Fiction | June 01, 2002
Don't Call It Christmas
When he got home that night it was raining hard, and the girl lay in the entryway, crying. The boy was gone, but his chrome bike still stood against the wall. The girl glanced up from her dirty yellow blanket, eyes red, cheeks dark with mascara.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I don’t want anything,” he said. “What happened to your friend?”
“How should I know?” she said.
“You need any help?”
She shook her head.
He felt awkward, standing above her with his bag of Chinese food. It was the first time he’d spoken to her. The boy, with his phony accent, had always done the talking for both of them.
“Well, you can call me from right here if you need anything,” he said, and waited until she looked at him. “I live in 2B.”
She nodded, and he opened the front door. The rain was cold and blowing in from the street.
At the top of the landing he heard the phone ring; at first he thought it might be the girl calling to ask for help. He quickly unlocked the door and set his food on the table. But it was only Erroll calling from the hospital in Phoenix.
“I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time,” Erroll said, his voice bright and desperate.
“I just got home with some dinner.”
“I wont keep you, then,” Erroll said. “I just wanted to let you know we had a hopeful week, is all. Your mother’s numbers are looking better, and her eyelids are fluttering like crazy. I keep expecting her to open her eyes and start chattering like a magpie!” He laughed his big laugh.
“That’s great,” Will said, though he knew it didn’t mean anything at all. Erroll was always hopeful when he phoned.
“We’ll show those doctors what the final verdict is,” Erroll said.
“I hope so,” Will said.
“So how you doing, kid? You able to get some work done?”
“I got a little done today.”
“That’s great. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know we had a good week. I’m betting on a merry Christmas. I just miss her so much, you know what I mean? I miss having her come home with some new cactus or a video she’s read about in the papers—even if it’s Japanese!”
“I know what you mean,” Will said.
“I was alone for a long time before I met your mother.”
“I know,” Will said.
“Well, I’m going to let you eat your dinner now. I won’t go on and on like an old man.”
Will tried to think of something encouraging to say but couldn’t. He said, “Thanks for calling, Erroll. Let me know if anything changes.”
“Oh, it changes all the time,” Erroll said in his upbeat voice. “I’ll keep you posted.”
Will hung up the phone.
He went into the kitchen and opened a bottle of wine, then sat and poured a glass and looked out the window. Rain was coming down in sheets. The wine smelled of oak, and he drank it and looked at the people in the apartments across the courtyard: the Indian couple on their long white couch, the husband reading to their blind little girl, the old Italian man working on one of his model ships. Will pictured his mother in a hospital bed with the tube in her nose. It pained him to imagine her like that. He had left Arizona when they’d told him nothing would change, and now every time he thought of her he pictured her with that tube. He took a sip of wine and felt his scalp go tight. As he filled his glass again, a light came on in the waitress’s apartment. He stood and turned off the kitchen light.
The waitress walked through her apartment and into the kitchen, a pretty black-haired woman with thin white arms. He’d seen her in Katia’s Restaurant on Haight Street, where she’d been his waitress once. She’d smiled and been friendly, but only in the way of waitresses. Now she stood in front of the refrigerator, drinking a can of soda. He watched her drink the whole can quickly, then set it on a counter and walk down the hall. A moment later she hurried through the apartment with a handbag over her shoulder. She went through the front door and left it ajar. He thought she’d return, but several minutes passed, and she didn’t.
The smell of Kung Pao chicken reminded him how hungry he’d been. He thought of the girl in the vestibule, sitting on the wet tiles. Maybe the boy was back now. The boy’s name was Ian, and he and the girl had slept in the vestibule for a week, since the rains began. It was enough time for Will to wonder where they’d come from and how they managed to eat. If he were a different kind of person he would go down and ask the girl up for some Chinese food; the thought of not being that kind of person made him angry. “I can do whatever I want,” he said, his voice thin and strange in the empty apartment.
In the hallway he smelled sautéed onions and heard Nat King Cole’s “A Christmas Song” from the floor above. He walked down the stairs to a place where he could crouch and see the entryway. The girl was there. She stared at the opposite wall of the vestibule, a blank expression on her face. She’d looked at him in just that way as he talked to Ian a few times—she either liked him or disliked him very much. He’d toyed with the idea of asking them both up to his apartment, but had wondered what they’d do once they were in his little living room. Now he descended the stairs and crossed the tiled entryway. He opened the door to the sound of rain.
“You want to come up and have some Chinese food?” he asked.
The girl squinted up at him, her face round and white.
“I’ve got a bunch of Chinese food,” he said. “I thought you might be hungry.”
“You sure? You could come up and get dry and eat something.”
She gave him that hard-to-read expression, staring at him as if he were a wall or a statue. The earthy smell of her hair rose to him, along with the smell of the tiles.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll come.”
“Great,” he said, and gave her a hand, his pulse beating in the back of his throat.
In his apartment she walked across the living room to the back window and laid her things on the floor. There was the dirty blanket and a backpack and a jacket with the word CRUX on the back. She wore rolled-up jeans, work boots, a stained white T-shirt. Her hair, choppy and short, had been dyed the color of barbecue sauce.
“Pretty cool place,” she said, looking around.
She was the first person he’d had in the apartment, and her presence seemed to change it, as if everything she looked at became real for the first time-the futon couch and the faded Navajo rug, the posters he’d taped to the walls. She picked up a candle from the coffee table, and it made his fingertips tingle. Just then the phone rang, and he took it into the bedroom. It was Father Abernathy calling from the high school.
“So how’re you settling in?” the priest asked.
“Pretty good.” Will glanced through the bedroom door. The girl had gone to the window and was looking over the courtyard.
“Just wanted to see if you’d received the materials we sent,” the priest said. “We want to be sure you’re ready to roll come January.”
“I’ve been going over the syllabus,” Will said. “Father Dauphin’s notes are pretty meticulous.”
“He’s a meticulous man,” the priest said, “and one of the best educators we’ve ever had.”
Three weeks earlier, Father Dauphin had tried to hang himself in a restroom stall at Saint Ignatius High School, where he taught freshman and sophomore English. He’d ended up bruising his trachea and twisting an ankle and was now on medical leave. Will would take over his classes after the holidays. He’d gotten the job through a school in Tempe, where he’d worked as an assistant teacher for a few years after college.
“I spoke with him just this morning,” the priest said. “He seemed in good spirits, given the circumstances. The trachea’s healing nicely. They say sometimes the attempt is enough to take the impulse away. You really want to believe that.”
“Sure,” Will said.
“Well, I’ve got a Mass to give, but I’ll call you after Christmas, how’s that sound? We can discuss classes and any changes you might want to make.”
