But first he was going to call Phoenix and give Dutch and Dottie a little something to sleep on. He would put on his official voice and tell them that he was Sergeant Smith-no, Smythe, Sergeant Smythe of the highway patrol, calling to report an accident. A head-on collision just outside of Palm Springs. It was his duty, he was soriy to say-here his voice would crack-that there were no survivors. No, ma'am, not one. Yes, ma'am, he was sure. He'd been at the scene. The one good thing he could tell her was that nobody had suffered. It was over just like that, and here Mark would snap his fingers into the receiver.
He closed his eyes and listened to the phone ring through the cool, quiet house. He saw Dottie where she sat in her avocado kitchen, drinking coffee and making a list, saw her rise and gather her cigarettes and lighter and ashtray. He heard her shoes tapping on the tile floor as she came toward the phone.
But it was Dutch who answered. "Strick here," he said.
Mark took a breath.
"Hello," Dutch said.
"It's me," Mark said. "Dad, it's me-Mark."
Kiystal was washing her face when she heard the gun go off again. She paused, water running through her fingers, then finished up and left the bedroom. She wanted to find Hans. He should have been changed long before now, and it was almost time for him to eat. She missed him.
Stepping carefully through the parts on the floor, she went into the main room. It was almost completely dark. Krystal turned the overhead light on and stood there with her hand against the wall.
Everything was red. The carpet was red. The chairs and the couch were red. The lamp shades were red and had little red tassels hanging down from them. The pillows on the couch were shaped like hearts and covered in a satiny material that looked wet under the light, so that for a moment they had the appearance of real organs.
Krystal stared at the room. In a novel she had once come upon the expression "love nest," and had thought of light-washed walls, tall pines reaching to the balcony outside. But this, she thought, looking at the room, this was a love nest. It was horrible, horrible.
Krystal moved over to the door and opened it a crack. Someone was lying on the front seat of the car, his bare feet sticking out the window, his boots on the ground below with yellow socks hanging from the tops. She could not see the men on the bench but one of them was saying something, the same word again and again. Kiystal couldn't make it out. Then she heard Hans repeat the word, and the men laughed.
She opened the door wider. Still standing inside, she said, "Hans, come here." She waited. She heard someone whisper. "Hans," she said.
He came to the door. There was dirt all over his face but he looked happy.
"Come in," she said.
Hans looked over his shoulder, then back at Kiystal.
"Come, Hans," she said.
He stood there. "Bitch," he said.
Kiystal took a step backward. "No," she said. "No, no, no. Don't say that. Come, sweet boy." She held out her arms.
"Bitch," he said again.
"Oh!" Krystal said. She pushed the door open and walked up to Hans and slapped him across the face. She slapped him hard. He sat down and looked up at her. She had never done that before. Kiystal took a flat board from the pile of scrap near the door. The three men 011 the bench were watching her from under their hats. "Who did that?" she said. "Who taught him that word?" When they didn't answer she started toward the bench, reviling them in German. They stood and backed away from her. Hans began to cry. Kiystal turned on him. "Be quiet!" she said. He whimpered once and was still.
Krystal turned back to the men. "Who taught him that word?"
"It wasn't me," Webb said.
The other men just stood there.
"Shame," Kiystal said. She looked at them, then walked over to the car. She kicked the boots aside. Holding the board with both hands, she swung it as hard as she could across the bare feet sticking out of the window. The man inside screamed.
"Get out," Kiystal said. "Out, out, out!"
He scrambled out the other door and squinted at her over the top of the car. Without his big hat he looked like a grumpy baby, face all red and puffy. She hefted the board and he started dancing over the hot sand toward the building, his hair flapping up and down like a wing. He stopped in the shade and looked back, still shifting from foot to foot. He kept his eyes on Krystal. So did Hans, sitting by the door. So did the men near the bench. They were all watching to see what she would do next.
