Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories

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"I could eat," Miller says.

"That's the spirit. At a time like this you've got to keep your strength up."

"I could eat," Miller says again.

Lebowitz looks up into the rearview mirror, shakes his head, and looks away again.

They take the next turnoff and drive inland to a crossroads where two gas stations face two restaurants. One of the restaurants is boarded up, so Lebowitz pulls into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen across the road. He turns the engine off, and the three men sit motionless in the sudden silence. Then Miller hears the distant clang of metal on metal, the caw of a crow, the creak of Kaiser shifting in his seat. A dog barks in front of a rust-streaked trailer next door, a skinny white dog with yellow eyes. As it barks the dog rubs itself, one leg raised and twitching, against a sign that shows an outspread hand below the words know your future.

They get out of the jeep, and Miller follows Kaiser and Lebowitz across the parking lot. The air is warm and smells of oil. In the gas station across the road a pink-skinned man in a swimming suit is trying to put air in the tires of his bicycle, jerking at the hose and swearing loudly. Miller pushes his tongue against the broken bridge, lifting it gently. He wonders if he should try eating a hamburger and decides it can't hurt as long as he's careful to chew on the other side of his mouth.

But it does hurt. After a few bites Miller shoves his plate away. He rests his chin on one hand and listens to Lebowitz and Kaiser argue about whether people can actually tell the future. Lebowitz is talking about a girl he used to know who had ESP. "We'd be driving along," he says, "and out of the blue she'd tell me exactly what I was thinking about. It was unbelievable."

Kaiser finishes his hamburger and takes a drink of milk. "No big deal," he says. "I could do that." He pulls Miller's hamburger over to his side of the table and takes a bite out of it.

"Go ahead," Lebowitz says. "Try it. I'm not thinking about what you think I'm thinking about."

"Yes, you are."

"All right, now I am," Lebowitz says, "but I wasn't before."

"I wouldn't let a fortune-teller get near me," Miller says. "The way I see it, the less you know the better off you are."

"More vintage philosophy from the private stock of W. P. Miller," Lebowitz says. He looks at Kaiser, who's finishing Millers hamburger. "Well, how about it? I'm up for it if you are."

Kaiser chews ruminatively. He swallows and licks his lips. "Sure," he says. "Why not? As long as Miller here doesn't mind."

"Mind what?" Miller asks.

Lebowitz stands and puts his sunglasses back on. "Don't worry about Miller. Miller's cool. Miller keeps his head when men all around him are losing theirs."

Kaiser and Miller get up from the table and follow Lebowitz outside. Lebowitz is bending down in the shade of a dumpster, wiping off his boots with a handkerchief. Shiny blue flies buzz around him.

"Mind what?" Miller repeats.

"We thought we'd check out the prophet," Kaiser tells him.

Lebowitz straightens up and the three of them start across the parking lot.

"I'd actually kind of like to get going," Miller says. When they reach the jeep he stops, but Lebowitz and Kaiser walk on. "Now listen," Miller says, and skips a little to catch up. "I have a lot to do," he says to their backs. "I have to get home."

"We know how broken up you are," Lebowitz tells him. He keeps walking.

"This won't take too long," Kaiser says.

The dog barks once and then, when it sees that they really intend to come within range of his teeth, runs around the trailer. Lebowitz knocks on the door. It swings open, and there stands a round-faced woman with dark, sunken eyes and heavy lips. One of her eyes has a cast; it seems to be watching something beside her while the other looks down at the three soldiers at her door. Her hands are covered with flour. She is a Gypsy, an actual Gypsy. Miller has never seen a Gypsy before, but he recognizes her as surely as he'd recognize a wolf if he saw one. Her presence makes his blood pound in his veins. If he lived in this place he would come back at night with other men, all of them yelling and waving torches, and drive her out.

"You on duty?" Lebowitz asks.

She nods, wiping her hands on her skirt. They leave chalky streaks on the bright patchwork. "All of you?" she asks.

"You bet," Kaiser says. His voice is unnaturally loud.

She nods again and turns her good eye from Lebowitz to Kaiser, then to Miller. Gazing at Miller, she smiles and rattles off a string of strange sounds, words from another language or maybe a spell, as if she expects him to understand. One of her front teeth is black.