Will thanked him and said good-bye.
When he came back to the living room, the girl was at the window. Across the courtyard, the waitress stood in front of a full-length mirror, wearing only a black skirt and a pale yellow bra. She took a blouse out of the closet.
The girl turned, her eyes thin and sharp, as if she’d been considering Will’s view of the woman’s apartment. He went into the kitchen and got his glass of wine.
“You want anything to drink?” he asked as he came back out.
“I’ll have a beer, if you’ve got one,” she said.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“I don’t believe you’re that old,” he said.
“Nineteen,” she said and gave him a challenging look.
She couldn’t be more than eighteen. It seemed wrong not to give her a beer, though, since he’d seen her drinking on Haight Street so many times, leaning against Quicker Liquor with Ian and their friends, hassling people for change. He got her a beer, and the two of them stood and drank as the rain beat against the window.
“I’m probably an alcoholic,” she said, forking up a bite of Kung Pao chicken,staring at him in her odd, frank way. “I drink three fortyouncers a night.”
“How do I know why? I like getting wasted.”
“You can’t do it all the time, though,” he said.
“I don’t know,” he said. He’d been taking in the details of her bodythe dark roots of her hair, a slightly grayed tooth that was chipped at one corner, a tattooed snake that coiled around her wrist like a bracelet.
“Why are you on the street?” he asked. “You run away or something?”
“Why would I tell you?”
“I guess you wouldn’t. It’s not my business.”
“My stepdad’s an asshole,” she said, and gave him a quick look before glancing out the window. The waitress was in her uniform now, moving through the apartment. She wore the black skirt and the white blouse with puff sleeves that matched the Russian décor of the restaurant where she worked.
“She’s got a pretty neck,” the girl said, touching her own. “It’s long and thin. You like her, I bet. She looks like your type. She’s pretty, but she doesn’t look like a ho-bag or anything.”
“Is that my type?” He laughed.
“How do I know?”
Will told her about the other people across the courtyard-the Indian family and the old man who made model ships and the young couple whose blinds were always drawn. He told her about Boo Radley, who lived just below Will. Will had never seen the man, but he’d heard him moving furniture around late at night and shouting odd things over and over.
“Not that you’re a snoop,” she said.
“Oh, I am, though,” he said. “It’s because I’ve got so much time on my hands.”
He told her he had no friends in town and had come to the city to teach the English classes of a priest who had tried to kill himself, and that his mother was in a coma in Phoenix and would probably never come out of it again. It felt good to be saying these things.
“What happened to your mom?”
“She had an accident. An old guy ran into her car on the highway. She had a head injury that didn’t seem so bad at first, but then she just slipped into a coma.”
“Why aren’t you there?”
“I don’t know. I have to prepare for my classes, for one thing. This guy Erroll’s there, her boyfriend. I guess I just didn’t like seeing her with this—she had this tube in her nose, you know those things? She’s been there for three months and she’s not supposed to come out of it again. I don’t see any reason to kid myself about it. I almost feel like she’s dead already, though I know that must sound bad.”
“It doesn’t to me,” she said.
“Did you get along with her?”
“Yeah. We were close.”
Across the way the waitress’s lights went out. One of the lamps in the courtyard flickered on and off.
“I’m from Phoenix, too,” she said. “Camelback. I went to Pima for two years.”
“No kidding? I went to Saguaro. My girlfriend went to Pima,” he said. “My ex-girlfriend. That’s another thing—my girlfriend broke up with me.” He laughed, as if it were a joke he’d told.
“Nice life,” she said, smiling.
“Tell me about it.”
After dinner, he said he’d go to the Video Den to rent a movie. She could stay and watch it if she wanted to.
She thought about it for a long time and finally said, “All right, but I can’t go with you. My friends’d freak if they saw me with you.”
“Just tell me what you want to see,” he said.
He went down Page Street in a light rain and rented the movie from the Albanian clerk at the Video Den, who had a gold front tooth with a cross pressed into it. Coming out, he saw the girl’s friends in front of the liquor store, drinking beers from paper sacks. Ian wasn’t among them. Will recognized the others-a boy with a chamois-colored mohawk, a heavyset Latina girl. It was a thrill to see them and know the girl was in his apartment. A couple of them were burning papers on the sidewalk, tossing in band flyers and cigarette packs, laughing.
The girl was on the couch when he got home, sipping a beer, watching a TV cop show. He went to the kitchen and got a beer and saw that she’d washed the dishes and stacked them in the rack.
“Thanks for cleaning up,” he said.
“That’s all right. I’m pretty clean, actually.”
She smelled of wet leather, though she’d taken off her jacket an hour ago. It lay in the corner with the rest of her things. He sat down beside her.
The movie was “Sid and Nancy,” and in it all the characters spoke in cockney accents like Ian, dropping their h’s, telling each other to piss off. The girl had seen it once, but she watched it very carefully, as if secrets were being revealed to her. Will got caught up in it too because it was a good movie, better than he’d expected. For nearly two hours, with the TV flashing and story playing out on screen, he forgot about everything else—the girl beside him, his ex-girlfriend, his mother, the classes he’d have to teach in a few weeks. Then the movie was over, and his life took its old form around him. Boo Radley shouted in the apartment below. Will stood, turned on the overhead light, rewound the movie.
“What’s that?” the girl asked, listening to Boo.
“That weird guy I told you about from downstairs.”
The man’s voice came through the floorboards: “The situation is the predicament! The situation stinks!”
“That’s weird,” she said.
“I hardly even notice him anymore.”
“It stinks!” the man shouted. “It’s unacceptable!”
They listened for a moment more, but he had quieted down.
“Hey, if you wanna crash on the couch you can,” Will said. He’d almost asked her earlier, but had feared she might take it the wrong way. Now it had just come out.
“All right,” she said.
“Great,” he said, surprised at how easy it had been. As he washed his face in the bathroom he felt pleased that the girl would be there in the apartment as he tried to sleep. He’d had trouble sleeping lately. Sometimes, when he did sleep, he had dreams about his mother, dreams that began with her healthy and awake and ended with some awful event, like a car accident or her sitting up in the hospital bed screaming. It would be nice to know someone was in the apartment if he woke up from a dream like that. He finished up in the bathroom, took an extra pillow and blanket from the linen closet and brought them out to the living room.
“I’ve already got a blanket,” the girl said, and nodded at the filthy yellow one she’d spread on the futon.
“I’ll just leave this in case it gets cold,” he said.
“All right. Hey, thanks for letting me crash. My name’s Amity, by the way.”
“I’m Will.” He leaned over and shook her hand, an awkward gesture after their evening together. But her hand was smooth and warm, and it gave him a charge to touch it. In bed, he thought of her for a long time before he fell asleep.
