After my wife forgave me and the long week of questions ended with the resolve to put my mistake behind us, she asked a last—rhetorical, unanswerable. It struck me funny and I laughed, idiot laughter, helpless, an outburst sudden as a sneeze that left me wet-eyed, wheezing like the old man I’d become, and for a second time needing to account for myself.
We were in the kitchen of the house we bought when we retired from our law practices and moved to the Eastern Shore. Outside, beyond the marsh grass, across the Chesapeake, the sun was going down. I wasn’t off the hook entirely but I’d been easing back into Eleanor’s bristly graces. Then, on her way to the pantry to see what we might have for supper, she cocked her head as if to consult her better sense. “What were,” she’d asked, “you thinking?”
Two weeks before, we’d had a visit from her former colleague, a young woman named Anne whose specialty was medical malpractice. Apparently I’d made a pass at her. I say “apparently” not because I dispute Anne’s word or mean to diminish her charge, but because I have no memory of the event and am able to recall only in a blurred way the events of what she later, in her letter, called “the incident.”
On the second morning of her stay, Anne and I had taken our coffee to the dock. The morning was beautiful, the mist burning off, the light rosy and diffuse. “Lambent,” I’d said, glad that in all the lost and errant thoughts that had begun to trouble me—the dead-end sentences and fugitive words—I’d found the word I wanted. Maybe because of the word’s recall, maybe because a feeling had been dogging me—an amalgam of dread and desire and the sense that time was moving too fast when what I wanted most was for it to stand still—when she pointed out a blue crab scuttling along the bank, I moved toward her. It wasn’t until she was shoving me away, saying, “Thomas, no!” that I understood that something had gone wrong. She’d left that afternoon, cutting short her visit.
A few days later a letter arrived—addressed to Eleanor—thanking her for our hospitality but expressing concern about my health. The letter avoided diagnoses, but Anne’s meaning was clear. She valued our friendship, I was a wonderful man, she enjoyed my company, et cetera, but. . . .
“You goat,” said Eleanor. “How could you?” She flung the letter to the hall table. “Non compos mentis, my big foot,” she said, after I tried to convince her I didn’t remember what so obviously I must have done. “You had to know, and now you plead diminished capacity?”
Her read of the events troubled me almost as much as the fear of a memory lapse, one of those white reaches of time that my father, who suffered from them in his later years, called “spells.” This much was clear: I had reached out to touch Anne’s breast, had left my hand there too long to have been an accident.
The following week, as I’ve said, was difficult, with me trying to recollect the events of that morning and defend myself, Eleanor hurt and miserable. “Admit it,” she’d say, “just admit it and get it over with.” She held so firm in her conviction that I’d knowingly groped our friend that I began to wonder what fears of her own about my worsening forgetfulness she’d been holding off, and so at last, although it wasn’t true, I confessed.
“You’re right,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
My owning-up, however false, seemed to draw me back into my wife’s affections and us into our usual peace, but then my outburst—once laughing, I broke up again and again—shattered this. I wanted to make things right between us, and so I pulled out a chair for Eleanor at the table, took one myself, and began to lay out an explanation—a memory—that rose to mind as perfectly, it seemed, as that found word on the morning at the dock. I write it now as a stay against its loss, and as an answer to the other question she had the grace to leave unspoken: “Tommy, how bad is it?”
Some miles past the outskirts of my flatland hometown lived a hermit named Rado Pulsifer who was rumored to have a fortune in silver ingots buried on his property. As misers went, he was unlikely. He lived in a squat trailer parked in a locust grove at a bend where Highway 81 curved around an oxbow of the Ninnescah. Aside from the bounty on coyotes he shot and the return-deposits from bottles he scavenged from culverts, he had no apparent source of income. Every now and then he hauled a load of bottles into town in a buckboard drawn by a fat old jennet, a creature so gassy that it was one of the town marvels anyone could tolerate a ride behind her, the malady renowned enough to prompt one of the few ribaldries my father—before he left town, the Methodist minister—allowed himself. “A farting mule never kicks,” he’d say, leaving me and my younger brothers to guess at his meaning, vaguely understanding that it had to do with the economies of pleasure.