So, Krystal thought. She flung the board away, and one of the men flinched. Kiystal almost laughed. How angry I must look, she thought, how angry I am, and then her anger left her. She tried to keep it, but it was gone the moment she knew it was there.
She shaded her eyes and looked around her. The distant mountains cast long shadows into the desert. The desert was empty and still. Nothing moved but Hope, walking toward them with the gun slung at her back, barrel poking over her shoulder. As she drew near, Kiystal waved, and Hope raised her arms. A rabbit hung from each hand, swinging by its ears.
They were doing the dishes, his wife washing while he dried. He'd washed the night before. Unlike most men he knew, he really pitched in on the housework. A few months earlier he'd overheard a friend of his wife's congratulate her on having such a considerate husband, and he thought, I try. Helping out with the dishes was one way of showing how considerate he was.
They talked about different things and somehow got on the subject of whether white people should mariy black people. He said that all things considered, he thought it was a bad idea.
"Why?" she asked.
Sometimes his wife got this look where she pinched her brows together and bit her lower lip and stared down at something. When he saw her like this he knew he should keep his mouth shut, but he never did. Actually it made him talk more. She had that look now.
"Why?" she asked again, and stood there with her hand inside a bowl, not washing it but just holding it above the water.
"Listen," he said, "1 went to school with blacks and I've worked with blacks and lived on the same street with blacks and we've always gotten along just fine. I don't need you coming along now and implying that I'm a racist."
"I didn't imply anything," she said, and began washing the bowl again, turning it around in her hand as though she were shaping it. "I just don't see what's wrong with a white person mariying a black person. that's all."
"They don't come from the same culture as we do. Listen to them sometime-they even have their own language. That's okay with me, I like hearing them talk"-he did; for some reason it always lifted his mood-"but it's different. A person from their culture and a person from our culture could never really know each other."
"Likeyou know me?" his wife asked.
"Yes. Like I know you."
"But if they love each other," she said. She was washing faster now, not looking at him.
Oh boy, he thought. He said, "Don't take my word for it. Look at the statistics. Most of those marriages break up."
"Statistics." She was piling dishes on the drainboard at a terrific rate, just swiping at them with the cloth. Many of them were greasy, and he could see flecks of food between the tines of the forks. "All right," she said, "what about foreigners? I suppose you think the same thing about two foreigners getting married."
"Yes," he said, "as a matter of fact I do. How can you understand someone who comes from a completely different background?"
"Different," said his wife. "Not the same, like us."
"Yes, different," he snapped, angiy with her for resorting to this trick of repeating his words so they sounded crass, or hypocritical. "These are dirty," he said, and dumped all the silverware back into the sink.
The water had gone flat and gray. She stared down at it, her lips pressed tight together, then plunged her hands under the surface. "Oh!" she cried, and jumped back. She took her right hand by the wrist and held it up. Her thumb was bleeding.
"Ann, don't move," he said. "Stay right there." He ran upstairs to the bathroom and rummaged in the medicine chest for alcohol, cotton, and a Band-Aid. When he came back down she was leaning against the refrigerator with her eyes closed, still holding her hand by the wrist. He took the hand and dabbed at her thumb with the cotton. The bleeding had stopped. He squeezed it to see how deep the wound was and a single drop of blood welled up, trembling and bright, and fell to the floor. Over the thumb she stared at him accusingly. "It's shallow," he said. "Tomorrow you won't even know it's there." He hoped that she appreciated how quickly he'd come to her aid. He had acted out of concern for her, with no thought of getting anything in return, but now the thought occurred to him that it would be a nice gesture on her part not to start up that conversation again, as he was tired of it. "I'll finish up here," he said. "You go and relax."
"That's okay," she said. "I'll dry."
He began to wash the silverware again, giving a lot of attention to the forks.
"So," she said, "you wouldn't have married me if I'd been black."
"For Christ's sake, Ann!"
"Well, that's what you said, didn't you?"
