Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories



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Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, "Lord have mercy!" He did not remember deliberately crashing his father's car into a tree, or having his ribs kicked in by three policemen at an antiwar rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle's cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they've chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. "Shortstop," the boy says. "Short's the best position they is." Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle's cousin repeat what he's just said, though he knows better than to ask. The others will think he's being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn't it, not at all-it's that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won't be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet's tail of memoiy and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can't be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant. They is. they is, they is.

*

New Stories


Chapter 22

That Room

The summer after my first year of high school, I got a case of independence and started hitchhiking to farms up and down the valley for daywork picking berries and mucking out stalls. Then I found a place where the farmer paid me ten cents an hour over minimum wage, and his plump, childless wife fed me lunch and fussed over me while I ate, so I stayed on there until school started.

While shoveling shit or hacking weeds out of a drainage ditch, I'd sometimes stop to gaze out toward the far fields, where the hands, as the farmer called them, were bucking bales of hay into a wagon, stacking them to teetering heights. Now and then a bark of laughter reached me, a tag end of conversation. The farmer hadn't let me work in the hay because I was too small, but I beefed up over the winter, and the following summer he let me join the crew.

So I was a hand. A hand! I went a little crazy with that word, with the pleasure of applying it to myself. Having a job like this changed everything. It delivered you from the reach of your parents, from the caustic scrutiny of your friends. It set you free among strangers in the eventful world, where you could practice being someone else until you were someone else. It put money in your pocket and allowed you to believe that your other life-your inessential, parenthetical life at home and school-was just a sop to those deluded enough to imagine you still needed them.

There were three others working the fields with me: the farmer's shy, muscle-bound nephew, Clemson, who was in my class at school but to whom I condescended because he was just an inexperienced kid, and two Mexican brothers, Miguel and Eduardo. Miguel, short and stolid and solitary, spoke very little English, but rakish Eduardo did the talking for both of them. While the rest of us did the heavy work, Eduardo provided advice about girls and told stories in which he featured as a trickster and deft, indefatigable swordsman. He played it for laughs, but in the very materials of his storytelling-the dance halls and bars, the bumbling border guards, the clod-brained farmers and their insatiable wives, the larcenous cops, the whores who loved him-I felt the actuality of a life I knew nothing about yet somehow contrived to want for myself: a real life in a real world.

While Eduardo talked, Miguel labored silently beside us, now and then grunting with the weight of a bale, his acne-scarred face flushed with heat, narrow eyes narrowed even tighter against the sun. Clemson and I sprinted and flagged, sprinted and flagged, laughing at Eduardo's stories, goading him with questions. Miguel never flagged, and never laughed. He sometimes watched his brother with what appeared to be mild curiosity; that was all.

The farmer, who owned a big spread with a lot of hay to bring in, should have hired more hands. He had only the four of us, and there was always the danger of rain. He was a relaxed, amiable man, but as the season wore on he grew anxious and began to push us harder and keep us longer. During the last week or so I spent the nights with Clemson's family, just down the road, so I could get to the farm with the others at sunup and work until dusk. The bales were heavy with dew when we started bringing them in. The air in the loft turned steamy from fermentation, and Eduardo warned the farmer that the hay might combust, but he held us to his schedule. Limping, sunburned, covered with scratches, I could hardly get out of bed in the morning. But although I griped with Clemson and Eduardo, I was secretly glad to take my place beside them, to work as if I had no choice.

Eduardo's car broke down toward the end of the week, and Clemson started driving him and Miguel to and from the decrepit motel where they lived with other seasonal workers. Sometimes, pulling up to their door, we'd all just sit there, saying nothing. We were that tired. Then one night Eduardo asked us in for a drink. Clemson, being a good boy, tried to beg off, but I got out with Miguel and Eduardo, knowing he wouldn't leave me. "Come on, Clem," I said, "don't be a homo." He looked at me, then turned the engine off.

That room. Jesus. The brothers had done their best, making their beds, keeping their clothes neatly folded in open suitcases, but you got swamped by the smell of mildew the moment you stepped inside. The floor was mushy underfoot and shedding squares of drab linoleum, the ceiling bowed and stained. The overhead light didn't quite reach the corners. Behind the mildew was another, unsettling smell. Clemson was a fastidious guy and writhed in distress as I made a show of being right at home.

We poured rye into our empty stomachs and listened to Eduardo, and before long we were all drunk. Someone came to the door and spoke to him in Spanish, and Eduardo went outside and didn't come back. Miguel and I kept drinking. Clemson was half asleep, his chin declining slowly toward his chest and snapping up again. Then Miguel looked at me. He slitted his eyes and looked at me hard, without blinking, and began to protest an injustice done him by our boss, or maybe another boss. I could barely understand his English, and he kept breaking into Spanish, which I didn't understand at all. But he was angry-I understood that much.