Tormenting Rado was a tradition in a place that took its few thrills from the rattlesnake hunt across the Oklahoma line and the flea-bag carnival that set up each summer in the pasture behind the Meadowlark Drive-In, and so when word circled that the old man had been seen trolling ditches for pop bottles and was away from his place, carloads of high-school boys mustered. Speculating all the way as to how by means of explosives and contraptions Rado might be delivered of his loot, some deputations went so far as to spang rocks against his rust-blighted trailer, and it was maintained that some seniors on a graduation dare had been blasted with a volley from his sawed-off, but most war parties confined their derring-do to whooping through the wide loop of his lane. Because he never called the sheriff, the tale grew up that the old man’s fortune was ill-gotten.
I’ve called him an old man, though in that year of l956 he must have been only in his middle forties. The facts of his life, insofar as anybody knew them, represented that a family of Pulsifers had lived out at the Ninnescah Bottoms but most had died in the Spanish Flu epidemic, orphaning Rado, who’d been found wandering beside an ice-bound stock pond. He was sent to the boarding school at Chilocco—this owing to his mother’s tribal status and a fine point in the Dawes Act—and he wasn’t heard from again until the late 1940s, when he turned up on the spit of land on the ten-year flood plain.
He was lank-framed, had huge hands and feet, a beetled brow that made him look sometimes Lincolnesque and sometimes ape-like. He wore U.S. Navy dungarees and bullhide boots, a flannel shirt, a flaps-up hunting hat. His single vanity was barbering, his straight gray hair clipped neatly across his nape. Years of rough living had crabbed his stance, and vandal raids had made him more suspicious than he might have been by nature. An offhand greeting—“Hey, Mr. Pulsifer”—would yield a pop-eyed startle before he could collect himself, tip finger to brow in an uneasy salute. He was thought to be simple-minded, but somehow he’d come by enough learning to allow him—in a letter to the Waco Wego Call—to liken his tormentors to Ostrogoths. The epithet had become the name of a loose brotherhood of mischief to which most town boys laid claim.
One afternoon in March it occurred to my mother that she hadn’t seen Rado for several weeks. We’d had a late winter blizzard, a cattle-killing prairie storm with ice-blade winds and four-foot drifts, and then overnight a turn-wind had set off a thaw, blowing in a watery day of false spring. She determined that someone should go out to check on him.
She caught me as I was passing through the kitchen on my way to the garage. I’d planned to spend the hour before supper tinkering with the Chevy I’d saved up for, a ’51 the color of lye soap. The car handled with a lurch and yaw that hinted at an agency more willful than ordinary bad alignment, but I loved its stolid lines. I washed it every other day, polished its pitted chrome, had named it, for its grayness and girth, “Leviathan.”
“Just to see if he’s all right,” she said. She pulled a threaded needle through the frayed cuff of a shirt that belonged to the town’s druggist. When the new school year started and after the scandal of my father’s betrayal died down, she would go back to teaching, but until then, to supplement the checks he sent, she’d been taking in ironing and mending.
“He’s fine,” I said, “ain’t nothing going to kill old Repulsifer off.”
Her stern look told me that as well as taking a dark view of the nickname we had for Rado she’d caught all my offenses against English usage. But in our town good grammar set you apart, and I was already a misfit—captain of the debate team, sophomore spelling champ, a shock-headed, girlfriendless preacher’s boy who styled himself a wit—and so to fit in at school I flavored my speech with ain’ts and might-coulds.
She took a last stitch, knotted the thread, then snipped it. “You haven’t been out there, have you?”
Although around town I’d roughed up my talk, in debate class I’d seen the way rhetoric might be cross-examined and convicted, and so at home I entertained myself by parsing my mother’s most innocent utterances. Raising an eyebrow, puffed-up as a bantam barrister, I asked, “Madam, ‘out’ where?”
Her eyes brimmed, her chin pitted. Whether or not she intended her effect, in the six months since my father left she’d taken on the dread power of the wronged. The story of his betrayal was as threadbare as the clerical collars he’d left in a drawer: he’d fallen in love with a woman he’d helped through a divorce. From time to time letters postmarked Little Rock arrived for me, but until my mother put them in an El Ropo box they lay unopened on the hall table. “No, ma’am,” I said.
Sssk went the hot iron against a dampened shirt. “You drive on out there, son. What earthly good is that great whale if you won’t put it toward some higher use?”
I stopped myself from asking what, precisely, had she meant by “good” and how did “earthly” differ?—what constituted “use” and on what scale was “higher” measured? I sulked.
She brought down the iron in a final-sounding sear against the broadcloth. “Tom,” she said, the line of shirts behind her hanging from the lintel like a row of ghosts, “I am not asking.”
