Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.227] Stranded overnight on the North Slope by a late spring snowstorm, Allison lay in her rented room, ate sugared donuts, and drank whiskey. The bitter wind drove the snow horizontally against her window. At least this building, tighter than the cabin in the desert, kept the cold outside. Six weeks had passed since she and Howard had last had sex. It was, as her mother or Eliot would say, symptomatic.
The day after returning from Utah, she had flown to the North Slope for a two-week stint. Howard had been reserved, even morose, when she left, but she had believed that two weeks would be time enough to become reconciled to what his mother had done. But when she returned to Anchorage, he was still brooding, and they had never reconnected: he turned to the wall and snored; she worked late at her computer; he read a western novel until three in the morning or put on his coat and walked the streets. Their talk turned quickly to peevishness or snappish sarcasm over trivial aggravations. Not making love was their habit, as if they had forgotten how it was done.
In the night the storm blew away southeast, and the next morning she called Howard (his voice showed that he was still in a funk) and flew home. Looking down from the airplane, she knew that her plane flew along the margin between the frigid vacuum of space and the rock [p.228] and water of earth. If the plane did not bank at a precise angle, she would be caught in limbo forever. Finally they landed in Anchorage and she relaxed.
Her worn-out Mustang was at the mechanic’s, so she phoned Mark to pick her up. “Howard’s being a jerk,” she said after swinging her duffel into his back seat.
“Kick him out,” said Mark. “Buy him a one-way ticket.”
“No,” she said. “I have an investment in him.”
“Investment? Then stop payments. Take on somebody else. Me, for example.”
“You’re so subtle, Mark. If you weren’t my friend, I’d slug you. I’ll slug you anyway.” She hit him hard on the arm with the point of her knuckle.
“Wear this.” He handed her a necklace, three long canine teeth on a silver chain. “Tell him, either he snaps out of it or these ghost teeth will crawl across and gnaw his neck in the night.”
“Where did you get these?”
“Last summer I found a skeleton on a hillside. Eight feet long with the tail.”
“Wolf. The skull filled my day pack.”
She sniffed the wolf fangs and curled them in her fingers. “Thank you.” The teeth had once chunked flesh out of steaming caribou. They were cold, white bits of wolf soul, ferocious. She looped the strand around her neck.
Inside the apartment, she groped for the kitchen light. Some trick of shadow reminded her of entering her parents’ apartment after playing in the streets of Atlanta, and she was calling for her father, who should have been working on his dissertation. But he wasn’t home.
She found Howard asleep on the bed, a book open on his chest. He wore sweat pants, but was bare above the waist. She touched his chest; he flinched. He opened his eyes, blinked, shut them again. “Wake up,” she said. “I’ve brought a friend for dinner.” In a previous life she would have lain across him, spoken her love with her lips brushing his.
[p.229] “It’s not ready,” he said. “I didn’t want to see anybody tonight.”
“She’s a ghost friend. She lifted her chin, showing him the necklace.
He reached up to finger the teeth. “Did she put up a fight?”
She took his hand, but he pulled free. “Mark found them.” The cover of Howard’s book showed a big-breasted woman lying in the arms of a cowboy. She touched the book. “The real West,” she said. “You’re drugged on romance.” The cowboy had wide, muscled shoulders, a rugged face—generic male beauty. The woman’s breasts were bare nearly to her nipples and each was as large as her upturned face. Caricatures.
“I’m almost finished,” Howard said. “It’s the exciting part.” He rolled back on the bed and flicked on the light. “The Indians have stolen her away and he’s going to save her.”
“Then he’ll mount her and ride into the sunset,” she said. Maybe that’s part of it, she thought. After nearly a year together, we’ve lost our fantasies: she no longer thought of him as raw material in her hands, and apparently he no longer thought of life with her as an adventure. “I’ll cook dinner.”
“It’s my turn,” he said. “Thanks.” He lifted the book again, blocking his face. She was irritated that they’d lost the rhythm of talk— which, all fall, most of the winter, had helped them through disagreements. They had easily modulated from words and eyes to hands and bodies. She turned away. Two weeks before it had done no good to shout. He had smiled at her fury and retreated into lethargy as thick as Utah fog. She should take Mark’s advice.
