Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories



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"Yessir," Freddy said. "She's long in the tooth and that's a fact."

"There you go," Ivan said.

"Ready for the pasture," I said.

"Over the hill," Freddy said.

"That's it exactly," Ivan said. "I just can't bring myself to sell her." His jaw started quaking and I thought with horror that he was about to cry. But he didn't. He caught his lower lip under his teeth, sucked it musingly, and pushed it out again. His lips were full and expressive. I tended to watch them for signs of mood rather than his eyes, which he kept buried in a cunning squint.

"So," he said. "Gotta get the wood out. You fellows ready to use some of those muscles?"

Freddy and I looked at each other.

Clark was staring at the truck. "You want us to unload all of that?"

"Won't take an hour, strapping boys like you," Ivan said. "Maybe an hour by the time you load her up again," he added.

The truck bed was filled with logs, stacked as high as the sides and heaped to a peak in the middle. Ivan had been clearing out the woods behind the house. Most of it was gone by now, nearly an acre of trees turned into a stumpy bog crisscrossed by tire ruts filled with black water. Behind the bog stood the house of a family whose pale, stringy daughters quarreled incessantly with their mother, screaming as they ran out the door, screaming as they jumped into the souped-up cars of their boyfriends. The father and son also drove hot rods, maintaining them on parts cannibalized from the collection of wrecks in their backyard. They came out during the afternoons and weekends to crawl under the cars and shout at each other over the clanging of their wrenches. Freddy and I used to spy on the family from the trees, our faces darkened, twigs stuck in our hair. He wouldn't have to steal up on them now; they'd be in plain view all the time.

Ivan had been hard at work turning trees into firewood. But firewood was cheap, and whatever he got wouldn't be worth it-worth all the green and the birds and the scolding squirrels, the coolness in summer, the long shafts of afternoon light. This place had been Iroquois wilderness to me, English forest and African jungle. It had been Mars. Now gone, completely. 1 was a boy who didn't know he would never build a jet, but I knew that this lake of mud was the work of a fool.

"I'll bet you can drive it out without unloading." Clark said.

"Already tried." Ivan lowered himself onto a stump and looked around with a satisfied air. "Sooner you fellows get started, sooner you'll be done."

"A stitch in time saves nine," I said.

"No time like the present," Freddy said.

"There you go." Ivan said.

Clark had been standing on a web of roots. He stepped off and walked toward the truck. As he got closer the ground turned soupy and he went up on tiptoe, then began hopping from foot to foot, but there was no firm place to land and eveiy time he jumped he went in deeper. When he sank past his ankles he gave up and mucked ahead, his sneakers slurping, picking up more goop with each step. By the time he reached the truck they looked like medicine balls. He crouched by one rear tire, then the other.

"We can put down corduroy tracks," he said.

Ivan winked in our direction. "Corduroy tracks, you say!"

"That's what they used to do when covered wagons got stuck,' Clark said. "Put logs down."

"Son, does that look like a covered wagon to you?"

"Also artillery pieces. In the Civil War."

"Maybe we should just unload the truck," I said.

"Hold your horses." Ivan put his hands on his knees and studied Clark. "I like a boy with ideas," he said. "Go on, give it a stab."

"Never hurts to tiy," Freddy said.

"That's it exactly," Ivan said.

Freddy and I walked up to the barn for a couple of shovels. We cut wide of the ruts and puddles but the mud still sucked at our shoes. Once we were alone, I kept thinking how thin he'd gotten. I couldn't come up with anything to say. He didn't speak either.

I waited while Freddy went into the barn, and when he came back outside I said. "We're going to move." Though no one had told me any such thing, those words came to mind and it felt right to say them.

Freddy handed me a shovel. "Where to?"

"I don't know."

"When?"


"I'm not sure."

We started back.

"I hope you don't move," Freddy said.

"Maybe we won't," I said. "Maybe we'll end up staying."

"That would be great, if you stayed."

"There's no place like home."

"Home is where the heart is," Freddy said, but he was looking at the ground just ahead of him and didn't smile back at me.

