Friends keep calling my broken arm a broken wing. It’s the left arm, now folded against my chest and kept in place with a blue scarf sling that is knotted behind my neck, and it weighs too much ever to have been winglike. The accident happened when I ran for a bus. I tried to stop it from pulling away by shaking my shopping bags like maracas in the air, and that’s when I slipped on the ice and went down.
So I took the train from New York City to Saratoga yesterday, instead of driving. I had the perfect excuse not to go to Saratoga to visit my brother at all, but once I had geared up for it I decided to go through with the trip and avoid guilt. It isn’t Howard I mind but his wife’s two children – a girl of eleven and a boy of three. Becky either pays no attention to her brother Todd or else she tortures him. Last winter she used to taunt him by stalking around the house on his heels, clomping close behind him wherever he went, which made him run and scream at the same time. Kate did not intervene until both children became hysterical and we could no longer shout over their voices. “I think I like it that they’re physical,” she said. “Maybe if they enact some of their hostility like this, they won’t grow up with the habit of getting what they want by playing mind games with other people.” It seems to me that they will not ever grow up, but will burn out like meteors.
Howard has finally found what he wants: the opposite of domestic tranquility. For six years, he lived in Oregon with a pale, passive woman. On the rebound, he married an even paler pre-med student named Francine.That marriage lasted less than a year, and then, on a blind date in Los Angeles, he met Kate, whose husband was away on a business trip to Denmark just then. In no time, Kate and her daughter and infant son moved in with him, to the studio apartment in Laguna Beach he was sharing with a screenwriter. The two men had been working on a script about Medgar Evers, but when Kate and the children moved in they switched to writing a screenplay about what happens when a man meets a married woman with two children on a blind date and the three of them move in with him and his friend. Then Howard’s collaborator got engaged and moved out, and the screenplay was abandoned. Howard accepted a last-minute invitation to teach writing at an upstate college in New York, and within a week they were all ensconced in a drafty Victorian house in Saratoga. Kate’s husband had begun divorce proceedings before she moved in with Howard, but eventually he agreed not to sue for custody of Becky and Todd in exchange for child-support payments that were less than half of what his lawyer thought he would have to pay. Now he sends the children enormous stuffed animals that they have little or no interest in, with notes that say, “Put this in Mom’s zoo.” A stuffed toy every month of so – giraffes, a life-size German shepherd, an overstuffed standing bear – and, every time, the same note.
The bear stands in one corner of the kitchen, and people have gotten in the habit of pinning notes to it – reminders to buy milk or get the oil changed in the car. Wraparound sunglasses have been added. Scarves and jackets are sometimes draped on its arms. Sometimes the stuffed German shepherd is brought over and propped up with its paws placed on the bear’s haunch, imploring it.
Right now, I’m in the kitchen with the bear. I’ve just turned up the thermostat – the first one up in the morning is supposed to do that – and am dunking a tea bag in a mug of hot water. For some reason, it’s impossible for me to make tea with loose tea and the tea ball unless I have help. The only tea bag I could find was Emperor’s Choice.
I sit in one of the kitchen chairs to drink the tea. The chair seems to stick to me, even though I have on thermal long johns and a long flannel nightgown. The chairs are plastic, very nineteen-fifties, patterned with shapes that look sometimes geometric, sometimes almost human. Little things like malformed hands reach out toward triangles and squares. I asked. Howard and Kate got the kitchen set at an auction, for thirty dollars. They thought it was funny. The house itself is not funny. It has four fireplaces, wide-board floors, and high, dusty ceilings. They bought it with his share of an inheritance that came to us when our grandfather died. Kate’s contribution to restoring the house has been transforming the baseboards into faux marbre. How effective this is has to do with how stoned she is when she starts. Sometimes the baseboards look like clotted versions of the kitchen-chair pattern, instead of marble. Kate considers what she calls “parenting” to be a full-time job. When they first moved to Saratoga, she used to give piano lessons. Now she ignores the children and paints the baseboards.
And who am I to stand in judgment? I am a thirty-eight-year-old woman, out of a job, on tenuous enough footing with her sometime lover that she can imagine crashing emotionally as easily as she did on the ice. It may be true, as my lover, Frank, says, that having money is not good for the soul. Money that is given to you, that is. He is a lawyer who also has money, but it is money he earned and parlayed into more money by investing in real estate. An herb farm is part of this real estate. Boxes of herbs keep turning up at Frank’s office – herbs in foil, herbs in plastic bags, dried herbs wrapped in cones of newspaper. He crumbles them over omelets, roasts, vegetables. He is opposed to salt. He insists herbs are more healthful.
