Nothing on either side was said.
Two Tramps in Mud Time
He wasn’t sure where the blanket had come from. But then he wasn’t sure where the woman next to him had come from either. One day the blanket was just there. He supposed Suzie had put it there when she realized he was napping when he closed the door in the afternoon. Did that mean she also realized he was having the occasional beer? Or for that matter, did she realize he wasn’t supposed to?
“Do you have to be on that side, Jim?”
“Cathy, can we please not talk politics now.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. My arm’s falling asleep.”
It wasn’t moving off her arm that was hard, Conor was thinking. It was the fact that it was the first move from afterglow into aftermath. The first step into “now what?” The couch seemed smaller than it had before the exchange. And suddenly he wasn’t sure what to do with his arm, the one he’d shifted as he moved. It had seemed natural where it was a moment ago, but now … the moment seemed to call for tenderness, but that was so far from how it had all started. He found a place for the arm, got a smile in return. But he realized he’d formed a fist behind her back, because he still hadn’t figured out what to do with the individual fingers, and the last thing he wanted to seem right now was tentative. That was one of the rules of courtroom etiquette he’d learned early in his career. You can only act uncertain when you know what’s going on. Now? He knew what had gone on. And on and on, for that matter. He’d thought he was older than that. But he wasn’t sure what had brought it on. And he wasn’t sure how they might carry on.
“You have a nice smile, Jim.”
And he knew he should answer, but the way she said it just made him smile more.
“It’s like in that picture they use in the paper all the time. You know the one I mean?”
“Yeah, I know the one. I got so tired of it, I quit wearing that jacket.”
“I never got tired of it,” she almost whispered. And he was thinking he wasn’t ready to consider that too deeply. Had she kept a copy, or had she just noticed it when it showed up, or had she waited for it to appear with the occasional council story? He wanted to know, but he didn’t want to ask. But, still, it was funny. She didn’t take a good photo. She walked into a room, and every man in the place looked. But in a photo … there’d been one in the paper when he was representing her co-worker all those years ago. She was standing with the other teacher outside a school board meeting, waiting for something. A copy of the photo was still in the file, he could probably check. She was wearing a long dark skirt and a white blouse, both of which lost all definition, all detail, in the merciless spots of ink. And her perfect olive skin, just a different shade of gray. Without motion, she was just a few lines and shapes. With … that was a different story. He remembered the distraction that began when he followed her into the meeting room, watching the hem of her skirt sway in a rhythm that somehow came out different from the tempo of the rest of her movements. The way the blouse wrinkled and shifted when she brought a hand up to push the hair over her shoulder, or twirl it around he fingers as she listened to a speaker. The hair itself, never still, never just hanging over her shoulders, because she’d shake it, or push it, or twirl it, or move her head as she talked.
“You in there, Jimmy?”
“Jimmy? Where the hell did you hear that?”
She was almost too old to giggle, but not quite. “Betty calls you that.”
“What else does she call me?”
“You’d be surprised. Betty, Simon … they all like you. They think you’re the class of the greed-head set.”
“I’ll have to consider whether to thank you for that. But let the record show that you were smiling when you said it.”
“I’ve been smiling since I decided to do this.”
And he didn’t doubt it, because he’d first seen that smile, close up, when they were sitting there in adjacent chairs at the school board meeting, waiting for the student of the month awards or some such to be finished, then the budget discussions, then all the other things that make people not go to meetings, while they waited for the session at the end when they’d discuss … Trevor, that was his name. The question had something to do with nudes in an art class, paintings, not live ones, and abstract ones at that, so the details he couldn’t remember didn’t really matter now, because there was not a thing abstract about the nude next to him now. She’d turned, at the meeting, and asked something inconsequential, and their eyes had locked, and she’d smiled, for no apparent reason, except it was apparent to them, and then it was just a matter of logistics. Sort of like today would have been if they hadn’t had a couch.
“Oh. So it was your choice?”
“What do you mean?”
“The others didn’t send you here to convert the greed-head?”
She sat up in a series of motions that made him dizzy, swaying and moving as she first moved the blanket away, then sat up and pulled part of it in front of her again, let it drop a little as she raised an arm to brush her hair back, then pulling it up around her again, somehow leaving him enough room and blanket to sit up and pull a corner over his lap, but now he was on the other side of her as he sat up behind her, so she had to turn again, with the hair thing, and adjusting the blanket, and he hoped she returned pretty directly to whatever they were talking about, because he was already starting to forget.
“What am I supposed to do now? Come out for the pipeline to prove that’s not why I’m here?”
“I don’t think you left any doubt why you were here.”
“So why’d you let me get away with it?”
“Let you? We knew what was going to happen from the day we talked at city hall.”
“You were ready for it to happen.”
“Any man who’s not ready for you should be hospitalized.” She smiled, shook back her hair again.
“You know what I mean,” she said, with some shy move he couldn’t quite catch, a change in her tone of voice, a dip of eyebrow, the kind of coyness that was only for effect, because it hid nothing.
“Yeah. A month ago it might not have worked.”
“A month?” Was that all? Maybe longer. Davenport had been dead almost two months. The election was three, almost four weeks ago. The new council took office in a month. He and his wife hadn’t spent a night under the same roof for eight weeks.
“A month?” Her eyes were wide, questioning, almost skeptical. Did she think it had been longer? Not as long? No idea?
“So it’s …?”
