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The Man in the Buick: and Other Stories
     

The Man in the Buick: and Other Stories

by Kathleen George
 

Fiction. "George doesn't waste a word as she plunges the reader into her characters' lives with startling intensity, then skillfully reveals as much about them as it is necessary to know . . . These masterfully shaped stories mark George as a writer to watch." --Booklist

Overview


Fiction. "George doesn't waste a word as she plunges the reader into her characters' lives with startling intensity, then skillfully reveals as much about them as it is necessary to know . . . These masterfully shaped stories mark George as a writer to watch." --Booklist

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Semper fidelis" could never be the motto of this bleak collection of 10 stories. Its subjects, in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, turn time and time again to extramarital liaisons to combat discontent and loneliness. Viable relationships are few and far between. In "The Tractor Accident," Garren, a would-be photographer stuck in his wife's upstate New York farm, pursues a woman who is "city." John, recovering in Mexico from his wife's abandonment, falls for a maid. Robert, the protagonist of "Maria," just wants to be a cowboy after 25 restless years in an East Coast marriage. Much of the women's unhappiness is child-centered. Fran in the title story suffers from empty-nest syndrome, while Linda can't get over the near-abduction of her baby ("Small Errands"). Only a 10-year-old mentioned in passing (the daughter of the son of an abusive ex-lover, now dead) is said to be "okay.... But her disappointments are still in the future." Most characters, like Claire in "Weeds," feel compelled to "make a change"; she leaves her marriage after offering the gardener next door--a young "loser"--a glass of water and then much more. "I couldn't tell you why," she tells her bewildered husband. "I don't know myself. I don't know. I really don't know." At the end of each story, the discontent and loneliness mostly persist. The writing is proficient, with stories told from multiple viewpoints, but heavy-handed. "The morning represented their marriage," we're told outright as spouses work side-by-side, but not together. Although the tales may appeal to those in similar life circumstances, they do not transcend their subject matter. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781886157200
Publisher:
BkMk Press of the University of Missouri-Kansas City
Publication date:
01/01/1999
Pages:
187
Product dimensions:
5.49(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt




Whenever I take up a newspaper and read it, I fancy I see ghosts creeping between the lines. There must be ghosts all over the world. They must be as countless as the grains of the sands....

—Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts


Chapter One


THE TRACTOR ACCIDENT


I


I've gathered the facts, memorized the details.

Here is what happened.

                 Garren had been married to Nell for twenty-seven years and living on the farm in upstate New York for most of those. It was 1982. Their children were no longer around; they were in Chicago, Indiana, school.

    The tractor he owned was an International Harvester, a high-wheel Cub. It was really a wonderful machine for a place like that. It could shovel snow, grade roads, cut hay (for this it had a sickle bar). It also had a rotary mower for lawns, or you could attach a trailer to it to haul firewood. It could plow up snow, really dig. Garren had bought it mainly to cut field hay.

    It was an old thing, over twenty years old, but it still chugged along. He originally bought it in 1959, a one-thousand dollar demonstrator, at a place that sold farm supplies. He thought, do we need this, can we afford it? He decided they did because local farmers charged a lot to mow wild grasses and brush, which their property had plenty of. Now he could do all that himself. Which meant that he didn't have much time to dowhat he loved, taking photographs, and that was a problem.

    The tractor looked like a stripped car. It had big rear wheels, five feet high, which Garren kept filled with anti-freeze, heavier than air, for traction. A saddle seat made it a bit like riding a horse. The whole thing had no cab or body to speak of. It was all engine, seat, and wheels. The engine itself was almost exposed except for a slight hood. The front wheels were little. They were that solid rubber kind attached to axles so they could turn sharply. Sometimes Garren thought the machine looked like a beast or an oversized insect. Also, it looked naked.

    The season at the time of the accident was late spring or early summer. Garren was just back from a long winter job photographing the city of Denver. He had met Denise and he was in love.

    "Tell me about Denver," Nell had asked him on the phone.