We took turns digging out the wheels, one resting while the other two worked. Ivan laughed whenever we slipped into the mud, but otherwise watched in silence. It was impossible to dig and keep your feet, especially as we got deeper. Finally I gave up and knelt down to work-I got more leverage that way-and Clark and Freddy followed suit. I was sheathed in mud up to my waist and elbows. My condition was hopeless, so I stopped trying to spare myself and just let go. I surrendered to the spirit of the mud. It's fair to say I wallowed.

What we did, under Clark's direction, was cut a wide trench from the bottom of each tire forward about five feet, sloping up like a ramp. We jammed cordwood under the tires and then lined the ramps with more logs as we dug. We were about finished when the walls started to collapse. Clark took it personally. "Fudge!" he kept saying, and Ivan laughed and swayed back and forth on the stump. Clark yelled at Freddy and me to dig! dig! dig! and stretched flat on his stomach and scooped the sliding mud out with his hands. I could hear Freddy laboring for breath, but he didn't let up, and neither did I. We burrowed like moles and then came a moment when the tracks were clear and the walls holding, and Clark told Ivan to move the truck. Clark was excited and barked at him as he'd been barking at us. Ivan sat there blinking. Clark pitched some spare logs back into the truck. "Come on, guys," he said. "We'll push."

Ivan stood and brushed off his hands and walked over to the truck, still watching Clark. Before he climbed into the cab, he said, "Young fellow, if you ever need a job, call me."

Clark and Freddy and I braced ourselves against the tailgate as Ivan cranked the engine and put it in gear. The rear wheels started to spin, churning back geysers of mud. I was in the middle so I didn't catch much of it, but Freddy and Clark got plastered. Freddy turned away and then leaned forward again and started pushing with Clark and me. Ivan was rocking the truck to and fro, trying to get it onto the logs. It rose a little, hesitated, then slipped and spewed back another blast of mud. Clark and Freddy looked like they'd been stuccoed. They moved in closer beside me as Ivan got the truck rocking again. I held my breath against the heavy black exhaust. My eyes burned. The truck rocked and rose again, hanging on the lip. Clark grunted, again and again and again. I picked up his rhythm and pushed for all I was worth, and then my feet slid and I fell flat out as the truck jerked forward. The tires screamed on the wood. A log shot back and flipped past Clark's head. He didn't seem to notice. He was watching the truck. It gathered speed on the track we'd made and hit the mud again and somehow slithered on, languidly, noisily, rear end sashaying, two great plumes of mud arcing off the back wheels. The wheels spun wildly, the engine shrieked, logs tumbled off the sides. The truck slewed and swayed across the bog and rose abruptly, shedding skirts of mud, as it gained the broken asphalt in front of the barn. Ivan shifted gears, beeped merrily, and drove away.

"You all right?" Clark said.

Freddy was bent double, head almost between his knees. He held up a hand but went on panting. The truck had left behind an exaggerated silence in which I could hear the clutch and rasp of eveiy breath he took. It sounded like hard work, hard and lonely. When I moved toward him he waved me off. Clark picked up a stick and began scrapping his sneakers. This seemed an optimistic project, caked as he was to the eyeballs, and he went about it with method and gravity. Freddy straightened up. His face was pallid, his chest rose and fell like a bird's. He stood there awhile, watching Clark wield the stick. "We can get cleaned up at the house," he said.

"If it's okay with you," Clark said, "I'd like to take a look at that canopy."

I'd been hoping all afternoon that Clark would drop the subject of the canopy, because I knew as a matter of absolute fact that Freddy didn't have one. But he did. It was in the loft of the barn, where his father had stored items of special interest from the salvage yard he'd owned. In all the rainy afternoons we'd spent fooling around up there I must have seen it a hundred times, though having no use for it, not even recognizing what it was, I'd never taken note. The canopy was smaller than our plans specified, but the plans could be changed; this was the genuine article. Freddy played the flashlight slowly up and down the length of it. He must have prepared for this moment, because unlike everything else up there the canopy was free of dust-polished, even, by the look of it. The light picked up a few scratches. Otherwise it was perfect: clear, unbroken, complete with flashing. Simple, yet technical too. Real.

If I'd had any doubts, they left me. It was obvious that our jet was not only possible but as good as built. All we had to do was keep having days like this and soon the pieces would all come together, and we'd be flying.