"No," Miller says. "No, ma'am. Not me." He shakes his head.

"Come," she says, and stands aside.

Lebowitz and Kaiser mount the steps and disappear into the trailer. "Come," the woman repeats. She beckons with her white hands.

Miller backs away, still shaking his head. "Leave me alone," he tells her, and before she can answer he turns and walks away. He goes back to the jeep and sits in the driver's seat, leaving both doors open to catch the breeze. Miller feels the heat drawing the dampness out of his fatigues. He can smell the musty wet canvas overhead and the sourness of his own body. Through the windshield, covered with mud except for a pair of grimy half circles, he watches three boys solemnly urinating against the wall of the gas station across the road.

Miller bends down to loosen his boots. Blood rushes to his face as he fights the wet laces, and his breath comes faster and faster. "Goddamn laces," he says. "Goddamn rain." He gets the laces untied and sits up, panting. He stares at the trailer. Goddamn Gypsy.

He can't believe those two fools actually went inside there. Yukking it up. Playing around. That shows how stupid they are, because anybody knows that you don't play around with fortunetellers. There's no predicting what a fortune-teller might say, and once it's said, no way of keeping it from happening. Once you hear what's out there it isn't out there anymore; it's here. You might as well open your door to a murderer as to the future.

The future. Didn't everybody know enough about the future already, without rooting around for the details? There's only one thing you have to know about the future: everything gets worse. Once you have that, you have it all. The specifics don't bear thinking about.

Miller certainly has no intention of thinking about the specifics. He peels off his damp socks and massages his crinkled white feet. Now and then he glances up toward the trailer, where the Gypsy is pronouncing fate on Kaiser and Lebowitz. Miller makes humming noises. He will not think about the future.

Because it's true-everything gets worse. One day you're sitting in front of your house poking sticks into an anthill, hearing the chink of silverware and the voices of your mother and father in the kitchen; then, at some moment you can't even remember, one of those voices is gone, and you never hear it again. When you go from today to tomorrow you're walking into an ambush.

What lies ahead doesn't bear thinking about. Already Miller has an ulcer, and his teeth are full of holes. His body's giving out on him. What will it be like when he's sixty? Or even five years from now? Miller was in a restaurant the other day and saw a fellow about his own age in a wheelchair, getting fed soup by a woman who was talking to some other people at the table. This boy's hands lay twisted in his lap like gloves somebody dropped there. His pants had crawled up halfway to his knees, showing pale, wasted legs no thicker than bones. He could barely move his head. The woman feeding him did a lousy job because she was too busy blabbing to her friends. Half the soup went onto the boy's shirt. Yet his eyes were bright and attentive. Miller thought: That could happen to me.

You could be going along just fine and then one day, through no fault of your own, something could get loose in your bloodstream and knock out part of your brain. Leave you like that. And if it didn't happen now, all at once, it was sure to happen slowly later on. That was the end you were bound for.

Someday Miller is going to die. He knows that and prides himself on knowing it when everyone else only pretends to, secretly believing they'll live forever. But this is not the reason the future is unthinkable to him. There is something else worse than that, something not to be considered, and he will not consider it.

He will not consider it. Miller leans back against the seat and closes his eyes, but his effort to trick himself into somnolence fails; behind his eyelids he is wide awake and fidgety with gloom, probing against his will for what he is afraid to find, until, with no surprise at all, he finds it. A simple truth. His mother is also going to die. Just like him. And there's no telling when. Miller cannot count on her to be there to come home to, and receive his pardon, when he finally decides she has suffered enough.

Miller opens his eyes and looks at the raw shapes of the buildings across the road, their outlines lost through the grime on the windshield. He closes his eyes again. He listens to himself breathe and feels the familiar, almost muscular ache of knowing that he is beyond his mother's reach. That he has put himself where she cannot see him or speak to him or touch him, resting her hands on his shoulders as she stops behind his chair to ask him a question or just stand for a moment, her mind somewhere else. This was supposed to be her punishment, but somehow it has become his own. He understands that it has to stop. It's killing him.

