What Do Ducks Do in Winter?
by Lewis B. Horne

Blue Point

[163] Earrings shaped like colored flowers, eyes dampened to lure. “Well, hello there, you old charmer, you.”

Tim Barber had no difficulty recognizing her, no trouble at all. But he should have. He had not seen LenaJo Atchinson more than two or three times in the forty years that had passed since high school, and the angular sexy-looking woman with cascading blonde hair barely resembled the heavier but nonetheless sexy-looking dark-haired teenager he’d gone to school with.

He got a grip on her well-toned flesh as they hugged.

“You look lovely, Lena Jo.”

“Thank you, Timmy.” He thought he saw her wink as she used the name his parents used. “You haven’t moved away again, have you?”

He told her he’d been around. “I guess our paths haven’t crossed.”

“We’ll have to see that doesn’t happen again.”

The two of them were standing to the side of a room filled with cloth-covered tables, each laid out with six place settings. Tim had to speak up to make himself heard above the noise of the group. Many of the men wore suits. Some, like Tim, wore white shirts and ties. His sleeves were rolled above his wrists. Across the front of the room, behind a mike and Yamaha spinet piano were large letters: CORTEZ HIGH SCHOOL. They were spread in an arch with 1950-1990 in the space below.

[164] Unless you looked hard at the lines in the corners of her eyes, at the tendons on her neck, you’d think Lena Jo was fifteen or twenty years younger than anyone else in the room. Her eyes were set off by eye-liner and -shadow so that they had the same haunting flirtatious burn they’d had forty years ago.

“I know I’ve been around. I’ve not been hiding,” she said. “We’ll have to take measures.”

“Happily,” he said.

She would know of course that he and Carolyn had been divorced for almost seven years. Had she noticed that he was alone tonight? Would she decide that he wasn’t seeing anyone these days? She seemed to be circulating free of her husband. He’d glimpsed him earlier, a man who like the rest of them was looking his age: father—or grandfather—to this thin-limbed blonde.

She placed her fingers on his wrist. “I better be going. It looks as though Cora is about to call us to order.”

Behind the mike Cora Meldrum said, “Would you please take your seats.” She spoke across the babble as though she addressed students in the elementary school she was principal of. “Would you please take your seats.”

Tim looked about for a place. Some in the room Tim had already talked with, mainly people around town he’d become reacquainted with. Yet he’d taken up few old friendships. Like other towns in the area, like Arizona in general, the place had grown out of all proportion to what it was intended to be. The population of one area spilled across the boundaries of another. Farmland that he remembered was no more. The desert was farther away. Other people he placed vaguely. Under his arm, he held a yearbook put together for the occasion. He’d not yet looked into it. But each page had the picture from the 1950 yearbook alongside a 1990 photograph. Some of these people tonight looked like grandparents, as greyed and aged as he remembered his own. Some looked like mature business people. Those who had not “made it” probably hadn’t showed up.

[165] “Would you please take your seats.”

He saw a table near the wall with one empty chair. Two couples were seating themselves and welcoming a woman who seemed to be alone.

“Is this spot reserved?”

The woman glanced up quickly, turned to the other four.

“Just for you,” said one of the men.

As he sat, he looked across the room at Lena Jo’s table. He gave her a mock military salute, and she waved back with her fingers.

The two men with their spouses turned out to be classmates he remembered vaguely.

He turned to the woman next to him. She gave him a quick nod and smile. “I remember you,” she said. She spoke with her head tipped to the side. A cheerful hazel-eyed face with a bit of strain to the smile. Her eye teeth were set forward, a bit large.

He made a show of reading her nametag.

“I’m Lonette Huber.”

“Lonette,” he repeated.

“My father’s name was Lon. Bishop Huber, maybe you knew him. My older brother was Lon, but he died. So when I came along, I was Lonette.” She blushed. She was embarrassed to catch herself saying so much. “Sometimes people wonder about such a strange name. So I tell them.”

“It’s a nice name,” he said, and then inwardly made a face. To step into her awkwardness.

Serving carts were wheeled out. He covered his discomfort by looking again at her nametag, then her face, her nametag again, his face mock serious. He opened his yearbook to the H’s, did so with deliberate flourish. No sense pretending he remembered who she was.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “Now I remember.”

