The tenderness of his own voice surprised him, and her eyes blinked open as if she, too, was surprised. She looked at him with gratitude; and it came to Morse that she had called him back that night just for the reason she gave, because he'd spoken kindly to her.
"I am tired," she said. "I am that."
"Look, Julianne. What do you need to tide you over?"
"Nothing. Forget all that stuff-I was just blowing off steam."
"I'm not talking about charity, okay? Just a loan, that's all."
"We'll be fine."
"It's not like there's anyone waiting in line for it," he said, and this was true. Morse's father and older brother, finally catching on, had gone cold on him years ago. He'd remained close to his mother, but she died just after his return from Iraq. In his new will Morse named as sole beneficiary the hospice where she'd spent her last weeks. To name Dixon seemed too sudden and meaningful and might draw unwelcome attention, and anyway Dixon had made some sharp investments and was well fixed.
"I just can't," Julianne said. "But that is so sweet."
"My dad's a soldier," the boy said, head still bent over the place mat.
"I know," Morse said. "He's a good soldier. You should be proud."
Julianne smiled at him, really smiled, for the first time that night. She had been squinting and holding her mouth in a tight line; then she smiled and looked like someone else. Morse saw that she had beauty, and that her pleasure in him had allowed this beauty to show itself. He was embarrassed. He felt a sense of duplicity that he immediately, even indignantly, suppressed. "I can't force it on you," he said. "Suit yourself."
The smile vanished. "I will," she said, in the same tone he had used, harder than he'd intended. "But I thank you anyhow. Charlie," she said, "time to go. Get your stuff together."
"I'm not done."
"Finish it tomorrow."
Morse waited while she rolled up the place mat and helped the boy collect his crayons. He noticed the check pinned under the saltshaker and picked it up.
"I'll take that," she said, holding out her hand in a way that did not permit refusal.
Morse stood by awkwardly as Julianne paid at the register, then walked outside with her and the boy. They stood together under the awning and watched the storm lash the parking lot. Glittering lines of rain fell aslant through the glare of the lights overhead. The surrounding trees tossed wildly, and the wind sent gleaming ripples across the asphalt. Julianne brushed a lock of hair back from the boy's forehead. "I'm ready. How about you?"
"Well, it ain't about to quit raining for Charles Drew Hart." She yawned widely and gave her head a shake. "Nice talking to you," she said to Morse.
"Where will you stay?"
"A pickup? You're going to sleep in a truck?"
"Can't drive like this." And in the look she gave him, expectant and mocking, he could see that she knew he would offer her a motel room, and that she was already tasting the satisfaction of turning it down. But that didn't stop him from trying.
"Country proud," Dixon said later that morning, when Morse told him the story. "You should have invited them to stay here. People like that, mountain people, will accept hospitality when they won't take money. They're like Arabs. Hospitality has a sacred claim. You don't refuse to give it, and you don't refuse to take it."
"Never occurred to me," Morse said, though in truth he'd had the same intuition, standing outside the restaurant with the two of them, wallet in hand. Even as he tried to talk Julianne into taking the money for a room, invoking the seriousness of the storm and the need to get the boy into a safe, dry place, he had the sense that if he simply invited her home with him she might indeed sayyes. And then what? Dixon waking up and playing host, bearing fresh towels to the guest room, making coffee, teasing the boy-and looking at Morse in that way of his. Its meaning would be clear enough to Julianne. And what might she do with such knowledge? Out of shock and disgust, perhaps even feeling betrayed, she could ruin them.
Morse had thought of that but didn't really fear it. He liked her, and didn't think she would act meanly. What he feared, what he could not allow, was for her to see how Dixon looked at him, and then to see that he could not give back what he received. That things between them were unequal, and himself unloving.
So even while offering Julianne the gift of shelter he'd felt false, mealymouthed, as if he were trying to buy her off. And the unfairness of suffering guilt while pushing his money at her and having it refused proved too much for him. Finally he told her to sleep in the damned truck then if that's what she wanted.
"I don't want to sleep in the truck," the boy said.
