Fiction | June 01, 2003
LYNN IS TAKING her mother to the plastic surgeon’s office in Scottsdale, driving west on McKellips, past industrial lots and fields of dry weeds. Her mother, a small, pretty woman in an owl-print blouse, folds and unfolds a handkerchief in her lap as she stares out the window. Terrence, Lynn’s roommate, sits in the backseat, leafing through a brochure on plastic surgery.
“Rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty, a little lipo,” Terrence says, catching Lynn’s eye in the rearview mirror. “In and out for only forty-five hundred bucks.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Lynn says.
“Nothing major. Just touch-ups,” he says. “I owe it to those I care for.”
Terrence is thirty-seven and slender, with a straight, long nose and the kind of dark, curling eyelashes Lynn wishes she had. He’s threequarters Hopi and teaches Native American studies at Arizona State, where Lynn is an associate professor of comparative literature. He has come along today because he had a fight with his boyfriend, Cale, last night and wants to be with people. Cale, twenty-six, a kickboxing instructor, stopped by at two in the morning, drunk and antagonistic, and after a heated argument he hit Terrence three times just below the right temple. Lynn heard it all from her bedroom. She phoned the police, but by the time they arrived Cale was long gone, and Terrence wouldn’t say anything about what had happened. Lynn stayed up with him until four in the morning, drinking Cuba Libres, watching Hedy Lamarr on the Movie Channel. By the time the sun brightened the windows, Terrence was laughing and seemed to have forgotten the fight completely.
They pass several dozen cement trucks now, all of them lined up inside a chain-link enclosure. Behind them, a team of bulldozers raises a cloud of dust.
“So what are they building out there anyway?” Terrence asks, staring out the window. “It looks like the tenth circle of Hell.”
“It’s a gravel quarry,” Lynn says. “For cement, I think. It’s been like that since I was a kid.”
“God,” he says.
She can remember a miniature golf course near here—the brightly painted windmill, and her brother, Nicky, slicing a putter through the air like a saber. She pictures her father scowling behind his aviator sunglasses.
She has been thinking about her father all morning, partly because he would not have approved of what her mother is about to do. There would have been no discussion of the matter, except for a few shouted injunctions. Lynn doesn’t miss the mans military style or his occasional violent outbursts, but she does find something lacking in her life without him—his predictability, perhaps. After finishing her dissertation at Brown, Lynn took a position at Arizona State, and since then everything in her life has gone a little out of focus. She’s abandoned a book on The Decameron, making her hopes for tenure thin at best. She can hardly remember a time when she was interested in Italian literature, or anything else, for that matter. Lately she’s even begun to drink like one of her students—tequila poppers and Jaegermeister shots—serious binges that run deep into the evenings, so that her mornings are lost to a painful, protective haze. Terrence is usually her partner in crime, though she drinks alone as well, in their house when he’s away or at a local bar among working-class men, some of whom she has gone home with for the thrill of it. It’s a way of finding the bottom, she thinks, having done it once before, in college. She fears she may have already become an alcoholic. With the fall semester only a few days away, she dreads having to get back to work. She’s not even sure she’ll be able to do it.
On the left is the Salt River Canal, streams of beige water gushing out of its floodgates. After turning north on Rural Road, they ease into Tempe, the streets flanked by car dealerships and hamburger stands. The Moose lodge sits at the back of an oyster-shell lot. Beside it is the Elks. Both have signs advertising Friday Night Bingo.
“You think there’s bad blood between the Elks and Mooes?” Terrence asks, leaning over the front seat like a child on a trip. “We should come out here some Friday night and see what goes down.”
“I used to go to the bingo at St. Mark’s,” Lynn’s mother says, “back when Larry and I first came to Phoenix.”
“You know, Jeanette,” Terrence says, “when your bandages come off we’re having the biggest coming-out party of all time. Black-tie affair at the downtown Hilton. Twenty-piece band.”
Jeanette smiles uneasily. She never knows when Terrence is teasing her.
“I’m getting Engelbert Humperdinck to come out of a cake and sing ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’.”
Jeanette laughs in a relieved, girlish way.
They pass a storage facility called U-Store-It-Here, then a furniture warehouse with an enormous inflated gorilla on its roof. The ape’s
outstretched arms joggle in a breeze. Beside a sporting goods store, two teenagers make out on a strip of grass, the boy on top, the girl holding his ass in both her hands.
“Ye gads,” says Terrence, watching them slip away. “Vive l’amour.”
