sink. I went up to a man at the bar, a regular customer with long ha ir pulled back, and round framed glasses. Hed been trying to take me home for weeks, and Id always resisted. Tonight, I l eaned over and kissed him on the mouth and tasted the drink Id made him, a Manhattan. At closing, Dr. Chambley confronted me, holding my hand in his two palms. We stood in the dark bar and the man wa ited for me outside in a Riviera, and I wanted to taste the bourbon on his mouth again, feel the cars vinyl seats, his hands search beneath the fabric of my blouse, under the hem of my skirt. I could take him home and watch to see if he looked at my books on the shelf, if he commented on the absence of photographs, on the bare and simple way in which I lived. Or we could do what we needed to in the car, right there in the pa rking lot. Afterward, I would have him drop me off, and I could pass through the courtyard and listen to the old fount ain, see the basin of
74 rusted pennies in the moonlight, smell the gard enia, listen to the keys of the sculpture, their sound a mournful reminder of the life that I was missing. Sometimes, I wallowed in it like the sadness of a mistake. Dr. Chambley gave me his inquisitive look. Whats this Darl a business got to do with you? he asked. Nothing at all, I said. Dr. Chambley watched me. He didnt make a move to leave. I saw him lick his lips and glance away, befuddled for once. I had to tell him I had someone waiting in the parking lot. He still looked, hoping for some revelation. Do you know what I really want? he as ked. He made a careful business of folding up his shirtsleeves. He breathed in and out, emphatically. Some honesty, for once. His eyes were worn and dismayed. We went out the door a nd he went back and checked the handle, twice, a nd got into his Stingray. He didnt give me a backward glance. I was left with the ta illights of the Riviera, its c hugging engine, its foul exhaust spilling out, my own regret at what I might always fail to give him. Two weeks later Darla came in at nine oclock, towing her girls. They wore matching nightgowns, long ones that came to their shins, made from batiste. They followed their mother, the oldest shy, yet al ert, the youngest one half -asleep, her eyes lit with fear. Darla came up to me at the bar and gripped my forearm. Please, she said. Her li ned eyes were wide, the ma scara smeared a little under each. The bourbon smell came through her skin s pores. The little girls climbed up on two empty stools. I saw their small faces fram ed by their whitish hair. I noticed their
75 hands on the bar, the little fingernails, pain ted pink. I smelled their apple shampoo. The oldest, Ada, was seven. Lenor e was five. They both looked at me, curious, expectant, their eyes replicas of their mothers, blue-green, like some thing sea-washed and soft. Dr. Chambley had not come in. He sometimes di dnt until eleven or twelve, and Darla knew this. Let them stay, she said. Their father is coming to take them away, and I cant leave them at home. She said this last part leaning in, as if to prevent the girls from hearing, but she did not lower her voice, and I saw they heard and already knew what was happening. They lived in a small rented house I had seen the few times Dr. Chambley and I dropped Darla off after closing. I had thought about the girls in there alone, what they would wake to in the morning, with Darla st umbling in, sometimes passing out right there in the living room on the couch, or the rug. I thought, too, about how I had served her the drinks, and I felt a small tug of complicity. Bu t now, with the girls in front of me, their breath and skin, their sheer nigh tgowns, their little feet shod in flip flops, tucked on the top barstool rung, I felt my chest constrict. The oldest, Ada, asked me for a Coke. I was surprised that she asked, but then I understood she was asserting herself with me showing me she was grown up, that she was the one who woke her mother, and got her out of her soiled clothes, and made meals, and handled everything at home, and so I ga ve it to her, without a word. The youngest was silent, still frightened and somewhat pale.
76 Would you like anything? I asked her. Th e bar was almost full, noisy with the games of pool and darts. The air conditione rs were on, but it was still smoky, and I saw her eyes begin to water. Shell have a Sprite, Ada said. Le nore nodded, and Ada placed her hand over her sisters on the bar. Darla, distracted, glanced around the room looking for a regular to confide in, to seek advice, to find some kind of aid. She lit a cigarette. She met my gaze and her eyes asked me for a drink, and apologized at th e same time. Darla was beautiful with a hopeless and shining desperation. She sighed. Sh e looked at my shoes, the Prada pumps that won Dr. Chambley. I like those, she said, wistfully. She bl ew smoke out of her nose. Her lips were thin and dry. She looked at her two girls with a love so resigned I had to look away. My husband bought the Prada pumps at Neiman s. They were a gift, at the end of my pregnancy. The salesclerk had raised he r eyebrows at the stiletto heels. The department store had been over-bright and sterile, filled with the smell of new carpeting and spray samples of perfume from the n earby fragrance counter. For after, my husband said, grinning, his tie l oosened, his throat pale and vulnerable under his collar. The idea of the places I would have to wear them, how I would wear them to please him, overwhelmed me. I realized I had not thought beyond the pregnancy, that I could not bear to live the life he had planned for me. I did not want him anymore. It was a simple thing to recognize, this lost love, as if it had s lipped underneath some hidden layer of my life
77 and I could not find it. And still his love persisted. I was pinioned by it, bound and helpless under the department stores fluorescent lighting. In the Tap Tavern, Darla sipped from he r drink. She picked it up and set it back down with a shaky, slender hand. Ada watched her, and then glared at me for a long time, and I saw she blamed me. She was a little gi rl, but her eyes were wise and sad, and I knew then that maybe a life with their father would be better for them, but it would never replace the one they would live with Darla, her attention, her lovely hands in their hair, her fearful eyes on them, needy for their honest professions of love. Darla sat at the bar and cried. The girls were used to her crying, and they seemed almost disinterested, preoccupied with the stirrers in their glasses. I let them stay, a mistake I can admit to now. At the time, it seemed the only thing to do. None of the other patrons minded. We put on a movie on the TV over the bar, one that was only partly appropria te, and they propped their heads in their hands and watched. The patrons coughed loudly, or placed tobacco-s tained fingers over the girls eyes when an actor swore, or during a love scene. So meone brought them bags of potato chips. Someone else gave them lollipops that stai ned their lips red. Lenore dribbled her Sprite down the front of her nightgown. Darla sipped her one drink, making an effort not to overdo it. And the patrons gave her advice. Some told her to give them up, that it was the only way shed ever see them again. Darlas ey es grew puzzled. I saw that this had not ever occurred to her, that giving them up was something sh e could not understand and I admired her foolish resolve.
78 Lenore fell asleep at the bar, her head on her folded arms. I waited for Dr. Chambley, for her husband to come in and find them. I had expected he would, that they would search for them here first, but Darla confided in me that she had left a note, claiming she had taken the girls to Orlando, to her mothers. Just to buy time, she said. Where will you really go? I asked. Darla put her mouth to my ear. Louisian a, she said. To my best friends house in Shreveport. I was surprised that she had a plan, that she was so calculating. I thought then that she might succeed, that she would get away with keeping them despite the husbands sober authority, his judges or der. Darla looked at me and smiled, tentatively. She put her two hands out and held my face in them, a mother who knew how to administer love. Im going to keep them, she said. No matter what. When you are alone, you become used to not being touched. You become suspicious, and learn not to relent. Maybe you let one person take you in, like Dr. Chambley, a man of extreme patience, with prac ticed hands. But even then, it is only part way, only a piece of yourself you give up, your b ody during sex, and that is it. Darla let her hands fall. I glanced away and busied myse lf with stacking the glasses, with the patron at the far corner, sliding off his bars tool. I would not look at Ada, whose eyes followed my movements with a silent expectati on. Somewhere, in a town I fled, a child I might have known slept. She would have a be d with cotton sheets and a blanket, even now in summer. I know the smell that come s through the window screen, chilled and
79 sharp, the flowers beginning to fail in thei r blooming. I know the room where she sleeps, with its dormer window and its eastern exposure. I see the sun on her face. I see, too, her chest moving with her breathing. Her hands ar e still small and ch ildish-looking, grasping the edge of the sheet. She is only eight a nd unburdened with worry. Her dreams tell her nothing about me. I am not even an absence to be missed. I am unremembered. Near the end of the night, Dr. Chambley came in. He stood in the doorway and his eyes lit on me, filled with a curious disappoint ment. He told Darla, No uncertain terms, that she must go with the girl s. They were both asleep by then, and one of the patrons carried Ada slung over his shoulder, her litt le batiste gown sliding up her skinny legs. Darla carried Lenore, her face buried in Lenore s shoulder so I could not see it. I left the bar and the patrons and their demands, and wa lked them out to Darlas car, a Mercedes she was awarded in her divorce, battered now, covered with months of dust. I cannot say what compelled me to do this. I watched them a ll pile in, the two girl s in the back, both of them awakened, but groggy, struggling to find comfortable positions amidst the luggage stacked behind the seat. The air was warm and carried the orange blossom, and the smell of the cigarette smoke clung to our clothes. I leaned into the drivers side. Darlas mouth was set, a thin line, and she tried to smile to say goodbye. Wait, I told her. And I turned and walk ed past the patrons gathering in the lot with their drink glasses, their bottles of b eer, past Dr. Chambley who had now come out to witness their infraction. He raised his hand to take my arm, but I brushed past. Behind the bar I took the bills from the register dr awer. All of them, a ni ce stack of twenties, tens, a few fifties. And I br ought the money out to Darla a nd handed it to her. No one
80 made a move to stop me, not the patrons, w hose mouths opened and then closed, giving me their assent. Though I knew the money mean t nothing to Dr. Chambley, I expected he would object to the principle of giving it away, of aiding thei r escape, and I dared him to stop me, like one of the dogs in his old office, its teeth bared. Darl a took the money from my hand, her own hand soft and lingering on my arm. The car idled, and I felt the airconditioned space inside. The girls called goodbye, their small voices rising out of the darkness of the backseat. I took off the Prada pumps and tossed them into the front. And Darla grinned then, and put the car in drive. It is not such a hard thing to imagine, the three of them moving off into another life in Louisiana, one undiscoverable and so, uninterrupted, driving into balmy nighttime down an interstate, halogen-l it, into daybreak, the girls pr essed together in sleep, the unknown a soothing prospect. But I watch the ta illights disappear, and knowing I cannot call them back, I think about the Ropewa lk, and what lay beneath Longfellows imagerymen who toiled long hours walking ba ckwards from the great spinning reel, twisting handfuls of hemp into the long co ils, keeping the tensi on of the rope with cramped hands, while ice formed a fragile layer on the Cove, while flies swarmed the doorway on sweltering afternoons, the air in th e long, low shed thick with burning tar. The car hurtles away. It will stop at serv ice stations with unkempt and despairing attendants. The girls will eat small packaged doughnuts coated with confectioners sugar. Darla will panic and pull over for a drink. I feel a blinding te rror for them, encased in the metal of the car, their delicate limbs, the vein s and skin covering them, their soft mouths,
81 their wildly beating hearts. Ther e is no surety, no safety, just Dr. Chambleys eyes on me where I stand without shoes on the crumbled shells, stripped bare, ready to be loved.
82 MOUTH OF FRIEND AND STRANGER I saw him first. He was safe in his group of friends, his friends cushioning us from each other. I did not know him. I had my c opy of Lowell, just purchased from the used bookstore, and I sat alone. We were at the C uban restaurant, outdoors at the plastic patio tables lit by tiki torchlight. The Mambo band played. Or we were in the dim space on the swiveling stools of the bar next door. We were passing each other on the sidewalk by the beauty salon in the Mediterranean-style pl azaCuts for Ten Dollars. Either way. He wore a pinstriped shirt. His hair was mussed. At first, nothing seemed to pass between us. He was from Missouri. He was a law student. Or he wrote poet ry at Yale. He was an auto mechanic. He sold famous knives. In his eyes I saw the boys who played base ball with the girls on the wide lawns of the street of my childhood. Their hands all knuck les, stuffed in their gloves. That intense look, the boy thing underneath, always somethi ng to prove. Chestnuts fell onto the lawn in their spiny casings. The leaves floated down, one by one. The fathers cars sat shiny and streamlined in each driveway. The mothers station wagons sat beside them, two long cars taking up little space in the scheme of the winding tarred drives. Lampposts with yellow light. He could have been one of t hose boys, grown up. On him, I saw the games of manhunt and freeze tag, the scuffle of bodi es in the dark, my childhood handprints glowing on the skin of his forearm.