“Damnit, Jim, please. Are you and Karen finished?”
He got up slowly, left her the blanket, walked to the closet painfully aware of the possibility of her eyes on him. Fifteen years, was it that long? How much he must have changed, especially from her unique angle. She didn’t seem that much different, but then she was so defined by movement, by stance, and not just by appearance. He opened the small closet, reached up to the shelf where he kept some old clothes for – god knows, certainly he hadn’t anticipated this. He pulled down a sweatshirt, pulled it over his head, felt silly and hoped she wasn’t looking too closely. He found some jeans, pulled them on, his back still to her. He turned slowly, saw she wasn’t looking, was giving him some small zone of privacy to consider the question, how he felt about it, how he felt about her asking it here, now, like this. She was slouched back, with the blanket around her in some sort of fashion that made her look longer, thinner, an exaggerated vision from an Egyptian tomb, the curves longer, more subtle. He leaned against the desk. They both looked different, but the question was still hanging.
“Oh. I’m not sure what to say.”
Nothing in the etiquette book on that one, he was sure. “Under the circumstances, I’d be suspicious if you said you were sorry.”
“Well, yes, but, uh, well, I mean …”
“Sputtering doesn’t become you, Cathy. Even dressed like that.”
“Well, how are you with it, Jim?”
He looked down at the carpet, couldn’t help noticing there was a spot that needed cleaning right where his main client chair sat. “It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud.”
“Oh.” She kept saying that, and he wasn’t sure what else she could say, because it wasn’t like the situation had any guidelines or rules, and if there were any, they’d broken several of them already. “Do you want me to go?”
She seemed suddenly aware of the surroundings. As if she hadn’t noticed before that she’d been naked in a lawyer’s office for two hours and was sitting on his couch wrapped in a blanket. She tugged a little at one corner of the blanket, but it was a formality. He knew he was staring at her, and that he wasn’t going to stop, and that she knew it, and he wasn’t sure if either of them was supposed to do anything about it.
“I don’t suppose you have a cigarette in that desk, do you?”
“No. I quit when Jamie was born. I can offer you a beer?”
“You can’t give a girl a glass of wine?”
“Cathy, I’ve always had the impression you haven’t been a girl since you were about thirteen years old.”
“What does that have to do with a glass of wine?”
What she really needed, Conor was thinking, was something to do with her hands. It occurred to him he could hand her a legal pad and a pencil and let her sketch while they chatted, while they tried to broach the topic of what they were doing and where they were going with it – the kind of thing, he had to admit, she should have thought about before walking into his office and … what did you call that? It was too fast to be stripping. She was just suddenly there, standing in front of him, answering prayers he hadn’t prayed yet, a raven-haired goddess wearing nothing but high heels and an attitude. He probably should have at least had her put the dress back on and taken her to dinner first.
“Care to tell me what you’re smiling about?”
“I was trying to imagine Suzie’s reaction to me keeping a bottle of wine in here.”
“Oh.” She didn’t exactly redden. More of a color shift. Conor couldn’t think of an answer to what she was going to ask. She looked at her feet while she asked it. “What’s she going to think?”
“I don’t know. She left us a blanket. The offer of a beer’s still good.”
She had time to think about it. That was the strange part. Time was what they hadn’t had before. All their hours were stolen. Because she had a husband at home, and two boys, and an involved schedule. PTA, teacher conferences, school board meetings, consultations. Enough that it didn’t seem odd for her to be out of the house, or away from the school, for whatever time that was never quite long enough. They’d had two-hour stretches, for about three months, long enough to know they wanted more, and just long enough for the guilt to creep in. Because somebody was trusting him to be on company time, representing clients all over the state, and sometimes the numbers didn’t quite add up because they’d been at some hotel near the airport, or he’d snuck in the back door of a friend’s house. Three months, and what they felt for one another didn’t start to fade, but the joy did, because they were always stealing something from somebody, and always wondering what they could do, because it wasn’t that she didn’t love her husband, but it had been a marriage of – convenience, desperation? – and she was just in it and it wasn’t that she couldn’t leave him, she just didn’t have any reason to except there was this guy that she felt like had always been the one, which was a fine attitude for a college girl, maybe, but she wasn’t, she was the mother of two boys and the wife of a man who was incredibly kind to her and then all of a sudden he had just had a heart attack.
She wouldn’t see him on the last trip. He left the gift with a friend, the one whose back door they used. When David Chandler came to Smithy to teach, Conor wasn’t sure what to think. He still wasn’t.
He screwed the top off a beer, a good German one, and looked at the palm of his hand. The beer cap left its ridged imprint in his hand. The print stayed a while. He’d read somewhere that how fast an imprint like that faded – or how fast any impression on the skin faded – was a function of age. He would sometimes try to do the math. If he could fit the top of his second beer into the ridges left by the first one, did that mean the imprint wasn’t fading fast enough, or that he was opening the second one too soon? He wasn’t sure how to score this one; he’d never opened two at the same time.
He handed her the beer, leaned back on the desk. She sipped it, managed to avoid making a face. She looked at it, blinked a couple of times. “I thought you didn’t drink?”
“Now and then.”
He shrugged. She looked at him, sipped her beer again. “What next, Jim?” He shrugged again.
“You’re not ready to talk about … this?” She waved the beer bottle, apparently to indicate where they were, what they’d done. He just smiled at her. “Well, maybe you want to talk about who should be mayor?”