She didn’t look as though she believed him.

“We never had a class together,” she said.

“That’s not surprising,” he said. “My family moved here from [166] Minnesota my senior year. My father ran the service station out on Haven Road, out near—”

“Yes, I remember.”

The meal came. As he sliced his roast beef and began to eat, he rooted about in his mind, trying to think how much about Lonette Huber he really could pun up. Not much, if you put her alongside LenaJo. Carolyn had once told someone within his hearing that he knew “how to fascinate women.” The comment was not intended as a compliment. At the time, he did not feel it that way. It had been an awkward, conversation-stopping kind of statement. In high school it would have been, “Man, does he have a line!” He would have preened himself then, whether the comment was admiring or not. “He knows how to entertain women.” If he didn’t hear Carolyn’s voice—and its bitterness, though years had passed by then, and he had thought the problem of his early and foolish wanderings was resolved, forgiven—if he didn’t hear Carolyn’s voice in his head, he would have preened himself now. As it was, his feathers were pleasantly stirred: to be remembered by this awkward blushing woman beside him.

Lena Jo was the kind of girl he had known better. The pretty ones, usually a class year or two behind—as Carolyn had been. Lonette Huber was one he would notice only in passing in the hallways. He thought of her passing, quickly, in a lanky, long-legged stride, shoulders rocking a bit, peering straight ahead, moving close to the wall all the way to her next class.

That was what he remembered of Lonette Huber. A movement past. Not much to boost a conversation with.

Back then he, Tim Barber, was one of those fellows who might come upon a group of girls, especially younger girls, talking in front of the trophy display case or at the head of the stairs. He would catch the eye of two or three of them, then, sure he had it, flash a smile and throw a genial toss of his chin. “Hi, there. Watcha say?” As he passed, he’d know—though he would never admit it—that they’d giggle (“Did you see him? Did you see him smile?” “Oh, I’m [167] going to die—!” “Who was he talking to?”) or they’d sigh the way they would for Eddie Fisher or Perry Como or one of the other crooners.

“You’re an egotist,” Carolyn had told him while they were dating. It was a joke then. Then he could use a pretend pout: “Somebody’s got to like me.” Later when she said it, she didn’t mean it for a joke. “And you’re not, I guess. You’re Miss Humility herself. So stuck up she won’t speak to one of my buddies when she passes him in the street.” He meant Charley Farr, one of the men in his squadron. “I didn’t see him.” She’d told him that, and he believed her. But he couldn’t let the chance go by. “My ego’s no bigger than I He didn’t know. “One thing I can ten you. If I’m an egotist I’m a damn well-liked one.” “Mr. Charm himself,” she said.

They had been “the perfect couple,” “the beautiful pairing,” both of them dark complexioned, trim and kempt. Her older brother played the violin. Carolyn took ballet lessons. Tim didn’t know how good she was, but when he saw her in recital moving across the stage in toe shoes, one arm curved above her head, the other extended, smile remote, dark hair in a bun, to him she was some kind of royalty toward whom he could yearn. She made of her cool bearing a special grace. When the smile broke, white and glowing, a gift given in slow kindness to them all, he felt as though he’d been hushed. With her as his date, he was the envy of dozens of friends and foes. Call it egotism. It was true.

He told Lonette, quietly since the other two couples were talking among themselves, “Unfortunately, my wife and I are divorced.”

“I heard that somewhere,” she said.

He thought she might use the statement as a means to tell him something about herself. Why was she alone tonight? He’d been surprised that most of those here this evening were still partnered—thirty, thirty-five years.

“She remarried a couple of years ago—Carolyn did,” he said.

“I didn’t know.”

[168] He glanced again at Lena Jo. Her features were animated, glowing, turning from one speaker to the other, lifting her head with the big Farrah Fawcett smile, the kind you’d see in a swimming suit ad, except that even with her fountain of youth magic, Lena Jo didn’t look quite that young.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Lonette lift her glass of water. Her hand was trembling. Disability? he wondered. Or nerves? Maybe he, Tim Barber, made her jittery. It had been a long time since he’d felt a touch of adolescent bravado. Simple nerves. Nothing sexual, no flirtation or jockeying. Or like one of those girls he might pass with such a deliberately cheery greeting, trying himself out on them, trying out the old charm, sex appeal, magnetism.