Clark asked Freddy what he wanted for it.

"Nothing. It's just sitting here."

We poked around awhile and went back to the house, where Freddy's mother declared shock at our condition and ordered us to strip and hose off. Clark wouldn't do it, he just washed his face and hands, but I took a long shower and then Freddy's mother gave me some of Tanker's clothes to wear home and wrapped my own dismal duds in a butcher-paper parcel tied off with a string handle, like a mess of gizzards. Freddy walked us to the end of the street. The light was failing. I looked back and saw him still standing there. When I looked again he was gone.

We stopped on the bridge over Flint Creek and threw rocks at a bottle caught in some weeds. I was all pumped up from getting the truck out and seeing the canopy, plus Freddy's mother had lent me Tanker's motorcycle jacket, which, though it hung to my fingertips, filled me with a conviction of my own powers that verged on madness. I was half hoping we'd run into those older boys in the park so I could whip their asses for them.

I leaned over the railing, spat into the water.

"Freddy wants in," Clark said.

"He said that? He didn't tell me."

"You were in the shower."

"So what did he say?"

"Just that he wished he could come in with us on the plane."

"What, or he takes the canopy back?"

"No. He just asked."

"We'd have to redesign the whole cockpit. It would change everything."

Clark had a rock in his hand. He looked at it with some interest, then flipped it into the creek.

"What did you tell him?"

"I said we'd let him know."

"What do you think?"

"He seems okay. You know him better than I do."

"Freddy's great, it's just..."

Clark waited for me to finish. When it was clear that I wasn't going to, he said, "Whatever you want."

I told him that all things considered, I'd just as soon keep it to the two of us.

As we crossed the park he asked me to have dinner at his place so he wouldn't get skinned alive about his clothes. His dad was still in Portland, he said, as if that explained something. Clark took his time on the walk home, looking in shopwindows and inspecting cars in the lots we passed. When we finally got to the house it was all lit up and music was playing. Even with the windows closed we could hear strains of it from the bottom of the sidewalk.

Clark stopped. He stood there, listening. "South Pacific," he said. "Good. She's happy."
Chapter 12

Sanity


Getting from La Jolla to Alta Vista State Hospital isn't easy, unless you have a car or a breakdown. Aprils father had a breakdown and they got him out there in no time at all. The trip took longer for April and her stepmother; they had to catch two different buses, hike up a hot, winding road through the hospital grounds, then walk back down to the bus stop when the visit was over. There were few drivers on the road, and none stopped to offer a lift. April didn't blame them. They probably figured she and Claire were patients out for a stroll. That's what she would've thought, coming upon the two of them out here. One look and she'd have kept going.

Claire was tall and erect. She was wearing a smart gray suit and high heels and a wide-brimmed black hat. She carried herself a little stiffly because of the heels but kept up a purposeful, dignified pace. "Ship of State"-that was what April's father called Claire when she felt summoned to demonstrate her steadiness and resolve. April followed along in loose order. She stopped now and then to catch her breath and let some distance open up between them, then hurried to close it. April was a short muscular girl with a mannish stride. She was scowling in the hazy midsummer light. Her hands were red. She had on a sleeveless dress, yellow with black flowers, that she knew was ugly and wore anyway because it made people conscious of her.

Two cars went by, their tires moving over the tacky asphalt with the sound of tape being peeled. April's father had sold the Volkswagen for almost nothing a few days before he went into the hospital, and Claire wouldn't even look at anything else. She had some money in the bank but was saving it for a trip to Italy with her sister when Aprils father came home.

Claire had been quiet through most of the visit, quiet and on edge, and now that it was over she didn't tiy to hide her relief. She wanted to talk. She said the doctor they'd spoken with reminded her of Walt Darsh, her husband during the last ice age. That was how she located whatever had happened to her in the past-"during the last ice age." April knew she wanted to be told that she still looked good, and it wouldn't have been a lie to say so, but this time April said nothing.

She had heard about Walt Darsh before, his faithlessness and cruelty. Though the stories Claire told were interesting, they left April troubled, strange to herself. As soon as Claire got started, April said, "If he was so bad, how come you married him?"