In the morning she was at the kitchen table, flipping through a magazine. She had on the clothes she’d worn the day before, jeans and a dirty white T-shirt.
“You sleep all right?” he asked.
“I slept great,” she said.
He said he had to go to the library and get some work done, but that she could stay if she wanted.
She said she might.
Before he left, he gathered some quarters so she could wash her clothes in the laundry room downstairs. He gave her sweatpants and a T-shirt to wear in the meantime and told her how to work the stereo and what food was in the kitchen; then he went to the library and worked hard for several hours, reading Father Dauphin’s Xeroxed notes. They were written in the priest’s tiny, meticulous hand, the letters small and precise as ants. As he read them, he tried not to think of the man swinging from the crossbar of a restroom stall, his face as dark as a kidney bean. Occasionally he’d remember Amity and hope she’d be in the apartment when he got home, but he suspected she wouldn’t be. He’d learned to be pessimistic. He still felt the buzz from his time with her, though. Lately, he’d gone whole days without talking to anyone except the woman at the Chinese restaurant, who didn’t understand what he said anyway.
He walked home in a light rain. Outside the post office a white-haired woman stood ringing a Salvation Army bell, the collar of her coat turned up against the cold. He thought of his mother in her yellow work coat, a hardhat pushed back on her head. After his father had died, Will’s mother had talked his bosses into taking her on at the Salt River Project where he’d worked. Every morning she’d gone out with a crew of linesmen and repaired power cables and utility closets. She came home at night and made dinner and ate with Will and talked. She loved to laugh. He always tried to remember jokes because a good one would make her throw her head back and howl. She liked it when he brought friends home from school and would talk to them as if they were her own friends. Somehow she managed to pay the bills and save enough money for his college tuition. She’d always been stubborn and independent, which made it hard to think of her in the hospital, where there were machines to keep her alive.
On Haight Street, wreaths shaped like peace signs hung from all the light poles. Will went into a pizzeria and ordered a large pie with pepperoni. As he stepped out he saw Amity’s friends near the head shop across the street. Ian was among them, pedaling his little chrome bike around. Ian saw Will and rode over.
“‘Ey, Wil-li-am,” he called in his fake accent, hopping the bike up onto the sidewalk. He was a good-looking kid with bright blue eyes and hair that stood up from his scalp like quills. He looped the bike around and braked in front of Will.
“How you doing, Ian?” Will asked.
“I feel right dodgy, if you want to know,” Ian said. “I lost me bird last night.”
“What bird?” Will asked.
“Me bird,” he said. “Am-i-ty. You ‘aven’t seen ‘er, ‘ave you?”
“Not for a couple days,” Will said, and felt a surge of blood go through his temples.
Ian glanced across the street. A Latino kid stood in front of the Laundromat, along with a girl whose eyes were painted like a raccoon’s. They’d been watching Ian. Ian shook his head at them, and they shook theirs back and walked up Haight Street.
“I’m out of me ‘ead about this,” Ian said to Will.
“When’s the last time you saw her?”
“Last night. We was kipping out front of your gaff, right? Then off I go to have a whizzer, and two minutes later come back and she’s gone. We think she might’ve got nipped by the cops,” Ian said. “I’m out of me bleeding ‘ead about it.”
“I’ll let you know if I see her,” Will said, and started down the sidewalk. He was half a block down when Ian called his name. He turned around.
“You ‘aving a pizza, then?” Ian called.
“Awfully big pie for one bloke, innit?”
“Not really.” Will felt his throat tighten like a fist.
Ian leaned forward, eyes sharp and narrow. Then his face broke into an enormous grin, and he said, “Aw, give us a slice, will ya! Don’t be so bleedin stingy!”
When he got home, Amity was on the living room floor, her things laid out before her: piles of clean clothes and stacks of magazines, cassette tapes, Sterno cans, pistachio nuts, coins, cans of hairspray. She had on the maroon sweatpants and T-shirt he’d given her to wear. Her hair was shiny and flat.
“You look different,” he said.
“I’m all organized.” She gazed proudly over her possessions. “I’ve needed to do this for months.”
If he appeared shaken by his talk with Ian, she didn’t seem to notice. He laid the pizza on the kitchen table, and she came over and had a slice and didn’t notice one was missing.
While they ate they watched the old man build his ships on the other side of the courtyard. The rain gave the scene a slightly out-of-focus look, like an old daguerreotype. On a shelf behind the man were all the ships he’d made—dozens of miniature galleons with intricate riggings and pale yellow sails. He bent over his copper work lamp, gluing thin strips of balsa wood together.
As they finished their pizza, the waitress came home, and Amity got up and turned off the light. They watched the woman put her things away and change into her uniform. Her pale shoulders showed for a few seconds, but that was all. When she was dressed, she ate a few bites of ice cream from a carton, standing by the freezer, then smoked a cigarette and went out again. The man downstairs began to holler.
“He likes her,” Amity said. “He goes off every time she leaves the apartment.”
“I never noticed that before.”
“I heard him all day long,” she said. “He’s like a bird. He gets all excited for a while, then just gets quiet.”
“What was he saying today?”
“He was like, ‘There are reasons for everything, causes and excuses.’ He kept yelling that.”
“He says that a lot. He also says, ‘It was heretofore unrecognized,’ and, ‘Damn your rhetorical stance!'”
“He’s a freak. What did you say his name was again?”
“Boo Radley. But it’s not his real name.” Will went into the living room and took To Kill a Mockingbird from his bookshelf and brought it over. “It’s the name of a character in this book. You ever read it?”
She took the book and looked at the front and back covers.
“You should read it. You’d like it, I bet.”
“Maybe,” she said.
She washed the dishes while he went to the Video Den and rented one of his favorites of all time, a Sri Lankan film about three boys who dive for lobsters during World War II. He was anxious as he watched it, hoping she’d like it, too. A bag of microwave popcorn stood between them. After the movie was over, she turned to him with a dazed look in her eyes.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“That was the best movie I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d like it, but I did. It was amazing.”
He felt inordinately happy.
That night as he lay in bed he couldn’t stop thinking of her. Maybe she would leave in the morning and it would be for the best, he thought, though it pained him to think of her going. For the first time in several weeks he drifted off without thinking about his mother.
The next day at the library, as he waded through Father Dauphin’s notes on Ethan Frome, he felt like a detective uncovering clues. The margins were filled with notations like, This book is about the Ascension! and, This book has the Passion written all over it! As far as Will could tell, the notations referred to nothing.
