"We'll change direction. The boom will swing, so watch your
"Do you think there are any sharks?" Still, he tells himself,
there is an intimacy to it, just the two of them, the same spray
hitting his skin and hers, the wind and water sounds that drown out
all others, the curve of her shoulder shining like metal in the
light of that hard white sun that makes the sun he grew up under
seem orange and bloated in memory.
"Did you see Jaws II?" she asks back.
"D'you ever get the feeling everything these days is sequels?"
he asks in turn. "Like people are running out of ideas." He feels
so full of fatigue and long-held lust as to be careless of
his life, amid this tugging violence of elements. Even the
sun-sparkle on the water feels cruel, a malevolence straight
from Heaven, like those photons beating on the wings of the
airplane flying down.
"Coming about," Cindy says. "Hard alee."
He crouches, and the boom misses. He sees another sail out here
with them, Ronnie and Janice, headed for the horizon. She seems to
be at the back, steering. When did she learn? Some summer camp. You
have to be rich from the start to get the full benefits. Cindy
says, "Now Harry, you take over. It's simple. That little strip of
cloth at the top of the mast is called a telltale. It tells what
direction the wind is coming from. Also, look at the waves. You
want to keep the sail at an angle to the wind. What you don't want
is to see the front edge of the sail flapping. That's called
luffing. It means you're headed directly into the wind, and then
you must head off. You push the tiller away from you, away from the
sail. You'll feel it, I promise. The tension between the tiller and
the line - it's like a scissors, sort of. It's fun. Come on,
Harry, nothing can happen. Change places with me." They manage the
maneuver, while the boat swings like a hammock beneath their bulks.
A little cloud covers the sun, dyeing the water dark, then
releasing it back into sunshine with a pang. Harry takes hold of
the tiller and gropes until the wind takes hold with him. Then, as
she says, it's fun: the sail and tiller tugging, the invisible sea
breeze pushing, the distances not nearly so great and hopeless once
you have control. "You're doing fine," Cindy tells him, and from
the way she sits with legs crossed facing ahead he can see the
underside of all five toes of one bare foot, the thin blue skin
here wrinkled, the littlest dear toe bent into the toe next to it
as if trying to hide. She trusts him. She loves him. Now that he
has the hang of it he dares to heel, pulling the mainsheet tighter
and tighter, so the waves spank and his palm burns. The land is
leaping closer, they are almost safe when, in adjusting his aim
toward the spot on the beach where Janice and Ronnie have already
dragged their Sunfish up, he lets out the sail a touch and the wind
catches it full from behind; the prow goes under abruptly in a
furious surging film; heavily the whole shell slews around and
tips; he and Cindy have no choice but to slide off together,
entangled with line. A veined translucence closes over his head.
Air he thinks wildly and comes up in sudden shade, the boat looming
on edge above them. Cindy is beside him in the water. Gasping,
wanting to apologize, he clings briefly to her. She feels like a
shark, slimy and abrasive. Their two foam-rubber belts bump
underwater. Each hair in her eyebrows gleams in the strange light
here, amid shadowed waves and the silence of stilled wind, only a
gentle slipslap against the hollow hull. With a grimace she pushes
him off, takes a deep breath, and disappears beneath the boat. He
tries to follow but his belt roughly buoys him back. He hears her
grunting and splashing on the other side of the upright keel, first
pulling at, then standing on the centerboard until the Sunfish
comes upright, great pearls of water exploding from it as the
striped sail sweeps past the sun. Harry heaves himself on and
deftly she takes the boat in to shore.
The episode is inglorious, but they all laugh about it on the
beach, and in his self-forgiving mind their underwater
embrace has rapidly dried to something tender and promising. The
slither of two skins, her legs fluttering between his. The few
black hairs where her eyebrows almost meet. The hairs of her crotch
she boldly displayed sitting yoga-style. It all adds up.
Lunch at the resort is served by the pool or brought by tray to
the beach, but dinner is a formal affair within a vast pavilion
whose rafters drip feathery fronds yards long and at whose rear,
beside the doors leading into the kitchen, a great open barbecue
pit sends flames roaring high, so that shadows twitch against the
background design of thatch and carved masks, and highlights spark
in the sweating black faces of the assistant chefs. The head chef
is a scrawny Belgian always seen sitting at the bar between meals,
looking sick, or else conferring in accents of grievance with one
of the prim educated native women who run the front desk. Monday
night is the barbecue buffet, with a calypso singer during the meal
and dancing to electrified marimbas afterward; but all six of the
holidayers from Diamond County agree they are exhausted from the
night at the casino and will go to bed early. Harry after nearly
drowning in Cindy's arms fell asleep on the beach and then went
inside for a nap. While he was sleeping, a sudden sharp tropical
rainstorm drummed for ten minutes on his tin roof. When he awoke,
the rain had passed, and the sun was setting in a band of orange at
the mouth of the bay, and his pals had been yukking it up in the
bar ever since the shower an hour ago. Something is cooking. They
seem, the three women, very soft-faced by the light of the
candle set on the table in a little red netted hurricane lamp, amid
papery flowers that will be wilted before the meal is over. They
keep touching one another, their sisterhood strengthened and
excited down here. Cindy is wearing a yellow hibiscus in her hair
tonight, and that Arab thing, unbuttoned halfway down. She more
than once reaches past Webb's drink and stringy brown hands as they
pose on the tablecloth to touch Janice on a wrist, remembering
"that fresh colored boy behind the bar today, I told him I was down
here with my husband and he shrugged like it made no difference
whatsoever!" Webb looks sage, letting the currents pass around him,
and Ronnie sleepy and puffy but still full of beans, in that grim
play-maker way of his. Harry and Ronnie were on the Mt. Judge
basketball varsity together and more than once Rabbit had to
suppress a sensation that though he was the star the coach, Marty
Tothero, liked Ronnie better, because he never quit trying and was
more "physical" around the backboards. The world runs on push.
Rabbit's feeling about things has been that if it doesn't happen by
itself it's not worth making happen. Still, that Cindy. A man could
kill for a piece of that. Pump it in, and die like a male spider.
The calypso singer comes to their table and sings a long dirty song
about the Big Bamboo. Harry doesn't understand all the allusions
but the wives titter after every verse. The singer smiles and the
song smiles but his bloody eyes glitter like those of a lizard
frozen on the wall and his skull when bent over the guitar shows
gray wool. An old act. A dying art. Harry doesn't know if they are
supposed to tip him or just applaud. They applaud and quick as a
lizard's tongue his hand flickers out to take the bill that Webb,
leaning back, has offered. The old singer moves on to the next
table and begins that one about Back to back, and Belly to belly.
Cindy giggles, touches Janice on the forearm, and says, "I bet all
the people back in Brewer will think we've swapped down here."
"Maybe we should then," Ronnie says, unable to suppress a belch
Janice, in that throaty mature woman's voice cigarettes and age
have given her but that Harry is always surprised to hear she has,
asks Webb, who sits beside her, gently, "How do you feel about that
sort of thing, Webb?"
The old fox knows he has the treasure to barter and takes his
time, pulling himself up in his chair to release an edge of coat
he's sitting on, a kind ofdark blue captain's jacket with spoked
brass buttons, and takes his pack of Marlboro Lights from his side
pocket. Rabbit's heart races so hard he stares down at the table,
where the bloody bones, ribs and vertebrae, of their barbecue wait
to be cleared away. Webb drawls, "Well, after two marriages that
I'd guess you'd have to say were not fully successful, and some of
the things I've seen and done before, after, and between, I must
admit a little sharing among friends doesn't seem to me so bad,
ifit's done with affection and respect. Respect is the key term
here. Every party involved, and I mean every party, has to be
willing, and it should be clearly understood that whatever happens
will go no further than that particular occasion. Secret affairs,
that's what does a marriage in. When people get romantic."
Nothing romantic about him, the king of the Polaroid pricks.
Harry's face feels hot. Maybe it's the spices in the barbecue
settling, or the length of Webb's sermon, or a blush of gratitude
to the Murketts, for arranging all this. He imagines his face
between Cindy's thighs, tries to picture that black pussy like a
curved snug mass of eyebrow hairs, flattened and warmed to
fragrance from being in underpants and framed by the white margins
the bikini bottom had to cover to be decent. He will follow her
slit down with his tongue, her legs parting with that same
weightless slither he felt under water today, down and in, and
around the comer next to his nose will be that whole great sweet
ass he has a thousand times watched jiggle as she dried herself
from swimming in the pool at the Flying Eagle, under the nappy
green shadow of Mt. Pemaquid. And her tits, the fall of them
forward when she obediently bends over. Something is happening in
his pants, like the stamen of one of these floppy flowers on the
tablecloth jerking with shadow as the candle-flame
"Down the way," the singer sings at yet another table, "where
the nights are gay, and the sun shines daily on the
moun-tain-top." Black hands come and smoothly clear
away the dark bones and distribute dessert menus. There is a walnut
cake they offer here that Harry especially likes, though there's
nothing especially Caribbean about it, it's probably flown in from
Thelma, who is wearing a sort of filmy top you can see her
cocoa-colored bra through, is gazing into middle distance
like a schoolteacher talking above the heads of her class and
saying, " . . . simple female curiosity. It's something you hardly
ever see discussed in all these articles on female sexuality, but I
think it's what's behind these male strippers rather than any real
desire on the part of the women to go to bed with the boys. They're
just curious about the penises, what they look like. They do look a
lot different from each other, I guess."
"That how you feel?" Harry asks Janice. "Curious?"
She lowers her eyes to the guttering hurricane lamp. She
murmurs, "Of course."
"Oh I'm not," Cindy says, "not the shape. I don't think I am. I
really am not."
"You're very young," Thelma says.
"I'm thirty," she protests. "Isn't that supposed to be my sexual
As if rejoining her in the water, Harry tries to take her side.
"They're ugly as hell. Most of the pricks I've seen are."
"You don't see them erect," Thelma lightly points out.
"Thank God for that," he says, appalled, as he sometimes is, by
this coarse crowd he's in - by human coarseness in
"And yet he loves his own," Janice says, keeping that light and
cool and as it were scientific tone that has descended upon them,
in the hushed dining pavilion. The singer has ceased. People at
other tables are leaving, moving to the smaller tables at the edge
of the dance floor by the pool.
"I don't love it," he protests in a whisper. "I'm stuck with
"It's you," Cindy quietly tells him.
"Not just the pricks," Thelma clarifies, "it has to be the whole
man who turns you on. The way he carries himself. His voice, the
way he laughs. But it all refers to that, I guess."
Pricks. Can it be? They let the delicate subject rest, as
dessert and coffee come. Revitalized by food and their talk, they
decide after all to sit with Stingers and watch the dancing a
while, under the stars that on this night seem to Harry jewels of a
clock that moves with maddening slowness, measuring out the minutes
until he sinks himself in Cindy as if a star were to fall and
sizzle into this Olympic-sized pool. Once, on some far lost
summer field of childhood, someone, his mother it must have been
though he cannot hear her voice, told him that if you stare up at
the night sky while you count to one hundred you are bound to see a
shooting star, they are in fact so common. But though he now leans
back from the Stinger and the glass table and the consolatory,
conspiratory murmur of his friends until his neck begins to ache,
all the stars above him hang unbudging in their sockets. Webb
Murkett's gravelly voice growls, "Well, kiddies. As the oldest
person here, I claim the privilege of announcing that I'm tired and
want to go to bed." And as Harry turns his face from the heavens
there it is, in a comer of his vision, vivid and brief as a
scratched match, a falling star, doused in the ocean of ink. The
women rise and gather their skirts about them; the marimbas, after
a consultation of fluttering, fading notes, break into "Send in the
Clowns." This plaintive pealing is lost behind them as they move
along the pool, and past the front desk where the haggard,
alcoholic resort manager is trying to get through
long-distance to New York, and across the hotel's traffic
circle with its curbs of whitewashed coral, down into the shadowy
realm of concrete paths between bushes of sleeping flowers. The
palms above them grow noisy as the music fades. The shoosh
of surf draws nearer. At the moonlit point where the paths diverge
into three, goodnights are nervously exchanged but no one moves;
then a woman's hand reaches out softly and takes the wrist of a man
not her husband. The others follow suit, with no person looking at
another, a downcast and wordless tugging serving to separate the
partners out and to draw them down the respective paths to each
woman's bungalow. Harry hears Cindy giggle, at a distance, for it
is not her hand with such gentle determination pulling him along,
She has felt him pull back, and tightens her grip, silently. On
the beach, he sees, a group has brought down a hurricane lamp, with
their drinks; the lamp and their cigarettes glow red in the
shadows, while the sea beyond stretches pale as milk beyond the
black silhouette of a big sailboat anchored in the bay, under the
half-moon tilted onto its back. Thelma lets go of his arm to
fish in her sequinned purse for the bungalow key. "You can have
Cindy tomorrow night," she whispers. "We discussed it."
"O.K., great," he says lamely, he hopes not insultingly. He is
figuring, this means that Cindy wanted that pig Harrison, and
Janice got Webb. He had been figuring Janice would have to take
Ronnie, and felt song for her, except from the look of him he'd
fall asleep soon, and Webb and Thelma would go together, both of
them yellowy stringy types. Thelma closes the bungalow door behind
them and switches on a straw globe light above the bed. He asks
her, "Well, are tonight's men the first choice for you ladies or're
you just getting the second choice out of the way?"
"Don't be so competitive, Harry. This is meant to be a loving
sharing sort of thing, you heard Webb. One thing we absolutely
agreed on, we're not going to carry any of it back to Brewer. This
is all the monkey business there's going to be, even if it kills
us." She stands there in the center of her straw rug rather
defiantly, a thin-faced sallow woman he scarcely knows. Not
only her nose is pink in the wake of her sunburn but patches below
her eyes as well: a kind of butterfly is on her face. Harry
supposes he should kiss her, but his forward step is balked by her
continuing firmly, "l'll tell you one thing though, Harry Angstrom.