83 I followed him into the restaurant. The steamy, heavy smell of the place picadillo and roast pork, chorizo and boliche. The painted tables thrown together with their chairs on the cement floor. We stood by th e restrooms and waited. The air freshener, the smell of the soap in the dispenser, the urine and stale perfume, seeped out under the doors. He looked at my legs, at the outlines of them all the way up under my skirt. I watched him look. Then I waited for him in th e little hallway outside the bathroom door. As he passed me I grabbed the cuff of his sl eeve. I held his arm captive, and he let me. He turned around, not very surprised. I felt the weight of the sleeve of his shirt, read the expression on his face, his eyebrows up, his m outh half-smiling, not ready to give in to anything. Sit with me, I said. He shrugged, and grinned. He was singl ed out, chosen. I was someone he was happy to have done this. Everything, at that point, pleased him. You learned about presenting yourself. Here I am, you would say, rounding the stair landing, facing your pare nts and their friends in the dining room. A dinner party, Mrs. Winslow lolling, drunk on sidecars, my fath er in the kitchen, f illing fresh glasses. The men wore ties, the women silk dresses. In the dimmed chandelier light, the food dried on the bone china, the candles burned down to their wicks. Everyone turned, everyone poured their attention. My mother w ith her eyes bright, distracted, the other women tight-lipped, the men rubbing their chin s. I passed through the room and felt my hair swing along my waist, the back of my neck tightening, aware. I cut a swath through their silence. I felt the silence fall ab out me, pressing close enough to kiss.
84 In church, you held the missal just so in your hands. You bent your head, smiled sweetly, devout. Around you the fathers in thei r suits stank like the mornings hangover. The mothers hands were veined and thin, th eir mouths drooped, tire d in their lipstick. You smelled the sheets on their skin through their clothes. You felt their heat and guilt, their shining relief at the end, when we file d out into the morning sunlight, into spring and all the dogwoods blooming. I kept my hands folded. My thoughts were always chaste. In confession, I made up sins to sa y, my voice quaking with the sin of saying them. Outside, his group of friends never misse d him. I watched them laughing in the growing dark, in the torch light through the plate glass window We sat at an empty table inside and talked. We brushed aside the wa itress suggesting drinks Even then, we had other ideas. I told him things he didnt care to really hear. Who I was, where I was from, what it was like there this time of year, still buried under winter. He took the book from me, still in its bag from the bookstore, and slid it out. He held it in the palms of his hands and read the cover, rubbed his thumbs along the spine, and riffled the pages. Life Studies Something dropped out onto the table. Whats this? he said. He picked it up and looked at it, some printed verse on heavy paper, the cover of a card. He read part of it out loud. His voice, reading, was low and bemused. Christ be with me, Christ within me, Chri st behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Ch rist to comfort and restore me He shook his head.
85 He handed it to me. It was decorated w ith a figure in robes, with prancing lambs holding staffs. On the back was a note to someone, written in a slanted hand. Its St. Patricks breastplate. A charm, I told him. To protect him against the Druids. His eyes were doubtful of me. I slid my chair close. I put my leg up on his. He propped his face on one hand, still with that quizzical look. I like the bridge-jumpers, I said. Berryman. Kees? I told him Berrymans father shot himself here in this city, in 1926. Where, do you think? he asked. Maybe down the street, behind that stucco apartment building. He glanced over his shoulder, slowly, towa rd the patio and his circle of friends. His fingers found the hem of my skirt and slid up. I like good old Tennyson, he said. The early Swinburne. Under the table things happened. Would I not hurt thee perfectly ? he said. I leaned over and placed my forehead at the base of his neck. I breathed in the smell of him under his shirt. His hand swam up, his fingers graceful swimmers. Behind us the waitresses whispered, girls with dark, curling hair and red fi ngernails. He took my arm and we pushed the chairs back, a nd looked around. Who knows what you look for when your knees tremble at the swishing fa bric of your skirt? A place with a door, a corner to drape yourself against him. A place to be supine, prostrate, to feel Swinburnes delicious things pleasure, sorrow, sleep, sin, to wax amorous.
86 The palm of his hand was hot, concentrating on my fingers. Once, my childhood girlfriend and I took a bedspread out into the pasture. We knew what we were doing, walking out there. We had a plan. At the base of my spine was a small tingle. It was April. The trees in the old apple orchar d blossomed white and pink. Below the little wizened trunks, ben eath the gnarled branches, the damp ground looked snow-covered. We laid the bedspread out on the white ground. We pulled the ends in around ourselves and took off our clothes. We pretended to be the babysitter with her boyfriend on the couch, the glow of the televi sion lighting up her st omachs bared skin, his hand creeping up, their mouths pressed together. We knew to move against each other, to make soft moans. Under the canopy of flowers, with the smell of the wet new grass, we did not know what our pretendi ng meant, where our bodies took us, close enough to being lovers. A man and woman came by, two strangers. The man held a pair of clippers. The womans arms were full of blossoms. They looked at us on the spread. We were covered up, but our shoulders were ba re, our skin flushed, giving them ideas. They looked at us a long time, wondering, then moved on. With boys, we stumbled onto places. Hamonassett Beach, under a woolen blanket. A cold day, almost wintry, with a haze. The sea roared up and back. There were pebbles in the sand, mussel shells, breathtaki ngly sharp and glinting, the revelation of an arm with a wristwatch against the tempting darkness of the blankets depths. You never wanted to emerge, blinking, to place yourself You were underwater, all legs, all needy mouths, craving sustenance.
87 There was the front seat of a 64 Must ang, the gear shift impossibly placed, the pine tree freshener dangling from the radio dial, something playing, headlights off, the backdrop the assorted wrecks of the Mobil statio ns lot. Or the back seat of his mothers Chrysler Country Squire, the long, vinyl se at cushion, the hot summer afternoon through all the wide windows, the tall reservoir grass wavi ng outside, brushing against the tires, a few blackbirds perched to watch. There were basements, old recliners with torn upholstery, the throaty start of the furnace revving up, the smell of laundry detergent, dryer lint floating like milkweed. Or rec r oom shag between your shoulder blades, the record snagged on Gold Dust Woman the backyard floodlights triggered again and again by prowling neighborhood dogs, upstairs, the boy you really wanted with someone else. Later, there was a bed in an apartment, or a house. And still, you ended up on the couch, in your grandmothers wing chair, in the tub, in the shower, steamy and scalded, the hot water always running out, the steam peeling off the wallpaper. You missed the places you would find before, so you found them again. He took my hand and we slipped down the restroom hallway, and outside, th rough the door to the alley. Acacia hung over a fence from someones yard. It was dusk. I had left my book and the card behind on the table. The note had said: To Lise, Do not forget to remember me, Charles. I wanted time to gather him in, to distinguish his face, but he placed his mouth on mine, and it dreamed up, out of nowhere, a pl ace all its own. I let myself fall in. I was languid. I was mercuric. A warm breeze, eddies of it, circled in. He pressed me up against the brick wall. There was the exhaust fan s whirring, his soft open hands sliding, the general disdainful clank of dishes. The yellow acacia blooms tumbled over into the
88 cobblestones, into my hair. One tucked itsel f along his collar. The dishwasher came out in his dirty apron for a smoke. My skirt wa s up. Our clothes were luminous in the dim light. The breeze brought the smoke by, mixed it w ith the acacia, the fruit trees in the back yards, the smell of fried plantains. The dishwasher looked, then looked away. There was never space, but always some clever way to wrig gle up or on top or beneath. Bucket seats and bench seats, vinyl or leather and armrests and contours you could not fit. Sometimes, spread out on star ched white motel sheets. Golf courses and reservoirs and parks after hours. My knees in pi ne needles, my back against roots of trees, lake docks, the deck of tossing boats. In heatless cabins, su rrounded by snow. The agonizing interruptions: policem en shining their flashlights, roommates wandering in, parents slamming doors downstairs. Clothes half -off, damp skin stark in the glare. The boys guilty glance up, his apology, his regret, everything dwind ling to a kind of starving. In the alley, his mouth wandered down. He held my arms back against the brick. I tasted everything I could along his neck. The rest of it: Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that lo ve me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger At first you thought, isnt just this mouth enough? The different mouths of boys. New Years Eve, fiftee n, drunk on Chianti, two bottles we had been instructed to bring from our mothers house to that of a friend. We crossed the pasture in the snow, passing the heavy bottles, the snow crunching under our feet. Overhead the stars were out, blurry in the black night. Th e wine made our lips sweet. We went instead to a party. Inside the house was hot. I lost my coat. At midnight I started kissing boys, one after the other. Their mout hs tasted different, but the sa me. Their tongues slid around,
89 quick or slow. I held each one to me, my hands on the backs of their necks, on their shoulders. I was passed on, like the bottle of wi ne. In the end, I found myself standing alone in the snow on the front lawn. One boy Id kissed fought with his girlfriend, and put his fist through the garage door window, and the police came. Later, you discovered the limitations of your mouth on his. It would go on. He would wear some sad, tortured guise. We would be breathless, getting nowhere, our lips numb, everything raw and overdone, the waiti ng drawn out like a tight wire. You wanted the end of it, even though you knew once it was over, you would not have a need to remember what you did not know of him to be gin with. Your heart, free of grief and dreams, would be ready to move on. His hands were soft and boyish. His ha nds were calloused and covered with brown hair. His fingers were thick and stubby. His hands, his fingers, were small and beautiful. I felt his face. I felt through his shir tthe collarbones, the tops of his arms, and underneath the planes of his chest. My hands dipped past his wais t to the bones of his hips, below the undone button of his pants. My hands forgot themselves. It was always this: you give something and take something, un til the edges blur and you are not sure if you are giving or taking enough, taking or givi ng too much. Then suddenly, clearly, you see that doesnt matter. It was a selfish relinquishing. You wanted the ache of his mout h, to be ravished. Some of them refused to do it. They were af raid of themselves, of everything waiting, feverish, under my clothes. I let them prete nd to love me, to profess it, like a password, like a secret code. His voice was soft and lulling. His voi ce was hoarse with longing. He
90 told me what he wanted. He told me nothing, and guided my hands. In the shadows thrown by cars map lights, in the deep ends of pools, our legs thrashing strangely pale, on the countertops of kitchens, there was the silent language of n eed, the repository of wordless inquiries and assents. He grabbed my hair and pulled me down, he put his hands on my shoulders and gave a little push. The way it should have been: I learn his name. He invites me to sit with his friends, finds another plastic chair and pulls it in. We listen to the Mambo band. We fan away mosquitoes. Sitting togeth er, I find little to say, and ne ver talk about the poets who took their lives. I bum a cigarette and sit s ilently, seeming myster ious. Maybe, the boy across the table, the one I never noticed, likes me better. He will be the one, later, to ask me out. I will think, wistfully, longingly, of so meone else. There will be a time set, a place to meet. He will decide, well, what of he r? I will never love him. This in the alley would never have happened with him. This: the weeds between the cobblestones, the litter of wilted petals, the remains of the dishwashers smoke, me pressed agai nst the brick. The back of his shirt wet. I heard my own breathing, ragged and soft, his vo ice, still bemused, saying things into my hair. His hands held my face, slid down and up again, finding me with his palms, his thumbs. I was mute, catching my breath. His ey es closed. I watched him keep them that way, until the end. It was done when his hands dropped away like stones. I clung to him and he zipped his pants. He placed his mouth on my neck. He brushed my hair from my face, and stepped back, adjusting his clothes. He left with the delicat e, telling part of him
91 I could never urge with my tongue. I heard his footfalls. Through th e kitchens screen door I heard the dishwasher clear his throat. I was the girl who does know better but I was the newspaper, folded and abandoned on the train. I was the whore ti dying her room, achy and pleased. I was the woman driving home with the secret between my legs. I was posed on the rail of the bridge, clutching the cables, caught by the wi nd, euphoric with the desire to douse myself in cold, black water. Berryman waved to the pe ople first. Here I go, he must have said, stepping off into his high-flung moment. He went back to his friends at the table. In the torchlight a nd the din of too much beer, no one detected my traces. Once in a wh ile, I looked for him. But he had left for Cambridge, he was running drugs from Haiti, working the Alaskan pipeline, teaching English in Japan. He was never there to refu te me and so, he surrendered himself to my memory. Some nights, I dreamed he told me everything. Later. At last. I said I knew him.