At some point he went across the room and came back and put a pistol on the table, right in front of him. A revolver, long barrel, most of the bluing worn off. Miguel stared at me over the pistol and resumed his complaint, entirely in Spanish. He was looking at me, but I knew he was seeing someone else. I had rarely heard him speak before. Now the words poured out in an aggrieved singsong, and I saw that his own voice was lashing him on somehow, the very sound of his indignation proving that he had been wronged, feeding his rage, making him hate whoever he thought I was. I was too afraid to speak. All I could do was smile.

That room-once you enter it, you never really leave. You can forget you're there, you can go on as if you hold the reins, that the course of your life, yea even its length, will reflect the force of your character and the wisdom of your judgments. And then you hit an icy patch on a turn one sunny March day and the wheel in your hands becomes a joke and you no more than a spectator to your own dreamy slide toward the verge, and then you remember where you are.

Or you board a bus with thirty other young men. It's early, just before dawn. That's when the buses always leave, their lights dimmed, to avoid the attention of the Quakers outside the gate, but it doesn't work and they're waiting, silently holding up their signs, looking at you not with reproach but with sadness and sympathy as the bus drives past them and on toward the airport and the plane that will take you where you would not go-and at this moment you know exactly what your desires count for, and your plans, and all your strength of body and will. Then you know where you are, as you will know where you are when those you love die before their time-the time you had planned for them, for yourself with them-and when your daily allowance of words and dreams is withheld from you, and when your daughter drives the car straight into a tree. And if she walks away without a scratch you still feel that dark ceiling close overhead, and know where you are. And what can you do but what you did back in this awful room, with Miguel hating you for nothing and a pistol ready to hand? Smile and hope for a change of subject.

It came, this time. Glemson bolted up from his chair, bent forward, and puked all over the table. Miguel stopped talking. He stared at Clemson as if he'd never seen him before, and when Clemson began retching again Miguel jumped up and grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him toward the door. I took over and helped Clemson outside while Miguel looked on, shrieking his disgust. Disgust! Now he was the fastidious one. Revulsion had trumped rage, had trumped even hatred. Oh, how sweetly I tended Clemson that night! I thought he'd saved my life. And maybe he had.

The farmer's barn burned to the ground that winter. When I heard about it, I said, "Didn't I tell him? I did, I told that stupid sumbitch not to put up wet hay."


Chapter 23

Awaiting Orders

Sergeant Morse was pulling night duty in the orderly room when a woman called, asking for Billy Hart. He told her that Specialist Hart had shipped out for Iraq a week earlier. She said, "Billy Hart? You sure? He never said a word about shipping out."

"I'm sure."

"Well. Sweet Jesus. That's some news."

"And you are? If you don't mind my asking."

"I'm his sister."

"I can give you his e-mail. Hang on, I'll find it foryou."

"That's okay. There's people waiting for the phone. People who don't know any better than to breathe down other people's neck."

"It won't take a minute."

"That's okay. He's gone, right?"

"Feel free to call back. Maybe I can help."

"Hah," she said, and hungup.

Sergeant Morse returned to the paperwork he'd been doing, but the call had unsettled him. He got up and went to the water cooler and drew himself a glass and stood by the door. The night was sullenly hot and still: just past eleven, the barracks quiet, only a few windows glowing in the haze. A meaty gray moth kept thumping against the screen.

Morse didn't know Billy Hart well, but he'd had his eye on him. Hart was from the mountains near Asheville and liked to play the hick for the cover it gave him. He was forever running a hustle, Hart, engaged elsewhere when there was work to be done yet always on hand to fleece the new guys at poker or sell rides to town in his Mustang convertible. He was said to be dealing but hadn't got caught at it. Thought everyone else was dumb; you could see him thinking it, that tight little smile. He would trip himself up someday, but he'd do fine for now. Plenty of easy pickings over there for the likes of Billy Hart.

A good-looking troop, though. Some Indian there, those high cheekbones, deep-set black eyes; beautiful, really, and with that slow catlike way about him, cool, aloof, almost contemptuous in the languor and ease of his movements. Morse had felt the old pull despite himself, knowing Hart was trouble but always taut in his presence, fighting the stubborn drift of his gaze toward Hart's face, toward that look of secret knowledge playing on his lips. Hart was approachable, Morse felt sure of it, open to whatever might offer both interest and advantage. Still, Morse had kept his distance. He didn't give advantage, and couldn't take the risk of a foolish entanglement-not now, anyway.

He had spent twenty of his thirty-nine years in the army. He was not one of those who claimed to love it, but he belonged to it as to a tribe, bound to those around him by lines of unrefusable obligation, love being finally beside the point. He was a soldier, no longer able to imagine himself as a civilian-the formlessness of that life, the endless petty choices to be made.