When he came home Amity was not on the couch or in the kitchen, though her backpack still lay on the floor by the window. He got a beer from the fridge and went into the bedroom. Amity lay there on the bed, eyes closed, a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird on the pillow beside her. He tried to slip out of the room, but she woke and stared at him.
“I fell asleep in here,” she said. “I hope that’s all right.”
“Of course it is.”
“I read this book,” she said, and held it up. “I read the whole fucking thing in one day.”
“Did you like it?”
“You crazy? It’s about the best book I ever read,” she said.
He walked over and sat down beside her. “I’ve got other ones you can read if you want.”
“If they’re as good as that one, I’ll read them.”
“Some you might like even better.”
“I doubt it,” she said. “But I’ll check them out.” She gave him her expressionless look. “You can kick me out anytime, though. I don’t mind if you want me to go.”
“I’m not going to kick you out. I like having you here.”
“I’ve got to go sometime. It’s not like I can stay here forever. But I’m not saying I want to leave right away,” she said.
“That’s good,” he said, and smiled at her.
“Nothing. You’re sweet.”
“Yeah, right,” she said. “I’m not sweet.”
“You are, though.” He leaned over and kissed her on the lips. She smelled of toothpaste and clean laundry. Her lips were soft.
“What’s that for?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I like you.”
“You’re weird,” she said.
“You are,” he said.
He kissed her again, and this time she put her hands around his back and pulled him toward her. For a few seconds the room seemed to tip and recede.
They made love with the rain ticking against the window. Boo Radley shouted in the apartment below, insisting that there were reasons for everything, causes and excuses. A light-headed feeling came over Will, so that for a moment he felt he was rising into the air like vapor. Amity’s eyes were closed; she was breathing quickly. Soon it was over and he felt everything go out of him. Amity lay facing the wall.
“You all right?” he asked, but she only moved a little further away from him.
“Don’t talk to me now,” she said.
He watched the raindrops roll down the window glass. The sky outside seemed to brighten and dim, as if someone were turning a knob. “I sure hope you’re all right, though,” he said.
She began to cry, her shoulders bucking. He put a hand on her arm, but she shrugged it away and continued to cry. After a minute, she sat up and looked straight ahead into the room.
“I’m all right,” she said, wiping her cheeks. “Forget I cried, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, but he didn’t think he would.
Late that night, as she slept beside him, he listened to the sound of the pipes in the walls, thinking of his mother, wondering what she would make of all this. There was something in the girl that reminded him of his mother, some quiet resilience. He was almost sure they’d like each other. But that didn’t mean his mother would approve of what had happened. He wasn’t even sure if Amity approved—or if he did, finally. He wasn’t sure what they’d started.
The next morning, he let her sleep while he had breakfast and prepared for work. He stopped into the bedroom before leaving; Amity was sitting up. She nodded and said, “Morning,” but he got no sense of how she felt about what had happened. On her face when he left was the same blank expression he’d seen so many times before.
As he walked to the library, he saw Ian coming up Shrader, mumbling a song to himself, holding a little spray-painted radio under his arm. He saw William and called out “‘Hey!” and staggered up the street. When he got close enough, Will saw that he’d gotten a new tattoo on his forehead: the word KILLED, in black letters an inch high. Ian noticed Will looking at it and grinned and touched it with his fingertips.
“That’s the extra ‘eavy ‘Piss off’ special,” he said, “which I sold me bleedin bike to get.”
“Pretty serious,” Will said.
“I’m in it to the grave now, mate,” Ian said.
“I suppose so,” Will said. “Hey, did you ever find Amity?”
“Yeah, she come back last night. It was the cops, the tossers. Actually we ‘ad a fight and I told ‘er to piss off, so she’s gone now. Back wiff ‘er mum in Arizona. She was taking the piss out of me, you know what I’m saying?”
“Is that where you’re from, too? Arizona?”
“You fucking daft? I’m from Liverpool, cunt. Hey, give us a few quid, will ya? I’m starving.”
Will took out his wallet. He couldn’t stop glancing at the tattoo, dark and horrible against Ian’s forehead. “I don’t have any quid,” he said. “This is America.” He handed Ian a few bucks and Ian kissed them and stuffed them into his pocket. He looked off at the trees.
“Hey, you remember that cap I use to wear? Biker cap, like? Leather? I lost it,” Ian said, and seemed suddenly worried. “I got no bleedin’ idea where it went to. It was sort of me personality, you know, that cap. You ever have something like that?”
“I don’t think I have.”
“It was German,” Ian said. His accent had faded. “Anyway, fuck it.” He tried to grin at Will, then gave up and walked down the sidewalk. “See you when I see you,” he called.
“Not if I see you first,” Will said under his breath.
He tried to concentrate on Father Dauphin’s notes, but couldn’t stop thinking about Ian and Amity. He remembered a dream his girlfriend Darcy had had in his room one night, a few months before he left for San Francisco. It was the night she’d told him she was seeing a man named Robert French, whom she’d met playing golf at her father’s club. French was a forty-year-old corporate lawyer with a wife and three young boys. She’d been out with him three times and said she was in love with him. She and Will talked about it for several hours, then tried to sleep.
In the dream, Jesus came to Darcy on the golf course where she’d met French, riding a little gold golf cart, His white robe blowing back over the club rack. Darcy was frightened, but He only stepped off the cart and said, “Please, Darcy, you’ve done nothing wrong.” He spread
His arms and smiled beatifically. “All of human life is a tie,” He said. “Charlie Manson ties with Helen Keller. Adolf Hitler ties with Mother Teresa. We all do the best we can given the circumstances.”
Darcy had laughed, telling Will the dream in the morning, and he’d hated her for it-hated her finding humor in something so devastating to him, for finding comfort in a dream so opposed to his beliefs. Now he imagined Darcy and Christ, holding hands, drifting down from the high library ceiling, watching him with benign, self-satisfied eyes.
He’d hoped Amity would be gone when he came home, but was relieved to find her at the kitchen table, staring at the lighted windows across the courtyard. The Indian family were decorating a Christmas tree in their living room, the father placing orange balls in the blind daughter’s hands, leading her to the tree so she could hang them on the low branches.
“It’s a pretty tree,” he said, and sat down beside Amity. He wanted to catch her eye, but she wouldn’t turn from the window. “They’re almost finished, huh?”
“I’ve been watching them all day,” she said in a quiet voice. “I feel almost like I’ve been doing it with them.”
The mother unraveled garland from a piece of cardboard. She wore a bright red sari that seemed a part of the decoration.
“The old guy’s got one too,” she said, and pointed at the apartment below.
On the Italian man’s desk stood a tiny fir, a few paper ornaments hanging from its branches.
“That’s kind of a sad one,” he said.