In the old days, he liked to imagine himself a crooner, standing behind a mike like Eddie or Perry or Johnny Ray singing “Blue Moon” or “The Little White Cloud That Cried” with girls squealing. Like most of his friends, he knew the words to nearly all the songs on “The Hit Parade.” He’d sing with the disc jockeys on his car radio.

“My husband died,” Lonette said. She gave him a quick look, bobbed her head once, and took another drink of water.

“I’m sorry.”

“I have two daughters.”

“I’ve got three,” he said.

“How many grandchildren?” she asked.

“Seven,” he said.

“Oh my. I have two. One of my girls isn’t married.”

“Well, if I knew how much fun it was,” he said, “I’d start with grandkids first.”

Corny joke! Walking into her awkwardness again. He could bite his tongue. But she smiled and said she agreed with him.

He had nearly finished his meal. She began looking about the room as if she were expecting another person. She said she wondered if it wasn’t time for her to be going.

[169] “We’re supposed to have a program.”

“I was wondering if we might.”

She settled back as though, with reason to stay, she could relax a bit, the meal over.

“I’m spending the weekend with my mother. My father died two years ago, and she gets lonely sometimes. She still worries if I’m out too late.”

“My folks gave up on me way back in high school.”

As the tables were being cleared, he said, “Where do you live?”

She mentioned a mining town nearly three hours east. “I teach school. At least, I used to teach school. Now I substitute. Full time teaching got to be a little too much for me. After my husband died. I—I found things a little difficult. Nerves. The doctor suggested—well, he said it would be a good idea—”

“I don’t know how my teachers ever put up with me.”

“I’m very close to my daughters.”

He was glad when the program began.

He was glad, too, when it was over. He wasn’t in the mood for nostalgia, for singing the school song with three of the cheerleaders from old days trying to do their thing. To finish, Ken Bolander sang a medley of four favorite songs. Word was the man had terminal cancer. He looked grey and aged behind the mike. But the voice sounded like the voice Tim used to hear in school assemblies forty or more years ago. He sounded like Bing, like Perry, like Johnny, like Eddie. He sounded like Ken Bolander did forty years ago without his cancer and without Tim’s divorce and without Lonette’s dead husband and without Lena Jo’s perfect hair.

The next morning he wandered about his apartment in jockey shorts and shirt, eating a bowl of corn flakes and drinking some orange juice he’d mixed yesterday. He was wondering what to do. He needed to stock up on groceries. He could arrange for a golf game in the afternoon or call Ed Landon about some handball. He could pick up the place, change the bed. He had a Mexican woman [170] come in and clean every couple of weeks, so the rooms weren’t that dirty. Bare, cluttered, but not dirty. No plants, no pictures on the walls. Some snapshots of his kids and grandkids on one of the shelves in the small bookcase unit. The apartment had a barren chasteness about it. Nothing staked a claim. Nothing said, Tim Barber lives here. The clothes, the empty walls, the plain furniture—they made for an easy getaway.

After the program last night, he had mixed and mingled. He had told Lonette it had been nice talking with her, and shortly after, he saw her leave. Late in the evening, some of them went to the Atchisons’ where Lena Jo put on a spread, and a dozen of them reminisced until 3:30 or so.

The yearbook lay on the couch where he had dropped it as he came in last night. He’d scarcely opened it.

He kept thinking of Lena Jo’s smile and the hints slipping from her glances through the early morning hours. He recalled the luminous quality she seemed able to tum on and tum off. It had been some time since he’d had an involvement. They were usually with younger women. He was uncertain about Lena Jo but intrigued.

He was intrigued too by Lonette, but in a different way, a way that he was not himself clear about. He scarcely remembered her from high school, yet he was fascinated. In the yearbook, she was a chipper-looking girl with a pointed chin, lively smile. She’d had that same smile; he recalled, rushing down the high school hallway. In the new picture, though, she was not fleeing, not retreating, not running, but looking directly at the camera.

He glanced through the account she’d sent in along with the photograph. When he finished, he read it again. He wished he’d read it last night. He sat on the couch, the empty cereal bowl on the floor beside him, and went through it still one more time, trying to picture that woman, the woman who had sat with a trembling hand beside him, writing what she had to say. A summary of her years.

