|Apr/May 2007 Fiction|
Roy's in the cemetery when Miranda pulls up on a motorcycle. He doesn't want to be seen because he's too downhearted to face anyone likewise bereaved. Especially in-laws. Who can steal his thunder and match him bolt for bolt.
But she's already stopped. Swinging her long, blue-jeaned leg off the cycle's saddle. To walk toward him in black, square-toed boots with metal rings at the ankle. And Hampden's leather jacket. The setting sun flashing off its zippers and snaps.
He nods, hoping to discourage her from talking. Not wanting to lose the song in his head. That somber threnody. And son of a gun if she doesn't halt a respectful ten yards from where he sits waiting beside Beth, who is dreaming in her own freehold. Beneath a good measure of earth.
Still the music in his head disappears, drowned out by Miranda's silent presence. Her hands in her back pockets, thumbs flying free. A warm breeze springs up to touch their faces with tidings from the ocean. Gulls wheel overhead and disappear, speeding west. At last Miranda speaks. —Hey.
He stands to greet her. The creak of her boots as she steps toward him. The blood beneath his skin stiffening like beaten cream. Wondering if Beth, who lies at their feet, suspects. Or in her casket frowns.
Miranda gestures at the crowded acre around them. —This what they do for fun back home in Chicago? Hang out in the cemeteries?
—You think I'm overdoing it.
—Well it's sort of creepy, Roy. You got here two days ago, and I've hardly seen you because you're always...
She looks up at him suddenly. —Christ no, she says in a strange voice. —How could you overdo it?
Her arms out like a forklift, she catches him in an embrace. Roy's right hand accidentally slips under the hem of the jacket, and the t-shirt underneath. Slides against her spine, instinctively undoing the silver buttons of her vertebrae until instructed to pat soothingly. Her svelte kidney. His left hand settles gratefully on warm, neutral leather. Roy struggling manfully to remain impersonal, merely sympathetic. A dead cinch, if only Miranda didn't smell so good.
To recall the occasion for their sad hug. The death of their hostess (wife and sister) upon whose grassy rug they stand. Roy imagining for the first time Miranda's own vigils here at Beth's bedside. Driving down alone from Boston on a bright day in January. The house shuttered, the trees blown clean of leaves. Miranda in unlaced Bean boots sloshing through wet, grainy snow to view Beth's bedstead and find words. To whisper.
So they stand, until something must happen. Let go or tighten up. As Roy's lips open not for speech but for a kiss. She speaks, breaking her grip. He relinquishes her dizzily.
—What's that? she wants to know. Pointing at the lawn beside them, at the gift he brought for Beth's table.
—Oh, nothing, he says. —It's just... nothing.
She goes nearer, bends down to look at it, and then glances up at him, puzzled. But smiling. Her eyes red. —It's cake.
—Yes. He bites his lip, stares at the ground. Miranda's boot on the grass, the leather soft and supple as skin. —It's wedding cake, he explains. —You know how you're supposed to freeze a piece to eat a year later? We never... we never ate ours. The first year we forgot, and after that Beth was superstitious about it. She said it was our insurance. As if eating it would make something go wrong.
—You're not serious? Miranda laughing. Her expression as inviting as clear water, rippled by the wind. —How long has it been? She counts on her fingers.
—Five years ago in August.
She gives the cake a sidelong look. —I remember that cake. It was good. Something unusual, wasn't it?
She laughs again, touching his arm to show she's not laughing at him, then spins away to kneel beside the food he has laid on the grave. Her hair falls forward over her face, the jacket's heavy leather stretching as she picks up the little piece of cake.
—Please, he says, starting forward. Wanting to take it out of her hand. This private offering, once a public meal for all to share.
But he's too late. Miranda has sniffed the cake and taken a small bite. —Mmm, she says, looking up at him. Crumbs on her lower lip. —You don't mind? I always wanted seconds.
To deny Miranda nourishment. Sunlight in her hair, the star itself dying and reborn in her eyes. —No go ahead, he says at last, waving a hand. And she snarfs it down in three bites. Casually braving botulism and freezer burn. Before she stands again, this time very close but not touching him, her perfume making his lusting nostrils flare. Her head bent as she says seriously, —I'm sorry. I know that was awful of me.
Roy unable to absolve her. Wanting to say something, but not at this moment blessed with the power of speech. The situation absurd. Beth at their feet, tranquil and confident, gazing upon them, certain of their eventual demise. Slain by velocipedes. Driven mad by spirochetes. Or scrubbed out over time, holystoned by remorse.
—Come on, Miranda says, taking his hand. —I'll take you home.
Her sweet breath. Her tongue pinkly flashing as she speaks. Eyebrows groined like medieval windows. He goes with her.
She puts on her helmet and starts the bike. It's a little big for her because it belongs to Hampden, but she handles it with a confidence that becomes her. He gets on behind, hands holding her hips lightly, and they roll out to the roadway. Leaping forward. His knees pressed against her thighs as she takes corners hell-bent for election. Leaning so far over he could bite the heads off the dandelions if his jaws weren't clenched in abject panic.
He's known Miranda since before the wedding, ever since he was first introduced to Beth's family. He's always liked her, but never made much of the chances he's had to draw her out. Ashamed that he noticed from the first her sensuality, barely enchained; it was there in her voice, evident in her stride.
And what confidence! Even right after Beth's funeral she'd had it. When he was coming apart at the seams. Everyone had gone back to the house. Katie was holding his fingers so hard they hurt. He kept having to switch hands. She refused outright to go off with anyone else. —I don't know what they're all doing here anyway, she said to him. Precociously announcing in her high four-year-old voice, —I don't know any of them. Except Grandma and Grandpa. And Aunt Miranda.
Miranda, that scalpel dipped in pure clover honey. Who deftly sliced Katie from his hand. —Hey thanks, he said. Miranda smiled, leaving Roy free to talk to guests.
But he avoided the women's hands darting out to reassure him; he shrank from the consoling arms men threw around his shoulders. Everyone wanting a piece of Beth: —That day we spent in the mountains. —In college we. —When she was in kindergarten, she and the neighbor's boy played barber. God, there was hair all over the floor. —Such a positive person. —So polite. —I miss her so much already.
Bridling, he pushed his way clear. Under no obligation to share his suffering with anyone. Fending them off by taking charge of the drinks, an effective stratagem until his father-in-law, Mr. Anthony, hit on it too. Mrs. Anthony leading Roy away. —We must let him do that, darling. Of course he'll drink more than he gives out, but this is one of the few times when really I can't blame him. Not that getting sloshed could make me feel any better.
Roy loose again among the mercilessly sympathetic. Until some husband of a friend of Beth's captured Roy's hand to say he was sorry. —What a shock. I mean, so young. So full of life.
—Thank you, Roy said. —I try to stay fit.
—No I meant, I meant your wife, the man said, embarrassed.
—Oh? Which one?
—You're drunk, said the man's wife. Beth's friend.
—And you're unwelcome.
The woman set her jaw. —Don't be uncouth. If Beth could see you now, she would be absolutely mortified.
—I think it's safe to say, he said softly as he leaned forward to take the woman's drink out of her hand, —that mortification has already set in.
—Oh! I should just slap you!
The woman in tears. Fists clenched at her sides. As she marched off to the door. Her husband, before following after, paused to say to Roy, —You're despicable.
Roy braving this and other appellations. With fixed grin. Turning away to empty the woman's glass into his upraised mouth, apparently impervious. But overcome with shame to think that grief could be so ugly.
In the silence at his back, he heard Miranda's rough voice. —Wow.
And Mrs. Anthony in her own way agreeing. —Isn't this dreadful? We'll just stay another fifteen minutes and then we'll be done with it, and we'll never have to think about it again. Won't that be good?
Afterwards, Katie told him that she liked Aunt Miranda. —She told me stories about growing up with Mom. I never thought of Mom being small.
She stopped, and then said with approval, —She liked Mom.
Miranda impeccably dressed. With black stockings over legs toned on soccer fields. And a smart dress with clean lines that drew his attention to her broad, swimmer's shoulders. While she kept Katie occupied by taking her seriously. And later, when Mr. Anthony insisted in a loud voice to Mrs. Anthony that he hadn't had nearly enough to drink, he wanted another drink, and by jimmy jingo he would have another drink, Miranda slipped out of her shoes and took him, as if he were a vicious horse, firmly in hand. She walked him to the door, where Roy stood saying goodbye to other guests. Her father struggled, but Miranda's face showed no strain as she said, —Dad and I are going to walk down to the beach. Mom's coming, too. Do you want to join us when this is over?
—Flight to catch, Roy had said. As indeed he did, home to Chicago. Which would be, he hoped, barren of other mourners except for Katie.
—I hope we'll hear from you soon. And from Katie. She's really great.
—I want, her father said with effort, —another drink. I should be able to drink in my own goddamn house.
He glared at Roy. While Miranda said sweetly, —Will you be all right, Roy?
Before he could answer, Mrs. Anthony came up, holding Miranda's shoes. —You almost left your flats, sweetheart. What can I do? she asked, turning to Roy. —Let me know if there's anything I can do. This is all just too awful for words.
Kneeling, she hugged Katie. —Eat all of whatever it is your father feeds you, all right? Will you come see us soon? Good.
He held the door open for them; as they passed, he could see that Miranda had caught her father's hand in a simple, painful lock. Her calves tense. Muscles rippling in her back.
So Miranda is tough, capable of taking charge. Hampden the only indication that she has a fault. Her judgment erratic.
He and Miranda arrive at the house in a spray of gravel. She kills the cycle engine in the driveway and they roll to a stop. He lurches off, gracelessly relieved. And helps her heave the machine, ticking with heat, onto its kickstand.
She pries off her helmet and slips out of the jacket. Unlocking the cycle's saddlebag. —Before we go in, I should warn you. Mother picked up some tourists in town, a couple of Europeans. Their rental car broke down or something, and they came back here to call for a replacement. That's why I was out, actually, Mother sent me to pick up some dessert. They'll be staying the night.
He shifts. She speaks quickly. —Oh, hey, don't worry. I saved some dinner for you. The tourists were against it, but I outvoted them.