And who am I to claim to love a man when I am skeptical even about his use of herbs? I am embarrassed to be unemployed. I am insecure enough to stay with someone because of the look that sometimes comes into his eyes when he makes love to me. I am a person who secretly shakes on salt in the kitchen, then comes out with her plate, smiling, as basil is crumbled over the tomatoes.
Sometimes, in our bed, his fingers smell of rosemary or tarragon. Strong smells. Sour smells. Whatever Shakespeare says, or whatever is written in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, I cannot imagine that herbs have anything to do with love. But many brides-to-be come to the herb farm and buy branches of herbs to stick in their bouquets. They anoint their wrist with herbal extracts, to smell mysterious. They believe that herbs bring them luck. These days, they want tubs of rosemary in their houses, not ficus trees. “I got in right on the cusp of the new world,” Frank says. He isn’t kidding.
For the Christmas party tonight, there are cherry tomatoes halved and stuffed with peaks of cheese, mushrooms stuffed with pureed tomatoes, tomatoes stuffed with chopped mushrooms, and mushrooms stuffed with cheese. Kate is laughing in the kitchen. “No one’s going to notice,” she mutters. “No one’s going to say anything.”
“Why don’t we put out some nuts?” Howard says.
“Nuts are so conventional. This is funny,” Kate says, squirting more soft cheese out of a pastry tube.
“Last year we had mistletoe and mulled cider.”
“Last year we lost our sense of humor. What happened that we got all hyped up? We even ran out on Christmas Eve to cut a tree—”
“The kids,” Howard says.
“That’s right,” she says. “The kids were crying. They were feeling competitive with the other kids, or something.”
“Becky was crying. Todd was too young to cry about that,” Howard says.
“Why are we talking about tears?” Kate says. “We can talk about tears when it’s not the season to be jolly. Everybody’s going to come in tonight and love the wreaths on the picture hooks and think this food is so festive.”
“We invited a new Indian guy from the Philosophy Department,” Howard says. “American Indian – not an Indian from India.”
“If we want, we can watch the tapes of Jewel in the Crown,” Kate says.
“I’m feeling really depressed,” Howard says, backing up to the counter and sliding down until he rests on his elbows. His tennis shoes are wet. He never takes off his wet shoes, and he never gets colds.
“Try one of those mushrooms,” Kate says. “They’ll be better when they’re cooked through.”
“What’s wrong with me?” Howard says. It’s almost the first time he’s looked at me since I arrived. I’ve been trying not to register my boredom and my frustration with Kate’s prattle.
“Maybe we should get a tree,” I say.
“I don’t think it’s Christmas that’s making me feel this way,” Howard says.
“Well, snap out of it,” Kate says. “You can open one of your presents early, if you want to.”
“No, no,” Howard says, “it isn’t Christmas.” He hands a plate to Kate, who has begun to stack the dishwasher. “I’ve been worrying that you’re in a lot of pain and you just aren’t saying so,” he says to me.
“It’s just uncomfortable,” I say.
“I know, but do you keep going over what happened, in your mind? When you fell, or in the emergency room, or anything?”
“I had a dream last night about the ballerinas at Victoria Pool,” I say. “It was like Victoria Pool was a stage set instead of a real place, and tall, thin ballerinas kept parading in and twirling and pirouetting. I was envying their being able to touch their fingertips together over their heads.”
Howard opens the top level of the dishwasher and Kate begins to hand him the rinsed glasses.
“You just told a little story,” Howard says. “You didn’t really answer the question.”
“I don’t keep going over it in my mind,” I say.
“So you’re repressing it,” he says.
“Mom,” Becky says, walking into the kitchen, “is it OK if Deirdre comes to the party tonight if her dad doesn’t drive here to pick her up this weekend?”
“I thought the father was in the hospital,” Kate says.
“Yeah, he was. But he got out. He called and said that it was going to snow up north, though, so he wasn’t sure if he could come.”
“Of course she can come,” Kate says.
“And you know what?” Becky says.
“Say hello to people when you come into a room” Kate says. “At least make eye contact or smile or something.”
“I’m not Miss America on the runway, Mom. I’m just walking into the kitchen.”
“You have to acknowledge people’s existence,” Kate says. “Haven’t we talked about this?