The telephone book listed columns of Hubers. He tried the L’s [171] and found the single initial: Mrs. L. Huber.

Why are you doing this? he asked himself.

But before he could answer, he had finished dialing. The answer, whatever it might be, would have to act itself out.

Lonette stammered a bit and didn’t try to hide her surprise. “I was going to drive back today,” she said. “I don’t like to drive after dark. When I’m here I spend as much time as I can with my mother. My father died two years ago. Did I tell you that?”

Then there was silence as she seemed to catch herself once again saying more than she intended.

“I understand. I just thought that maybe—after our talk last night—” Talk? he thought. That was scarcely the name for such lurching and stumbling. “I thought maybe we could drive around and see what we can still recognize, the places I mean.”

“Oh.”

He waited. “Two old-timers like us,” he said finally.

“Do you know where Blue Point is?”

“Sure we used to go out there for drinking parties.”

“Oh.” She waited as though for the air to clear. “I wouldn’t mind going out to Blue Point, I think. I think I wouldn’t mind going there.”

“Blue Point, it is. My God, I haven’t seen the place since before I was married.”

He shaved carefully, patted his cheeks and neck with after shave. His eyelashes had faded as grey set into his hair, still thick, no thinning, still mostly dark. But in his photographs his face these days had a kind of obscurity to it, as though someone had taken an eraser, smudged the eyes, blurred the edges of his mouth. His photograph suggested he looked older than in fact he was.

He pulled on a pair of slacks, a short-sleeved pink Oxford broadcloth, and a pair of Reeboks. He picked up his billfold and dark glasses, glanced about the cluttered room, took a last look at himself in the bathroom mirror—no answer there—and left for his first date in months.

[172] Lonette introduced him to her mother, a brittle-looking little woman who steadied herself on corners of furniture as she followed in her slippers to the door. Her house was in what was one of the old residential parts of the town, a modest one. Then, the houses had been small and tidy with careful yards. Most of them had little porches with a door in the middle and a window on each side. Now, they looked run-down, unpainted, weedy. Roofs sagged, walls shifted, floors warped. Some had been turned into semi-domestic businesses—a locksmith, a daycare, a home beauty shop. Tim even saw a sign for palm reading.

“Take your time,” Mrs. Huber told Lonette. “Don’t rush.”

Lonette’s fingers trembled as she snapped the end of the seatbelt into its buckle. She wore a gathered flowered skirt and a plain blouse that didn’t match, not in his eyes. But he had grown so used to perfection with Carolyn—always perfectly in style—that he had never been able to find that same sureness in other women. Even in Lena Jo—with her flash of too much style. But in Carolyn—worn with such panache, a coolness he could never warm in her. His buddies could admire what they looked at, but they never found enough thaw to put themselves at ease. Carolyn could freeze a person’s spirits without knowing. An unwitting quality of his Mormon wife’s.

He’d blamed that quality for his two early flings, the only infidelity he’d shown, though God knows chances for affairs were always popping up. Still Carolyn’s manner was just an excuse. He knew it then as he knew it now. He knew it before they started to see a marriage counselor. Carolyn was determined to make it last. After all, they were four years married, had two kids and Carolyn pregnant with another. She’d kept that news from him at first, a bit of ammo she fired later to get him into the counseling sessions with her.

“Grow up.” That’s what he had come to tell himself. He knew he looked great in an Air Force uniform. He knew a jet pilot had sex appeal if he carried himself the right way. If he knew how to [173] use it. Something that came as naturally as sleeping and waking to him. “He knows how to entertain women.” He knew how to nourish his ego. Carolyn was right about him.

He’d heard people talk about and he’d read about the way you can hurt those you love. But he’d never thought he would be the one to hurt so much those he loved so much. The first was a civilian working in personnel on base, as different from Carolyn in her chubby and rather messy blondness as she could be. Then there was the unhappy wife of one of the men he flew with—not a close friend—a distraught and hungry woman he’d helped make still more unhappy. Tussling on a motel bed, slipping into a house empty for a couple of hours, tangled in the back seat of a car on an isolated road. It was lust, for sure. But it wasn’t that alone. It was adventure. It was excitement.

