She had been teaching herself the guitar, and sometimes she consented to play and sing for him, old ballads about mine disasters and nice lads getting hanged for poaching and noblewomen drowning their babies. He could see how the words moved her, so much that her voice would give out for moments at a time; then she would bite her lower lip and gaze down at the floor. She put folk songs on the record player and listened to them with her eyes closed. She also liked Roy Orbison and the Fleetwoods and Ray Charles. One night she was bringing some fudge from the kitchen just as "Born to Lose" came on. Gilbert stood and offered his hand with a dandified flourish that she could have laughed off if she'd chosen to. She put the plate down and took his hand and they began to dance, stiffly at first, from a distance, then easily and close. They fit perfectly. Perfectly. He felt the rub of her hips and thighs, the heat of her skin. Her warm hand tightened in his. He breathed in the scent of lavender water with the sunny smell of her hair and the faint salt smell of her body. He breathed it all in again and again. And then he felt himself grow hard and rise against her, so that she had to know, she just had to know, and he waited for her to move away. She didn't. She pressed close to him until the song ended, and for a moment or two after. Then she stepped back and let go of Gilbert's hand and in a hoarse voice asked him if he wanted some fudge. She was facing him but managing not to look at him.
"Maybe later," he said, and held out his hand again. "May I have the honor?"
She walked over to the couch and sat down. "I'm so clumsy."
"No, you're not. You're a great dancer."
She shook her head.
He sat down in the chair across from her. She still wouldn't look at him. She put her hands together and stared at them.
Then she said, "How come Rafe's dad picks on him all the time?"
"I don't know. There isn't any particular reason. Bad chemistry, I guess."
"It's like he can't do anything right. His dad won't let him alone, even when I'm there. I bet he's having a miserable time."
It was true that neither Rafe's father nor his mother took much pleasure in their son. Gilbert had no idea why this should be so. Still, it was a strange subject to have boiled up out of nowhere like this, and for her to be suddenly close to tears about. "Don't worry about Rafe," he said. "Rafe can take care of himself."
The grandfather clock chimed, then struck twelve times. The clock had been made to go with the living-room ensemble, and its tone, tinny and untrue, set Gilbert on edge. The whole house set him on edge: the pictures, the matching Colonial furniture, the single bookshelf full of condensed books. It was like a house Russian spies would practice being Americans in.
"It's just so unfair," Mary Ann said. "Rafe is so sweet."
"He's a good egg, Rafe," Gilbert said. "Most assuredly. One of the best."
"He is the best."
Gilbert got up to leave and Mary Ann did look at him then, with something like alarm. She stood and followed him outside onto the porch. When he looked back from the end of the walkway, she was watching him with her arms crossed over her chest. "Call me tomorrow," she said. "Okay?"
"I was thinking of doing some reading," he said. Then he said, "I'll see. I'll see how things go."
The next night they went bowling. This was Mary Ann's idea. She was a good bowler and frankly out to win. Whenever she got a strike she threw her head back and gave a shout of triumph. She questioned Gilbert's scorekeeping until he got rattled and told her to take over, which she did without even a show of protest. When she guttered her ball she claimed she'd slipped on a wet spot and insisted on bowling that frame again. He didn't let her, he understood that she'd despise him if he did, but her shamelessness somehow made him happier than he'd been all day.
As he pulled up to her house Mary Ann said, "Next time I'll give you some pointers. You'd be half decent if you knew what you were doing."
Hearing that "next time," he killed the engine and turned and looked at her. "Mary Ann," he said.
He had never said so much before.
She looked straight ahead and didn't answer. Then she said, "I'm thirsty. You want a glass of juice or something?" Before Gilbert could say anything, she added, "We'll have to sit outside, okay? I think we woke my dad up last night."