92 CONFESSION She chose the motels. The first time, they met at the one that sold tropicals in back. There was the handwritten sign up front A Plethora of Plants and old, fiftieslooking neon flashing Sunny South Motel Just one strip of room s with doors the color of a nail polish she once liked back when she wore sundresses with little ties on the shoulder, when she had dreamed of having a daughter, and smooth muscled arms from lifting and holding her. Peachy-pink, the insi de of a whelk. How she had wanted him. How that drove her there, the wanting maneuvering the car beyond her fear of not knowing, really, anything about him. It was the bright glare of noon. There was the chain link fence in back, the gate with the bell they rang for the proprietor. He emerged, eventually, from an office in the midst of the nursery plants, tanned and stooped and wearing a straw hat. They stood there waiti ng, a couple, but still he never knew which they wanted, frangipani or a room. There was a certain number of hours available to both of them. There was the need to get it over with, already. At some point in their history, desire ha d flooded her. She had kept it to herself, her arms and legs aching with it. She slept le ss. She grew thin. There he was, on a weekly basis, committed, like herself, to someone else with whom vows had been recited in front of witnesses, or the eyes of God. Paperwork had been file d. Finances meshed. For her, there had always been the difficulty in getting out of it. The note of eternal sadness had set in. A languishing despair. Years had gone by before she met him. She was still not
93 sure how he knew. Had he caught her looking? Had he seen on her face some evidence of her longing? Once he discovered her interest the wish to experience her body began, a mindful reeling in with messages contrived to win her. Comments on the way her hair fell in her face, the color and texture of her blous e. A whole other world took shape. His idea of her, her idea of him. Things converged. The first time it was all business. Nothing subtle. This went here, that fit this. It wasnt a mystery, sex. Outside the window th ey could hear the bell on the chain link fence, the proprietor pitching five-gallon ja smine, papaya, and Japanese plum. They heard the voice of a woman i nquiring, a childs whine. They could both imagine the tug of the child on the womans arm, the drudge ry and selflessness. They heard a mans voice, appeasing, silencing the child, a good fath er in his Saturday clothes, his topsiders flattening the powdery dirt. In the room th e air conditioner dripped rusty water onto the carpet. They lay on the blanket they never pulled back. Their legs were tangled. Their bodies slick. Now what? she said. Why are you whispering? he asked. They had been mostly quiet. There were things she had wanted to say, her mouth pressed to his ear, along his n eck, but hadnt. She felt she ha d not taken advantage of the moment. There were the other us ual things she had planned neve r to reveal about herself, and these overwhelmed her now in the finished space, in the silence of not knowing what to say next. The two of them were nearly without introduction. No more than a hundred words had ever passed between them. She had guessed some things, imagining others. He
94 seemed confident about her, a strong suppos er of who people were. Whatever else he thought he had invented for his own pleasure. Missing were the hours of putting the pieces of each other together over dinner, or in a car driving to destinations. Absent we re the precursors, th e gazing, the pinning of faces to memory, the handholding, the quick but potent kiss at the door. They dispensed with that. There was no opportunity, no place absent of potential discovery. And they agreed none of it was necessar y. He would never save her from her life. She would never make a mark on his. Their meeting would always be a respite, a dalliance. She lay in the dim room on the blanket. She kept her hands on him, like a claimed package. She could not predict anything she would take away fr om this, any moment she would remember later. Already, it had become a blur. Sex in a room. The linens stiff with professional laundering, the dank carpet, the mirrored bureau, the dark television screen like a closed eye. What are you thinking about? he asked. Just this, she said, which was not rea lly an answer, and he knew it. But he did not press her further. She t hought he assumed she liked it all, which she had, her body almost lifeless on the blanket, her limbs loose, her clothe s scattered about the floor, invisible in the shadows and lost to her. Here I am, she said. Naked on a bed. She could see him smile in the dark. If th ey had a deck of cards they could play Gin Rummy. The television could be turned on, blaring and brilliant, and something viewed, idly. Up the street was the House of Ribs, an old bungalow nestled among live oaks, where people sat out on the porch to eat, drinking sweet tea out of mason jars. They
95 could drive there and bring back food they w ould never normally eat, spread it out on the bed in its greasy wrappings, in its Styrofoa m packaging. But they had not chosen each other for any of that. She felt her role wa s limited, and she did not worry about being anything else. She would lie th ere and wait until she would be of use again. And then he began to fill the silence and she let him. She listened to the timbre of his voice, his cheek pressed to the blanket, the way it became part of the room, competing with the air conditioner, the passing traffic, the squeak of the chain link gate, the proprietors movements, repositioning the plants on the black tarp. He gave spare details about himself. He gave his opinion. He gave her enough for her to form an impression, and a softness for him. Enough, he knew, for her to keep wanting him. He was from a small New Engla nd town whose main industry used to be a watch factory. His relatives were all town people buried in the old St. Josephs cemetery. He grew up on a lake, and boated and skied. He had an older brother who died as a teenager. He had a way about him when he to ld her, off handedly, looking elsewhere. She asked few questions, just listened, her body along side his, her face propped in her hands, her hair spread over his chest. His brother had cancer. He was sixteen years old, and they brought him home to die. She saw the house on the lake, its cedar shingles. The dock w ith its algae-covered pilings, its weathered gray boards. He would have breathed in the smell of the lake through the windows metal screen s, the water in summer cold and filled with particles of debris, sour and brown, the pieces clinging to his skin when he swam. He would have listened to the leaves dry rustling in the fall, watched them tumble, papery, onto the back
96 yard and gather at the lakes rim. Ducks bobbed on the water, even later when the ice formed sheets like glazing. After his brothers death, he would ha ve read beyond the bland stories in the school textbooks, worried over the ideas, the fo rces at work, the underpinnings of sitting, still and dazed in a school classroom. The sky would always be an upturned bowl. The freshly painted yellow lines would always ma rk the narrow black tar road. He could go back and still smell the lilacs near the gara ge, the forsythia tangle up along the house. Those photographs would sit on the same shelf, those motes of dust hover, miraculous, sentient, over the plaid upholstered couch. Th e longing that struck up in him would last and alter itself to different places, show itsel f as a different form of impatience. He knew what it meant to tire of somethi ng, to discover it and move on. The afternoon waned. She did not know if she was good at being who he wanted. He was polite, and kind, and would never ad mit any disappointment. The worry of losing his interest fell on her as she walked to her car, under the flurry of jacaranda petals, through the balm of ginger lily. Who was she now? Her past did not de fine her. She lived the life she had stumbled onto when she wa s young and didnt know any better. At some point she had decided there wasnt any be tter to know. This afternoon she had gotten what she desired, and she pretended she understo od what that was, that she had expected nothing else. The next time it was a place called The Lamplighter. A colonial faade with columns, the rooms stretched out from its sides like two arms, black iron lamppost out
97 front, off of the main road. Years ago, a band th at played a local club stayed there, and as a teenager she had gone back to a room w ith the guitar player. She had put him off, believing then she should first win his love, th at he should be made to confess it in the throes of wanting her badly enough, like the other boys. But he had resigned himself to kissing her on the bed, sliding his hand up unde r her shirt, unzipping his pants and rolling away from her to complete the act that really had nothing to do with her. When she left, he stood with his hands pre ssed to the window, half-dress ed, watching her with an expression of mild regret. She had not felt an ything. She had gotten lost in the maze of surrounding side streets, amidst the small, squat, cement block houses still strung with Christmas lights, the overgrown fenced yards, the litter of sun-fa ded plastic toys, the kiddie pools filled with standing water. Now, in the heat of summer, the landscape seemed charred and threadbare. The humidity held everything damp and immova ble. They met at night, and the windows of the occupied rooms were lit yellow. He had gotten in touch with her, after weeks of silence. Nothing was needed beyond this. All of his previously la id groundwork was in placeshe still remembered the things he had sa id to her, the way he looked at her, his mouth on hers, his body without clothes. Along with this she held a small, sad sense of a missed chance she believed meeting him agai n would eradicate, like an antidote. He was there first, waiting in the room. He seemed the same, still grinning at her, his eyes with the same ardor. He told her he had not stopped thi nking about her. What about me? shed asked, kicking off her shoes. Sh e did not know if she should have been flattered by his thoughts of her legs, the wa y her body felt under his, but she was. She
98 was aware that his thinking of her in this way was all she could expect. She would never tell him the story of the gu itar player, fearing he would wonder about her old longing for love, worry that the remnants of it would resurface and complicate what they had now. This time, when he held her down on the bed to kiss her, she felt the weight of his hands, the texture of his skin. She felt the soft ha irs below his waist when she undid his pants. The room was dark, their bodies hard to pin down. She felt him out with her hands, blindly, seeing with the tips of her finge rs, her palms. She saw him in his boyhood bed, its crocheted spread, the lake lapping at th e dock outside his wi ndow, and the sounds of loons in the morning. She saw him wide awak e, listening for his brother dying downstairs in the bed set up in the living room. She saw hi s baseball cards in a special box with a lid. She saw his row of leather-bound books, the titl es in gilt italics. Outside his window, a moon, and the curtains blown out and back, the night air rife with the odor of the afternoons mown grass. His hands slid up and down her length. Sh e breathed in the slide of his hands, their movement, their gentle urging search for her. She stopped them with her own. He looked up at her, puzzled. How to explain th at moment before gi ving in? That quiet Dont. She could not tell where the resist ance came from. But she knew how to back it down, swallow the word, succumb. She knew where to go, which mask to put on. In this way, she avoided the old guitar player story. She circumvented the need for something she would not have, and spared herself. The rooms darkness was broken, a bit, by the yellow lamplight from outside, its hazy shine through the curtains join. It left a line across the bed, spli tting their bodies in
99 two. He bunched a pillow under his head. His hand never stopped moving, reflexively, over some part of her skin. He looked at her in the dark. She felt his eyes on her, questioning. There was the same air condi tioning noise. A car door slammed outside. Footsteps approached. His hand froze midway up her stomach, and the footsteps passed by, on to another room. She heard him exhale. Are you nervous? sh e asked, teasing him. He cleared his throat. A little , he said, always honest. She put her hand on his chest and fe lt the thudding there. She laughed. No one could find this place, she said. The closest main road was two m iles away. There was a famous hot dog restaurant where she had told him to turn o ff. He kidded her about the places she chose. What about the Holiday Inn? hed asked. Wouldnt a Marriot work? She told him how she drove around to find the motels, always so me reason why she picked the one she did, its proximity to some odd landmark, its kits chy sign, its past popularity replaced with a forlorn look. He told her he liked the hot dog place. It had a big gaudy pink and blue sign, rimmed with shiny chrome, studded with lit bulbs. Had she ever eaten there? She told him once or twice, as a child. That was all. Next door to the restaurant was a Dairy Queen where she would have liked to get a sundae with whipped cream. He said, Do it. Get extra whipped cream. But she did not feel like getting dressed, driving away from him, leaving him behind in the room. Come with me, she said.