One time he was sweeping across Monument Valley. They weren’t flying that fast. From the cockpit, the sky was so bright you had to squint, even with helmet and goggles. Down below was the curve of the earth with its jutting formations. So clear, it seemed he could see every fissure. He could distinguish every rock or piece of sand, brown and bronze and red and ocher and scarlet. He could measure every gradation of wash or plateau. It was something like that, that feeling of riding on the edge of a rare freedom. The reward of adventure. Of risk.

It was not a falling out of love. At the time, he still loved. When Carolyn finally told him she was pregnant with their third child, he could have wept. He felt the shame of his betrayal more deeply than he’d felt anything at all grappling with those two women.

“Did you enjoy flying?” Lonette asked.

He was surprised how far they’d driven in silence. He hadn’t meant to make her feel uncomfortable.

“I read what you put in the yearbook,” she said.

“Oh, yeah. Flying was great, the act of flying. I had tours in Korea and Vietnam both, but I liked flying.”

“It must have been hard over there—in war.”

[174] “I stayed pretty much above it all—literally, I guess you could say.” The rocky hills of North Korea. Later the paddies that reflected the blue of the sky. The blue-green jungle, a burned-out village. “I guess you could say that.”

She stared at her hands folded in her lap, the knuckles enlarged, the veins on the back pale blue and prominent.

“I read what you sent in too,” he said. “Things have been hard for you.”

They were getting close to the mountains. Roads had never come this near those rocky, barren, fully colored hills in the old times. If any they were trails. The mountains back then had to be viewed from a long way off. Now at their base large subdivision lots were marked. Long, low, tile-roofed houses were going up. Some already had swimming pools. Others were still being built. Some of the lots were vacant. Some had SOLD signs posted.

“There was a time you could only get here by hiking.”

“We would go on picnics to Blue Point,” she said. “With my aunts and uncles. I loved doing it. Before I was born my father and grandfather would come out to get firewood for the winter.”

The paved road came down from a short incline, crossing a rocky stream on a low bridge. Down below along the stream, cars were parked. A couple of men stood on boulders fishing. Some teenagers were wading. In the middle three people who looked like teenagers passed under the bridge on rubber inner tubes.

As they climbed the other side, Lonette suddenly cried, “That’s it. Blue Point. There’s a sign.”

He braked in time to wheel into a big graveled parking lot. Surely, she was wrong.

As they sat, the engine off, the air conditioner quiet, a yellow bus resembling a school bus pulled in, BELTRAN’S RAFTING unevenly painted on its sides. A group of teens piled out, fifteen or twenty, most of them heavily suntanned. Some wore shirts with their swimming suits. They began smearing themselves with lotion as a man pulled large inner tubes from the rear of the bus. A pickup [175] from the highway department circled through the area and back out.

Tim turned to Lonette and shook his head. “Do you want to get out?”

They crossed the lot, passing others unloading cars, packing them up. At the edge of the lot, they could see the new group of teenagers setting out with their tubes, pushing them into the middle of the slow-moving stream. “Don’t get too far away,” one girl cried. C’mon, Frank or Alice or Sheila or Juan. Tony, Maria, Ralph. Until they were all launched, the shouting and yelling seemed to ricochet among the rocks.

Tim moved down to stand on the rocks by the water, and Lonette followed.

After a moment, they turned and walked upstream past waders, past others walking. Farther into the distance was another fisherman. Along the water, it was a tumble of rocks and boulders, hot to the touch, some big enough to hide behind.

“I don’t remember this,” said Lonette.

He shook his head. He was glad he had worn sunglasses. Lonette squinted and shaded her eyes with her hand. Her lips were slightly parted, sweat on her upper lip. The two eyeteeth didn’t show. Suddenly to his surprise and without reason, he felt an erotic draw toward her. He could imagine reaching out to touch her neck, to feel her teeth with his tongue. But when she caught his eyes, her attention settled to something else, his own presence superfluous, he drew a deep breath. The moment was gone. Thank God, he thought.

“It must have been somewhere along here,” he said, “that the woman was killed a couple of weeks ago. Down below the parking area somewhere. Her throat was cut, and she was stabbed. Late in the afternoon. People still around. Right near by.”

“In daylight?”