He waited on the steps while Mary Ann went into the house. Paint cans and brushes were arranged on top of the porch railing. Captain McCoy scraped and painted one side of the house every year. This year he was doing the front. That was just like him, to eke it out one side at a time. Gilbert had once helped the Captain make crushed ice for drinks. The way the Captain did it, he'd hold a single cube in his hand and clobber it with a hammer until it was pulverized. Then another cube. Then another. Et cetera. When Gilbert wrapped a whole tray's worth in a hand towel and started whacking it against the counter, the Captain grabbed the towel away from him. "That's not how you do it!" he said. He found Gilbert another hammer, and the two of them stood there hitting cube after cube.
Mary Ann came out with two glasses of orange juice. She sat beside Gilbert and they drank and looked out at the Buick gleaming under the streetlight.
"I'm off tomorrow," Gilbert said. "You want to go fora drive?" "Gee, I wish I could. I promised my dad I'd paint the fence." "We'll paint, then."
"That's all right. It's your day off. You should do something."
"Something you like, dummy."
"I like to paint. In fact I love painting."
"No kidding, I love to paint. Ask my folks. Every free minute, I'm out there with a brush." "Like fun."
"So what time do we start? Look, it's only been three hours since I did my last fence, and already my hand's starting to shake." "Stop it! I don't know. Whenever. After breakfast." He finished his juice and rolled the glass between his hands. "Mary Ann." He felt her hesitate. "Yes?"
He kept rolling the glass. "What do your folks think about us going out so much?"
"They don't mind. I think they're glad, actually."
"I'm not exactly their type."
"Hah. You can say that again."
"What're they so glad about, then?"
"You're not Rafe."
"What, they don't like Rafe?"
"Oh, they like him, a lot. A whole lot. They're always saying how if they had a son, and so on. But my dad thinks we're getting too serious."
"Ah, too serious. So I'm comic relief."
"Don't say that."
"I'm not comic relief?"
Gilbert put his elbows on the step behind him. He looked up at the sky and said carefully, "He'll be back in a couple of days."
She leaned forward and stared into the yard as if she'd heard a sound.
He waited for a time, aware of every breath he took. "Then what?" he said again.
"I don't know. Maybe ... I don't know. I'm really kind of tired. You're coming tomorrow, right?"
"If that's what you want."
"You said you were."
"Only if you want me to."
"I want you to."
"Okay. Sure. Tomorrow, then."
Gilbert stopped at a diner on the way home. He ate a piece of apple pie, then drank coffee and watched the cars go past. To an ordinary person driving by he supposed he must look pretty tragic, sitting here alone over a coffee cup, cigarette smoke curling past his face. And the strange thing was, that person would be right. He was about to betray his best friend. To cut Rafe off from the two people he trusted most, and possibly, he understood, from trust itself. He would betray himself too-his belief, held deep under the stream of his flippancy, that he was steadfast and loyal. And he knew what he was doing. That was why this whole thing was tragic, because he knew what he was doing and could not do otherwise.
He had thought it all out. He could provide himself with reasons. Rafe and Mary Ann would have broken up anyway, sooner or later. Rafe was moving on. He didn't know it, but he was leaving them behind. He'd have roommates, guys from rich families who'd invite him home for vacation, take him skiing and sailing. He'd wear a tuxedo to debutante parties where he'd meet girls from Smith and Mount Holyoke, philosophy majors, English majors, girls with ideas who were reading the same books he was reading and other books too, who could say things he wouldn't have expected them to say. He'd get interested in one of these girls and go on road trips with his friends to her college. She'd come to New Haven. They'd rendezvous in Boston and New York. He'd meet her parents. And on the first day of his next trip home, honorable Rafe would enter Mary Ann's house and leave half an hour later with a sorrowful face and a heart leaping with joy. There wouldn't be many more trips home, not after that. What was here to draw him back from so far away? Not his parents, those crocodiles. Not Mary Ann. Himself? Good old Gilbert? Please.
And Mary Ann, what about Mary Ann? Once Rafe double-timed her and then dropped her cold, what would happen to that simple good-heartedness of hers? Would she begin to suspect it, stand guard over it? He was right to do anything to keep that from happening.