    He'd said, "The architecture is unbelievably dull, but I'm finding angles, I'm finding light that flatters it. Somehow I'm taking good photographs. The city officials are happy." He'd been on these jobs, back and forth from the farm, for nine years. He taught classes sometimes. Mostly he photographed cities and factories. But he was also amazingly good at people. Faces. He was good at what he loved. Cities. Bustle, activity. The arts. Busy people.

    The farm he lived on with Nell was her idea, a way of living well and simply at the same time. Nell said, "You see this? Isn't this wonderful?" She was looking out over the field hay to the fields beyond. Garren knew it was supposed to bring them peace. But when they came together, they argued. She found his need to take pictures boring, foolish. She made fun of him. "Sure. Capture the barn in black and white at sunset. But paint it red in daylight sometime soon."

    Garren would go off on a job, see how he wanted his life to be, then go back to the farm, get on his tractor and work in the fields while Nell puttered in the kitchen or on the back porch. He asked her to move with him to the city, but she said absolutely not.

    Then in 1982 he went to Denver for four months and met Denise.

    Denise broke him down. All his resolve to keep things together melted away.

    It was an old story, but it felt brand new when it happened to him. She was enrolled in a photography workshop he gave in Denver. She slipped in and out of his vision, in and out of the dark room, in and out of the restaurant he frequented until he finally asked her, heart beating, to have dinner with him one night. "I wondered when you were going to get around to it," she said. "Life is only so long."

    For a week, he just talked to her. But the talk ... well, she'd led a murky life. At the end of a week, he knew she'd had a long-term affair with a step-uncle, a business man, who was a familiar in her mother's house. She thought her mother had suspected the affair all along. Denise smoked dope when she told him these stories back in his rooms. He'd get mesmerized by her smallness, her little cat's eyes, and her smooth, lovely skin so that he was cushioned, as if he'd smoked too, from her stories of ongoing cocaine connections, three abortions, and a fast, fast life. He had wanted city life. She was city.

    His whole relationship with Denise shook his system. She would twine around him, only to get up abruptly and leave or say something outrageously funny. She was a good mimic and could imitate him and just about everybody in their photography workshop. He laughed uneasily. Did she see through everyone so unsentimentally?

    In a foggy dream, he took in details about her, a small mole on her upper right thigh, her hair curlier at the neckline, the fact that she slept with a pistol under her pillow. A pistol! Somehow he got used to it. Oh, yes, I'd better not turn over too abruptly, he'd think, because of the gun under her pillow. Uh, well, he imagined saying if ever he had to explain the gun to a law officer, she has to protect herself; she's had some rough characters in her life. She was cocaine, of course. She burned into his nose. She made him feel free.

    On top of that she mined out to be a very talented photographer, although her very first set of pictures in which somehow most faces were disguised enough by light or other means to be almost unrecognizable were all of pimps and whores. Not sentimentally shown either, but caught in interesting poses and moods, as if what they did was a job, just hard work. Garren asked in class, taken aback, how she had gotten their trust. She said she just knew them.

    He thought, soon I'll go home, leave her here, let this friendship, whatever it is, drift.

    When the photography students in his class were invited to a party at one of the upscale galleries, he watched her move fluidly in these sophisticated circles. She could hold her own in conversation with anyone. Men fell over their wine glasses toward her. Who was he to sniff at her interest in him?

    By midwinter they began to see each other daily. Nothing seemed very real. And yet it continued and became real. When spring brought wafts of new growth in the air, scents of flowers and leaves and wet earth, he suddenly couldn't imagine leaving her. One day he opened his apartment door to Nell and his son Michael who had come to fetch him home. Did Nell suspect? She wanted to see Denver, she said. She wanted to see his show at the gallery.

    He went and found a phone and called Denise, desperate, saying he would find a way to stay on in Denver or get back to Denver. She told him nonsense, pooh, go home, he was married.

    When he first got back to the farm, Garren snuck out regularly to phone Denise. He would go out on the road, to an isolated pay phone, carrying a pocketful of change. Sometimes there was no answer, but usually Denise was home, sounding sad, thinking, reading, studying photography manuals, photographs, things that would make her better and better at taking pictures. He told her he was going to leave Nell.

    She said he shouldn't.

    He told her he was going to take a long, boring assignment in Miami because he could fly out to see her or fly her down to see him.