He rolled his eyes, shook his head.
“Betty said she was going to tell you about Waters’ offer? Jim, what’s wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry, Cathy. I know it’s not really funny, but … well, I’ve talked about politics in some strange ambiences in the last few weeks, but I think this one takes it.”
She paused, as if waiting for something to pass.
“What would you do?”
“If you want the dam badly enough, take it.”
“And have Waters for mayor?” It was funny, the way she said it, it was the first time he’d really thought of it that way. “Well, do you think he’d make a good mayor?”
“No moral brakes. He’d do anything for attention and affection. He’d jump through anybody’s hoops.”
He wondered if she heard the irony in what she asked next. “How’d he get that way?”
“The slippery slope. When he was selling real estate he told himself that every lie, every case of dry rot he helped paint over, was for the greater good. For the people in his office, for the people who really wanted to buy the house, for the people who really wanted to sell it. And he figured … I don’t know. He thought he’d won if he made everybody happy. And he probably thinks people elected him because he made everybody happy.”
“He’s conveniently overlooked the fact that three of us ran unopposed.”
“But you haven’t? Overlooked that, I mean.”
“No. That’s why I’m a little bit leery of letting this election make me the most powerful politician in town. I didn’t do anything to deserve it except show up.”
“What about what you’ve done since then?”
“I just sit there and vote. There’s not a whole lot to it.”
“There could be.” She set the beer on the floor, walked to where her dress was, short steps dictated by the blanket wrapped around her knees. She stood by the dress, still heaped in the floor, looked at him for a second, then dropped the blanket, casually and slowly pulled the dress up over her body. She shook out the blanket, began to fold it. He leaned on the desk looking at her.
“I’ll wash this and bring it back.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Somebody does. It’s a little … musky.”
“OK, but how will you bring it back. Make an appointment and come in with a grocery bag?”
“Make this as easy as you can, Jim, please.”
He walked around the desk, opened a side drawer, handed her a key.
“Yeah. Back door of the building, door by the closet there.”
He looked at her for a moment, the folded blanket clutched to her chest, a shield of some sort between them. “When I see the blanket’s back, I’ll know this really happened.”
She reached out, uncertainly, brushed her fingers across his neck. “Jim …”
“It’s strange for me, too, Cathy. I’ll walk you home.”
“No. I’m not ready for that yet … the neighbors and all.” She giggled. “We’ve never dated, you know.”
“Cathy … I’ve got a lot going on right now. I don’t …”
She put a finger over his lips. “Now you’ve got more. This door over here?”
When she was out the door, he took a sip. His beer was empty. He picked hers up from beside the couch and drained it.
“So explain to me how you never came to vote on the pipeline.”
“Little late to be asking, isn’t it?”
Mike Christian nodded, sliced a tomato with a Swiss army knife. “You know it’s against the health laws to bring that in here, don’t you?” The editor shrugged, dropped a slice on his saag. “That’s a really irritating smile, you know that?”
“I don’t need to worry about it. If we’re cited, you’ll make a brief in the Post. I probably won’t even make the American Journalism Review.”
“It never occurred to you that the health laws are about more than what makes the paper?”
“That’s all that matters to me, though,” he said with a smile. “Do you want a slice?”
“Do you want to go to hell?”
“Yeah, the vote. Waters wanted to wait.”
“Because he always does. He’ shrewd, but he’s also scared of offending anybody. He’d delay every vote until after the next election if he could.”
“He was sounding decisive at Rotary this week.”
“He was talking about having to make hard choices, about the pipeline being the challenge of a generation.”
“The vote.” Conor took a drink of tea, wished he’d put more lemon in it to give it some bite. “Simon thought we ought to build a second dam on West Ridge, in one of the hollows up in the national forest. He felt it was the city’s legacy to get its water from captured rainfall, not from the runoff that feeds the Fork. He maintained our water would always be as clean as the first drop man ever drank in the valley.”
“It’s a beautiful thought.”
“Yeah, and we should have done it 10 years ago.”
“I sort of remember.”
“I think it was when you first came here from … where was it?”
“And you left Florida because …?”
“I could be an ME here. And you’ve never left because …?”
Conor scowled. “You sound like Karen.”
“How is she?”
Conor shrugged. “We don’t talk much.”
Christian stared at him for several seconds. “I’ m sorry to hear that, Jim. Is that why…?”
“Is that why what?”
“Could I have a slice of that?”
Christian cut a slice of tomato thin enough to read a newspaper through. Conor raised his eyebrows. Christian cut another.
“For god’s sake, Mike, it’s the first tomato of the season, not the last.”
Christian sighed, laid the tomato on Conor’s plate. “Tell me about the vote.”
Conor sighed. “There wasn’t one. Pershing said … the vote was on the courthouse. Simon started the talk about legacy. The legacy of pure, clean water from the west. The Ashur building – or more accurately the Ashur grandson building – just made things worse. POP started tying legacy to the pipeline – effective rhetoric.”
“But the pipeline was …”
“Already approved by the state. We have the permits. We can have water in two years. The permits for the dam were ten years old. We’ll have to start the permit process over unless we can prove a hardship.”
“And you can’t because …”
“We have the permits for the pipeline.”
“Why didn’t they build it back then?”
“Money. Jack went huge on student housing when they first expanded, and the city had committed to providing a percentage of the infrastructure. We changed that rule later, but we wound up running a few million dollars worth of pipe out there first.”