These were the reasons, and Gilbert thought they were good ones, but he could make no use of them. He knew he would do what he was going to do even if Rafe stayed at home and went to college with him, or if Mary Ann was somewhat more calculating. Reasons always came with a purpose, to give the appearance of a struggle between principle and desire. But there'd been no struggle. Principle had power only until you found what you had to have.
Captain McCoy was helping Mrs. McCoy into the car when Gilbert pulled up behind him. The Captain waited as his wife gathered her dress inside, then closed the door and walked back toward the Buick. Gilbert came around to meet him.
"Mary Ann tells me you're going to help with the fence."
"There's not that much of it-shouldn't take too long."
They both looked at the fence, about sixty feet of white pickets that ran along the sidewalk. Mary Ann came out on the porch and mimed Hi.
Captain McCoy said, "Would you mind picking up the paint? It's that Glidden store down on California. Just give em my name." He opened his car door, then looked at the fence again. "Scrape her good. That's the secret. Give her a good scraping and the rest'll go easy. And try not to get any paint on the grass."
Mary Ann came through the gate and waved as her parents drove off. She said that they were going over to Bremerton to see her grandmother. "Well," she said. "You want some coffee or something?"
He followed her up the walk. She had on cutoffs, and he watched her smooth white legs flex as she climbed the porch steps. Captain McCoy had set out two scrapers and two brushes on the railing, all four of them exactly parallel. Mary Ann handed Gilbert a scraper and they went back to the fence. "What a day!" she said. "Isn't it the most beautiful day?" She knelt to the right of the gate and began to scrape. Then she looked back at Gilbert watching her and said, "WTiy don't you do that side over there? We'll see who gets done first."
There wasn't much to scrape, some blisters, a few peeling patches here and there. "This fence is in good shape," Gilbert said. "How come you're painting it? "
"It goes with the front. When we paint the front, we always paint the fence."
"It doesn't need it. All it needs is some retouching."
"I guess. Dad wanted us to paint it, though. He always paints it when he paints the front."
Gilbert looked at the gleaming white house, the bright weedless lawn trimmed to the nap of a crew cut.
"Guess who called this morning," Mary Ann said.
"Rafe! There was a big storm coming in so they left early. He'll be back tonight. He sounded really great. He said to say hi."
Gilbert ran the scraper up and down a picket.
"It was so good to hear his voice," Mary Ann said. "I wish you'd been here to talk to him."
A kid went by on a bicycle, cards snapping against the spokes.
"We should do something," Mary Ann said. "Surprise him. Maybe we could take the car over to the house, be waiting out front when he gets back. Wouldn't that be great?"
"I wouldn't have any way to get home."
"Rafe can give you a ride."
Gilbert sat back and watched Mary Ann. She was halfway down her section of the fence. He waited for her to turn and face him. Instead she bent over to work at a spot near the ground. Her hair fell forward, exposing the nape of her neck. "Maybe you could invite someone along," Mary Ann said.
"Invite someone. What do you mean, a girl?"
"Sure. It would be nice if you had a girl. It would be perfect."
Gilbert threw the scraper against the fence. He saw Mary Ann freeze. "It would not be perfect," he said. When she still didn't turn around, he stood and went up the walk and through the house to the kitchen. He paced back and forth. He went to the sink, drank a glass of water, and stood with his hands on the counter. He saw what Mary Ann was thinking of, the two of them sitting in the open car, herself jumping out as Rafe pulled up, the wild embrace. Rafe unshaven, reeking of smoke and nature, a little abashed at all this emotion in front of his father, but pleased, too, and amused. And all the while Gilbert looking coolly on, hands in his pockets, ready to say the sly mocking words that would tell Rafe that all was as before. That was how she saw it going. As if nothing had happened.
Mary Ann had just about finished her section when Gilbert came back outside. "I'll go get the paint," he told her. "I don't think there's much left to scrape on my side, but you can take a look."