Morse knew he belonged where he was, yet he'd often put himself in danger of scandal and discharge through chancy attachments. Just before his tour in Iraq there'd been the Cuban waiter, who turned out to be married, a compulsive liar-a liar for sport-and finally, when Morse broke it off, a blackmailer. Morse would not be blackmailed. He wrote down his commanding officer's name and telephone number. "Here," he said, "go on, call him"-and though he didn't think the man would actually do it, he spent the next few weeks hunched inwardly as if against a blow. Then he shipped out and soon came to life again, ready for the next excitement.

This turned out to be a young lieutenant who'd joined Morse's unit the same week he arrived. They went through orientation together.

and Morse could tell that the lieutenant was drawn to him, though the lieutenant seemed unsure of his own disposition, even when he surrendered to it-with an urgency only heightened by the near impossibility of finding private time and space. In fact he was just discovering himself, and in the process he suffered fits of self-loathing so cruel and dark that Morse feared he would do himself harm or turn his rage outward, perhaps onto Morse himself, or bring them both to grief by bawling out a drunken confession to a fatherly colonel in some officers' bar.

It didn't come to that. The lieutenant had adopted a mangy one-eared cat while they were on patrol; the cat scratched his ankle and the scratch got infected, and instead of going for treatment he played the fool and tried to tough it out and damn near lost his foot. He was sent home on crutches five months into his tour. By then Morse was so wrung out that he felt not the slightest stirrings of pity-only relief.

He had no cause for relief. Not long after returning stateside, he was called to battalion headquarters for an interview with two smooth, friendly men in civilian clothes who claimed to be congressional aides from the lieutenant's home district. They said there was a sensitive matter before their congressman that required closer knowledge of the lieutenant's service in Iraq-his performance in the field, his dealings with other officers and with the troops who served under him. Their questions looped around conversationally, almost lazily, but returned again and again to his own relations with the lieutenant. Morse gave nothing away, even as he labored to appear open, unguarded. He figured these men for army narcs, whatever else they said. They let several weeks go by before calling him to another meeting, which they canceled without warning; Morse showed up, they didn't. He was still waiting for the next summons.

He had often wished that his desires served him better, but in this he supposed he wasn't unusual-that it was a lucky man indeed whose desires served him well. Yet he had hopes. Over the last few months he'd become involved with a master sergeant in division intelligence-a calm, scholarly man five years his senior. Though Morse could not yet think of himself as anyone's "partner," he had gradually forsaken his room in the NCO quarters to spend nights and weekends at Dixon's townhouse off post. The place was stuffed with ancient weapons and masks and chess sets Dixon had collected during hi6 tours overseas, and at first Morse had felt a nervous sort of awe, as if he were in a museum, but that had passed. Now he liked having these things around him. He was at home there.

Dixon was due to rotate overseas before long, though, and Morse would soon receive new orders himself; then, he knew, it would get complicated. They would have to make certain judgments about each other and about themselves. They would have to decide how much to promise. Where this would leave them, Morse didn't know. But all that was still to come.

Billy Hart's sister called again at midnight, just as Morse was turning over the orderly room to another sergeant. When he picked up and heard her voice, he pointed at the door and the other man smiled and stepped outside.

"Would you like the address, then?" Morse asked.

"I guess. For all the good it'll do."

Morse had already looked it up. He read it to her.

"Thanks," she said. "I don't have a computer but Sal does."

"Sal?"


"Sally Cronin! My cousin."

"You could just go to an Internet cafe."

"Well, I suppose," she said skeptically. "Say-what'd you mean, maybe you could help?"

"I don't know, exactly," Morse said.

"You said it, though."

"Yes. And you laughed."

"That wasn't an actual laugh."

"Ah. Not a laugh."

"More like ... I don't know."

Morse waited.

"Sorry," she said. "Look, I'm not asking for help, okay? But how come you said it? Just out of curiosity."

"No reason. I didn't think it out."

"Are you a friend of Billy's?"

"I like Billy."

"Well, it was nice. You know? A real nice thing to say."

After Morse signed out he drove to the pancake house she'd been calling from. As agreed, she was waiting by the cash register, and when he came through the door in his fatigues he saw her take him in with a sharp, measuring glance. She straightened up-a tall woman, nearly as tall as Morse himself, with lank brown hair and a long, tired-looking face, darkly freckled under the eyes. Her eyes were dark, but otherwise she looked nothing like Hart, and Morse was thrown by the sudden disappointment he felt and his impulse to flee.

She stepped toward him, head cocked to one side, as if making a guess about him. She wore a sleeveless red blouse and hugged her freckled arms against the chill of the air-conditioning. "So should I call you Sergeant?" she said.