She pulled a fat salmon out of the refrigerator, another gift from Mark. It had been defrosting for the dinner Howard hadn’t cooked. The best salmon she had eaten was the first one, the one served to her at the Corsair, steaming on a tray. The first was always the best, then it grew tiresome. She would cook this limp and freezer-burned fish now, before it spoiled, but it threw her off. She had imagined coming into a warm house, meeting the aroma of cooking food, sharing a long talk during dinner, even longer play in bed—a slow, easy dance. “This is stupid,” she said. As a teenager, she had fought with her mother, or [p.230] worse, played passive-aggressive games with her, weeks of silence and stifled anger. “It’s a waste and I won’t have it.”
“Won’t have what?”
“The silence,” she said.
He gave her silence.
She wanted something new—a mauling, teeth and claws. “You’re pouting.” Still nothing. The barren ranch still hung in his imagination like Atlantis, ever green and impossibly lost. Anger was a lump under her breast. She rubbed the inside of the fish with sage and salt and shoved it into the oven. She washed and walked back to the bedroom, drying her hands. “So what’s your plan, bucko?”
Without looking up he said, “I feel invisible.”
“What?” She grabbed the book out of his hands and threw it in the corner. “Say it,” she shouted, “say you want to go back to your god-awful town.” She wanted to slap him out of his lethargy.
“Not invisible, but like I can’t see myself.” He propped himself up on his elbows, his eyes wide, clearly thinking that she would hit him. “Once I wanted to go back, and it kept me motivated. Now, what’s the use? I’m not asking a rhetorical question. I’m in a bind.”
“You’re bitter with loss and can’t get through it,” she said. “Maudlin.” They would wait in this tense space until the machine of his mind finally shifted like her Mustang’s transmission in winter. And then she might discover he was in reverse.
“Not just loss. It’s being in a vacuum of ambition. It’s me and God and money and the lost ranch and my dreams and—” He paused. “It’s a multifaceted bind. Talking doesn’t untangle it.” He got up to retrieve the novel. He seemed as dramatic as a soap opera bitch.
In the bathroom she sat on the toilet lid, her feet up on the tub while she unlaced and removed her boots. Multifaceted bind. Multifaceted bastard. Propping her boots over the heat vent to dry, she walked down to the kitchen and started some rice.
He said, “I’m past blaming you or my mother.”
“The hell you are.” That clammed him up again. She didn’t know what to do. Her parents had either shouted problems out or had simply found someone else until the problem was buried. Never a solu-[p.231]tion. Much which was twisted and hidden grew in that supposedly open atmosphere. Neither parent had ever gone without sex. That would have been like trying to stop a faucet with your fingers. But this felt just as twisted. She peeled some wilted carrots and put them in a pot with some Dijon mustard and brown sugar. She turned the heat on low and then lay on the couch, holding the newspaper, quickly drowsy. Soon she woke enough to go to the bathroom. He was prone on the bed, barricaded behind his book. Reading these fictions didn’t help, picturing men who rode off into the west, leaving their women pining after them. He peered from behind his book like a sniper. Sometimes she wondered if he could even see her face because of all the ghosts of dead relatives swirling between them. It must be hell having a transcendent imagination. Soon he stood and she heard him taking plates out of the cupboard and silverware out of the drawer.
She came up behind him and ran a nail down his spine, cutting across each knob and valley. He said, “My skin feels alive and dead when you touch it, like the flesh of a zombie.”
She slumped into a chair at the table. “Let’s eat the damn fish.”
“I feel owned. Paid for.”
“It’s circumstantial,” she said. “A condition of where we each are. Accidental. Not intrinsic to us. Can’t you see it?”
“Bullshit!” he said, face to face with her. She felt the rush of adrenalin. “Bullshit!”
“Now!” she shouted in his face. “We finish this now!”
But then the anger disappeared, and he turned back to the cupboard. “I can’t believe you said that money is circumstantial. I could run a two-hundred-and-fifty cow herd. I could manage a six-hundred acre ranch.” He dumped the fish on a plate, flinging it onto the table. Allison looked down at the juice draining out of the broken skin. “I can’t imagine how my mother adapted to living in the desert—adjunct to my father’s plans. Somehow she survived. I can’t.” He clapped his hands, bouncing them apart.
She said, “Did she withhold sex to get her way?”
He stared at her. “How would I know?”
She felt her body shaking and thought it lucky they didn’t own a [p.232] gun or a baseball bat. “Can’t you see what you’re doing to us? We have something unusual. Do you remember the night in your grandfather’s cabin? How that felt? Not the sex but the talking, the touching. Like—like a communion. I’ve never had anything like it. You want to throw that away?”