He smiles. —Thanks. But listen I, look. I'm going to go sit out in back, if you don't mind. I mean, thanks for your trouble.
She backs toward the front door. Holding the groceries close to her chest. —Well sure, whatever you want, she says. Squinting into the sun. —See you.
Waving, he edges around the corner of the house. Not quite ready for a roomful of solicitous relatives and sightseers. Who want secretly to know if Beth's death hasn't knocked him clear off the rails.
He hears the clap of the screen door closing behind Miranda. And Mrs. Anthony calling to her, too loudly, from the living room. —Did you find Roy, dear?
He hears nothing more. Though he can feel eyes upon him as he walks out onto the back lawn, which is overlooked by the house's cavernous living room and its wall of windows.
He chooses a place at the foot of the lawn, deep in the lengthening shadows, well away from the house. To watch the dusk gather, air buzzing in front of his eyes as everything else becomes harder to see. Recalling the June morning last year when Beth's sweet voice awakened him. Floating in through the window from the garden as she taught Katie a song:
I was born one night, one morn
When the whistle went "boom boom!"
A breeze stirs the honeysuckle and grape vines; the leaves hiss like sand in an hourglass. The windows of the house rattle loosely in the tangy wind. Cables clang against the aluminum flagpole Beth's grandfather put up the year she was born. When the news came that she had been delivered safely at the hospital in Providence, her grandfather raised a new, starched flag. In a gale.
The bushes along the property line stir, and out comes Hampden, owner of the motorcycle and leather jacket. Who grew up on this stony coast with Miranda, sheltered by rock-solid annuities and vaults of family money. Numbering among his achievements his graduation from Governor Dummer Academy, a private boarding school named, with doubtful wisdom, after its founder. Since then he has been taken on at the firm of his fathers before him. To make a killing each year manufacturing comestibles for pets.
This week Hampden is living in their house, one room down from Miranda's, while his own family's home is painted top to bottom. Mrs. Anthony, asked to rate the propriety of this arrangement, referred to it as swampy. And that was before it became apparent that Hampden has lured Miranda into what is currently a fling. Though it is Mrs. Anthony's fear, and Roy's also, that the fling might extend into a dalliance and from thence to an affair or worse.
Just now Hampden is wearing sailing shoes and an old white Brooks Brothers shirt, spattered with fresh boat paint. His left hand clutches a bottle of beer. As he ambles slowly across the sward to say, —By Christ Royboy, you're a sorry sight. You go out to the graveyard again?
Hampden disgusted. —That really tears me up. It's been nearly a year. Don't you know there's a big fucking ocean out there man, full of fish just squirming for the hook?
Roy shrugs again. Picturing Beth beneath tossing waves of grass. Worms swimming their way from body to body. As from the world of air and light there sinks a line, baited with a message. That reads —O my dearest love, do they have fools in Davy Jones' Locker?
Hampden sighs and sits down beside Roy. —Stubborn bastard, aren't you? I admire that.
When Roy offers nothing by way of conversation, Hampden says as if questioned, —I got roped into painting my Dad's boat. I swear I'm not putting my children through this maritime shit. They're not going to know what a sailboat looks like. I'm not even taking them to Red fucking Lobster.
He takes a pull at his beer, then signals his repletion with lip-smacking. —So that's where I've been all afternoon. Miranda miss me?
Roy, called upon to shrug yet again, obliges.
—That's right, you wouldn't know, would you?
Hampden takes another drink. —I'm beginning to think I love the stuffing out of that girl, he says thoughtfully, —but Mrs. Anthony's a fruitcake, know what I mean? I grew up with her, you know, family friends and all, so I didn't used to notice anything. Now... You believe she won't buy beer? She says it's common, wants her men to drink martinis. I guess you know that. You heard her recipe for martinis? No? Fill the glass with gin and then whisper vermouth over the top. But she won't touch a drop.
He holds up a hand. —Don't get me wrong. She's an incredible woman. Incredible. Half the time she has me scared shitless. When she gets that stinkeye look, I feel like a worm somebody's just stomped on. Miranda's got it, too.
Roy smiles in recognition. Because both daughters inherited the power of Mrs. Anthony's glance. Beth if she was not careful when angry. Could with a glance knock birds dead from the sky. And Miranda. Twin lasers of empyreal green, her eyes can perform whole surgeries in a split-second, leaving signal fires smoking in the ground between them. But no, not lasers at all, nor eyes. Opium dreams. The smoke off a starting gun.
Hampden belches. —Truth of it is, Roy, I've got some bad news to break to Miranda. She and her mother both'll be giving me the stinkeye. You think they'd be willing to listen to my side of it?
Without waiting for an answer he licks his lips, lowers his voice. —I've been slipping it to Miranda, right? I sure could get used to that. But if everything comes through on this deal, she'll be buying her salami somewhere else, know what I mean? Sure you do. You know how she loves this place.
—What deal? Roy says. Still recoiling from Hampden's vulgarity.
—See, I think she'll blame me. When it's my old man's fault, not mine. I was kind of wondering if you'd tell her that from me. She'll believe you, man.
Roy blinking at him. Because in the gathering dusk the man before him might as well be gibbering.
Hampden squints. —I'm going too fast, aren't I? All right. You know I stand to inherit quite a loaf from my old man. Only he's making me sing for my supper. Gotta play hardball with the tenants, or else he's writing me out of the will. Thinks I've had it too soft.
—What tenants? Roy asks. —You mean the Anthonys? Don't they own the place?
Hampden ignores him. —Had some Scandinavians interested in the property, I thought. They were supposed to meet me this afternoon, but they never showed.
Roy puts two and two together. —Their car broke down. If it's the same ones. I think Miranda said they were tourists.
—Tourists, repeats Hampden. He's scratching the label off his beer bottle.
Roy gestures at the house. —They're inside right now. Mrs. Anthony brought them in from town so they could call the rental company. Sounds like they're making themselves right at home.
Hampden nods. —I better get in there then, have a word with them. Think I should change clothes first? Ah, the hell with it.
—Your dad owns the house? Roy asks again.
Hampden rubs his eyes. His voice muffled by his hands. —She's probably going to hate me for the rest of her life.
—I might join her, Roy says. When as a child all he had for playground was blacktop and the dingy carpeted hallway of his apartment building in Kansas City. His family's occasional vacations amounting to cross-country trips to St. Louis in a sweltering Chrysler. How much he wanted Katie as she grew up to summer here, in peace and tranquility! Far from the raucous, tiny plots of the madding crowd. Now it seemed it would all soon be gone. —I love this place too.
—Not you I'm worried about, it's Miranda. She finds out about this and thinks it was my idea, she'll scuttle my ass.
—And you want me to tell her it wasn't your idea.
—Right. It's my old man's, all the way. That's all I'm asking. Please. I'm desperate, man.
Roy sighing and picking at the grass. —Beth loved it here too, he whispers.
Hampden shakes his head. He takes another swallow of beer, looking off at the house. At last he spits and rises to his feet. The better to say, with asperity, —Don't take this wrong, Roy, but I wish to hell you'd cut the mopey act. It's bugging the shit out of me. And Miranda too, for that matter.
He strides up the lawn, into the fading twilight. The screen door clatters and Roy is alone again. He lifts his nose to sniff the evening breeze blowing in from the ocean by way of the river. Listening to the whir of a bat's wings overhead, as it dives for an insect. And misses.
He leans back and stares at the dimming sky just as a firefly streaks by and fades. He thinks of Katie, and wonders what she is doing at this moment. She has been gone all day with Mr. Anthony and will be gone for two more on a race up the shinbone coast to Provincetown. When Roy asked her if she wanted to go, she said, —Of course, Daddy. I can put it in my autobiography.
So now the sea is her cradle. Rocking her gently, as she lies in her bunk below deck, dreaming of her grandpa Anthony steering by the stars. The wind behind him, little clouds with cheery faces, cheeks puffed up to blow into his sails alone. Other boats dropping astern, their lights far out on the water, fading from sight. When dawn comes Katie takes the wheel, wearing the captain's hat, too big for her little head. The crowds at Provincetown cheering as she walks down the gangplank from the Katie, rechristened in her honor. She is lifted onto her grandpa's shoulders, to wave to the crowds, to wave and wave and wave and wave.
Roy's fingers curl in the weedy grass, never mind the stinging nettles. He presses his ear against the hard earth, listening for noises underneath. There is a faraway rumble. The engines of a submarine, perhaps, up from Groton on a test run.
The noise vanishes, but Roy keeps listening. Hoping that he will hear the dead. Who were awakened oh, years ago, by the growl of Zeus having an orgasm. Shaking the earth and Hades too with the seizures of his own bad self. The flocking, insomniac shades in need of entertainment ever since. The Elysian Fields one big Tanglewood, one mother of a Woodstock without the rain. And a few times in the last eleven months when he's tried to listen in, he's heard the faintest sounds. Of a hootenanny.
Tonight there's nothing except the submarine's rumble, so he gives it up. At least an hour has passed since the living room lights were one by one extinguished. And so with lonely steps Roy goes into the house and through the darkened living room. To climb the sad, narrow stairs to his room. Recalling the times he shared the room with Beth. —I think it's very brave of you to stay in there, Mrs. Anthony had said. —I can't go in.
But Roy felt compelled. The room purified his thoughts. His every move devoted to her. As he kicked off his shoes and undressed in the dark, he thought of the beach she used to love. Her Corgi who ran, barking, after the departing waves. The sun smashing down on them. Only her brain in shadow.
The other day he'd found a postcard she'd meant to send him and never finished. On the card was a Salvador Dali painting with several melting watches. And her handwriting, so variable from day to day, was on this occasion squashed and hurried: Well hello, Dali! Have I said I love you recently? It was nothing startling, almost banal. Delivered too late, however, it was crushing.
The bedsprings squeak. As he gropes for the edge of the sheet. Touching instead someone's hair. He jumps back, horrified. Relaxing as his eyes adjust to the darkness. To see a woman in his bed. —Beth? he says softly, because wouldn't it be nice.
The woman's eyes flick open. As she commences a long scream, starting at the bottom of a middle register. Pausing four octaves higher, to draw breath.