Claire didn't answer right away. She walked more slowly, and inclined her long neck thoughtfully, and gave every sign of being occupied with a new and demanding question. She looked at April, then away. "Sex," she said.

April could see the glitter of windshields in the distance. There was a bench at the bus stop; when they got there she was going to lie down and close her eyes and pretend to sleep.

"Its hard to explain," Claire said cautiously, as if April had pressed her. "It wasn't his looks. Darsh isn't really what you'd call handsome. He has a sly, pointy kind of face . . . like a fox. You know what I mean? It isn't just the shape, it's the way he watches you, always grinning a little, like he's got the goods onyou." Claire stopped in the shade of a tree. She took off her hat, smoothed back her hair, curled some loose strands behind her ears, then put her hat back on and set it just so across her forehead. She found a Kleenex in her purse and dabbed the corner of one eye where a thin line of mascara had run. Claire had the gift, mysterious to April, of knowing what she looked like even without a mirror. April's face was always a surprise to her, always somehow different than she'd imagined it.

"Of course that can be attractive too," Claire said, "being looked at like that. With most men it's annoying, but not always. With Darsh it was attractive. So I suppose you could say that it was his looks, in the literal sense. If you see the distinction."

April saw the distinction, also Claire's pleasure in having made it. She was unhappy with this line of talk but couldn't do anything about it, because it was her own fault that Claire believed she was ripe for unrestrained discussion of these matters. Over the last few months Claire had decided that April was sleeping with Stuart, the boy she went out with. This was not the case. Stuart dropped hints now and then in his polite, witty, hopeless way, but he wasn't really serious and neither was April. She hadn't told Claire the truth because in the beginning it was satisfying to be seen as a woman of experience. Claire was a snob about knowing the ways of the world; it pleased April to crowd her turf a little. Claire never asked, she simply assumed, and once that assumption took hold there was no straightening things out.

The brim of Claire's hat waved up and down. She seemed to be having an idea she agreed with. "Looks are part of it," she said, "definitely. But not the whole story. With sex, it never is just one thing, is it? Like technique, for instance." She turned and started down the road again, head still pensively bent. April could feel a lecture coming on. Claire taught sociology at the same junior college where April's father used to teach psych, and like him she was quick to mount the podium.

"People write about technique," she said, "as if it's the whole ball game, which is a complete joke. You know who's really getting off on technique? Publishers, that's who. Because they can turn it into a commodity. They can merchandise it as how-to, like traveling in Mexico or building a redwood deck. The only problem is, it doesn't work. You know why? Because it turns sex into a literary experience."

April couldn't stop herself from giggling. This made her sound foolish, as she knew.

"I'm serious," Claire said. "You can tell right away that it's coming out of some book. You start seeing yourself in one of those little squiggly drawings, with your zones all marked out and some earnest little cartoon guy working through them one by one, being really considerate."

Claire stopped again and gazed out over the fields that lined the road, resting one hand on top of a fence post. Back in the old days, according to Aprils father, the patients used to grow things in these fields. Now they were overgrown with scrubby trees and tall yellow grass. Insects shrilled loudly.

"That's another reason those books are worthless," Claire said. "They're all about sharing, being tender, anticipating your partner's needs, et cetera et cetera. It's like Sunday school in bed. I'm not kidding, April. That's what it's all about, this technique stuff. Judeo-Christian conscientiousness. The Golden Rule. You know what I mean?"

"I guess," April said.

"We're talking about a very basic transaction," Claire said. "A lot more basic than lending money to a friend. Think about it. Lending is a highly evolved activity. Other species don't do it, only us. Just look at all the things that go into lending money. Social stability, trust, generosity. Imagining yourself in the other persons place. It's incredibly advanced, incredibly civilized. I'm all for it. My point is, sex comes from another place. Sex isn't civilized. It isn't about being unselfish."

An ambulance went slowly past. April looked after it, then back at Claire, who was still staring out over the fields. April saw the line of her profile in the shadow of the hat, saw how dry and cool her skin was, the composure of her smile. April saw these things and felt her own sticky, worried, incomplete condition. "We ought to get going," she said.

