Now that her son Nathan had moved out, Lucille was free to live as she pleased. Today it pleased her to get up early, pull on her green silk kimono and sit at the small pine table in the kitchen, drinking a cup of dark roast coffee and listening to Segovia’s fingers roam the guitar. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Nathan, she did, and she’d once loved her ex-husband Peter, too, but now that they’d both left, she was conscious of how spacious her life felt, how much clutter and noise and complication had gone with them. Outside, the wind blew; the shadows of new maple leaves stirred on the table top. On a poster on the wall next to the refrigerator, the words of Henry David Thoreau, her favorite thinker, floated in empty white space. Simplify. Simplify. A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone. Now, at fifty, she was making steady progress in that direction: less food, less small talk, fewer wants to reach out and grapple one person to another. She was thinner than she’d been in years, wore long earrings and short skirts again. When she looked in the mirror she was often content. Thanks to the alimony check that Peter timed to arrive on the first of each month and a small inheritance from her parents, carefully managed, she didn’t have to work; she could spend her time leaving more and more alone, growing rich in Thoreau’s way.
In May, Nathan had graduated from high school. He’d been accepted at a good state college, but in June he’d announced that he was taking deferred admission to live in what he called the real world for a year. His father had agreed, and so had she. “Fine,” she’d told him when he’d outlined his plan to move into an apartment and work at Nuts and Berries, a local health food store. “Go, fly, I love you.” Now he was gone, and so were his hair care products that had jammed the shelves and overflowed the counters of the single bathroom they’d all shared. He’d been growing his hair for five years, since his thirteenth birthday, and he’d lavished every tenderness on it. Shampoos, conditioners, pomades—he’d arranged them all by type and within each type, by size, from the tall squeeze bottles down to a small, cobalt-blue jar of clear fragrant gel called Brilliant that he combed through his hair before dates or holiday dinners.
The TV was gone, too, a gift for her son’s new apartment across town. They’d bickered about it for days, as he’d packed his things. “Take it,” she’d said. “I want you to have it.”
“But what will you do without a TV?” he’d asked, his thin face mournful inside the curtain of dark hair, his dark eyes sad, mouth sullen, his thin shoulders drooping. There was something stubbornly bony about him, always had been. Chicken and dumplings had been his favorite food, but no matter how many helpings she’d spooned onto his plate over the years, he’d stayed thin.
“I’ll watch the day. I’ll watch the night. I’ll read a book. I’ll watch the seasons turn. I’m a grown-up,” she said. “I’ll be fine.” He’d rolled his eyes and walked away, but she’d had the last word. On the morning he’d moved out, as he stuffed clothes into the backseat of his black Toyota, she’d come down the front steps in her kimono with the TV in her arms, and balanced the set on top of the heap. “Take it,” she said. “You’ll be doing me a favor.” She was walking around the front of the car, toward the house, feeling victorious, when she saw it. Not the small, grinning, blue skull hood ornament or the purple and green Mardi Gras beads that swung from the rearview mirror. Those had been fixtures of his car for so long she hardly saw them anymore. What was new were some white letters, written backwards and upside down across the windshield. It took her a minute to sort them into words. Slower Traffic Keep Right! “You spent your first paycheck on this?” she said, pointing. She felt her shoulders sag.
“Yes, Mother.” Head inside the car, he spoke in the mature and patient singsong he’d cultivated for a few years now. She’d been so proud of the way he’d stayed home all week and hadn’t spent a dime. It made her unaccountably sad to think of that pride now, to think of the effort, the self-control, the cunning he’d invested in getting these words onto his windshield. She imagined a driver glancing up into the rearview mirror, seeing that bullying sign, the skull, Nathan’s gleeful face, imagining himself pursued by a demon. She wondered if he was one of those drivers who gave you the finger as they passed, just for being in the way. She realized that she was still pointing at the windshield and dropped her hand to her side.
Now his rude car was gone from the driveway, the noise of the TV was gone from the air, along with his music. After the divorce, Nathan had gone into his room every night and listened to the heavy metal music his father hated, played at top volume. The music sounded like a long train wreck punctuated by obscenities and the screams of the dying. It throbbed in the floor joists and rafters and rolled like a menacing current all through the house. It frightened her but she’d let him have his music, thinking this passion for ugliness could not last, thinking this might be what he heard inside, the storm of adolescence, the storm of grief for his father. Five years later, he was still listening, every night, she didn’t know why. One night his bedroom door had been standing ajar when she’d hurried past it toward her room, hands pressed over her ears. She’d stopped in the hall and looked in, expecting to see his clothes ripped and his hair tangled by the violence of the sound. Instead, he sat on the edge of his bed, his hands clasped tightly between his knees, his eyes squeezed shut. While the music fell on him like a collapsing building, he sat like a monk at prayer, lifting his face to God.
Now the house was quiet, and she could get on with the work of simplifying her life. Today she would walk with her friend Agnes as they did every morning in the nature preserve outside of town. After lunch, she would go to Nuts and Berries to buy Nathan a cup of coffee and a muffin and sit with him in the store’s café. From the store she would go to the Y and sit in the whirlpool, washing away the day’s complications, then home to a light supper of stir-fried vegetables and rice and to bed by 9:30. She locked the door behind her and stepped out into the morning, feeling light and free.
When Lucille slowed to turn into the nature center parking lot, Agnes pushed off from the gray Honda station wagon she’d been leaning against and waved both arms above her head as though she were flagging down a train. “I’m right here, honey,” Lucille said to herself as she parked next to Agnes. “I haven’t gone anywhere.” She made a quick inventory. Was Agnes desperate today? Clogged with despair? Agnes had red hair and pale blue eyes, a milky, redhead’s complexion beneath which the veins glowed blue. When she was sad, which she’d been for most of the last year, her nose sharpened, and her eyes looked weak; she looked pinched and bloodless. But this morning, a pale-green scarf held back her friend’s hair, and she’d put on lipstick. Agnes herself seemed to glow. Relieved, Lucille turned off the engine and set the parking brake. Last June, they’d met at the divorce group at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, just after Agnes’s husband Richard left her for Clarice, a twenty-nine-year-old woman with two small children, a stripper from Juarez, Mexico, whom he’d met in a club in Dallas where he traveled in his work as a computer systems analyst. In April, Agnes had found credit card receipts, and Richard had confessed. There’d been drinks, then one-hundred-dollar lap dances in one of the club’s private rooms. She’d been willing to give him time to get over it, but Clarice wouldn’t sleep with Richard until he’d left his wife, and when he couldn’t stand it any longer, he’d stuffed some clothes into a duffle bag and flown to Dallas to stay.
It was Lucille who’d put them on this schedule. She’d walked her way free of Peter’s leaving; she knew the way. Not that Peter was like Richard, one of those men who panicked in middle age and found that he couldn’t stand getting old with the woman he’d once been young with. Who couldn’t bear the way she sat beside him at the breakfast table like death itself, chewing toast and swallowing vitamins, stirring Metamucil into a glass of warm water and repeating old insights as though they were new discoveries. There’d been no other woman, no sordid details, no slashing blow to the heart that left her drained and bitter. He’d left her as one decent person leaves another. One night in February after he’d washed and she’d dried the dishes, he’d draped the towel over the dish drainer the way she liked it done. “Sit down with me, Lucille,” he’d said. He’d taken her hand and led her to the table and gone through his pipe ritual: he filled and tamped and lit it, puffed furiously until his head was wreathed in smoke and looked up through the smoke like a philosopher-gnome, sorting out the cosmos.
She still remembered his dark beard sprinkled with gray, the red Peruvian cap with the ear flaps that he wore around the house all winter because they kept the house cold, to do their part in relieving the planet of the demands of its greedy human cargo. She remembered the sadness in his eyes, the way he’d taken her hand and run his thumb across her knuckles as he talked. “I cannot possibly be the man you want me to be,” he said, “and I can’t stand to fail at it any longer.” In their life together she’d doubted many things about him—his driving ability, his penny-pinching, his laissez-faire attitude toward their son. But she’d never doubted his sincerity, so when he said that, she went cold to her bones, the room dimmed, and she felt as if she was going blind. When the room came back and her mouth worked again, she said, “All right, Peter, so where do we go from here?” That’s when he told her about New Orleans where he’d found a job as a city planner and there were plenty of clubs where he could sit in on clarinet at a Dixieland jazz session.
“Is it the thing about Paris, Peter?” she said. “I’ve been thinking that’s getting tiresome, myself. I’ll stop if it bothers you that much.” In a biography of Dorothea Lange, Lucille had read that the famous photographer had said that her husband was not a Paris kind of person. Lucille had found that hilarious. That was Peter to her. Whenever Peter had tried to play a Pete Fountain tape, she’d say, “That is not the music of a Paris kind of person.” If he made himself a cup of Vanilla Walnut Cream coffee, the sugary, powdered kind that came in red cans, she’d say, “This coffee is banned in Paris, you know.” Or “A Paris kind of person does not leave his dirty socks in the middle of the living room floor.” For years, it was a shared joke, and then for some more years, it was not. That night, he’d looked at her sadly, and the anger she felt at being pitied had burned off the last of the stunned chill. After they finished shouting, they’d held each other and agreed that, really, the marriage should have been put out of its misery years earlier. It was the closest they’d been in months.
After he left, she’d walked every day; she’d walked her way through it and out as out of a long tunnel. Someday, Agnes would clear the tunnel and walk out into the light, though she didn’t know it yet. How could she, when she was in the middle of the tunnel, swamped in darkness? That was what Lucille was for—to carry the flashlight and guide her. To see that Agnes got up every day and dressed, kept her walking shoes white. All through the summer after Richard left, they’d walked every morning early, before the sky turned white and the heat hung heavy as smoke over everything. This was the South, the mid-Atlantic South, North Carolina, but still the South, where summer lasts. That fall, they’d walked as color spread over the landscape and the sky turned brilliant blue. When winter came, they’d walked through the snow in their lug-soled boots and down parkas. Once, after a January ice storm, they’d walked through a crystal palace of trees and vines sheathed in ice, while ice showered down and littered the frozen ruts of the road. Now, it was spring, five years since Peter left, not yet one for Agnes, but time was carrying them both. It was the closest she came to faith in anything, now. Faith in time. Time like an arrow, flying true. Like a boat under sail. A road you followed through the wilderness and out.
She and Agnes stretched their hamstrings and started walking down the long, straight dirt track through the woods. Water in the roadside ditches reflected a pale blue sky; the peepers were out and up in the trees, the tips of the highest branches swelled and reddened. Around the crowns of the maples and oaks and tulip poplars, new leaves hung like green mist in the air. “Tell me, tell me,” Lucille said.
“Oh, Lu-Lu,” Agnes said. “Maizie’s back, and guess what?” Maizie was Agnes and Richard’s seventeen-year-old daughter. For almost a year now, she’d blamed Agnes for the fact that her father had stuffed his clothes into a duffle bag one morning and moved to Dallas, leaving behind everything he’d once said made life worth living, including her.
“She figured it out?”
“She gets it, big time.”
“I told you,” Lucille said, taking her friend’s arm. “Didn’t I tell you? We’re water on the coat of the dog of time, Aggie. Sooner or later, it’s bound to shake.”
Agnes laughed. “I’m starting to believe you,” she said. “I really am.” Fists jammed down into the pockets of her barn coat, Agnes walked so fast that Lucille had to trot to keep up with the rhythm of her new happiness. At last, at last, at last. Richard and Clarice had recently produced a baby, a boy named Tristan, and Maizie had gone to Dallas to meet her step-mother and her new step-brother. At the airport, Clarice had walked right up to Maizie without a word and held her tightly in a long embrace, then held her away and searched Maizie’s face with her restless black eyes, then pulled her close again. Meanwhile, out in the concourse, her father had waved once, kept pacing, one hand held to his head, talking urgently into his cell phone. Clarice was tall and thin, black hair skinned back into a knot. She was dressed in tight capri pants and high heeled shoes, a Prada bag slung over her shoulder, half a dozen gold bracelets (including a gold snake with a ruby eye) jingling on her wrists. Maizie had told Agnes all about it. Their idea of getting to know each other was to leave Maizie with her new brother on Friday night while they took Clarice’s two older children out to the movies. On Saturday night they’d parked Clarice’s two older children with their separate fathers and left the baby with her again. Close to midnight, he’d finally screamed himself to sleep, and when they’d come in at three, Clarice had teetered into his room on stiletto heels, batting mobiles out of the way, and made a big show of tugging the blue cotton blanket up under his fat little chin. Next morning at five, when Tristan began to scream again, it was Maizie who got up and changed his diaper and made him a bottle and walked him around and around the condo, trying to keep him quiet so that Richard and Clarice could sleep.
“A gold snake with a ruby eye,” Agnes said. “Is that perfect?” Her breathing came shallow and fast. Lucille squeezed her friend’s arm, felt it tremble through her coat sleeve. Poor Agnes, she thought, still picking through the rubble, looking for a clue to the collapse. “Breathe, Agnes,” she said.
Every day they walked for two miles: one mile in to the place where a tulip poplar had fallen across the road in the January ice storm and one mile back to the parking lot. Today, the story of Maizie’s trip to Dallas had taken them almost to the tree. They tagged the tree and turned, but ten steps up the road, Lucille realized that Agnes was not beside her. She was standing over the tree with her hands jammed down in the pockets of her barn coat, blinking hard and chewing her bottom lip. Lucille walked back and stood beside her friend and waited for what came next. A storm of tears. A new, cold vow. An outburst of the bitterness that made her friend’s face painful to look at when she talked about Richard. Whatever it was, she was ready. She held out her hand and wiggled her fingers so that Agnes would take it if she needed something to hold onto. But Agnes was laughing. She was laughing so hard she had to bend over and brace her hands on her knees. She snorted and she gulped. It was not like Agnes, not at all. “Agnes?” Lucille said, rubbing her friend’s back in little circles. “What’s going on? Are you all right?”
Finally Agnes straightened. She covered her mouth with her hand and looked at the tree. Tears stood in her eyes. “My God,” she said, behind her hand, her eyes wide with amazement.
Lucille looked around; you’d think they’d stumbled across a corpse. “My God, what?”
Agnes bent over the tree. She cupped her hands around her mouth and spoke to it: “Last chance, stupid.”
Lucille looked at the tree. On one side of the road its roots were in the air, on the other, the branches sprouted new green leaves. One last leafing-out. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “He wishes.” Then she turned away, surprised at what had swooped down on her when she saw that tree. Peter playing his clarinet in a rapture, his eyes closed tight. Herself on a rainy night last week, gliding through her house in her green kimono, long silver earrings dangling, a second glass of white wine in her hand, risky jazz on the radio, looking out all the windows, paging through her address book, bright with words that needed speaking. Fortunately, Agnes didn’t notice the tears in Lucille’s eyes; she was busy wiping her own. And then they laughed, and on the walk back to the car, if either of them began to laugh, the other remembered what was so funny, and she laughed, too. “You see,” she said, when they got back to the parking lot. “You’re laughing. You wouldn’t have laughed a month ago. And believe me, there’s a time beyond this one, a time when this will be something that happened to you, not something you live with every day. This will be the past, and you will not live there anymore.”
Agnes chewed her lip and listened. “I hope you’re right,” she said.
“I know I’m right.”
They kissed the air beside each other’s cheeks and waved goodbye until tomorrow.
When the doors of Nuts and Berries slid open, all the wind chimes rang. Music drifted through the air, something with strings, not really a melody, more like a cloud of music. She spotted Nathan immediately. His hair was held back with a green twist tie, and he was chatting with the man whose groceries he was bagging and smiling. A sincere smile, too. She felt her shoulders relax, and she let out the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. If she was being completely honest with herself (wasn’t that part of simplifying your life, to shed what was false or self-deluding?), she tried to drop into the store every day, to check on him. He always seemed glad to see her, or maybe relieved was more of what he seemed, the way it had been when he was little and she’d picked him up from preschool. He’d drop his blocks or the big plastic beads he’d been chewing on or jump up from the tiny table where he was drinking juice with the other toddlers and run to her and press his face between her legs as though she’d just saved him.
Truth to tell, he wasn’t the only one relieved. She always felt better, once she’d seen that he was all right. Especially now. It was his third week at work, and already he’d gotten two warnings. The day after he’d moved out of her house and into his own apartment, he’d been bagging groceries, and when he’d asked “Paper or plastic?” as they were required to do, the woman had answered “Plastic.” He’d tried to talk her into paper bags instead. He’d argued for the environment, against wastefulness and materialism. She knew how it was to argue with Nathan when he believed he was right. When he told the woman that he bet she drove an SUV, she complained to the store manager who’d told Nathan’s team leader to speak to him.
The following Monday, he’d worn a black T-shirt to work with a message printed across the front in big white letters: If I throw a stick, will you leave? His team leader took him back into the stock room, among the cases of produce stacked head-high. She told him that black clothing was prohibited at Nuts and Berries. She was a tall, thin, serious woman with springy red hair cut close to her head and rimless glasses. She always wore jeans with a belt and white Reeboks and the company T-shirt which was green with a cornucopia overflowing with fruits and vegetables printed on front and the store logo on the back. Only earth tones or neutral colors, or the company shirt were permissible work attire she told him. But beyond the issue of color, his team leader said, lay the more disturbing one of message.
It was the hostility of the message on Nathan’s shirt that bothered her, which, if he stopped to think about it, suggested that whoever read it was a dog. The message was clearly anti-social, and it was especially offensive to women, he’d been told, who were more vulnerable to name-calling than men, having been victimized throughout history by language, in particular by the name for a female dog, which a woman could easily infer she was being called by the message on his shirt. Their mission, the team leader reminded him, was education as well as sales, and they were there to create an atmosphere in which both could proceed smoothly. An environment in which everybody and everything contributed something positive. Surely he’d agree that wearing a black T-shirt with a hostile message on it was anything but positive. When he did not agree, she wrote him up. One more warning and he’d be let go.
But today he seemed cheerful; he was working hard. Now that she’d seen him, she could enjoy her tour of the store and wait for him to take his break. The store was large and full of light, the windowsills lined with flowers in pots and twisted bamboo stems set in vases filled with clear glass beads. The lasagna in the café steam table, the stuffed portabello mushrooms, brown rice, big urns of coffee and racks of muffins, breathed their odors into the air. Walking around this store was like walking through a dream in a place where no one was ever hungry or sad or lonely. In fact, hunger was obscene here, it was unforgivable in this universe of food and flowers. She felt the same way, cozy and restless at once, that she felt touring one of those stores that sold shoe bags and boxes and canisters for storing food and shelf systems for closets. If only her kitchen shelves were lined with canisters and baskets, grids on the wall, measuring spoons and cups and kitchen tools dangling from hooks on the grids. And they could be, that was the promise.
She walked past the flowers and produce and then up and down each aisle, enjoying the sight and smell of the food, admiring the skill of the workers at the sushi bar who deftly wrapped seaweed around rice and tucked small pieces of fish into the center of each round. In the deli department, she picked a toothpick from a small metal cup beside a blue platter of cheese cubes and speared three cubes of the organic baby Gouda. She grabbed a few crackers from a sample platter and circled back to get another cube of cheese. An impromptu hors d’oeuvre. A party to celebrate her son’s new independent life, her own liberation. The intercom clicked on, and a warm, excited voice spoke, as if someone had just won a prize: “Jennifer, in Specialities, you have a call on line one. There’s a call on line one for Jennifer.”
In front of the seafood case, a crowd had gathered, and white paper packages were being handed over the case as fast as people could grab them. She stood on tiptoe and looked over the crowd at thick red slabs of fish laid out on the ice, and her mouth began to water at the memory. A new shipment of wild sockeye salmon had just arrived from the Pacific Northwest. She and Peter had waited all year for this fish and made up occasions to celebrate, to justify the price. They’d eaten it grilled on a bed of lemon slices, poached with basil, olives, tomatoes, broiled, marinated and lightly breaded, blackened. They swore every time that they could taste green wilderness and swift, cold water in the sweet, oily flesh. The night before he’d left for New Orleans, they’d eaten a silent meal of wild sockeye salmon. The man in front of her reached for his package. From the back, he looked so much like Peter, thick and powerful, like a small bull, same short dark hair shot with gray, that for a moment she believed it really might be her ex-husband. If he were in town, this is where he’d be. He might even be buying the fish to surprise her with.
It would be just like Peter to come to town to see their son’s apartment and then to show up at her door with a piece of salmon and a bottle of wine. The fish would be beautiful, a choice cut—he would have had the clerk show him every piece in the case—but the wine would be all wrong, whatever was on sale. Thrift was Peter’s blind spot. But never mind. They would eat the fish and drink the wine, and they would talk. Standing there, she’d already thought of ten things that she needed to tell him and only him. She wanted to say that she was sorry for being critical of him and how it frightened her sometimes, how much she liked to be alone. How she’d been thinking of her mother lately and of the end of her mother’s life. How she’d seemed to disappear into herself, grown more insular and suspicious of everyone. The last year, living in the Memory Care Unit of a local assisted living community, she had lived what had seemed to Lucille like a strange, submerged life, drifting with all the other dazed fish in a cloudy aquarium.
She was about to say “Peter?” and tap him on the back when the man turned around. It wasn’t Peter, of course it wasn’t. This man was older, sterner than Peter had ever been. He had wild dark eyebrows over cool gray eyes. He would never have allowed himself to be judged not a Paris kind of person. When he saw her watching him, he nodded. “Pardon me,” he said as he brushed past her, and then he walked away down the aisle where the crackers and soup and canned beans were stocked.
She walked up the pasta aisle and through the shelves of vitamins toward the cashier’s station where her son had been bagging groceries. He lifted the last bag of groceries into a woman’s cart and she pushed the cart out of the line and out through the glass double doors, then he turned to the checkout girl. She was a pretty girl with light crinkled hair that looked as though it had just been released from tight braids. Closer, and she could see that the girl wore a silver dolphin on a silver chain around her neck; she saw that the girl’s face was flushed. Closer, and she saw that the girl was standing with her back against the counter next to the cash register, staring out the front window. She edged closer, her son hadn’t seen her yet, he was entirely intent on the girl. You’re standing too close, she thought uneasily, while the pretty girl twisted her fingers in the chain that held the silver dolphin.
Lucille hesitated; another two steps and she would be able to hear what he was saying. Over the speakers, a crystalline woman’s voice was singing, not words or melody but sounds, accompanied by the silver breathing and sighing of strings, a sound that could be the murmuring of stars, the brushings of heaven. Maybe she should just listen to that music, she thought, and go on to the Y.
He said something, and the girl shrugged, still smiling, though the smile seemed to stumble on her mouth. Her face and neck were flushed deep pink now, and she studied the ends of a strand of hair, frowning.
She stepped up behind the magazine rack at the end of the checkout line, studying the shelves of slippery elm lozenges, organic chocolate bars, packets of Vitamin C powder, listening. “I’m talking about a real conversation here, Myra,” he said. “I mean a real conversation. Not just ‘how’s it going today, Nathan?’ or ‘Paper or plastic?’ Nothing like that. I’d like to come over to your house sometime and have a real conversation.”
The girl shrugged and smiled past him, her face flushed. She picked at a fingernail, frowning, and from where she stood, Lucille saw the pulse beating in the girl’s skinny neck, the faraway look in her eyes. Girls could do that, Lucille remembered, young girls could, take themselves away from what was happening to a place where it wasn’t and wait there until it stopped. And as Nathan stood waiting for her answer, Lucille felt her own heart begin to beat faster. In his tense, eager face, his balled up fists, she felt his desperation as clearly as if it had been her own. This was Nathan now, his life, the nut of him. It was all there, as if nothing had ever left him. The child who’d run to her, the kid under the angry rain of his music, the fatherless boy, her bony son with his beautiful shining hair, frightening girls with his needy intensity, and all he wanted was only what everyone wanted: to be seen through the dark glass of his troubles and loved anyway.