A man emerges from the bed beside her. Leaping straight to his feet. —Eh?
—Wait, Roy says. —You're in the wrong room.
The woman points at Roy. Who says again, —Now wait.
But the man has already launched himself at Roy. Hands extended before him. They go down together with a tremendous crash. Roy's spinal cord locking in astonishment. Giving him a brief sensation of paralysis. His lungs crushed by the other man's weight.
His attacker bounces to his feet. Fists raised, jabbing the air. —You filthy citizen! You did not expect me, yes? You see my wife and you say to yourself here is some of that tickle and slap, eh? Put them up. We will settle this like civilians, not barbarians!
—It's my room, Roy says. Getting to his knees. Only to have the man hammer him on the neck. Slamming him flat, face down. —Stop it, you son of a bitch, Roy says. He gets up on his hands and knees again.
—Filthy pig! American pornographer! the man says to him. As he catches Roy in a wrestling hold. Arms crosswise the length of his torso. To lift him, groaning, and toss him onto the bed.
The man's wife cries out happily. Giving Roy with her elbow an expert blow on the nose. Blood spurts from his nostrils onto his upper lip and the sheets. Unsettling shapes pinwheel in his eyes. As with a growl, he stiffarms her. Flipping his legs up to catch the man under the chin and knock him sprawling. The man meanwhile yelling. —Fucking America! I shit on the Disneyland!
—It's my room, Roy roars back. But the woman just then delivers a two-handed blow to the side of his head that knocks him dizzy. Using both feet, she kicks him off the bed and onto the floor. For a moment he lies there stunned, feeling nauseated and furious.
The man menaces him with a small vase. As he says hoarsely, —Have we had enough, I think, you Calvinist.
—You don't understand, Roy says. —This is my room. You aren't supposed to be here.
The woman's face appears over the edge of the bed. And just as he realizes her eyebrows are missing. She spits on him.
—You win, he says. —I'm leaving.
Roy at this moment would greet happily a bed of straw and a pillow of rags. His rest this night to be found, he thinks, in the boathouse down by the river. He crawls into the hallway, sweaty and drooling from the adrenaline, as the man crows, —You have been dragged over by the cat, yes? But we fling you away. And you do not come back, because you are a deadbeaten and if you do return, the cat will have to drag you over again.
The bedroom door slams. Beneath it now a thin line of light. And tense whispers in another language. Roy hauls himself into the bathroom and collapses on the floor. To helplessly study its octagonal tiles. In frustrated amazement. Wanting only to hear the cry of the curlew on a clouded, forlorn coast. Where no dog runs.
Carefully, he stands. Waiting until the pain subsides to wash gingerly. His face in the glass looking slack and his skin yellowish. The bruises yet to flower. But over his left cheekbone a dark moon forming. Roy's first shiner.
The bathroom door swings open as Hampden knocks softly. —Roy? he whispers. —That you?
Roy grabs a towel to wrap around his waist. Returning to the mirror to gently examine his nose. —I thought you went to bed.
Hampden blinks as he registers the damage done to Roy's countenance. —Jesus, Roy. You look worse every time I see you. If you don't start thinking happy thoughts pretty soon, one of these days you're going to wake up dead.
—No doubt, Roy says dryly. Thinking of Hampden in Miranda's bed, his skin turns from yellow to. Greenish. Until he realizes that Hampden looks not lustful but miserable. —So what happened? Miranda disown you, like you thought?
—Not yet. Hampden inhales loudly, then steps entirely inside the bathroom, closes the door.
—Well come right in, Roy says.
Hampden nods to acknowledge the joke, doesn't smile. He stuffs his hands in his pockets. Then looks Roy straight in the eye and delivers himself of a confidence. —I lost my nerve.
And if Hampden were not representing his father, the evil landlord, Roy might feel for him. The slightest smidgeon of pity. —You didn't tell her, huh?
—No. I didn't tell anybody. The Scandinavians were there, ready to deal. They didn't know who the hell I was. All I had to do was bring it up. But I just sat there like a mannequin. You gotta help me, man.
—Help you what? Sell this house? I don't think so.
—Please, man. I just... I just found Miranda, and I don't want to lose her. I don't think I could stand it.
And because Roy is not hardhearted and has anyway since Beth's death himself worn the wearying, lead-lined raiment of loss, he says OK. —But you gotta tell me what the deal is.
—Thanks man, you're a goddam prince, you know that? A prince, Hampden says as his face kindles, suffused with new hope.
—Cut the shit, Roy says. —Let's have it.
—Hey, back off. I'm getting to it. Just wanted to express my sincere gratitude. Which a lot of guys these days wouldn't.
—Start with the house.
But Hampden shakes his head. —You're thinking too small. See, these tourists, the Scandinavians, they're going to need a lot of land.
Hampden shrugs. —It's their call. All this, along here, and I'm not just talking only about the Anthonys' place, but you know, the whole area, it's prime beachfront property. Break it up into smaller parcels and you'd make a killing. Land's not zoned for it, but my old man's pretty well connected here. We're sitting on a fucking gold mine.
Stubbornly, Roy says, —You'll never get that past the neighborhood association.
Hampden barks a laugh. —Wise up, Royboy. The association's run by my old man with his money. It does what he wants.
—Not this time, Roy says. —People around here aren't going to want their little playground spoiled by developers.
—It's too late, Hampden says, now sorrowful. —I know what you're saying. But the people around here you're talking about don't even own their houses anymore. Most of 'em sold them off to the association and leased them back. Some kind of tax angle, I think.
With a sluggishness that verges on menace, Roy says, —So what you're telling me is that you're selling this house. To the tourists. You're selling Miranda's house out from under her.
—I keep telling you it's not me that's selling it, Hampden says defensively. —It's my old man. Anyway, you think I like it? I grew up here. Every goddamn summer we come down here from Boston. It's like it's part of me. You think I want to sell it?
Roy studies him. —Maybe not. But you want your daddy's money.
Hampden's lip curls. —That was low.
—And right on target.
—What difference does it make to Miranda whether my dad sells it or I sell it, huh? Either way she's out of here, and let me remind you it's only a summer house, it's not like she'll be outdoors when this goes through. She doesn't like that, anyway.
Roy grimacing at himself in the glass. His rearranged face unappetizing. And unappeased. —She doesn't like what?
—Oh, she's never been comfortable with the place. You know, having two houses when there are people living in cardboard boxes, that whole trip. In fact, I think she'll thank me for this. Once she gets used to it.
—I wouldn't bet on it, Roy says.
—Maybe not. But I hope so, Hampden says. He shifts. —So we've got a deal, right? You'll tell her this was my dad's thing?
—Sure, Roy says.
Hampden smiles, makes a gun of his thumb and forefinger. —Good man.
Roy smiling back. Because Hampden has offered his own petard for the hoisting. —I'm pretty sure the tourists are still up, you want to poke your head in and make an appointment for tomorrow. They're in my old room.
—Hey, thanks a million, Hampden says. He opens the bathroom door and crosses the hall. To knock firmly on the door of Roy's room. Stepping in after he knocks. Calling out a cheery greeting.
The instant he crosses the threshold, the woman steps out of the shadows and rams a dictionary into his gut. Air blasts out of his lungs and he doubles up gasping, just as the woman's husband catches him on the nose with an uppercut. —Ha! the woman says to Hampden after he hits the floor. —We were ready for you this time, no?
—American sneak! her husband says, nudging Hampden with his toe. A mistake, it turns out, because Hampden grabs his foot and twists it, toppling him.
Roy stands a moment in the bathroom doorway, glad there is no need to wade into the melee. And mix it up again with tag-team tourists. Instead he pauses to observe, not without squeamishness, his enemies pummeling one another. Taking pleasure in the classic economy of his revenge. Then he descends the stairs in darkness, the towel at his waist loosening.
From his bedroom there comes a muffled scream, curses in three languages, and more scuffling. Roy, curiously ecstatic. Bouncing across the living room floorboards, showing off his footwork. He fakes a rabbit punch, then threatens the air with his other fist, saying, —Here comes breakfast!
Someone behind him says, —Can I see that again?
Roy turns to face the speaker. Miranda. She of the rough, no-shit voice. Owner of a smile that comes like rain to a drought-struck heart. And an appraising squint.
She's splayed out on a bed that folds out of the couch. One of Hampden's beers settled on her solar plexus, just below the swell of her breasts. Roy a pedestrian in the middle of a road, facing down a truck. Miranda the driver, not touching her brakes. But tooting the air horn. As Roy realizes he's wearing nothing at all.
Spinning around he dives modestly under the bed. The skin on his kneecaps squeaking on the hardwood floor. To huddle along the couch's length. Which smells vaguely of mildew and fifty years of quite definite dust.
—Shit, Roy, no need to rush. Miranda shifts around on the bed; her face appears upside down in front of him. Her hair drifts to the floor like fog. —And we are family.
—Um, says Roy. Her voice having a remarkable effect on his body. Which apparently wishes to salute.
She is laughing. —What is all this about, anyway?
From upstairs comes a faint cry, then a crash that rattles the plates in their cupboards. Miranda looks toward the ceiling. Roy wonders whether the owl has yet eaten the pussycat. And whom he's rooting for. —Miranda, he croaks. —Upstairs is a bit of a misunderstanding I can explain. But if you don't mind would you pretend you haven't seen me.
—Aha, she says. Already delighted with the mischief. Her head vanishes, and in an instant she is stretched out on the floor beside the bed. To rest her chin on her fist as she looks at him. —So you're on the run. From who?
—Whom, he says, pedantically. Above them, someone yells an imprecation in French, and a door slams. Then slow steps can be heard along the hallway upstairs, checking rooms, before they return to descend the stairway. Clump. Clump. Clump.
Miranda twists on her hip and raises herself from the floor. Reminding him that sensuality is founded upon torque. As she calls, —Who's there?
Roy tries frantically to shush her. —Please, he whispers. —You never saw me.
—What's it worth to you? she says. The imp, imping. Her entire expression silvered by moonlight.
—Is that you Miranda? calls Hampden from the stairs.