"To tell the truth," Claire said, "that was one of the things that attracted me to Darsh. He was totally selfish, totally out to please himself. That gave him a certain heat. A certain power. The libbers would kill me for saying this, but it s true. Did I ever tell you about our honeymoon?"

"No." April made her voice flat and grudging, though she was curious.

"Or the maid thing? Did I ever tell you about Darsh's maid thing?"

"No," April said again. "What about the honeymoon?"

Claire said, "That's a long story. I'll tell you about the maid thing."

"You don't have to tell me anything," April said.

Claire went on smiling to herself. "Back when Darsh was a kid, his mother took him on a trip to Europe. The grand tour. He was too young for it, thirteen, fourteen-that age. By the time they got to Amsterdam he was sick of museums, he never wanted to see another painting in his life. That's the trouble with pushing culture at children, they end up hating it. It's better to let them come to it on their own, don't you think?"

April shrugged.

"Take Jane Austen, for example. They were shoving Jane Austen down my throat when I was in the eighth grade. Pride and Prejudice. Of course I absolutely loathed it, because I couldn't see what was really going on, the sexual play behind the manners, the social critique, the economics. I hadn't lived. You have to have some life under your belt before you can make any sense of a book like that.

"Anyway, Darsh dug in his heels when they got to Amsterdam. He wouldn't budge. He stayed in the hotel room all day long, reading mysteries and ordering stuff from room service, while his mother went out and looked at paintings. One afternoon a maid came up to the room to polish the chandelier. She had a stepladder, and from where Darsh was sitting he couldn't help seeing up her dress. All the way up, okay? And she knew it. He knew she knew, because after a while he didn't even try to hide it, he just stared. She didn't say a word. Not one. She took her sweet time up there too, polishing every pendant, cool as a cucumber. Darsh said it went on for a couple of hours, which means maybe half an hour-which is a pretty longtime, if you think about it."

"Then what happened?"

"Nothing. Nothing happened. That's the whole point, April. If something had happened it would've broken the spell. It would have let out all that incredible energy. But it stayed locked in. It's always there, boiling away at this insane fourteen-year-old level, just waiting to explode. Maids are one of Darsh's real hot spots. He used to own the whole outfit, probably still does-you know, frilly white blouse, black skirt, black nylons with all the little snaps. It's a cliche, of course. Pornographers have been using it for a hundred years. But so what. It still works. Most of our desires are cliches, right? Ready to wear, one size fits all. I doubt if it's even possible to have an original desire anymore."

"He actually made you wear that stuff?"

April saw Claire freeze at her words, as if she'd said something hurtful and low. Claire straightened up and slowly started walking again. April hung back, then followed a few steps behind until Claire waited for her to catch up. After a time Claire said, "No, dear. He didn't make me do anything. It's exciting when somebody wants something that much. I loved the way he looked at me. Like he wanted to eat me alive, but innocent too.

"Maybe it sounds cheap. It's hard to describe."

Claire was quiet then, and so was April. She did not feel any need for description. She thought she could imagine the look Darsh had given Claire; in fact she could see it perfectly, though no one had ever given her such a look. Certainly not Stuart. She felt safe with him, safe and sleepy. Nobody like Stuart would ever make her as careless and willing as Darsh had made Claire in the stories she told about him. It seemed to April that she already knew Darsh, and that he knew her-as if he'd sensed her listening to these stories and was conscious of her interest.

They were almost at the road. April stopped to look back but the hospital buildings were out of sight now, behind the brow of the hill. She turned and walked on. She had one more of these trips to make. The week after that her father would be coming home. He'd been theatrically calm all through their visit, sitting by the window in an easy chair, feet propped on the ottoman, a newspaper across his lap. He was wearing slippers and a cardigan sweater. All he needed was a pipe. He seemed fine, the veiy picture of health, but that was all it was: a picture. At home he never read the paper. He didn't sit down much either. The last time April saw him outside the hospital, a month ago, he was under restraint in their landlord's apartment, where he'd gone to complain about the shower. He'd been kicking and yelling. His glasses were hanging from one ear. He was shouting at her to call the cops, and one of the policemen holding him down was laughing helplessly.



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