“Oh, hel-lo,” Becky says, curtsying by pulling out the sides of an imaginary skirt. She has on purple sweatpants. She turns toward me and pulls the fabric away from her hipbones. “Oh, hello, as if we’ve never met,” she says.
“Your aunt here doesn’t want to be in the middle of this,” Howard says. “She’s got enough trouble.”
“Get back on track,” Kate says to Becky. “What did you want to say to me?”
“You know what you do, Mom?” Becky says. “You make an issue of something and then it’s like when I speak it’s a big thing. Everybody’s listening to me.”
Kate closes the door to the dishwasher.
“Did you want to speak to me privately?” she says.
“Nooo,” Becky says, sitting in the chair across from me and sighing. “I was just going to say – and now it’s a big deal – I was going to say that Deirdre just found out that that guy she was writing all year is in prison. He was in prison all the time, but she didn’t know what the P.O box meant.”
“What’s she going to do?” Howard says.
“She’s going to write and ask him all about prison,” Becky says.
“That’s good,” Howard says. “That cheers me up to hear that. The guy probably agonized about whether to tell her or not. He probably thought she’s hot-potato him.”
“Lots of decent people go to prison,” Becky says.
“That’s ridiculous,” Kate says. “You can’t generalize about convicts any more than you can generalized about the rest of humanity.”
“So?” Becky says. “If somebody in the rest of humanity had something to hide, he’d hide it, too, wouldn’t he?”
“Let’s go get a tree,” Howard says. “We’ll get a tree.”
“Somebody got hit on the highway carrying a tree home,” Becky says. “Really.”
“You really do have your ear to the ground in this town,” Kate says. “You kids could be the town crier. I know everything before the paper comes.”
“It happened yesterday,” Becky says.
“Christ,” Howard says. “We’re talking about crying, we’re talking about death.” He is leaning against the counter again.
“We are not,” Kate says, walking in front of him to open the refrigerator door. She puts a plate of stuffed tomatoes inside. “In your typical fashion, you’ve singled out two observations out of a lot that have been made, and—”
“I woke up thinking about Dennis Bidou last night,” Howard says to me. “Remember Dennis Bidou, who used to taunt you? Dad put me up to having it out with him, and he backed down after that. But I was always afraid he’d come after me. I went around for years pretending not to cringe when he came near me. And then, you know, one time I was out on a date and we ran out of gas, and as I was walking to get a can of gas a car pulled up alongside me and Dennis Bidou leaned out the window. He was surprised that it was me and I was surprised that it was him. He asked me what happened and I said I ran out of gas. He said, ‘Tough shit, I guess,’ but a girl was driving and she gave him a hard time. She stopped the car and insisted that I get in the back and they’d take me to the gas station. He didn’t say one word to me the whole way there. I remembered the way he looked in the car when I found out he was killed in Nam – the back of his head on that ramrod-straight body, and a black collar or some dark-colored collar pulled up to his hairline.” Howard makes a horizontal motion with four fingers, thumb folded under, in the air beside his ear.
“Now you’re trying to depress everybody,” Kate says.
“I’m willing to cheer up. I’m going to cheer up before tonight. I’m going up to that Lions Club lot on Main Street and get a tree. Anybody coming with me?”
“I’m going over to Deirdre’s,” Becky says.
“I’ll come with you, if you think my advice is needed,” I say.
“For fun,” Howard says, bouncing on his toes. “For fun – not advice.”
He gets my red winter coat out of the closet, and I back into it, putting in my good arm. Then he takes a diaper pin off the lapel and pins the other side of the coat to the top of my shoulder, easing the pin through my sweater. Then he puts Kate’s poncho over my head. This is the system, because I am always cold. Actually, Kate devised the system. I stand there while Howard puts on his leather jacket. I feel like a bird with a cloth draped over its cage for the night. This makes me feel sorry for myself, and then I do think of my arm as a broken wing, and suddenly everything seems so sad that I feel my eyes well up with tears. I sniff a couple of times. And Howard faced down Dennis Bidou, for my sake! My brother! But he really did it because my father told him to. Whatever my father told him to do he did. He drew the line only at smothering my father in the hospital when he asked him to. That is the only time I know of that he ignored my father’s wishes.
“Get one that’s tall enough,” Kate says. “And don’t get one of those trees that look like a cactus. Get one with long needles that swoops.”
“Swoops?” Howard says, turning in the hallway.