Miranda looks at Roy in puzzlement. —Hampden? she mouths.
Clump. Clump. Roy panics. —Go, he whispers, trying desperately to wave Miranda away. She takes leave of the floor suddenly, like a bird startled into flight. Landing heavily on the mattress above him. To clothe Roy inadvertently. In a tunic of dust.
Miranda's head appears again, upside down, to hiss, —Cheezit! The cops!
Then she is gone, her laughter muffled.
—Miranda? Hampden's voice comes from the foot of the staircase.
Hampden gropes his way toward her slowly. —You alone? I thought I heard you talking.
Roy can picture him leaning forward to scan the shadows. Then Hampden arrives at the edge of the bed. His scuffed topsiders inches from Roy's face.
—Talking? No, Miranda says. —I was just singing. I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd come out here and watch the night. What are you doing up?
—Business, Hampden says. —I had a project for the tourists.
—Why didn't you mention it earlier? When we were all sitting down here talking?
—Didn't feel like the right time.
—But now was better? When they'd gone to bed?
—I don't want to talk about it.
Hampden's shoes vanish one by one as he joins Miranda on the bed. To sink onto it with an undignified groan.
—Oh hey kiddo, Miranda says, with what Roy believes to be sickening sentimentality. —Weren't they receptive?
—They were pretty damn rude, Hampden says, his voice muffled.
Muffled by what? Roy wonders. If by Miranda, may he choke.
—You were drunk, weren't you? Miranda says, solicitously.
—No, goddamnit, Hampden says, sitting up. —I mean maybe a little. But nothing bad would've happened if it hadn't been for that brother-in-law of yours. Christ, what a fucking snake! You haven't seen him, have you?
—Why? Miranda says.
The wood floor pressing into Roy's shoulder, his bare body apparently in a draft. Otherwise he would sweat with the worry of just where Miranda's allegiances lie.
The bed above him creaks. —Oh, you're bleeding, Miranda says. —Let me look.
—Ow! Damn, that hurts.
—You poor guy. Here. I've got some beer.
A fat gurgle as Hampden works away at the bottle. Roy discouraging further fraternization. By jabbing the mattress on Miranda's side.
—Hey! Miranda yelps.
—What? Hampden says.
—That's enough, Miranda says smoothly. —I don't want you drinking it all. Are you sure you're all right?
—I'd feel a lot better if I could get my hands around Roy's throat.
—What does Roy have to do with it? What happened?
—I run into Roy in the bathroom, right? He tells me what room the Scandinavians are staying in. He says they're still up. Their light's on, so I knock, and I go in. Then they jump me.
—How would they have known you were coming?
—Exactly, Hampden says. His tone not unlike that of a counselor of juvenile delinquents whose young charges have just now blown up his car. —They were waiting on Roy.
—Roy? That's preposterous. He never even met them.
—Yeah? I think he did. And whatever he said to them, it wasn't nice. They were loaded for bear when I came through the door. And he knew they would be. He sent me into a trap.
—But Hampden, why would he do that?
Roy watches the rough bulge of Hampden's weight change shape. More dust falls, cascading this time into Roy's nose. Tickling. He tries to breathe evenly and easily as the itch in his nose builds up pressure. While Hampden says, —He likes you.
—Oh he does not.
—Yes he does. Most of the time he acts like his head's about to spin right off him. But the second you walk into the room, he's a goddamn compass needle looking at magnetic North.
—That's not true!
—Miranda, Hampden says softly. —He's crazy about you. I mean, he comes out here from Chicago and the first thing he does his pack his daughter off to the ocean so he can flirt with you. And when he's not doing that, he's sitting in that fucking graveyard.
—Hampden! Miranda says sharply. —He married my sister. And let me tell you, a year's hardly any time at all.
—Oh no, Hampden says, trying to conciliate. —I don't mean he shouldn't miss her. Hell, I miss her. My point is, maybe he misses her but he wants in your pants too.
Roy's face going red from the pressure in his nose. But expecting to hear Miranda, indignant on his behalf, give Hampden a poke in the eye. Only to hear her say, too thoughtfully, —You really think so?
—Hey, whoa now. He's not the one you're supposed to feel sorry for.
—I gave you half my beer, didn't I? What do you want, you want me to kiss your boo-boos?
—Well, Hampden says sullenly. —If you'd just kiss something.
—Awww, Miranda replies, with a sincerity Roy finds appalling. Hampden rolls over to embrace her. Seconds scrape by. Each one, for Roy, like the dentist's pick, probing his teeth for rot. At last, there is a squeal from Miranda. She sits up to say, —Not here.
—What? Hampden says. —Why not here?
—We don't want to wake mother.
—Why are you worried about her all of a sudden? You weren't worried about her that time we—Ow!
—Oh, sorry. Did I hurt you?
—Watch your elbows! Hampden's voice muffled by his hands. As he groans, —I've been hit enough already tonight.
A hand clapped to Roy's mouth. To suppress the screams of laughter that could kill him if the sneeze he is holding back. Doesn't slay him first.
—I'm so sorry, Hampden. I can be very clumsy sometimes.
—Is that a threat? Hampden mumbles.
Miranda laughs nervously. Roy convulses in a mercifully quiet sneeze. The only sound his kneecap knocking against the wooden floor. And his tender nose cracking against a metal strut. After which Roy must emit a high-pitched squeak.
Now Hampden sits up. —What in hell was that?
—A bat, Miranda says quickly, lying down again.
—No. It sounded like a kid. Crying.
—A cat in heat, then.
Hampden seems to accept this, for he lies back down. Below, Roy rocks on the floor, hands pressed to his mouth and nose, his face rucked up in pain. After a moment, Hampden says, —Well damn, lady. Let's go to my place.
—What about the paint fumes?
—We'll be all right.
Her naked feet join Hampden's topsiders on the floor. She puts on her leather boots and together they make their way to the door. Which closes behind them long enough for Roy to begin from under the bed. His long scramble. The front door opens again and someone switches on the overhead light. Blinding Roy. Who is only halfway out.
In a trice Miranda is beside the bed. Squatting beside him, knee joints cracking. To hiss. —If you really hurt Hampden, you better not be here when I get back.
Roy looks helplessly up at her. To run his tongue along her clavicle. To listen always to the music of the bracelets sliding and clicking up and down her wrist. Instead here he is, pinned ignominiously under her cruel furniture. A ridiculous question popping out of his mouth. —Would you say I'm half-stuck, or half-free?
—I'm serious. I once beaned a guy with a bottle of malt liquor.
—You drink that stuff? Roy seems unable to stick to the thread of the conversation, take in the salient points.
—Hush, she says, as Hampden comes to the door.
—Miranda? You coming or not?
—Sorry, she calls to Hampden as she stands and rushes away. —Just looking for an earring.
The light goes out and the door closes behind them. Roy lies there blinking, blind again. Seeing nothing but Miranda's afterimage, crouched beside him. Her taut jeans, the sweet smell of her skin. Their tiny conspiracy against Hampden. The sensation she induces that his cup runneth over. Outside the motorcycle rumbles, then crunches down the gravel drive as it takes off. Bearing away not only the wine. But the cup itself.
The spring on the screen door twangs when he opens it, and again when it closes. As he strides out onto the lawn, to find that all the fireflies have gone. There is dew on the grass. And thistles underfoot.
He heads around the house and down the pea-gravel driveway to the dirt road that will take him down to the boathouse. The road is stony and the air is chill, but it doesn't bother him; in fact, he rather enjoys walking nudely through the night. Imagining he would perhaps cut a fine figure as a noble savage.
But this fancy is insufficient to stave off the knowledge that in the morning he will no longer be welcome at the Anthonys'. He will have to get Katie and go home to Chicago. A desolating thought. But his only hope however, if he wishes to forego a surprise baptism in malt liquor.
At the boathouse he turns off the road and cuts through the grass to its door. Dew splatters his feet, soothes his worn soles. Under a loose shingle he checks for the spare key. Unable to remember whether Beth always took it from the fourth one on the right, the fifth one on the right, or was it the left? Thinking of the mildew inside, the high rafters and the old oars stored over the door. The beds inside always slightly damp. The mattresses lumpy and creased down the middle by years of bodies, the sheets sandy. The first time he was here with Beth, she got a splinter in her foot coming to bed and they spent half an hour getting it out. The mood fled and she slept, exhausted from a day on the beach, baking in the sun. Though she made up for it the next morning with her cheek against the sheet, her warm mouth making him writhe while her aunt rapped futilely on the door, calling them to breakfast up at the house.
He can't find the key. But as he kneels in the cold grass by the little house, he begins gradually to realize that Hampden's diagnosis was correct. The strain of the last year has made him crack. For spilling into his ears like sand are two angry voices. And he wonders if when the deaf go crazy they hear voices. Or simply see captions.
The door of the boathouse bangs open inches to Roy's left, and Hampden staggers out, harried by someone within. An alarm clock whizzes over his head, clears the porch railing, and falls into the mud below with a spirited bring! Hampden yells, —Fuck it! to no one in particular, and takes off at a run, without seeing Roy at all. Miranda comes screaming out of the doorway, and stops, her back turned to Roy as she hurls in Hampden's direction not only barbs. But both cycle helmets. —Bastard!
—Ow! You trying to kill me, woman?
—Yes! she replies instantly. —Coward! Greedy traitor!
Roy decides not to be caught on his unclad knees, only inches from the boathouse's keyhole. To which Miranda might believe he had glued a burning ear. He slips in the boathouse door behind Miranda, unseen and glad of her continuing embranglement. To cross the rough floorboards to the only closet. Where the Anthonys keep all their spare swimming suits and beach towels. He switches on the closet's weak light. The pile disheartening. On top he spies a striped suit Beth gave to Miranda two summers ago, and he suspects that if he were to dig down to the very floor of the closet (the dawn of the Pliocene) he would find Beth's first swimsuit, faded and salt-worn, from the year she was three.
Not far down, however, he finds an old pair of shorts that double as swim trunks, and he suits up, which makes him feel better. The better to confront attackers of either sex, for whom nudity might unfortunately suggest. A tempting target.