She stood and tried to smile. "Thank you," she said.
He saw that she had been in tears, and this did not soften him but confirmed him in his purpose.
Mary Ann had already spread out the tarp, pulling one edge under the fence so the drips wouldn't fall on the grass. When Gilbert opened the can she laughed and said, "Look! They gave you the wrong color."
"No, that's exactly the right color."
"But it's red. We need white. Like it is now."
"You don't want to use white, Mary Ann. Believe me."
"Red's the perfect color for this. No offense, but white is the worst choice you could make."
"But the house is white."
"Exactly," Gilbert said. "So are the houses next door. You put a white fence here, what you end up with is complete boredom. It's like being in a hospital, know what I mean?"
"I don't know. I guess it is a lot of white."
"What the red will do, the red will give some contrast and pick up the bricks in the walk. It's just what you want here."
"Well, maybe. The thing is, I don't think I should. Not this time. Next time, maybe, if my dad wants to."
"Look, Mary Ann. What your dad wants is for you to use your own head."
Mary Ann squinted at the fence.
"You have to trust me on this, okay?"
She sucked in her lower lip, then nodded. "Okay. If you're sure."
Gilbert dipped his brush. "The world's bland enough already, right? Everyone's always talking about the banality of evil-what about the evil of banality? "
They painted through the morning and into the afternoon. Every now and then Mary Ann would back off a few steps and take in what they'd done. At first she kept her thoughts to herself. The more they painted, the more she had to say. Toward the end she went out into the street and stood there with her hands on her hips. "It's interesting, isn't it? Really different. I see what you mean about picking up the bricks. It's pretty red, though."
"Think my dad'U like it?"
"Your dad? He'll be crazy about it."
"Think so? Gilbert? Really?"
"Wait till you see his face."
Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked. A big black wolflike animal attached to a chain, it came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park, moving easily in spite of the deep snow, making for Gold's daughter. He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming. Gold plunged down the hill, shouting as he went. Snow and wind deadened his voice. Anna's sled was almost at the bottom of the slope. Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts, and he knew she couldn't hear him or see the dog racing toward her. He was conscious of the dog's speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gum boots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backward off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there.
The sled was overturned, the snow churned up; the dog had marked this ground as its own. It still had Anna by the shoulder. Gold heard the rage boiling in its gut. He saw the tensed hindquarters and the flattened ears and the red gleam of gum under the wrinkled snout. Anna was on her back, her face bleached and blank, staring at the sky. She had never looked so small. Gold seized the chain and yanked at it, but could get no purchase in the snow. The dog only snarled more fiercely and started shaking Anna again. She didn't make a sound. Her silence made Gold go hollow and cold. He flung himself onto the dog and hooked his arm under its neck and pulled back hard. Still the dog wouldn't let go. Gold felt its heat and the profound rumble of its will. With his other hand he tried to pry the jaw loose. His gloves were slippery with drool; he couldn't get a good grip. Gold's mouth was next to the dog's ear. He said, "Let go, damn you," and then he took the ear between his teeth and bit down with everything he had. He heard a yelp and something cracked against his nose, knocking him backward. WThen he pushed himself up the dog was running for home, jerking its head from side to side, scattering flecks of blood on the snow.
"The whole thing took maybe sixty seconds," Gold said. "Maybe less. But it went on forever." He'd told the stoiy many times now and always mentioned this. He knew it was trite to marvel at how time could stretch and stall, but he was unable not to. Nor could he stop himself from repeating that it was a "miracle"-the radiologist's word-that Anna hadn't been crippled or disfigured or even killed; and that her doctor didn't understand how she'd escaped damage to her bones and nerves. Though badly bruised, her skin hadn't even been broken.