“Something with some fluidity,” she says, bending her knees and making a sweeping motion with her arm. “You know – something beautiful.”
Before the guests arrive, a neighbor woman has brought Todd back from his play group and he is ready for bed, and the tree has been decorated with a few dozen Christmas balls and some stars cut out of typing paper, with paper-clip hangers stuck through one point. The smaller animals in the stuffed-toy menagerie – certainly not the bear – are under the tree, approximating the animals at the manger. The manger is a roasting pan, with a green dinosaur inside.
“How many of these people who’re coming do I know?” I say.
“You know… you know… .” Howard is gnawing his lip. He takes another sip of wine, looks puzzled. “Well, you know Koenig,” he says. “Koenig got married. You’ll like his wife. They’re coming separately, because he’s coming straight from work. You know the Miners. You know – you’ll really like Lightfoot, the new guy in the Philosophy Department. Don’t rush to tell him that you’re tied up with somebody. He’s a nice guy, and he deserves a chance.”
“I don’t think I’m tied up with anybody,” I say.
“Have a drink – you’ll feel better,” Howard says. Honest to God. I was getting depressed this afternoon. When the light starts to sink so early, I never can figure out what I’m responding to. I gray over, like the afternoon, you know?”
“OK, I’ll have a drink,” I say.
“The very fat man who’s coming is in A.A.,” Howard says, taking a glass off the bookshelf and pouring some wine into it. “These were just washed yesterday,” he says. He hands me the glass of wine. “The fat guy’s name is Dwight Kule. The Jansons, who are also coming, introduced us to him. He’s a bachelor. Used to live in the Apple. Mystery man. Nobody knows. He’s got a computer terminal in his house that’s hooked up to some mysterious office in New York. Tells funny jokes. They come at him all day over the computer.”
“Who are the Jansons?”
“You met her. The woman whose lover broke into the house and did caricatures of her and her husband all over the walls after she broke off with him. One amazing artist, from what I heard. You know about that, right?”
“No,” I say, smiling. “What does she look like?”
“You met her at the races with us. Tall. Red hair.”
“Oh, that woman. Why didn’t you say so?”
“I told you about the lover, right?”
“I didn’t know she had a lover.”
“Well, fortunately she had told her husband, and they’d decided to patch it up, so when they came home and saw the walls – I mean, I get the idea that it was rather graphic. Not like stumbling upon hieroglyphics in a cave or something. Husband told it as a story on himself: going down to the paint store and buying the darkest can of blue paint they had to do the painting-over, because he wanted it done with – none of this three-coats stuff.” Howard has another sip of wine. “You haven’t met her husband,” he says. “He’s an anesthesiologist.”
“What did her lover do?”
“He ran the music store. He left town.”
“Where did he go?”
“How do you find all this stuff out?”
“Ask. Get told,” Howard says. “Then he was cleaning his gun in Montpelier the other day, and it went off and he shot himself in the foot. Didn’t do any real damage, though.”
“It’s hard to think of anything like that as poetic justice,” I say. “So are the Jansons happy again?”
“I don’t know. We don’t see much of them,” Howard says. “We’re not really involved in any social whirl, you know. You only visit during the holidays, and that’s when we give the annual party.”
“Oh, hel-lo,” Becky says, sweeping into the living room from the front door, bringing the cold and her girlfriend Deirdre in with her. Deirdre is giggling, head averted. “My friends! My wonderful friends!” Becky says, trotting past, hand waving madly. She stops in the doorway, and Deirdre collides with her. Deirdre puts her hand up to her mouth to muffle a yelp, then bolts past Becky into the kitchen.
“I can remember being that age,” I say
“I don’t think I was ever that stupid,” Howard says.
“A different thing happens with girls. Boys don’t talk to each other all the time in quite the same intense way, do they? I mean, I can remember when it seemed that I never talked but that I was always confiding something.”
“Confide something in me,” Howard says, coming back from flipping the Bach on the stereo.
“Girls just talk that way to other girls,” I say, realizing he’s serious.
“Gidon Kremer,” Howard says, clamping his hand over his heart. “God – tell me that isn’t beautiful.”
“How did you find out so much about classical music?” I say. “By asking and getting told?”
“In New York,” he says. “Before I moved here. Before L.A., even. I just started buying records and asking around. Half the city is an unofficial guide to classical music. You can find out a lot in New York.” He pours more wine into his glass. “Come on,” he says. “Confide something in me.”