    She said she might move to San Francisco.

    He said he would fly to San Francisco.

    She said she loved him but she didn't want him to break up his marriage. She said she hadn't much wanted to live before he found something worthwhile in her.


    The tractor accident happened one day when it was still early summer. It was very warm, so in the morning when Garren dressed to work in the field, he put on high-top work shoes and purple shorts made specially for him from a pattern used in Guatemala. He must have looked strange and exotic. And comic. A tall bony-faced Irishman, with coarse light hair and a suntan, crinkly lines around his blue eyes and a loin cloth and shoes. He wouldn't have looked like a colonialist because his face was naturally innocent, not an owner's face, a face easily surprised. Nearly a quarter-century after he bought the tractor, he could still be happy to find it there in the barn, his, this wonderful machine.

    That morning he had breakfast with Nell. The sun made their land bright and beautiful. They sat comfortably over their cereal and coffee, she with her correspondence spread out before her in the breakfast alcove of their farmhouse, he with the newspaper. Nell was not a bad-looking woman. But in the twenty-odd years they'd had the farm, her body and hair gradually took on the protective coloring of the place. Her hair went to its natural straw color, then some gray came in. Her body became rounder, soft, less defined. She couldn't be bothered with makeup, unless she had to go into a city for one of his openings.

    The sun shone brilliantly on them as they sat at breakfast. Almost everybody they knew thought they'd found the perfect life. Garren got up and brought his paperwork to the table, signed a contract for a show of his photographs, paid bills, ordered film, took care of business, thought about Denise. Then he and Nell stirred themselves and like two good comrades went to work outdoors.

    Now, here's how the land outside the house was. It's important in picturing the accident. If you looked at a map or took an aerial photograph, in the northwest corner would be a pond. The algae had killed the fish, so there were no more trout or black bass, but there were some friendly water snakes. In the northeast corner was the barn. The second floor was all storage—books, furniture, and old, old photos, packed away for safety. The barn was also, of course, where the tractor was kept. It lived amidst the chain saw, tools, other farm equipment, and things to service the tractor. In the middle plane of this map of ours was the house, at the west, then the yard, then a stream cutting a diagonal from the pond northwest of the house to the rented fields in the south. Right in the center, next to the stream, was the grass that Garren went to cut. That grass was next to the stream Nell was going to work in. To the east of all that was a lovely vegetable garden, which Garren had put in. Well, it must have been lovely.

    "Damn, look at this mess," Garren said, looking toward the rented-out land to the south. The farmer who rented the fields used so much fertilizer that there was a nitrogen build-up which, although it was great for the corn in Garren's garden, made the weeds and algae in the stream go absolutely crazy. The weeds were Nellie's job. She wore Garren's thigh-high rubber wading boots for tromping in the stream. She was to pull up those weeds. As he went for the tractor, Garren saw how she wobbled along, lifting each boot with each step. All morning, Garren worked beside her, in a manner of speaking, on the tractor, cutting the high grass. The morning represented their marriage.

    The accident happened after lunch. Afternoon: This was his life with Denise. They had come back and worked an hour or two more; so it was mid-afternoon and they were probably tired. Garren was a hard worker.

    The sickle bar on the tractor started the whole accident. It was five feet long, made up of metal shark teeth. It was held by a chain, but a lever pulled the chain so you could lift the bar when going over a rock. Mid-afternoon, when Garren had occasion to pull the lever, a link of the chain broke, and the sickle bar fell to the ground. This bar was heavy, eighty pounds or so. Garren got off the tractor, turned off the sickle bar by first shutting the engine off. He had no brake system on this old machine. He'd become more or less used to that. So he put the tractor in gear so it would hold on the hill. He got off, walked to the barn, and fetched wire to tie up the bar. He planned to drive the tractor back to the barn where he would use an acetylene torch to weld the chain back together. Garren had become handy at things around the farm, although it appeared less and less his kind of life. He got the bar tied up. Then, he did something stupid. Instead of getting on the tractor to start the engine, he started it from the ground while standing in from of the rear left wheel. Now he'd done this thousands of times with the tractor in neutral. However, he'd forgotten somehow that he had the thing in first gear. He was tired, despairing, looking for a way out of his marriage. Images of Denise came to him, mirages in the heat. She was water. He pushed the clutch pedal with his hand, reached up over the little hood to the starter button. The thing was in first gear so it started forward.