From outside he can hear Hampden trying frantically to start the motorcycle while Miranda pummels him with epithets. Of which though one does not wish to criticize, she has repeated one. Then the motorcycle falls or is pushed over and Roy can hear Hampden's curses, and two pairs of feet running up the road.
Oh, solitude. To be away from the nasty claims of another, however attractive. Who at a moment's notice could turn from conspiring lover to Medusa, wielding lethal alarm clocks and a tongue that under pressure might fail to be entirely original.
Roy walks out onto the back porch and steps down onto the narrow dock. Touching the dry wooden railing lightly. Attached to the dock is an extension that floats directly on the water, rising and falling with the tide. Right now the float is almost level with the dock and he walks out onto it to survey the river. A half mile south, hidden by a hump of land, is open sea.
He sits on the edge of the float and drops his feet into the cold water. He lifts them out quickly, holds his legs straight, and then lets his feet fall again. Kicking the dark water idly.
Catching the stench of kelp, Roy breathes deeply. Thinking of the fall Beth was pregnant. They came out to spend a few days in the summer house and one dreary day in particular. With the wind whistling through the thin walls and sheets on all the furniture. The gray skies rolling with caps of black foam. The electricity off at that season, so they used candles. During the afternoon when she slept, he watched water run down the hornbeam's stripped, bluish branches. And the soaked flag fluttering limply from the pole. Dozing off, he woke when the tips of the branches knocked gently on the window. As behind him, Beth said in her sleep, —I hate you.
Scaring out of him. All his sweet bejesus.
Footsteps crunch along the dirt road, coming closer to the boathouse. Stopping out front. Someone calls his name softly. When he looks back, he sees the dull flash of a silver-buckled foot. Beth returning from the fray. But he can't find it within himself to speak and so he turns back to the water. Boots clunk on the wood behind him. Roy feels the float sway a little and sink slightly as it takes extra weight. He lifts his head. Acutely aware of his fleet solitude. A smell of kelp. The wood of the float rough against his thighs. Saltwater numbing his feet. The feathery brush of an unknown fish against his ankle.
Hands touch his neck, hesitate, and then gently begin to massage his shoulders. They are small hands, long-fingered. Digits that could buoy a sunken heart. Or make him buck and shake in other interests entirely.
Hot breath touches his shoulder and he turns quickly. To find Miranda shaking out her hair. —Hi, she says. —Were you eavesdropping?
—No. But I thought you were going to Hampden's.
—We changed our minds.
—I guess you did, he says. —You were getting along pretty well when you left the house.
Her voice off-key, a spoken blush. —I got him out of there, didn't I?
—And then he told you? About the house?
She nods. —I still can't believe it. It's too horrible for words.
—I can't believe it either. He says it's not his fault, it's just some deal his Dad is doing, but É
She squints at him, nodding again. —You set him up, didn't you? Because of the house. That's why, isn't it?
—Hunh-huh, he says, smiling. She smiles back, looks away. Inhaling her scent on the breeze, admiring her collarbone and the swell of her breasts against her t-shirt. Noticing that her nipples have hardened in the wind. But how can he even consider that when his wife not two miles away lies so still.
Miranda slips off her boots and sits next to him. She plunges her feet into the water, without troubling first to roll up the cuffs of her jeans. Sucking in her breath at the cold as she looks fiercely across the water. Shoulders forward, elbows turned out, hands spread flat on her thighs. To place a hand there. Would she be skittish.
She glances quickly at him and then down at her feet again. As she begins to stir them in the water. And the water, charged with her skin's perfume, lights up.
—Hey, phosphorus, he says. Remembering the night he and Beth went skinny-dipping off this dock. She was afraid someone would see them, in the light from the buoy, or the ship lights further down river. But she'd stripped anyway, barely visible even to him. When her naked body entered the water, it caught like tinder in a phosphorescent blaze.
Beside him, Miranda brushes her hair back from her forehead with a nervous jerk. Roy watches her, while he tries to warm his hands under his thighs. A gentleman does not shock a lady with his frigid skin. Or brush the hair from the nape of her neck with nerveless fingers. Each strand slightly warm from her fiery brain. To be coiled and kept in the locket of one's better days.
She draws breath and then, still facing the water. Announces. —I like Hampden.
—Sure, Roy says. —Everybody does.
—I know that sounds crazy. But I've known guys who were worse. Plenty worse.
Roy pulls at his lip. —So what are you doing here?
—That's just it. I like him, but.
She brushes her hair back with her hand again, and then exhales loudly. —I like you too.
His groin tingles and goose bumps froth his skin. —Well.
He squints across the dark water at the other side of the river. The scattered lights on the other bank. Where people are flogging their memories for moments like this one. —Miranda, he begins. She looks at him through lashes that seem longer and more delicate than before. His heart slowly rotates on bearings of oxygen. What an amazement, to discover green eyes at thirty. When all around you have been gray.
Out on the water, a boat cruises past them. Miranda turns to look at it, and Roy follows her gaze. The yellow gear of several men is faintly visible, and the ember of a cigarette as someone inhales. They both watch until the boat is out of sight, until the sound of its engine fades. Then he reaches over and takes her hand, but she lets go after giving him a quick squeeze. She shifts to the edge of the float so that she is sitting at right angles to him, looking over at the neighbor's dock. Light from the buoy glints off the water as it slaps against the pilings below.
After a while, she speaks. —I'm sorry. I just thought to myself, Miranda, if you were a better person, you wouldn't be doing this.
The wind shifts and his nostrils fill with the odor of seaweed. She goes on. —It's not enough I fall for the guy whose father's going to throw me and my family out of this place, I have to go and fall for you.
—Hey, Roy protests.
—Shush, she says. —I mean, you married Beth, and still, here I am.
—I'm glad you are, Roy mumbles, his skin suddenly hot. Oh, to share a bed with this one, with brandy after. On a silver salver, brought by unobtrusive room service. While she craves his touch.
Miranda's clear-eyed gaze tenderly consuming him for instant after heady instant. Until she shivers and smiles. —Hey, great. He likes her.
—Yeah, he croaks. —He likes her.
—But Roy. How confused are you? I mean, what do you want from me?
A sigh. —It's complicated.
One hand pushes her hair behind her ear where the silver hoop dangles. Bangs hiding her eyes. —I know. That's why I asked.
Roy if not already whupped now feeling the hammer. As he thinks, Oh Jesus. I could really I mean really go for this one.
She shakes hair out of her eyes but won't look at him, staring instead out over the row of docks and boathouses. The sound of small boats bumping against wood. The river tossing them lightly on its fluid skin. Weathered painters pulled tight.
The rowboat moored next door scrapes against its dock. Miranda gets up, one long leg crossed over the other as she stands beside him to peer into the darkness. To be able to tell the difference between her calves blindfolded. —Hey, she says brightly. —Let's take that boat. We'll just row upstream and drift back with the current.
She leans and squeezes his shoulder while he examines her comely ankles. —It's slack tide I think, so we won't have to worry about that too much.
—It's late, he says.
She lowers her voice a little, imitating an irritated barkeep. —Last call! Laughing, she kneels and takes his head in both her fine hands to kiss him. With fingers in his hair and a tongue that leaves a slow burn in his mouth like curry. Roy puts both hands together as he kisses back. To pray that he will be forgiven.
Miranda turns her head and takes off her silver hoops, laying them on the float. Then she crosses her arms at her waist and begins to pull her t-shirt up over her head. Already he knows she is a handful, mercurial, but he's not prepared to have her strip down to nothing, not prepared to make love here on the swaying float. Though he aches to see her breasts, her ribs, her belly É But then he feels foolish, because under her t-shirt is a striped one-piece swim suit.
—When did you put that on?
She only grins, then stands to unsnap her jeans, watching where his eyes go. She laughs, turning away to unzip and peel. Revealing legs as long as Beth's. Their sleek muscled contours complete with tiny arrows illustrating the direction of airflow. —I'll race you. Last one over has to row.
Her body arcs into the water while he sits on the cold dock. No phosphorus marks her passage. Strike a match, blow it out. Swallow a mouthful of smoke.
She surfaces with a hand on the rowboat's gunwale and rolls, dripping, into the boat. She pushes the hair out of her eyes and rubs them, looking for Roy in the water.
But Beth is there beside him, shaking August from her hair. Swatting him lightly with a bone-handled hairbrush for some crack he has now forgotten. One evening they borrowed the boat Miranda has just climbed into, and he took Beth out on the black and silver water, gliding across a choppy meadow of failing light. She sat leaning slightly forward, her forearms resting on her crossed legs. His skin itched for her as though he'd thrown himself down, sweaty and warm, into the grass. Her long, linen skirt redolent of lilac. The air full of other summer evenings. Distant shouts floating from river to shore. Lazy twilight games of Frisbee played on until dark. Lengthy kisses on the night beach.
He remembers it was dark when they got back to shore, and how urgent they were, how she could not wait even to get inside the small boathouse but braced herself on the wooden table on the porch, and he remembers the way her hips fit his hands as he held her from behind, and the way she shook her head back and forth wildly, her hair whipping her face, and the way it caught in her open mouth.
—What's the matter? Too lazy to row?
A hoarse laugh he hasn't heard from Miranda before. Already she is wearing a life jacket. In her hands the boat has sprung loose from its moorings, its oars into their locks. She slips her wooden blades into the river quietly, tilts her head and says, —Tour's leaving.
He is quick as desire itself and leaps off the dock, arms windmilling as he gives a Tarzan yell. Intending to pull himself into the boat and sprawl in her lap, clumsy and adoring. When it is too late, when he has launched himself into mid-air, he sees Beth in the dark water below him. Zooming upward to meet him, hands wide open. On her face is no discernible emotion. The lamps of her eyes unlit. Her jaw flaps loosely, like a door in the wind. He screams. And still she shoots toward him. Her body scorched by phosphorus.