“It’s wall-to-wall mud,” I said lamely, thinking of Leviathan. Highway 81 was macadam, but after that the county road would be a mud-slick, the lowland timber route that led to Rado’s even worse.
She handed me a foil-wrapped package. “Meatloaf. You make sure he gets it.”
The package was warm and dense as flesh, domestic, comforting, but I held it as if it had dropped from Pluto.
She shook out a shirt so starched it crackled. “Don’t put on like that. I’m asking you to be a man.” She slid the shirt onto a hanger. “To do what’s right.”
I fished my key ring from my pocket and headed for the back door, passing through the sunroom where my brothers lolled on the floor watching Soupy Sales. They shot dire looks as I hovered over them, flinched when I pretended to stumble onto their bellies. Together, they piped, “Jerk.”
“Take the boys along,” my mother called, but she’d inflected her order in a way that let me take it as a question. “That’s all right,” I called back, “I’ll hunt up Watty.” I took my jacket from the hook and went out.
Even in those days Waco Wego was a settlement gone past its purpose, a failing prairie railhead town; by now it’s all but vanished. Once you left the section where our white stucco foursquare—we were staying in the parsonage until my mother could find another place—and a few others like it ranged along the town’s one elm-lined street, once you passed the downtown storefronts—Ark Valley State Bank, the Rexall, Blaine’s Hardware, the Western Auto where I worked summers—any charm the place possessed was undone by the broken-windowed armory, the thistle-choked siding platform, and the tumbledown Santa Fe depot that housed Kickapoo and Kiowa Baptist. Beyond these the defunct grain elevator cast a shadow over Bender’s Fourth, a tract of war-boom cracker boxes shingled in cobweb-gray asbestos. The place was home to aircraft workers who staffed the assembly lines of Boeing, Beech, and Cessna, and to my friend and hero, the outcast Watson Kuschnerheit.
Three years older than I was, at nineteen Watty was still in high school, his jaw peppered with stubble even early in the day. In all seasons he wore Levi’s and a T-shirt, a faded jeans jacket, army-issue steel-toes. He drove a Studebaker truck—a primer-gray ’49 rattletrap we called “the Cyclops” for the way one headlight dangled and the other slewed outward like a wandering eye. He’d installed a radio he kept tuned to Voice of Oklahoma, which broadcast from his old hometown below the line, but you could barely hear the music over the rumble of the straight-six and the clatter of tools and junk beneath the sprung excelsior seats. He was past tough, answered to no one, was, I believed, his own man. He called me “Tombo,” or “Kemosabe,” which I liked. “Race has not a thing to do with it,” my mother said when I pressed to know the grounds of her objection to him, “he’s just . . . frightening.” I suspected, given her feelings about the flashy woman my father left town with, that it wasn’t Watty, or that he was what was called in Waco Wego in those days a half-breed, who was the source of her worry, but his mother, Alvie, whom she must have known I had a crush on.
“Mrs. Kuschnerheit sounds like somebody sneezed,” Watty’s mother would say in a purr that made my belly quake, “call me Alvie.” Summers, she wore cut-off jeans that showed her pretty legs, legs slightly knock-kneed so that at the backs of her knees the pads of flesh protruded sweetly. She smoked Parliaments, and the sight of her pink lipstick on the crushed butts in the jar-lid ashtray could stab me through the heart. Her straight hair was glossy as a blackbird’s wing; she wore it loose and down her back at a time when most women cut theirs short. Once, she’d offered to cut my hair—she’d fashioned Watty’s ducktail with precision—but her breath on my neck, her fingers on my scalp, set off a spasm that made me blunder from the kitchen chair. Rumor held that she carried on with low-lifes from the juke joints of South Wichita, kept bad company. In heroic daydreams I defended her, lifting from the Beatitudes and the Bill of Rights in a speech I featured was as eloquent as the Son of Man before the bar. In her presence I went stumble-tongued and oafish. On my father’s bookshelf was a volume titled Great Men and Famous Deeds. The book recounted the lives of saints and martyrs, statesmen and war heroes. I’d read it to shreds, and yearned to prove myself to Alvie Kuschnerheit on some grand sacrificial scale, the perils I placed her in, ranging from flat tires and dead solenoids to Russian spies and Titan missiles, from mad dogs to tornadoes.