"No, I did not. The whole question is ridiculous. If you had been black we probably wouldn't even have met. You would've had your friends and I would've had mine. The only black girl I ever really knew was my partner in the debating club, and I was already going out with you by then."
"But if we had met, and I'd been black?"
"Then you probably would have been going out with a black guy." He picked up the rinsing nozzle and sprayed the silverware. The water was so hot that the metal darkened to pale blue, then turned silver again.
"Let's say I wasn't," she said. "Let's say I'm black and unattached and we meet and fall in love."
He glanced over at her. She was watching him, and her eyes were bright. "Look," he said, taking a reasonable tone, "this is stupid. If you were black you wouldn't be you." As he said this he realized it was absolutely true. There was no possible argument against the fact that she would not be herself if she were black. So he said it again: "If you were black you wouldn't be you."
"I know," she said, "but let's just say."
He took a deep breath. He had won the argument but still felt cornered. "Say what?" he asked.
"That I'm black, but still me, and we fall in love. Will you many me?"
He thought about it.
"Well?" she said, and stepped close to him. Her eyes were even brighter. "Will you many me?"
"Let's not move too fast on this," he said. "There are lots of things to consider. We don't want to do something we might regret for the rest of our lives."
"No more considering. Yes or no."
"Since you put it that way-"
"Yes or no."
"Jesus, Ann. All right-no."
"Thank you," she said, and walked from the kitchen into the living room. A moment later he heard her turning the pages of a magazine. He knew she was too angry to be actually reading it, but she wasn't snapping through the pages like he would've done; she turned them slowly, as if she were studying every word. She was demonstrating her indifference to him, and it had the effect he knew she'd intended. It hurt him.
He had no choice but to demonstrate his indifference to her. Quietly, thoroughly, he washed the rest of the dishes. Then he dried them and put them away. He wiped the counters and the stove and scoured the linoleum where the drop of blood had fallen. While he was at it, he decided, he might as well mop the whole floor. When he was done the kitchen looked new, just as it had when they were first shown the house, before they had ever lived here.
He picked up the garbage pail and went outside. The night was clear and he could see a few stars to the west, where the lights of the town didn't blur them out. On El Camino the traffic was steady and light, peaceful as a river. He felt ashamed that he'd let his wife get him into a fight. In another thirty years or so they both would be dead. What would all that stuff matter then? He thought of the years they had spent together and how close they were and how well they knew each other, and his throat tightened so that he could hardly breathe. His face and neck began to tingle. Warmth flooded his chest. He stood there for a while, enjoying these sensations, then picked up the pail and went out the back gate.
The two mutts from down the street had pulled over the garbage can again. One of them was rolling around on his back and the other had something in its mouth. When they saw him coming they trotted away with short, mincing steps. Normally he would've tossed a rock or two after them, but this time he let them go.
The house was dark when he came back inside. She was in the bathroom. He stood outside the door and called her name. He heard bottles clinking, but she didn't answer him. "Ann, I'm really sorry," he said. "I'll make it up to you, I promise."
"How?" she asked.
He wasn't expecting this. But from a sound in her voice, a level and definite note that was strange to him, he knew he had to come up with the right answer. He leaned against the door. "I'll many you," he whispered.
"We'll see," she said. "Go on to bed. I'll be out in a minute."
He undressed and got under the covers. Finally he heard the bathroom door open and close.
"Turn off the light," she said from the hallway.
"Turn off the light."
He reached over and pulled the chain on the bedside lamp. The room went dark. "All right," he said. He lay there, but nothing happened. "All right," he said again. Then he heard a movement across the room. He sat up but couldn't see a thing. The room was silent. His heart pounded as it had on their first night together, as it still did when he woke at a noise in the darkness and waited to hear it again-the sound of someone moving through the house, a stranger.