The nurse at the plastic surgeon’s office has what Terrence calls “the Personality.” At least half the white women in Arizona seem to have the Personality, he says. It is an amalgamation of mannerisms taken from daytime talk show hosts—stand-up comedy shtick, Black sass, Southern coquettishness. Terrence and Lynn have flipped through the channels during the day, tracing its origins.
“Listen, girl,” the nurse says, wrapping a plastic ID bracelet around Jeanette’s wrist, “this is so we don’t lose you, capice?” She glances up at Terrence and Lynn, her eyes filled with a kind of willful attitude. Her skin has the puffy smoothness of too many laser peels. “I see you brought your gang along,” she says.
“That’s my daughter, Lynn,” Jeanette says, “and her roommate, Terrence.”
“Think she’s ready to get beautiful?” the nurse asks them.
“She’s already beautiful,” Terrence says.
“Oh, I don’t mean that,” the nurse says, and for a moment the Personality seems to vanish into the cool air of the waiting room. She focuses on the bracelet, avoiding Terrence’s gaze. “I just meant is she ready for Dr. Giles to enhance her natural beauty?” The phrase brings the glint to her eye, and she stands up straight and cocks a hand on her hip. “I mean, happiness may be a woman’s best cosmetic, but a little nip and tuck can’t hurt, can it?”
“She had it bad,” Terrence says as they walk across the parking lot. An orange steam-cleaning truck makes its way between the rows of cars and SUVs, the operator a tired-looking teenaged boy with livid acne. As they pass a wet strip where the truck has been, the ground smells sharp and dusty. A lightheaded feeling comes over Lynn, so that for a moment her vision brightens and blurs.
“Your mother reminded me of a baby bird just now,” Terrence says, moving beside her in his loping stride. “When I was a kid I found a little swallow behind our trailer and tried to nurse it back to health.”
“Should I have tried to talk her out of it?” Lynn glances back at the small white hospital, where three of her mother’s friends have had procedures already. All of them have emerged looking younger and well rested, a little unsettled by the attention they attract. Lately, Lynn feels almost jealous of her mother, a pretty, cheerful woman who, in a few weeks, will be even prettier. Lynn can’t imagine what she’ll look like when she’s sixty-two, especially if she keeps living the life she’s been living. When she looks in the mirror, her features are vague and slightly unfamiliar, as if she’s becoming another person altogether.
“So what happened to your little bird?” she asks Terrence.
“Don’t ask,” he says. “Birdie heaven. She’ll be gorgeous, though, Lynn, I mean it. This isn’t anything a thousand women don’t go through every day.”
They have somehow arrived at Lynn’s car. She opens the door and lets the heat flood over her bare legs.
“Where to?” she asks.
Her mother will be in surgery for nearly four hours; after another two for recovery, she’ll go to Lynn and Terrence’s place in Tempe to recuperate for a few days.
“We could get a paper and check the movie listings,” she says. “Or we could try to find a bookstore. Or we could just pop into the bar for a while.”
“I love how casually you mention the bar,” Terrence says, smiling, his eyebrows raised. “As if we might go someplace else.”
The bar is Pachinko’s Tonga Room on University, a tiny clapboard place painted blue and green. Inside, a simulated-rock waterfall cools the air, and Lynn’s eyes adjust to the dim light as she and Terrence find their places at the bar. The walls are festooned with fishing nets and captain’s wheels. The scent of stale beer fills the air. Each time Lynn walks through the door, the sound of burbling water is like a promise of sedation, and she feels elated almost immediately. Today she feels so good she almost orders a Diet Coke instead of her usual Cosmopolitan. But at the last minute she changes her order, then drinks the Cosmo quickly. Terrence orders a Chivas on the rocks, his usual. He lowers his head to the straw and doesn’t look up until he’s making slurping noises at the bottom of the glass. Lynn laughs, as she is meant to do. They order another round. The familiar slide goes through Lynn’s body, a feeling she’s come to anticipate these days. The place is empty except for the owner, a thin man in a Polynesian shirt who leans over the comics at the end of the bar. His teeth, when he smiles at the paper, are as crooked and yellow as roots.
“I have the capacity for human kindness,” Terrence says, swaying on his stool like a drunk in a TV movie. “I’ve got this capacity, don’t you see? Don’t you see?” He pounds the bar, trying to make Lynn laugh, trying to make her forget about Cale, whom she asked about in the car.
“You’ve got a capacity for human stupidity,” she tells him.
He sips his drink and makes a sour face, ignoring her. “This tastes awful,” he says. “Did you see him pour the Chivas?”