Her old hump-backed maroon Dodge wasn’t parked at the curb—she worked a swing shift at Boeing—but Watty’s truck was rump-up in the gravel driveway, aimed as if to make a getaway. I tapped the Chevy’s horn, cut the engine, and got out and crossed the yard to knock at the punch-bellied screen door.
A giggle from inside the house told me that Watty’s girlfriend Linda Weir, who waitressed at the bowling alley, was with him. Out of Ostrogoth honor I made to leave, but then the door opened and Watty appeared, pulling on his T-shirt. He wedged a steel-toe between the sill and door, then shot out a ropy arm to hold it open. Linda must have seen her chance to slip outside. “Hey, Tommy,” she greeted me, chin chafed with whisker-burn. “I’m late for work.” She jumped over a privet at the edge of the slab porch and headed across the barren yards. Watty crossed his arms over his chest, a signal that I should explain myself.
Leaving out my mother and the meatloaf, I did. “All we have to do is ride out and check on him.” With my sneaker toe I kicked at a curl of dried mud on the slab’s edge. “Might be he’s dead out there.”
A jerk of his head indicating that I should follow, Watty ducked into the house where the torn paper shades were drawn, casting the shabby front room in murky light. From a coffee table strewn with bologna strings and a block of Velveeta shrinking from its wrapper, he took his jacket and pulled it on. While he shot the cuffs I stole a look at the mural behind the couch. The painting, done by his mother, showed a naked Indian woman, her long hair streaming out to form a black lake on which she appeared to float feet-first into a full white moon, her breasts impossibly high and buoyant. The work was crude, but at the time I found the mural beautiful, haunting for the way it suggested all the mysteries of women at once, love and art and carnal knowledge, prurience and worship. I studied it every chance I got, often wondering aloud how Watty could see it every day and not go wild with lust. He’d shrug; the questions that consumed me were beneath his notice.
Eleanor cleared her throat, fiddled with the sugar bowl; I was wool-gathering. As I moved deeper into the story, I was aware of how it built on itself, each detail leading to the next in a way I couldn’t have predicted, threatening to derail the tale like freight cars on a siding, but I went on. The charge of wool-gathering aside, I was proud of all I’d remembered and meant to get from the beginning of the trip to Rado’s to what I’d done there and then to its end, an intention I would make good on, forgetting only that sometimes a story keeps on ending long after its telling.
Watty picked up his keys and shook them; we would take the Studebaker. Outside, I fetched the meatloaf from the Chevy and then hoisted myself into the truck’s cab.
He gave the package the stink-eye.
“We’re supposed to give it to him.”
He shook his head. “Tombo, son, you got a lot to learn.”
This was why I’d sought him out: with Watty along even the mildest errand took on possibility and menace; the day had turned.
Beyond the salvage yard the landscape gave way to open fields. Melting snow had left dirt-crusted drifts and exposed the new winter wheat, furrows fanning so that it seemed our moving truck was at the still point of the turning world. Watty steered by means of a Bakelite steering knob—illegal even then—his palm resting easily on the cylinder. He flipped on the radio but the six o’clock stock report crackled between blasts of static and so he snapped it off. From his jacket pocket he pulled a pack of Pall Malls and his Zippo. He shook the pack toward me.
The one time I’d lit a grapevine twist I’d hacked myself green, but I helped myself. “For later,” I said, tucking the cigarette behind my ear like the tough I hoped to be.
One-handed, he flicked the lighter and lit up, releasing the aphrodisiac aroma of naphtha and tobacco.
I trained my gaze on the swag of power lines that lined the road and tried to figure how to bring up the subject of what he and Linda Weir had been doing under the mural. At last the expression came to me, perfect in its strategy and its use of our high school’s current vulgarity. “Old Weir,” I said, “bet you didn’t get any on you, did you?”
When he curled his upper lip, I socked his arm. The gesture proved just right; his laugh was my reward, inducting me into the company of men as well as holding off for a time the sorry surety that I would at no time soon get any on me.
Low in the west a cloud bank glowered, the sun setting beneath it casting long golden light against the treetops, but by the time we reached the river bend and turned west onto Rado’s road, the light had begun to wane. At our approach to the first of his two lanes, some turkey buzzards flapped away from a carcass in the ditch. Watty braked beside a cedar stump where an ax-head crate served as Rado’s mailbox, hand-lettered R. PLSFR.
I said, “His royal crest.”
Watty hadn’t laughed the first time I’d made the joke; he didn’t now.