“To help a developer.”
“To provide water and sewer for taxpaying citizens. And it’s paid itself off a few times. But the upfront money made them put off some things.”
“Including the dam?”
“Yeah. We just grew too fast. The future was mortgaged for immediate expansion.”
“This part I know. You didn’t have the money to rebuild the courthouse.”
Conor nodded. He’d come into office facing just the pipeline vote. Then all hell broke loose. Environmentalists and historians and traditionalist formed a coalition called POP. New Smithy joined old Smithy on a pair of projects where it was already too late.
“We wanted to, Mike. That was the part Brian never quite got. We wanted to. But we wouldn’t have been keeping much more than the foundation and two walls. And it wasn’t the cost difference between the pipeline and the dam – we couldn’t have started either project if we’d spent eight million rebuilding a century-old building of native stone. The technology to cut those rocks doesn’t even exist any more.”
“And we’ve just never really put it all in perspective, have we?”
Conor knew he didn’t need to say it. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
Christian looked toward the front window, ate another fork full of rice. Conor could hear the hum of the ceiling fans, murmurs of conversation from the other tables.
“You and Pershing were against bulldozing the thing at first.”
“Right. And I’m pretty sure Marlin Waters had promised West he’d vote for demolition. He sort of understood that it was the kind of commitment he had to keep. West felt like he had to vote for demolition, but the idea made him sick.”
Christian looked like he was trying to focus on something distant. “But who made the motion to knock it down? Sizemore?”
“How did I miss that?”
“You were out of town that week. State Press Association, I think. The next time I saw you after that we were already talking about the election and Jamie.”
“Uh-huh. I should fire that reporter.”
“He’s already left.”
“So he has. I still don’t … You decided you couldn’t afford to rebuild it?”
“But why make the motion?”
“A man ought to shoot his own dog.”
“So Waters figured out that quick …?”
“Yeah. Give the bastard credit, at least he can count to five. When I made the motion, he knew he could back away from the vote and explain it away politically, so long as the vote passed. You see, Charles hadn’t said he’d vote for demolition, he said he’d get it demolished. If Waters had stuck, West could have voted to keep the thing. Brad would have been baffled, but then he usually is. But Waters voted first, and knew he could vote to keep the courthouse without having to worry that we would. That meant Charles had to vote for demolition. That probably cost him 500 votes right there.” Conor wondered why he was still explaining it. Few cared, and fewer would understand.
“You tried to help West by making the motion …”
“I knew it was breaking his heart to vote for tearing it down.”
“But Marlin Waters took advantage of it.”
“That’s what he does.”
“And this whole vote took less than a minute.”
“Yeah, but it had been building since the accident.”
“Since that truck came rolling down from West Virginia, huh?”
“My objection to that phrase stands.”
Because it hadn’t rolled down from West Virginia. It had actually rolled down from West Commerce Street. The driver’s heart had theoretically seized up just after he topped the rise a quarter-mile west of the courthouse. He went barreling through the Indian Trail intersection, which a motorist coming along that road knew was wrong for two reasons. One was that trucks were supposed to turn there, because there was nowhere for a truck to go in Courthouse Square. The other was that the light was green for the motorist, so he had no reason to slow down until the truck came rolling in front of him, and while he could brake in time not to hit the truck, it was slick enough for him to slide, crashing into a fire hydrant that created a fountain uphill from the courthouse, a fountain of water that hit the road and flowed down the hill toward storm drains that weren’t ready for that kind of action. The water pooled on the square, freezing as the night wore on, adding to the surreal scene in the silver floodlights the fire department set up, for some reason, long after they were sure there wasn’t a goddamned thing else they could do but string yellow tape around the square and pray.
They never did completely reconstruct what happened, because the only witness was the guy sliding into the fire hydrant, and after him a cop in a prowl car, who took a while to get grounded after he topped the rise and saw an oak log sticking out of a second-story window of the courthouse. They probably could have made a charge of dereliction of duty stick, but nobody else was thinking clearly that night, so Bob Gardner let it ride. The officer pulled to the side of the street, and called it in before he even noticed the truck. Then he keyed his mike again and explained about the truck and called for an ambulance and continued staring dumbstruck at the chaotic tableau through an eighth of a mile of freezing mist that was starting to pick up, but not enough to explain the water he finally noticed running down Commerce Street. He keyed the mike again when he saw the car and the man staggering out of it. The officer knew that man would need treatment for hypothermia at least, because he was stumbling to the sidewalk soaking wet and it was cold out there.
The only thing he knew with any certainty was that it was going to be a damn long night.
It was only later, after the engineers and the architect got a good look, that they knew how bad the damage was. The architect said that’s where he would have put the charges if he’d wanted to knock it down. Right where those four-foot oak logs crashed through, probably in excess of fifty miles an hour, and that was the last thing that moved quickly on the square that night, because everyone was taking baby steps as the ice packed on, and more ice fell on every bit of salt they put down, and finally toward dawn Gardner crept up in front of Conor’s house at ten miles an hour and let him out. They talked briefly about what they needed to do, but they’d already done it by closing off the square. It was like the miserable, pedantic logistics of a funeral, as if the guest of honor would care, because it didn’t have a lot to do with fixing what was wrong, it just had to do with finding something to do to stay busy enough not to focus on the enormity of what had happened.