“Your old song—my fault,” Howard said. “You blame me so hard that I can’t see myself. You talk to me as if you’re my mother or therapist or older sister. I finally decided not to push it. Not to push anything.”
She stood. “So I have to wait until you figure it out?”
He played his game and she felt no loyalty. She thought about Mark—open, rough, Canadian Mark. Maybe it was time for another leap. A leap from this melancholy husband. Leave him shackled with the marriage he had arranged. But taking another lover and then coming back was her mother’s solution, confusing and destructive. A way of giving no man power over her.
Allison didn’t feel hungry, so she went into the living room, lying again on the couch and reconsidering Mark. She occasionally discovered him at the door of her cubicle, watching her. Mark, the secretary. Would you like to take some dictation? she’d say, her voice a Mae West. She grinned; he was large as a bear and took no crap from anybody, not even Lisa. That messed up the daydream of seducing someone with less power. She’d always been upset by the stories her mother told her about male professors with their hands on the knees of women students. Heavy Texas accent: “I’m sure, darlin’, if we just put our heads together, we can discover a solution to this little problem concerning your grade.” Everyone, Howard included, lived fantasies. And then she realized another source of her anger; Howard might be right saying that she acted like the big sister. She had always thought that she could somehow save him. She felt embarrassed and even angrier, not wanting him to reveal her flaws of character.
And then he was in the doorway. “Here it is,” he said. “I’m striding across my land, tall as John Wayne. And my cattle are grazing the new grass, really going after it. And it’s so real that I decide to supplement that watery, useless grass with cottonseed cake.”
[p.233] “Son-of-a-bitching TV mini-series about ranching.”
“Yes,” he said. “But only because there’s no ranch. Except for that, I would be doing it, not dreaming of doing it.”
“Where am I in this fantasy?” she said. “Striding shoulder to shoulder or knitting back in the kitchen? Holding down the hearth? Producing the children. The nest, the west, and you, dear. A cradle and a baby?” The worst part was that all his propaganda made it seem as though she was capitulating even to think about having a child. Woman and child fit into one narrative for him. The mother tied down. There was no room to talk about other ways of being parents, how to have a child that wasn’t a stereotype of Mormon pioneer heritage.
“Striding shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “But you won’t. Wouldn’t.”
“Couldn’t. Not my career. You think I’d be equal to you as a rancher? Why would I want that? All that would be available to me in Rockwood is sitting in the house. And then you’d want a baby to give me something to do. But this whole conversation is stupid because it’s past.”
“Yes,” he said, the hiss of a snake. “All the decisions were made for me. You should have seen your face when Mom told us she’d given the ranch away.”
“Sold the ranch. I’m sure I felt relief.”
He smiled. “I’ve invented a woman.”
She couldn’t tell for sure if he was joking or not. She laughed, a deep, rasping cough. “Let me guess. She’s seventeen.”
“No. Submissive. Belinda was never submissive. She took charge, told me what to do, just like you do. This woman is passive and clear-skinned as a baby. Body soft in all the right places, tight in all the right places. She knows only one word—‘Yes.’ She has the fingers of a Swedish masseuse.”
“You impregnate her, assert your patriarchy. She waddles around the house smiling at you. ‘Yes, yes, yes.’” She said it sweet and false.
[p.234] He wrapped his arms around himself. “You think I’m serious about wanting this kind of woman? It’s a release because I can’t have what I really wanted. You won’t even let me be sarcastic. You want to be the one with clear vision.”
“And you won’t let me participate in your sarcasm.”
“Listen,” he said, taking a step forward. “I feed the older cows in a sandy, brushy swale so they’ll bed down there. The heifers are in the shed, lying on straw. Every day I walk through them. I can tell, just by looking, which cow is going to drop her calf that day. If she’s not around, we go looking for her. Often we see one just born, slick with mucus, bobbing its head as she licks it off. Sometimes one’s stiff as a board, dead on the ground, sometimes dead in the cow. Every calf that lives is four hundred dollars that fall. But not just that, it’s life, organizing a life, breeding cows, being something like God. Every minute I can, I plow the fields row by row, I breathe for a hundred hours the stink of diesel. I’m up all night if I need to be. I’m deaf from the roaring tractor. But then it’s regular and brown—beautiful. Then spears of barley or wheat come up, a sheen of green.”