    Garren was wearing heavy work boots and, otherwise, just that little diaper. He started backing up as fast as possible. There was nothing to hold onto. Nellie didn't see. Nellie continued to pull weeds. He couldn't call out. He kept backing up, running backward and the tractor kept moving and yet for a while, maybe only a few seconds, he kept escaping. Then he tripped. The tractor, inexorable, being a tractor, kept coming on, kept at him.

    Garren understood that the wheel would go over him. He tried to pull himself into a fetal position. Even though he was adjusting his body in a desperate attempt to live, he saw the big wheel come over him and thought, "This is it. Well, at least it won't take long. I'll go quickly."

    Nellie said later she heard a scream and turned from her weeding.

    Garren doesn't remember screaming at all. The wheel went up over his outer thighs, over his hip, over his upper arm, over his inner shoulder. He inflated his body, like a tire, pumping up with breath, to fend off the attack. He blacked out. He swam in blackness. For a long time. Forever.

    Then he was sitting up, and a part of him understood what had happened. He became his own medic—reached out to feel his legs, arms, ribs for broken bones, wondered about internal bleeding.

    Probably only a split second had gone by.

    Nellie had heard the scream and she was trying to run toward him, but she was wearing his old rubber boots and she couldn't move very fast. She was like a Marx brother in slow motion.

    Meanwhile, Garren was sitting up, somehow realizing that the determined tractor, which had pivoted over his shoulder and miraculously missed his head, now headed toward the tender evergreens he'd planted. He felt no pain. He yelled to Nellie, "For God's sake, stop the tractor." He imagined it going, eating everything in its way, all the way to Poughkeepsie.

    Nellie waddled off after it, trying to stop it while it was going. The ground was uneven, and it was dangerous for her to get so close to the tractor which, mindless, might pivot again at any time, but somehow she got to it and stalled it. Maybe she pulled the throttle back. Then Nell made her way, in the big boots, back to Garren. He said, "Call the volunteer ambulance." He wanted to move, but he knew he shouldn't, so he sat there. His son's dog, Casey—named for Stengel, and gotten as a puppy, part golden retriever, part Chesapeake, now very large—came up and took the spoon position inside him to keep him warm. He petted Casey and thought he was going to cry, the dog's love was so pure.

    Nell called the fire company that operated a volunteer ambulance. They were farmers, mill workers, ordinary citizens, good folks. The word went out on the radio that there was an emergency at Garren's farm. He was a popular guy in the district, a character with his loin cloths and his funny family name—not Gary, not Garrett, not Darren. And who knows, maybe nothing else was happening that day. Anyway four ambulances from four towns came screaming and screeching up the road to the fields. Casey snarled at all of them; the ambulance men couldn't get near Garren. Finally Nell coaxed the dog away. The local men got the honors, pulled out a big board and strapped Garren to it. They took him to a hospital in the city of Hudson, thirty-five miles away.

    The tractor, they all estimated on the way to the hospital, was a ton and a half, two tons.

    In the emergency room, women oohed and aahed about the purple Guatemalan fisherman's breeches. Garren explained from his prone position that he had seen a pattern in a magazine, liked it, and taken it to a local woman who sewed for a living. He had two made, he told them, purple and white.

    The women said, "Imagine that!" And "We'll have to have you model your white ones too, sweetie. But honey, these are coming off."

    They began to move him. He felt as if he were in a coffin but awake. They put him into a scanner. He could hear doctors gathering. He could make out, "spleen, broken bones, vital organs." The pictures they wanted to get took several hours. Garren thought it was probably too late, that after all this they'd find something unfixable, and he'd die anyway.

    The doctors murmured.

    At the end of it, they told him it was a miracle. They couldn't understand how he was still alive, but they could find nothing wrong. They theorized soberly that the heavy grass had apparently acted like a cushion. They told him, "You are one very lucky man. We're going to release you. You go home and go to bed. We don't want you to do anything for days." They gave him a pile of pain killers. Looked envious.