Gold loved his daughter's face. He loved her face as a thing in itself, to be wondered at, studied. Yet after the attack he couldn't look at Anna in the same way. He kept seeing the dog lunge at her, and himself stuck forever on that hill; then his heart began to kick, and he grew taut and restless and angry. He didn't want to think about the dog anymore-he wanted it out of the picture. It should be put down. It was crazy, a menace, and it was still there, waiting to tear into some other kid, because the police refused to do anything.
He was going through the whole story again with his cousin Tom Rourke oil a Sunday afternoon, a week after the attack. Gold had called him the night it happened, but the part about the police was new, and Rourke got all worked up just as Gold expected. His cousin had an exacting, irritable sense of justice, and a ready store of loyal outrage that Gold had drawn on ever since they were boys. He had been alone in his anger for a week now and wanted some company. Though his wife claimed to be angiy too, she hadn't seen what he had seen. The dog was an abstraction to her, and she wasn't one to brood anyway.
"What was their excuse?" Rourke wanted to know. "What reason did the cops give for their complete and utter worthlessness?"
"The chain," Gold said. "They said-this is the really beautiful part-they said that since the dog was chained up, no law was broken."
"But the dog wasn't chained up, right?"
"He was, but the chain reaches into the park. I mean way in-a good thirty, forty feet."
"By that logic, he could be on a chain ten miles long and legally chew up the whole fucking town."
Rourke got up and went to the picture window. He stood close to the glass and glowered at the falling snow. "What is it with Nazis and dogs? They've got a real thing going, ever notice that?" Still looking out the window, he said, "Have you talked to a lawyer?"
"Day before yesterday."
"What'd he say?"
"She. Kate Stiller. Said the police were full of shit. Then she told me to forget it. According to her, the dog'll die of old age before we ever get near a courtroom."
"There's the legal system for you, Brian me boy. They'll give you all the justice you want, as long as it's up the ass."
There was a loud thump on the ceiling. Anna was playing upstairs with Rourke's boy, Michael. Both men raised their eyes and waited, and when no one screamed Gold said, "I don't know why I even bothered to call her. I don't have the money to pay for a lawyer."
"You know what happened?" Rourke said. "The cop who took the complaint fucked it up, and now the others are covering for him. So, you want to take him out? "
"I was thinking of the dog."
"You mean kill the dog?"
Rourke just looked at Gold.
"Is that what you're saying? Kill the dog?"
Rourke grinned, but he still didn't say anything.
"How do you want?"
"Christ, Tom, I can't believe I'm talking like this."
"But you are." Rourke shoved the Naugahyde ottoman with his foot until it was facing Gold, then sat on it and leaned forward, so close their knees were touching. "No poison or glass. That's chickenshit, I wouldn't do that to my worst enemy. Take him out clean."
"Christ, Tom." Gold tried to laugh.
"You can use my Remington, scope him in from the hill. Or if you want, get up close with the twelve-gauge or the forty-four Magnum. You ever fired a pistol?"
"Better forget the Magnum, then."
"I can't do this."
"Sure you can."
"They'll know it was me. I've been raising hell about that dog all week. Who do you think they're going to come after when it suddenly shows up with a hole in its head?"
Rourke sucked in his cheeks. "Point taken," he said. "Okay, you can't do it. But I sure as hell can."
"No. Forget it, Tom."
"You and Mary go out for the night. Have dinner at Chez Nicole or Pauly's, someplace small where they'll remember you. By the time you get home it's all over and you're clean as a whistle."
Gold finished his beer.
"We've got to take care of business, Brian. If we don't, nobody will."
"Maybe if / did it. Maybe. Having you do it-that just doesn't feel right."
"What about that dog still running wild after what it did to Anna? Does that feel right?" When Gold didn't answer, Rourke shook his knee. "Did you really bite the mutt's ear?"
"I didn't have any choice."
"You bite it off?"
"But you drew blood, right? You tasted blood."
"I got some in my mouth, yes. I couldn't help it."
"It tasted good, didn't it? Come on, Brian, don't bullshit me, it tasted good."