He hits the water thrashing and immediately the light of her body goes out. Her hand finds his leg and tows him down. Sea water fills his nose and his throat closes as he tries to inhale and exhale at the same time. His bad eye burns. Choking, he kicks out, hits something solid, and then her hand is gone. His lungs truss him up, bend him double, pleading for air while he rolls in the black water. Looking desperately for the surface. He knocks an elbow on the boat and then Beth grabs his hair from behind. He tries to scream again, but his voice has turned to water. He grabs over his head at the arm and fingers tearing out the roots of his hair, but she traps his hands and drags him, still kicking, out of the water and, can you believe it, into the boat.
Soft hands he'd pictured feathering his body pound him while he sucks air noisily, like a drain. Warm arms maneuver him onto his back, some trick in the row boat, boards digging into his spine. All he wants to do is curl up, and she keeps stretching him out. Her fingers take his jaw and wrench his head to the side. —Keep your mouth open.
Her steady curses as she feels for his tongue, uncoils it. Her legs astride him, her right hand hitting his diaphragm like a sculptor's hammer. Forcing the water out until he is sick. Lumpy vomit clogs his mouth. —Oh that's charming, she says. But she scoops it out with her fingers and flings it overboard.
Slowly he relaxes, and the boat stops rocking. Water still in his nose. His throat like he's just swallowed an outboard motor. She leans over the edge and washes her hands. Wrinkling her nose as he smiles. When he can, he sits up and follows her example, cleaning out his mouth as best he can. Awkwardly falling, after, into her powerful embrace.
They're a hundred yards from the boathouse, heading around the bend in the river that will open into the ocean. It will be a hard job getting back. But he is in the middle of the river with her, watching the harbor lights ripple. Held close for warmth. For the hell of it.
—We're drifting, she says. But she doesn't let go of him. Her fragrance teases him, sweet and sharp as mint. Her soft breasts push against his back. She nuzzles his chilly neck, licking at the water dripping from his hair. Her tongue hot. As his ear catches the faint whistle of her breath.
He reaches up and behind to put his fingers on her jaw, that exquisite coastline.
—You want to tell me what that was all about?
—I saw Beth. In the water. And... it scared me.
She lifts her head away to stare at the harbor lights that would have let him drown without a blink. The boat continues to drift; slowly, they pass a beach of smoothly pointed rocks. Where Beth once forbade Katie to go until she was eleven. —Eleven? Roy had asked. —Is that in Dr. Spock?
Miranda flips the oars out of the water with a crash and holds them high, dripping. —So, what now, she says. —Am I supposed to toss you back in?
—Hey, Roy says. Twisting around to lick at her tears, a salty meal. She tastes like the sea. To swim in her ocean, to pound through her blood vessels like passion itself. Miranda his furnace, kitchen and legal domicile. Her face less pretty than Beth's. But right now so dear. As her eyebrows come down, and she says, contralto, —I hardly know you.
Dripping wet in a sea-going craft with this gutsy woman. Who demands to know, triceps flexing, just who the hell he is. Not to say I'll be damned if I know. A time to reassure. To say there are worse men in the world than widowers and in-laws. Or to say, take me in those long muscular arms and console me with your humors and soothing favors. Cradle my hips in your thighs and give me no quarter unless you give me also. The other three. He kisses her.
She kisses back, still holding the oars high. Using them to lever herself up against him. Her musty life jacket pressing into his chest. As he makes out for the first time the moonshot name written across its back. B. ANTHONY. Faded. But indelible.
They break off, trembling. Roy studies his hands in the dark moonlight. And whispers, —Maybe I should miss her more.
—You miss her enough, she says bitterly, bringing the oars down again, sliding them deftly into the water. She rows with smooth power, her legs braced, her shimmering swimsuit seductively tight. Roy gradually hypnotized, watching her struggle against the current.
After a time he asks, rasping, if she wants him to row for a while. She shakes her head and he leans back again. Glad to rest. His anguish slowly mellowing with each stroke. Their progress almost silent, nearly magical. As he pictures taking her out to Arizona, to Slide Rock. Where he could stand with her in the arid sunlight watching fresh, unsalted water crash through a leafy ravine. And the pleasant tightness of her arm on his shoulders like sunburn.
Their craft bumps into the float with a soft, hollow thunk of wood against wood. They are back at the boathouse. She bends to take the oars out of the locks as he monkeys onto the dock, mooring rope in hand.
Miranda sheds the life jacket and tosses it over his head onto the dock. He can hear it whirl as it goes over; the buckles bite wood behind him. When he helps her out of the boat, she doesn't move past but straight for him. His cold chest against her damp suit. Her hips sliding gently against his. With unerring aim, his palm finds the small of her back.
Miranda tilts her head back and studies him seriously. Politely not mentioning his erection. Then she shivers. —What goose bumps. I wish I had a towel.
He hooks a thumb at the boathouse. —Plenty of towels here, hmm?
She clutches his shoulders and they stare at each other until their eyes water. The breeze rises and gently chills him, carrying the sweet smell of the grass. And over the sound of water slopping against the pilings beneath their feet, he can hear distant crickets. His hands high on her torso, thumbs squeezing her slender ribcage. Her eyes are huge, like rising moons.
To tell the court at what point, on his oath, at exactly what point he started to believe that this was right and mete. To teach confidently in a voice that carries to each juror and spectator the difficult calculus that will descry the swoop of her back. And he stands there like a dummy until Miranda says, —Kiss her, you fool.
He pulls her mouth against his. She closes her eyes and as their tongues touch, he looks beyond her, out at the rolling and shaking water. No sign of Beth, luminous or unlit.
Miranda breaks away with a small sound. Grimacing. —Boy, you taste terrible.
—Sorry. I'll drink something.
Already she is bending down to scoop up her clothing. Then she takes his hand and leads him in the dark. Inside the little boathouse, his feet travel over the rough, worn rug, and bony, dried-out wood. He strains to see her shoulder blades, catching instead the wafted scent of her hair, still wet, and perhaps darker now than when it was dry.
After a moment, he realizes they are in the boathouse's tiny kitchen. She washes her hands, nips at his earlobe, and is gone. He leans to rinse his mouth. Washing away black bile.
He finds her next to one of the small beds, and they embrace again. Her hot fingers melt the snap on his trunks and split his zipper, helping his chilly body shed its wet skin. There is a rustle, and then she stands before him. Her breasts full and supple in his hands. Nipples engorged and succulent against his palms, her tongue thrust into his mouth. Her hands on his back, trailing languorous fingers. The dark so thick he can only see the faintest glint of her eyes. Her tongue on his chest, rough like a cat's, liquefies his nerves; winds his groin tighter.
—Miranda, he whispers. Nipping at her shoulder. Licking her earlobe, which makes her shudder and lift her head from his chest. She whirls in his grip; he rolls her onto the bed. Cool sheets, her body warm and hot against his. Beth was almost never so passionate. Never excited until the last possible moment. Which made him seem importunate, ridiculous to them both.
The moon illuminates Miranda's hair and forehead. Her cheekbones achingly clear. Her eyes shadowed but gleaming. He kisses her; they lie there looking at each other, legs tangled. As above them, curtains shift at the window in the warm breeze.
He touches her gently, tentatively. She rolls onto her back, throwing her arms out over her head, her bent knees sharp and clear in the light. Her breathing quickly exaggerated, aroused. Soon enough, she is turning sensuously on his axis. Slowly but loudly climaxing. Deep inside her he comes, crying. His tears collecting in the hollow of her neck where her collarbone meets itself.
—Oh, Beth, he says.
Miranda's hands slowly coming to rest. As she stares up at the ceiling. And then at him. Her eyebrows lifted; one side of her mouth pulled back slightly, in disgust. Something that has been cresting within him slumps, falls in upon itself. A wave upon the beach. Leaving a body behind. —Sorry.
Miranda looks away. —Forget it.
—I wasn't thinking about her at all.
—I said drop it!
She pushes him away, her body flashing briefly in the light, and then she's gone. Padding through the tiny kitchen and into the bathroom.
When she comes back again, she has her suit on. But she lies down beside him with a sigh. They lie together for a time, and then she says, —I suppose it's what I deserve.
—No, he says. Running a hand up her spine. To bury his fingers in her hair. —Everybody acts like I have a choice. Like I can just switch it off, switch her off. And I can't.
Miranda silent. Her head on the pillow; her face still except for her eyes. Searching his face. —Well she's making me feel like a consolation prize.
—No, he says. —It's me. I'm doing that.
—Yes, she says after a time, drawing away from his hand.
Roy panicking. —Please. It just slipped out. I didn't mean anything by it.
She shrugs. —Whatever. I should go anyway. There's Hampden, after all.
He looks at her. —Him? What's he got to do with it?
She rests her head on one hand and looks down at him. —I still like him.
—You don't love him?
She squeezes her eyes shut and then opens them. —You can be so exasperating!
Tenderly, he touches her nose with a finger. —I like you too.
She smiles ruefully. —Good.
Rolling off the bed, she reaches for an earring. Slipping it into her ear.
—Hey, he says. —Do you like me?
—What do you think.
She walks out onto the porch, skirts the table and chairs. To return fully dressed, carrying a motorcycle helmet. —I guess I'm going. Will I see you in the morning?
He settles on something neutral, in case she's warning him off. —I'll have to go to Provincetown to pick up Katie.
She nods. Everything said to prepare for her exit. But she just stands there. The thumb of her free hand hooked in a belt loop. Scuffing one booted foot lightly along the floor. —I hate this, she says at last.
—Then stay, he whispers. But already the door is swinging closed behind her. Her boots clunking along the wooden porch. Gravel scrapes as she heaves the cycle upright. Then its engine grunts, roars to life. Its headlight coming on, brightening the curtain over Roy's bed. The light swings from wall to wall when Miranda turns the bike around. Until in the boathouse it is once more dark and quiet. As the black bile rises again in Roy's throat.
He swallows hard and turns his face to the wall. Thinking if there is an argument for stoicism this is it. And if it is hard to do right by two people, what does Miranda feel like, claimed by three?
His wounds many. His nose throbbing, and a headache pulsing in sympathy along his right temple. In the back of his nose and throat an unpleasant rawness. Water still clogs an ear. His elbow bruised. And in his mouth the fading glow of Miranda's tongue.
He jumps out of bed, dresses in the swim suit, and bangs out of the boathouse. Out onto the stony road again. Muttering, —Carpe diem, carpe diem, you dumb bastard.