“He had the bottle. Who knows what was in it?” She fishes the maraschino cherry out of her glass and bites into it. “I’ll stop bugging you,” she says. “I know it’s none of my business.” She also knows that if she doesn’t stop he’ll bring up the men she’s gone home with lately.
“Okay, but I’m through with him,” Terrence says, looking at her with the earnest face of a presidential candidate. He finishes his drink and signals to the owner, who comes over and pours another round.
“I’ve got to call Stanley tomorrow,” Lynn says. “He’s left messages every day since Thursday.”
“You ought to tape-record that son of a bitch,” he says. “Take his ass to arbitration.”
“Believe me, I’ve thought about it,” she says. “He’s so quid pro quo it’s not even funny.”
Stanley Danillo is the Livingston-Daley Chair in the Comparative Literature Department. This summer he’s made several unsolicited advances toward Lynn, most of which fall within the definition of sexual harassment as outlined in the department handbook, A Few Serious Words. Lynn has actually considered doing what Terrence halfjokingly suggests—nailing Stanley’s ass to the wall. His unwanted advances might be a way of advancing her own career, which has no hope of advancing on its own.
She’s seen it happen: a suit is brought, and suddenly some ostensibly offended party has tenure. Of course, she could never jeopardize anyone else’s career simply to further her own. And anyway, she feels sorry for Stanley, a fifty-year-old arresteddevelopment case who went through a messy divorce last winter. Lynn actually kind of liked him before he started pushing his flirtations too far.
“Filing a suit could be my only chance of getting tenure,” she says, testing the notion on Terrence.
“That’s bullshit,” he says. “You’ll get tenure with or without that tub of lard.”
“I wont, Terrence.”
“You will,” he says, but he has to glance at the dusty blowfish that hangs behind the bar. The fish is the color of parchment and riddled with holes, as if someone has shot it with a BB gun.
“I should never date bisexuals,” Terrence says, abandoning her hopeless situation for his own. “That’s my problem.”
Light shoots through the room as three men come through the back door. For a moment they appear as silhouettes against the brilliant day; then the door closes and they move around the dim back of the room, talking in aggressive voices. Lynn hears the musical sound of pool cues sliding from the rack. A country-western song comes on the jukebox. Terrence hunches over his drink. His entire presence changes when straight men are around.
Lynn hears footsteps and glances in the mirror behind the bar. A tall man is coming toward her, dressed in jeans and a nearly white denim shirt. He leans on the counter and orders a pitcher of Schaeffer, the scent of cement and spicy aftershave coming from him. He catches Lynn’s eye before going back to a table.
“He likes you,” Terrence says.
“He’s unintentionally retro,” she says. “He’s got sideburns like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.”
“Good or bad?”
“Bad,” she says, though she found the man attractive in a shabby way. When he caught her eye, she felt something shift within her. It’s another feeling she’s come to expect in her life: a subtle dilation, the physical manifestation of possibility. “They look like they work for the state,” she says.
“I forgot you were so particular.” He raises an eyebrow.
“Fuck off, Terrence.”
Terrence grins, looking at the men in the mirror, watching them prowl around the pool table. Then his grin fades and he says, “Why do you think they don’t respect me? Am I not wearing a shirt that shows off the vein in my bicep?” He flexes his arm to show Lynn his vein. “You know, I worked very hard to get this thing.”
“What makes you think they don’t respect you?” she asks.
“That guy checks you out like I’m not even here,” he says.
“You ought to learn tae kwon do,” she says. “That way you could give him a quick roundhouse kick to the temple. And you could crack Cale’s skull next time he tries to pull anything.”
“I make Cale feel stupid,” Terrence says and sips his drink thoughtfully. “That’s why it happens. I goad him on.”
“It can’t be hard to make Cale feel stupid.”
“To be honest, I like it when he’s mad,” Terrence says, smiling at the corners of his mouth. “Within reason, of course. It makes life more exciting.”
“That’s too ridiculous to even acknowledge.”
“And you can’t even begin to understand it, I suppose.” “That’s the problem,” she says. “I do understand.”
In the back of the room, a man knocks a ball off the table and the other men laugh. Lynn turns and looks. The one with sideburns winks at her. “My father used to say, ‘Never turn down a fuck,”‘ Terrence says and gives a hard, dry laugh. “Can you imagine him saying that to me? He was talking about women, of course.”
“I had a horny family,” Terrence says. “My sisters were always wandering off with any kind of reservation trash, getting pregnant, getting VD. My brothers made notches on their beds each time they fucked a girl, like World War II pilots.”
“The opposite of my family,” she says.