Back on the square they were rolling up fire hoses. Nobody knew what they were going to do with fire hoses, but that’s what they were trained to do. They showed up, as quickly as they could, which wasn’t very because even their biggest engine could slide on this stuff, and they climbed off the truck and they deployed. And then they stood there sheepishly with their hoses and their axes and their air-bottles. And a few hours later, after standing around in the ice because nobody really knew what else to do, they started packing up the trucks.
Who knows, maybe the clock tower would have come down anyway, but that’s when it did. Near dawn, when everybody was pretty well giving up for the weekend, packing up except for a skeleton crew, because the real work would begin when the thawing started, Monday the weatherman was saying, when tree limbs would begin snapping and breaking more power lines. That would be when everybody was needed again, so there weren’t really that many people still around when the tower came down, sometime Saturday morning when the wind picked up.
It was probably a combination of factors, the engineers thought. The wind, and the structural underpinnings being damaged, and the ice in the cracks. People heard it all the way past Madison Street.
“And it’s still echoing, Mike.”
“We couldn’t fly back from the convention for a few days anyway. The ice. That made me crazy. I hated missing a story like that.”
“Yeah. A story.”
It was Christian’s turn to shrug. “And you tell it well.”
“You know, even after that vote, I still think we could have pulled out the election. We had the signs ordered, we had the ad space reserved – we could have told the details behind the hysteria. Jack and Charles would have won.”
“And you’d be on your way to Richmond by now. And the pipeline would be decided.”
“But then Davenport died on you?”
“It wasn’t his choice,” Conor said. Did I say that too loud, he wondered?
“And you still think …”
“What? Go ahead.”
“I’m not sure if Davenport’s been dead long enough to ask this?”
“You still think his winning would have been the best thing?”
“Yes. And I think he’d have made a good mayor. He could make decisions. He may not have had the patience to run a meeting, but that might not be a bad thing. Might not have been.”
Christian made a noise that could have been a grunt. “So now what?”
“What do you mean?”
Christian delicately cut a slice of tomato in two, heaped rice on it, munched quietly. “You’re the only one who can do it, you know?”
“One of the POP people will be nominated.”
“Fairly. It’s what I’d do. Betty would be fun to watch, wouldn’t she?”
“That’s a daily thing.”
“A daily thing?”
Christian sat with his fork poised for … it was hard to tell. A pointer for a lecture maybe, or just a prop. “We need stories daily. Wilson being mayor would be good from that perspective. But history’s another thing. It’s got to be boring for good history to be made. The bad stuff is just exciting.”
“So Betty for mayor would be exciting daily stories, but bad history for the city?”
“One way of looking at it. The courthouse too. We did good daily stuff. We need to do the history some time.”
“You have to worry about that all the time?”
“I have to think about it. Are you going to eat that tomato?”
Conor sighed, made a dismissive hand gesture. “When we decide the pipeline – I’d like for people to understand why.”
“You understand that can’t be a priority for us?”
“What? Letting people know why we do something?”
“No, Jim. The fact that you’d like one thing or another.”
“Point taken. But clear up that vote sometime. We never voted on the pipeline. The vote they blasted us for during the campaign was on the courthouse. POP’s transference fooled even you.” Conor stood. “I should get back. Do you have this one?”
“Sort of. You bought me a bowl of cardboard at Goose’s.”
“Green cardboard. I thought that was all you needed.”
“Jim … are you …?”
“Do you have a life right now?”
“Yeah. I planted some tomatoes beside the patio out back, and the roses are blooming on both sides of the front stoop. The tomatoes need weeding, but the roses don’t ask much of me.”
He left without saying anything else, walking deliberately, carefully, not wanting to seem rushed, not wanting to look like he was stalking out. Especially since he was. Because one of them just didn’t get it. He and Christian had been friends since college. When Christian came to the C-A they agreed to set aside at least one lunch hour a week to keep up. And at first, Conor felt lucky. He had a practice, a family, a community that gave him … he’d never defined it. Support? Fulfillment? Christian had just his twelve-hour days and his byline. That had shifted somehow. What Christian had got from his job had grown as he’d learned the details of the area, as he’d added breadth and perspective to his writing. Conor’s world had shrunk. The community wasn’t giving him as much as it had. And it seemed like it had taken a lot more.
He thought he and Christian could understand the same things if they were ever at the same point in their lives. But there was always something one of them was missing. Conor didn’t understand how Christian could so blithely leave a story half-told, move on to the next one – the next daily event – with the history of another still hanging. At least Christian understood what he was doing. Conor wondered if that made it better or worse. What Christian couldn’t understand was why Conor thought the tales should be told differently. Something happened in the hearts of the people making the decisions. People ought to know what that was. Christian didn’t seem to care. The fact that Conor voted for one thing or another mattered. The fact that he’d like one thing or another didn’t.
Did he have a life? He had one more council meeting before the new group was sworn in. He didn’t want to go. He wanted to pick up Jamie and head for the beach for the rest of the month. But he had that meeting. And that was it. No son until later in the summer. No wife. His marriage had somehow driven off the Mill Road curve with Jack Davenport. His wife’s last local appearance was at the funeral. The practice he’d been winding down. No need for new business when he wouldn’t be there. Except now he would. And he couldn’t start building up the practice again until … until what? Everybody else’s lives seemed to go on. Betty Wilson still went to the turkey plant every day, Zaner still taught. Sizemore and Waters went to the office every day and did whatever it was executives did. Mike Christian ran the paper, Gary Linden ran the city. Jack Davenport rested in his grave and Bob Gardner tried to find who put him there.