"Randall."

"Sergeant Randall."

"Just Randall."

"Just Randall," she repeated, and offered him her hand. It was diy and rough. "Julianne. We're over in the corner."

She led him to a booth by the big window looking out on the parking lot. A fat-faced boy, maybe seven or eight, sat drawing a picture on the back of a place mat among the congealed remains of eggs and waffles and sausages. Holding the crayon like a spike, he raised his head as Morse slid onto the bench across from him. He had the same fierce brows as the woman and gave Morse a long unblinking look; then he sucked in his lower lip and returned to his work.

"Say hello, Charlie."

He went on coloring. Finally he said, "Howdy."

"Won't say 'hello,' this one. Says 'howdy' now. Don't know where he got it."

"That's all right. Howdy back at you, Charlie."

"You look like a frog," the boy said. He dropped the crayon and picked up another from the clutter on the table.

"Charlie!" she said. "Use your manners," she added mildly, beckoning to the waitress pouring coffee at a neighboring table.

"It's okay," Morse said. He figured he had it coming. Not because he looked like a frog-though he was all at once conscious of his wide mouth-but because he'd sucked up to the boy. Howdy back at you!

"What is wrong with that woman?" Julianne said, as the waitress gazed dully around the room. Then Julianne caught her eye, and she came slowly over to their table and refilled her cup. "That's some picture you're making," the waitress said. "What is it?" The boy ignored her. "You've got yourself quite the little artist there," she said to Morse, and moved dreamily away.

Julianne poured a long stream of sugar into her coffee.

"Charlie your son?"

She turned and looked speculatively at the boy. "No."

"You're not my mom," he murmured.

"Didn't I just say that?" She stroked his round cheek with the back of her hand. "Drawyour picture, nosy. Kids?" she said to Morse.

"Not yet." He watched the boy smear blue lines across the place mat, wielding the crayon as if out of grim duty.

"You aren't missing anything."

"Oh, I think I probably am."

"Nothing but back talk and mess," she said. "Charlie's Billy's. Billy's and Dina's."

Morse would never have guessed it, to look at the boy. "I didn't know Hart had a son," he said, and hoped she hadn't heard the note of complaint that was all too clear and strange to him.

"Neither does he, the way he acts. Him and Dina both." Dina, she explained, was off doing her second round of rehab in Raleigh. Julianne and Belle-Julianne's mother, Morse gathered-had been looking after Charlie but didn't really get along, and after the last blowup Belle had taken off for Florida with a boyfriend, putting Julianne in a bind. She drove a school bus during the year and worked summers cooking at a Girl Scout camp, but with Charlie on her hands and no money for child care she'd had to give up the camp job. So she'd driven down here to try and shake some help out of Billy, enough to get her through until school started or Belle decided to come home and do her share, fat chance.

Morse nodded toward the boy. He didn't like his hearing all this, if anything could penetrate that concentration, but Julianne went on as if she hadn't noticed. Her voice was low, almost masculine, with a nasal catch in it like the whine of a saw blade binding. She didn't have the lazy music that Hart could play so well, and she seemed more truly of the hollows and farms of their home. She spoke of the people there as if Morse must know them too, as if she had no working conception of the reach of the world beyond.

At first Morse was expecting her to put the bite on him, but she never did. He didn't understand what she wanted from him, or why, unprompted, he'd offered to come here tonight.

"So he's gone," she said. "You're sure."

"Afraid so."

"Well. Good to know my luck's holding. Wouldn't want it to get worse." She leaned back and closed her eyes.

"Why didn't you call first?"

"What, let on I was coming? You don't know our Billy."

Julianne seemed to fall into a trance then, and Morse soon followed, lulled by the clink of crockery and the voices all around, the soft scratching of the crayon. He didn't know how long they sat like this. He was roused by the tapping of raindrops against the window, a few fat drops that left oily lines as they slid down the glass. The rain stopped. Then it came again in a rush, sizzling on the asphalt and glazing the cars in the parking lot, pleasant to watch after the long humid day.

"Rain," Morse said.

Julianne didn't bother to look. She might have been asleep but for the slight nod she gave him.

Morse recognized two men from his company at a table across the room. He watched them until they glanced over, then he nodded and they nodded back. Money in the bank-confirmed sighting of Sergeant Morse with woman and child. Family. He hated thinking so bittfer and cheap a thought, and resented whatever led him to think it. Still, how else could they be seen, the three of them, in a pancake house at this hour? And it wasn't just their resemblance to a family. No, there was the atmosphere of family here, in the vexy silence of the table: Julianne with her eyes closed, the boy working away on his picture, Morse himself looking on like any husband and father.



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