“Oh, I can picture your family,” he says, raising his chin, closing his eyes like a clairvoyant. “A dark figure sits at the head of the table. You and your mother are like two beautiful candles, waiting to be extinguished.”
“That’s close,” she says. “You’re forgetting my brother.” Terrence opens his eyes. “Sorry, kid,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking.” “That’s all right.”
Lynn’s little brother, Nicky, ran away when he was seventeen. She’s heard from him only one time since then—a postcard sent from San Francisco that said, “I’m fine. Tell him I’m starving.”
“I was thinking about Nicky this morning,” she says. “He doesn’t even know Dad died yet, I don’t think.”
“He should,” Terrence says. “It would make a difference in his life. It made a difference in mine.”
In the mirror, the man with sideburns comes toward the bar, an empty pitcher in hand. Lynn tries hard not to glance at him but finally does. His eyes are on her.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Rita Moreno,” she says, keeping her own eyes on the dusty bottles behind the bar.
“I’m Lyle,” he says.
“This is my husband, Chet,” she says, and lays a hand on Terrence’s shoulder.
Terrence flashes her a look of panic before nodding at the man.
“You two’re married?” the man asks. He laughs as if it’s a joke he’s still trying to figure out.
“Three years in June,” she tells him.
The man’s smile becomes mean: he doesn’t believe her. He holds her gaze for a long moment, then says,”I come here Thursdays,” and walks back to his friends.
One of the men in the back says, “Find something you like, Lyle?” and they all laugh.
Terrence shoots Lynn a mortified look, his shoulders hunched. “What an ass,” he whispers. “You’re wonderful, though. ‘Rita Moreno.’ God, I wish I was you.”
It’s the landscape that makes you want things, she thinks. They’re driving north on University, past fenced-in wrecking yards and rows of rental equipment outlets. Camelback Mountain stands jagged and red against the endless sky. The lightheaded feeling comes over Lynn again, so that she has to grip the wheel and concentrate hard on the road. It’s a feeling almost like hyperventilation, as if she’s breathed in too much of the bright blue sky.
She’s thinking of the man at the bar, remembering the way his muscles rippled as he lifted his pitcher of beer. She’d like to go back and drink Long Island Iced Teas with him until the day gained the weight of inevitability. She’s done it before. In one month she has gone home with four different men, all of them more like the sideburned man than anyone she ever dated in college. She finds it thrilling in a way, because it’s so unlike her, like smoking in the girls’ room in junior high—catching a glimpse of her older, more daring self in the mirror, a cigarette in her mouth.
She likes the way the men’s eyes shift from arrogance to fear as she flirts with them; they’re not used to educated women, and this gives her the ability to surprise them. In their homes, she takes in their mismatched furniture, their tangled bed sheets, feeling a little like an anthropologist. She often experiences a yearning tenderness for the men but keeps it inside at all times. She has been frightened more than once, but so far nothing awful has happened, aside from the time when a broad-shouldered mechanic pushed her face into a pillow. He let go as soon as she screamed, and was embarrassed and a little petulant. “No offense,” he said, “but I thought you’d like it like that.” She carries a can of mace in her purse and thinks of it from time to time, when a man is rolling over her in bed, when all his weight is suddenly upon her.
They stop by the university to pick up schedules for the fall semester, then, with time on their hands, go home to prepare the guest room for Lynn’s mother.
For the past year they have rented a single-story ranch-style house at the end of a cul-de-sac. On the roof is a faded plastic Santa Claus, discovered by Terrence at a yard sale several weeks ago. Already four neighbors have complained about it, but Terrence keeps forgetting to take it down. He looks at it with guilty eyes each time they come home.
In the living room the blinds are drawn. Lynn goes to the extra room and makes up the little bed for her mother. Terrence is on the sofa when she comes out, holding a beer in each hand. On the glass coffee table is a sand painting he did four nights ago, a depiction of the Navajo creation myth. Three elongated stick figures stand in a circle: First Man, First Woman, and Coyote, the trickster/creator. Coyote has just stolen a child of the monster Tieholtsodi, a mistake that will keep First Man and First Woman on the run for many years, moving up from one spoiled world to the next, hoping to find a home. Terrence started sand painting six months ago, and his paintings are already as clean and accomplished as the ones Lynn has seen at the State Museum of Navajo Culture.
She leans over the painting, breathing in its earthy scent. She loves its burnt siennas, its antelope browns. “It’s your best one yet,” she says.