You're my first choice."
"Of course. I adore you. Adore you."
"Haven't you ever sensed it?"
Rather than admit he hasn't, he hangs there foolishly.
"Shit," Thelma says. "Janice did. Why else do you think we
weren't invited to Nelson's wedding?" She turns her back, and
starts undoing her earring before the mirror, that just like the
one in his and Janice's bungalow is framed in woven strips of
bamboo. The batik hanging in here is of a tropical sunset with a
palm in the foreground instead of the black-mammy
fruit-seller he and Janice have, but the batik manufacturer
is the same. The suitcases are the Harrisons', and the clothes
hanging on the painted pipe that does for a closet. Thelma asks,
"You mind using Ronnie's toothbrush? I'll be a while in there, you
better take the bathroom first."
In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream,
Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that's eating up
the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with
the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a
click on the television commercials. Harry can't see the point,
it's just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge
safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers
himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar
of soap is handy. He shaved before dinner after his nap so no need
now. Also the Harrisons use chlorophyll Crest in one of those giant
tubes that always buckles and springs a leak when he and Janice try
to save a couple pennies and buy one. He wonders whatever happened
to Ipana and what was it Consumer Reports had to say about
toothpastes a few issues back, probably came out in favor of baking
soda, that's what he and Mim used to have to use, some theory Mom
had about the artificial flavoring in toothpaste contributing to
tartar. The trouble with consumerism is, the guy next door always
seems to be doing better at it than you are. Just the Harrisons'
bathroom supplies make him envious. Plain as she is, Thelma carries
a hefty medicine kit, and beauty aids, plus a sun block called
Eclipse, and Solarcaine. Vaseline, too, for some reason. Tampax, in
a bigger box than Janice ever buys. And a lot of painkiller,
aspirin in several shapes and Darvon and more pills in little
prescription bottles than he would have expected. People are always
a little sicker than you know. Harry debates whether he should take
his leak sitting down to spare Thelma the sound of its gross
splashing and rejects the idea, since she's the one wants to fuck
him. It streams noisily into the bowl it seems forever,
embarrassingly, all those drinks at dinner. Then he sits down on
the seat anyway, to let out a little air. Too much shellfish. He
imagines he can smell yesterday's crabmeat and when he stands he
tests with a finger down there to see if he stinks. He decides he
does. Better use a washcloth. He debates which washcloth is
Ronnie's, the blue or the brown. He settles on the brown and scrubs
all his undercarriage, everything that counts. Getting ready for
the ball. He erases his scent by giving the cloth a good rinsing no
matter whose it is.
When he steps back into the room Thehna is down to her
underwear, cocoa bra and black panties. He didn't expect this, nor
to be so stirred by it. Breasts are strange: some look bigger in
clothes than they are and some look smaller. Thehna's are the
second kind; her bra is smartly filled. Her whole body, into her
forties, has kept that trim neutral serviceability nurses and
gradeschool teachers surprise you with, beneath their straight
faces. She laughs, and holds out her arms like a fan dancer. "Here
I am. You look shocked. You're such a sweet prude, Harry -
that's one of the things I adore. I'll be out in five minutes. Try
not to fall asleep."
Clever of her. What with the sleep debt they're all running down
here and the constant booze and the trauma in the water today
- his head went under and a bottomless bile-green
volume sucked at his legs - he was weary. He begins to
undress and doesn't know where to stop. There are a lot of details
a husband and wife work out over the years that with a strange
woman pop up all over again. Would Thelma like to find him naked in
the bed? Or on it? For him to be less naked than she when she comes
out of the bathroom would be rude. At the same time, with this
strawshaded light swaying above the bed on so bright, he
doesn't want her to think seeing him lying there on display that he
thinks he's a Playgirl centerfold. He knows he could lose thirty
pounds and still have a gut. In his underpants he crosses to the
bambootrimmed bureau in the room and switches on the lamp
there whose cheap wooden base is encrusted with baby seashells
glued on. He takes off his underpants. The elastic waistband has
lost its snap, the only brand of this type to buy is jockey, but
those cutrate stores in Brewer don't like to carry it,
quality is being driven out everywhere. He switches off the light
over the bed and in shadow stretches himself out, all of him, on
top of the bedspread, as he is, as he was, as he will be before the
undertakers dress him for the last time, not even a wedding ring to
relieve his nakedness; when he and Janice got married men weren't
expected to wear wedding rings. He closes his eyes to rest them for
a second in the red blankness there, beneath his lids. He has to
get through this, maybe all she wants to do is talk, and then
somehow be really rested for tomorrow night. Getting there . . . .
That slither underwater ....
Thelma with what breaks upon him like the clatter of an
earthquake has come out of the bathroom. She is holding her
underclothes in front of her, and with her back to him she
sorts the underpants into the dirty pile the Harrisons keep beside
the bureau, behind the straw wastebasket, and the bra, clean
enough, back into the drawer, folded. This is the second time in
this trip, he thinks drowsily, that he has seen her ass. Her body
as she turns eclipses the bureau lamp and the front of her gathers
shadow to itself, she advances timidly, as if wading into water.
Her breasts sway forward as she bends to turn the light he switched
off back on. She sits down on the edge of the bed.
His prick is still sleepy. She takes it into her hand. "You're
"No, they somehow weren't doing it at the hospital that day. Or
maybe my mother had a theory, I don't know. I never asked.
"It's lovely. Like a little bonnet." Sitting on the edge of the
bed, more supple naked than he remembers her seeming with clothes
on, Thelma bends and takes his prick in her mouth. Her body in the
lamplight is a pale patchwork of faint tan and peeling pink and the
natural yellowy tint of her skin. Her belly puckers into flat folds
like stacked newspapers and the back of her hand as it holds the
base of his prick with two fingers shows a dim lightning of blue
veins. But her breath is warm and wet and the way that in
lamplight individual white hairs snake as if singed through
the mass of dull brown makes him want to reach out and stroke her
head, or touch the rhythmic hollow in her jaw. He fears, though,
interrupting the sensations she is giving him. She lifts a
hand quickly to tuck back a piece of her hair, as if to let him
He murmurs, "Beautiful." He is growing thick and long but still
she forces her lips each time down to her fingers as they
encircle him at his base. To give herself ease she spreads
her legs; between her legs, one of them lying aslant across the bed
edge, he sees emerging from a pubic bush more delicate and reddish
than he would have dreamed a short white string. Unlike Janice's or
Cindy's as he imagined it, Thelma's pussy is not opaque; it is a
fuzz transparent upon the bruise-colored labia that with
their tongue of white string look so lacking and defenseless Harry
could cry. She too is near tears, perhaps from the effort of not
gagging. She backs off and stares at the staring eye of his glans,
swollen free of his foreskin. She pulls up the bonnet again and
says crooningly, teasingly, "Such a serious little face." She
kisses it lightly, once, twice, flicking her tongue, then bobs
again, until it seems she must come up for air. "God," she sighs.
"I've wanted to do that for so long. Come. Come, Harry. Come in my
mouth. Come in my mouth and all over my face." Her voice sounds
husky and mad saying this and all through her words Thelma does not
stop gazing at the little slit of his where a single cloudy tear
has now appeared. She licks it off.
"Have you really," he asks timidly, "liked me for a while?"
"Years," she says. "Years. And you never noticed. You shit.
Always under Janice's thumb and mooning after silly Cindy. Well you
know where Cindy is now. She's being screwed by my husband. He
didn't want to, he said he'd rather go to bed with me." She snorts,
in some grief of self-disgust, and plunges her mouth down
again, and in the pinchy rush of sensation as he feels forced
against the opening of her throat he wonders if he should accept
"Wait," Harry says. "Shouldn't I do something for you first? If
I come, it's all over."
"If you come, then you come again."
"Not at my age. I don't think."
"Your age. Always talking about your age." Thelma rests her face
on his belly and gazes up at him, for the first time playful, her
eyes at right angles to his disconcertingly. He has never noticed
their color before: that indeterminate color called hazel but in
the strong light overhead, and brightened by all her
deep-throating, given a tawny pallor, an unthinking animal
translucence. "I'm too excited to come," she tells him. "Anyway,
Harry, I'm having my period and they're really bloody, every other
month. I'm scared to find out why. In the months in between, these
terrible cramps and hardly any show."
"See a doctor," he suggests.
"I see doctors all the time, they're useless. I'm dying, you
know that, don't you?"
"Well, maybe that's too dramatic a way of putting it. Nobody
knows how long it'll take, and a lot of it depends upon me. The one
thing I'm absolutely supposed not to do is go out in the sun. I was
crazy to come down here, Ronnie tried to talk me out of it."
"Why did you?"
"Guess. I tell you, I'm crazy, Harry. I got to get you out of my
system." And it seems she might make that sob of disgusted grief
again, but she has reared up her head to look at his prick. All
this talk of death has put it half to sleep again.
"This is this lupus?" he asks.
"Mmm," Thelma says. "Look. See the rash?" She pulls back her
hair on both sides. "Isn't it pretty? That's from being so stupid
in the sun Friday. I just wanted so badly to be like the rest of
you, not to be an invalid. It was terrible Saturday. Your joints
ache, your insides don't work. Ronnie offered to take me home for a
shot of cortisone."
midi to mp3
"He's very nice to you."
"He loves me."
His prick has stiffened again and she bends to it. "Thelma." He
has not used her name before, this night. "Let me do something to
you. I mean, equal rights and all that."
"You're not going down into all that blood."
"Let me suck these sweet things then." Her nipples are not
bumply like Janice's but perfect as a baby's thumb-tips.
Since it is his treat now he feels free to reach up and switch off
the light over the bed. In the dark her rashes disappear and he can
see her smile as she arranges herself to be served. She sits
cross-legged, like Cindy did on the boat, women the flexible
sex, and puts a pillow in her lap for his head. She puts a finger
in his mouth and plays with her nipple and his tongue together.
There is a tremble running through her like a radio not quite
turned off. His hand finds her ass, its warm dents; there is a kind
of glassy texture to Thelma's skin where Janice's has a touch of
fine, fine sandpaper. His prick, lightly teased by her fingernails,
has come back nicely. "Harry." Her voice presses into his ear. "I
want to do something for you so you won't forget me, something
you've never had with anybody else. I suppose other women have
sucked you off?"
He shakes his head yes, which tugs the flesh of her breast.
"How many have you fucked up the ass?"
He lets her nipple slip from his mouth. "None. Never."
"You and Janice?"
"Oh God no. It never occurred to us."
"Harry. You're not fooling me?"
How dear that was, her old-fashioned "fooling." From
talking to all those third-graders. "No, honestly. I thought
only queers . . . Do you and Ronnie?"
"All the time. Well, a lot of the time. He loves it."
"It has its charms."
"Doesn't it hurt? I mean, he's big."
"At first. You use Vaseline. I'll get ours."
"Thelma, wait. Am I up to this?"
She laughs a syllable. "You're up." She slides away into the
bathroom and while she is gone he stays enormous. She returns and
anoints him thoroughly, with an icy expert touch. Harry shudders.
Thelma lies down beside him with her back turned, curls forward as
if to be shot from a cannon, and reaches behind to guide him.
It seems it won't go, but suddenly it does. The medicinal odor
of displaced Vaseline reaches his nostrils. The grip is tight at
the base but beyond, where a cunt is all velvety suction and
caress, there is no sensation: a void, a pure black box, a casket
of perfect nothingness. He is in that void, past her tight ring of
muscle. He asks, "May I come?"
"Please do." Her voice sounds faint and broken. Her spine and
shoulder blades are taut.
It takes only a few thrusts, while he rubs her scalp with one
hand and clamps her hip steady with the other. Where will his come
go? Nowhere but mix with her shit. With sweet Thelma's sweet shit.
They lie wordless and still together until his prick's slow
shrivelling withdraws it. "O.K.," he says. "Thank you. That I won't
"I feel embarrassed. What does it do for you?"
"Makes me feel full of you. Makes me feel fucked up the ass. By
lovely Harry Angstrom."
"Thelma," he admits, "I can't believe you're so fond of me. What
have I done to deserve it?"
"Just existed. Just shed your light. Haven't you ever noticed,
at parties or at the club, how I'm always at your side?"
"Well, not really. There aren't that many sides. I mean, we see
you and Ronnie -"
"Janice and Cindy noticed. They knew you were who I'd want."
"Uh - not to, you know, milk this, but what is it about me
that turns you on?"
"Oh darling. Everything. Your height and the way you move, as if
you're still a skinny twenty-five. The way you never sit down
anywhere without making sure there's a way out. Your little
provisional smile, like a little boy at some party where the
bullies might get him the next minute. Your good humor. You
believe in people so - Webb, you hang on
his words where nobody else pays 'any attention, and Janice, you're
so proud of her it's pathetic. It's not as if she can do anything.
Even her tennis, Doris Kaufmann was telling us, really -'
"Well it's nice to see her have fun at something, she's had a
kind of dreary life."
"See? You're just terribly generous. You're so grateful to be
anywhere, you think that tacky club and that hideous house of
Cindy's are heaven. It's wonderful. You're so glad to be
"Well, I mean, considering the alternative
"It kills me. I love you so much for it. And your hands. I've
always loved your hands." Having sat up on the edge of the bed, she
takes his left hand, lying idle, and kisses the big white moons of
each fingernail. "And now your prick, with its little bonnet. Oh
Harry I don't care if this kills me, coming down here, tonight is
That void, inside her. He can't take his mind from what he's
discovered, that nothingness seen by his single eye. In the
shadows, while humid blue moonlight and the rustle of palms seep
through the louvers by the bed, he trusts himself to her as if
speaking in prayer, talks to her about himself as he has talked to
none other: about Nelson and the grudge he bears the kid and the
grudge the boy bears him, and about his daughter, the daughter he
thinks he has, grown and ignorant of him. He dares confide to
Thelma, because she has let him fuck her up the ass in
proof of love, his sense of miracle at being himself, himself
instead of somebody else, and his old inkling, now fading in the
energy crunch, that there was something that wanted him to find it,
that he was here on earth on a kind of assignment.