    Nellie took him home. She mixed him a martini and made him a wonderful dinner of fresh vegetables from the garden and a small veal roast. The house smelled terrific from the food. The whole county phoned to see how he was. He felt immortal.

    But best of all was Nell who moved in and out of the room, checking on him. He was so grateful to be alive. "Nell," he said. "Nellie." It's as if he'd wanted this moment with her all along, for a long time. He looked at her and he felt happy. Their whole life together, their marriage, made sense. Their children had issued from their bodies. Their son's dog, Casey, loved them all, would have leaped to protect any one of them. Their hairs were mining gray together Yes, this was his life and it was good.


    Still, when he thought about what almost happened, his death, one awful thing was imagining that for a long time, probably for a very long time, Denise would not have any idea why she no longer heard from him. Nobody would have known to call her. She would have thought he stopped caring about her. She would have sat on her own bed, one knee up, reading photography journals, one after another, pressing herself to blot out the rejection. Weeks would go by. She wouldn't eat very much. She would do nothing but study. Somebody would come by with drugs. She'd say, great. Even while he was confined to bed, he thought, she might suffer some damage not hearing from him. As evening moved into night, he found other thoughts intruding on his happiness over being alive. He remembered Nell's critical tone. He heard her brother, a hardened cynic who played at folksiness, say, "You still tinkering with that camera?" and "Hey, haven't you heard, they've got color film now!" He thought about how neither Nellie nor her family had a clue who he was or what he was trying to do.

    What would Denise think, today, tomorrow, when there were no phone calls? He lay in bed remembering her lovely pixie face, tiny strong body, her sadness, mostly her sadness, for no matter how carelessly she dropped expensive clothing on chairs and tilted her head with that quizzical coolness, she was sad. Almost all the time. It was an odd and mighty aphrodisiac.

    He would manage to get up and out of the house and he would call her.

    Terrible guilt took the form of Nell entering their room with a flower in a vase and a piece of pie. Garren watched her through the haze of pain killers, again thrilled and touched that she loved him.


II


    Garren and I are on a plane high in the clouds on our way to San Francisco where we will attend a photographer's conference. (I'm a photographer, too. That's how I met Garren.) Years have passed since the tractor accident, nearly ten in fact. Garren has changed his life, left the farm, divorced Nell, and made a very impressive career as a photographer. Then after a couple of emotionally turbulent years, he stopped trying to fly out to San Francisco to see Denise. He tried other relationships for a while. And then I came along.

    We've been together for three years and we're headed toward marriage. Things have been pretty good. I haven't had many doubts. But whenever the tractor accident comes up, I feel the ground shift. I get scared. I lose my love for Garren. I want to run away. So why do I keep prodding him about it? Why did I ask him about it today? Well, for one thing, Denise may very well be at this conference. Some of her photographs are on exhibit, and she now lives in San Francisco. She lingers in Garren's life like a late afternoon light in autumn. A letter here, a card there.

    And I guess I think that somewhere in the story is the right glimpse of him, one I can hold onto when I get doubts, something that will make my fears go away.

    The one thing I can't get him to say is that Denise didn't actually love him or at least that she didn't love him enough. He's told me about the tractor accident maybe three or four times before today, but today I pore over the facts all over again.

    And not just the facts. Images, too. We are halfway through the trip, halfway across the country, between the two coasts. We are surrounded by clouds. I think of Nell as belonging to the East Coast (and not just geographically), Denise to the West Coast. My personality is somewhere around Chicago. My age splits the difference between these other two women as well. We are in my territory.

    For some reason the clouds that surround us make me think of the field hay.

    I stand and make my way through the swaying plane to the bathroom, imagining that I am magically suspended, walking through clouds, then driving through field hay. I tractor my way through. The mirror in the lavatory reminds me that I am solid and sensible. Then I tractor my way back to Garren. He has chosen to wear a clay-red and putty-colored sweater I bought him. It's cotton, smooth, of an intricate design. Under it is an ivory shirt. Khakis. He turns a few heads, but I don't think he's ever quite, realized it. When I get back to my seat, he is looking with interest at the flight magazine. As I slip in, he looks up, happy.