The trip back much too long. His feet cold and sore, more vulnerable now to puncture. He takes no pleasure in the night air, the stars wheeling above. But laughs to think that with steps lame and halt. Desire wends its twisted way.
In the driveway of the house, the motorcycle sits, up on its kickstand. As he makes his way along the side of the house, he sees a light on in the kitchen. He walks around back, his feet glad to feel the soft grass. Their wounds cauterized by the freezing dew.
Through the square panes of the kitchen windows he sees Hampden from behind, working at the counter. The dining room is dark, except for what light comes from the kitchen. Miranda sits at the table, well out of the light, her boots off and her feet up, with her back to the windows. Where Roy has been jumping and waving. With flags he could be a signalman, transmitting his semaphore sweet.
The screen door mercifully silent as he sidles inside. Crossing from the living room into the dining room and quickly to Miranda, who is looking dully at her cuticles. As Hampden calls from the kitchen, —You want cranberries in these?
—I don't care, Miranda says.
—Well you should, Hampden replies. —I'm making them for you.
—It doesn't change anything.
In the kitchen, a beater clangs into a metal bowl. Water rushes in the sink. —It's out of my hands. You know that.
Just then Miranda catches sight of Roy. —Get out of here! she whispers frantically. —Before he sees you.
—Marry him if you think you have to, Roy whispers.
Miranda lets out her breath explosively. —Marriage?
—Don't leave me. Hide me in your linen closet. Put me in your wallet like a secret credit card.
—Go to bed, she says, not unkindly.
—Miranda? Hampden calls. —You didn't bail on me, did you?
She jumps up and walks toward the kitchen. Calling, —No, I'm still here.
—Why Miranda! someone calls from the other end of the room. It's Mrs. Anthony, in her dressing gown, just come down the stairs. She spots Roy as he slides into a chair at the table. —Well good morning. Everyone seems to be up very early.
—Hey Mrs. Anthony, he says. Trying to sound hearty. Feeling instead a sourness in his mouth as he looks again into Miranda's green eyes. When she turns on him a glance of desperation.
—What's that you said? Hampden calls. —I have the water running.
—Who's in there? Mrs. Anthony asks, trying to peer around Miranda.
—Hampden. He's making scones, Miranda says.
—I see, Mrs. Anthony says doubtfully.
Miranda adds, —With dried cranberries.
—How thoughtful at this time of night.
—No time like the present, Roy says brightly.
To leave this sorrowful house and never come back. To take vows of poverty and chastity and silence and most of all deafness. So that one never again must even by chance hear the words. Miranda. Sister-in-law.
Dazed, Miranda sits down opposite Roy. Looking not only tired but unable to cope with the latest developments. Mrs. Anthony sets a sheaf of paper on the table and sits down. Suddenly, she spots Roy's black eye. —Oh Roy! What happened to you?
—It's nothing, I walked into the bathroom door.
He tries to be convincingly sheepish. Unable to point his finger self-righteously at the tourists. Not wanting Mrs. Anthony to wonder why he did not go back into his rightful bedroom and throw the bums out. Or call for help. But went instead where? To sleep with her surviving daughter.
—Perhaps I should get a nightlight for the hall, do you think Miranda? Mrs. Anthony asks, genuinely concerned.
She breaks off as Hampden comes in from the kitchen with a steaming omelette, stuffed with green peppers and tomato. Two red swellings where his eyes should be.
Mrs. Anthony without missing a beat says, —Oh dear, Hampden. You too? Roy just finished telling us he ran into the bathroom door.
—He told you that did he. Well he just might run into another one.
Hampden places the omelette in front of Miranda and a pot of coffee in the center of the table. He goes back into the kitchen and returns with three more coffee cups, three dishes, a plate of butter, and a pile of scones. —This was supposed to be a private deal, he says gruffly. He sits down beside Miranda.
There is a silence. Roy stares at his plate. Not daring to look at Miranda. Thinking her warm hand on the inside of his thigh. Would now be welcome and reassuring.
—Well? Mrs. Anthony says. —Will you kindly tell me what's going on? Hampden? Why don't you start. I think we're all dying to hear.
Hampden clears his throat. —The burden is really on Roy. Since I fucking well got the worst of it.
Roy agreeing he got the best of it. The knobs of Miranda's vertebrae. The faint light from the window as she moved beneath him, breathy and hot, and a voice from the radio on the dresser murmuring, Sweet home, Chi-ca-go. —It was a misunderstanding, he says. —Two, actually.
—Three black eyes and two misunderstandings, says Mrs. Anthony. Who often startles the unsuspecting. Because of her witless manner. —Don't you feel much better now that you've told us all.
—Yes, he says. And then he adds hoarsely, —Loads.
—How do you feel, Hampden? Or did you enjoy turning my house into an amateur boxing ring.
—It wasn't quite like that, Mrs. Anthony.
—Please, Miranda interrupts, —Can't we just drop it?
—Why Miranda, Mrs. Anthony says. —I believe I'm entitled to know. As your hostess. And I wonder just why everyone suddenly feels peckish at five in the morning.
—Don't, Mother. You're picking at scabs.
—Have it your way. I can only hope these two gladiators feel the same way you do.
—I don't, Hampden says. Looking with some suspicion at Miranda. Who says, —Hush.
Mrs. Anthony turns to the sheaf of paper in front of her, rattling through it pointedly. Roy raises his eyebrows at Miranda, but her eyes are quite studiously focused on her omelette. —Good, huh? he asks her.
—Mmm, she says. Without raising her eyes. Then she puts down her fork. —Actually, I'm not very hungry.
—That's okay, Hampden says, patting her hand.
—Well my compliments to the chef anyhow, Roy says to Hampden. Reaching for the butter. —I guess he couldn't help sneaking a look at his daddy's new kitchen.
Miranda kicks him hard in the shin. —Stop it! she hisses. Just as Hampden seizes his wrist and levers his hand against the scalding coffee pot. Roy cries out, knocking over the pot.
Mrs. Anthony looks up to see a pool of coffee spreading across the table towards her, Roy holding his burned hand, and Hampden innocently picking at one of his own scones.
—What is wrong with all of you. I'm not going to ask again.
Roy plunges his hand into the stick of butter to prevent it from blistering. Thinking that if this is happiness then grief by God is better. —No no, I'll clean it up, he says, when Mrs. Anthony starts for the kitchen.
—Thank you, she says faintly. —But I think I'd rather. Miranda, why don't you get out a new stick of butter. Since Roy seems to have used all of this one.
Miranda follows her mother into the kitchen. —Mom? she says, —Do you have any Alka-Seltzer?
Hampden glares at Roy. —Man, I should bust you in the fucking chops. What the hell did I ever to do you?
—You have sinned against history, Roy says. The words simply appearing in his mouth, perfect and sweet as hard candies.
—What? You're crazy, you know that?
Roy starts to say something, but at that moment Miranda comes back with more butter. Taking her seat next to Hampden. Without a glance at Roy.
Following close behind Miranda is Mrs. Anthony, bearing sponges and paper towels. She puts Hampden to work mopping up. Taking the opportunity to ask, —Did I hear Roy insinuate that your father is thinking of evicting us?
Hampden stopping his work with the towels to give Roy a look. Of unmatched venom. —He insinuated it, alright. Why are you looking at me like that? You think I want to take your house away from you? Give me some credit.
—He's in a difficult position, Miranda puts in.
—I imagine so, dear, Mrs. Anthony says. She looks from her daughter to Hampden, and back again. —I'm sorry to ask this honey, but do you love him?
—Of course she does, Hampden says defensively. Putting a hand on Miranda's shoulder. As she with sickening ease avoids Roy's eye. And says, —I don't know. How can you ask me that?
—Because I'm afraid I have unpleasant news my dear. I have in my hand a copy of the contract covering the proposed sale of this house and its land to our guests.
—The tourists? Miranda asks, swallowing.
—Where did you get that? Hampden demands.
—I hardly think that matters, says Mrs. Anthony. —By reading the fine print on this document, which does not in any way resemble genteel English prose, I have learned that Hampden is the landlord here. Not his father.
—What? Miranda turning to look at the man beside her. The floor beneath her eyes ringing with the sound of falling scales.
—Oho, says Roy. Not grinning at Hampden. But showing his teeth.
Mrs. Anthony unsmiling. As she turns to open up an eastern front. —Roy, suppose you tell me the truth about your carousing.
—Carousing, Roy repeats.
—Roughhousing, then. You see, I'm worried about my granddaughter. I don't want her exposed to the wrong sort of influences.
—You mean me, Roy says.
—It's just that I'm very fond of Katie. We all are. I know you do your best, but really, do you think Chicago is quite the place for her?
—You mean as opposed to here.
—Of course. Mr. Anthony and I love Katie so. If you lived in the vicinity, we could see her more often. And we could relieve you of some of the burden of taking care of her.
—Katie's not a burden, Mrs. Anthony.
—But doesn't it get difficult, for a man alone? Without, without Beth?
—I don't know what you're driving at but if you mean do I need help raising Katie, no I don't. I'm sorry you don't get to see her more often, but I happen to like Chicago, and if you remember, I have a job there.
—I hate discussing this, Roy. But I think I would just feel much better about Katie if I could be sure you were thinking of her welfare and not exposing her to who knows what kind of people. You must get lonely without Beth.
It occurs to Roy that if Beth were here she would be sitting very straight and staring off into space. Beth who had such a sharp tongue in private and such impeccable manners in public. Who would wait for her adversary to wind down before saying at last, —Were you speaking to me?
He draws a breath. —Are you telling me Mrs. Anthony that you want me to remain single and celibate.
—And why not. I mean how could I be absolutely sure about someone new, that she'd love Katie.
—I hope you'll pardon my saying so Mrs. Anthony, but I do believe you're out of your mind.
—Roy! Miranda says.
Mrs. Anthony says tightly, —I think your behavior here allows me the right to question your qualifications as a parent.
Hampden chimes in. —She's right, Royboy. You go any more nuts and we're going to have to put you out as a party snack. You need serious help.
Miranda turns on him. —He's not crazy.
