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1I was out back of the house in the big field with my good friend Leonard Pine the afternoon it started. Me with the twelve gauge and him pulling the birds."Pull," I said, and Leonard did, and another clay bird took to the sky and I jerked the gun up and cut it down."Man," Leonard said, "don't you ever miss?""Just on purpose."I'd switched to clay birds in favor of the real ones a long time back. I didn't like to kill anything now, but I still enjoyed the shooting. Getting the bead on something and pulling the trigger and feeling the kick on my shoulder and watching the target blow apart had its own special satisfaction."Got to open another box," Leonard said. "The pigeons are all dead.""I'll load, you shoot for a while.""I shot twice as long as you did and I missed half those little boogers.""I don't care. My eye's getting off anyway."Bullshit."Leonard got up, brushed his big black hands on his khaki pants, and came over and took the twelve gauge. He was about to load it and I was about to load the launcher, when Trudy came around the side of the house.We both saw her about the same time. I turned to open another box of clay birds, and Leonard turned to pick up a box of shells, and she was swinging our way in the sunlight."Shit," Leonard said. "Here comes trouble."Trudy was about four years younger than me, thirty-six, but she still looked twenty-six. Had that long blond hair and legs that began at the throat--good legs that were full at the thighs and dark of skin. And she knew how to use them, had that kind of walk that worked the hips and gave her breasts that nice little bounce that'll make a man run his car off the road for a look. She had on a tight beige sweater that showed she still didn't need a bra, and a short black skirt that was the current fashion, and it made me think of the late sixties and her mini-skirt days--back when I met her and she was going to be a great artist and I was going to find some way to save the world.Far as I knew, closest she'd gotten to art was a drafting table and dressing mannequins in store windows, and the closest I'd gotten to saving the world was my name on some petitions, for everything from recycling aluminum cans to saving the whales. I put my cans in the trash now, and I didn't know how the whales were doing."Watch her," Leonard said, before she was in earshot."I'm watching.""You know what I mean. Don't come crying over to my place if she does it to you again. Mind what I'm saying, now.""I know what you're saying.""Uh-huh, and a hard dick knows no conscience.""It isn't that way and you know it.""Well, it's some kind of way."Now that Trudy was closer, the midday sun fell full on her face, I could see she didn't quite look twenty-six. The pores in her nose were a little larger and there were crows feet around her eyes and laugh lines at the corners of her mouth. She always had liked to laugh, and she'd laugh at anything. I remembered best how she laughed when she was happy in bed. She had a laugh then that was pretty as the song of a bird. It was the kind of thing I didn't want to remember, but the memory was there just the same, like a thorn in the back of my brain.She smiled at us then, and I felt the January day become a little warmer. She could do that to a man, and she knew it. Liberated or not, she didn't fight that ability."Hello, Hap," she said."Hello," I said."Leonard," she said."Trudy," Leonard said."What're you boys up to?""Shooting some skeet," I said. "Want to shoot some?""Sure."Leonard handed me the shotgun. "I got to go, Hap. I'll check you later. Remember what I told you, huh?"I looked at that hard face of his, black as a prune, said, "Sure, I'll remember.""Un-huh. See you, Trudy," and he went away then, making deep strides across the pasture toward the house where his car was parked."What was that all about?" Trudy said. "He seemed kind of mad.""He doesn't like you.""Oh yeah, I forgot.""No you didn't.""Okay, I didn't.""You want to shoot first?""I think I'd really rather go in the house and have a cup of coffee. It's kind of chilly out here.""You're not dressed like it's chilly.""I've got hose on. They're warmer than you think, Just not warm enough. Besides, I haven't seen you in a while--""Almost two years.""--and I wanted to look good.""You do.""So do you. You could gain a few pounds, but you look good.""Well, you don't need to gain or lose an ounce. You look great.""Jazzercise. I've got a record and I do what it says. Us older ladies have to work at it."I smiled. "Okay, older lady. Why don't you help me gather this stuff, and we'll go on up to the house."She sat at the kitchen table and smiled at me and made small talk. I got down the coffee and tried to keep my mind off how it used to be between us, but I wasn't any good at it.When I had the coffee maker going, I sat at the table across from her. It was slightly warm in the kitchen from the gas heaters, and close enough I could smell the scent of her minty soap and the hint of some perfume, probably dabbed behind the ears and knees and below her belly button. That's the way she used to do it, and the thought of it made me weak."Still working in the rose fields?" she asked."We've been digging them, but not for the last few days. The man me and Leonard work for is through with that part. It'll be a few days before he'll need us for anything else."She nodded, ran one long-nailed hand through her hair, and I saw the glint of a small, gold loop in her earlobe. I don't know what it was about that gesture, about the wink of gold, but it made me want to take her in my arms, pull her on the table and make the two-year absence of her blow away.Instead I contented myself with a memory, one of my favorites. It was about the time we went to this dance and she had worn this zebra-stripped blouse and mini-skirt. I was twenty-three and she was nineteen. The way she danced, the way she moved when she wasn't dancing, the smell of her, had made me manic with lust.I had whispered something to her and she had laughed and we had gone out to my Chevy and driven to our favorite parking place on a pine-covered hill. I stripped her and she stripped me, and we made slow, sweet love on the motor-warm hood of my car, the moon shining down on us like a personal love-light, the cool summer breeze blowing across us like a feathered fan.And the thing I remember best about that time, other than the act of copulation, was I had felt so goddamn strong and immortal. Old age and death were as wild and improbable as some drunken story about walking across the face of a star."How's . . . what is it? Howard?" It wasn't