Terrence gives it a disapproving look, his lips pressed into a line. She is always surprised by his serious side, especially when it comes to his Native American heritage. He rarely talks about it. She’ll read an article he’s written on U.S.-tribal relations and be amazed by the depth of emotion he brings to the material. He has received a governor’s grant for his photo essay, Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona, a collection of black-and-white photographs chronicling the confrontation between Sonoran desert and suburban landscape. Lately he has become disenchanted with teaching, partly because enrollment in his courses has dropped, partly because of the increasingly hermetic nature of the Native American Studies Department. After six years, he’s tired of seeing the brightest Indian students focus only on Native American issues. He’d like them to be leaders of the community, of the world, not just of the NA department, where his colleagues are mostly small minded and distrustful of outsiders. His feelings are considered scandalous—even by some of his students. Last year he told a class of graduate students that he had no Indian blood at all, and a few of them glared at him all semester. “They wanted to scalp me,” he told Lynn. “It was too stupid. I used to be proud of what I do.”
Lynn sips her beer and leafs through a stack of mail from the department—offers for free textbooks, class lists for the three sections she’ll teach next quarter. At the bottom of the pile is a note from Stanley Danillo, handwritten on department letterhead. “Lynn,” it reads. “You ought to come up to the house on Friday and have a sturgeon steak. I caught three big beauties off the Florida Keys, and they’re dying to get barbequed! Also, an exciting little bottle of Sancerre! And, for breakfast, fresh blueberries! We can talk about your work if you like. Best, Stanley.”
She almost gives the note to Terrence, so that the two of them can groan about it, but in the end she doesn’t. Is she actually thinking of going to Stanley’s? Or does she see the note as what it might become: documentation in a harassment suit? Could she actually do that to the man? She’s been to Stanley’s for department gatherings and, gazing at the high-ceilinged rooms and the original art on the walls, has thought how wrong it is that he should have so much while she has so little.
These thoughts have always vanished once she’s out the door, but they’re back now, in her own shabby living room.
It is late afternoon when they pull into the hospital parking lot. Lynn and Terrence take the elevator to the third floor and wait a few minutes before Jeanette is brought out in a wheelchair, tiny and bandaged, her small face encircled by gauze. Her skin, from forehead to chin, is as pink and shiny as a blister. Dots of blood show at the corners of her mouth. She has the slow, heavy-lidded gaze of a newborn child.
“Mom?” Lynn says.
Jeanette glances around as if searching for some lost object.
“She’s blotto,” the nurse says, smiling at Lynn. “She’ll probably zonk right out on the way home.”
“Why is she bleeding?” Lynn asks.
“It’s pretty standard. It means Dr. Giles went deep with the laser, which is good, actually. She got a lot of bang for her buck.”
Lynn’s mother looks up with a concerned expression on her face. “. . . tight,” she says and touches the bandage where it cuts into her jaw.
“Don’t touch, Jeanette,” the nurse says.
“Cant they loosen the bandage?” Lynn asks.
“I’m afraid they cant,” the nurse says. “It has to be tight to protect the stitches.”
Lynn’s mother says something else, glancing at Lynn with a timid, hopeful smile on her face.
“What, Mom?” Lynn says. “How do I look?” she asks.
“Poor thing,” Terrence says, as they ride east on Apache Road. He’s watching Lynn’s mother sleep in the back seat, her head rocking against the window. “She’ll be our little child,” he says. “We’ll raise her up the best we know how.”
Lynn turns on Alhambra, passes the high school and the local library. On their own street she slows for three boys on skateboards, all of them shirtless, horrendous tattoos banding their arms. Terrence frowns at the Santa Claus as she bumps into their driveway. Lynn’s mother sits up in the back and brings a hand to her cheek.
“No, no, Ma. You can’t touch it, okay?” Lynn gets out and helps her mother out of the back. It makes her think of trips they made to the drive-in when she was a child—falling asleep, then waking as her father carried her to the house.
Inside, Terrence goes to the extra bedroom to turn down the covers on the little twin bed. Lynn leads her mother across the living room, matching her tiny, child-like steps. Halfway there, Jeanette veers toward Terrence’s sand painting, having seen it for the first time. Her eyes go wide, and she says, “Oh, beautiful, Lynn, look.” She leans over the table. “I’ve got to get back to my paintings,” she says and glances at Lynn. “Do you remember my paintings?”
“Of course, Ma,” Lynn says. “They were great.”
Lynn’s mother painted for a few years after Lynn’s father died—landscapes and still-lifes of fruits and vegetables. Lynn was surprised by how talented she was.