“I thought so too, at first,” she said, “but it’s not. He just wanted a tree. What’s wrong with that?”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“I was thinking we should get one too. Just a small one like that.”
He tried not to appear excited. “Sounds like a good idea,” he said, and went to the fridge for a beer. On the counter was a bag of pot and a silver-and-turquoise lighter.
“Where did this stuff come from?” he asked.
“My friend Kathy.”
“You went out?”
“So what?” she said.
“Nothing,” he said. “I just wonder how you got back in.”
“Put a newspaper in the door.”
“What about your friends? I thought you didn’t want anyone to know you were here.”
“I only told Kathy. Kathy won’t narc on me.”
“You must get tired of being stuck up here all day,” he said.
“It’s not so bad,” she said, and looked out the window. “I was thinking we should get presents for those people over there. For the man and the family and the waitress lady. We could write ‘From Santa Claus’ or something and put them by their doors. Then we’d knock and come back and watch them open them.”
“We could do that,” he said, feeling suddenly elated. He thought: I’ll take what comes my way. I won’t try to stop anything from happening.
“I already know what I want to get for everybody,” Amity said.
“All right,” he said. “We can go shopping after I work tomorrow.”
“You think we can we get ornaments like those people’s over there?”
“We’ll make some, too,” she said, “to save money. Like with popcorn and string.”
“We’ll use microwave popcorn,” he said. “We’ve already got that.”
“Right,” she said. “And we’ll get totally wasted.”
He laughed. “Maybe we’ll get a little wasted. I can teach you some drinking games I learned in college.”
She laughed and said, “We’ll get you totally fucked up.”
It rained hard the next day. Will went to the library and tried to work, but could only think of Amity, of how the two of them would decorate the tree together. He’d come to believe he’d have no Christmas at all that year and had tried to convince himself it didn’t matter, but now that he had plans he knew now how much he would have missed it. He sat watching a librarian read to a group of children in the corner of the library, her voice bright and round. The room was hot. He laid his head on the table and drifted to sleep.
When he woke, the light in the high windows was dim. He went out into the iron-smelling rain and up to Haight Street, where he bought a couple of burritos and horchatas at El Balazo. Coming out, he saw Ian on the sidewalk, shirtless under a leather jacket, his hair wet and in his face. Ian took two steps and slapped Will’s bag of food out of his hands.
“What’s that for?” Will asked, but he could see in Ian’s eyes what it was for.
“I know she’s up there,” Ian said, his accent gone. “I know what’s going on.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Cut it out, man. I mean it. I need a hundred and forty bucks, right this minute.”
“What for?” Will asked.
“Don’t ask questions,” Ian said. He started down Haight Street, turning and shooting Will a look. “Let’s go, fucker.”
Will followed him. They passed the bookstore and the pizzeria. People walked past them with umbrellas angled at the rain. A police cruiser crossed Haight at Cole Street and disappeared around the corner.
“I can’t give you money,” Will said. “I barely have any in my account right now.”
“Bullshit,” Ian said, and kept walking.
“I mean it, Ian.”
Ian swung around. “Do you know what this is?” he asked, and opened his jacket to show Will the handle of a buck knife. It stuck out of his waistband, the metal rusted to a deep brown.
At the ATM, they waited behind a man in a clear plastic rain jacket. Will hoped the man would see the knife and go for help, but he only took his money and walked up Cole in the rain. Will thought of Amity lying in his bed in the apartment. A few people went past, their eyes on the wet sidewalk.
“What do you need the money for?” Will asked.
“Don’t worry about it. I owe a guy.”
“None of your fucking business.”
“I won’t give it to you unless you tell me,” Will said. He felt like he ought to take a stand on something.
“You want me to fucking stab you?”
“I don’t think you’ll stab me,” Will said.
Ian let out a barking laugh. “What’s the matter with you, man? You think you can do whatever you want and get away with it? She’s my girlfriend, man. Don’t you get that? She’s fucking seventeen years old.”
“I know,” Will said. “I’m sorry it happened.”
“You’re gonna make me puke with that,” Ian said, and bent over and spat on the sidewalk, hands on his knees. For a moment it looked as if he really might get sick. People had come up behind him and were waiting to use the machines.
Will took out his wallet and said, “Look, I’ll get the money from my credit account, just stand up, all right?”
“You don’t pull that old dude shit,” Ian said, looking at him sideways.
“I’m getting the money,” Will said. “I shouldn’t, but I am.”
Ian stood and turned to the people behind him. He shook his head. “Old dude with a homeless chick,” he said. “Makes you wanna puke.”
When he got home that night the phone was ringing, and he picked it up and took it into the kitchen. It was Erroll on the line. The tone of his voice made Will’s heart beat fast.
“I hope you’re sitting down, kid,” Erroll said.
“Why?” Will said. “What is it? What happened?”
“She’s come out of it,” Erroll said.
Will glanced at the courtyard, where the rain was slanting through a strip of light. “When?” he asked.
“This morning, around eleven. You mother’s awake, kid.”
Amity came in and gave him a searching look. He could only shake his head at her.
“You’re kidding me,” he said into the phone.
“I wouldn’t kid you about this one,” Erroll said and laughed. “It just happened a few hours ago.”
“So—can she talk and everything? Is she conscious? Does she know what happened?” He leaned against the wall and thought of his mother—thought of her glancing up from the hospital bed, her eyes wide and alert. He couldn’t make himself believe it.
“Well, no, that takes time, I guess. But she’s come out of it now and the doctors are excited. This is the big one, kid.”
“This is crazy,” Will said.
Erroll laughed. “I can hardly believe it myself. Listen, kid, I’m in the coffee shop. I don’t want to miss the doctor when he returns. I’ll call you from the room, okay? Don’t get too excited.”
“No, I’ll try not to,” Will said, and laughed and hung up the phone.
“Was that about your mom?” Amity asked. She was wearing his maroon T-shirt. Her eyes were on him.
“Erroll says she came out of her coma. He was just calling from the hospital.”
“Holy shit,” she said.
He had to sit at the table. His heart was racing.
“What are you gonna do?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Go home, I guess. See her.” He shook his head. “I cant believe any of this is happening.”
“It’s pretty fucking amazing.”
“I’ll probably leave tomorrow,” he said. “You can come with me if you want.”
She seemed to consider it. “Maybe,” she said.
Something was wrong. He didn’t deserve good news, which made it hard to believe his mother had come out of her coma. But Erroll had just told him it happened, his mother was awake in Phoenix. He might see her tomorrow. He thought of Ian, and a wave of guilt moved through him, and he knew that was one of the reasons he felt so doubtful. He’d have to tell Amity about Ian.
“When would we decorate the tree?” she asked.
“We could still do it tonight, I guess.”