"You'd be a sight happier if you did," Julianne said. "Now come on-ready or not."
"Just don't try to drive home," Morse said.
She put her hand on the boy's shoulder and led him out into the parking lot.
"You're too tired!" Morse called after her, but if she answered he couldn't hear it for the drumming of the rain on the metal awning. They walked on across the asphalt. The wind gusted, driving the rain so hard that Morse had to jump back a step. Julianne took it full in the face and never so much as turned her head. Nor did the boy. Charlie. He was getting something from her, ready or not, walking into the rain as if it weren't raining at all.
A White Bible
It was dark when Maureen left the Hundred Club. She stopped just outside the door, a little thrown by the sudden cold and the change from daylight to night. A gusting breeze chilled her face. Lights burned over the storefronts, gleaming on icy patches along the sidewalk. She reached in her pockets for her gloves, then hopelessly searched her purse. She'd left them in the club. If she went back for them she knew she'd end up staying-and sayonara to all her good intentions. Jane or one of the others would pick up the gloves and bring them to school on Monday. Still, she stood there. Someone came out the door behind her, and Maureen heard music and voices raised over the music. When the door swung shut she tightened her scarf and turned down the sidewalk toward the lot where she'd left her car.
Maureen had gone almost a block when she realized she was walking in the wrong direction. Easy mistake-the lot where they all usually parked had been full. She headed back, crossing the street to avoid the club. Her fingers had gone stiff. She put her hands in her coat pockets, thenyanked them out when her right foot took a skid on the ice. After that she kept them poised at her sides.
Head bent, she shuffled in tender steps from one safe spot to the next-for all the world like her own worn-out, balding, arthritic mother. Maureen allowed herself this thought in self-mockery, to make herself feel young, but it didn't have that effect. The lot was farther than she'd been aware of as she strolled to the club with Molly and Jill and Evan, laughing at Evan's stoiy about his domineering Swedish girlfriend. She'd had an awful day at school and was happy to let the week go, to lose herself in jokes and gossip and to feel the pale, late sunshine almost warm on her face. Now her face was numb and she was tense with the care of simply walking.
She passed a hunched, foot-stamping crowd waiting to get into Harrigan's, where she herself had once gone to hear the local bands. It had been called Far Horizon then. Or Lost Horizon. Lost Horizon, it was.
She scanned the faces as she walked by, helplessly on the watch for her daughter. She hadn't seen her in almost two years now, since Katie walked away from a full scholarship at Ithaca College to come back and live with one of Maureen's fellow English teachers from St. Ignatius. It turned out they'd been going at it since Katie's senior year at SI-and him a married man with a young daughter. Maureen had always tried to see Katie's willfulness as backbone, but this she could not accept. She had said some unforgivable things, according to Katie. Since when, Maureen wanted to know, had a few home truths become unforgivable?
She was still tiying to bring Katie around when Father Crespi got wind of the whole business and fired the teacher. Maureen had not been Father Crespi's source, but Katie wouldn't believe it. She declared things at an end between them, and so far she had kept that vow, though she dumped the luckless fool within a few weeks of his leaving his wife.
Katie was still close to Maureen's mother. From her, Maureen had learned that Katie was doing temp work and keeping house with another man. Maureen couldn't get her to say more-she'd given her word! But the old bird clearly enjoyed not saying more, being in the know, being part of Maureen's punishment for driving Katie away, as she judged the matter.
Maureen crossed the street again and turned into the parking lot-an unpaved corner tract surrounded by a chain-link fence. The attendant's shack was dark. She picked her way over ridges of frozen mud toward her car. Last summer's special-offer paint job was already dull, bleached out by road salt. Through a scrim of dried slush on the window Maureen could see the stack of student blue books on the passenger seat-a weekend's worth of grading. She fished the keys from her purse, but her hand was dead with cold and she fumbled them when she tried to unlock the door. They hit the ground with a merry tinkle. She flexed her fingers and bent down. As she pushed herself back up a pain shot through her bad knee. "Goddammit!" she said.