She knew this part of his dream was not ironic. He would ruin their union by lusting for what was no longer his. They lived in the middle of a verdant paradise, green exploding on the mountains and hillsides all around the city, and he was visioning desert, all the time watching her with his steel-gray eyes wide enough that she could fall into them. Her throat tightened and she felt she might suffocate. She lay back on the couch. Panic scrabbled in her brain—not even of losing him but being unable to leave him, the terror of being amorphous, losing her boundaries again, as she had when she was a drunk teenager. That had been a little death, a little decay of skin and flesh.
“Your hands are shaking,” he said.
“Damn right,” she said. “You’re too stubborn to ever give this up.” Never, unless she went to a place with him where he could become like his father, and require that she become like his mother, strong but repressed. She remembered Emily’s face, her powerful desert face, despairing the night the bishop released her, the night she panicked that he would cut her off. Emily’s soul curled up like a fetus. That would [p.235] happen to her if he succeeded in getting her to Rockwood. Allison knew that they were both being stubborn, both terrified of what the other wanted, but Howard’s face was miles away across a wide, black void, unreachable.
She headed for the door, and ran down the steps. “Allison,” Howard called. “Allison, where are you going?” A voice from the depths of lethargy. Such a pathetic voice, black-hole sad. Delicious to leave. By the time she reached the service station at the corner, the attack of panic was gone and she felt the same electric freedom she’d felt leaving Eliot.
She called a taxi and had the driver take her to the Blue Moon where Mark often hung out. Wading into the smoke-filled room, she grinned, a she-wolf on a night run, and as if in answer to her howl, Mark was seated at a table in the back.
“You’re here alone?” she said.
“Where’s your appendage?”
“Reading cowboy stories about passive, voluptuous women.”
“Dance?” she said.
“Sure,” he said. “You know, as many times as we’ve talked about your mother’s project, I’ve never understood the attraction in virtual romance.”
The band covered a Rolling Stones tune, “Honky-tonk Woman,” playing it with even more bump and grind than the original. She led him out, wanting some kind of violence. She swayed, and then let herself go, jerking her body wildly. She smiled when Mark looked at her oddly. He held his hands out to her, and she brushed his fingertips. Her breath came faster and she calmed down, strutting, shaking her shoulders and hair, on the edge of jumping on the small stage with the band and screeching out the words: “She was a ho-o-o-onki-tonk woman.” Before three songs were over, she dripped sweat. Mark’s dancing was more subdued, he participated as a watcher, licking his lips. She felt good, James Brown good. They danced until she was exhausted and drank until she felt happier than she had for months.
Finally, very early in the morning, he asked her to come home with [p.236] him. “I could,” she said. In the car she slid across the seat next to him, and he swung his bear-like arm around her, rubbed his cheek against her hair. He drove fast through the sparse traffic. “Where do you live?”
“Hillside,” he said. “Not far from Lisa.”
She knew he had slept with Lisa, an affair between boss and secretary, so cliché. Which put it in a dynamic of power for her. A game of win and loss. Like her parents’ faces the day her mother’s lover left. Whoever loves least has the most power. The car flashed under the dark trees, back into the moonlight. She thought about Eliot’s story of the pale houseman and the seductive bear; she was trapped in the middle of a prophetic hallucination. She imagined herself standing at Mark’s doorway while he fumbled with his key. Then inside? How would what was happening with Mark, her friend, help her deal with Howard, her love? “Damn,” she said, sliding back across the seat. Who would have thought that Eliot’s ghost would conspire with her superego?
“What?” Mark said.
“Howard,” she said. “I’m still a one-man woman.”
“No,” he said. “You can’t do this to me.”
“My intentions were good,” she said. “No, I was selfish and bitchy.”
Glowering, he turned the car in the street, the tires screeching. He drove back along Old Seward and turned onto Northern Lights Boulevard. Allison thought back to her first night in Anchorage, about her excitement for the future. Nothing was as clean as it seemed beforehand, nothing so bright. Mark said nothing, and she wondered if she’d ruined their friendship. Still sullen, he dropped her at the front of her building and drove away.
The apartment was dark, the bedroom silent. She felt full of energy, wound up like a jack-in-the-box. She should wake him, seduce him, if possible. Was it rape when a woman forced a man to have sex? She waited, her nose to the door, but she couldn’t hear movement.
She pictured him naked, cross-legged on the bed. She’d lay her palm flat against his chest, and he would flinch again. “Where is your head now?” she would say.