In the kitchen, one of the girls turns on the radio, and rock and roll, played low, crosses paths with Bach’s violin. The music goes lower still. Deirdre and Becky are laughing.
I take a drink, sigh, and nod at Howard. “When I was in San Francisco last June to see my friend Susan, I got in a night before I said I would, and she wasn’t in town,” I say. “I was going to surprise her, and she was the one who surprised me. It was no big deal. I was tired from the flight and by the time I got there I was happy to have the excuse to check into a hotel, because if she’d been there we’d have talked all night. Acting like Becky with Deirdre, right?”
Howard rolls his eyes and nods.
“So I went to a hotel and checked in and took a bath, and suddenly I got my second wind and I thought what the hell, why not go to the restaurant right next to the hotel – or in the hotel, I guess it was – and have a great dinner, since it was supposed to be such a great place.”
“Yeah,” he says. “What happened?”
“I’m telling you what happened. You have to be patient. Girls always know to be patient with other girls.”
He nods yes again.
“They were very nice to me. It was about three-quarters full. They put me at a table, and the minute I sat down I looked up and there was a man on a banquette across the room from me. He was looking at me, and I was looking at him, and it was almost impossible not to keep eye contact. It just hit both of us, obviously. And almost on the other side of the curve of the banquette was a woman, who wasn’t terribly attractive. She had on a wedding ring. He didn’t. They were eating in silence. I had to force myself to look somewhere else, but when I did look up he’d look up, or he’d already be looking up. At some point he left the table. I saw that in my peripheral vision, when I had my head turned to hear a conversation on my right and I was chewing my food. Then after a while he paid the check and the two of them left. She walked ahead of him, and he didn’t seem to be with her. I mean, he walked quite far behind her. But naturally he didn’t turn his head. And after they left I thought, That’s amazing. It was really like kinetic energy. Just wham. So I had coffee, and then I paid my check, and when I was leaving I was walking up the steep steps to the street and the waiter came up behind me and said, ‘Excuse me. I don’t know what I should do, but I didn’t want to embarrass you in the restaurant. The gentleman left this for you on his way out.’ And he handed me an envelope. I was pretty taken aback, but I just said, ‘Thank you,’ and continued up the steps, and when I got outside I looked around. He wasn’t there, naturally. So I opened the envelope, and his business card was inside. He was one of the partners in a law firm. And underneath his name he had written, ‘Who are you? Please call.'”
Howard is smiling.
“So I put it in my purse and I walked for a few blocks, and I thought, Well, what for, really? Some man in San Francisco? For what? A one-night stand? I went back to the hotel, and when I walked in the man behind the desk stood up and said, ‘Excuse me. Were you just eating dinner?’ and I said, ‘A few minutes ago,’ and he said, ‘Someone left this for you.’ It was a hotel envelope. In the elevator on the way to my room, I opened it, and it was the same business card, with ‘Please call’ written on it.”
“I hope you called,” Howard says.
“I decided to sleep on it. And in the morning I decided not to. But I kept the card. And then at the end of August I was walking in the East Village, and a couple obviously from out of town were walking in front of me, and a punk kid got up off the stoop where he was sitting and said to them, ‘Hey – I want my picture taken with you.’ I went into a store, and when I came out the couple and the punk kid were all laughing together, holding these Polaroid snaps that another punk had taken. It was a joke, not a scam. The man gave the kid a dollar for one of the pictures, and they walked off, and the punk sat back down on the stoop. So I walked back to where he was sitting, and I said, ‘Could you do me a real favor? Could I have my picture taken with you, too?”
“What?” Howard says. The violin is soaring. He gets up and turns the music down a notch. He looks over his shoulder. “Yeah?” he says.
“The kid wanted to know why I wanted it, and I told him because it would upset my boyfriend. So he said yeah – his face lit up when I said it to him, and then he put his arm around me and really mugged for the camera. He was like a human boa constrictor around my neck, and he did a Mick Jagger pout. I couldn’t believe how well the picture came out. And that night, on the white part on the bottom I wrote, ‘I’m somebody whose name you still don’t know. Are you going to find me?’ and I put it in an envelope and mailed it to him in San Francisco. I don’t know why I did it. I mean, it doesn’t seem like something I’d ever do, you know?”
“But how will he find you?” Howard says.
“I’ve still got his card,” I say, shrugging my good shoulder toward my purse on the floor.