“She was learning impaired, mentally disabled—whatever they call it now. Worked in the public library and was out here with [176] friends. It’s those kinds of people—who’d do something like that—when I was on a mission and I had the rockets and napalm—I wouldn’t think about what was going on below. I couldn’t do that, couldn’t let myself. I’d stay above it. Just stay above it. But a person like that—I wouldn’t mind—if he was here right now—” He thought of unloading ordnance, coming down in a shallow dive. “I could watch them suffer.”

She shaded her eyes again. “Are you thirsty?” she asked. “I’m very thirsty.”

“Let’s go back.”

He offered her his hand. She refused. Her dark leather walking shoes took a firm grip as she stepped from one rock to the other.

At the car, he heard the tubers calling and laughing beyond the curve, probably passing under the bridge. She walked beyond the car to the entrance. There they could see down to the bridge, the last of the tubers bobbing through.

“I can’t figure out where we are,” he said. “None of this place makes sense. You used to come out of those low hills, wherever they are, come off the desert, and you’d glimpse the stream. The water really was blue sometimes. A blue spot. You knew where the name came from. There was green grass along the edge, the brightest green I ever saw. The ground was too soggy to walk on. Back beyond that was the bank and all the mesquites—a huge mesquite grove. That’s where we’d party. I don’t remember any of it being like this.”

“That’s where we’d have our picnics,” she said. “Among the mesquites.”

He looked at the bridge. “Do you remember the old bridge? It was a hell of a lot longer than the one there. It was one lane and wooden and rickety. A real adventure to cross it.”

“Scary. I loved the excitement.”

“The boards rattled under the wheels.”

“Once my father killed a rattlesnake,” she said, “on one of our picnics. I think my mother still has the rattle put away somewhere.”

[177] “I can’t figure out where we are. That new bridge. It can’t be where the old one was.”

“But it is,” she said.

“It can’t be. It doesn’t even go the same direction.”

“My husband—Dale—he was killed building that bridge.”

From behind, her hair was frizzy and light in the sun and pushed back from her forehead with two barrettes. In front, her bangs stuck out above her forehead like a sunshade. A drop of sweat slid from his armpit.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen that bridge,” she said. “We stopped coming out here years ago. I don’t know how he died. Something gave way, something in the bridge. There was a cement truck too. Dale was crushed. I don’t know how. Something from the bridge. Maybe the truck. I think they told me at the time, but I was in no state to hear. Or to remember what they did say.”

She turned back to the car, and he walked beside her.

“I had a kind of breakdown, I guess. I believe my daughters know how he died. I believe they investigated the accident, came out here to talk to the workers. They’d tell me, I’m sure, if I asked them. But so far I don’t have the heart to know.”

“When was that?”

“Three years ago. My father died two years ago.”

But that wasn’t all. Not yet. Driving back they stopped at a restaurant for Mexican food. She didn’t want to at first. She should really get back, she said. She wanted to visit more with her mother before she drove home. “I try to get down every other weekend, as often as I can. My mother and I are very close. So are my daughters and I.”

He urged her.

So as they sat at the table in the air-conditioned restaurant, eating tacos and tamales, he asked about the other material she had written for the yearbook. I had two unhappy marriages, she had written. One child was born in each marriage. Both children died at a very young age.

[178] Sitting directly across the table from him, she had trouble looking him in the eye as she spoke. At first he thought the talk would be as awkward and stiff-legged as it had been last night. She nodded when she spoke as though affirming—(yes, yes)—what it was she said.

“My first baby was a boy. His was a crib death.” (Yes, yes.) “I got out of bed in the morning, and he was no longer breathing. My husband blamed me. He was really a kind man with very gentle eyes.” (Yes, yes.) “But the death was too much for him. Why hadn’t I noticed? He wept. One morning he threw his coffee cup at me. He hit me here above the right eye. I almost blacked out, believe it or not. I had a bruise for two and a half weeks but no scar. No blood. He never spoke to me again. He was a bank clerk. I would see him in the bank, talking to his customers in such a friendly way. He had a very young face and a wonderful boyish quality. He sounded very friendly talking to other people on the telephone. He was no taller than me—and very thin. For almost two months he didn’t speak. Not a word. Then one day I came home from the Safeway with groceries in each arm. He’d cut up, torn up, all of my clothes, everything in the closet, all the baby’s clothes. He stood in the kitchen doorway, holding onto the sides so hard his arms shivered. I could hear him breathing. I tried to put the groceries in the cupboards with him watching, breathing like someone with an asthma attack. Tears kept running down my face. I tried, but finally I grabbed my purse and ran out the back door. At first, I thought he was going to chase after me. I didn’t know what he’d do. But he stopped at the driveway. I walked to town and took the bus home—to my parents. I had enough money to do that.”