"How lovely to think that," Thelma says. "It makes you" -
the word is hard for her to find - "radiant. And sad." She
gives him advice on some points. She thinks he should seek out Ruth
and ask her point-blank if that is his daughter, and if so is
there anything he can do to help? On the subject of Nelson, she
thinks the child's problem may be an extension of Harry's; if he
himself did not feel guilty about Jill's death and before that
Rebecca's, he would feel less threatened by Nelson and more
comfortable and kindly with him. "Remember," she says, "he's just a
young man like you once were, looking for his path."
"But he's not like me!" Harry protests, having come at last into
a presence where the full horror of this truth, the great
falling-off, will be understood. "He's a goddam little
Springer, through and through."
Thelma thinks he's more like Harry than he knows. Wanting to
learn to hang glide - didn't he recognize himself in that?
And the thing with two girls at once. Wasn't he, possibly, a bit
jealous of Nelson?
"But I never had the impulse to screw Melanie," he confesses.
"Or Pru either, much. They're both out of this world, somehow."
Of course, Thelma says. "You shouldn't want to fuck them.
They're your daughters. Or Cindy either. You should want to fuck
me. I'm your generation, Harry. I can see you. To those
girls you're just an empty heap of years and money."
And, as they drift in talk away from the constellations of his
life, she describes her marriage with Ronnie, his insecurities and
worries beneath that braggart manner that she knows annoys Harry.
"He was never a star like you, he never had that for a moment." She
met him fairly well along in her twenties, when she was wondering
if she'd die a spinster schoolteacher. Being old as she was, with
some experience of men, and with a certain gift for letting go, she
was amused by the things he thought of. For their honeymoon
breakfast he jerked off into the scrambled eggs and they ate his
fried jism with the rest. Ifyou go along with everything on that
side of Ronnie, he's wonderfully loyal, and docile, you could say.
He has no interest in other women, she knows this for a fact, a
curious fact even, given the nature of men. He's been a perfect
father. When he was lower down on the totem pole at Schuylkill
Mutual, he lost twenty pounds, staying awake nights worrying. Only
in these last few years has the weight come back. When the first
diagnosis of her lupus came through, he took it worse than she did,
in a way. "For a woman past forty, Harry, when you've had children
.... If some Nazi or somebody came to me and they'd take
either me or little Georgie, say - he's the one that's needed
most help, so he comes to mind - it wouldn't be a hard
choice. For Ronnie I think it might be. To lose me. He thinks what
I do for him not every woman would. I suspect he's wrong but there
it is." And she admits she likes his cock. But what Harry might not
appreciate, being a man, is that a big one like Ronnie's doesn't
change size that much when it's hard, just the angle changes. It
doesn't go from being a little bonneted sleeping baby to a tall
fierce soldier like this. She has worked him up again, idly toying
as she talks, while the night outside their louvered window has
grown utterly still, the last drunken shout and snatch of music
long died, nothing astir but the incessant sighing of the sea and
the piping of some high-pitched cricket they have down here.
Courteously he offers to fuck her through her blood, and she
refuses with an almost virginal fright, so that he wonders if on
the excuse of her flow she is not holding this part of herself back
from him, aloof from her love and shamelessness, pure for her
marriage. She has explained, "When I realized I was falling in love
with you, I was so mad at myself, I mean it couldn't contribute to
anything. But then I came to see that something must be missing
between me and Ronnie, or maybe in any life, so I tried to accept
it, and even quietly enjoy it, just watching you. My little
hairshirt." He has not kissed her yet on the mouth, but now having
guessed at her guilty withholding of herself from being simply
fucked he does. Guilt he can relate to. Her lips feel cool and dry,
considering. Since she will not admit him to her cunt, as
compromise he masturbates her while sitting on her face, glad he
thought of washing where he did. Her tongue probes there and her
fingers, as cool on top of his as if still filmed with Vaseline,
guide his own as they find and then lose and find again the hooded
little center that is her. She comes with a smothered cry
and arches her back so this darkness at the center of her pale and
smooth and unfamiliar form rises hungrily under his eyes, a cloud
with a mouth, a fish lunging upwards out of water. Getting her
breath, she returns the kindness and with him watches the white
liquid lift and collapse in glutinous strings across her hand. She
rubs his jism on her face, where it shines like sun lotion. The
stillness outside is beginning to brighten, each leaf sharp in the
soft air. Drunk on fatigue and selfexposure, he begs her to tell
him something that he can do to her that Ronnie has never done. She
gets into the bathtub and has him urinate on her. "It's hot!" she
exclaims, her sallow skin drummed upon in designs such as men and
boys drill in the snow. They reverse the experience, Thelma
awkwardly straddling, and having to laugh at her own impotence,
looking for the right release in the maze of her womanly insides.
Above him as he waits her bush has a masculine jut, but when her
stream comes, it dribbles sideways; women cannot aim, he sees. And
her claim of heat seems to him exaggerated; it is more like coffee
or tea one lets cool too long at the edge of the desk and then must
drink in a few gulps, this side of tepid. Having tried together to
shower the ammoniac scent of urine off their skins, Thelma and
Harry fall asleep among the stripes of dawn now welling through the
louvers, they sleep as if not a few more stolen hours but an entire
married life of sanctioned intimacy stretches unto death before
A savage rattling at the door. "Thelma. Harry. It's us." Thelma
puts on a robe to answer the knocking while Rabbit hides beneath
the sheet and peeks. Webb and Ronnie stand there in the
incandescence of another day. Webb is resplendent in
grape-colored alligator shirt and powder-blue plaid
golf pants. Ronnie wears last night's dinner clothes and needs to
get inside. Thelma shuts the door and hides in the bathroom while
Harry dresses in last night's rumpled suit, not bothering to knot
the necktie. He still smells of urine, he thinks. He runs to his
own bungalow to change into a golf outfit. Black girls, humming,
pursued by yellow birds, are carrying tinkling breakfast trays
along the cement paths. Janice is in the bathroom, running a
He shouts out, "You O.K.?"
She shouts back, "As O.K. as you are," and doesn't emerge.
On the way out, Harry stuffs an unbuttered croissant and some
scalding sips of coffee into his mouth. The papery orange and
magenta flowers beside the door hurt his head. Webb and Ronnie are
waiting for him where the green cement paths meet. Among the three
men, as they push through their golf, there is much banter and good
humor, but little eye-contact. When they return from the
course around one o'clock, Janice is sitting by the Olympic pool in
the same off-white linen suit she wore down in the airplane.
Linen wrinkles terribly. "Harry, Mother phoned. We have to go
"You're kidding. Why?" He is groggy, and had pictured a long
afternoon nap, to be in shape for tonight. Also his foreskin was
tender after last night's workout and slightly chafed every time he
swung, thinking of Cindy, hoping her vagina would be nonfrictional.
His golf, threaded through vivid after-images of Thelma's
underside and a ticklish awareness of his two businesslike partners
as silently freighted with mental pictures of their own, was
mysteriously good, his swing as it were emptied of impurities,
until fatigue caught him on the fifteenth hole with three balls
sliced along the identical skyey groove into the lost-ball
terrain of cactus and coral and scrub growth. "What's happened? The
"No," Janice says, and by the easy way she cries he knows she's
been crying off and on all morning, here in the sun. "It's Nelson.
He's run off."
"He has? I better sit down." To the black waiter who comes to
their glass table under its ftinged umbrella he says, "Piña
colada, Jeff. Better make that two. Janice?" She blearily nods,
though there is an empty glass already before her. Harry looks
around at the faces of their friends. "Jeff, maybe you should make
that six." He has come to know the ropes in this place. The other
people sitting around the pool look pale, newly pulled from the
Cindy has just come out of the pool, her shoulders
blue-black, the diaper-shape ofher bikini bottom wetly
adhering. She tugs the cloth to cover the pale margin of skin
above, below. She is getting fatter, day by day. Better hurry, he
tells himself. But it is too late. Her face when she turns,
towelling her back with a contortion that nearly pops one tit out
of its triangular sling, is solemn. She and Thelma have heard
Janice's story already. Thelma is sitting at the table in that
ankle-length wrapper, the same dustypink as her nose, that
she bought down here along with the wide straw hat. The big brown
sunglasses she brought from home, tinted darker at the top, render
her expressionless. Harry takes the chair at the table next to her.
His knee accidentally touches one of hers; she pulls it away at
Janice is telling him, through tears, "He and Pru had a fight
Saturday night, he wanted to go into Brewer for a party with that
Slim person and Pru said she was too pregnant and couldn't face
those stairs again, and he went by himself." She swallows. "And he
didn't come back." Her voice is all roughened from swallowing the
saltwater of the tears. With scrapings that hurt Harry's head Webb
and Ronnie pull chairs to their table in its tight circle of shade:
When Jeff brings their round of drinks Janice halts her terrible
tale and Ronnie negotiates for lunch menus. He, like his wife,
wears sunglasses. Webb wears none, trusting to his bushy brows and
the crinkles of his flinty eyes, which gaze at Janice like those of
some encouraging old fart of a father.
Her cheeks are drenched with the slime of distress and Harry has
to love her for her ugliness. "I told you the kid was a rat," he
tells her. He feels vindicated. And relieved, actually.
"He didn't come back," Janice all but cries, looking only at
him, not at Webb, with that smeared lost balked expression he
remembers so well from their earliest days, before she got cocky.
"But Mother didn't want to b-bother us on our vacation and
P-Pru thought he just needed to blow off steam and pretended
not to be worried. But Sunday after going to church with Mother she
called this Slim and Nelson had never showed up!"
"Did he have a car?" Harry asks.
"I think just scrambled eggs for me," Ronnie tells the waitress
who has come. "Loose. You understand? Not too well done."
This time Rabbit deliberately seeks to touch Thelma's knee with
his under the table but her knee is not there for him. Like Janice
down here she has become a piece of static. The waitress is at his
shoulder and he is wondering if he might dare another
crabmeat-salad sandwich or should play it safe with a BLT.
Janice's face, which the movement of the sun overhead is hoisting
out of shadow, goes wide in eyes and mouth as she might shriek.
"Harry you can't have lunch, you must get dressed
and out of here! I packed for you, everything but the gray suit.
The woman at the front desk was on the phone for me nearly an hour,
trying to get us back to Philadelphia but it's impossible this time
ofyear. There's not even anything to New York. She got us two seats
on a little plane to San Juan and a room at the hotel airport so we
can get a flight to the mainland first thing in the morning.
Atlanta and then Philadelphia."
"Why not just use our regular reservations Thursday? What good's
an extra day going to do?"
"I cancelled them. Harry, you didn't talk to Mother. She's wild,
I've never heard her like this, you know how she always makes
sense. I called back to tell her the plane on Wednesday and she
didn't think she could drive the Philadelphia traffic to meet us,
she burst into tears and said she was too old."
"Cancelled." It is sinking in. "You mean we can't stay here
tonight because of something Nelson has done?"
"Finish your story, Jan," Webb urges. Jan, is it now? Harry
suddenly hates people who seem to know; they would keep us
blind to the fact that there is nothing to know. We are each of us
filled with a perfect blackness.
Janice gulps again, and snufes, calmed by Webb's voice. "There's
nothing to finish. He didn't come back Sunday or Monday and none of
these friends they have in Brewer had seen him and Mother finally
couldn't stand it anymore and called this morning, even though Pru
kept telling her not to bother us, it was her husband and she took
"Poor kid. Like you said, she thought she could work miracles."
He tells her, "I don't want to leave before tonight."
"Stay here then," Janice says. "I'm going."
Harry looks over at Webb for some kind of help, and gets instead
a sage and useless not-my-funeral grimace. He looks at
Cindy but she is gazing down into her piña colada, her
eyelashes in sharp focus. "I still don't understand the rush," he
says. "Nobody's died."
"Not yet," Janice says. "Is that what you need?"
A rope inside his chest twists to make a kink. "Son of a fucking
bitch," he says, and stands, bumping his head on the fringed edge
of the umbrella. "When'd you say this plane to San Juan is?"
Janice snuffles, guilty now. "Not until three."
"O.K." He sighs. In a way this is a relief. "I'll go change and
bring the suitcases. Could one of you guys at least order me a
hamburger? Cindy. Thel. See you around." The two ladies let
themselves be kissed, Thelma primly on the lips, Cindy on her
apple-firm cheek, toasty from the sun.
Throughout their twenty-four-hour trip home Janice
keeps crying. The taxi ride past the old sugar mills, through the
goat herds and the straggling black towns and the air that seems to
be blowing them kisses; the forty-minute hop in a swaying
two-engine prop plane to Puerto Rico, over mild green water
beneath whose sparkling film lurk buried reefs and schools of
sharks; the stopover in San Juan where everybody is a real spic;
the long stunned night of porous sleep in a hotel very like that
motel on Route 422 where Mrs. Lubell stayed so long ago; and in the
morning two seats on a jet to Atlanta and then Philly: through all
this Janice is beside him with her cheeks glazed, eyes staring
ahead, her eyelashes tipped with tiny balls of dew. It is as if all
the grief that swept through him at Nelson's wedding now at last
has reached Janice's zone, and he is calm and emptied and as cold
as the void suspended beneath the airplane's shuddering flight. He
asks her, "Is it just Nelson?"
She shakes her head so violently the fringe of bangs bobs.
"Everything," she blurts, so loud he fears the heads just
glimpsable in the seats ahead might turn around.