[p.237] “Floating above the inlet. Free of all encumbrances.”
Then she would lay him down. “Girl,” she thought, “your hard drive has crashed.” She realized that she wanted not sexual surrender but fresh growth, re-connection, and then sex. She pulled a sleeping bag from the closet and lay across it on the couch. Then she opened the door and stood inside the bedroom—still no sound of breathing. She flipped on the light and the bed was empty. The closet door was half open, every piece of his clothing was gone.
“Damn,” she said to the door. “Damn, damn, damn.” She considered letting him go. Then she pulled on her tennis shoes. Fool, she thought, never run after a man.
She called a taxi, but it would take nearly an hour to arrive, so she told them to go to hell and started jogging the mile to the airport. She found him sitting at the gate for the flights to Seattle. His denim bag sat on the floor next to his feet. “This is dramatic,” she said. “Will you rush off the plane at the last minute?” He held a ticket stub in his hand. She took it from him and looked. His plane left at seven in the morning, five hours away. She gave him back his ticket.
“How did you pay for it?” she asked.
“Money left from my father’s life insurance. Mom gave us each a thousand dollars.”
“I would have given—”
“Right,” he said. “You would’ve paid me off.”
“What—” A mist had come into her head. Something like a hangover without the high before. All their lives focused onto this one moment. “What are you going to do?”
“Finish at the U.”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
“Back to Rockwood?”
He shook his head.
She said, “I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“I waited until one,” he said. “Where were you?”
[p.238] “Dancing with Mark,” she said.
He stared at her, frowning. “I’m not going to Rockwood,” he said. “I can’t live there now.” His voice was unnatural, hard and bitter.
“You still blame me,” she said. “It’s impossible. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t give you back your ranch.”
“No!” he shouted, his face twisted with anger. She heard the clatter of something dropping. Turning, she saw a custodian watching them; the lid of a trash can lay on the floor near him. Howard stepped forward to the window; he cupped his hands against the glass and looked through them out on the runway. “I left because you’ve been—”
“I guessed right,” he said. “You were with Mark. I knew because of the necklace.”
“I couldn’t do it.”
“We danced, and I made Mark take me home,” she said. “But you weren’t there.”
“Danced until one.”
“Yes. I was mad as hell with you, and I wanted to have sex with him, but I couldn’t.”
“Oh,” he said, and looked down.
She saw that he believed her without question. Tears swelled in the corners of her eyes. “I couldn’t leave you,” she said. “I was frightened when I saw your things gone.” She shivered. He sat back down in the airport seat, and she took the one across from him. He stretched his hand toward her, then pulled it back, tentative as a bird. “I didn’t know your father would die. We both thought we had time to do everything.”
The custodian worked on the trash can close to their chairs, so Howard lifted his bag and they moved over to the shops. He chewed his lip, still turned in. She remembered him working his mouth while he sat on the grass in Houston, the knees of his suit pants stained.
“You’re smiling,” he said. “What’s funny?”
“You’re not smiling,” she said.
[p.239] “I thought you wouldn’t come back,” he said. “I was more frightened than you were.”
“No,” she said. “On a scale from one to ten, I was a ten. You couldn’t have been more frightened.”
“Let’s never scare each other,” he said.
“It’s got us talking again,” she said. “Can I talk you out of leaving?”
“You probably can. But I want you to tell me a few things.” They sat at a table, she with her coffee, he with cocoa. “Your aversion to Rockwood. Is it because it’s country? Because it’s Mormon?”
“Not past until you explain. We’ve only talked around it.”
“My job. I’ve said it a hundred times. It was just my job.”
“That’s all of it?” he said. “That’s why your body shakes with anger?”
She took a breath. “You imagined that you were John Wayne striding across your land.”
“John Wayne doesn’t stride.”
“Shut up. Here’s how it is with me. The guy in charge of the site swore when he first saw me. He said, ‘I need solutions, not a damn woman.’ I didn’t react. I just went to work. They had a program which they’d had to override for months. It managed a drill’s response to resistance. They finally had to shut down, because broken drill bits kept shredding the casing. I solved the problem in eleven hours. But he still won’t speak to me because he’s frightened that his bosses might wonder what’s wrong with him if a woman could solve the problem that had stumped him for so long. A frightened man is dangerous. He makes me tight when I’m around him. But he doesn’t dare fire me. And that’s only the logical part of it. What about all the crap he can’t even describe to himself. Boys are frightened of strong women. A strong, mean woman confuses them. Like a mother gone bad. Serious cognitive dissonance.”