The girl shrugged again. “We’ll see,” she said, and just then a man pushed his loaded cart into the checkout line. She spun toward the customer, and her hair floated out behind her as she turned. Lucille saw him watch it fly. “Hi, how are you today?” the girl said brightly. The customer was a bear of a man, short and wide, with a full black beard streaked with gray and a head full of tight black and gray curls. “Fine,” he said, smiling back at her. “Fine and dandy.” He set a pineapple on the conveyor belt, and Lucille had to fight with herself to keep from laughing at the sight of its absurd green leaves bobbing down the belt.
Back at his bagging station, her son looked bewildered and groggy, as though he’d just waked up in a strange place. Her boy. “Paper or plastic?” he asked.
“Plastic is good,” the man said.
“Plastic it is, then,” her son said, and he peeled a bag from the bunch that hung on the metal stand at the end of the counter. With a flourish, he snapped it open and reached for the pineapple and popped it into the bag with a scornful smile. The man looked at him in a puzzled, irritated way, as though he were just catching on to something. She stepped back and walked away, out through the produce, through the buckets of cut flowers and out the door. The ethereal voice stopped.
She crossed the parking lot, walking fast, and got into her car. She drove the five blocks to the Y, trying to forget her son’s face, the desperation and the hopefulness there. At the intersection before the Y, she sat in front of a green light until a car behind her honked. No doubt, Nathan would lose his job soon and move back in with her, and crowd the bathroom shelves and counter tops with his hair care products. He would fill her quiet house with his music and TV noise, and her life would be loud and cluttered and complicated again.
In the dressing room, she stripped out of her clothes and stepped into her old bathing suit that had once been red, but had faded to the color of weak tea. She smoothed the suit down over her hips and faced herself in the full length mirror beside the sink. A fifty-year-old woman looked back. Thin and a little stringy, a little gaunt. Bone strung tight with muscle and sinew. It was always a surprise to discover this again, when she’d thought she was shedding years with the pounds. Three months earlier, her period had stopped. Nothing could be simpler than this, she thought. The body cutting its ties, shedding its claims. She turned the whirlpool jets on high and watched as the water began to roll. She walked down the steps and into the small bubbling pool to the place in front of the strongest jet. She stood in the pummeling water there and felt it shove her, but she planted her feet and stood firm. She thought of the people Jesus had sent down into water to wash themselves. This was, of course, a parable, like the loaves and fishes, the idea that you could go into water and come up clean, that there was enough food to go around, but people lived as though those stories were true. They lived and lived and ate their bread and washed themselves and went on wanting more. Even if it was less they wanted, they wanted more of it.
She walked out of the whirlpool and showered one last time, then she walked out of the glass doors of the Y and into the spring sunshine of late afternoon. She didn’t feel clean, exactly, clean was like free, or simple, a dream you lived by and woke from and fell asleep to dream again, but she did feel calmer. She would go back by the store and see if Nathan could take his break. She’d buy him a muffin and cup of coffee and they’d sit in the café together, and maybe they’d talk or maybe he’d just jiggle his leg and shred his napkin and watch the clock, as though he couldn’t wait to get away from her. Or maybe she could tease the latest joke out of him, like the one he’d heard the other day back in the stock room unloading boxes. It had been a radio ad sponsored by the Sierra Club. The sound of a big engine roaring to life, the screech of tires, and a man’s voice saying “I drive alone ten miles to work each day on the interstate highway, so of course I need a vehicle that can carry twelve over Arctic terrain.” It would be good to laugh with him as they’d laughed that day; it would give her another chance to reach across the table and pat his hand. Tomorrow on their walk, she’d say, Agnes, I was wrong. There’s no cure for this hunger we’ve got. Let’s start there and see how far we can go.
Pam Durban is the author of three books of fiction: a collection of short stories, All Set About with Fever Trees, and two novels, The Laughing Place, and So Far Back. Her short fiction has been published in many magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century and New Stories from the South, The Year’s Best. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award. Her novel, So Far Back, received the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Fiction. She teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where she is the Doris Betts Professor of Creative Writing.