100 But he would not budge. He moved his ha nd up into her hair. He shook his head, No, and pulled her face to his and kissed her. I could taste that on your mouth, he said. She bit his lip. She slid her body onto his. Sometimes, she thought about him at home with a wife, doing daily things. Sitting at a ta ble with a book, half-lis tening to her tell a story about people whom they both knew, her hands busy in a sink. Watching her dress in the morning, or at night, flinging off her cl othes, and having it mean nothing much. She imagined them together in their bed, covere d with the sheet, in sleep, his body turned toward her, or away, his body touching hers, or not. It did not bother her to imagine these things. She did it once in a while, to remi nd herself he was someone already loved. He told her a story about skiing once with his brother. He wa s eleven. His brother fifteen. Their parents let them take the boat out on the lake, and they watched, from the porch. It was an eighteen-foot Ch ris Craft, he said. It had be en his fathers boat, a wooden classic, 1952 Runabout. He knew how to handl e the boat, but on this day, for some reason he still could not explai n, the throttle stuck as he tu rned to pick up his brother bobbing in the water. The engine gunned, he sw erved in time to avoid hitting him, but one of the skies was tossed up and struck his brother on the head. There was a lot of blood. He was unconscious at first, still bobbing in his life vest, a darker circle spreading out in the muddy brown lake water. She listened to the story. She already knew he hadnt died then. But still, to hear him, it seemed he believed he had. His voice was awed, the words small, hesitant sounds. It turned out alright, she said.
101 That time, he told her. He readjust ed the pillow under his head with his balled fists. He was resentful, angry. He stopped talking. She got the feeling he would have liked him to die then. That he should not ha ve been made to fear the event twice. She hadnt known what to say to him. She saw he lived with an unremitting expectation of loss, part of himself held in a deep and untouchable reserve. She set herself to his body, as if she was hungry. She distracted him from th e past and he returned to her and the bed and the quiet room and attended to his rele ntless need, his face above her beautifully cruel, until it was time to go. The Lamplighter was surrounded by what was once a stand of longleaf pine, invaded now by laurel and turkey oak. There wa s still one pine left in the middle of the circular drive, its tall trunk impervious to flame, its crown of long needles falling soft and aromatic, onto the hoods of their parked cars. Ou tside, he would not touch her. He did not say he would see her again. She was prepared now to see him, or not see him, and she ignored him climbing into his car, the sound of the engine, the sweep of his headlights pulling away. She brushed the pine needles from her hood with her arm, slowly, taking her time, waiting in the dark, though for what she wasnt sure. His headlights circling back? Something else from him? A word, a mo ment she would not forget, some miracle falling out of the sky, through the ancient pi ne boughs, onto her body waiting tense with its own promise. They met again throughout that year. Once or twice at the motel in the orange grove with its gift shop and produce stand on th e side, its round, ripe oranges advertised
102 on a peeling wooden sign. The orange blossom smell would get caught in her hair. He would keep his face there, breathing it. A few times at the New Orleans, a two-story motel with ironwork balconies, with rumors of mob hits, surrounde d by strip malls and marquees. Next door was the Space Odyssey, a st rip club with a repli ca of a flying saucer on top, where they had seen the girls arrivi ng for their afternoon shift, the sun on the asphalt radiating heat, making their faces wa x-like in their makeup. Another time at the beach, at a place with a large plaster Buccaneer, and a miniature golf course next door, and the metal of the door corroded with salt and the windows stuck shut, and everything mildewed and smelling of the Gulf. They had listened to the tide move out, the long, withdrawing over sand and pebbles and coquinas. Eventually, he said he could not see her anymore, and she knew he had met someone else, had tired of it all, which she had expected. She had not risked anything to keep him. Secretly, she had mapped and unmapped her own life on his body. He could not see in the dark. He had no way of knowing how mu ch of her she left like silver trails, and then erased. She was unsure why the burden of the past followed them there, to the room. Why he always told her something he had not thought about in years, how each irreversible error she had made traveled with her into his arms. How she would keep it all in check, saying nothing. Yet she saw, cl early, he was someone in whom she had invested the whole explanation. She asked him fo r one last meeting, at the first place with the nursery in back. He had agreed. Ill buy you a keepsake plant, he said. There was nothing sentimental about it. They had uses for each other that prevented that.
103 They met and it was afternoon again, almost a year later. The jacaranda petals blew down, a violent splash on the concrete. The odor of the plants, yellow Poinciana, camellia, and sweet viburnum, followed them into the room. They didnt think of it as the last time. It was just the same as any of the others. He s till appreciated her body, more so now, out of nostalgia. They had their own history. They had times before that set precedents, they had moments particular to cer tain meetings. She knew his loneliness, his longings, the places to move her mouth that pleased him, how to lie, when to hold still how much to say. He was still the boy in the house on the lake, in th e town with narrow roads and clumps of mayflowers and galvani zed mailboxes. He still carried some guilt for the loss of his brother, desperate and self-ser ving. His eyes glowered with it. The muscles in his arms tensed to fight it off. She still eased him into the present, her body making its invisible mark, her own past he ld at bay. Out of respect, he granted her this silence. To prod her would be a false step into some fo rm of caring, which they both knew to avoid. They stood apart from each other in the room, and he smiled at her. He never reached for her first. He always waited. Sh e had to show him that her desire was not something she could suppress, that it filled he r lungs like a long intake of breath requiring release. She had to say she wanted him, al oud, always meaning it, never like a line she knew she was supposed to speak. She smiled b ack, revelatory, corroborative. Something he could read and know she meant. She would say what she wanted and not hesitate to slide his shirt up, to touch his skin, to take hi s face in her hands and just look at him. He let her do all of this. She knew he believed that maybe she had grown to love him, and so this time, the last time, his eyes were worri ed, somewhat tender. Dont be angry with me,
104 they said. I do care about you, a little bit. But shed kept herself a stranger, and there wasnt much, really, of her to love. I want a ginger lily, she said. He let his arms fall and was relieved to ha ve something to give her. He went out the door, the sunlight dropping in for a mo ment, until the door swung shut. She heard the bell on the gate. She heard him speak to th e old man, their footsteps among the nursery plants. When he returned he had the lily, its blooms white and h eavy and sweet smelling, the leaves shiny green spear s. She took him in her arms, laughing. She felt a small, terrified happiness. She would not ask him if there was someone else, though she felt the weight of this while he took off her clothe s, while his mouth found hers, and his hands, softly sliding, drew her in. She had given herself up and not confe ssed. She had made herself a prisoner, trapped in her bodys longing for something else At one time, years ago, shed thought it was a child. She had imagined it solidly in her arms like a warmth, a reprieve. She imagined the childs hair, its skin, its body growing long and beautiful, its eyes on her, waiting for a sign she feared she would not, finally, know how to give. She had gotten pregnant and then panicked, realizing her error, and she had gone on her own and gotten rid of it, and come to this motel, to the old man in the straw hat who had handed her a key. She had been newly married. She had not told anyone. She had wanted to be alone afterwards. She had thought, maybe, she would not return home, that all of her mistakes might be so easily erased, and she would start again.
105 But the doctor had botched it, somehow, and she had bled too much, awakening on the bed in it all, her surprise a kind of dulled one, mixed with a strange grief. Outside, she heard the old man in the nursery, moving around the plants. She heard the chain link gate open and shut, its rusty latch. It had been late afte rnoon. The sun slanted in, hot looking, filled with dust, lighting up the sheets and the bright blood, her clothing wet and stiffened, her arms cold and pale and dampen ed. She had not been afraid. She had lain there and accepted it, her life ebbing awa y, a steady pulse between her legs, until the wanting to go on living urged her up. She kne w that she would pull herself to the door and summon the old man, that he would come into the room and see the mess and call someone else, that the paramedics penlight would awaken her and drag her back from where she had been headed, a blank space, pa lely lit, where she did not ever need to know what she wanted, or what she was expe cted to give. And later, she would be delivered into her old life, the life a debt th at had not been satisfied, that had increased now, the ledger expanded to include one child In the room she saw the sun slip low through the Venetian blinds. She felt his hands glide, kept her mouth on his, wet and so ft like a wound. She smelled the lily in the room, its scent moving into the folds of her skin, into the places nothing reached. The day was everything they had. Her body forged on ah ead. It opened itself, it gave an edge to the light. She was not without the knowledge, always, that when they left the room the world theyd made dissolved, transformed to molecules, blood, skin, strands of hair, traces on sheets shaken out by maids. The mo ment no longer existed to hold anything of them together, the lakes lapping water, the stillness of the cedar-s hingled house, the boy
106 in his childhood bed believing in a last breath, still waiting, inexorably, for some truth to be revealed. What she confessed with her bodys movements was dismissed by her silence, made unceremonious and absent of farewell. She held him down on the bed. She fixed the lines of his face, that mouth, thos e eyes quizzical and afraid. What is true enough? she wanted to say. How far can memory go and still be love?
107 MANIFOLD Where they sit, out of gas in Billy Buck leys car, they have a wide, sweeping vista of the neighborhood, the houses at the bottom of the street plotte d out around curving asphalt, the typical drives and roads and la nes that loop up and down the hills of the Connecticut valley. At the top of one slope, the graveyard stones of Bloomfield Cemetery line up behind chain link, look into backyards with cedar decks and above-ground pools. From here the trees fan out like a blaze. The leaves are blown in cycles around the car. It is an October morning, and they have ski pped the day of school and gone instead to Shelleys house, where they smoked two join ts Shelley rolled on her mothers tavern table, its tops scars and burns and ale glass rings all part of its worth as a Colonial artifact. The gas gauge signals an empty tank, but they canno t quite believe this. Surely, Shelley says, the gauge was broken before they left. It must be the manifold, she insistssomething she may have heard from a boyfriend once. She is in the passenger seat both hands gripping th e dashboard. Her hair is soft and brown and wind-blown from th eir walk through the woods to the pond behind her house. Lisette thinks it has b een hours, at least, since th en. She is behind the wheel, a junior, the older of the two, the one Billy Bu ckley loves, and so, the one entrusted with the keys. The inside of the car, a long, finned 1970 Delta 88 Olds, is sun-warmed and comfortable. The seats are coppe r-colored vinyl, torn in spot s, the dashboard gauges large and round and meaningless to th em. They sit quietly, staring out the big windshield. They
108 play the radio, soft with static, and wait for something to happen. Every so often, Lisette tries the key in the ignition. Shelley cocks her head to listen. Then she shakes it, smiling. Can you believe this? she says. She throws her head back and does the laugh that reassures Lisette that not knowing what to do is fi ne. On their left is an abandoned apple orchard, the trees branches weighted wi th wormy, misshapen fruit. To their right are houses bathed in autumn light. The lawns are wet from melted frost. It is not that early, and most people have al ready gone to work. She thinks that Billy Buckleys love will temper any fury he feels for them not returning when they said. It is a love that he has never confessed, that she ha s not had to acknowledge, but she knows it is there, reads it in his eyes, in his awkward half-smile, his gangly movements walking away, and feels it like a bolstered cush ion, a reassurance. He is someone who, with his silent devotion, will give her whatever she asks and in return expect nothing. This morning was Shelleys idea. She had forgotten something at her house, she said. Ask Billy for his car. He stood out side the high school, by the low wall where everyone smoked their cigarettes, left the butts on the ground for the janitors wide broom. Billy wore his bomber jacket. His hair st uck out in all directions. He held the keys up, balancing the ring on one finger. Youre coming right back? he said, his face unreadable and closed to her. Lisette took the keys, gave him her usual sm ile that promised something far off and unattainable. She wouldnt worry, yet, about what the absence in his face meant. She saw that she could drive by the S unoco station and see if Mill er was working. She had met him that weekend at a keg party at the reservoi r. He was going to be an actor, hed said,
109 brushing his sandy hair back from his foreh ead. He was moving to New York City in a month, after he collected tw o more paychecks. The bonfire smoke burned her eyes. Her hands were cold and she kept them in the pocke ts of her pea coat. M iller had slid his two hands on top of hers inside her pockets, pulle d her close and kissed her. His mouth tasted of beer. Its softness was something she wanted to fall into. He lowered his head to her shoulder, and his hair smelled of wood burning. Sitting in Billys car, staring out the windshield, it occurs to her this is what love is most commonly mistaken for, this anxious trembling, this feeling on the verge of something. The radio plays Boston, and Shelley sings the words to the song, staring out the window. She has her hands folded in her lap, he r head against the seat back. She had not really wanted anything at her house. They ha d pulled into the driv eway and gone inside, and Shelley put on Teddy Pendergrass while she rolled the joints. Lisette didnt ask her why theyd come. Shelleys reasons were neve r clear, but Lisette trusted her to always have them. They have not been friends for very long, but a year later Lisette will learn that their fathers at one time were close. On th e mantel in the den at Lisettes is a photo of their fathers with two other men, posed on the deck of the My Joy a boat they chartered out of Niantic. From that trip, Lisette remember s her father returning wi th a cooler full of blue fish, which he cleaned, making a bloody mess in their white porcelain kitchen sink, and then stored in the doubl e freezer in the basement. Her father persuaded her mother to use the Lenten Friday as an excuse to prepare the fish, which she did each week, grudgingl y, broiling it in the oven on a pan covered with aluminum foil. Lisette and her sister, Dolo res, hated the smell, the oily taste, the tiny
110 bones they swallowed by mistake, that their father assured them he had removed. They were children then, and trusting. Dolores woul d try to read Lisettes diary, and wear Lisettes clothes, and become friends with Li settes friends, and Lise tte would avoid her, and throw things at her and say things that now, she worries, were hurtful. But back then, Dolores went to school like anyone normal, and had a Bobby Sherman fan club with her own girlfriend down the street, fully able, Lise tte believed, to ignore Lisettes resentment. Now, Dolores leaves the house and wanders away. They look for her in their mothers wood-paneled Country Squire, cruising up and down the streets of their neighborhood as if searching for a lost dog. Dolores wears the same clothes every dayjeans with knees faded white, a dirty purple parka. She forgets to brush her hair. In a year, she will have a real diagnosis and months spent in the state hospital in Norwich, but at this time, no one dares to suppose that anything is really wrong with her. Lisette simply doesnt talk to her, a sister born so close that for one month out of the year they are the same age. Sitting now in Billy Buckleys car, Lisette does not think about her father, who came home in the middle of the night again, slamming the cabi nets, or her sister, who left the house that morning before anyone could stop her, or the photograph on the mantelmen she does not know, posing on the deck of a boat. She sits behind the wheel, imagining Mill ers hands sliding around her waist, how she would hold one of them in her own and s lip it up under her Fair Isle sweater to her breast. She falls back into the softness of his mouth. Shelley sighs. I guess we should try to find a phone, she says. They look at each other. Neither of them want to leave the haven of the car.