“I’d want to give those people their presents,” she said.
“We’d get back in time. I still have to come back and get ready to teach.”
“Could you take me to see my mom when we’re in Phoenix?”
“Of course,” he said.
“All right,” she said, and bit a thumbnail. “I guess I’ve got nothing better to do.”
He woke the next morning to the sound of hail against the window. It was light out, nine o’clock, and Amity was sleeping. He kissed her on the forehead and got up and went to the kitchen, where their little tree stood on the table, covered with bulbs and strings of popcorn. On top was a star Amity had made from cardboard and aluminum foil. They’d spent all night on it, taking breaks to drink beer and watch the people across the courtyard. He’d tried several times to tell her about Ian but had decided not to in the end. He knew it would take her out of their time together. Across the courtyard now the waitress stood at her window, staring out at the hail. She saw Will and waved in a friendly way, as if they were the kind of neighbors who waved every morning. She wore a yellow terrycloth robe and dark-framed glasses.
He went downstairs to get the paper. The girl with raccoon eyes sat against the wall in the entryway, a purple sleeping bag around her shoulders. The hail danced in the street behind her.
“Morning,” he said, but she only glared at him.
Upstairs, Amity was awake and talking on the phone, dressed in jeans and an old white tank top. “I’ll come down,” she said, and hung up the phone.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“Nothing’s wrong, is it?”
“How should I know? I’m going down and talk to her. Did you know it’s hailing outside?”
“I saw that,” he said.
“That waitress was looking out the window,” she said and smiled. “She waved at me.”
“She waved at me, too,” he said. “She’s kind of lost her mystique.”
“I guess so.”
Amity put on her leather jacket and went out the door.
He poured a bowl of cornflakes and tried to read the paper. Downstairs Boo Radley was chanting too softly to be understood. Amity came in, out of breath, as Will was finishing his cereal. He felt the cold air come off her.
“You gave him money,” she said, and looked him hard in the eye.
“Who?” he asked.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You know who. Why would you give him money?”
“He’s all right, isn’t he?”
“No, he’s not all right. He’s in Arizona. He bought a bus ticket with the money you gave him. He went home.”
Will let out a breath. “I thought you were going to tell me he was dead or something. I thought you were going to say he’d OD’d.” She came forward and knocked his bowl off the table. It clattered across the floor and hit the cabinet under the sink.
“What was I supposed to do? He said he needed the money.”
The light from the window made Amity’s skin appear gray. “That’s bullshit,” she said. “Anyway, you should have told me about it.”
“I was going to, but then Erroll called and everything got crazy.”
“It’s too late now,” she said.
“Are you thinking of going after him?”
“Of course I am. He’s my boyfriend.”
“I didn’t know that was how you thought of him,” Will said.
“Well, now you know.” He looked out at the layer of hailstones that salted the courtyard. It had started raining. Across the way the Indian family’s Christmas tree was lighted. “What about us?” he said, and his voice sounded high and cold, as if it came from outside the window.
“It was a mistake.”
“You think so?”
“I consider it a kind of rape, even,” she said. She looked down at her work boots.
“Well, if you’re only seventeen, it was,” he said. “I sure didn’t think of it that way, though. I didn’t think you did.”
She took her leather jacket off and started going through the pile of clothes on the floor. She found her shirt and then bunched the hem of Will’s shirt in her hands and pulled it off. The sight of her small breasts in the light from the window was one of the saddest things (wasn’t the sight of his mother sadder?) he’d ever seen. She put her own shirt on and began to stuff clothes into her backpack. She didn’t look up from the pack. She was gathering clothes and cans of hairspray, cassette tapes, pistachio nuts.
“I sure wish you wouldn’t leave,” he said.
She stuffed everything into the pack, then stood and swung it over her shoulder. When he put a hand on her arm, she turned with slitted eyes and said, “Don’t touch me.”
He let her go. She walked out the door and slammed it. He heard her footsteps in the hall. After a moment, a loud thump rattled his window, and he walked out to the top of the stairway and saw her halfway to the bottom – belly down, her things scattered on the steps below her, her backpack on the landing.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Go away,” she said, and lifted herself with her arms. Very quickly she gathered her things and scuttled down the stairs.
He went back to the apartment. The T-shirt she’d worn was on the floor. He picked it up and breathed in the smell of her skin. She’d left a can of hairspray, some magazines, the dirty yellow blanket she’d had the first day she came to the apartment. In the bedroom he threw the shirt in the laundry, then got a suitcase out of the closet and started to pack.
He found her on Haight Street, sitting under the Red Victorian ticket window, passing a cigarette back and forth with Kathy. The street was empty. He pulled in front of the theater, rolled down his window and called her name.
“I’m on my way to Phoenix,” he said.
“So what?” she said, looking off at the tall trees in the park.
“I can take you to see Ian if you want. I’ll bring you both back if he wants to come.”
“His name’s not even Ian,” she said, and looked at him hatefully. “You’re such a fucking idiot. You probably think he’s from England.”
Kathy snorted and flicked her cigarette into the street.
“I’m only trying to help you,” Will said.
“He went to your stupid high school,” Amity said.
Will got out of the car and walked around the hood and leaned against the fender. “I’ll take you to see him if you want,” he said. “If not, that’s fine. I just wanted to tell you I’m leaving.”
She looked at him very carefully. She was sitting on her jacket, which she’d laid out on the sidewalk. He knew she was thinking so went back to the car and let her talk to Kathy. After a moment, she stood and slung her backpack over her shoulder.
“I’m only going because I need to talk to Ian,” she said. “Kathy’s writing down your license plate number. If you try anything you’re fucked.”
For a brief moment, watching her slide into the car beside him, he felt happy again. His mother, as far as he knew, was recovering in Phoenix, and he was going to see her with a girl he liked. It wasn’t a feeling that could hold itself together, of course. He started the car and pulled away from the curb. In the rearview mirror Kathy grabbed her crotch.
“I like your friend,” he said. “She’s very pleasant.”
“Well, she hates you, too,” Amity said, and cut him a look. “Most people do, I bet.”
“They probably do.” There were no cars on the road, and he drove down Haight past the pizza place and the bookstore. Bars of light shone between the Victorian houses. Near Ashbury, Amity’s friends were all in the street, playing hackey-sack.
“There they are,” she said, and straightened up and looked at them.
Two or three of them saw her as the car passed. Their mouths dropped open. Then Will was watching them in the rearview mirror as he drove away. The tall one threw the hackey-sack at the car.
“They all know what happened now,” she said, and craned her head around. “They probably think I’m with you, which is hilarious. Maybe they’ll set your house on fire.”
“I almost hope they do,” he said.