Beside the mailbox a coyote pelt was stretched between the strands of a barbed wire fence. Watty gave a low whistle. “That fresh?”
The tattered pelt riffled in the wind. I said, “Looks to me like.”
At this sign that Rado was alive we could have turned back to town, lobbed the meatloaf into a wheatfield and called it good, gone off to eat fried chicken at the Buckaroo.
Watty appeared to consider. “We head down his lane, he’s liable to shoot at us.” His Okie accent rendered “liable” as “lobble,” making the word sound posse-like and western, dangerous. He smirked. “And us just doing the neighborly thing, checking up on him.”
“Our Christian duty,” I put in.
Watty squinted down the road. “Might ought to go on foot.”
It was decided that we’d park the Studebaker on the oil lease behind the property, make our way through the timber and come up on the trailer from behind. As we jolted down the lease road toward the edge of the woods, I hefted the meatloaf. “We can sneak up and plunk this on his doorstep. Repulsifer’ll never know.”
In the time it took to ease the truck around the pump jack, make a three-point turn and park nose-out among the weeds, Watty had been quiet. Now he said, “God’s dangling balls, Tom, fuck the meatloaf.” I left the package on the Studebaker’s seat.
We entered the woods, picking our way through the underbrush. Above us, withered catalpa pods clattered in the wind. Watty picked up a rifle-sized shank of deadfall cottonwood, slung the limb across his shoulders and draped his arms over it GI-style. I found a limb and did the same, but after a while it hurt my neck, so I dropped the shank.
When a jackrabbit bounded across our path into a sumac thicket, I jumped. Watty punched my arm. “Spook you, did it?”
A taste of copper in my throat, I told him, “No.”
After a few hundred yards we came up on Rado’s compound, a stand of outbuildings we hadn’t seen on prior raids. Nearly hidden in a tangle of woodbine stood a crumpled Butler building, its round steel roof stove in. Inside, a mound of empty pop bottles, furred with dust, glinted in the falling light. Wind swirled around the open bottlenecks in an otherworldly fluting. Just past the bottle shed we came upon the buckboard, iron wheels sunk into the loam, and a ramshackle paddock, its slat fence smooth as driftwood and laced with borer trails. We bellied up to the corral fence. Watty rested a boot on the bottom rail as if surveying his domain. Inside the paddock was an array of abandoned farm equipment. In a corner near the mule shed the jennet stood, dirty ice beading her winter-shagged hide. She gave us a sidelong glance, then shifted on the frost heave to face away from us.
The scene seemed fashioned out of junk and chance and loss made somehow more pitiable by the clarity of detail: chafed rails, a rickety manger, a bull-tongued plow blade jutting from the boggy ground, the mule. All of it seemed cobbled out of nowhere and then suddenly too present, there. It occurred to me that I didn’t know what we were on the brink of—rout or robbery or worse—but to show that I was up for whatever wrack my idol had in mind, I propped a foot on the rail as well, and we stood so, side by side, until he motioned us on.
We crept forward until the trailer appeared through the trees, light shining from its single window. Just as we were ready to break out of cover—our plan was to stay low, weaving from stump to woodpile to the butane tank—we heard a laugh, low, full-throated, female. We put out arms to halt each other. Needlessly I said, “Hear that?”
Out on the open plain someone was burning trash; a smell of char collected in the spectral woods. Just as I began to think the voice had been the eerie whistling from the bottle shed, Rado wheedled, “Hey, go easy, hon.”
Again we heard the woman’s laugh. “Hold still,” she said, lowering her tone in an intimate, familiar way, “you big galoot.”
Though at the time he gave no sign, Watty must have recognized his mother’s voice. Later it would occur to me that if we’d taken our usual route, we would have seen her Dodge parked in front of the trailer, but at the moment I had yet to fit a figure to the voice’s sweet, low lilt, its teasing edge. What I knew was that we had the chance to make the exploit of all exploits, to get the kind of eyeful no painted mural could deliver—the talk inside the trailer augured a sure thing—and we would have a tale to tell in town, a tale—one of my father’s phrases came to me—the likes of which for badness would be never seen in all of Egypt.
“I’m holding still,” we heard Rado’s slow, good-natured whine, “it’s you the wiggleworm.”
In a slewed look I meant as comic, I let my mouth go slack, leering at Watty with an expression he must have seen as canny, simple-headed cruelty. “Come on, man,” I whispered. “He’s got a girl in there. We might see. . .” No one word came to mind that held the promise of what we might witness and so I finished with “tits.”