—There's no shame in it, Hampden insists.
—He's just sad, Miranda screams.
—Roy. Mrs. Anthony cuts in sharply. —Did you love my daughter?
—Mother! Miranda exclaims. —Haven't you said enough.
—I think Roy can speak for himself.
—You're being extremely rude.
—I'm not, Mrs. Anthony says. —I'm being brutally honest. Well? she demands, turning back to Roy. —Did you love her?
—Of course I loved her!
—Do you look at other women?
—Mrs. Anthony! he cries, standing.
—Have you slept with other women since the funeral?
—That's none of your business, Roy says very distinctly.
—Why you sly son of a bitch, Hampden says.
—My God, Mrs. Anthony says, a hand going to her throat. —A madman and a satyr!
—Stop it! Miranda yells.
—Well I could really forgive him for being one or the other, Mrs. Anthony says weakly, sitting down. —But both?
Roy enraged. Leaning on the table. Breakfast crumbs digging into his knuckles. —Mrs. Anthony, your questions are importunate and irrelevant. I loved your daughter and if it weren't for Katie I would have killed myself rather than go on alone. And from all these lonely months of grief, I have gained nothing at all. I am neither wiser nor more accepting. And what's worse, whether I'm happy or sad, Beth no longer cares.
Mrs. Anthony is indignant. —Don't you dare talk to me about grief. Or do you think I can get a new daughter as simply as you could take a new wife.
He opens his mouth, but pauses to unstick all the words. While across from him Miranda sits, stunned. Surveying Roy sadly with those lustrous eyes.
—Since you inquired about my love life, he finally says. He walks around the table to Miranda. To put his hands lightly on her shoulders. —We're in love.
Mrs. Anthony only raises her eyebrows. Exhibiting a disappointing degree of self-control. —He loves you? she asks Miranda in a pleasant voice. As Hampden makes a small, strangled sound.
—He may, Miranda says. Her shoulders slumping.
—I do, he says.
—Hampden! says Mrs. Anthony. —I think that's quite enough of that.
—Mrs. Anthony, Roy interrupts. —I haven't given you our news.
—I'm so sorry, I thought you had. Go ahead, I'm listening.
—What are you talking about? Miranda looks up at him, puzzled.
Her hair brushing Roy's hands. Making him hard. —I impregnated her tonight.
—Miranda! exclaims Mrs. Anthony. —He did no such thing.
—I did so, Roy repeats mildly.
—You did not, Miranda says. Crossing her arms over her chest.
—I'm afraid so.
—Is this true? Hampden asks her.
There is a crash as Hampden with a sweep of his hand knocks the butter, the scones, the water, and the coffee to the floor. So that he can lay his head down in his arms. In grief. And Roy thinks, Poor evil bastard. Knowing how it feels to awaken surrounded by flowers, as measured poetry rings in the air. To sit up and find oneself on stage, watched by friends and family. Dressed in black. Tears falling everywhere. To see your love come striding up to greet you. And never to forget her soft hand on your chest as she pushes you back down, closing your coffin's lid. With a big fat slam.
—Well? Mrs. Anthony says to Miranda. —Is there any rational explanation for this?
Miranda tries to say something, but Roy cuts her off. —I'd just like to add by way of allaying your concerns. That Miranda loves Katie, and could keep me close by.
—You aren't proposing to marry her?
—Well in fact tonight was really our first date. We haven't actually discussed it, no.
Mrs. Anthony stands. Grabbing wildly for something with which to menace him. And coming up with a grapefruit spoon, which she proceeds to shake at him. —You can't be serious!
He feels Miranda's shoulders move, and he realizes she is laughing. —Mrs. Anthony quite frankly I've been making it up as I go along.
—You what, she says flatly.
The tourists just then appear in the living room. In dressing gowns hurriedly belted. The man with accusing finger. Pointing at Roy. —The dirty man, dragged over by the cat!
—Oh! his wife shudders. —This man he makes me sick. Tell them, Gunnar.
—What? Mrs. Anthony cries. —What is it now?
—This rapid dog, says Gunnar imperiously, still pointing at Roy, —He attacked Vanya in his nude.
—It was my bedroom, Roy says. Then, realizing that his statement might seem irrelevant to the charge at hand, he adds, —I mean, you were in my bedroom.
—There! His blue eye? The proof of his principled unstruggle! Gunnar strides forward, taking Roy by the arm. As he swiftly slams his knee into Roy's crotch.
—Urggh! Roy says as he bends over just in time to receive, though he knows it's coming, the man's uppercut. To crash to the floor without dignity.
—Well it's about time, he hears Hampden say from a long way above him.
—Ha, the woman says. —This one has the blue eyes too.
—Wait a minute, Hampden says. Roy hears a crash, more crockery and food. As Gunnar takes Hampden to the floor in an impressive flying tackle.
—Stop it! Mrs. Anthony shrills. —Would you idiots stop destroying my house! Stop it this instant!
Hampden and Gunnar obey reluctantly and stand up. Hampden checks a split lip as Gunnar staggers into Vanya's arms. —These Americans, she says, —they all think they are John Wayne.
Miranda's hand on Roy's knee. Murmuring softly as she kneels beside him. —Are you all right?
—Much better now, Roy croaks. Squeezing her hand.
Hampden towers above them. Gently wiping blood from his chin. Squinting in pain. —Well.
Miranda expected to stand or apologize. Or at the least to withdraw her hand from Roy's impudent grip. When instead she looks up to say softly, —Yeah.
Hampden turning to his hostess and tenant. —Mrs. Anthony. I know it's rude of me to be so abrupt. But I'll go now.
Mrs. Anthony covering her confusion with politeness. —That's quite all right, Hampden. I'm sure we all understand. Don't we?
From the floor, Roy watches Miranda watch him go. Her face spiteful and yet. She bites her lower lip.
Mrs. Anthony announces, —Well! Wasn't that amusing?
She walks over to where Roy is curled up on the floor. Her toenails look old and yellow and cracked. —Please do come and stay with us again next summer. Bring Katie. Come in August. The ocean will be just room temperature.
Closing his eyes, he nods. She says to Miranda. —I'm going back to bed. Would you like to come down to the beach with me later? We can go for a walk and then we'll have lunch and that'll be done and we won't have to think about it until tomorrow.
Roy hears Miranda reply. Parsing not the meaning but the vibration as her words hit the floor. Followed by Mrs. Anthony's footfalls. There is grit beneath his cheek. Sand tracked in from other days at the beach.
Miranda traces her fingers absently from his ear down his neck, to his shoulder. Making a small, wordless sound.
Roy says, —I guess I'm the booby prize now.
She smiles and shakes her head. Her hair swings. Earrings glint. The huge windows behind her turning silver. The darkness lifting when the horizon long since began to glow.
Roy takes her hand again. —Will you write to me?
Miranda leans over him, eyes bright. Tracing his lips with a finger. Such soft weight on his chest. —Of course, she says at last. He tries to kiss her but she puts her fingers to his lips. —Take it easy, huh?
They help each other up. Gunnar is sitting at the table calmly eating the scones. Vanya finishing the remains of Miranda's omelette.
—Cranberries, Gunnar complains, when he notices Roy looking at him. —Terrible to be digesting. And the wine, eh? There is none, I'm sorry.
Vanya sniffs. —In civilized countries, there is always wine.
Leaving the tourists to their feast, Roy and Miranda separate. After a quick goodbye. —Provincetown, he says when she asks. —To pick up Katie. After that, I don't know. I don't want to go straight back home.
Upstairs he goes into Beth's old room and gathers his things slowly. Thinking of the afternoon he and Beth conceived Katie. When they lived in Providence. Leaving work at noon on a spring day. To share cold root beer and grinders in a restaurant booth. The cheerful weather pulling them outside, rendering them unfit for work. To walk the city instead. The collegiate, cracking sidewalks near the university. The sun falling. Squirrels chittering in the trees. A church bell somewhere, tolling four, as they paused to kiss on a street corner. Beth's eyes widening as she said, —Let's go home. We might get lucky.
All this gone now, even Beth. Only traces left of what was once an empire of light and thunder. Dim and fragile objects on dusty shelves, their original purposes obscure, the hands that made them inconceivably foreign and dead for centuries. Roy their museum and curator both. Katie a monument, Beth's message to the future. And perhaps it is not anger but sadness that makes him open the tourists' suitcases. To fill them with shaving cream.
Outside again, he puts his bags in the trunk of his car and gets in on the driver's side. Only to find Miranda curled up in the passenger seat. —I'm coming with, she mumbles. Her eyes closed.
He stares at her until he can say casually, —Good. Katie would love to see you. But what about your mother?
—I left her a note, Miranda says sleepily. Roy catching sight of himself in the mirror. His ugly contusions. His good eye sleepless, still sad with guilt. All that swept away by a million dollar smile as he comes to believe again in his own luck.
—Happy? he asks.
Miranda drags an eye open. Smiling. Her lovely fingers squeezing his arm. —Yeah, she's happy.
She slumps sleepily against his shoulder. Then lays her head in his lap. He puts the key in the ignition. Ready to leave the summer house behind. With its loose, salt-white shingles and its creaky floorboards. Its sandy floors and belligerent guests.
But languor engulfs him. Not to move for a century. As in the rising morning the scent of honeysuckle blows through the car. A fly whines in his ear and is gone. Beth? he thinks. Miranda's Diet Coke sweats on the dashboard. Fizzing invisibly. A kind of fuse.
After a time, the sun bursts through the trees. To light up the droplets of water that have condensed on the hood of the car. The bigger drops gently shaking in the breeze. Miranda jerks suddenly, and mutters, —Are we there already?
—Soon, he says, stirring. Turning the key. Buckling up. He noses the car out of the driveway. Along the dirt road past the sign that says Slow Bumps, and over the drainage pipes. And then he turns out to where the asphalt begins. Pondering the twitch of the sweephand. Every year brings something that weakens the knees. A baby. Bursitis.
The wind rattles past him as he speeds up. His nose feels hard and battered, like a child's building block, but the day is splendid. Even the first stoplight waves him greenly on. —Go! it says. —Go cat go!