At Masonic he cut down to Oak and drove past the panhandle, which lay under a blanket of fog. The two bell towers of St. Ignatius stood above the gray.
“Did you see his tattoo?” she asked. “Kathy told me about it.”
“Yeah, I saw it,” he said.
“He’s such a fuck-up,” she said, but she was smiling at the corners of her mouth.
He followed the signs to the bridge. The sky was steel-gray, the water under the bridge the color of tar. Amity took a copy of The Catcher in the Rye out of her coat pocket and opened it.
“I took this from your house,” she said, and settled into reading as they drove through Oakland.
By the time they reached Barstow the sun was low and warm. Will stopped at a gas station with an enormous brontosaurus out front, the letters G-A-S painted across its side. Amity got out and tried to phone Ian. Will went into the station to pay and buy sandwiches. When he came out she was talking on the phone, curling the metal phone cord around her wrist.
He watched her talk for a while, then she hung up and came over.
“He’s staying at Deke’s,” she said, and got in the car. He smelled the sun in her hair. “He couldn’t believe we’re coming. He’s still pissed at you. He’s pissed at both of us, actually.”
“So what are you going to do?” he asked.
“Who knows? Go home, I guess. I wouldn’t mind seeing my mom.”
“What about your stepdad?”
“I don’t really have one,” she said, and looked out the window. “I don’t know why I told you that.”
He looked at the back of her head for a moment, but when she didn’t turn around he started the car.
“Gary has a stepdad,” she said musingly as he pulled out of the lot. “I guess that’s why I said that. Gary is Ian’s real name, in case you’re wondering.” She shook her head. “His stepdad used to beat the living shit out of him.”
It was dark by the time they neared Phoenix. Will could make out the round buttes rising like heads from the desert. He drove into the valley, past the botanical gardens and the Salt River Indian Reservation. Heading up Camelback Mountain, he followed Amity’s directions, passing Spanish-style homes and villas. He saw the lights of the valley – the starry blanket of Paradise Valley, the dark patch of desert beyond. He remembered coming up here with Darcy for dinner parties. Amity led him down a long private drive. At the end a villa lay spread out among palms and cacti.
“Nice place,” Will said.
“Actually, my mom lives there,” she said and pointed to a long outbuilding with small square windows. It was a little down the hill from the villa. “I wasn’t going to tell you,” she said.
The building looked to have been a horse stable at one time. The wood had faded to a silver-gray. Through one of the windows, Will saw a fridge and strip of avocado wallpaper.
“She must have a good view of the valley,” he said.
“She cooks for the guy who owns the place,” she said.
Will looked up at the big house. A few of the windows were lighted. A strand of white Christmas lights wound around two ocotillos in the front yard. Back at the stable building, another light went on, then a woman’s face came to the window.
“There’s Mom,” Amity said, and put a hand out the window.
The woman stared for a moment, then gave a big wave.
“When’s the last time you were here?” he asked.
“Couple of months ago. I haven’t lived here for over a year, though.”
“You don’t get along with your mom?”
“Not really. Why? Do you get along with yours?”
“I always have.”
“That’s right, you said that. You must be psyched she woke up.”
“I am,” he said, and it was true. He’d nearly forgotten to feel good about it.
At the end of the building, a door opened, and Amity’s mother stepped out. She was small and wore denim pants and a blue tank top. She didn’t look much like Amity.
“What’s she doing?” Amity asked. “Go inside, Mom. She probably wants to meet you or something.”
“I’d meet her,” he said.
“Yeah, right,” she said. “Actually, I wanted to ask you” – she glanced at him – “can you take me to see Gary tomorrow? Otherwise I don’t know how I’ll get there.”
“I’ll take you,” he said. He knew he’d do anything to see her again, even if it was only to take her to see Ian-Gary.
“Just if you have time,” she said. “You can come whenever.”
“I’ll come,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She got out of the car. He watched her sling her pack over her shoulder and walk up the drive. Her mother was smiling, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. They hugged. Before he pulled away, Amity turned and squinted into his headlights, but he was sure she couldn’t see him.
He arrived at the hospital at one o’clock. It was past visiting hours, but no one stopped him as he walked through the empty lobby. On the third floor he simply went into the room his mother had been in before, and she was there – lying on the bed, the machines around her, the tube in her nose. The room smelled of plastic and disinfectant and flowers. Erroll slept in a chair by the window.
He went to the bed and looked at her face, at her hair, which was pulled back from her forehead. Her face was so much paler than it had been when she had worked on the power lines. He lifted her hand and ran a finger between the tendons of her wrist, but there was no response. He touched her cheek – still nothing. Then he sat on the bed and listened to her breathing and the sound of the machines. It wasn’t her, he could see that now – no more than it had been before he left. He’d only allowed himself to half-believe it would be, but the part of him that had believed it was reeling. He was feeling the loss of her all over again.
He went to the window. Two security guards stood under a fluorescent light in the parking lot, talking, with their hands in their pockets. A car’s headlights went on. A noise came from behind Will, and he turned and saw Erroll sitting up in his chair.
Erroll’s face brightened for a moment before collapsing. He tried to stand, but couldn’t get out of the chair. “She slipped back in,” he said, his face wan and fragile.
“I saw that,” Will said.
“She just-” Erroll turned his eyes up, concentrating. “They really don’t know what happened yet. I’m so sorry about it, Will.”
A dull anger rose in Will’s chest but faded quickly.
“I tried to call you,” Erroll said. “I hated to think of you driving out here in the dark all alone.”
“It’s all right,” Will said.
“It’s still a good sign that it happened. I know you might not want to hear that right now.”
“I’d like to hear everything, eventually,” Will said.
“You’re probably exhausted,” Erroll said.
“I’m all right.”
“Did you eat yet?”
“I stopped along the way,” Will said.
“The commissary’s closed, but there’s vending machines down the hall.”
Will went over and sat on the edge of the empty bed. He let his body fall back against the mattress.
“You can sleep there if you want,” Erroll said. “They don’t seem to mind. I’ve done it myself a few times.”
Will didn’t think he’d sleep, though. He listened to the hum of the machines and thought about Amity and about what his life would be like when he got back to San Francisco. He’d have to prepare for the classes, and that was something he didn’t want to do. He decided that when he got home he’d gather Father Dauphin’s notes and burn them in the sink, and that made him feel better. He’d have to think of something to replace them with, of course. He heard a siren somewhere on the streets below. As the sound grew louder, he knew he could sleep, and before it reached the hospital he’d drifted off.
When he woke the room was warm. The sky through the window was a pale, cloudless blue. He lay listening as Erroll talked to his mother in a soothing voice.