He did have this … this connection. This house he could drive by, but where he couldn’t stop because … well, because he couldn’t. And then there was this gallery downtown, open weekends, and a few hours in the afternoon, and for openings. And inside was a woman he hadn’t talked to since … what was he calling it? She’d come to his office ten days ago. She’d come to him. She’d showed up because they’d once had … had what? Was she waiting for him to come to the shop, or to her house, and tell her what they had? Or was it just a one-time thing, something she’d done because she could, because she had to?
He could always go and ask her. But ask her what? If he had a life? It they had a … a what? A relationship? He’d heard the word, though he wasn’t sure what it was. It seemed to be something like going steady, except with sex. An affair? Well, not yet. Barely a fling. More of a one-afternoon stand, or a hook-up, to use the college kids’ jargon. Did it truly qualify as an affair if neither person was fully married? Technically married? He wondered what the phrase was for someone who was married but didn’t have a spouse. Maybe it still qualified as an affair because that was how it started, when she had a spouse, but before he did. About two years before. Long enough to claim he wasn’t on the rebound. Not long enough for Karen to believe him. Close enough to tell her about it. Because at the time it was still important enough to him that she needed to know about it because … because she just did. Because he’d never felt anything like that before, and maybe he just wanted Karen to know he was capable of that level of feeling. Because at the time he had no way of knowing he wouldn’t feel it with her. No way of knowing she’d be so … businesslike. Get married, have child, get degree, relocate. It just wasn’t that goddamned easy.
Cathy Chandler was easy. But he’d better not tell her that. Because that wasn’t exactly what he meant.
What he meant was that it would be so easy to walk into the gallery. It was right there on the corner, only a block, block and a half out of the way on his route back to the office. He’d walked by it a few times, looked at the hours posted in the window. He didn’t even need an appointment, the way she had to come to his office. He could just walk in, anytime, during regular business hours anyway.
But it had been a week. And a half. And he hadn’t had a life during that time. He’d laughed a lot, but not at anything that was funny. He’d done a lot, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He’d talked to Charles West and Gary Linden about running the city, cutting off every conversation that verged on wondering who’d be mayor. Because he’d traded that away and he couldn’t tell them. He’d got something for it. He had the pipeline. He couldn’t remember half the time why he wanted it, but he’d said he’d get it and he had. And he’d talked to a few clients. Closings and contracts, stuff Suzie could do. He should forget raises and send her to law school. And he’d walked to lunch somewhere downtown and sometimes – he might have missed one day – he’d walk past the gallery and a couple of evenings, but not all of them, he’d driven past her house on the way home, where he usually had a couple of beers, but only a couple, and then a couple more, and he’d been in the office every single day at least in time to leave for lunch.
And he really ought to get back from lunch now. But he didn’t have any appointments in the afternoon, so a little window shopping might be in order. Nice painting. Some kind of … well, some kind of painting. Somebody moving around behind it. Not clear with the sun glancing off the window, but a tall woman, hair long and black, seems to enjoy moving around, moves as if somebody’s watching even if she doesn’t have any real idea if they are. Some kind of long skirt, just past the knee, accenting the long, thin effect, moving in a sine wave, swaying one way at the hem-line as her hips moved the other.
He’d expected a bell of some sort when he opened the door. Instead it was a note, some kind of strings, maybe a cello making a tuning stroke. She was hanging a painting on a hook. A plain-type action, but one she managed to make cursive. She turned, not just her head, but from the waist, so that her hair and her skirt moved. Then she stopped. She looked at him, immobile, holding the painting an inch from the hook. Completely motionless, but her expression changed. Just the eyes, somehow making the circuit from surprise to pleasure to something that looked like fear. For that moment, her hair hung limp, her clothes could have been on a mannequin. More vulnerable somehow than when she’d stood in his office. A plaintive sight, he thought. Somebody he wanted to do something for. Maybe something that would help him too…
… too quick to figure out. She hadn’t seen him walk up, he hadn’t called ahead, he was just there. And there for what? To pick up where they’d left off in his office, to tell her it had been a mistake and he was going back to his fat wife. Well, not fat, exactly, but big, and wore a business suit to a funeral, of all things, and left him here like this, on the wrong side of everything, with nobody to … well, almost nobody. Maybe she could help.
She set the painting down, slowly, feeling clumsy, awkward and uncertain. She knew she should do it with some sort of swoop, that’s what he was probably looking for, but she was afraid she’d drop it. He was just there. Is that what he had felt like in his office? Was he going to say anything, do anything, or just stand there at the door, looking at her, waiting for here to … well, don’t get your hopes up, buddy, she thought, I’m fully dressed today and it will take a long longer than two seconds.
“Can I help you, councilman?” Almost two weeks for him to follow up on her visit, she thought, no way am I going to make this easy.
“I’m looking for a work of art.”
“You may have come to the right place, depending on what you had in mind.”
“I had a piece of art in my office recently. I probably can’t replace it or duplicate it, but I was looking for something like it.”
“Can you describe what you’re looking for?”
“An Italian primitive with a lot of raw natural talent.”