“Rockwood. I asked why you get the shakes about Rockwood. You’re on a tangent.”
“Rockwood is the center of Utah.”
“It’s worse than Texas for—ah—a kind of deference toward women that is really contempt. They’re diseased with it.” She took a drink of the scalding, bitter liquid. “Some of it even in college in Massachusetts. ‘Is your math background really that solid?’ A slight hesitation, as if a strong woman freezes them. One bastard believed I solved computer problems by intuition. Before puberty I played soccer on boys’ teams. And it was just fine. When I was their goalie, they won games if they were good enough to make a single goal. Nothing got past me. Well, when I was twelve, my breasts sprouted.” His eyes flicked down. She batted her hand at him. “Okay, so I’m still blooming. Anyway the boys started hesitating. At first I used that second of hesitation to charge them. Knock them on their butts and lift the ball away. I thought I’d just gotten better. Then one guy started giving me this simpering grin. Not just physical attraction, but something like, ‘What are you doing here? I can take you anytime.’ I slammed the ball in his face. Broke his nose.” She looked at him. “The coach asked me to leave the team. I still don’t understand that kind of holding back. The hesitation that isn’t courtesy, isn’t some odd effort at respect. It’s condescension, envy, fear. So when you talk about walking across your land like John Wayne, I want to either strangle you or run away.”
“I was being sarcastic about myself.”
“The hell you were.”
“Utah,” he said. “You’ve told me about Texas and Alaska and Massachusetts. Nearly every place in the world but Rockwood. In reality, ranchers are liberal. They accept any woman or child who can work. There are plenty of women ranchers.”
“I can believe that,” she said. “But Rockwood’s different. The town is different. Think about what they’ve done to your mother. You can hardly see how strong and smart she is, because she’s your mother. She could lead a company, if the company were smart enough to recognize that women’s ways of managing work are relationship-oriented instead of task-oriented.” She frowned into his face. “See, you don’t even believe it. And your father and the bishop are such kind men, but they hold her back by their expectation of her.”
[p.241] “I can see it,” he said. “I still think that there are different forms of patriarchy. My father and my mother’s father were not authoritarian men. Some are much worse. My great-great-grandfather used his wives and children to build a kingdom. His granddaughter left twenty volumes of journals—a diatribe against him and his sons for making their children work, using them up for the kingdom. The night of my court, I was in the house alone, and I could feel how destructive patriarchy can be.”
“Work isn’t bad,” Allison said. “What’s bad is having the credit taken away.”
“But I’m not my grandfather,” he said.
“I still say that living in Rockwood you would have been. The west, a nest, and you, Dear.”
“I would’ve liked the chance to be different there.”
“So we’ve said the same things again.”
“No,” he said. “We’ve never said anything clearly before.”
“It’s still murky,” she said. She looked out the plate glass window at a departing jet. “What can I do to get you to turn that ticket back in?”
“Keep talking,” he said. “Like you have tonight. Don’t just assume I understand you and am just being obstinate.”
“Practical,” she said. “What can I do that’s practical?”
“I want to finish school.”
“In Salt Lake?”
“Why not here?”
“Environmental studies? Even that would be all right, if the program wasn’t watered down.” He paused. She fiddled with her coffee cup, twisted the ends of her hair. “Will you give me the money to fly to Juneau?”
“They have an oceanography school there.”
“Oceanography? You puke on a boat.”
“I want to try studying tidewater. Shoreline zoology.”
“You playing another game here? Not much similarity between range management and tidewater zoology.”
[p.242] “So I make decisions on impulse,” he said. “I make repeated leaps of—of foolishness.”
“No. Don’t repent of that. It’s your best quality. Let’s get out of here.”
He only lost seventy-five dollars on his ticket. There were a couple of taxis outside, but Allison suggested that they walk. They stuffed his duffle in a big locker and walked toward home. The cool air passed through her shirt, chilled her arms and stomach. She started jogging, Howard groaned and then moved up next to her. He passed her, she passed him. Soon they were running, full out. She finally pulled ahead, sprinting toward the entrance to the airport, where she stopped and waited for him.
He said, “You’re trying to give me a heart attack. So you can be free again.”
“You all right?”
“I didn’t know you were in such good shape,” he said.
“I run every day at lunch. We have a treadmill.”