Her mother beams, apparently imagining herself at the easel; then she allows Lynn to guide her to the guest room. Her button-down blouse is easy to remove. She’s brought a loose cotton nightgown and slippers. Naked, her body is as small and delicate as a girl’s. In the bed she lies still while Lynn places pillows on both sides of her to keep her from rolling over in the night.
“You all right?” Lynn asks.
“Snug as a bug in a rug,” she says, eyes wide, face shiny and red.
“It’s peaceful having her here,” Terrence says. He is lying beside Lynn on the living room floor, a half-full brandy snifter resting on his sternum. “Don’t you feel as if your life has meaning now?”
“Suddenly, yes,” she says. “It’s what I’ve been waiting for all these years.”
She feels as if her mother is still in danger, though of course there’s no reason to think so. The surgery was elective, routine; her recovery is a matter of course. Perhaps it is the betrayal of Lynn’s father that worries Lynn. In his life, he made them all fear betraying him. Lynn wonders if her mother’s surgery is a sign of her liberation, and hopes it is. She wonders when her own liberation will take place.
“Do you know what I want to do tonight?” Terrence asks. “Do you know what I would really love to do?”
“Anything but finish this brandy and pass out on the floor.”
“I like your attitude,” she says. “Aim high.”
“We’re living on borrowed time,” he says, and the humor drains from his face. He sets his snifter on the floor. “For some,reason, today just seemed like the end of the summer.”
“I dread teaching again,” she says.
“I’m not getting back together with Cale,” he says. “Earlier, when I said I wouldn’t, I thought I would. I was lying. But I can’t. I haven’t got the strength anymore.” He smiles in a way that makes her think he’ll cry, but instead he scoots across the floor, the melon scent of his styling gel filling the air. He gives Lynn a quick peck on the cheek, then he keeps pecking her until she laughs. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“I don’t mind at all,” she says, though in a moment a pounding comes to her chest. “Have you ever kissed a girl before?”
“Oh, sure,” he says. “I’ve kissed lots of them. I had four girlfriends in high school.”
“When did you know you were gay?”
“Long before that. I was hoping I wasn’t, of course.”
“So what were they like? Your girlfriends?”
“Not as smart as you. Not as sexy.” He looks at her in a plainly appreciative way. “Not as blessed with your certain je ne sais quoi.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Do you know I’ve wanted to kiss you ever since today at Pachinko’s?”
“Shut up,” she says.
“I’m serious.” He gives her a devilish look.
“You’re drunk,” she says.
“It was that jerk at the bar, I think. The way he wanted you so badly. The way you handled yourself. I think I fell a little in love with you at Pachinko’s.”
“I’m kissing you for real, okay?” He sits up, pretending to reel backward as he did at the bar. But he scoots over and, holding her face in his hands, kisses her on the mouth, his lips parted. Lynn’s veins flood with adrenaline. Little by little the feeling becomes comfortable, like wading into deep water that eventually goes warm. She touches the back of his neck.
“I’d love to make love to you,” he whispers.
“That’s crazy,” she says, and feels half crazy herself.
“I want to, though. I keep thinking about being in bed with you after we’ve done it, basking in the afterglow.” He rolls off her and lets out a sigh. “God, I am crazy,” he says. “I’m sorry, Lynn. I’m sorry if I’m being unusual.”
“You’re definitely being that,” she says. She props herself up on an elbow. “I’m flattered, though.” She takes a sip of brandy and holds it in her mouth until it burns. “Would you even enjoy it?”
“I’m pretty sure I would,” he says, grinning.
“Now we’re both going crazy,” she says.
“Why? Are you thinking about it too?” His face lights up.
She doesn’t answer. She’s trying to remember what panties she’s wearing. She wonders if there are condoms in her purse. She’s sure that if she just remains silent they’ll both start laughing, but then the moment for laughing seems to come and go.
“We’ll go to my room,” she says. “I don’t want my mom to hear us.”
“We’ll be quiet as little church mice,” he says, rising to his knees.
In the light from the kitchen, he looks like a man about to jump from a high cliff into shallow water. She takes his hand and leads him down the hall. They kiss against the door jamb. They are just stepping into the bedroom when a knock comes at the front door—a startling sound, five raps in a row. Terrence goes as still as a heron.
“We don’t have to answer it,” she says.
“You’re right,” he says, relieved.
But Cale has his own key, and Lynn hears it jingle before it slides into the lock. She and Terrence rush into the living room and pick up their snifters. They are in comically nonchalant positions when Cale comes in, like guests at a cocktail party that has suddenly vanished.
“What’s going on?” Cale asks, glancing from Lynn to Terrence. “You guys wasted again?”