The metro editor called my name across the newsroom and beckoned to me. When I got to his office he was behind the desk. A man and a woman were there with him, the man nervous on his feet, the woman inachair, bony-faced and vigilant, holding the straps ofher bag with both hands. Her suit was the same bluish gray as her hair. There was something soldierly about her. The man was short, doughy, rounded off. The burst vessels in his cheeks gave him a merry look until he smiled.
"I didn't want to make a scene," he said. "We just thought you should know." He looked at his wife.
"You bet I should know," the metro editor said. "This is Mr. Givens," he said to me, "Mr. Ronald Givens. Name ring a bell?"
"I'll give you a hint. He's not dead."
"Okay," I said. "I've got it."
"Another hint," the metro editor said. Then he read aloud, from that morning's paper, the obituary I had written announcing Mr. Givens's death. I'd done a whole slew of obits the day before, over twenty of them, and I didn't remember much of this one, but 1 did remember the part about him working for the IRS for thirty years. I'd recently had problems with the IRS. so that stuck in my mind.
As Givens listened to his obituaiy he looked from one to the other of us. He wasn't as short as I'd first thought. It was an impression he created by hunching his shoulders and thrusting his neck forward like a turtle. His eyes were soft, restless. He used them like a peasant, in swift, measuring glances with his face averted.
He laughed when the metro editor was through. "Well, it's accurate," he said. "I'll give you that."
" Except for one thing." The woman was staring at me.
"I owe you an apology," I told Givens. "It looks like somebody pulled the wool over my eyes."
"Apology accepted!" Givens said. He rubbed his hands together as if we'd all just signed something. "You have to see the humor, Dolly. What was it Mark Twain said? 'The reports of my death-'"
"So what happened?" the metro editor said to me.
"I wish I knew."
"That's not good enough," the woman said.
"Dolly's pretty upset," Givens said.
"She has every right to be upset," the metro editor said. "Who called in the notice?" he asked me.
"To tell the truth, I don't remember. I suppose it was somebody from the funeral home."
"You call them back?"
"I don't believe I did, no."
"Check with the family?"
"He most certainly did not," Mrs. Givens said.
"No," I said.
The metro editor said, "What do we do before we run an obituary?"
"Check back with the funeral home and the family."
"But you didn't do that."
"No, sir. I guess I didn't."
I made a helpless gesture with my hands and tried to appear properly stricken, but I had no answer. The truth was, I never followed those procedures. People were dying all the time. I hadn't seen the point in asking their families if they were really dead, or calling funeral parlors back to make sure the funeral parlors had just called me. All this procedural stuff was a waste of time, I'd decided; it didn't seem possible that anyone could amuse himself by concocting phony death notices and impersonating undertakers. Now I saw that this was foolish of me, and showed a radical failure of appreciation for the varieties of human pleasure.
There was more to it than that. Since I was still on the bottom rung in metro, I wrote a lot of obituaries. Some days they gave me a choice between that and marriage bulletins, but most of the time obits were all I did, one after another, morning to night. After four months of this duty I was full of the consciousness of death. It soured me. It puffed me up with morbid snobbery, the feeling that I knew a secret nobody else had even begun to suspect. It made me wearily philosophical about the value of faith and passion and hard work, at a time when my life required all of these. It got me down.
I should have quit, but I didn't want to go back to the kind of jobs I'd had before a friend's father fixed me up with this one-waiting on tables, mostly, pulling night security in apartment buildings, anything that would leave my days free for writing. I'd lived like this for three years, and what did I have to show for it? A few stories in literary journals that nobody read, including me. I began to lose my nerve. I'd given up a lot for my writing, and it wasn't giving anything back-not respectability, nor money, nor love. So when this job came up I took it. 1 hated it and did it badly, but I meant to keep it. Someday I'd move over to the police beat. Things would get better.
I was hoping that the metro editor would take his pound of flesh and let me go, but he kept after me with questions, probably showing off for Givens and his wife, letting them see a real newshound at work. In the end I was forced to admit that I hadn't called any other families or funeral homes that day, nor, in actual fact, for a good long time.