"Don't curse!" The voice came from behind Maureen, a man's voice, but high, almost shrill.
She closed her eyes.
He said something she couldn't make out; he had some sort of accent. He said it again, then added, "Now!"
"The keys. Give them to me."
Maureen held the keys out behind her, eyes pressed shut. She had just one thought: Do not see him. The keys were taken from her hand, and she heard the door being unlocked.
"Open it," the man said. "Open the door. Yes, now get in."
"Just take it," Maureen said. "Please."
"Please, you will get in. Please." He took her arm and half pushed, half lifted her into the car and slammed the door shut. She sat behind the steering wheel with her head bent, eyes closed, hands folded over her purse. The passenger door opened. "Compositions," the man muttered.
"Exams," she said, and cringed at her stupidity in correcting him.
Maureen heard the blue books thud onto the floorboards in back. Then he was on the seat beside her. He sat there a moment, his breath quick and shallow. "Open your eyes. Open! Yes, now drive." He jingled the keys.
Looking straight ahead over the wheel, she said, "I don't think I can." She sensed a movement toward her and flinched away.
He jingled the keys again beside her ear and dropped them in her lap. "Drive."
Maureen had once taken a class in self-defense. That was five years ago, after her marriage ended and left her alone with a teenage daughter-as if the dangers were outside somewhere and not already in the house, between them. She'd forgotten all the fancy moves but not her determination to fight, for Katie or for herself; to go on the attack, kick the bastard in the balls, scream and kick and hit and bite, fight to the veiy death. She hadn't forgotten any of this, even now, watching herself do nothing. She was aware of what she was failing to do-was unable to do-and the shock of understanding that she could not depend on herself produced a sense of resignation, an empty, echoing calm. With steady hands she started the car and pulled out of the lot and turned left as the man directed, away from the lights of the commercial zone, toward the river.
"Not so slow," he said.
She sped up.
She slowed down.
"You are trying to be arrested," he said.
He made a mirthless laughing sound. "Do I look like a fool?"
"No ... I don't know. I haven't seen you."
"I am not a fool. Turn right."
They were on Frontage Road now, heading upriver. The night was clear, and the almost full moon hung just above the old tanneries on the far bank. The moon made a broad silver path on the smooth water in the middle of the river, glimmering dully on the slabs of ice jammed up along the sides and turning Maureen's bare hands ghostly white on the steering wheel. They looked cold; they were cold. She felt chilled all through. She turned up the heater, and within moments the car was filled with the man's smell-ripe, musky, not unpleasant.
"You were using alcohol," he said.
She waited for him to say more. His knees were angled toward her, pressed together against the console. "A little," she said.
He was silent. His breathing slowed, deepened, and Maureen felt obscurely grateful for this. She could feel him watching her.
"There's over seventy dollars in my purse," she said. "Please just take it."
"Seventy dollars? That is your offer?" He laughed his unreal laugh.
"I can get more," she said. Her voice was small and flat-not her voice at all. She hesitated, then said, "We'll have to go to an ATM."
"This is not about money. Drive. Please."
And so she did. This was something she could do, drive a car on Frontage Road, as she'd done for almost thirty years now. She drove past the Toll House Inn, past the bankrupt development with its unfinished, skeletal houses open to the weather, past the road to the bridge that would take her home, past the burned-out house with the trailer beside it, on past the brickworks and the quany and the farm her tanneiy-fleeing grandparents had worked as tenants, where, after several years of learning the hard way, the owner sold out and the new owner found more experienced hands and sent them packing, back across the river. When she was young Maureen and her sisters had picked strawberries with their mother on different farms, and she had marveled at how her mother could chat with a woman in the next row or just look dully into the distance while her fingers briskly ransacked the plants for ripe berries as if possessed of their own eyes and purpose. At the end of a day she'd look over Maureen's card-punched for a fraction of the flats she herself had picked-then hand it back and say, "At least that mouth of yours works."