"The swapping?" he pursues softly.
She nods, not so violently, pinching her lower lip in a kind of
turtle mouth her mother sometimes makes.
"How was Webb?"
"Nice. He's always been nice to me. He respected Daddy." This
sets the tears to flowing again. She takes a deep breath to steady
herself. "I felt so sorry for you, having Thelma when you wanted
Cindy so much." With that there is no stopping her crying.
He pats her hands, which are loosely fisted together in her lap
around a damp Kleenex. "Listen, I'm sure Nelson's all right,
wherever he is."
"He" - she seems to be choking, a stewardess glances down
as she strides by, this is embarrassing - "hates himself,
He tries to ponder if this is true. He snickers. "Well he sure
screwed me. Last night was my dream date."
Janice sniffs and rubs each nostril with the Kleenex. "Webb says
she's not as wonderful as she looks. He talked a lot about his
first two wives."
Beneath them, through the scratched oval of Plexiglas, there is
the South, irregular fields and dry brown woods, more woods than he
would have expected. Once he had dreamed of going south, of resting
his harried heart amid all that cotton, and now there it is under
him, like the patchwork slope of one big hill they are slowly
climbing, fields and woods and cities at the bends and mouths of
rivers, streets eating into green, America disgraced and barren,
mourning her hostages. They are flying too high for him to spot
golf courses. They play all winter down here, swinging easy. The
giant motors he is riding whine. He falls asleep. The last thing he
sees is Janice staring ahead, wide awake, the bulge of tears
compounding the bulge of her cornea. He dreams of Pru, who buts
while he is trying to manipulate her limbs, so there is too much
water, he begins to panic. He is changing weight and this wakes him
up. They are descending. He thinks back to his night with Thelma,
and it seems in texture no different from the dream. Only Janice is
real, the somehow catastrophic creases in her linen sleeve and the
muddy line of her jaw, her head slumped as from a broken neck. She
fell asleep, the same magazine open in her lap that she read on the
way down. They are descending over Maryland and Delaware, where
horses run and the du Ponts are king. Rich women with little birdy
breasts and wearing tall black boots in from the hunt. Walking past
the butler into long halls past marble tables they flick with their
whips. Women he will never fuck. He has risen as high as he can,
the possibility of such women is falling from him, falling with so
many other possibilities as he descends. No snow dusts the dry
earth below, rooftops and fields arid roads where cars are nosing
along like windup toys in invisible grooves. Yet from within those
cars they are speeding, and feel free. The river flashes its sheet
of steel, the plane tilts alarmingly, the air nozzles hissing above
him may be the last thing he hears, Janice is awake and bolt
upright. Forgive me. Fort Mifflin hulks just under their
wheels, their speed is titanic. Please, God. Janice is
saying something into his ear but the thump of the wheels drowns it
out. They are down, and taxiing. He gives a squeeze to Janice's
damp hand, that he didn't realize he was holding. "What did you
say?" he asks her.
"That I love you."
"Oh, really? Well, same here. That trip was fun. I feel
In the long slow trundle to their gate, she asks him shyly, "Was
Thelma better than me?"
He is too grateful to be down to lie. "In ways. How about
She nods and nods, as if to spill the last tears from her
He answers for her, "The bastard was great."
She leans her head against his shoulder. "Why do you think I've
Shocked, he admits, "I thought about Nelson."
Janice sniffs once more, so loudly that one man already on his
feet, arranging a Russian-style fur cap upon his sunburned
bald head, briefly stares. She concedes, "It was, mostly," and she
and Harry clasp hands once more, conspirators.
At the end of miles of airport corridor Ma Springer is standing
apart from the cluster of other greeters. In the futuristic
perspectives of this terminal she looks shrunken and bent, wearing
her second-best coat, not the mink but a black cloth trimmed
with silver fox, and a little cherry-red brimless hat with
folded-back net that might get by in Brewer but appears
quaint here, among the cowboys and the slim kids ofindeterminate
sex with their cropped hair dyed punk-style in pastel
feathers and the black chicks whose hair is frizzed up in
structures like three-dimensional Mickey Mouse ears. Hugging
her, Rabbit feels how small the old lady, once the terror of his
young manhood, has become. Her former look of having been stuffed
tight with Koerner pride and potential indignation has fled,
leaving her skin collapsed in random folds and bloodless. Deep
liverish gouges underscore her eyes, and her wattled throat seems
an atrocious wreck of flesh.
She can hardly wait to speak, backing a step away to give her
voice room to make its impact. "The baby came last night. A girl,
seven pounds and some. I couldn't sleep a wink, after getting her
to the hospital and then waiting for the doctor to call." Her voice
is shaky with blame. The airport Muzak, a tune being plucked on the
strings of many coordinated violins, accompanies her announcement
in such triumphant rhythm that Harry and Janice have to suppress
smiles, not even daring to step closer in the jostle and shufe, the
old lady is so childishly, precariously intent on the message she
means to deliver. "And then all the way down on the Turnpike,
trucks kept tooting their horns at me, tooting these big foghorns
they have. As if there were someplace else I could go; I couldn't
drive the Chrysler off the road," Bessie says. "And after
Conshohocken, on the Expressway, it's really a wonder I wasn't
killed. I never saw so much traffic, though I thought at noon it
would be letting up, and you know the signs, they aren't at all
clear even if you have good eyes. All the way along the river I
kept praying to Fred and I honestly believe it was him that got me
here, I couldn't have done it alone."
And, her manner plainly implies, she will never attempt anything
like it again; Janice and Harry find her at the terminus of the
last great effort of her life. Henceforth, she is in their
YET MA SPRINGER wasn't so totally thrown by events that she
didn't have the wit to call up Charlie Stavros and have him come
back to the lot. His own mother took a turn for the worse in
December - her whole left side feels numb, so even with a
cane it frightens her to walk - and as Charlie predicted his
cousin Gloria went back to Norristown and her husband, though
Charlie wouldn't give it a year; so he has been pretty well tied
down. This time it's Harry who's come back with a tan. He gives
Charlie a two-handed handclasp, he's so happy to see him at
Springer Motors again. The Greek sales rep doesn't look that hot,
however: those trips to Florida were like a paint job. He looks
pale. He looks as if you pricked his skin he'd bleed gray. He stand
hunched over protecting his chest like he'd smoked three packs a
day all his life, though Charlie like most Mediterranean types has
never really had the self-destructive habits you see in
northern Europeans and Negroes. Harry wouldn't have given him such
an all-out handshake this way a week ago, but since fucking
Thelma up the ass he's felt freer, more in love with the world
"The old mastoras. You look great," he exuberantly lies
"I've felt better," Charlie tells him. "Thank God it hasn't been
any kind of a winter so far." Harry can see, through the
plate-glass window, a snowless, leafless landscape, the dust
of all seasons swirling and drifting, intermixed with the paper
refuse from the Chuck Wagon that has blown across Route 111. A new
banner is up: THE ERA OF COROLLA. Toyota = Total Economy.
Charlie volunteers, "It's pretty damn depressing, watching
Manna mou head straight downhill. She gets out of bed just
to go to the bathroom and keeps telling me I ought to get
"Good advice, maybe."
"Well, I made a little move on Gloria in that direction, and it
may be what scared her back to her husband. That guy, what a shit.
She'll be back."
"Wasn't she a cousin?"
"All the better. Peppy type. About four eleven, little heavy in
the rumble seat, not quite classy enough for you, champ. But cute.
You should see her dance. I hadn't been to those Hellenic Society
Saturday nights for years, she talked me into it. I loved to watch
"You say she'll be back."
"Yeah but not for me. I've missed that boat." He adds, "I've
missed a lot of boats."
Charlie rolls a toothpick in the center of his lower lip. Harry
doesn't like to look at him closely; he's become one of those old
Brewer geezers who go into cigar stores to put ten dollars on the
numbers and hang around the magazine racks waiting for a
conversation. "You've caught a few," he ventures to tell Harry.
"No, listen. Charlie. I'm in rotten shape. A kid who's
disappeared and a new house with no furniture in it." Yet these
facts, species of emptiness and new possibility, excite and please
him more than not.
"The kid'll turn up," Charlie says. "He's just letting off
"That's what Pru says. You never saw anybody so calm,
considering. We went up to the hospital last night after getting in
from the islands and, Jesus, is she happy about that baby. You'd
think she was the first woman in the history of the world to pull
this off. I guess she was worried about the kid being normal, after
that fall she took a while ago."
"Worried about herself, more likely. Girl like that who's been
knocked around a lot by life, having a baby's the one way they can
prove to themselves they're human. What're they thinking of calling
"She doesn't want to call it after her mother, she wants to name
it after Ma. Rebecca. But she wants to wait to hear from Nelson,
because, you know, that was his sister's name. The infant that, you
know, didn't make it."
"Yeah." Charlie understands. Inviting bad luck. The sound of
Mildred Kroust's typewriter bridges their silence. In the shop one
of Manny's men is pounding an uncooperative piece of metal. Charlie
asks, "What're you going to do about the house?"
"Move in, Janice says. She surprised me, the way she talked to
her mother. Right in the car driving home. She told her she was
welcome to move in with us but she didn't see why she couldn't have
a house of her own like other women her age and since Pru and the
baby were obviously going to have to stay she doesn't want her to
feel crowded in her own home. Bessie, that is."
"Huh. About time Jan stood on her own two feet. Wonder who she's
been talking to?"
Webb Murkett, it occurs to Harry, through a tropical night of
love; but things always work best between him and Charlie when they
don't go too deep into Janice. He says, "The trouble with having
the house is we have no furniture of our own. And everything costs
a fucking fortune. A simple mattress and box spring and steel frame
to set it on for six hundred dollars; if you add a headboard that's
another six hundred. Carpets! Three, four thousand for a little
Oriental, and they all come out of Iran and Afghanistan. The
salesman was telling me they're a better investment than gold."
"Gold's doing pretty well," Charlie says.
"Better than we are, huh? Have you had a chance to look at the
"They've looked better," Charlie admits. "But nothing a little
more inflation won't cure. Young couple came in here Tuesday, the
first day I got the call from Bessie, and bought a Corvette
convertible Nelson had laid in. Said they wanted a convertible and
thought the dead of winter would be a good time to buy one. No
trade-in, weren't interested in financing, paid for it with a
check, a regular checking account. Where do they get the money?
Neither one of 'em could have been more than twenty-five.
Next day, yesterday, kid came in here in a GMC pick-up and
said he'd heard we had a snowmobile for sale. It took us a while to
find it out back but when we did he got that light in his eyes so I
began by asking twelve hundred and we settled at nine
seventy-five. I said to him, There isn't any snow, and he
said, That's all right, he was moving up to Vermont, to wait out
the nuclear holocaust. Said Three-Mile Island really blew his
mind. D'y'ever notice how Carter can't say `nuclear'? He says
"You really got rid of that snowmobile? I can't believe it."
"People don't care about economizing anymore. Big Oil has sold
capitalism down the river. What the czar did for the Russians, Big
Oil is doing for us."
Harry can't take the time to talk economics today. He
apologizes, "Charlie, I'm still on vacation in theory, to the end
of the week, and Janice is meeting me downtown, we got a thousand
things to do in connection with this damn house of hers."
Charlie nods. "Amscray. I got some sorting out to do myself. One
thing nobody could accuse Nelson of is being a neatness 'freak." He
shouts after Harry as he goes into the corridor for his hat and
coat, "Say hello to Grandma for me!"
Meaning Janice, Harry slowly realizes.
He ducks into his office, where the new 1980 company calendar
with its photo of Fujiyama hangs on the wall. He makes a mental
note to himself, not for the first time, to do something about
those old clippings that hang outside on the pressed-board
partition, they're getting too yellow, there's a process he's heard
about where they photograph old halftones so they look white as
new, and can be blown up to any size. Might as well blow them up
big, it's a business expense. He takes from old man Springer's
heavy oak coat-rack with its four little bow legs the
sheepskin overcoat Janice got him for Christmas and the little
narrow-brim suede hat that goes with it. At his age you wear
a hat. He went all through last winter without a cold, because he
had taken to wearing a hat. And vitamin C helps. Next it'll be
Geritol. He hopes he didn't cut Charlie short but he found talking
to him today a little depressing, the guy is at a dead end and
turning cranky. Big Oil doesn't know any more what's up than Little
Oil. But then from Harry's altitude at this moment anyone might
look small and cranky. He has taken off, he is flying high, on his
way to an island in his life. He takes a tube of Life Savers
(Butter Rum) from his top lefthand desk drawer, to sweeten his
breath in case he's kissed, and lets himself out through the back
of the shop. He is careful with the crash bar: a touch of grease on
this sheepskin and there's no getting it off.
* * *
Nelson having stolen his Corona, Harry has allocated to himself
a grape-blue Celica Supra, the "ultimate Toyota," with padded
dash, electric tachometer, state-of-the-art
four-speaker solid-state AM/FM/MPX stereo,
quartz-accurate digital clock, automatic overdrive
transmission, cruise control, computer-tuned suspension,
ten-inch disc brakes on all four wheels, and quartz halogen
hi-beam headlights. He loves this smooth machine. The Corona
for all its dependable qualities was a stodgy little bug, whereas
this blue buzzard has charisma. The blacks along lower Weiser
really stared yesterday afternoon when he drove it home. After
Janice and he had brought Ma back to 89 Joseph in the Chrysler
(which in fact even Harry found not so easy to steer, after a week
of being driven in taxis on the wrong side of the road), they put
her to bed and came into town in the Mustang, Janice all hyper
after her standing up for herself about the house, to Schaechner
Furniture, where they looked at beds and ugly easy chairs and
Parsons tables like the Murketts had, only not so nice as theirs,
the wood grain not checkerboarded. They couldn't make any
decisions; when the store was about to close she drove him over to
the lot so he could have a car too. He picked this model priced in
five digits. Blacks stared out from under the neon Signs, JIMBO's
Friendly LOUNGE and LIVE ENTERTAINMENT and ADULT ADULT
ADULT, as he slid by in virgin blue grapeskin; he was afraid some
of them lounging in the cold might come running out at a stoplight
and scratch his hood with a screwdriver or smash his windshield
with a hammer, taking vengeance for their lives. On a number of
walls now in this part of town you can see spray-painted
SKEETER LIVES, but they don't say where.