It has to stop now, and as if he'd been planning for this day all along Miller knows exactly what he will do. Instead of reportingto the Red Cross when he gets back to base, he'll pack his bag and catch the first bus home. No one will blame him for this. Even when they discover the mistake they've made they still won't blame him, because it would be the natural thing for a grieving son to do. Instead of punishing him they will probably apologize for giving him a scare.

He will take the first bus home, express or not. It will be full of Mexicans and soldiers. Miller will sit by a window and drowse. Now and then he'll come up from his dreams to stare out at the passing green hills and loamy plowland and the stations where the bus puts in, stations cloudy with exhaust and loud with engine roar, where the people he regards through his window will look groggily back at him as if they too have just come up from sleep. Salinas. Vacaville. Red Bluff. When he gets to Redding Miller will hire a cab. He'll ask the driver to stop at Schwartz's for a few minutes while he buys some flowers, and then he will ride on home, down Sutter and over to Serra, past the ballpark, the grade school, the Mormon church. Right on Belmont. Left on Park. Leaning over the seat, saying, Farther, farther, a little farther, that's it, that one there.

The sound of voices behind the door as he rings the bell. Door swings open, voices hush. Who are these people? Men in suits, women wearing white gloves. Someone stammers his name, strange to him now, almost forgotten. W-W-Wesley. A man's voice. Miller stands just inside the door, breathing perfume. Then the flowers are taken from his hand and laid with other flowers on the coffee table. He hears his name again. It is Phil Dove, moving toward him from across the room. He walks slowly, with his arms raised, like a blind man.

Wesley, he says. Thank God you're home.
Chapter 14

Two Boys and a Girl

Gilbert saw her first. This was in late June, at a party. She was sitting alone in the backyard, stretched out on a lawn chair, when he went to get a beer from the cooler. He tried to think of something to say to her, but she seemed complete in her solitude and he was afraid of sounding intrusive and obvious. Later he saw her again, inside-a pale, dark-haired girl with brown eyes and lipstick smears on her teeth. She was dancing with Gilbert's best friend, Rafe. The night after that she was with Rafe when he picked Gilbert up to go to another party, and again the night after that. Her name was Mary Ann.

Mary Ann, Rafe, and Gilbert. They went everywhere together that summer, to parties and movies and the lake, to the pools of friends, and on long aimless drives after Gilbert got off work at his father's bookstore. Gilbert didn't have a car, so Rafe did the driving; his grandfather had given him his immaculate old Buick convertible as a reward for getting into Yale. Mary Ann leaned against him with her bare fine-boned feet up on the dash, while Gilbert sprawled like a pasha in the back and handed out the beers and passed ironic comment on whatever attracted his notice.

Gilbert was deeply ironic. At the high school where he and Rafe had been classmates, the yearbook editors voted him Most Cynical. That pleased him. Gilbert believed disillusionment to be the natural consequence, even the duty, of a mind that could cut through the official version to the true nature of things. He made it his business to take nothing on trust, to respect no authority but that of his own judgment, and to be elegantly unsurprised at the grossest crimes and follies, especially those of the world's anointed.

Mary Ann listened to what he said, even when she seemed to be occupied with Rafe. Gilbert knew this, and he knew when he'd managed to shock her. She clenched her hands, blinked rapidly, and a red splotch, vivid as a birthmark, appeared on the milky skin of her neck. She wasn't hard to shock. Her father, a captain in the Coast Guard, was the squarest human being Gilbert had ever met. One night when he and Rafe were waiting for Mary Ann, Captain McCoy stared at Gilbert's sandals and asked what he thought about the beatniks. Mrs. McCoy had doilies all over the house, and pictures of kittens and the Holy Land and dogs playing poker, and in the toilets these chemical gizmos that turned the water blue. Gilbert felt sorry for Mary Ann whenever he took a leak at her house.

In early August Rafe went fishing in Canada with his father. He left Gilbert the keys to the Buick and told him to take care of Mary Ann. Gilbert recognized this as what the hero of a war movie says to his drab sidekick before leaving on the big mission.