111 Do you know anyone who lives in th is neighborhood? Shelley asks. Lisette looks out the windshield, down into the cluster of homes, mid-sized splitlevel ranches, painted different colorsrust red, sage green, a pale yellow like aged lace. The sidewalks are new, and the front yards contain a few young, spindly trees supported with wires. No, she says, honestly. I dont. Shelley tries to adjust the radi o dial. Nothings on, she whines. Lisette knows they have been sitting in the car a long time. Too long, she thinks, worrying about Billys expression that morni ng, wondering what it meant. Lets go, she says. Shelley looks at her, surprise d. What do you mean? she asks. Lisette opens the car door and steps out. The door groans on its hinges. Shelley gets out on her side and they begin to walk down the road. Th e wind catches in their hair, swirls leaves about their ankl es. Shelley puts her arms up an d spins around. They stand in front of the first house and cons ider it. The lawn is threadba re. A rusty red tricycle sits abandoned by the garage. All of the windows re veal drawn shades. There is a smell about the house of trashcans filled with rotting ga rbage. Lisette thinks they should move on. Too vacant looking, she says. Lisette lives five miles away, in a ne ighborhood like Shelleys, with pillared Colonials, and beds of rhododendron bordere d with white pebbles, and deacons benches under the wide arms of elms, and hickories, and sugar maples. Their homes have slate roofs, and copper windmills shaped like galloping horses. Shelleys house is decorated in
112 antiques, and that morning, theyd rummag ed through a pine bureau in the hallway, looking for a sweater for Lisette. Shelley wanted to walk in the woods, and Lisette wore only a cotton blouse. She had pulled out the Fair Isle cardigan, and tossed it to her. They had already smoked one of the joints Wear this, she said, grinning. Lisette looked at the sweat er with suspicion. Its your mothers, isnt it? she asked. Shelleys mother did not like Lisette. Shed told Shelley she could no longer spend time with her. That girl, sh e said, is not allowed in my house. The sweater smelled of the old pine drawer. Lisette put it on and mimicked Shelleys mother. Lets go young lady, she said, doing up the buttons. Shelley led the way out the back porch door, down the incline of dried lawn. The woods were a mix of hemlock and silver bi rch and maple. The leaves were light and papery under their feet. It was a cool da y, and windy, and the wind brought the remaining leaves down around them. Shelley stopped and he ld out her hands as if to catch them. Lisette smiled, watching her. The sweater was warm, and she liked its smell of the drawer, and the smell of the dried leaves and pine boughs. The sun slanted through in spots. The floor of the woods sloped, and th ey clung to the young saplings and made their way toward the edge of a pond. Lisette had ne ver been there before. She did not even know a pond existed so close to Shelleys house. It was not very large. Its surface was muddy colored and rippling. She lley lit the other joint and sat down in the leaves, and Lisette joined her. They didnt say anyt hing. The trees ringed the pond, dropping their leaves into it, casting their shadows. Closer to the water was an old rowboat, half-buried
113 in the mud. It was the gray color of w ood exposed to the elements. Its bow was deteriorating, like a fallen log. Lisette will remember the boat a year later, when her father tells her the names of the people on the deck of the My Joy, when he tells her how She lleys father died. He had been struck by lightning, her father will sa y, fishing on a pond behind their house. He had his son with him, a little boy, about six or se ven. The boy had run for help, but there was nothing anyone could do. Her father will hold the photograph in his hand, and she will watch his hand shake. She will avoid his facethe broken veins, the eyes, soft and sad, pleading for a chance to compensate for some mistake. He will put the photograph into a cardboard box with fishing reels, Car and Driver magazines, golf tees, a hammered tin ashtray, things he will pack up and take away to an apartment she will never see. Sitting in the leaves by the pond, Lisette has only rece ntly guessed that Shelleys father is dead, because Shelley does not ever mention him, because her mother and her brother have a kind of quiet, deflated yearning about them And inside Shelleys house, Lisette has sensed expectancy, as if someone is missi ng, and everyone is always waiting for an arrival. Now, they wander up the street and pass house after house. Their excuses are the same for some. No ones home there, Shelley says. I can tell. Lisette takes her word for it. Another house looks too run down. Axe murderer, Lisette says. Shelley nods her head. They forget to look at the houses, a nd they just walk, and then they spot one white with gray shutters, with chrysanthemums and pumpkins on the porch, a green Falcon parked in the driveway.
114 You talk, Shelley says. They approach the door and Lisette pus hes the bell. Who should I call? she whispers. Just call the school office and get B illy out of class, Shelley says. The high school secretary is a friends mother, and she will help them out, and chastise them later. The door opens and a woman looks out at them through the storm door glass. She has her hair pulled up messily in back, and wears a camels hair car coat like Lisettes mothers. Underneath it they see she has on a nightgown. What? the woman asks from behind the door, as if they have said something she doesnt understand. Our car ran out of gas, Lisette says. May we use your phone? The woman smirks. Right, she says. He r hair is reddish blond. Her face is young and pretty. She shakes her head at them and some of the hair falls out around her face. Lisette is not prepared for the wo man to doubt them. Shelley makes a noise of disbelief. Really, she says. Its ri ght up there at the top of the hill. Well, the woman says, slowly. From behind the glass of the storm door she sounds oddly muffled. Shelley glances at Lisette, and rolls her eyes. Lisette cannot tell if she is still high, or if she is in the silent, empty space the hi gh leaves her when it recedes. From inside the house she hears the cry of a baby that is hesitant at first, then moves into a piercing wail. The womans face blanches. Her eyes light with panic. She opens the storm door and steps outside onto the cement por ch with them. Shelley and Lisette make room. The woman smells faintly sour, like unw ashed clothes. She is without shoes. She
115 stands there beside them sa ying nothing. The storm door clicks shut and they hear her breathing. So, Shelley says. She takes a few more steps back. The woman covers her face with her hands It is as if she believes she can no longer be seen. Lisette feels the womans terror like a wave coming off her coats shoulders. Can we do something? Shelley asks. For the first time, Lisette reads alarm on her friends face. She doesnt think it is so mething Shelley ever allows herself to feel. Lisette sees her eyes fill with tears, and she feels her own body repe l being drawn in. She grabs Shelleys jacket sleeve and moves down the cement steps, tugging. Lets go she mouths. Whats happening? Shelley asks. Lise tte hears the tremor in her voice. The woman removes her hands and her face is wet and old mascara has run in black streaks down her cheeks. She shakes her head, No and the tendrils of reddish blond swing and stick to her face. The woman sinks to the top step and sits there, hugging her knees. Leaves cling to the lacy hem of her nightgown. Her feet are pale white, and delicate-looking against the dirty cement. From inside the house come the babys cries. They sound through the windows, through the st orm door, long, and loud and tormented. Whats wrong with it? Shelley asks. Lise tte has pulled her to the curb now, and they are on the asphalt of the road, an d she has her firmly by the sleeve. Dont worry about it, Lisette hisses.