He has lied to Charlie. He doesn't have to meet Janice until
one-thirty and it is now only 11:17 by the Supra's quartz
clock. He is driving to Galilee. He turns on the radio and its
sound is even punkier, richer, more many-leaved and
many-layered, than that of the radio in the old Corona.
Though he moves the dial from left to right and back again he can't
find Donna Summer, she went out with the Seventies. Instead there
is a guy singing hymns, squeezing the word "Jesus" until it drips.
And that kind of mellow mixed-voice backup he remembers from
the records when he was in high school: the jukeboxes where you
could see the record fall and that waxy rustling cloth, organdy or
whatever, the girls went to dances in, wearing the corsage you gave
them. The corsage would get crushed as the dancing got closer and
the girls' perfumes would be released from between their powdery
breasts as their bodies were warmed and pressed by partner after
partner, in the violet light of the darkened gym,
crépe-paper streamers drooping overhead and the
basketball hoops wreathed with paper flowers, all those warm bodies
softly bumping in anticipation of the cold air stored in cars
outside, the little glowing dashboard -lights, the body heat
misting the inside of the windshield, the organdy tugged and
mussed, chilly fingers fumbling through coats and pants and
underpants, clothes become a series of tunnels, Mary Ann's body
nestling toward his hands, the space between her legs so different
and mild and fragrant and safe, a world apart. And now, the news,
on the half hour. That wise-voiced young woman is long gone
from this local station, Harry wonders where she is by now, doing
go-go or assistant vice-president at Sunflower Beer.
The new announcer sounds like Billy Fosnacht, fat-upped.
President Carter has revealed that he personally favors a boycott
of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Reaction from athletes is mixed.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has backed off from yesterday's
apparently pro-Soviet stance on Afghanistan. On the crowded
campaign trail, U.S. Representative Philip Crane of Illinois has
labelled as "foolish" Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy's
proposal that the Seabrook, New Hampshire, proposed nuclear plant
be converted to coal. In Japan, former Beatle Paul McCartney was
jailed on charges of possessing eight ounces of marijuana. In
Switzerland, scientists have succeeded in programming bacteria to
manufacture the scarce human protein interferon, an
anti-viral agent whose artificial production may usher in an
era as beneficial to mankind as the discovery of penicillin.
Meanwhile, if the fillings in your teeth cost more, it's because
the price of gold hit eight hundred dollars an ounce in New York
City today. Fuck. He sold too soon. Eight hundred times thirty
equals twenty-four thousand, that's up nearly ten grand from
fourteen six, if he'd just held on, damn that Webb Murkett and his
silver. And the 76ers continue their winning ways, 121 to 110 over
the Portland Trail Blazers at the Spectrum last night. Poor old
Eagles out of their misery, Jaworski went down flinging. And now,
to continue our program of Nice Music for Nice Folks, the
traditional melody "Savior, Keep a Watch Over Me." Harry turns it
off, driving to the purr of the Supra.
He knows the way now. Past the giant Amishman pointing to the
natural cave, through the narrow town with its Purina feedstore
sign and old inn and new bank and hitching posts and tractor
agency. The corn stubble of the fields sticks up pale, all the gold
bleached from it. The duck pond has frozen edges but a wide center
of black water, so mild has the winter been. He slows past the
Blankenbiller and Muth mailboxes, and turns down the driveway where
the box says BYER. His nerves are stretched so nothing escapes his
vision, the jutting stones of the two beaten reddish tracks that
make the old road, the fringe of dried weeds each still bearing the
form its green life assumed in the vanished summer, the peeling
pumpkin-colored school bus husk, a rusting harrow, a small
springhouse whitewashed years ago, and then the shabby farm
buildings, corn crib and barn and stone house, approached from a
new angle, for the first time from the front. He drives the Celica
into the space of packed dirt where he once saw the Corolla pull
in; in turning off the engine and stepping from the car he sees the
ridge from which he spied, a far scratchy line of black cherry and
gum trees scarcely visible through the apple trees of the orchard,
farther away than it had felt, the odds were no one had ever seen
him. This is crazy. Run.
But, as with dying, there is a moment that must be pushed
through, a slice of time more transparent than plate glass; it is
in front of him and he takes the step, drawing heart from that
loving void Thelma had confided to him. In his sheepskin coat and
silly small elf hat and three-piece suit of pinstriped wool
bought just this November at that tailor of Webb's on Pine Street,
he walks across the earth where silted-over flat sandstones
once formed a walk. It is cold, a day that might bring snow, a day
that feels hollow. Though it is near noon no sun shows through, not
even a silver patch betrays its place in the sky, one long ribbed
underbelly of low gray clouds. A drab tall thatch of winter woods
rears up on his right. In the other direction, beyond the horizon,
a chain saw sounds stuck. Even before, removing one glove, he raps
with a bare hand on the door, where paint a poisonous green is
coming loose in long curving flakes, the dog inside the house hears
his footsteps scrape stone and sets up a commotion of barking.
Harry hopes the dog is alone, its owner out. There is no car or
pick-up truck in the open, but one might be parked in the
barn or the newish garage of cement blocks with a roof of
corrugated overlapped Fiberglas. Inside the house no light burns
that he can see, but then it is near noon, though the day is dull
and growing darker. He peers in the door and sees himself reflected
with his pale hat in another door, much like this one, with two
tall panes of glass, the thickness of a stone wall away. Beyond the
old panes a hallway with a tattered striped runner recedes into
unlit depths. As his eyes strain to see deeper his nose and
ungloved hand sting with the cold. He is about to turn away and
return to the warm car when a shape materializes within the house
and rushes, puffed up with rage, toward him. The black-haired
collie leaps and leaps again against the inner door, frantic,
trying to bite the glass, those ugly little front teeth a dog has,
inhuman, and the split black lip and lavender gums, unclean. Harry
is paralyzed with fascination; he does not see the great shape
materialize behind Fritzie until a hand clatters on the inner door
The fat woman's other hand holds the dog by the collar; Harry
helps by opening the green outer door himself. Fritzie recognizes
his scent and stops barking. And Rabbit recognizes, buried under
the wrinkles and fat but with those known eyes blazing out alive,
Ruth. So amid a tumult of wagging and the whimpers of that
desperate doggy need to reclaim a friend, the two old lovers
confront one another. Twenty years ago he had lived with this
woman, March to June. He saw her for a minute in Kroll's eight
years later, and she had spared him a few bitter words, and now a
dozen years have poured across them both, doing their damage. Her
hair that used to be a kind of dirty fiery gingery color is
flattened now to an, iron gray and pulled back in a bun like the
Mennonites wear. She wears wide denim dungarees and a man's red
lumberjack shirt beneath a black sweater with unravelled elbows and
dog hairs and wood chips caught in the greasy weave. Yet this is
Ruth. Her upper lip still pushes out a little, as if with an
incipient blister, and her flat blue eyes in their square sockets
still gaze at him with a hostility that tickles him. "What do you
want?" she asks. Her voice sounds thickened, as by a cold.
"I'm Harry Angstrom."
"I can see that. What do you want here?"
"I was wondering, could we talk a little? There's something I
need to ask you."
"No, we can't talk a little. Go away."
But she has released the dog's collar, and Fritzie sniffs at his
ankles and his crotch and writhes in her urge to jump up, to impart
the scarcely bearable joy locked in her narrow skull, behind her
bulging eyes. Her bad eye still looks sore. "Good Fritzie," Harry
says. "Down. Down."
Ruth has to laugh, that quick ringing laugh of hers, like change
tossed onto a counter. "Rabbit, you're cute. Where'd you learn her
"I heard you all calling her once. A couple times I've been
here, up behind those trees, but I couldn't get up my nerve to come
any closer. Stupid, huh?"
She laughs again, a touch less ringingly, as if she is truly
amused. Though her voice has roughened and her bulk has doubled and
there is a down including a few dark hairs along her cheeks and
above the comers of her mouth, this is really Ruth, a cloud his
life had passed through, solid again. She is still tall, compared
to Janice, compared to any of the women of his life but Mim and his
mother. She always had a weight about her; she joked the first
night when he lifted her that this would put him out of action, a
weight that pushed him off, along with something that held him
fast, an air of being willing to play, in the little space they
had, and though the time they had was short. "So you were scared of
us," she says. She bends slightly, to address the dog. "Fritzie,
shall we let him in for a minute?" The dog's liking him, a dim
spark of dog memory setting her tail wagging, has tipped the
The hall inside smells decidedly of the past, the way these old
farm houses do. Apples in the cellar, cinnamon in the cooking, a
melding of the old plaster and wallpaper paste, he doesn't know.
Muddy boots stand in a corner of the hall, on newspapers spread
there, and he notices that Ruth is in stocking feet - thick
gray men's work socks, but sexy nonetheless, the silence of her
steps, though she is huge. She leads him to the right, into a small
front parlor with an oval rug of braided rags on the floor and a
folding wooden lawn chair mixed in with the other furniture. The
only modem piece is the television set, its overbearing rectangular
eye dead for the moment. A small wood fire smolders in a sandstone
fireplace. Harry checks his shoes before stepping onto the rag rug,
to make sure he is not tracking in dirt. He removes his fancy
tittle sheepskin hat.
As if regretting this already, Ruth sits on the very edge of her
chair, a cane-bottomed rocker, tipping it forward so her
knees nearly touch the floor and her arm can reach down easily to
scratch Fritzie's neck and keep her calm. Harry guesses he is
supposed to sit opposite, on a cracked black leather settee beneath
two depressing sepia studio portraits, a century old at least they
must be, in matching carved frames, of a bearded type and his
buttoned-up wife, both long turned to dust in their coffins.
But before sitting down he sees across the room, by the light of a
window whose deep sill teems with potted African violets and those
broad-leafed plants people give for Mother's Days, a more
contemporary set of photographs, color snapshots that line one
shelf of a bookcase holding rows of the paperback mysteries and
romances Ruth used to read and apparently still does. That used to
hurt him about her in those months, how she would withdraw into one
of those trashy thrillers set in England or Los Angeles though he
was right there, in the flesh, a living lover. He crosses to the
bookcase and sees her, younger but already stout, standing before a
comer of this house within the arm of a man older, taller, and
stouter than she: this must have been Byer. A big sheepish farmer
in awkward Sunday clothes, squinting against the sunlight with an
expression like that of the large old portraits, his mouth wistful
in its attempt to satisfy the camera. Ruth looks amused, her hair
up in a bouffant do and still gingery, amused that for this
sheltering man she is a prize. Rabbit feels, for an instant as
short and bright as the click of a shutter, jealous of these lives
that others led: this stout plain country couple posing by a
chipped corner of brown stucco, on earth that from the greening
state of the grass suggests March or April. Nature's old tricks.
There are other photographs, color prints of combed and smiling
adolescents, in those cardboard frames high-school pictures
come in. Before he can examine them, Ruth says sharply, "Who said
you could look at those? Stop it."
"It's your family."
"You bet it is. Mine and not yours."
But he cannot tear himself away from the images in flashlit
color of these children. They gaze not at him but past his right
ear, each posed identically by the photographer as he worked his
school circuit May after May. A boy and the girl at about the same
age - the senior photo - and then in smaller format a
younger boy with darker hair, cut longer and parted on the other
side of his head from his brother. All have blue eyes. "Two boys
and a girl," Harry says. "Who's the oldest?"
"What the hell do you care? God, I'd forgotten what a pushy
obnoxious bastard you are. Stuck on yourself from cradle to
"My guess is, the girl is the oldest. When did you have her, and
when did you marry this old guy? How can you stand it, by the way,
out here in the boondocks?"
"I stand it fine. It's more than anybody else ever offered
"I didn't have much to offer anybody in those days."
"But you've done fine since. You're dressed up like a
"And you're dressed up like a ditchdigger."
"I've been cutting wood."
"You operate one of those chain saws? Jesus, aren't you afraid
you'll cut off a finger?"
"No, I'm not. The car you sold Jamie works fine, if that's what
you came to ask."
"How long have you known I've been at Springer Motors?"
"Oh, always. And then it was in the papers when Springer
"Was that you drove past in the old station wagon the day Nelson
"It might have been," Ruth says, sitting back in her rocking
chair, so it tips the other way. Fritzie has stretched out to
sleep. The wood fire spits. "We pass through Mt. Judge from time to
time. It's a free country still, isn't it?"
"Why would you do a crazy thing like that?" She loves him.
"I'm not saying I did anything. How would I know Nelson was
getting married at that moment?"
"You saw it in the papers." He sees she means to torment him.
"Ruth, the girl. She's mine. She's the baby you said you couldn't
stand to have the abortion for. So you had it and then found this
old chump of a farmer who was glad to get a piece of young ass and
had these other two kids by him before he kicked the bucket."
"Don't talk so rude. You're not proving anything to me except
what a sad case I must have been ever to take you in. You are Mr.
'Bad News, honest to God. You're nothing but me, me and gimme,
gimme. When I had something to give you I gave it even
though I knew I'd never get anything back. Now thank God I have
nothing to give." She limply gestures to indicate the raggedly
furnished little room. Her voice in these years has gained that
country slowness, that stubborn calm with which the country
withholds what the city wants.
"Tell me the truth," he begs.
"I just did."
"About the girl."