Now that he had his answer, the metro editor didn't seem to know what to do with it. It seemed to be more than he'd bargained for. At first he just sat there. Then he said, "Let me get this straight. Just how long has this paper been running unconfirmed obituaries? "
"About three months," I said. And as I made this admission I felt a smile on my lips, already there before I could fight it back or dissemble it. It was the rictus of panic, the same smile I'd given my mother when she told me my father had died. Of course the metro editor didn't know that.
He leaned forward in his chair and gave his head a little shake, the way a horse will, and said, "Clean out your desk." I don't think he'd meant to fire me; he looked surprised by his own words. But he didn't take them back.
Givens looked from one to the other of us. "Now hold on here," he said. "Let's not blow this all out of proportion. This is a live-and-learn situation. This isn't something a man should lose his job over."
I cleaned out my desk. As I left the building I saw Givens by the newsstand, watching the door. I didn't see his wife. He walked up to me, raised his hands, and said, "What can I say? I'm at a loss for words."
"Don't worry about it," I told him.
"I sure as heck didn't mean to get you fired. It wasn't even my idea to come in, if you want to know the truth."
"Forget it. It was my own fault." I was carrying a box full of notepads, files, and books. It was heavy. I shifted it under my other arm.
"Look," Givens said, "how about I treat you to lunch. What do you say? It's the least I can do."
I looked up and down the street.
"Dolly's gone on home," he said. "How about it?"
Though I didn't especially want to eat lunch with Givens, it seemed to mean a lot to him, and I didn't feel ready to go home yet. What would I do there? Sure, I said, lunch sounded fine. Givens asked me if I knew anyplace reasonable nearby. There was a Chinese joint a few doors down, but it was always full of reporters. I didn't want to watch them try to conjure up sympathy over my situation, which they'd laugh about anyway the minute I left, not that I blamed them. I suggested Tads Steakhouse over by the cable-car turnaround. You could get a six-ounce sirloin, salad, and baked potato for a buck twenty-nine. This was 1974.
"I'm not that short," Givens said. But he didn't argue, and that's where we went.
Givens picked at his food, then pushed the plate away. When I asked if his steak was okay, he said he didn't have much appetite.
"So," I said, "who do you think called it in?"
His head was bent. He looked up at me from under his eyebrows. "Boy, you've got me there. It's a mystery."
"You must have some idea."
"Nope. Not a one."
"Think it could've been someone you worked with?"
"Nah." He shook a toothpick out of the dispenser. His hands were pale and sinewy.
"It had to be somebody who knows you. You have friends, right?"
"Maybe you had an argument, something like that. Somebody's mad at you."
He kept his mouth covered with one hand while he worked the toothpick with the other. "You think so? I had it figured for more of a joke."
"Well, it's a pretty serious joke, calling in a death notice on someone. Pretty threatening. I'd sure feel threatened, if it was me."
Givens inspected the toothpick, then dropped it in the ashtray. "I hadn't thought of it like that," he said. "Maybe you're right."
I could see he didn't believe it for a second-had no idea what had happened. The words of death had been pronounced on him, and now his life would be lived in relation to those words, in failing opposition to them, until they overpowered him and became true. Or so it appeared to me.
"You're sure it isn't one of your friends," I said. "It could be a little thing. You played cards, landed some big ones, then folded early before he had a chance to recoup."
"I don't play cards," Givens said.
"How about your wife? Any problems in that department? " "Nope."
"Everything smooth as silk, huh?"
He shrugged. "Same as ever."
" How come you call her Dolly? That wasn't the name in the obit."
"No reason. I've always called her that. Everybody does."
"I don't feature her as a Dolly," I said.
He didn't answer. He was watching me.
"Let's say Dolly gets mad at you, really mad .. . She wants to send you a message-something outside normal channels."