116 Shelley turns and gives Lisette a lookha rd and full of indictment. Lisette does not know what to do. They watch the woman take a set of keys from the pocket of her coat and rush across the dead lawn to the Falcon. She holds the nightgown up, and her legs flash pale and thin. She gets in and starts the car up and white smoke comes out of the tailpipe. Shelley watches, stricken. What does she think shes doing? she asks. Her voice sounds like Lisettes mothers did that morning, full of condemna tion. At home, this morning before Lisette caught the bus, her mother was still asleep. Her father slept in the spare room on the single bed intended for guests, the odor of gin seeping from his pores, the sound of his breathing noisy and troublesome through the cracked door. Dolores was up, moving around her room. While Lisette was in the ki tchen eating toast, Dolores came out and wandered the upstairs hall. Lisette stopped eat ing. She heard Doloress voice, its dull monotone, telling something to herself. At night, Dolores walked up and down the stairs, sleepless. She stood in the doorway of Lisettes room and Lisette irritated, a little afraid, yelled at her to go away. Now she felt a twis t in her stomach, a dull tightening. She heard Dolores on the stairs and then the front door opening, the storm doors swing and bang. And then her mother was in the kitchen door way, her robe sloppily tied, her hair puffed up on one side, her face lined from sleep, l ooking older than Lisette had ever seen. Was that your sister? she asked, he r voice shrill, knowing the answer. Lisette looked up, and they looked at each other. Both of them denied being the one responsible. You let her go, her mother said, tugging angrily on her robes sash. The kitchen filled with the sm ell of her Jean Nate. Lisette got her books together for
117 schoolCalculus, French, her copy of Heart of Darkness The hardbacks were covered in brown paper bags, and on the bags she had drawn in blue and black inkher name, lines of poems, song lyrics, whorls that formed intricate patterns. She knew then not to say anything. The babys mother backs the car out of the driveway and passes them heading up to the stop sign at the top of the street. Lisett e sees her face as she passes, an almost giddy expression of escape that Lisette understands. They are left by the curb, smelling the fumes of her exhaust, liste ning to the baby scream. Maybe she needs something at the store, Lisette suggests. But Shelley is already moving back up the walkway to the cement steps. She is inside the house before Lisette can stop her. Lisette stands on the cu rb a while longer. She is cautious when it comes to possible disast er. She hesitates and feels the dull pull of shame, its accompanying despair like a small, fluttering bird lighting on her chest. She understands she has failed her sister by choos ing to believe she does not have the power to help her. She thinks of Billy Buckley, his hopes pinned on the sound of her voice, the smell of her hair, his dependence on her presencenudging him with her shoulder, her arms around him to thank him for giving he r somethinglunch money, a cigarette, the gloves from his hands, his car keys. She suddenly cannot bear the burden of the disappointment she must become to him. Shelley does not come out. Lisette is fo rced to follow her, to pull open the door and step into the womans house. It is clean and orderly and smells of lemon cleanser. The living room carpet is marked with the tr acks of a vacuum. Shelley has discovered the
118 baby upstairs. Lisette hears her talking to it, making r eassuring sounds. She feels her heart step up in the sudden quiet. Shelley? she calls from the bottom. And then Shelley appears at the top of the stairs with th e baby. She holds it cradled with two arms. Its body is wrapped in a pale blue woven blanket. Its head is hairless and shining with dampness. She comes down, slowly, and stands next to Lisette in the foyer. Across from them on the table is a phone, and she tells Lisette to call Billy at school. What are you doing with that? Lisette asks. Shelley holds the baby as if it is somethi ng she is used to, as if it is her own. They are both practiced at finding what th ey want. They go to G. Foxs and slip innocently into the dressing rooms of the diffe rent departments, approach glass counters manned by busy, distracted salesclerks. They carry large purses, or bags from other stores. Later, they surprise each other with things they thought the other would likea suede fringed belt, large-belled jeans with a rainbow stitched down one leg, a pair of Aigner leather gloves. Lisette believes it is the constant appearance of new things that makes Shelleys mother nervous. She will neve r admit that her daughter has taken them without paying. In her mind, it must somehow be Lisettes doing. Lisette is used to accepting the blame for things. She understands the reasons behind the accusations, and she is strong enough to suffer them because she tells herself most things are not in her c ontrol. She cannot stop her fath er from drinking. She cannot change her sister back to the way she was before. She cannot pass Calculus, a system of
119 confusing signs and codes that despite her effo rts at concentration, refuses to be of any use to her. She will fail Advanced English be cause the teacher insists on a definite plan behind every text, an approach in which the intentions of Conrad take precedence over The Heart of Darkness Lisette stays quiet in class. Sh e keeps notes about what the novel means, and what it means changes every day. Its a boy, Shelley says. See the blue clothes? The baby is round cheeked and pink-skinned. It looks up at Shelley and puts his small dimpled hand in his mouth and makes sucking noises. Its hungry, Lisette says. He is, Shelley tells her. Go call. Lisette does what she is told. She finds a phone book in the tables drawer, and dials, and speaks to the secretar y. It is a long time before th ey find Billy and she hears his voice on the other end, deadpan, a pretense Lise tte hopes is for the office staff. Shelley bounces up and down with the baby. She moves from foot to foot, rocking it with her own body. And still, the woman has not returned. Outside on the yellow lawn the leaves whirl. Lisette thinks they have blown fr om other neighborhoods like her own, from the woods that border the backyards and the edge s of town. She imagines they have tumbled down the hill from the cemetery, where the oaks and elms stand in small groves over select plots. She waits at th e window watching the leaves da nce and pitch about the lawn while Shelley rummages in the kitchen for formula. The baby, it seems, simply wants to be held. It has not cried once since Shelley picked it up.
120 Lisette tells Shelley that they need to go back to the car. On the kitchen clock they see it is lunchtime, and Billy will find a ride to come and get them. Shelley gives Lisette a dubious look. You go, she says. Lisette does not know why this annoys her. No, she says. We both need to go. Shelley looks at the baby, a nd back at Lisette. Hold him while I mix up a bottle, she says. Lisette has never held a baby in her life. Its weight, the way it squirms, surprises her. He smells a little sweet, like marshma llows. When she holds him he stares into her face so that she feels co mpelled to look away. Hurry up, Lisette calls. In the kitchen Shelley shakes up powde red formula and water in a bottle. She comes into the living room and stands be side Lisette. Look how youre holding him, she says, laughing. Lisette plops him quickly back into Shelleys arms, and Shelley widens her eyes. Careful, she says. The decision to take the baby with them to the car is Lisettes. Shelley will not leave him, and Lisette doesnt want to face Billy Buckley alone. That woman is gone, she tells Shelle y. Well have to call the police, or something. It has been nearly an hour si nce she drove away. We can probably see the driveway from the car, anyway, she says. Shelley agrees. She wraps the blanket around the babys body for warmth. Out in the sunlight, he squints his eyes, and Shelley drapes a corner of the blanket over his face.
121 It is still cool, but the su n has changed the way the neighborhood looks. It is more stark, unfriendly and deserted wit hout the contrast of morni ng shadows. The wind and the blowing leaves make the uphill walk a nuisance. Shelley talks to the baby the whole time. She tells it Goldilocks and the Three Bears She sings it a song that she claims her mother sang to her about a ship loaded deep, but not so deep as the love Im in, I know not if I sink or swim Once they reach the car, Shelley is relieved that they can see the womans driveway. They get into the car and close the doors and the inside begins to smell of the babys sweetness and the formul a that drips out of the corn er of his mouth when he gnaws on the bottles nipple. Lisette turns the key in the ignition of B illy Buckleys car, expecting it to start. Sometimes, shes learned, if you expect things to happen th ey do. But this time, it does not, and she feels foolish for hoping. She cr acks the window and the wind hums in and fills the interior of the car. There is a chill to it, a bit of winter, hollow like remorse. She lights a cigarette. The smoke billows out the window and up, caught in the wind that eddies the leaves. She doesn t think about Miller anymore. Thinking about him too much will open up the possibility of disappointment. He may have forgotten her, after all. It isnt too hard to imagine being forgotten by someone whose life is busy, who is full of plans. She watches out of the windshield. Every so often she glances in the rearview mirror, wondering from which direction Billy w ill appear. She wants him to be angry, to tell them what to do with the baby. She want s him to look at her and finally understand what she is like, and yet despite everything, still love her. And th en through the wide
122 windshield she sees her sister. She is walki ng toward them on the same street, but a good mile away at the bottom of the hill. Her ha ir flies out, knotted and wild in the wind. She wears the purple parka. The leaves gather around her ankles a nd swirl up between the legs of her jeans. Lisette cannot see the expr ession on her face, but she no longer tries to imagine what she thinks or remembers or feels, anyway. She sees her sister will reach the car. She will come up the hill on the side by the old orchard and pass them, and Lisette knows she will let her walk by as if she is not the girl posed beside her in photographs of her childhood, the two of them wearing Easter dresses or Christmas robes, identical except for color. Beside her in the car Shelley holds a wo mans baby and sings, gently, a mothers songs. For her there is no lapse of love. Th e wind buffets the car, fiercer and insistent. Milkweed floats past caught in some other current. The leaves spin by. The sun lights up the dashboard gauges, casts a glare over the neighborhood. In time, Lisettes life will move into its future and she will be a passe nger, watching it. Things will occur that she will not know about ahead of time, things less assured of happening, things she could not predict. And despite the refuge of Billy Buckleys love, th e sturdy body of the car and its windows rolled up, despite the comfort of th e moment before events are decided, she foresees, in the life that is planned for her, things from which she will never recover.
123 SHE FELL TO HER KNEES Nell met him the first time she went to the house. He came across the back yard with his drink. His clothes were rumpled, as if hed been lying down in thema dress shirt, a pair of gray trouser s. It was a weekday afternoon. They stood by the sea wall and he asked her what she was doing there. The ice in his drink slid around. His eyebrows came together, laughing at her. He had sandy hair in need of a trim. He was the neighbor, and had noticed her car. He could fill her in on a number of things about the house, he said. Take that tree, for inst ance. Nell noted the fine bones of his hand, gesturing, the way his sleeve slid up to reveal his slender wris t. He was younger than she, and in need of saving. He did not as much say this, as attempt to hide it. She forgot his name as soon as he said it, and later, she had to ask. Nell inherited the house from her mother s boyfriend, Vince Morrell. She had not seen or spoken to him since her mothers death, when she was seven, and her initial desire was to decline the key. It was bronze, with a cardboard tag, and it dangled from the attorneys bright fingernails like something plain and easily resist ed. Nell asked her to sell the house, but the woman talk ed her into visiting it firs t. There may be something you want there, she said. For your children. Nell s two children were grown now, and away at school, but the attorney made her feel sh e owed them something, a memento, or a souvenir. Nell understood now how she submitted to the coercion, that the attorneys suit, its wool fabric fitted perfec tly against her body, her pearls resting in the hollow of her
124 throat, her scenario of a house holding a secret history that must be passed down, had all undermined Nells wish to avoi d the place and its contents. She went to see the house on a Monday af ternoon, driving thirty minutes on the interstate to get there. The neighbor hood was announced by a wrought-iron signthe name Sunset Park written out in ornate le ttering. Nell had passed th e sign on her visits as a child, every other weekend when her mother had been alive. She did not have many memories of the house, and only a few of he r mother, who had been denied her in the custody hearing. Now, the sign leaned, rusted an d off-kilter, its tiered brick base sunk into layers of limestone and sand, but in the fifties, the twis ted black iron curls established the neighborhood as lavish and upscale. The house had not been difficult to locat e. It was one of those long, rambling ranches, built of hollow block with bricks inlaid on either side of each window, in the semblance of shutters. There were wrought iron supports on the front porch, and a screen door with the outline of a flamingo. The roof was white barrel tiled, slick with moss, blackened by mold. Azaleas occupied the front beds, rangy and almost leafless with a few early pink blooms. Grapefruit ripened on the side yard tree, the branches weighted to the ground with the neglected fruit, and thr ough the carport Nell watched the open bay tremble under pale winter sun. The rest of the neighborhood was comprised of new homes interspersed by bare lots of dirt et ched with tractors tires, where other ranch houses had been razed. The new houses were large ones with Mediterranean influences iron balconies, terracotta tile r oofs, their stucco exteriors painted yellow and pink and a color like beach sand. Built high off the ground to meet flood codes, they towered over
125 the few remaining ranches in a way that made Nell feel uncomfortably part of the space of years that separated the aged doctors and lawyers from their younger counterparts. Nells mothers affair and the ensuing di vorce had been scandalous for its time. As an adult, Nell admired her mothers auda city, but as a child, she resented it, and always held it against her. She entered th e house that first day and remembered how it felt to believe she had been overlooked, to think that in the larger picture of her mothers life she was inconsequential. Nell stood outside the front door and found her hand fitting the key in the lock shook. She stood on the threshold, overcome with an uneasy sorrow for herself. Once inside she felt urged to l eave the door open, to k eep the outdoors and its humidity accessible, and prevent the smell of the house from invading her clothesdust and mold, the scent of burned linoleum, of charred plaster and ceiling rafters and plastic coated electrical wires. She had gone through the main room s and opened all the windows, just glancing at the furnishingsthe sofas and their sagging cushions, the tall glass beaded lamps, the wallpaper, damp and peeling from the walls, the horrible blackened hole in the kitchen ceiling. All of it made her apprehensive. She went out through the dens sliding glass doors, down a small cement walk through a stand of tall juniper to the sea wall. That afternoon, standing th ere, she met the neighbor. He told her Vince Morrell had set fire to the kitchen. Vince was old, and incompetent, and finally a year ago removed to a nursing home to die. Thats too bad, she said, absently. Th ey stood by the sea wall, and the bay water hit the concrete with a langui d slosh. Nell tried not to imagine big Vince Morrell, his
126 darkly curling head of hair turned gray a nd patchy, his thick appendages whittled down to a helpless thinness. She had disliked him as a child because she believed he had taken her mother from her, and she felt sorry for this now. There was a slight breeze off the bay, warm and heavy. It was ranci d, like the run-off silt filling up the canals. Nell could not admit a relationship to Vince, or the house, so she lied to the nei ghbor and told him she had purchased it. He gave her an admiri ng look, as if she impressed him with her business sense, and then the look went on, Nell noticed, intending something else. I would invite you to sit down, but I dont know about the chairs, she said. The brick patio was grown through with tall weeds, and four lawn chairs were grouped in its center, their plastic seat slats dangling, th eir metal frames corroded with rust. The neighbor looked over at the chairs and smiled. Vince and I might have manage d those a year ago, he said. Nell did not want to talk about Vince. Behind her, through the open sliding glass doors the smell of the house cam e out into the back yard. He was an interesting old guy, the neighbor said. God, that was awful, watching them take him off. You know, a ll that struggling, having to be subdued. You dont want to watch that happen to anyone. Nell stared at him. He looked a litt le afraid. I imagine, she said. He squinted and sipped his dr ink to the melted ice, and then he glanced down into his glass. I like your eyes, he said. They dont give much away.