    We and all the other passengers have been lulled by the airlines into losing track of time. First magazines, newspapers, coffee. Then breakfast. Then stereo headphones and a movie. Ransom is the feature of the day. Garren and I aren't watching. We're watching the tractor accident instead.

    "How will you feel when you see her? If you see her," I ask. I know Denise gets under the skin, leaves people unsettled.

    Garren takes my hand. "Julia, I love you now," he says. He smiles sweetly, but in the afterimage of the smile, for just a split second, the Denise part of him smells blood.

    I don't know why I had to start asking about that part of Garren's life. Even as I asked, I felt it was self-destructive, because Garren tells this incident in a detached way and the detachment upsets me. If he would show some feeling, some regret, I would be all right. But when I see this distant side of him, when I hear him recount the facts of his betrayal of his wife, I forget that he has changed my life for the better, that he is kind, and often really funny, and certainly bright and interesting. The part of his life before the divorce, the years of alienation, terrify me. I suppose, `Could this happen again?' is the question that haunts me. Because Denise, I figure, is a part of him. Just as I am, just as Nell is. And what Denise represents, to my mind, is his selfishness, a death-defying selfishness. What's even more awful is that I understand it.

    And so we have had an accident, too. I've caused it. I've brought all this up. And now Denise has fallen across our path like the five-foot-long, shark-toothed sickle bar, something we must fix correctly or it will cause a bigger accident.

    "We were at the part where you were at home in bed trying to figure out how to call Denise," I prompt. I'm watching myself. Couldn't I have asked that differently? I wonder if the people behind the high-backed seats have heard me.

    But Garren has little sense of our publicness. "Well," he says, rewinding the tape, "I felt immortal. Nellie sat on the edge of the bed and we held hands. I never loved her so much as I did then. We talked about all kinds of things. Then I fell asleep on martinis and painkillers. It was a really deep sleep. But about four in the morning I woke up with the most awful stomach pain. I thought, `This is it. It's something they haven't found. I'm going to die from it after all.'"

    "Did you really believe that?"

    "I don't know. Maybe. Yes, I did."

    "Okay."

    "You still want me to tell this?" he asks.

    "Yes. Everything."

    "Nothing was working. None of my systems. Everything was traumatized, rigid. Anyway Nell called the volunteers again and they took me back to the hospital. They gave me more tests and threw up their hands. They couldn't find anything wrong, but they granted I was in terrible pain. They concluded I had gas. Pretty embarrassing. So they gave me Demerol and I went into happy land. I mean, really happy. Then I'd awake in agony. They'd give me more Demerol. Happy, very happy. Then agony. More Demerol. It went on like that."

    I've seen Garren wave aside ordinary aches and pains: cuts, bruises, burns. He hardly notices he has them. So he really was hurting. But this is not it, not the aperture through which I find my good feelings again. I see his kidneys, his stomach, his pancreas, his intestines, like so many cartoon characters, mowed down, flattened, traumatized, unable to plump up again to the right shapes. In cartoons this comes about magically in a frame.

    "The nurse would come in and say, `Roll over, sweetheart.' She'd jab me, and I'd have sweet dreams again."

    "When you came to, did you think about Denise?"

    "Well, I must have. I wrote a letter from the hospital and somehow got it mailed. I remember that. I couldn't make a phone call. A doctor came in and said, `We don't know what it is, but something's wrong in there. We'll have to open you up.' So I wasn't moving around much. Although I do remember walking around with an IV on a wheeler. Grittily cheerful, just unable to perform the necessary functions."

    "And still in pain?"

    "Oh, yes. One morning they came and took me to the x-ray room. A couple of the x-ray techs who worked there were Dutchess County farm girls. They were earthy and big. They picked me up and moved me this way and that. And suddenly I left a big fart. The biggest, longest you can imagine. They sent up a big cheer. Word went out into the hallways." He makes an utterly disarming funny face and I laugh, but humor is not the way in either.

    "They said, `Do it again, sweetheart!' They cheered me on. `Come on, do it again.' I did my best but I never could measure up to that first time."

    Surely the people in the seat in front of us are tuned in to us by now or totally out on Demerol.