Rafe delivered his instructions while he was in his room packing for the trip. Gilbert lounged on the bed watching him. He wanted to talk, but Rafe was playing his six-record set of I Pagliacci, which Gilbert didn't believe he really liked, though Rafe made occasional humming noises as if he knew the whole score by heart. Gilbert thought he was taking up opera the same way he'd taken up squash that winter, as an accessory. He lay back and was silent while Rafe went about his business; he was graceful and precise, assembling his gear without waste of motion or hesitation as to where things were. At one point he walked over to the mirror and studied himself as if he were alone, and Gilbert was surprised by the anger he felt. Then Rafe turned to him and tossed the keys on the bed and delivered his line about taking care of Mary Ann.

The next day Gilbert drove the Buick around town all by himself. He double-parked in front of Nordstrom's with the top down and smoked cigarettes and watched the women come out as if he were waiting for one of them. Now and then he examined his watch and frowned. He drove onto a pier at the wharf and waved at one of the passengers on the boat to Victoria. She was looking down at the water and didn't see him, not until she raised her eyes as the boat was backing out of the slip and caught him blowing her a kiss. She stepped away from the rail and vanished from sight. Later he went to La Luna, a bar near the university where he knew he wouldn't get carded, and sat where he could see the Buick. When the bar filled up he walked outside and raised the hood and checked the oil, right in front of La Luna's big picture window. To a couple walking past he said, "This damn thing drinks oil like it's going out of style." Then he drove off with the expression of a man with important and not entirely pleasant business to perform. He stopped and bought cigarettes in two different drugstores. He called home from the second store and told his mother he wouldn't be in for dinner and asked if he'd gotten any mail. "No," his mother said, "nothing." Gilbert ate at a drive-in and cruised for a while and then went up to the lookout above Alki Point and sat on the hood of the Buick and smoked in a moody, philosophical manner, deliberately ignoring the girls with their dates in the cars around him. A heavy mist stole in from the sound. Across the water the lights of the city blurred, and a foghorn began to call. Gilbert flipped his cigarette into the shadows and rubbed his bare arms. When he got home he called Mary Ann, and they agreed to go to a movie the following night.

After the movie Gilbert drove Mary Ann back to her house. Instead of going right inside she sat in the car and they went on talking. It was easy, easier than he'd imagined. When Rafe was with them, Gilbert could speak through him to Mary Ann and be witty or deep or outrageous. In the moments they'd been alone, waiting for Rafe to rejoin them, he always found himself tongue-tied, in a kind of panic. He'd cudgel his brains for something to say, and whatever he did come up with sounded tense and sharp. But that didn't happen, not that night.

It was raining. When Gilbert saw that Mary Ann wasn't in any hurry to get out, he cut the engine and they sat there in the faint marine light of the radio tuning band with liquid shadows playing over their faces from the rain streaming down the windows. The rain drummed in gusts on the canvas roof but inside it was warm and close, like in a tent during a storm. Mary Ann was talking about nursing school and her fear that she wouldn't measure up in the tough courses, especially Anatomy and Physiology. Gilbert thought she was being ritually humble and said, "Oh, come on, you'll do fine."

"I don't know," she said. "I just don't know." And then she told him how badly she'd done in science and math, and how two of her teachers had personally gone down to the nursing-school admissions office to help her get in. Gilbert saw that she really was afraid of failing, and for good reason. Now that she'd said so herself, it made sense to him that she struggled in school. She wasn't quick, wasn't clever. There was a simplicity about her.

She leaned back into the corner, watching the rain. She looked sad. Gilbert thought of touching her cheek with the back of his hand to reassure her. He waited a moment, then told her it wasn't exactly true that he was trying to make up his mind whether to go to the University of Washington or Amherst. He should have corrected that misunderstanding before. The actual truth was, he hadn't gotten into Amherst. He'd made it onto the waiting list, though with only three weeks left until school began he figured his odds were just about nil.

She turned and regarded him. He couldn't see her eyes. They were dark pools with only a glint of light at the bottom. She asked why he hadn't gotten in.

To this question Gilbert had no end of answers. He thought of new ones every day, and was sick of them all. "I stopped working," he said. "I just completely slacked off."

"But you should've gotten in wherever you wanted. You're smart enough."