He brought a fist so near my jaw that I could feel its heat, smell its Pall Mall reek, the whiff of bologna and Velveeta. I flinched, but Watty only plucked the cigarette I’d forgotten from behind my ear, jabbed it in his mouth, then turned away and walked into the woods.
Any other time I might have followed, but I was mad at him for bailing, for the fake-out punch that showed me up for what I was. From the timber’s cover I made a run to the butane tank, a steel cylinder set on cinder blocks. From here it was a short shot to the trailer. My idea was to steal up to the window, take a peek, then swagger back to the truck, full of myself and what I’d seen, what Watty, quailing at the final hour, no man at all, would never own the rights to tell in town. Suddenly the moment seemed to call for spectacle, for violence, and so without a thought beyond the outlaw power it made me feel to act and let the consequences catch up later, I gave a curdled yowl, sprang into a run, flung myself at the trailer’s window and mashed my face against the pane, leering like a pirate, a berserker. I dropped to the ground, flattened myself against the dank earth. My heart, hammering before, now seemed to thrum as the scene I’d glimpsed caught up to me: in the glow of a kerosene lamp, bare-chested, ham-backed, his old dugs lopped over his chest, Rado seated on a stool, head bowed, and behind him, her belly pressed into his back, Watty’s mother shaving his nape with a straight razor.
I barreled over, vaulted up, and lunged into the thicket. Crashing through the brush, I tripped on a grapevine, sprawled, but scrabbled up and kept on running. I’d almost reached the oil lease when Rado’s shotgun blasted in the distance.
Gray in the twilight, the Studebaker hulked, its engine running. I yanked open the passenger door and jumped inside, yelled, “Gun it!”
Watty slouched at the wheel, spun the steering knob.
“Go!” I shouted, voice ragged in my throat.
Watty looked out across the field and then back at me. The Bakelite knob ticked like a ratchet, like a clock. At last, his voice so low I barely heard, he muttered, “Guess you got yourself a look?”
Jaw rattling from cold, adrenaline, and shock, molars knocking, I blurted the lie that even crashing through the woods I knew I had to tell, a lie that hurt to see how much he wanted to believe. “Too dark. I couldn’t see a thing!” I stomped down on a phantom gas pedal, straining. “Go!”
For a long minute Watty searched my face, as if to gauge the truth. My nose ran, but I held his gaze. Then he seemed to settle something in his mind, and he smacked the steering wheel. “Goddamn it, Kemosabe,” he crowed, “you flat-out slammed that trailer! Good thing I had old Cyclops running!” He slugged my arm in a way that felt too hard, too false, and in a hollow, heartsick way I understood that we were fixing on the story we would tell at school. He put the truck in gear. Threshing through the tall weeds, we pulled across the field and headed back toward town.
“Is that it?” Eleanor asked when I placed my palms on the table, a gesture she called my peroration stance. The last of the daylight had gone from the kitchen and though it was hard to see her face, I understood that she was baffled. I’d made it through the tale, but there was something missing, a stray wire, a lost connection.
“Did it not make sense?”
“It did,” she said slowly, “but what does it have to do with anything? He wanted to save face. Who wouldn’t?”
“You’re missing the point.” I said this more irritably than I meant to, but just then I couldn’t think of what the point had been.
She harrumphed, a dear, gruff, skeptical sound that made my eyes fill unaccountably, and then she rose to flick on the light. She sat back down and folded her hands, waiting. “Then tell me.”
I told her that after that night Watty and I saw little of each other, that in May he graduated, took a job as a burr bench operator and moved to another prairie town on the verge of the Flint Hills, that he enlisted shortly after that, was killed nine years later at Da Nang. I told her that the one time I saw Alvie Kuschnerheit when she came into the Western Auto the summer before I left for Georgetown and she stood helplessly—in the cut-off jeans that had once driven my dreams—in front of a battery display, I’d ducked into the stockroom to hide behind a stack of Bardol cases. But I couldn’t recall why I’d thought the story would provide an answer to what I’d been thinking on the dock with Anne, why I’d thought it would supply the reason for my laugh.
She got up and went to the pantry and pulled out an onion, regarding it as if it might suggest its best use. The moment drew out long—Eleanor looking at the onion, holding it by its shoot. When she spoke again, it was gently, as if to bring the subject to an end, to move us past the awkwardness. “I wonder what became of Rado Pulsifer?”