"She's younger than the older boy. Scott, Annabelle, and then
Morris in '66. He was the afterthought. June 6, 1966. Four
"Don't stall, Ruth, I got to get back to Brewer. And don't lie.
Your eyes get all watery when you lie."
"My eyes are watery because they can't stand looking at you. A
regular Brewer sharpie. A dealer. The kind of person you used to
hate, remember? And fat. At least when I knew you you had a
He laughs, enjoying the push of this; his night with Thelma has
made his body harder to insult. "You," he says, "are calling me
"I am. And how did you get so red in the face?"
"That's my tan. We just got back from the islands."
"Oh Christ, the islands. I thought you were about to have a
"When did your old guy pack it in? Whajja do, screw him to
She stares at him a time. "You better go."
"Soon," he promises.
"Frank passed away in August of '76, of cancer. Of the colon. He
hadn't even reached retirement age. When I met him he was younger
than we are now."
"O.K., sorry. Listen, stop making me be such a prick. Tell me
about our girl."
"She's not our girl, Harry. I did have the abortion. My
parents arranged it with a doctor in Pottsville. He did it right in
his office and about a year later a girl died afterwards of
complications and they put him in jail. Now the girls just walk
into the hospital."
"And expect the taxpayer to pay," Harry says.
"Then I got a job as the day cook in a restaurant over toward
Stogey's Quarry to the east of here and Frank's cousin was the
hostess for that time and one thing led to another pretty fast. We
had Scott in late 1960, he just turned nineteen last month, one of
these Christmas babies that always get cheated on presents."
"Then the girl when? Annabelle."
"The next year. He was in a hurry for a family. His mother had
never let him marry while she was alive, or anyway he blamed
"You're lying. I've seen the girl; she's older than you
"She's eighteen. Do you want to see birth certificates?"
This must be a bluff. But he says, "No."
Her voice softens. "Why're you so hepped on the girl anyway? Why
don't you pretend the boy's yours?"
"I have one boy. He's enough" - the phrase just comes
- "bad news." He asks, brusquely, "And where are they? Your
"What's it to you?"
"Nothing much. I was just wondering how come they're not around,
helping you with this place."
"Morris is at school, he gets home on the bus after three. Scott
has a job in Maryland, working in a plant nursery. I told both him
and Annie, Get out. This was a good place for me to come to and
hide, but there's nothing here for young people. When she and Jamie
Nunemacher got this scheme of going and living together in Brewer,
I couldn't say No, though his people were dead set against it. We
had a big conference, I told them that's how young people do now,
they live together, and aren't they smart? They know I'm an old
whore anyway, I don't give a fuck what they think. The neighbors
always let us alone and we let them alone. Frank and old
Blankenbiller hadn't talked for fifteen years, since he began to
take me out." She sees she has wandered, and says, "Annabelle won't
be with the boy forever. He's nice enough, but..."
"I agree," Rabbit says, as if consulted. Ruth is lonely, he
sees, and willing to talk, and this makes him uneasy. He shifts his
weight on the old black sofa. Its springs creak. A shift in the air
outside has created a downdraft that sends smoke from the damp fire
curling into the room.
She glances to the dead couple in their frames like carved
coffins above his head and confides, "Even when Frank was healthy,
he had to have the buses to make ends meet. Now I rent the big
fields and just try to keep the bushes down. The bushes and the oil
bills." And it is true, this room is so cold he has not thought of
taking his heavy coat off.
"Yes well," he sighs. "It's hard." Fritzie, wakened by some turn
in the dream that had been twitching the ends of her paws, stands
and skulks over to him as if to bark, and instead drops down to the
rug again, coiling herself trustfully at his feet. With his long
arm Harry reaches to the bookcase and lifts out the photograph of
the daughter. Ruth does not protest. He studies the pale illumined
face in its frame of maroon cardboard: backed by a strange
background of streaked blue like an imitation sky, the girl gazes
beyond him. Round and polished like a fruit by the slick silk
finish of the print, the head, instead of revealing its secret,
becomes more enigmatic, a shape as strange as those forms of sea
life spotlit beneath the casino boardwalk. The mouth is Ruth's,
that upper lip he noticed at the lot. And around the eyes, that
squared-off look, though her brow is rounder than Ruth's and
her hair, brushed to a photogenic gloss, less stubborn. He looks at
the ear, for a nick in the edge like Nelson has; her hair would
have to be lifted. Her nose is so delicate and small, the nostrils
displayed by a slight upturn of the tip, that the lower half of her
face seems heavy, still babyish. There is a candor to her skin and
a frosty light to the eyes that could go back to those Swedes in
their world of snow; he glimpsed it in the Murketts' bathroom
mirror. His blood. Harry finds himself reliving with Annabelle that
moment when her turn came in the unruly school line to enter the
curtained corner of the gym and, suddenly blinded, to pose for
posterity, for the yearbook, for boyfriend and mother, for time
itself as it wheels on unheeding by: the opportunity come to press
your face up against blankness and, by thinking right thoughts, to
become a star. "She looks like me."
Ruth laughs now. "You're seeing things."
"No kidding. When she came to the lot that first time, something
hit me -her legs, maybe, I don't know. Those aren't your
legs." Which had been thick, twisting like white flame as she moved
naked about their room.
"Well, Frank had legs too. Until he let himself get out of
shape, he was on the lanky side. Over six foot, when he
straightened up, I'm a -sucker for the big ones I guess. Then
neither of the boys inherited his height."
"Yeah, Nelson didn't get mine, either. A shrimp just like his
"You're still with Janice. You used to call her a mutt," Ruth
reminds him. She has settled into this situation comfortably now,
leaning back in the rocker and rocking, her stocking feet going up
on tiptoe, then down on the heels, then back on tiptoe. "Why am I
telling you all about my life when you don't say a thing about
"It's pretty standard," he says. "Don't be sore at me because I
stayed with Janice. "
"Oh Christ no. I just feel sorry for her."
"A sister," he says, smiling. Women are all sisters, they tell
Fat has been added to Ruth's face not in smooth scoops but in
lumps, so when she lifts her head her eye sockets seem built of
bony welts. A certain forgiving mischief has lifted her armored
glance. "Annie was fascinated by you," she volunteers. "She several
times asked me if I'd ever heard of you, this basketball hero. I
said we went to different high schools. She was disappointed when
you weren't there when she and Jamie went back to pick up the car
finally. Jamie had been leaning to a Fiesta."
"So you don't think Jamie is the answer for her?"
"For now. But you've seen him. He's common."
"I hope she doesn't -"
"Go my way? No, it'll be all right. There aren't whores anymore,
just healthy young women. I've raised her very innocent. I always
felt 1 was very innocent, actually."
"We all are, Ruth."
She likes his saying her name, he should be careful about saying
it. He puts the photograph back and studies it in place, Annabelle
between her brothers. "How about money?" he asks, trying to keep it
light. "Would some help her? I could give it to you so it, you
know, wouldn't come out of the blue or anything. If she wants an
education, for instance." He is blushing, and Ruth's silence
doesn't help. The rocker has stopped rocking.
At last she says, "I guess this is what they call deferred
"It's not for you, it would be for her. I can't give a lot. I
mean, I'm not that rich. But if a couple thousand would make a
He lets the sentence hang, expecting to be interrupted. He can't
look at her, that strange expanded face. Her voice when it comes
has the contemptuous confident huskiness he heard from her ages
ago, in bed. "Relax. You don't have to worry, I'm not going to take
you up on it. If I ever get really hard up here I can sell off
apiece of road frontage, five thousand an acre is what they've been
getting locally. Anyway, Rabbit. Believe me. She's not yours."
"O.K., Ruth. If you say so." In his surge of relief he
She stands too, and having risen together their ghosts feel
their inflated flesh fall away; the young man and woman who lived
illicitly together one flight up on Summer Street, across from a
big limestone church, stand close again, sequestered from the
world, and as before the room is hers. "Listen," she hisses up at
him, radiantly is his impression, her distorted face gleaming. "I
wouldn't give you the satisfaction of that girl being yours if
there was a million dollars at stake. I raised her. She and I put
in a lot of time together here and where the fuck were you? You saw
me in Kroll's that time and there was no follow-up, I've
known where you were all these years and you didn't give a simple
shit what had happened to me, or my kid, or anything."
"You were married," he says mildly. My kid: something
"You bet I was," she rushes on. "To a better man than you'll
ever be, sneer all you want. The kids have had a wonderful father
and they know it. When he died we just carried on as if he was
still around, he was that strong. Now I don't know what the hell is
going on with you in your little life up there in Mt. Judge -"
"We're moving," he tells her. "To Penn Park."
"Swell. That's just where you belong, with those phonies. You
should have left that mutt of yours twenty years ago for her good
as well as your own, but you didn't and now you can stew in it;
stew in it but leave my Annie alone. It's creepy,
Harry. When I think of you thinking she's your daughter it's like
rubbing her all over with shit."
He sighs through his nose. "You still have a sweet tongue," he
She is embarrassed; her iron hair has gone straggly and she
presses it flat with the heels of her hands as if trying to crush
something inside her skull. "I shouldn't say something like that
but it's frightening, having you show up in your fancy clothes
wanting to claim my daughter. You make me think, if I hadn't had
the abortion, if I hadn't let my parents have their way, it might
have all worked out differently, and we could have a
daughter now. But you
"I know. You did the right thing." He feels her fighting the
impulse to touch him, to cling to him, to let herself be crushed
into his clumsy arms as once. He looks for a last topic. Awkwardly
he asks, "What're you going to do, when Morris grows up and leaves
home?" He remembers his hat and picks it up, pinching the soft new
crown in three fingers.
"I don't know. Hang on a little more. Whatever happens, land
won't go down. Every year I last it out here is money in the
He sighs through his nose again. "O.K., if that's how it is.
I'll run then. Really no soap on the girl?"
"Of course not. Think it through. Suppose she was
yours. At this stage it'd just confuse her."
He blinks. Is this an admission? He says, "I never was too good
at thinking things through."
Ruth smiles at the floor. The squarish dent above her cheekbone,
seen this way from above, was one of the first things he noticed
about her. Chunky and tough but kindly, somehow. Another human
heart, telling him he was a big bunny, out by the parking meters in
the neon light, the first time they met. Trains still ran through
the center of Brewer then. "Men don't have to be," she says. "They
don't get pregnant."
The dog became agitated when they both stood and Ruth's voice
became louder and angry, and now Fritzie leads them from the room
and waits, tail inquisitively wagging, with her nose at the crack
of the door leading outside. Ruth opens it and the storm door wide
enough for the dog to pass through but not Harry. "Want a cup of
coffee?" she asks.
He told Janice one o'clock at Schaechner's. "Oh Jesus, thanks,
but I ought to get back to work."
"You came here just about Annabelle? You don't want to hear
"I have heard about you, haven't I?"
"Whether I have a boyfriend or not, whether I ever thought about
"Yeah, well, I'm sure that'd be interesting. From the sound of
it you've done terrifically. Frank and Morris and, who's the other
"Right. And you have all this land. Sorry, you know, to have
left you in such a mess way back then."
"Well," Ruth says, with a considering slowness in which he
imagines he can hear her late husband speaking. "I guess we make
our own messes."
She seems now not merely fat and gray but baffled: straw on her
sweater, hair on her cheeks. A shaggy monster, lonely. He longs to
be out that double door into the winter air, where nothing is
growing. Once he escaped by telling her, I'll be right
back, but now there is not even that to say. Both know,
what people should never know, that they will not meet again. He
notices on the hand of hers that grips the doorknob a thin gold
ring all but lost in the flesh of one finger. His heart races,
She has mercy on him. "Take care, Rabbit," she says. "I was just
kidding about the outfit, you look good." Harry ducks his head as
if to kiss her cheek but she says, "No." By the time he has taken a
step off the concrete porch, her shadow has vanished from the
double door's black glass. The gray of the day has intensified,
releasing a few dry flakes of snow that will not amount to
anything, that float sideways like flecks of ash. Fritzie trots
beside him to the glossy grape-blue Cebca, and has to be
discouraged from jumping into the back seat.
Once on his way, out the driveway and past the mailboxes that
say BLANKENBILLER and MUTH, Harry pops a Life Saver into his mouth
and wonders if he should have called her bluff on the birth
certificates. Or suppose Frank had had another wife, and Scott was
his child by that marriage? If the girl was as young as Ruth said,
wouldn't she still be in high school? But no. Let go. Let it go.
God doesn't want him to have a daughter.
Waiting in the overheated front room of Schaechner's surrounded
by plush new furniture, Janice looks petite and prosperous and,
with her Caribbean tan, younger than forty-three. When he
kisses her, on the lips, she says, "Mmm. Butter Rum. What are you
"Onions for lunch."
She dips her nose close to his lapel. "You smell of smoke."
"Uh, Manny gave me a cigar."
She hardly listens to his lies, she is breathy and electric with
news of her own. "Harry, Melanie called Mother from Ohio. Nelson is
with her. Everything's all right."
As Janice continues, he can see her mouth move, her bangs
tremble, her eyes widen and narrow, and her fingers tug in
excitement at the pearl strand the lapels of her coat disclose, but
Rabbit is distracted from the exact sense of what she is saying by
remembering, when he bent his face close to old Ruth's in the light
of the door, a glitter there, on the tired skin beneath her eyes,
and by the idiotic thought, which it seems he should bottle and
sell, that our tears are always young, the saltwater stays the same
from cradle, as she said, to grave.
The little stone house that Harry and Janice bought for $78,000,
with $15,600 down, sits on a quarter-acre of bushy land
tucked in off a macadamized dead end behind two larger examples of
what is locally known as Penn Park Pretentious: a tall mockTudor
with gables like spires and red-tiled roofs and clinker
bricks sticking out at crazy melted angles, and a sort of
neo-plantation manse of serene thin bricks the pale yellow of
lemonade, with a glassed-in sunporch and on the other side a
row of Palladian windows, where Harry guesses the dining room is.
He has been out surveying his property, looking for a sunny patch
where a garden might be dug in this spring. The spot behind Ma
Springer's house on Joseph Street had been too shady. He finds a
corner that might -do, with some cutting back of oak limbs
that belong to his neighbor. The earth generally in this overgrown,
mature suburb is wellshaded; his lawn is half moss, which this mild
winter has dried but left exposed and resilient still. He also
finds a little cement fish pond with a blue-painted bottom,
dry and drifted with pine needles. Someone had once sunk seashells
in the wet cement of the slanting rim. The things you buy when you
buy a house. Doorknobs, windowsills, radiators. All his. If he were
a fish he could swim in this pond, come spring. He tries to picture
that moment when whoever it was, man, woman, or child or all three,
had set these shells here, in the summer shade of trees a little
less tall than these above him now. The weak winter light falls
everywhere in his yard, webbed by the shadows from leafless twigs.
He senses standing here a silt of caring that has fallen from
purchaser to purchaser. The house was built in that depressed but
scrupulous decade when Harry was born. Suave gray limestone had
been hauled from the quarries in the far north of Diamond County
and dressed and fitted by men who took the time to do it right. At
a later date, after the war, some owner broke through the wall
facing away from the curb and built an addition of clapboards and
white-blotched brick. Paint is peeling from the clapboards
beneath the Andersen windows of what is now Janice's kitchen. Harry
makes a mental note to trim back the branches that brush against
the house, to cut down the dampness. Indeed there are several trees
here that might be turned altogether into firewood, but until they
leaf out in the spring he can't be sure which should go. The house
has two fireplaces, one in the big long living room and the other,
off the same flue, in the little room behind, that Harry thinks of
as a den. His den.
He and Janice moved in yesterday, a Saturday. Pru was coming
home from the hospital with the baby and if they were not there she
could take their Joseph Street bedroom, with its own bathroom, away
from the street. Also they thought the confusion might mask for
Janice's mother the pain of their escape. Webb Murkett and the
others got back from the Caribbean Thursday night as planned, and
Saturday morning Webb brought one of his roofer's trucks with
extension ladders roped to both sides and helped them move. Ronnie
Harrison, that fink, said he had to go into the office to tackle
the backlog of paperwork that had built up during his vacation; he
had worked Friday night to midnight. But Buddy Inglefinger came
over with Webb, and it didn't take the three men more than two
hours to move the Angstroms. There wasn't much furniture they could
call their own, mostly clothes, and Janice's mahogany bureau, and
some cardboard boxes of kitchen equipment that had been salvaged
when the previous house they could call their own had burned down
in 1969. All of Nelson's stuff, they left. One of the butch women
came out onto her porch and waved goodbye; so news travels in a
neighborhood, even when the people aren't friendly. Harry had
always meant to ask them what it was like, and why. He can see not
liking men, he doesn't like them much himself, but why would you
like women any better, ifyou were one? Especially women who hammer
all the time, just like men.
From Schaechner's on Thursday afternoon he and Janice had
bought, and got them to deliver on Friday, a new color Sony TV
(Rabbit hates to put any more money into Japanese pockets but he
knows from Consumer Reports that in this particular line
they can't be touched for quality) and a pair of big padded
silvery-pink wing chairs (he has always wanted a wing chair,
he hates drafts on his neck, people have died from drafts on their
necks) and a Queen-size mattress and box springs on a metal
frame, without headboard. This bed he and Webb and Buddy carry
upstairs to the room at the back, with a partially slanted ceiling
but space for a mirror if they want it on the blank wall next to
the closet door, and the chairs and TV go not into the living room,
which is too big to think about furnishing at first, but into the
much cozier room just off it, the den. Always he has wanted a den,
a room where people would have trouble getting at him. What he
especially loves about this little room, besides the fireplace and
the built-in shelves where you could keep either books or
Ma's knickknacks and china when she dies, with liquor in the
cabinets below, and even room for a little refrigerator when they
get around to it, are the wall-to-wall carpeting of a
kind of greenand-orange mix that reminds him of cheerleaders'
tassels and the little high windows whose sashes crank open and
shut and are composed of leaded lozenge-panes such as you see
in books of fairy tales. He thinks in this room he might begin to
read books, instead of just magazines and newspapers, and begin to
learn about history, say. You have to step down into the den, one
step down from the hardwood floor of the living room, and this
small difference in plane hints to him of many reforms and
consolidations now possible in his life, like new shoots on a tree
Franklin Drive is the elegant street their dead-end spur
cuts off of 14VZ Franklin Drive is their postal address, and the
spur itself has no street name, they should call it Angstrom Way.
Webb suggested Angstrom Alley, but Harry has had enough of alleys
in his Mt. Judge years, and resents Webb's saying this. First he
tells you to sell gold too soon, then he fucks your wife, and now
he puts your house down. Harry has never lived at so low a number
as 14Y2 before. But the mailman in his little red, white, and blue
jeep knows where they are. Already they've received mail here:
flyers to RESIDENT collected while they were in the Caribbean, and
Saturday around one-thirty, after Webb and Buddy were gone,
while Janice and Harry in the kitchen were arranging spoons and
pans they'd forgotten they owned, the letter slot clacked and a
postcard and a white envelope lay on the front hall's bare floor.
The envelope, one of the long plain stamped ones you buy at the
post office, had no return address and was postmarked Brewer. It
was addressed to just MR. HARRY ANGSTROM in the same slanting block
printing that had sent him last April the clipping about Skeeter.
Inside this new envelope the clipping was very small, and the same
precise hand that had addressed it had schoolteacherishly inscribed
in ballpoint along the top edge, From "Golf Magazine" Annual
"Roundup." The item read:
A COSTLY BIRDIE
Dr. Sherman Thomas cooked his own goose when he killed one of
the Canadian variety at Congressional CC. The court levied a $500
fine for the act.
Janice forced a laugh, reading at his side, there in the echoing
bare hallway, that led through a white arch into the long living
He looked over at her guiltily and agreed with her unspoken
Her color had risen. A minute before, they had been in
sentimental raptures over an old Mixmaster that, plugged in again
after ten years in Ma Springer's attic, had whirred. Now she
blurted, "She'll never let us alone. Never."
"Thelma? Of course she will, that was the deal. She was very
definite about it. Weren't you, with Webb?"
"Oh of course, but words don't mean anything to a woman in
"Who? You with Webb?"
"No, you goon. Thelma. With you."
"She told me, she loves Ronnie. Though I don't see how she
"He's her bread and butter. You're her dream man. You really
turn her on."
"You sound amazed," he said accusingly.
"Oh, you don't not turn me on, I can see what she sees,
it's just. . ." She turned away to hide her tears. Everywhere he
looked, women were crying. ". . . . the intrusion. To know that
that was her that sent that other thing way back then, to think of
her watching us all the time, waiting to pounce . . . They're evil
people, Harry. I don't want to see any of them anymore."
"Oh come on." He had to hug her, there in the hollow hall. He
likes it now when she gets all flustered and frowny, her breath hot
and somehow narrow with grief she seems most his then, the keystone
of his wealth. Once when she got like this, her fear contaminated
him and he ran; but in these middle years it is so clear to him
that he will never run that he can laugh at her, his stubborn
prize. "They're just like us. That was a holiday. In real life
they're very square."
Janice was vehement. "I'm furious with her, doing such a
flirtatious thing, so soon after. They'll never let us alone,
never, now that we have a house. As long as we were at Mother's we
And it was true, the Harrisons and the Murketts and Buddy
Inglefinger and the tall new girlfriend with her frizzy hair now up
in corn rows and juju beads like the woman in "10" did come over
last night, the Angstroms' first night in their new house, bearing
bottles of champagne and brandy, and stayed until two, so Sunday
feels sour and guilty. Harry has no habits yet in this house;
without habits and Ma Springer's old furniture to cushion him, his
life stretches emptily on all sides, and it seems that moving in
any direction he's bound to take a fall.
The other piece of mail that came Saturday, the postcard, was
Hi Mom & Dad -
Spring Semester begins the 28th so am in good shape. Need
certified check for $1087 (397 instrucional fee, 90 general fee,
600 surcharge for non Ohio students) plus living expenses.
$2000-2500 slid. be enuff. Will call when you have phone.
Melanie says Hi. Love, Nelson
On the other side of the card was a modern brick building topped
by big slatted things like hot air vents, identified as
Administration Building, Kent State University. Harry
asked, "What about Pru? The kid's a father and doesn't seem to know
"He knows it. He just can't do everything at once. He's told
Pru over the phone he'll drive back as soon as he's registered
and look at the baby and leave us the car he took. Though
Harry, we could just let him use it for now."
"That's my Corona!"
"He's doing what you wanted him to do, go back to college.
"She understands she's linked up with a hopeless loser," Harry
said, but his heart wasn't in it. The kid was no threat to him for
now. Harry was king of the castle.
And today is Super Sunday. Janice tries to get him up for
church, she is driving Mother, but he is far too hungover and wants
to return to the warm pocket of a dream he had been having, a dream
involving a girl, a young woman, he has never met before, with
darkish hair, they have met somehow at a party and are in a little
bathroom together, not speaking but with a rapport, as if just
having had sex or about to have sex, between them, sex very certain
and casual between them but not exactly happening, the floor of
many small square tiles at an angle beneath them, the small space
of the bathroom cupped around them like the little chrome bowl
around the flame of the perpetual cigar lighter at the old tobacco
store downtown, the bliss of a new relationship, he wants it to go
on and on but is awake and can't get back. This bed room, its
bright slanted ceiling, is strange. They must get curtains soon. Is
Janice up to this? Poor mutt, she's never had to do much. He makes
what breakfast he can of a single orange in the nearly empty
refrigerator, plus some salted nuts left over from the party last
night, plus a cup of instant coffee dissolved with hot water
straight from the tap. This house too, like Webb's, has those
single-lever faucets shaped like a slender prick stung on the
tip by a bee. The refrigerator went with the place and, one of the
things that sold him, has an automatic ice-maker that turns
out crescent shaped cubes by the bushel. Even though the old
Mixmaster works he hasn't forgotten his promise to Janice to buy
her a Cuisinart. Maybe the trouble she has getting meals on the
table related to its being Ma Springer's old-fashioned
kitchen. He roams through his house warily exulting in the
cast-iron radiators, the brass window catches, the classy
little octagonal bathroom tiles, and the doors with key-lock
knobs; these details of what he has bought shine out in the absence
of furniture and will soon sink from view as the days here clutter
them over. Now they are naked and pristine.
Upstairs, in a slanting closet off of what once must have been a
boys' bedroom - its walls pricked with dozens of thumbtack
holes and marred with ends of Scotch tape used to hold posters - he
finds stacks of Playboys and Penthouses from the early
Seventies. He fetches from out beside the kitchen steps, under the
slowly revolving electric meter, one of the big green plastic trash
barrels he and Janice bought yesterday at Shur Valu; but before
disposing of each magazine Rabbit leafs through it, searching out
the center spreads month after month, year after year, as the
airbrushing recedes and the pubic hair first peeks and then froths
boldly forth and these young women perfect as automobile bodies let
their negligees fall open frontally and revolve upon their couches
of leopard skin so subscribers' eyes at last can feast upon their
full shame and treasure. An invisible force month after month
through each year's seasons forces gently wider open their flawless
thighs until somewhere around the bicentennial issues the
Constitutional triumph of open beaver is attained, and the buxom
boldly gazing girls from Texas and Hawaii and South Dakota yield up
to the lights and lens a vertical rosy aperture that seems to stare
back, out of a blood-flushed nether world, scarcely pretty,
an ultimate of disclosure which yet acts as a barrier to some
secret beyond, within, still undisclosed as the winter light
diminishes at the silent window. Outside, a squirrel is watching,
its gray back arched, its black eye alert. Nature, Harry sees, is
everywhere. This tree that comes so close to the house he thinks is
a cherry, its bark in rings. The squirrel, itself spied, scurries
on. The full load of magazines makes the trash barrel almost too
heavy to lift. A ton of cunt. He lugs it downstairs. Janice comes
back after two, having had lunch with her mother and Pru and the
"Everybody seemed cheerful," she reports, "including Baby."
"Baby have a name yet?"
"Pru asked Nelson about Rebecca and he said absolutely not. Now
she's thinking of Judith. That's her mother's name. I told them to
forget Janice, I never much liked it for myself."
"I thought she hated her mother."
"She doesn't hate her, she doesn't much respect her. It's her
father she hates. But he's been on the phone to her a couple of
times and been very, what's the word, conciliatory."
"Oh great. Maybe he can come and help run the lot. He can do our
steam fitting. How does Pru feel about Nelson's running off, just
on the eve?"
Janice takes off her hat, a fuzzy violet loose-knit beret
she wears in winter and that makes her look with the sheepskin coat
like some brown-faced boy of a little soldier off to the
wars. Her hair stands up with static electricity. In the empty
living room she has nowhere to drop her hat, and throws it onto a
white windowsill. "Well," she says, "she's interesting about it.
For just now she says she's just as glad he isn't around, it would
be one more thing to cope with. In general she feels it's something
he had to do, to get his shit together -that's her
expression. I think she knows she pushed him. Once he gets his
degree, she thinks, he'll be much more comfortable with himself.
She doesn't seem at all worried about losing him for good or
"Huh. Whaddeya have to do to get blamed for something these
"They're very tolerant of each other," Janice says, "and I think
that's nice." She heads upstairs, and Harry follows her up,
closely, afraid of losing her in the vast newness of their
He asks, "She gonna go out there and live with him in an
apartment or what?"
"She thinks her going out there with the baby would panic him
right now. And of course for Mother it'd be much nicer if she
"Isn't Pru at all miffed about Melanie?"
"No, she says Melanie will watch after him for her. They don't
have this jealousy thing the way we do, if you can believe
"Speaking of which." Janice drops her coat on the bed and bends
over, ass high, to unzip her boots. "Thelma had left a message with
Mother about whether or not you and I wanted to come over to their
house for a light supper and watch the Super Bowl. I guess the
Murketts will be there."
"And you said?"
"I said No. Don't worry, I was quite sweet. I said we were
having Mother and Pru over here to watch the game on our
brand-new Sony. It's true. I invited them." In stocking feet
she stands and puts her hands on the hips of her black church suit
as if daring him to admit he would rather go out and be with that
racy crowd than stay home with his family.
"Fine," he says. "I haven't really seen -"
"Oh, and quite a sad thing. Mother got it from Grace Stuhl,
who's good friends apparently with Peggy Fosnacht's aunt. While we
were down there Peggy went into her doctor's for a check-up
and by nighttime he had her in the hospital and a breast taken
"My God." Breast he had sucked. Poor old Peggy. Flicked away by
God's fmgemail. Life is too big for us, in the end.
"They of course said they got it all but then they always say
"She seemed lately headed for something unfortunate."
"She's been grotesque. I should call her, but not today."
Janice is changing into dungarees to do housecleaning. She says
the people have left the place filthy but he can't see it, except
for the Playboys. She has never been much of a neatness freak
wherever they have lived before. Uncurtained winter light bouncing
off the bare floors and blank walls turns her underwear to silver
and gives her shoulders and arms a quick life as of darting fish
before they disappear into an old shirt of his and a
moth-eaten sweater. Behind her their new bed, unmade, hasn't
been fucked on yet, they were too drunk and exhausted last night.
In fact they haven't since that night on the island. He asks her
irritably what about his lunch.
Janice asks, "Oh, didn't you find something in the fridge?"
"There was one orange. I ate it for breakfast."
"I know I bought eggs and sliced ham but I guess Buddy and
"Wasn't her hair wild? do you think she takes drugs? - ate
it all up in that omelette they made after midnight. Isn't that a
sign of drugs, an abnormal appetite for food? I know there's some
cheese left, Harry. Couldn't you make do with cheese and crackers
until I go out and buy something for Mother later? I don't know
what's open Sundays around here, I can't keep running back to the
Mt. Judge Superette and using up gas."
"'No," he agrees, and makes do with cheese and crackers and a
Schlitz that is left over from the three sixpacks Ronnie and Thelma
brought over. Webb and Cindy brought the brandy and champagne. All
afternoon he helps Janice clean, Windexing windows and wiping
woodwork while she mops floors and even scours the kitchen and
bathroom sinks. They have a downstairs bathroom here but he doesn't
know where to buy toilet paper printed with comic strips. Janice
has brought her mother's waxing machine in the Mustang along with
some Butcher's paste and he wipes the wax on the long blond
living-room floor, each whorl of wood grain and slightly
popped-up nail and old scuff of a rubber heel his, his house.
As he lays the wax on with circular swipes Rabbit keeps chasing the
same few thoughts in his brain, stupid as brains are when you do
physical work. Last night he kept wondering if the other two
couples had gone ahead and swapped, Ronnie and Cindy doing it the
second time, after he and Janice had left and they did act
cozy, as if the four of them made the innermost circle of the party
and the Angstroms and poor Buddy and that hungry Valerie were
second echelon or third worlders somehow. Thelma got pretty drunk
for her, her sallow skin gleaming to remind him of Vaseline, though
when he thanked her for sending the clipping about the goose she
stared at him and then sideways at Ronnie and then back at him as
if he had rocks in his head. He guesses it'll all come out, what
happened down there afterwards, people can't keep a good secret,
but it pains him to think that Thelma would let Webb do to her
everything the two of them did or that Cindy really wanted to go
with Ronnie again and would lift up her heavy breast with a
motherly hand so that loudmouthed jerk could suck and tell about
it, with his scalp bare like that he's such a baby, Harrison. No
point in keeping secrets, we'll all be dead soon enough, already
we're survivors, the kids are everywhere, making the music, giving
the news. Ever since that encounter with Ruth he's felt amputated,
a whole world half-seen in the comer of his eye snuffed out.
Janice and the waxing machine are whining and knocking behind him
and the way his brain is going on reminds him of some article he
read last year in the paper or Time about some professor at
Princeton's theory that in ancient times the gods spoke to people
directly through the left or was it the right half of their brains,
they were like robots with radios in their heads telling them
everything to do, and then somehow around the time of the ancient
Greeks or Assyrians the system broke up, the batteries too weak to
hear the orders, though there are glimmers still and that is why we
go to church, and what with all these jigaboos and fags
roller-skating around with transistorized earmuffs on their
heads we're getting back to it. How at night just before drifting
off he hears Mom's voice clear as a whisper from the corner of the
room saying Hassy, a name as dead as the boy that was called that
is dead. Maybe the dead are gods, there's certainly something kind
about them, the way they give you room. What you lose as you age is
witnesses, the ones that watched from early on and cared, like your
own little grandstand. Mom, Pop, old man Springer, baby Becky, good
old Jill (maybe -that dream had to do with the time he took
her in so suddenly, except her hair wasn't dark, it was so intense,
the dream, there's nothing like a new relationship), Skeeter, Mr.
Abendroth, Frank Byer, Mamie Eisenhower just recently, John Wayne,
LBJ, JFK, Skylab, the goose. With Charlie's mother and Peggy
Fosnacht cooking. And his daughter Annabelle Byer snuffed out with
that whole world he was watching in the corner of his eye like
those entire planets obliterated in Star Wars. The more dead you
know it seems the more living there are you don't know. Ruth's
tears, when he was leaving: maybe God is in the universe the way
salt is in the ocean, giving it a taste. He could never understand
why people can't drink saltwater, it can't be any worse than mixing
Coke and potato chips.
Behind him he hears Janice knocking her waxer clumsily against
the baseboards at every sweep and it comes to him why they're being
so busy, they're trying not to panic here in this house, where they
shouldn't be at all, so far from Joseph Street. Lost in space. Like
what souls must feel when they awaken in a baby's body so far from
Heaven: not only scared so they cry but guilty, guilty. A huge hole
to fill up. The money it'll take to fill these rooms with furniture
when they had it all free before: he's ruined himself. And the
mortgage payments: $62,400 at 13%2 per cent comes to nearly $8500
interest alone, $700 a month over twenty years nibbling away at the
principal until he's sixty-six. What did Ruth say about her
youngest, 6/6/66? Funny about numbers, they don't lie but do play
tricks. Three score and ten, all the things he'll never get to do
now: to have Cindy arrange herself in the pose of one of those
Penthouse sluts on a leopard skin and get down in front of
her on all fours and just eat and eat and eat.
Last night Buddy turned to him so drunk his silver-rimmed
eyeglasses were steamed and said he knew it was crazy, he knew what
people would say about her being too tall and having three children
and all, but Valerie really did it for him. She is the one, Harry.
With tears in his eyes he said that. The big news from over at the
Flying Eagle was Doris Kaufmann's planning to get married again. To
a guy Rabbit used to know slightly, Don Eberhardt, who had gotten
rich buying up inner-city real estate when nobody wanted it,
before the gas crunch. Life is sweet, that's what they say.
Light still lingers in the windows, along the white windowsills,
at five when they finish, the days this time of year lengthening
against the grain. The planets keep their courses no matter what we
do. In the freshly waxed hall by the foot of the stairs he touches
Janice underneath her chin where the flesh is soft but not really
repulsive and suggests a little nap upstairs, but she gives him a
kiss warm and competent, the competence cancelling out the warmth,
and tells him, "Oh Harry, that's a sweet idea but I have no idea
when they might be coming, it's all mixed up with a hedown Mother
was going to have, she really does seem frailer, and the baby's
feeding time, and I haven't even shopped yet. Isn't the Super Bowl
"Not till six, it's on the West Coast. There's a pre-game
thing on at four-thirty but it's all hoopla, you can only
take so much. I wanted to watch the Phoenix Open at
two-thirty, but you were so damn frantic to clean up just
because your mother's coming over."
"You should have said something. I could have done it
While she goes off in the Mustang he goes upstairs, because
there isn't any place downstairs to lie down. He hopes to see the
squirrel again, but the animal is gone. He thought squirrels
hibernated, but maybe this winter is too mild. He holds his hands
over a radiator, his, and with pride and satisfaction feels it
breathing heat. He lies down on their new bed with the Amish quilt
they brought from Mt. Judge and almost without transition falls
asleep. In his dream he and Charlie are in trouble at the agency,
some crucial papers with numbers on them are lost, and where the
new cars should be in the showroom there are just ragged craters,
carefully painted with stripes and stars, in the concrete floor. He
awakes realizing he is running scared. There has been another
explosion, muffled: Janice closing the door downstairs. It is after
six. "I had to drive out almost to the ballpark before I found this
MinitMart that was open. They didn't have fresh anything of course,
but I got four frozen Chinese dinners that the pictures of on the
box looked good."
"Isn't crap like that loaded with chemicals? You don't want to
poison Pru's milk."
"And I bought you lots of baloney and eggs and cheese and
crackers so stop your complaining."
The nap, that at first waking had felt as if somebody had
slugged him in the face with a ball of wet clothes, begins to sink
into his bones and cheer him up. Darkness has erased the staring
depth of day; the windows might be black photographic plates in
their frames. Thelma and Nelson are out there circling, waiting to
move in. Janice bought thirty dollars' worth at the MinitMart and
as she fills the bright refrigerator he sees in a comer there are
two more beers that escaped the vultures last night. She even
brought him a jar of salted peanuts for all of $1.29 to watch the
game with. The first half sways back and forth. He is rooting for
the Steelers to lose, he hates what they did to the Eagles and in
any case doesn't like overdogs; he pulls for the Rams the way he
does for the Afghan rebels against the Soviet military machine.
At half-time a lot of girls in colored dresses and guys
that look like fags in striped jerseys dance while about a thousand
pieces of California brass imitate the old Big Bands with an
off-key blare; these kids try to jitterbug but they don't
have the swing, that onebeat wait back on your heels and then the
twirl. They do a lot of disco wiggling instead. Then some little
piece of sunshine with an Andrews-sisters pageboy sings
"Sentimental journey" but it doesn't have that Doris Day wartime
Forties soul, how could it? No war. These kids were all born, can
you believe it, around 1960 at the earliest and, worse yet, are
sexually mature. On the "a-all aboard" they snake together in
what is supposed to be the Chattanooga Choo-choo and then
produce, out there in cloudless California, flashing sheets like
tinfoil that are supposed to be solar panels. "Energy is people,"
they sing. "People are en-er-gy!" Who needs Khomeini
and his oil? Who needs Afghanistan? Fuck the Russkis. Fuck the
Japs, for that matter. We'll go it alone, from sea to shining
Tired of sitting in his den alone with a hundred million other
boobs watching, Harry goes into the kitchen for that second beer,
Janice sits at a card table her mother parted with as a loan
grudgingly, even though she never plays cards except in the
Poconos. "Where are our guests?" he asks.
Janice is sitting there helping the Chinese dinners warm up in
the oven and reading a copy of House Beautiful she must
have bought at the MinitMart. "They must have fallen asleep.
They're up a good deal of the night, in a way it's a merry, Harry,
we're not there anymore."
He trims his lips in upon a bitter taste in the beer. Grain gone
bad. Men love their poison. "Well I guess living in this house with
just you is the way for me to lose weight. I never get fed."
"You'll get fed," she says, turning a slick page.
Jealous of the magazine, of the love for this house he feels
growing in her, he complains, "It's like waiting for a shoe to
She darts a dark, not quite hostile look up at him. "I'd think
you've had enough shoes drop lately to last ten years."
From her tone he supposes she means something about Thelma but
that had been far from his mind, for now.
Their guests don't arrive until early in the fourth quarter,
just after Bradshaw, getting desperate, has thrown a bomb to
Stallworth; receiver and defender go up together and the lucky
stiff makes a circus catch. Rabbit still feels the Rams are going
to win it. Janice calls that Ma and Pru are here. Ma Springer is
all chattery in the front hall, taking off her mink, about the
drive through Brewer, where hardly any cars were moving because she
supposes of the game. She is teaching Pru to drive the Chrysler and
Pru did very well once they figured out how to move the seat back:
she hadn't realized what long legs Pru has. Pru, pressing a
pink-wrapped bundle tight to her chest out of the cold, looks
worn and thin in the face but more aligned, like a bed tugged
smooth. "We would have been here earlier but I was typing a letter
to Nelson and wanted to finish," she apologizes.
"It worries me," Ma is going on, "they used to say it brought
bad luck to take a baby out visiting before it was baptized."
"Oh Mother," Janice says; she is eager to show her mother the
cleaned-up house and leads her upstairs, even though the only
lights are some 40-watt neo-colonial wall sconces in
which the previous owners had let many of the bulbs die.
As Harry resettles himself in one of his silvery-pink wing
chairs -in front of the game, he can hear the old lady
clumping on her painful legs directly above his head, inspecting,
searching out the room where she might some day have to come and
stay. He assumes Pru is with them, but the footsteps mingling on
the ceiling are not that many, and Teresa comes softly down the one
step into his den and deposits into his lap what he has been
waiting for. Oblong cocooned little visitor, the baby shows her
profile blindly in the shuddering flashes of color jerking from the
Sony, the tiny stitchless seam of the closed eyelid aslant, lips
bubbled forward beneath the whorled nose as if in delicate disdain,
she knows she's good. You can feel in the curve of the cranium
she's feminine, that shows from the first day. Through all this she
has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence
hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune's hostage, heart's
desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.