“You don’t know what you’re going to do?” Howard says.
“I haven’t thought about it in months.”
“How is that possible?”
“How is it possible that somebody can go into a restaurant and be hit by lightning and the other person is, too? It’s like a bad movie or something.”
“Of course it can happen,” Howard says. “Seriously, what are you going to do?”
“Let some time pass. Maybe send him something he can follow up on if he still wants to.”
“That’s an amazing story,” Howard says.
“Sometimes – well, I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but at the end of summer, after I mailed the picture, I’d be walking along or doing whatever I was doing and this feeling would come over me that he was thinking about me.”
Howard looks at me strangely. “He probably was,” he says. “He doesn’t know how to get in touch with you.”
“You used to be a screenwriter. What should he do?”
“Couldn’t he figure out from the background that it was the Village?”
“I’m not sure.”
“If he could, he could put an ad in the Voice.”
“I think it was just a car in the background.”
“Then you’ve got to give him something else,” Howard says.
“For what? You want your sister to have a one-night stand?”
“You make him sound awfully attractive,” Howard says.
“Yeah, but what if he’s a rat? It could be argued that he was just cocky, and that he was pretty sure that I’d respond. Don’t you think?”
“I think you should get in touch with him. Do it in some amusing way if you want, but I wouldn’t let him slip away.”
“I never had him. And from the looks of it he has a wife.”
“You don’t know that.”
“No,” I say. “I guess I don’t know.”
“Do it,” Howard says. “I think you need this,” and when he speaks he whispers – just what a girl would do. He nods his head yes. “Do it,” he whispers again. Then he turns his head abruptly, to see what I am staring at. It is Kate, wrapped in a towel after her bath, trailing a long cord of the extension phone with her.
“It’s Frank,” she whispers, her hand over the mouthpiece. “He says he’s going to come to the party after all.”
I look at her dumbly, surprised. I’d almost forgotten that Frank knew I was here. He’s only been here once with me, and it was clear that he didn’t like Howard and Kate. Why would he suddenly decide to come to the party?
She shrugs, hand still over the mouthpiece. “Come here,” she whispers.
I get up and start toward the phone. “If it’s not an awful imposition,” she says, “maybe he could bring Deirdre’s father with him. He lives just around the corner from you in the city.”
“Deirdre’s father?” I say.
“Here,” she whispers. “He’ll hang up.”
“Hi, Frank,” I say, talking into the phone. My voice sounds high, false.
“I miss you,” Frank says. “I’ve got to get out of the city. I invited myself. I assume since it’s an annual invitation it’s all right, right?”
“Oh, of course,” I say. “Can you just hold on for one second?”
“Sure,” he says.
I cover the mouthpiece again. Kate is still standing next to me.
“I was talking to Deirdre’s mother in the bathroom” Kate whispers. “she says that her ex-husband’s not really able to drive yet, and that Deirdre has been crying all day. If he could just give him a lift, they could take the train back, but—”
“Frank? This is sort of crazy, and I don’t quite understand the logistics, but I’m going to put Kate on. We need for you to do us a favor.”
“Anything,” he says. “As long as it’s not about Mrs. Joan Wilde-Younge’s revision of a revision of a revision of a spiteful will.”
I hand the phone to Kate. “Frank?” she says. “You’re about to make a new friend. Be very nice to him, because he just had his gallbladder out, and he’s got about as much strength as seaweed. He lives on Seventy-Ninth Street.”
I am in the car with Howard, huddled in my coat and the poncho. We are on what seems like an ironic mission. We are going to the 7-Eleven to get ice. The moon is shining brightly, and patches of snow shine like stepping-stones in the field on my side of the car. Howard puts on his directional signal suddenly and turns, and I look over my shoulder to make sure we’re not going to be hit from behind.
“Sorry,” he says. “My mind was wandering. Not that it’s the best-marked road to begin with.”
Miles Davis is on the tape deck – the very quiet kind of Miles Davis.
“We’ve got a second for a detour,” he says.
“Why are we detouring?”
“Just for a second,” Howard says.
“It’s freezing,” I say, dropping my chin to speak the words so my throat will warm up for a second. I raise my head. My clavicle is colder.
“What you said about kinetic energy made me think about doing this,” Howard says. “You can confide in me and I can confide in you, right?”
“What are you talking about?’