Screwing up an eye, I lowered my voice and said mysteriously, “Nobody knows.”
I’d hoped to draw a laugh, but she looked away, busying herself with the cutting board, choosing a knife from the drawer. Her back was to me, but from the way she canted her head it was clear that she was struggling with some mix of feeling—love, fear, pity, resignation?—and that if she’d turned to face me, I would have seen the unasked, the unbearable question in her eyes.
I crossed the kitchen to stand beside her at the sink. This close, I wanted to comfort her, to lay my palm against her cheek, to tell her things would be all right, that it wasn’t time to worry yet, but I was afraid that any touch would remind her of the morning on the dock. Instead, I asked what she was making.
“Eggs,” she said briskly, as if she’d settled on the tack to take. She handed me the onion and the knife. “You chop.”
Although she called me twice to come to bed, that night I sat up late, worrying the problem of what had made me start the story, musing in a general way about what the mind held onto, what it lost, how the past could shoot through the present and then as quickly as a shifting wind reverse itself, how sense could vanish into the space between what you meant to do and what you did, for the way all memories nested in each other, one inside the next, the next, the next, until they turned into a life that couldn’t be lived again, a dream no other could recall, lost even to the dreamer. The sky had gone black but for a lowering moon that cast a path across the slick-calm water of the bay. Through the open jalousies came the sound of the rowboat creaking in its moorings, a mourning dove’s lone call. It felt as if the world itself were in a lull, waiting for something that it couldn’t name.
If the memory hadn’t arrived—from a place past summons and then suddenly stark and present as the desolated scene in Rado’s paddock—what I’m saying here would be so different that I wonder if I’d try to say it at all. But through mercy, chemistry, or luck, it did, and it felt like such a proof that I started from my chair to wake Eleanor. But as I reached the bedroom door I understood how she—owl-eyed and peeved to be disturbed—might see only more evidence of addlement, her husband a rumple-headed stranger looming above the bed, the old lunatic who’d laughed. And what could I have told her that would make a difference? That I’d laughed for all things all at once, for loving her, for failing, for feeling old and sorry and forgiven, at the way a person could be taken by a reckless urge and still be mystified at what he had been thinking, that I knew nothing now the same way I’d known nothing then?
I made my way across the room, eased into bed beside her, and put my hand on her hip the way I had most nights for almost fifty years. For now, it was enough that I remembered that on our ride back to town, the Studebaker’s closed cab sealing in the smells of motor oil and sweat and meatloaf grease, Watty and I were quiet, the silence growing thick as the purling smoke from his Pall Mall, and that for all the urgency I felt to break the stillness, I’d known there was no word, no feat that would restore us to our former selves.
I don’t know if he felt the same, but for reasons of his own when we reached the raised Santa Fe track bed outside town he punched the gas and floored the truck. We took the grade full-throttle, jolting off the seats and battering our heads against the cab roof. A mindless, breakneck thing we’d done before, the lurch seemed to crack loose something hard and brittle in us and we laughed. Watty threw back his head and gave out a ragged bray, a yowl as wild as mine when I’d run at the trailer. Not because I wanted to be like him, but because I couldn’t not, I echoed him, and this seemed to be the signal we should turn around and take the grade again. Fishtailing, bald tires spitting sand like vengeance, plowing zigzag cuts like scars along the empty road, speeding toward a vandal hall of fame where we paid tribute to the secret lives of men, to what we knew and didn’t want to, to what we couldn’t and would never know, again and again we steeled ourselves and clenched our jaws and hit the grade. Lofted to a place where past us there was nothing but the blue-black night, where nothing mattered, nothing hurt, where we held sway over a world we had the power to wreck, a world as full of us as we were full of it, we laughed until our bellies ached, our throats were raw, until the stars we saw were artifacts of feeling, not of light, until tears streamed. With yelps and slugs and slaps against the dashboard we made it known between us each time the truck went airborne that some kind of victory had been won, some ruinous event out-run. I cranked down the window, hurled the meatloaf at the shot-pocked RR sign. It hit; we howled. Watty snapped on the radio and Voice of Oklahoma came in clear, the music swirling out into the plains, into the darkness gathered at the edges of moonlit road, and we bellowed out a song whose words are gone from mind but which must have been the anthem of the age until a rush of static whited out the signal and I turned it off and quiet fell around us as we hurtled toward the town lights up ahead.