She knew she shouldn’t let him get away with this, but he was just there, and it was probably hard for him to be there, not that that was her problem, and she knew they probably ought to talk, about what they were doing, where they were going, where they were and how they got there for that matter, but he was just there, and so was she as a matter of fact …
… very matter-of-factly walked past him, made more of a show than she really needed to of walking around a display of hand-made jewelry, locked the doors at the front of the gallery, hung the “Back soon” sign on the door. Then she walked to the back of the store without looking at him. But as she passed, she made a point of walking close enough to him that he could feel the air move as she passed, vaguely sense the hem of her skirt brushing against his pant leg as she went by. He tried not to move, to stay in that spot where a whiff of her perfume had settled. He waited until it passed, following her into the back, he supposed, leaving a transient trail he could follow like Hansel and Gretel tracking their bread crumbs. Then he turned and settled in the easy chair next to the jewelry display. He looked across the room at a painting of a mountain sunset in the fall, a woodland scene almost devoid of greens. It was impressionist, but with no finesse or subtlety, just huge swabs of orange and yellow that looked like they’d blown out of a tree onto the canvas. He thought of autumn storms that came into a scene like that and took the last of the weak leaves in a swift fury of wind and water. One day it was autumn, crisp and sparkling with all the electric energy that had been building all summer, and the next it was early winter, sodden and chilly and brown. The painting was the last crystal instant of autumn, seconds before winter’s first storm. A lot of raw, natural talent there.
He wondered which of them was more hardheaded. She’d made the first move last time, at his office, and what a move it was. But then he was the one who had to give in, by stepping around the desk, by locking the door. So now he’d made the first move; he’d come to her place. So she had to give in, she had to come back out and invite him back to wherever she was. She was … she was probably back there waiting for him to come in, to let her know how much he still wanted her. And if he did go back there she would probably … he forced himself to take a deep breath, because if he thought about what would happen next, he wouldn’t be able to sit there, he would start thinking about and then he would get up and …
He got up and walked to the back of the gallery, to where a bold print curtain hung across an opening, and he thought it was safe, that he’d made his point by how long he’d made her wait. As he reached for the curtain, she pulled it open from the other side, and he had his hand up, and she looked angry, but that faded, and he took her hand, because they were so close anyway, and they just stood there for a moment, their hands together at about shoulder level. He turned their hands just a little, and she had to step closer or let go, and he could smell the perfume again, and her anger had almost faded to a smile, or something like it, because her lips were parting from the livid line they’d been a moment ago, and in a second she might kiss him or bite him, he wasn’t sure which, and he was even less sure if he cared. He’d made her wait, he’d made his point, but they’d both made each other wait before that, and he wondered if it was too late, and if he was using her for … well, for whatever, and if he was, then he’d just have to feel guilty about it later, because he wasn’t going to stop if she came one inch closer, whether it was because she wanted to or because he turned his hand just a little bit more.
“You never did answer my question.”
“The TriLateral Commission sent in some black helicopters. I don’t know who was on them.”
She punched him in the chest, a little hard, but then rough seemed to be working for them. They were, somehow, in the easy chair, with afternoon sun coming in on the other side of the jewelry display, and the print curtain, somehow, draped across them. He’d been aware of her moving across the room, coming back with the curtain, but being aware of her was the short description of the afternoon. Aware of her, of the art on the walls, of the things he didn’t know you could do in an easy chair, of the first glass of chilled white wine, and the slightly warmer second one, because they just left the bottle by the chair, the refrigerator was all the way in the back, after all, even thought there wasn’t much else back there, as they’d found out before, laughing and giggling, they’d come back to the chair.
“What?” She took her head off his shoulder, leaned forward, looked at the floor. Somebody’s shadow had stopped.
“They’re peeking in the window. Wonder what they’re looking for?”
He felt a slight tug, as if she were going to stand up. He tugged back. “Don’t show them.”
She settled back. They watched the shadow move on. “You scare me when you giggle like that, Cathy.”
“What did you think I was going to do?”
“Peek around the edge of that display case to see who it was, so that whoever it was would report that the proprietor of the Chandler Gallery was hiding something there in the middle of the afternoon, which might start all kinds of gossip.”
“You worry about that?”
“Actually I was worried you’d get up and go to the door like that.” She tilted her head back, smiled up at him.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Well, you’re not dressed.”
“But I do look good.”
“I can’t argue with that. But I don’t think there’s any mention of how good you look in the indecent exposure laws.”
“There should be. Have you ever been on a nude beach? It’s criminal. But …”
“But answer the question.”
“Yeah, I worry about gossip. I’m in a position more prominent than I’d prefer, I’m not even officially separated from my wife, it’s still largely a Bible-thumping community …”
“Do you really think anybody would care?”
He’d never stopped to wonder. And now that he did, he thought maybe people would care because … well, because they would. “Maybe I got in the habit of worrying the last time?”
“The last time?”
Her head was still on his shoulder. He thought that with reading glasses, he could see the texture of her scalp. But all he could see was a black tangle, and somewhere beyond it, far enough to be in focus, a hip covered with a curtain.
“It means candle maker, doesn’t it?”
“Your husband’s name.”
“I guess so.”
“What was your maiden name.”
“Just funny that you wouldn’t know.”
“What? That you were never really a maiden?”
He wondered if he’d said it just to make her punch him again. “Are you saying you didn’t enjoy it?”
“Well, no, but …”
“OK then. Fragiovanni.”
“Brother to John?”
“Uh-huh. Very good.”
“John the Baptist?”
“No, the Divine.”
“That you are.”
“I’m glad you think so.” He liked the way she said it.