127 Nell found she could not respond. She felt her heart step up. The neighbor took a sip of his drink. He smiled at her with his we t lips. His own eyes we re sad and greenish, like the bay. I dont suppose you have any gin, he sa id. He looked behind her, toward the house. We could see, she suggested. That day, he would not follow her inside He waited out by the juniper, and Nell went back into the darkened interior. She saw, in her search, a game of backgammon abandoned on a table, the Chinese screen she used to play behind, the chandelier dangling glass beads like her mothers earrings. Ever ything was covered with dust and cobwebs, acquired in the year since Vince had been re moved, or probably before that, when he was too old to dust and clean. She crossed the slat e floor in the family room to find the round cabinet filled with dusty bottles. She did not want to emerge too soon with the bottle, to seem that she had any previous knowledge of the place. But she wanted to return to the neighbor, to his empty glass a nd his rattling ice. She liked the idea of him waiting for her with his barely concealed need. It gave her a kind of power she had not felt since Sweeney, the man with whom shed had an a ffair, years ago, when her children were young. From outside the open windows came the sme ll of the bay and the grapefruit that had fallen to rot in the winter grass. When she went out with the bottle, the neighbor was gone.
128 Today, she sat in her car in the houses dr iveway with the heater running. She had been coming to the house for nearly a mont h. The weather had been warm and humid for December, but yesterday the humidity broke and the temperature dropped. She had parked in full view of the neighbors house next door, decorated for the holidays with swags of pine over the iron balc onies, and a string of lights al ong the line of the roof. She felt observed, and waited. Now, she knew his name was Teddy, but there was only always the two of them, and she rarely used it. She knew, too, that he had lost his job, and was supposed to be searching for another, th at his wife was a pe diatrician. The woman had crossed the driveway with her hand exte nded one afternoon as Ne ll emerged from her car. Are you the new neighbor? she asked. She had a practi ced composure. Her hair flowed thick and blond from its roots, down past her shoulders. Nell clasped her small hand. They told each other their names. Nell fe lt the wifes eyes take her inher blouse, its small tear by a buttonhole, her faded jeans, her hair worn twisted back, her face without make up exposed and assailable. She saw her eyes feign interest for the minutes they conversed. Then they parted. Teddy s wifes heels clipped along the paved driveway, up the long set of stairs. Nell watche d her disappear into th e house. She did not think Teddy would come by that day, but he did. He stood outside th e sliding glass doors and the breeze off the bay caught his collar. So, what did you make of her? he asked. Im not sure, Nell said. What did she make of me?
129 Teddy laughed. He shook his head at her, slowly, and would not answer. He shook the ice in his glass. I think she misjudged me, Nell said. She had slid the door, and stood in the opening. The smell of the house came out from behind her. It passed through her clothing, like a specter. Waiting in her car in the gray afterno on Nell saw how Vince Morrells roses still climbed the trellis along the side of the hous e, how the lawn had become crabgrass and horse nettle with patches of dirt. The hous e had always seemed huge, and maze-like, its box hedges neatly trimmed, hiding the Easter eggs she and her mother spun around in coffee cups filled with vinegary dye. The azaleas bloomed pink and gaudy. There were parties by the bay on a brick patio, her moth er in a long green dress and rhinestone sandals, smiling showing all her teeth, her ha ir long and blond and held back with a barrette. She remembered the smell of Vinces Vantage cigarettes left burning in all the ashtrays, the crumpled packs wedged between couch cushions. Nell would go around and put the cigarettes out, the filters dented by the grip of his thumb and index finger. Vince Morrell loved the Sunset Park house, and once, to hurt him, Nells mother called a realtor and signs appeared, one in front facing the street, another in the back for boaters on the bay. The maid, Aurora, told her that the houses sale would be ensured if she buried a statue of St. Jose ph, and so her mother told Aurora to just go ahead and bury one. Nell remembered Vince Morrell on the la wn one night, digging holes with a trowel, trying to uncover it. There had been dri nks, and arguing, Vinces glass set on the walkway while he dug, the amber liquid shim mering in the lamppost light. Her mother
130 had stood in the doorway, goading, calling out to him every so often, to see if he had found it. Nell watched from her bedroom windo w. She smelled the metal of the window screen, the leaves of the azalea plants. It wa s Christmas then, too, the house trimmed with a row of lights that cast color onto the hedges. Her mother and Vinces voices reverberated against the ba lmy silence of the neighborhood at two AM. There had been other fights, suitcases thrown out onto the la wn, her mother in her robe wandering off, and then sought, her robe tr anslucent in the cars headlights. Nell never mentioned the turmoil of her weekends with her mother to anyone. Even as a child she knew to assume, as they did, the guise of normalcy. Nell turned off her car and got out. She put the key in the lock and swung the front door open, breathing in the houses smell, different now, as if both her and Teddys presence these last weeks had altered some chemistry. The first time he had come into the house he whistled through his teeth. He stepped carefully, hi s arms out a bit from his sides, as if he thought something woul d topple over and break in his wake. This is like entering a time warp, he said. The house retained its original nineteen-s ixties furnishings. Fabric had begun to give waythrow pillows, sofa cushions, lampsh ades, all worn or ripped or yellowed. The tables were spare shapes, their tops marked by the rings of Vince Morrells drinks. The floors were oak parquet, warped in spots. The houses structural weakening showed in long cracks in the plaster ceilings and walls, in water damage that left wallpaper stained a color like dried blood. The kitchen, galley-st yle, had pine cabinets, worn down around the handles by years of Vince Morrells graspi ng fingers. The roofs beams were exposed
131 here, along with dangling wire s and the air conditionings metal ducts. Nell did not go into the kitchen with its injured ceiling. There were shelves in the living room filled with book-of-the-month club selections of the forties and fiftiesCozzens By Love Possessed The Bedside Book of Famous British Stories The American Character Lin Yutangs The Importance of Living and the Fireside Treasuries of short stories and humor and essays. Nell and Teddy looked through the books one w hole afternoon. They sat on the parquet floor. They had one of the bottles from th e liquor cabinet nearby, and refilled glasses Teddy found in the kitchen cabinet and rinsed out in the sink. I hate warm gin, Nell said. She took a sip. Teddy grinned at her over the rim of his glass. Dont drink it then, he said. Nell did not know if she liked him very much. The books were before both of their times. They felt damp in her hands, the pages mottled and tinged brown at the edges. Nell would have liked to tell him how she once sat on th e couch in this very room and tried to read them as a child, but she could not. Her deception made her quiet, and hesitant. Next door, they hear d a truck with a trailer pull up and a landscapers crew run its mowers across Teddys lawn. The smell of the books mixed with the scent of oil and cut grass. That day, the wind took the smell of the bay somewhere else. Nell watched Teddy. He opened the books in his lap, carefully, flipping through the pages, looking up at her and shaking hi s head. He talked to her about each one, assessing it, giving his opinion. Nell felt his talking like a kind of mask over what they wanted from each other. After, she did not remember a word they exchanged. She had wanted to lean over the stack of books and pl ace her mouth on his, and then she had done
132 it, interrupting him mid-sentence. She felt hi s mouth, still shaped around the word hed spoken. It tensed with surprise, and then softened. His free hand slid up along her face. The lawn crew cut its swath, the noisy mo wers drowning out the sound of their sighing. The number of ways to kiss him unfolded. They stretched out on the parquet. He asked her, implored her, to remove her clothing. Just this, he said, undoing buttons. Sh e put her hand over his and he stopped and groaned. The light in the room dimmed until they could make out only the glow of their clothes, the revealed places of skin. Ou tside the windows the lamppost left a halo of light on the front lawn. Teddy rolled away fr om her and stood, slow ly, brushing down his shirtfront. He fumbled with one of the lamps and it lit the room the yellowed fabric of the old shade. Do you have to go? she asked him. Ne ll could see the whorls of dust under the skirt of the sofa. Teddy looked around the room, flushed and amused. Why didnt we go on a couch? he asked her. He reached for his empty glass and tipped it back. Nell propped her head in her hands. She grimaced. How bad could it be? he said, a nd he plopped down on one and bounced. Nell stayed where she was, and Teddy smirked. I assume there are bedrooms. Nell had not been down the long hallway to discover them. I assume, she said. She felt the air from the open window. She felt her body on the parquet, a long seam of heat. The warmth rose out of her blouse. She thought he might want her to go to him on the couch, but she did not. She put her head back on the
133 floor. She closed her eyes and heard the ru sh of air accompanying a car passing, a childs call from inside one of the houses, squirre ls scrambling in the trees. She heard a grapefruit hit the ground, heavy and ripe. When she opened her eyes she was alone, resentful of his leaving her. Nell did not go to the house every da y. She kept her purpose for going there vague to her husband, who had wanted to send a truck to cart off the contents, and who she only temporarily held at bay. Sometimes sh e brought boxes, to fortify the pretense of packing things up, or clearing them out. She was not sure yet, w hy she went. She liked the way Teddy wanted her, forcefully, without much talking. She craved his limey tasting mouth. She thought she could make him want he r enough to lure him away from his other life, to secure an admission of love. But then yesterday she saw two children playing in his driveway. One pushed a yellow metal truc k, his bottom round in diapers. The other, a girl, and older, had a doll in a stroller. Both were fair-haired and dr essed in bright, clean clothing. Nell watched them play from the confines of her car. The nanny, an older Latino woman, sat in a folding chair in the ga rage. She held a magazine in her lap and looked up from it occasionally to call out to them. No, no, she said, and then some words in Spanish. The children understood the warning that came each time they approached the end of the driveway. Nell remembered when her own two child ren were little, though she could not separate the memory from Sweeney. The long days of pr eparing meals, cleaning up spilled juice and crumbs, sorti ng pieces of puzzles and toys into their respective bins,
134 changing clothing and diapers, the tediousness of her life was charged, suddenly, with the longing for his mouth, her body sore with wanting him. He had been a swim instructor at the country cl ub. For the time they were together Nell was troubled by desire. She would notice things like the striat ed colors in the sky, birds in formation shifting and wheeling, leaves blown across her windshield while she was driving, and feel them all like a violent longing. His body sm elled of the heavily chlorinated country club pool. He lived in a small, shoddy apar tment accessed by a wooden outdoor stairway. He left his towels on his bathroom floor to st iffen with mildew. When she left at dusk he would turn on the lamp by the bed and she woul d see him, the expanse of his bare chest, the taut skin that joined his hipbones, illu minated through the uncurtained window glass. It hadnt lasted. He quit the club and sh e stopped hearing from him. She assumed, finally, that he had grown tired of her leav ing him, and found someone else. The summer of the abandonment, Nell went to the beach with her children to get away. She had not wanted to see her husbands happy, steady face, pouring his morning juice, humming to himself. Shed used her fathers beach hous e on Anna Maria Island. All day the children had busied themselves in the warm sand. Nell remembered her despair now, how much it had bothered her to be forgotten. She would gi ve the children their baths and put them in bed. Then, sitting by the water she drank. Th e little waves came in. The coquinas dug themselves back under the sand. She awoke each morning with a headache, morose and silent. She could not understand it. Her life with her husband and children was a course of events already set in motion, impossible to breach. She would not, like her mother, abandon one life for another. Surely, it had be en only the sex she wa nted. There wasnt
135 any absence of love, just his body missing fr om her lifehis adoring mouth and hands, the light pressure of his hips, th e simple way their bodies fit. I want him one more time, shed whisper, an addict. She knew the same thing had happened again with Teddy. She never vowed not to let it. She was heedless. This time there were no children to occupy her, their little bodies under her hands, expectant and greedy for he r ministrations. Now, there was only Teddy, his mouth wet with gin and lime and ice, his forehead scarred from the skate blade of a childhood hockey game, the mole on the inside of his arm, the sheen of sweat on his chest, the soft timbre of his pleading she c ould not refuse. She had begun to imagine them together other places, in restaurants she like d, at the beach house, on trips that she could easily pay for. But in the house she knew it was just their bodies and what their bodies did, and there would never be anything more than that. Yesterday, Nell watched Teddys children from the car until the nanny took them inside. She saw Teddy come out the front door and stand at the top of the high brick steps. She drove away as he descended to come to her, blind to everything but his need. Today, Nell breathed the houses stale air. Its heaviness dulled her movements. Inside the front door was a plate of switches, and she hit them all, flipping on a foyer light, and the porch light and the lamppost on th e yellowed front lawn, an ornate piece of wrought iron, with three glass-shaded bulbs. She went through all the rooms, opening up the windows, and then out the sliding doors where she saw Teddy was already waiting for her. Some days, he had not come, and sh e would sit in the house on the old couch
136 cushions, and remember the way she had, as a child, waited for her mo ther to return on the nights she and Vince went out, watchi ng the headlights pan acr oss the wall, knowing again how it was to feel their absence. Ou t by the sea wall, Teddy wore a white t-shirt with his trousers and his feet were bare, as if hed partly undressed, or made some kind of quick escape. He carried a bag of ice and his glass. He looked a little wrung out and sheepish. I forgot my shoes, he said. He wiggled his toes. They were white and chilled in the dead grass. Do you really need them? she asked. He shrugged. Nell had come later because, she told him, she wanted to see the sunset on the bay. He had mentioned it before, and she wanted to see for herself. She did not want to tell him the truth, that she had fi nally agreed to let he r husband send the truck in the morning. I almost missed you, Teddy said. They stood by the sea wall, looking at each other. Did you think I wouldnt come back? Nell asked. Teddy stared for a long time at the base of her throat, then turned and glanced at the choppy bay, hiding his expression. Nell wore a sweater. She supposed he was cold, the way the wind came off the water, and blew his hair over his eyes. The bag of ice dripped into the dirt of the yard. Around them the wind bent the tall juniper so that it appeared to bow in reverence.