"I talk a pretty good game, I guess." He took out a cigarette and tapped the end against the steering wheel. "I don't know why I smoke these damn things," he said.

"You like the way they make you look. Intellectual."

"I guess." He lit it.

She watched him closely as he took the first drag. "Let me," she said. "Just a puff."

Their fingers touched when he handed her the cigarette.

"You're going to be a great nurse," he said.

She took a puff of the cigarette and blew the smoke out slowly.

Neither of them spoke for a time.

"I'd better go in," she said.

Gilbert watched her go up the walkway to her house, face averted from the blowing rain. He waited until he saw her step inside, then turned the radio back up and drove away. He kept tasting her lipstick on the cigarette.

When he called from work the next day her mother answered and asked him to wait. Mary Ann was out of breath when she came to the phone. She said she'd been outside on a ladder, helping her dad paint the house. "What are you up to?" she asked.

"I was just wondering what you were doing," he said.

He took her to La Luna that night, and the next. Both times they got the same booth, right near the jukebox. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" had just come out and Mary Ann played it again and again while they talked. On the third night some guys in baseball uniforms were sitting there when they came in. Gilbert was annoyed and saw that she was too. They sat at the bar for a time but kept getting jostled by the drinkers behind them. They decided to go someplace else. Gilbert was paying his tab when the baseball players stood up to leave, and Mary Ann slipped into the booth just ahead of an older couple who'd been waiting nearby.

"We were here first," the woman said to Mary Ann as Gilbert sat down across from her.

"This is our booth," Mary Ann said, in a friendly, informative tone.

"How do you figure that?"

Mary Ann looked at the woman as if she'd asked a truly eccentric question. "Well, I don't know," she said. "It just is."

Afterward it kept coming back to Gilbert, the way Mary Ann had said "our booth." He collected such observations and pondered them when he was away from her: her breathlessness when she came to the phone, the habit she'd formed of taking puffs from his cigarettes and helping herself to his change to play the jukebox, how she listened to him with such open credulity that he found it impossible to brag or make excuses or say things merely for effect. He couldn't be facetious with Mary Ann. She always thought he meant exactly what he said, and then he had to stop and try to explain that he'd actually meant something else. His irony began to sound weak and somehow envious. It sounded thin and unmanly.

Mary Ann gave him no occasion for it. She took him seriously. She wrote down the names of the books he spoke of-On the Road, The Stranger, The Fountainhead, and some others he hadn't actually read but knew about and intended to read as soon as he found the time. She listened when he explained what was wrong with Barry Goldwater and Reader's Digest and the television shows she liked, and agreed that he was probably right. In the solemnity of her attention he heard himself saying things he had said to no one else, confessing hopes so implausible he had barely acknowledged them to himself. He was often surprised by his own honesty. But he stopped short of telling Mary Ann what was most on his mind, and what he believed she already knew, in case she didn't know or wasn't ready to admit she did. Once he said it, everything would change, for all of them, and he wasn't prepared to risk this.

They went out every night except two, once when Gilbert had to work overtime and once when Captain McCoy took Mary Ann and her mother to dinner. They saw a couple more movies and went to a party and to La Luna and drove around the city. The nights were warm and clear and Gilbert put the top down and poked along in the right lane. He used to wonder, with some impatience, why Rafe drove so slowly. Now he knew. To command the wheel of an open car with a girl on the seat beside you was to be established in a condition that only a fool would hasten to end. He drove slowly around the lake and downtown and up to the lookouts and then back to Mary Ann's house. The first few nights they sat in the car. After that, Mary Ann invited Gilbert inside.

He talked; she talked. She talked about her little sister, Colleen, who had died of cystic fibrosis two years before, and whose long, hard dying had brought her family close and given her the idea of becoming a nurse. She talked about friends from school and the nuns who'd taught her. She talked about her parents and grandparents and Rafe. All her talk was of her affections. Unconditional enthusiasm generally had a wearying effect on Gilbert, yet Mary Ann gave praise, it seemed to him, not to shine it back on herself or to dissemble some secret bitterness but because that was her nature. That was how she was, and he liked her for it, as he liked it that she didn't question everything but trusted freely, like a child.

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