“No, but you probably are,” Terrence says. He walks casually to the couch, sits and opens a magazine.
“Yeah, right,” Cale says. A small, muscular man with narrow eyes and short, bleached hair, he scans the room. He goes into the kitchen, and Lynn hears the fridge door open and close. When he comes out he has a bottle of beer in his hand.
“This is the first drink I’ve had all day,” he says, a little sadly, as if he expects them to feel sorry for him. “I taught lessons since eight this morning.”
“No one said you could come in here,” Terrence says, flipping a magazine page.
“No one asked,” Cale says. “Hey, let’s go out. I want to talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk to you.”
Cale sighs, glancing at Lynn. “Don’t you have someplace to be, honey? I know how much you love to eavesdrop, but we could use a minute here.”
“Fuck off,” she says, and goes into the kitchen. She rinses her snifter and pours a glass of water. Through the window, she sees two girls across the street, both of them smoking cigarettes. One has bright green hair. The other wears a T-shirt that says DEAD AS ANYTHING. Lynn hears Cale in the living room, his voice sharp and full of harm. It reminds her of her father’s voice in the days before Nicky left.
“Don’t tell me I don’t feel bad,” Cale is saying. “How do you know what I feel?”
“I don’t care how you feel,” Terrence says. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Don’t be like that.” The floorboards groan as Cale crosses the room. “And put down that fucking magazine!”
Lynn walks out as Cale is leaning over the couch, yanking the magazine out of Terrence’s hands. He turns and sees her, and his face breaks into a grin.
“Did you see that, Lynnie? I wrinkled this magazine. You gonna call the cops now?”
“I’ll call them,” Terrence says, standing from the couch. He reaches for the phone, but Cale shoves him hard in the back, knocking him into the coffee table. The sand painting is shaken into a blur of brown. Terrence stares down at it.
“It’s not my fault,” Cale says. “You bumped it.”
Terrence tries to pick up the phone again, but this time Cale slaps it so hard it flies out of his hands and smacks the wall. Cale assumes a martial-arts pose, legs spread, arms held away from his body.
“You asshole,” Terrence says, glaring at him.
Lynn rushes into her bedroom. She picks up her own phone and begins to dial 911. Then she sees her purse on the bed and thinks of the can of Mace at the bottom. She hangs up, reaches into her purse and feels the can, heavy and cool. She takes it out and walks into the living room.
“Get out of here,” she says, pointing the can at Cale.
Cale huffs a laugh, glancing around as if everyone might laugh with him. His earring flashes in the light from the kitchen. “What are you going to do, Lynnie? Mace me?”
“I will,” she says, “if you don’t leave right now.”
He takes a step toward her, and she squeezes the nozzle. It’s almost too easy: a quick squeeze and Cale is buckling to his knees, his palms flying to his face. “Shit, shit!” he says, pressing his shoulder against the floor. He writhes, boots knocking the bookcase, books and knickknacks tumbling from the shelves, breaking on the floor. “You fucking bitch!” he screams.
Terrence comes over and looks at him. “It can’t hurt that bad,” he says. “She barely got you.”
“Why did you fucking do that?” Cale shouts.
Lynn is a little surprised herself that she did it. She feels a surge of pity for Cale as he wriggles around, cheeks slick with mucus, face red as a cooked crab. He coughs and sniffs and says, quietly, almost to himself, “This is such bullshit.”
Terrence looks at Lynn. She sees disgust in his eyes and hopes it’s intended for Cale, not her. She feels as if her actions deserve it.
“I’ll take him out to the hose,” he says, lifting Cale up by the collar. Cale rises to all fours and lets Terrence lead him out the door like a dog.
Lynn follows them onto the lawn. The night is warm; the stree sparkles like mica in the moonlight. Terrence turns on the water spigo and drags the hose over the lawn. “Don’t expect me to feel sorry foi you,” he says.
Cale brings the water to his face, letting it run down his chest and darken his T-shirt. He holds the end of the hose to one eye, then the other, then catches his breath. “She’s crazy,” he says. “I didn’t even do anything.”
“You’re the one who’s crazy,” Terrence says, glancing at Lynn, shaking his head.
“Why? What did I do?” Cale whines, a child wrongly scolded. “Why are you being like this?”
Lynn goes back into the house. She knows there’s nothing she can do now. If he is able to, Cale will convince Terrence to go out for a drink, then persuade him to make up. If Terrence refuses, Cale may become violent again. Lynn can only hope Terrence has the strength to keep the promise he made to her. She doesn’t know if she’d be able to, under similar circumstances.