“Why were you married?”
“You don’t have to say it that way.”
“I’m sorry. Why did you have to be married back then? When we met?”
“I just was.”
“He was fifteen years older than you. And sick. “
“And loved me. I was twenty-two, broke, on my own, and he wasn’t sick when I met him. Or we didn’t know he was. And he accepted me, didn’t mind that I’d been a little … wild. I reformed. I was grateful.”
“Until you met me?”
“Was I the only one?”
“That’s not a fair question. Jimmy.
“Do you think it was that easy to do that to David?”
“You did it with me.”
“And you’re doing it to Karen.” She spat the words. “And you’d quit drinking, if I recall, hadn’t you?”
“What’s that got to do with …?”
“Don’t preach to me about self-control.”
She hadn’t moved, but it felt different. Like palms sticky from holding hands too long. The whole length of their bodies felt like that. She had it wrong. He wasn’t just drinking …
… wasn’t just that she needed somebody. It was him. To think he’d imply that … she wanted to get up and walk away. But she wasn’t even sure where all her clothes were, and the wine buzz was weakening to a dull headache, and holding him just didn’t feel right, and his attitude made her feel like … like he didn’t think it was him. Like he thought he was just anybody. Like he thought she’d do this with just anybody.
“What did you come here for Jim?”
“I wanted to tell you something.”
“I found the blanket.”
“Oh. Do you want the key back now?
“No. I wanted to tell you that, too…”
… tell her that she was the only bright spot in his summer, in his life, but it was the wrong time to say it. She’d relaxed a little, though, and her head felt more sleepy than … cuddly. He wondered what was next. It was still hours until dark, and it wasn’t like there was a back door. And if there were and he were walking out of it …
“Christian would report it, you know?”
“He runs the newsroom at the Commercial-Appeal. He’d report it if he got wind of an affair between a council member and an activist on opposite sides of the pipeline issue.”
“Oh. You know him that well.”
“He’s from here?”
“No. North Carolina somewhere.”
“Did he come here because of you?”
“No.” Conor chuckled at the idea. “Just coincidence. There are only so many newspapers around.”
“Hmmm. I did.” Conor knew what she meant, didn’t want to ask. He wasn’t ready to go there. But then when he considered where they’d been.
“I thought it was a job?”
“David was recruited for the institute. It was another state school, so he kept all his benefits – including all those insurance policies. He asked me if it would be OK if we moved, if Frank finished school here.”
“Frank? The youngest?”
“Very good. You get a lot of points for that Conor.”
“Yeah. So you …?”
“I got to decide. And I knew you were here.”
“Did you plan this?”
They laughed against each other. It felt right again. Conor wondered again when he could get up, and how, and what the logistics of separating themselves would be.
“Why do you call it that?”
“Call what what?”
“Why do you call it the pipeline issue? Instead of the water supply issue, or the dam issue?”
“Is that another way to ask the same question I dodged earlier?”
“Stop being such a lawyer.”
“Because the issue is whether to build a pipeline for the next century’s water supply, and we need to, and you people need to get with the program.”
“You need to be more careful about that. You don’t realize how much power you have.”
“Careful about what?”
“Get with the program. I can tell you’re kidding, but some people might not.”
“Betty and Bill.” He was aware again of her breath riffling the hair on his chest, drying the sweat there. He wanted her to keep her head there. It felt natural again. Something about letting her keep the key. She’d almost held her breath when she asked about it, then relaxed again. Right now, he’d vote for a dam to keep her there. But she hadn’t asked. She’d just showed up.
“Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t realize how much power you have.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at how much sway you have over those two.”
“How is it different?”
“You’re going to take that away. They’re going to start listening to you instead.”
Conor tried to remember where the conversation had started. It didn’t matter. It always came back to the same thing. He was the only one in Smithy who didn’t think he was in charge. The only one who didn’t think he should be. Maybe the only one who didn’t want him to be? Except for her, anyway. There was something wistful there, about losing her influence.
“Could we leave town one weekend.?”
“Say again.” Conor thought every pause in the chat seemed to end with a new subject.
“Get away together, somewhere you’re not on council. Drive to Roanoke maybe. Go to a movie, go shopping. Eat sushi.”
“Sushi?” He forced himself to keep breathing normally. She didn’t seem to notice anything. Her breathing was becoming more even, she couldn’t get much more relaxed.
“Or whatever. Would you want to do that?”
“Maybe … maybe after the new council’s sworn in, things calm down a little bit.”
He thought he could feel her smiling. She’d taken it as a yes.
“Cathy … what made you mention sushi?”
“I just know there’s a sushi restaurant there. I heard somebody mention it the other day. I can’t remember who, but it was somebody you wouldn’t expect to know about such things. And you wouldn’t really expect a sushi restaurant in Roanoke, would you?”
He hoped he wasn’t supposed to answer, because all he could think was how lame her explanation sounded. And he couldn’t tell her that, because he was pretty sure she’d dozed off. If he stretched, he could just barely reach the bottle of wine. The glasses were on the other side of the chair, and he couldn’t get to them without disturbing her, so he could just sip out of the bottle. Nobody would care. He’d just sit there for a while, sprawled in this huge easy chair, with the woman he didn’t know if he knew curled up across him, and he’d just sit there until he figured out how to get out of it, and he’d stare at the painting across from him, and look at those last few bright beautiful leaves, and wonder just how long it would take for something to blow the last of them away.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK