reading-everyday

"We'll change direction. The boom will swing, so watch your head."

"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 of fatigue.

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 flickers.

"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 Fort Lauderdale.

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 prime?"

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 general.

"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."

"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, but Thelma's.

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."

"I am?"

"Of course. I adore you. Adore you."

"Me?"

"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 not circumcised."

"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. Sorry."

"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 better see.

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 her invitation.

"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?"

"Dying?"

"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."

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"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."

"And you?"

"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. "Gently."

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 forget."

"Promise?"

"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 alive."

"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 worth it."

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 them.

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 tub.

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 back."

"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 baby?"

"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 airplane.

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 once.

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.

"Your Corona."

"Oh boy."

"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 the responsibility."

"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, Harry."

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 satisfied."

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 Webb?"

She nods and nods, as if to spill the last tears from her eyes.

He answers for her, "The bastard was great."

She leans her head against his shoulder. "Why do you think I've been crying?"

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 hands.

V

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 again.

"The old mastoras. You look great," he exuberantly lies to Charlie.

"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 married."

"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 her sweat."

"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."

"Who hasn't?"

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 steam."

"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 it?"

"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 books?"

"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 `nookier.' "

"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 latch.

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 name?"

"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 balance.

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 grave."

"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 me."

"I didn't have much to offer anybody in those days."

"But you've done fine since. You're dressed up like a pansy."

"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 died."

"Was that you drove past in the old station wagon the day Nelson got married?"

"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 sixes."

"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 body."

He laughs, enjoying the push of this; his night with Thelma has made his body harder to insult. "You," he says, "are calling me fat?"

"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 stroke."

"When did your old guy pack it in? Whajja do, screw him to death?"

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 her."

"You're lying. I've seen the girl; she's older than you say."

"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 boys."

"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 mother."

"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 yours?"

"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 us now.

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 payments."

"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 difference -"

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 stands.

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 odd here.

"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 says.

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 bank."

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 about me?"

"I have heard about you, haven't I?"

"Whether I have a boyfriend or not, whether I ever thought about you?"

"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 one?"

"Scott."

"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, trapped.

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 hiding?"

"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 cropped back.

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 room.

He looked over at her guiltily and agreed with her unspoken thought. "Thelma."

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 love."

"Who? You with Webb?"

"No, you goon. Thelma. With you."

"She told me, she loves Ronnie. Though I don't see how she can."

"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 were protected."

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 from Nelson.

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 Business

Administration Building, Kent State University. Harry asked, "What about Pru? The kid's a father and doesn't seem to know it."

"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 maybe,

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.

Pru understands."

"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 baby.

"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 anything."

"Huh. Whaddeya have to do to get blamed for something these days?"

"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 house.

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 stayed."

"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 them."

"If."

"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 off."

"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 that.

"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 what's-her-name -"

"Valerie."

"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 on?"

"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 myself."

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 sea.

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 drop."

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.

The End

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