137 Do you want to go inside? she asked, though she did not know why. A formality, the way she would ask her husband if he wanted the newspaper when he came downstairs in the morning. Soon after their first afternoon together she and Teddy had gone down the dark hallway to the bedrooms. He had opened each door, and they had glanced inside. This must be little Jimmys room, he said. He leaned in the doorframe. She stood behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist, slid her hand below the clasp of his pants. Over his shoulder she saw a tw in bed with a chenille bedspread, and a pine chest of drawers. On wooden shelves stood trop hies and models of army airplanes. This was Vince Morrells sons room, Vince Jr. Ne ll remembered the smell of model glue coming out from under the door, how she would knock and ask to be let in, and he would refuse. He died in his twenties in a car accident on the causeway. She knew the room across the hall would be the one she stayed in, that it, too, woul d be the samewhite French provincial furniture, a bed with a canopy like one she had pointed to in a Sears catalog, and her mother had sent Vi nce out to purchase for her. Little Sallys, Teddy said. He had f lipped on the lights. The canopy fabric hung in tatters. Nell could still make out the patter n, purple stripes, like ribbon, and pink roses. The blinds on the windows that looked out to the road were bent. There was a large patch of spreading dampness on the wall underneath them, as if theyd been left open during a storm, and the rain had filled the sills and spilled over. Nells mo thers collection of horses still stood on the desk shelf. Nell had never liked them, their fiery faces, their
138 heads rearing back to show d ilated nostrils. She had thought th e manes, soft real hair, the only redeeming thing about them, but she ha d taken them down in a false show of devotion when her mother asked, with her so rrowful eyes, why she never played with them. The room beside it was the master be droom, darkened with drawn shades. The carpet was faded and stained. The bedcovers we re kicked down, as if someone had just gotten up, a turquoise blanket, and yellowed sh eets. Nell had pulled Teddy back into the hallway, her mouth on his neck, her fingers undo ing the buttons of his shirt. Nell had learned as a child, through overheard adult conversation, that this was where Vince had found her mother, overdosed on Seconal. She ha d imagined for herself what the adults would not say, that her body had been sprawled across the sheets, that there had been no pulse and nothing for the paramedics to attempt to save. Nell knew which robe her mother wore, the silver velour, slit up the fr ont to reveal her long white legs. She saw her eyes, open and glassy, with their same questioning. What? she would ask, when she caught Nell looking. She would be on her way out to the patio with a drink, or dressed for dinner, her earrings caught in her hair. Nell would look away and say nothing. Not, you are beautiful Not, I love you. The last bedroom had been Auroras. It held a twin bed with a bare mattress. The curtains were sheers, pulled back, and the li ght came in from the bay and wavered on the bare parquet. There was no other furniture in the room. Teddy lay down on the bed and folded his hands on his chest. He lo oked up at the ceiling, like a patient. Do something with me, he whispered.
139 She climbed up and draped her body over his. Say what you want, she told him, pinning his arms back, willing to give him whatever he asked. Today, Teddy followed Nell into the house. She felt his eyes on her legs below her skirt. She went to the family room firs t, to take a bottle from the cabinet, but Teddy dropped the ice and the glass on a table and took hold of her around her waist. He buried his face in her hair and exhaled, a long si ghing breath. Nell felt a surge of panic and desire she tried to hide. What? she asked him, drawing back. This angered him, her cold detachment. S top it, he said, as if he might cry, or strike her. He did not want a drink. He wanted he r in the back bedroom, spread on the bed without clothes. He took her by the hand down the long, dim hall. Nell remembered Aurora coming out of her room in the morn ingsher face drawn and pale, her dark hair like a hood in the shadows, her scuffing slippers. Her eyes softened when they saw her. She and Nell had gone into the kitchen togeth er and made hot chocolate, warming the milk in a pan. Aurora let Nell stir. She reme mbered the heat coming off the burner on her arm, the metal spoon heating up in her fingers Outside the sliding glass doors the bay was alive, skittish, changing colors. Nells mo ther had gotten up next in her long silk robe. She stood looking at the bay through the do ors. Her perfume smell hid in the robes
140 depths. Her hands stayed deep in the pockets They came out to light a cigarette, and then, they shook. Do you like it here, Nellie? she asked. Her voice was te ntative and unsure. Nell saw now that her mothers love had been wit hheld in fear, waiting for a sign, that it might have poured from her, a liquid warmth, but Ne ll with her silence fended it off. She let Teddy hold her down on the bed. She let him slid e off her clothing and cover her with his mouth and hands, with his own shaking limbs. When he was finished he rolled aside and pulled her up against his thudding heart. Unde rneath her the mattress was wet and cold, with a dank odor. They listened to the bay slap the sea wall. They h eard the voices of his children playing in the next yard. In the houses around them small and mundane things continued, the food preparing, the laundry fold ing, the sex in bedrooms, the safety of rituals tiding everyone over. Nell thought of her husband waiting at home for her, wondering about her absences, his plate of food on the table, his years of investment in her presence, and now, an empty house, her unsorted mail piled up on the counter. In the room with Teddy the sunset tinged the walls the color inside a conch. You will always have to go she said. She looked down at his face, his eyes and their sad cast, his mouth saying her name. If all those years ago Sweeney had asked her to leave her life she saw now she might have done it. If her mother had once held out her arms to her, Nell would have gone there, too. She still did not know if she was spared, or robbed. She looked down at Teddys face and he watched her, wondering. She saw they would have love and terror, or they would ha ve nothing. Nell felt he r love for him, dire and urgent, like a hand over her mouth.
141 She sat up and found her clothing where he had tossed it. She dressed and went, moving through the house, its room s in twilight, its decay masked. She felt at home there with the dust and the smell and the disuse. The St. Joseph had been small, plaster, the size of her hand, stolen from the nativity scene in the living room. Aurora had given it to her to hold while she dug. He wore a brown painte d robe. He held a staff, the other arm extended, beckoning. He was the patron saint of the family and home, Aurora told her. That night was damp and starless. She had remembered to put on the quilted robe her mother gave her, draped acr oss the foot of her bed. This is for the best, Aurora said as she dug. Nell had smelled licorice on her breath that came out, cloudlike, around her h ead. Aurora swore her to secrecy. She told Nell that her mother and Vince would be bett er apart. Sometimes that is the way of things, she said. In her fervent ch ilds heart Nell had wished it so. It was Nells mother who told Vince th e statue was there, somewhere, whod watched his drunken, desperate search from the doorway. Aurora packed and left the house in a cab. Nell, watching him on the la wn from her bedroom window, had felt her complicity, a powerful devotion. Vince dug fo r hours in the wrong place. He had made holes, they saw in the morning, all acro ss the front lawn, cutting through the St. Augustine with his trowel, scatte ring little clods of grass and dirt. A day later the buried statue would become part of her mother a nd Vinces reconciliation, a joke between them, and in the living room, the remaining figures in the nativity scene continued to pose in their tableauMary alone by the infant, her blue robe chipped, the wise man standing aside, waiting, his gift glue d into his wonderful hands.
142 Nell stood on the lawn in the lamplight. She had forgotten her sweater, and the cold slipped down the front of her blouse. From the front porch she took twelve steps along the azaleas and stopped. Th e statue was there behind th e hedge, buried in close to the house. Nell moved in among the dry branches and scraped at the dirt with her hand. It was dense with the azalea roots, and smelled as she remembered it, of the fertilizer Vince used to make the shrubs bloom. Around her the neighborhood houses lit up warm and yellow. The darkness was a body, bending ove r the hedges. She was not sure who watched her, or if she was entirely alone. Bu t she would fall to her knees because she had held the little statue in her hand, and she kne w where to find it, prostrate in the bed of soil, its robes folds the same, its plaster palm upturned, still held out in the semblance of redemption. And though Nells limbs kept Teddys memory fresh like a wound, she sensed, already, the unconscionable ease with which she would forget him.
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Gonzalez, Karen Brown.
She fell to her knees and other stories
h [electronic resource] /
by Karen Brown Gonzalez.
[Tampa, Fla.] :
University of South Florida,
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2004.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 146 pages.
ABSTRACT: These collected stories represent a culling from a portion of work that shares a similar theme of loss--its manifestation, its channeling, by various fictional characters, into the palpable and sensate, into the physical world of the body. They are people, mostly women, who have lost their hold on the world to which they are accustomed, who become entangled in situations where their bearings are skewed, their judgment faulty, their decisions based solely on a physical, most often sexual, attraction that simultaneously depletes a sense of worth, while providing its semblance. The loss stems, at times, as in "Manifold," from beyond the control of the character, from the world of adults who cannot, for their own reasons, handle their own despair. It comes from the unavoidable presence of mental illness, and the inability of the character to perceive, amidst the confusion of change, a stable view. Often, as in "She Fell to Her Knees," there is no reference point upon which to base a way to live. Memory is only a trigger for more loss. The characters' own choices bring about loss in other ways--an abandoned infant, promiscuity, an encounter with a stranger--all choices made in an effort to ease, and which result in compounding precarious situations. Brief solace in sex results in inevitable emptiness. Relationships are sought for the safety of their impermanence. The respite from loneliness is always temporary, and almost always sought with the hope that from the physical will emerge the gift of emotional commitment. The stories seek to reveal, not the histories of the characters, but the maps of their emotional pasts. They attempt to portray the routes from which the women have stumbled, and in this way illuminate the emotional present of each story.
Adviser: Fleming, John
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.