a thing I really wanted to ask, but it came out anyway."Okay. We're divorced. Have been for a year now. I don't think I'm cut out for marriage. I had you and I screwed that up, didn't I?""No great loss.""I left you for Pete and Pete for Bill and Bill for Howard. None of them worked out, and neither did the ones I didn't marry along the way. None of them came close to what we had. And the kind of men that are anything like you are harder and harder to find."The flattery was a little thick, so I didn't have anything to say to it. I checked the coffee, poured a couple of cups. When I sat hers on the table, she looked at me, and I started to say something brotherly, but it wouldn't come out."I've missed you, Hap," she said. "I really have."I put my coffee cup on the table next to hers and she stood and I held her and we kissed. The earth didn't move and my heart didn't stop, but it was quite all right just the same.Then we had our hands all over each other, and we started moving toward the bedroom, molting clothes along the way. Under the covers we danced the good, slow dance, and she let loose with that laugh I loved so much, the one as sweet and happy as the song of a bird.And I did not care to remember then that even the most predatory of birds, the shrike, can sing.2About two in the morning the phone rang. I got up, and went to the kitchen to answer it. I don't think Trudy even heard it.It was Leonard."That bitch there?""Yeah.""Shit. You're fucked again.""It's different this time. I'm only getting laid. Remember what you said about a hard dick not knowing a conscience? You were right.""Bullshit, don't give me that macho crap. I was just talking that way. You don't think like that and you know it. It's always got to be something to you. This is Leonard you're talking to here, Mr. Hap Collins, not some rose field nigger.""Leonard, you are a rose field nigger, and so am I. I'm a white version.""You know what I mean.""What are you doing up at two in the morning minding my business?""Drinking, goddammit. Trying to get drunk.""How are you doing?""I'd rate it about a five on a one-to-ten scale.""Is that Hank Williams I hear in the background?""Not his ownself, but yes. 'Setting the Woods On Fire.'""What key's he singing in?""You're not as funny as you think, Hap. Shit, I wish that whore wouldn't come around.""Don't call her that.""That's what she is. She comes around and you start to act funny.""How funny do I get?""All moon-eyed and puppylike, talking about the good old days, giving me that self-righteous sixties stuff. I was there, buddy, and it was just the eighties with tie-dyed Tee-shirts.""You numb nuts, you talk about the sixties just as much as I do.""But I hated them. Shit, man, Trudy gets you all out of perspective. She gets to telling you how it was and how it ought to be now, and you get to believing her. I like you cynical. It's closer to the ground. I tell you, that bitch will say anything to get her way. She's fake as pro-wrestling. She's out there on a limb, brother, and she's inviting you out there with her. When the limb cracks, you're both gonna bust your ass. Get down from the tree, Hap.""She's all right, Leonard.""In the sack, maybe. In the head, uh-uh.""No, she's all right.""Sure, and wow, the sixties, man, like neat.""This time is different.""And next time I shit it'll come out in sweet-smelling little squares. Goodnight, you dumb sonofabitch."He hung up, and I went over and got a glass out of the cabinet, filled it with water, drank it, leaned my naked rear into the counter and thought about things. What I thought about mostly was how cold it was.I went back to the bedroom to get my robe, and looked down at Trudy. There was enough moonlight that I could see her face. The blanket had fallen off of her and she was lying on her side with her arms cuddling her pillow. I could see a smooth shoulder, the shape of one fine breast and the curve of her hip. Looked too innocent to have been the one in my bed a short time ago, screaming and groaning, and finally singing like a bird.But she didn't look so innocent I wasn't stirred. I thought about waking her, but didn't. I covered her gently, got my robe off the bedpost, went back into the kitchen and filled my glass with water again, took a chair at the table across from the window and looked out. With the curtains pulled back like they were, I could see the moonlit field where Leonard and I had shot skeet, could see the line of pines behind it, looking oddly enough like the outline of a distant mountain range.I sat there and drank my water and thought about things, thought about Trudy and the sixties and what Leonard had said, and knew he was right. Last time she had come around and gone away, I had started on a monumental drunk that embarrassed the winos down at the highway mission, which was where Leonard found me--three months later. I had no idea where I had gotten the money for liquor, and I didn't know how much I'd drunk, couldn't even remember having started.Since that time I had sworn off. Trudy, not the liquor. But now she was in my house again, in my bed, and I was thinking about her, considering all the wrong things, knowing full well I had fallen off the wagon again.Until it had gone wrong between us (and it was a mystery to me as to when and how), our relationship had been as beautiful as a dream. And there were times when I felt it might have been just that.We met at LaBorde University. I had made a late start due to no money and lots of hard work at the iron foundry trying to get me some. The foundry was a hot, horrible job where you wore a hard hat, watched sparks jump and heard the clang of steel pipe all day.But it was money, and I thought it would allow me to go to college, get some kind of degree and find a way to make an easier living than my old man had; a way for me to get my slice of the American Dream.Pretty soon I was wrapped up in the learning, though, and not for what it could get me financially. There was something in the books and lectures that went beyond the sports page and the martial arts I practiced, the color article section of the TV Guide. There was more to life than a beer with the buddies, a gold watch and a pension. It was the sixties, a time of love and peace and social upheaval--contradictions that walked side by side. Women's rights. Civil rights. The Vietnam War. I got it in my head I could do some good out there, make things better for the underprivileged. I changed my major from business to sociology and went to anti-war rallies and sang some folk songs, collected Beatles albums, and let my hair grow long.
From the Trade Paperback edition.