    "Friends came to visit all summer. Eventually I got back to work on the farm. But I never drove the tractor again. It stayed in the field where Nell had stalled it for weeks. Then one day Michael said, `Let's move it to the barn.' The battery had died. We had to jump start it. I let Michael take it to the barn and park it. I thought, `No more.'"

    This part about not driving the tractor again gets to me. I understand: There was fear, and depression long afterwards.

    "By the time I got to Miami, Denise had moved out to San Francisco and things were okay."

    "Okay? How do you mean?"

    "I felt better. I flew out just about every weekend."

    No, no.

    "But you said you never trusted her. She sounds like a woman in a gangster movie, beautiful and bad and lying all the time."

    "She was. She was just like that. It didn't matter. I knew there was an age difference, a career difference. I was an old guy, she was a young girl. I knew all that. It didn't matter."

    "How could it not matter?" I am moving ahead very fast, too fast. "Wait a minute! How can I be sure you've been fair to her? Maybe she's perfectly innocent of half the things you say about her. Maybe she wasn't playing games with you. Maybe she never lied to you."

    "No. She did lie. And then she'd admit it later."

    "Well, tell me something good about her then. Otherwise, what should I think of you?"

    "I owe her a lot," he's saying, overlapping me. "She freed me. She made me see things differently. She was an instrument of change. And I was, too, for her. We had a mutual projection association. I gave her dreams, an image of herself. An idea of achievement. She gave me the idea that I could be who I wanted to be. With her, I didn't feel like a fool. I felt that I had talent and the right to pursue it. I guess she gave me dreams, too. And an idea of achievement. She meant a lot to me. I guess lies were part of it."

    "Are you still in danger?" I ask quietly. "I mean you've already told me we could be having a drink in the hotel lobby or going up an elevator and pow, we could run into her." What I really want to ask is, "Am I in danger?"

    "No," he says, taking my hand again and kissing it. "I'm not in danger. We're okay."

    I want to tie the sickle bar up in place. I want to wind the wire carefully. A stewardess comes by with another snack, a turkey sandwich on a tiny bun. The food distracts us. We eat, drift into naps. And when we wake, Garren takes up where I've been all along, at the questionable character of Denise and that part of his character that she appealed to.

    "You see, Denise compartmentalized her life. There were different parts of her and different groups of people in her life. They were separate from each other. I think that's what got her into trouble. She became whoever she was with. I belonged to only one part. She has a lot of person-alities. One of them ... Well, let's just say she came close to giving me the kind of affection you give me. Even though when I wasn't there, she was filling in with another group of people. Maybe screwing half of them."

    "Do you really think so?"

    "Oh, yes."

    "But you put up with it."

    "I think it made me feel safe. Change is such a hard thing."

    The stewardesses take our little trays, our headphones.

    "If you meet her, you'll like her," he says.

    "What will I see in her that I'll like?"

    "Oh ... a little part of yourself, I expect. A woman who's been hurt and used again and again, trying to turn the tables."

    But I haven't had it so bad, I think. A marriage with a guy who ran around on me and lied about it. And yes, I'm scared. But I never got so bad I had to knock myself out on chemicals.

    "You see a similarity?" I ask.

    "Yes," he challenges, "there's something that's similar."

    What can I say? I sense it's true. It has something to do with this driving the tractor through the clouds of field hay, not looking left or right, just cutting. Why? To get rid of whatever's in the way. To see.

    "Denise will probably be a little afraid of you. She's always trying to be special."

    "That's dangerous." I manage a smile.

    The plane tilts to the right and we begin to descend. We leave the clouds behind, like smoke.

    "You'll meet Nell, too, one day. It's inevitable. And you'll like her."

    "How do you know?"

    "I just do. For one thing, she'll want you to like her. She'll say funny things. She'll want to be tough and witty, a character. Buddy-buddy. That's how she is. That's how she gets through things. She's a really good person, one of the most generous people you could ever meet."

    What a strange face he makes. It looks like real regret. I look into Garren's eyes, and I see our West coast experience—Denise braving out a meeting with me. Then what? Nell running in slow motion in the big boots. She looks pretty funny. But nice. And yes, I like her.

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