Maureen drove on by the harshly lit 7-Eleven and the Christmas-tree farm and the old ferry pier where she and Francis, her exhusband, then a sweet, shy boy, had parked after high-school dances to drink and make out; on through pale fields and brief stands of bare black trees that in summer made a green roof overhead. She knew every rise and turn, and the car took them easily, and she surrendered to the comfort of her own mastery of the road. The silent man beside her seemed to feel it too; it seemed to be holding him in a trance.
Then he shifted, leaned forward. "Turn right up there," he said in a low voice. "On that road, you see-that one up there, after the sign."
Maureen made the turn almost languidly. The side road was unplowed, covered with crusty snow that scraped against the undercarriage of the car. She hit a deep dip; the front end clanged, the wheels spun for a moment, then they caught and shot the car forward again, headlights jumping giddily. The road bent once and ended in a clearing surrounded by tall pines.
"You drive too fast," the man said.
She waited, engine running, hands still on the wheel, headlights ablaze on a Park Service sign picturing the local animals and plants. The peaked roof over the sign wore a hat of snow. Then it came to Maureen that she'd been here before-a trailhead, unfamiliar at first in its winter bleakness. She had come with Katie's scout troop to hike up to the palisades overlooking the river. The trail was historic, a route of attack for some battle in the Revolutionary War.
The man sniffed, sniffed again. "Beer," he said.
"I was having a drink with friends."
"A drink? You stink of it. The great lady teacher!"
That he knew she was a teacher, that he knew anything about her, snapped the almost serene numbness that had overtaken Maureen. She remembered his seeing the exam booklets. That could explain his knowledge of her work, but not his tone-the personal scorn and triumph in his discovery of her weakness, as he clearly saw it.
A small dull pain pulsed behind her eyes, all that was left of the drink she'd had. The heat blowing into the car was making her contacts dry and scratchy. She reached over to turn it down, but he seized her wrist and pulled it back. His fingers were thin and damp. He turned the heat up again. "Leave it like this-warm," he said, and dropped her hand.
She almost looked at him then, but stopped herself. "Please," she said. "What do you want?"
"This is not about sex," he said. "That is what you are thinking, of course. That is the American answer to everything."
Maureen looked ahead and said nothing. She could see the lights of cars on Frontage Road flickering between the tree trunks. Though she wasn't that far from the road, the idea of making a run for it struck her as a demeaning absurdity-herself flailing through the drifts like some weeping, dopey, sacrificial extra in a horror movie.
"You know nothing about our life," he said. "Who we are. What we have had to do in this country. I was a doctor! But okay, so they won't let me be a doctor here. I give that up. I give up the old life so my family will have this new life. My son will be a doctor, not me! Okay, I accept, that's how it is."
"Where are you from?" Maureen asked, and then said, "Never mind," hoping he wouldn't answer. It seemed to her that the musky smell was stronger, a little sour. She kept her eyes on the Park Service sign in the headlights but she was aware of the man's knees knocking rapidly and soundlessly together.
" 'Never mind.,'" he said. "Yes, that is exactly your way of thinking. That is exactly how the great lady teacher destroys a family. Without a thought. Nevermind!"
"But I don't know your family." She waited. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"No, you don't know what I'm talking about. You have already forgotten. Nevermind!"
"You have the wrong person," Maureen said.
"Have you told a lie, lady teacher?"
"Please. You must have the wrong person. What you're saying-none of it makes sense." And because this was certainly true, because nothing he'd said had anything to do with her, Maureen felt compelled-as prelude to a serious sorting out of this whole mess-to turn and look at him. He was leaning back against the door, hunched into a puffy coat of the vivid orange color worn by highway crews. In the reflected glare of the headlights his dark eyes had a blurred, liquid brightness. Above the straight line of his eyebrows the bald dome of his head gleamed dully. He wore a short beard, a few thin patches of it reaching high on his cheeks.
"I have the right person," he said. "Now you will please answer me."
She was confused; she shook her head as if to clear it.
"No?" he said. "The great lady teacher has never told a lie?"
"What are you talking about? What lie?"
A sudden glint of teeth behind the beard. "You tell me."