“This,” he says, turning onto property marked NO TRESPASSING. The road is quite rutted where he turns onto it, but as it begins to weave up the hill it smooths out a little. He is driving with both hands gripping the wheel hard, sitting forward in the seat as if the extra inch, plus the brights, will help him see more clearly. The road levels off, and to our right is a pond. It is not frozen, but ice clings to the sides, like scum in an aquarium. Howard clicks out the tape, and we sit there in the cold and silence. He turns off the ignition.
“There was a dog here last week,” he says.
I look at him.
“Lots of dogs in the country, right?” he says.
“What are we doing here?” I say, drawing up my knees.
“I fell in love with somebody,” he says.
I had been looking at the water, but when he spoke I turned and looked at him again.
“I didn’t think she’d be here,” he says quietly. “I didn’t even really think that the dog would be here. I just felt drawn to the place, I guess – that’s all. I wanted to see if I could get some of that feeling back if I came here. You’d get it back if you called that man, or wrote him. It was real. I could tell when you were talking to me that it was real.”
“Howard, did you say that you fell in love with somebody? When?”
“A few weeks ago. The semester’s over. She’s graduating. She’s gone in January. A graduate student – like that? A twenty-two-year-old kid. One of my pal Lightfoot’s philosophy students.” Howard lets go of the wheel. When he turned the ignition off, he had continued to grip the wheel. Now his hands are on his thighs. We both seem to be examining his hands. At least, I am looking at his hands so I do not stare into his face, and he has dropped his eyes.
“It was all pretty crazy,” he says. “There was so much passion, so fast. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I don’t think I let on to her how much I cared. She saw that I cared, but she… she didn’t know my heart kept stopping, you know? We drove out here one day and had a picnic in the car – it would have been your nightmare picnic, it was so cold – and a dog came wandering up to the car. Big dog. Right over there.”
I look out my window, almost expecting that the dog may still be there.
“There were three freezing picnics. This dog turned up at the last one. She like the dog – it looked like a mutt, with maybe a lot of golden retriever mixed in. I thought it was inviting trouble for us to open the car door, because it didn’t look like a particularly friendly dog. But she was right and I was wrong. Her name is Robin, by the way. The minute she opened the door, the dog wagged its tail. We took a walk with it.” He juts his chin forward. “Up that path there,” he says. “We threw rocks for it. A sure crowd pleaser with your average lost-in-the-woods American dog, right? I started kidding around, calling the dog, Spot. When we were back at the car, Robin patted its head and closed the car door, and it backed off, looking very sad. Like we were really ruining its day, to leave. As I was pulling out, she rolled down the window and said, ‘Good-bye, Rover,’ and I swear its face came alive. I think his name really was Rover.”
“What did you do?” I say.
“You mean about the dog, or about the two of us?”
I shake my head. I don’t know which I mean.
“I backed out, and the dog let us go. It just stood there. I got to look at it in the rearview mirror until the road dipped and it was out of sight. Robin didn’t look back.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Get ice,” he says, starting the ignition. “But that isn’t what you meant, either, is it?”
He backs up, and as we swing around toward our own tire tracks I turn my head again, but there is no dog there, watching us in the moonlight.
Back at the house, as Howard goes in front of me up the flagstone pathway, I walk slower than I usually do in the cold, trying to give myself time to puzzle out what he makes me think of just then. It comes to me at the moment when my attention is diverted by a patch of ice I’m terrified of slipping on. He reminds me of that courthouse figure – I don’t know what it’s called – the statue of a blindfolded woman holding the scales of justice. Bag of ice in the left hand, bag of ice in the right – but there’s no blindfold. The door is suddenly opened, and what Howard and I see before us is Koenig, his customary bandanna tied around his head, smiling welcome, and behind him, in the glare of the already-begun party, the woman with red hair holding Todd, who clutches his green dinosaur in one hand and rubs his sleepy, crying face with the other. Todd makes a lunge – not really toward his father but toward wider spaces – and I’m conscious, all at once, of the cigarette smoke swirling and of the heat of the house, there in the entranceway, that turn the bitter-cold outdoor air silver as it comes flooding in. Messiah – Kate’s choice of perfect music for the occasion – isn’t playing; someone has put on Judy Garland, and we walk in just as she is singing, “That’s where you’ll find me.” The words hang in the air like smoke.
“Hello, hello, hello, hello,” Becky calls, danging one knee-socked leg over the balcony as Deirdre covers her face and hides behind her. “To both of you, just because you’re here, from me to you: a million – a trillion – hellos.”