Finally he sat up. Erroll swung around. He was holding Will’s mother’s hand.
“I hope I didn’t wake you,” he said.
“No, that’s all right. I woke on my own.”
“I feel like I have to keep talking to her,” Erroll said. “I think she’d miss it if I didn’t.”
The two of them went down to the cafeteria and had breakfast. Over scrambled eggs Erroll told Will what the prognosis was: his mother’s chances of waking were slightly improved by what had happened. Later, in the room, a doctor came in and told Will more or less the same thing, though he seemed a good deal less optimistic than Erroll.
“I just wish you could have seen this place yesterday,” Erroll said when the doctor was gone. He was at the bedside, the light from the window touching the wispy hair on the top of his scalp. His voice had regained most of its buoyancy. “Everybody running around, going crazy,” he said. “Your mother with her eyes open, looking at everything.” He looked at Will’s mother’s face as if she might look back at him at any moment. “It was really something.”
At Amity’s Will parked the car and walked up to the long building. Amity’s face showed in one of the windows. She came out in shorts, her legs pale, her hair clean and pulled back in barrettes. They walked to the car, and he drove between the palm trees that lined the drive. Everything looked different in the daylight-the flat sprawl of the valley, the shocking red of the desert. Saguaros dotted the hills.
She stared at him as they wound their way down Camelback. “So how was it seeing your mom?” she asked.
He told her what had happened. She seemed upset, and he liked her for that.
“So what will you do now?” she said.
“I might stay for a day or two. It’d be good to spend some time with Erroll.”
“Man, that sucks, though,” she said.
He followed her directions through Scottsdale. Everything was strange and familiar – the car lots and the twin buttes and the electrical towers. At the corner of Templeton and Willetta, he took a right and entered a treeless neighborhood of low, cinderblock houses.
“You weren’t supposed to turn there,” she told him.
He pulled in front of a one-story ranch-style house with gravel in the yard. “That’s the house I grew up in,” he said.
She looked at the house, then at him.
“My mom killed a rattlesnake right there one time,” he said, pointing to the spot in the yard where it had happened. He pictured his mother coming out of the house in capri pants, her hair dyed the color of straw.
The girl looked into the yard as if there were something to see there.
Her friend lived in a pale blue stucco house on a street called China Drive. An aluminum boat lay upside-down in the yard, and there were old car doors and fenders strewn here and there. Will could see a TV through the screen door. He pulled to the curb and turned off the ignition.
“I wouldn’t mind talking to Ian,” he said. “I don’t like having him mad at me.”
“I don’t think he’ll talk to you,” she said, but she got out and walked up to the house to ask him. Without knocking, she went through the screen door. Will got out and leaned against the car. He felt the heat on the hair on his arms. In a few minutes Amity came out of the house.
“He won’t come out,” she said. “He almost did, but Deke talked him out of it.”
“I appreciate your asking,” he said.
“He’s still pretty pissed,” she said, and glanced at the front window. “I saw his tattoo, though. That shit is messed up.”
“He’s in it to the grave,” Will said.
“No doubt,” she said, smiling.
“So what will you do now?” he asked. “You going to stay in Arizona?”
“Yeah, I’ll probably stay with my mom a while.”
“You won’t go back to San Francisco?”
“Nah. It was a hassle to get there. I thought it would be all sunny and a bunch of hippies and everything. But it’s not. It’s cold and depressing.”
The screen banged open, and Ian came out, shirtless, a skull cap pulled down over his forehead. He walked across the lawn, saying, “‘Ello, Will-i-am” in his cockney accent.
“How’s it going, Ian?”
Ian walked up behind Amity, poked her in the ribs, and she turned around and slapped him. Then he looked at Will and his grin faded. “Hey, sorry about your mom, dude. Amity told me about it.”
“It’s a bad situation,” Will said.
“No doubt.” Ian glanced down the street. A moving van was in front of a small yellow house. “So you went to Saguaro, huh?”
“That’s right,” Will said.
“Cougars, dude,” Ian said, and widened his eyes. “‘Neath the blazing sun of old Saguar-a-o.’ You remember singing that shit?”
“I do,” Will said. “It’s a long time ago, though.”
“You musta graduated in the Stone Age, huh?” Ian laughed and looked at Amity.
“Just about,” Will said. “Nineteen ninety-five.”
“Jesus, dude, you’re old! I hope I never get that old.”
“Sadly,” Will said, “it’s the best you can hope for.”
“Yeah, no kidding, huh?”
A wiry kid came out the door and glared at Will from the stoop. He wore denim cutoffs and army boots.
“Deke wants to kill you,” Ian said, and gave a little laugh. “Hey, I gotta go, man. I’ll catch you later, all right?”
“All right,” Will said, and watched him walk back to the house.
“So, I guess this is it,” Amity said. She came over and stood in front of him, looking just to the side of his face.
“Yeah, I guess so. I hope you have a merry Christmas.”
“Don’t even call it that,” she said. “It’s like a million degrees here.” She lifted a foot and extracted a pebble from her sandal, then flicked it onto the lawn. “I’m bummed we won’t be able to give those people their presents. I was just thinking about that.”
“It would have been fun,” he said.
“I could tell you what I was going to get them,” she said. “You could still buy the stuff.”
“Nah. It’d be different, just one guy doing it. I don’t think I’d do it.”
“I guess not,” she said.
“Of course, you could always come back,” he said, and smiled and felt his heart pound in his chest. “We could both get in the car right now.”
She smiled with her eyes. “That’s a fucked-up idea,” she said.
“You could do it, though.” She turned and glanced at the house. “I had a nice time, but I won’t go back. I can’t.”
“You’re sure?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” she said, and something in her face seemed to close, so he believed her.
“Well, maybe I’ll see you around sometime,” he said.
“Maybe,” she said. She gave him the old expressionless stare, then turned and crossed the yard, her sandals snapping at her heels. As she opened the door, laughter rose in the living room, and just then Will caught a glimpse of himself in the big window – a thin man standing in front of a car. He got in, started the engine, and pulled away from the curb. He was looking forward to the hospital now, more than he’d expected. Erroll seemed the man to spend time with, with his unending resources of optimism.
Driving west on Toneleo Road, he passed a few car lots and fast-food restaurants; then the suburbs gave way to red-earthed desert and cacti. Everything suddenly looked so odd it was hard to believe it had looked normal at one time, and that made him feel better. It was almost possible to imagine a time when the last several days might seem strange and far away, too, when he might look back on them with a kind of detached wonder. But he didn’t want to let them pass too quickly. There was a pleasure to what he felt, along with the pain, and he understood that to let it go would be to suggest the worst of life – that it was transitory and random, and quick to forget.
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