"Any lie? Ever?"
"Ever. Any lie or cheat."
"What do you think? Of course I have. Who hasn't, for God's sake?"
He rocked forward and jabbed his head at her. "Don't curse! No more cursing!"
Maureen could see his face clearly now, the full, finely molded, almost feminine lips, the long thin nose, the dark unexpected freckles across the bridge of his nose and under his eyes, vanishing into the beard. She turned away and leaned her throbbing head against the steering wheel.
"You can lie and cheat," he said. "That's okay, no problem. Who hasn't? Never mind! But for others-poof! No faults allowed!"
"This is crazy," she murmured.
"No, Mrs. Casey. What is crazy is to destroy a good boy's life for nothing."
Her breath caught; she raised her head and looked at him.
"Hassan makes one mistake-one mistake-and you destroy him. Understand this, most esteemed lady teacher: I will not allow it."
"Hassan? Hassan is your son?"
He leaned away again, lips pursed, cheeks working out and back, out and back, like a fish.
Hassan. She liked him, too much. He was tall and graceful and broodingly, soulfully handsome. Not very bright, Hassan, and bone idle, but with a sudden offhand charm that had amused her and distracted her from dealing firmly with him, as he well knew. He'd been getting away with murder all year, fudging on his homework, handing in essays he obviously hadn't written, and Maureen had done nothing except warn him. She hated calling people on their offenses: her own raised voice and shaking hands, her heart pumping out righteousness, all the rituals of grievance and reproach were distasteful to her, and had always held her back, up to a point. Beyond that point she didn't spare the lash. But she was slow to get there; her sisters had pushed her around, she'd spoiled her daughter, her husband's gambling had brought them to the brink of ruin before her own cowardice became too shameful to bear and she began to challenge his excuses and evasions, and finally faced him down-"ran him off," as Katie liked to say when she wanted to cut deep.
A similar self-disgust had caught up with Maureen this morning. After months of letting Hassan slide, she'd seen him blatantly cheating during an exam, and she'd blown-really blown, surprising even herself. She'd pulled him out of class and told him in some detail how little she thought of him, then sent him home with a promise-shouted at his back-to report his cheating to Father Crespi, who would certainly expel him. Hassan had turned then and said, evenly, "Stupid cow." And now, remembering that betrayal, the advantage he'd taken, his insulting confidence that he could cheat in front of her with impunity, she felt her fingers tighten on the steering wheel and she stared fixedly in front of her, seeing nothing.
"Hassan!" she said.
"I will not allow it," he repeated.
"Hassan has been cheating all year," she said. "I warned him. This was the last straw."
"Warnings. You should give him help, not warnings. It's hard for Hassan. He wasn't born here, his English is not good."
"Hassan's English is fine. He's lazy and dishonest, that's his problem. He'd rather cheat than do the work."
"Hassan is goingto be a doctor."
"He will be a doctor! He will. And you won't stop him-you, a drunken woman."
"Oh," she said. "Of course. Of course. Women. All our fault, right? Bunch of stupid cows messing things up for the bulls."
"No! I bow before woman. Woman is the hand, the heart, the soul of her home, set there by God himself. All comes from her. All is owed to her."
"Now you're quoting," Maureen said. "Who's your source?"
"The home," he said. "Not the army. Not the surgery. Not the judge's chair, giving laws. Not the discotheque."
"Who's your source?" Maureen repeated. "God, is it?"
The man drew back. "Have some care," he said. "God is not mocked."
Maureen rubbed her scratchy eyes and one of her contacts drifted out of focus. She blinked furiously until it slipped back into place. "I'm turning the heat off," she said.
"No. Leave it warm."
But she turned it off anyway, and he made no move to stop her. He looked wary, watching her from his place against the door; he looked cornered, as if she had seized him and forced him to this lonely place. The car engine was doing something strange, surging, almost dying, then surging again. The noise of the blower had masked it. Piece of shit. Another paycheck down the drain.
"Okay, doctor," she said. "You've got your parent-teacher conference. What do you want?"