“A man can run a horse down. The horse has more speed but the man has stamina.”
“You made it up.”
“No,” he said. “My grandfather made it up. By the third generation of telling, it’s true.”
Instead of going back to the apartment, redolent of lethargy, they turned toward Earthquake Park and the inlet. Howard stood with his toes hanging over the unstable dirt rim. The cross waves made the roiling water seem to churn.
“All my life I’ve had the Benjamin Syndrome,” he said.
“I can tell when you’re lying, but tell me, what is the Benjamin Syndrome?”
“The Old Testament Benjamin—the spoiled, chosen child. He was Israel’s last child, one of two from the favorite wife. Israel lost Joseph because the brothers were jealous and sold him into slavery, but Israel still had Benjamin—the special child. If Karl wanted the ranch and I wanted it, who would Dad have arranged to get it? All my life I got [p.243] what I went after. Including Belinda, including you. Shameless, spoiled child.”
“Everybody wants,” she said.
“I’ve decided that my mother was right. I had already chosen to leave the ranch when I chose you. My decision to go back was done in bad faith to myself.”
“When did you realize this?”
“Saying it, I know it’s true. No. I’ve really been coming to it since we returned.” He paused. “So Anchorage is paradise for you?”
“No,” said Allison. “Of course, not. Lisa’s a stupid fascist. She hates me because I’m better than she is. And then I think, is she what I’ll become because I like shoving it back in the face of anyone who has power over me? Will that be what destroys my love of writing code?”
They walked along the edge trail, where Howard had run when they first came to Anchorage. The inlet lay beneath them, and the lights of the city spread before them and to their right. They sat on a log at the edge of the trail. “I’ve always had the feeling,” he said as he laid his arm across her shoulder, “of what I wanted—something unusual, intense—a vision from God. Something better and stronger than what I’ve ever had. Not a sexual experience, something beyond that. I always thought that if I could clear out everything that I’ve been and start over, it would be all right. I thought anything would be better than this fumbling and groping. But I know that there’s nothing better than fumbling and groping.” He smiled slow but bright as a child. “Speaking purely metaphorically.”
“My romantic Howard, always stuck in the here-and-now. Isn’t that the hell of it?” She turned into him, kissed his mouth.
“Remember when you first saw me?”
“Tell me what you thought then.”
“I thought you were a gay IRS agent. If I’d known how weird you really are, I’d never have spoken to you.”
She kissed him again, moving her lips harder against his. His hands were around her shoulders, soft across her back under her shirt. He touched his lips to her hair, brushed his fingers across her skin.
[p.244] “I’m freezing,” she said. “And ravenous.”
“There’s salmon left.”
“Ice cream,” she said. “Rum flavored ice cream. Is there a 31-Flavors anywhere?”
He laughed. “Let’s go back to the apartment. I’ll make some cinnamon toast and cocoa.”
They jogged toward the lights of Anchorage. The storm which had held her on the North Slope, weaker now, had come south. Icy drops fell from the infinite space above them. They entered a subdivision and walked through it and miraculously found an all-night diner. He laughed, clear and vigorous again. “We want ice cream,” he said to the woman behind the counter, “two big bowls.”
“Closest I can come is whipped cream,” she said. “I’m out of ice cream for the night.”
“On chocolate pie,” said Allison.
“Apple,” said the woman.
“Done. And coffee.”
“And root beer,” said Howard.
They sat in a booth, eating their pies. Howard reached across the booth and pulled the necklace out of her shirt collar. He lifted the silver chain over her head and laid it on the table.
She drew around the necklace with her spoon, a thin circle of whipped cream. She drew another circle around that one, brown, of coffee, circling white and brown until she had five circles. “I’m laying a spell on you, Howard,” she said. “The spell of the wolf. You can never leave me.”
He rubbed both hands down across his face and smiled. “Just where I wanted you,” he said. “But some day we might leave Anchorage. Some day I get to have a say.”
“Of course,” she said, watching his eyes, the speckles of gray across his irises. “But for now no more blue funks when talking solves them so easily.”
“Summary statement,” he said. “It means you’re finished talking.”
“No,” she said. “I just want to move the conversation to a more [p.245] tactile language.” Her fingers and lips did have a memory of the texture of his hair. She knew that soon they would walk back to the apartment, where they would reverse the trend of the last six weeks. Yes. She imagined his hands holding tight to the back of her neck as they moved together, imagined her body straining toward comprehension of his.