When she finished, the silence was an awkwardness he couldn’t, this time, walk into. So she went on.

“That was my first marriage. My second was more brutal. It was awful in the way people talk about now. I got more than one black eye. I even got some muscles pulled, a bone broken. He splintered the door of a wardrobe slamming me against it. That baby was born [179] dead. I had left him before she was born—it was a girl—and Mama went to the hospital with me.”

She smoothed the cloth covering the table with her fingers.

“I talk too much.” (Yes, yes.) “I was happy with Dale. We had a good marriage. Very happy.” (Yes, yes.) “I think I should get back now. I’d like to spend some time with my mother. Dale and I were married for seventeen years.” (Yes.)

Inside his apartment, he tossed his shirt on the back of the recliner chair, took off his shoes and socks. In his mail was a thank you note from a ten-year-old grandson for a birthday check. A gift was better, but he lived too far away to keep track of changes and preferences. He turned on his answering machine. Ed Landon: “Hi. If you’re back by 3:00 and feel like a game, give me a call.” Lena Jo: “Hi, there. Do you still want to take those measures? Why don’t you call me at the shop next week?” He checked the yearbook. She was doing interior decorating now.

He’d been so anxious to get home, to get back to something familiar, that he’d scarcely told Lonette goodbye when he let her off. Now there was time on his hands.

He shuffled the magazines at his feet, Sports Illustrated, a running magazine, a magazine for cyclists. A copy of Hustler that Ed Landon handed to him. “Don’t want to take it home to the kids.” He carried it and his morning cereal bowl into the kitchen. He put the bowl into the sink and ran water into it, slipped the magazine among the newspapers piled for the recycling bin, wondering if the paper quality was right. He straightened the throw rug in the living room, but glimpsing his unmade bed, he knew he was not into tidying this afternoon.

Three marriages, two dead kids.

And that was not all, of course. There was more than that.

One blow after another.

While he was riding high overhead. Not all the time of course. It was up and down for him. He’d seen pictures of the dead, of [180] burned-out villages—dead kids rocked on grandmothers’ laps. Yes, he’d seen that. But it wasn’t close to home. Mainly he stayed above it.

How? His nervy charm? Carolyn’s beautiful calm? She wanted to be more than beauty, she told him. After their girls were in school, she tried to get a teaching certificate. His heart went out to her. She was not stupid by any means. But in writing she could not make her sentences follow one after the other as clearly as a fifth grader might. He had watched her many a painful evening memorize—grimly—pages of facts and then not know which ones to use on an exam.

She came out of her despair with greater calm. Her dark beauty—something she could carry in the detached smile, the kind of blind smile one might give a passerby, in the dark clearly etched eyes—that beauty carried her above it all. But with irritation now, a prickling irritation beneath. With less of kindness.

The sky had a brightness up there that could blind some. For some, the sun was too close. Yalu, DMZ, Haiphong. Names came back to him. He looked out the window at the pool below, this one a true point of blue. Two of the three swimmers he recognized as grandsons of the caretaker. More names like an echo for which there’d been no prompting sound. Kimpo, Danang. And they changed his view.

The old myths he’d heard of in high school—Icarus, Semele—weren’t right any more. Get close to the sun, you don’t get scorched. Not the way the stories said. That happens down below in the earth’s arena with its corrosive climate. Where finally a person had to be. Where he was now and had been for longer than he knew. Lonette was proof. You didn’t ask why things happen. They happened as part of an inevitable wooing, a compact made with an existence whose terms you never fully knew. And like Lonette, you lived with it and its conditions, tightly bound. Down there, at the bottom, some people made it, in spite of what came down on them, justly or unjustly. He didn’t know how. But they did.

[181] So he thought as he watched one of the grandsons dive into the water of the pool, a young boy whose bony legs and long feet flashed all akilter. When he surfaced he swam to the edge, pulled himself out, dripping, and ran back to do it again.