Inside, Lynn’s mother is standing in the living room, her yellow nightgown aglow in the light from the kitchen.
“I heard a noise,” she says. “For a minute I thought it was your father.”
“Oh, Mom,” Lynn says. She hugs Jeanette and leads her down the hall. “It was just a friend of Terrence’s. It’s over now.”
In the guest room, tiny glow-in-the-dark stars illuminate the ceiling. Lynn’s mother climbs into bed and, seeing the stars, says, “Oh, look at that, Lynn. Stars.” She smiles at Lynn, and then her smile fades and she says, “In my dream Nicky was fighting with your father. Do you ever dream about Nicky?”
“Of course,” Lynn says. “All the time.”
“I do, too.” Her voice is low and distant, as if she’s gone back to the dream. “Usually, in my dreams, he comes home and everything’s all right. Not in this one, though.”
“Things are going to be fine now,” Lynn says, and as the words come out she can almost believe they’re true.
Terrence is sitting on the couch when she comes back to the living room. The front door is shut. Cale is nowhere in sight. Terrence’s expression is that of a young fireman who’s come out of a burning building. He has picked up the pieces of a kachina doll and set them on the coffee table. There is a red body, a thick yellow arm, a large, blue, pill-shaped head.
“I hope it can be fixed,” she says, taking the body into her hands.
“Me too,” he says. “That’s Ongchoma. He’s one of my favorites. They “That’s good,” he says. “I don’t think I have the blue balls, either.
call him the compassionate kachina.” You know what we ought to do, though?”
“I don’t know anything about him.”
“When we were kids, we had a thing called the Powamuya Ceremony,” he says. “There’s a part in it where the kids get whipped with yucca fronds, which is supposed to say something about the roughness of life. It hurts like hell. Anyway, we were supposed to imagine Ongchoma touching us with mano, this salve stuff, and making us feel better.”
“Did it work?”
“Not really.” He grins. “But it was nice to be able to think of him, someone trying to help. I still think of him sometimes. He’s a good guy, with his big old head.”
She lays the body on the table. “I wish I hadn’t sprayed Cale. It was overboard.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he says. “I only wish I’d done it.”
She is surprised by how much she has come to rely on him these last few months, without ever really noticing. She wants to tell him about Stanley now, to take the note out of her purse and let him read it, to see his reaction when she tells him what she planned to do with it. They have been through enough drama for one day, though, she thinks. Maybe she will tell him in the morning.
“How’s Cale?” she asks.
“A little snotty, but he’ll clean up all right.”
“I’m sorry about your painting,” she says, leaning over it. She can just make out the forms of First Man and First Woman, like ghostly figures coming through a dust storm.
“They’re not supposed to last,” he says. “You offer them as a kind of prayer, then mess them up. I did this one for you, actually.”
“Why?” she asks.
“Because I like you.”
“Even though I’m a drunken bitch?”
“Especially because you’re a drunken bitch.” He smiles and raises his eyebrows. “I don’t suppose we’ll make love now, huh? Weren’t we about to hop in the sack or something?”
They both laugh.
“You don’t have ants in your pants, do you?” he asks. “That’s what my sisters used to call it. When they got turned on and couldn’t—you know. For guys, of course, it was the blue balls.” He makes a grave face.
“No ants in my pants,” she says.
“That’s good,” he says. “I don’t think I have the blue balls, either. You know what we ought to do, though?”
“We ought to pretend we’ve made love already. We could just go to bed and lie there in the afterglow.”
“Sounds like a nice idea,” she says.
She is happy to take his hand and follow im down the hallway, which is cool and smells of his mother’s bandages. Lynn’s room is dark, and the steady whir of the air conditioner comes through the wall. Somewhere in the neighborhood a dog barks three times in a row. Lynn pulls down the covers and slides into the bed, feeling the cool sheets against her legs. Terrence slides in beside her. His weight makes the bedsprings sing.
“So now we’re here in the afterglow,” he says, and she can hear in his voice that he’s smiling. He takes her hand under the sheet.
“That’s right,” she says. “And we’ve got our little child in a room just down the hall, and we have to take very good care of her.”
“And I’m a construction worker,” he says in a low, oaky voice. “I have to get up butt-ass early in the morning and build houses. I have to work hard to support our family.”
“We have fun, though,” she says. “We’ve got a nice pop-up camper that we take to Sedona on the weekends.”
“And you have the Personality,” Terrence laughs.
“And you have a big gut just like Stanley Danillo.”
“And our life,” he says, “is simple and good.”
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