Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories



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"You will not report Hassan to Mr. Crespi."

"Father Crespi, you mean."

"I call no man father but one."

"Wonderful. So you choose a school called St. Ignatius."

"I understand. This would not happen if Hassan were Catholic."

"Oh,please. Hassan can't speak English, Hassan needs help, Hassan isn't Catholic. Jesus! I'm not even Catholic."

He made his laughing sound. "So you choose a school called St. Ignatius. With your Jesus on the cross behind your desk-I have seen it myself at the open house. I was there! But no, she is not Catholic, not Mrs. Maureen Casey."

Even with the heat off, the air in the car was stale and acrid. Maureen opened her window halfway and leaned back, bathing her face in the cold draft. "That's right," she said. "I've had it with clueless men passing on orders from God."

"Without God, there is no foundation," he said. "Without God, we stand on nothing." "Anyway, you're too late. I've already reported him."

"You have not. Mr. Crespi is out of town until Monday."

"Father Crespi. Well, I'm impressed. At least you've done your homework."

"Hassan is going to be a doctor," he said, rubbing his hands together, gazing down at them as if expecting some visible result.

"Look at me. Look at me. Now listen." She held the man's liquid eyes, held the moment, not at all displeased that what she was about to say, though true, would give him pain. "Hassan is not goingto be a doctor," she said. "Wait-just listen. Honestly, now, can you picture Hassan in medical school? Even supposing he could get in? Even supposing he can get through college at all? Think about it-Hassan in medical school. What an idea! You could make a comedy-Hassan Goes to Medical School. No, Hassan will not be a doctor. And you know it. You have always known it." She gave that thought some room to breathe. Then she said, "So it doesn't really matter if I report him or not, does it?"

Still she held his eyes. His lips were working, he seemed about to say something, but no sound emerged.

She said, "So. Let's say I don't play along. Let's say I'm going to report him, which I am. What are you going to do about it? I mean, what were you thinking tonight? "

He looked away, back down at his hands.

"You followed me from school, right? You waited for me. You had this spot picked out. What were you goingto do if I didn't play along?"

He shook his head.

"Well, what? Kill me?"

He didn't answer.

"You were goingto kill me? Too much! Have you got a gun?"

"No! I own no guns."

"A knife?"

"No."


"What, then?"

Head bent, he resumed rubbing his hands together as if over a fire.

"Stop that. What, then?"

"Please," he said.

"Strangle me? With those? Stop that!" She reached over and seized his wrists. They were thin, bony. "Hey," she said, then again, "Hey!" When at last he raised his eyes to her, she lifted his hands and pressed the palms to her neck. They were cold, even colder than the air on her face. She dropped her own hands. "Go on," she said.

His fingers were icy against her neck. His eyes, dark and sad, searched hers.

"Go on," she said softly.

The engine surged, and he blinked as if startled and pulled his hands away. He rested them in his lap, looked at them unhappily, then put them between his knees.

"No?" she said.

"Mrs. Casey..."

She waited, but that was all he said. "Tell me something," she said. "What did your wife think of this brainstorm? Did you tell her? "

"My wife is dead."

"I didn't know that."

He shrugged.

"I'm soriy."

"Mrs. Casey..."

Again she waited, then said, "What?"

"The window? It is veiy cold."

Maureen had a mind to say no, watch him freeze, but she was getting pretty numb herself. She rolled the window up.

"And please? The heater?"

Maureen drove back down Frontage Road. He kept his face to the other window, his back to her. Now and then she saw his shoulders moving but he didn't make a sound. Though she'd planned to put him out by the turnoff for her bridge, let him find his own way home from there, as she approached the intersection she couldn't help asking where he'd left his car. He said it was in the same lot where she'd parked hers. Ah, yes. That made sense. She drove on.

They didn't speak again until she stopped just up from the parking lot, under a streetlight, in plain view of the drunks walking past. Even here, cocooned in the car, engine surging, Maureen could feel the heavy bass thump of the music coming from Harrigan's.

"Hassan will be dismissed from school?" he asked.

"Probably. He's spoiled, it'll do him good in the long run. You're the one I haven't made up my mind about. You're the one on the hot seat. Do you understand?"

He bowed his head.

"I don't think you do. Forget the prison time you're looking at-you haven't even said you're soriy. I said it, about your wife, which makes me the only one who's used that word tonight. Which strikes me as pretty damned ridiculous, given the circumstances."

"But I am. I am sorry."

"Yeah-we'll see. One thing, though. Suppose I'd promised not to report Hassan. Whatever madeyOu think I'd keep my word?"

He reached into the breast pocket of his coat and took out a white book and laid it on the dashboard. Maureen picked it up. It was a Bible, a girl's Bible bound in imitation leather with gilt lettering on the cover. "You would swear," he said. "Like in court, to the judge."

Maureen opened it, riffled the thin, filmy pages. "Where did you get this?"

"Goodwill."

"Oh, dear," she said. "You really thought you could save him."

He pushed the door open. "I am soriy, Mrs. Casey."

"Here." Maureen held out the Bible, but he put up the palms of his hands and backed out of the car. She watched him make his way down the street, a short man, hatless, his bright puffy coat billowing in the gusts. She saw him turn into the parking lot, then forgot to make sure he actually pulled out, as she'd intended, because she got caught up leafing through the Bible. Her father had given her one just like it after her confirmation. She still kept it on her bedside table.

This Bible had belonged to Clara Gutierrez. Below her name someone had written an inscription in Spanish. Maureen couldn't make it out in the dim light, only the day, large and underlined-Pascua 1980. Where was she now, this Clara? WTiat had become of her, this ardent, hopeful girl in her white dress, surrounded by family, godparents, and friends, that her Bible should end up in a Goodwill bin? Even if she no longer read it, or believed it, she wouldn't have thrown it away, would she? Had something happened? Ah, girl, where were you?
Chapter 25

Her Dog


When Grace first got Victor, she and John walked him on the beacli most Sundays. Then a Chow-Chow bit some kid and the parks department restricted dogs to the slough behind the dunes. Grace took Victor there for years, and after she died John stepped in and maintained the custom, though he hated it back there. The mushy trail hedged with poison oak. Baking flats of cracked mud broken by patches of scrub. The dunes stifled the sea breeze, leaving the air still and rank and seething with insects.

But Victor came alive here in spite of himself. At home he slept and grieved, yet grief could not deaden the scent of fallow deer and porcupine, of rabbits and rats and the little gray foxes that ate them. Dogs were supposed to be kept on the leash for the sake of the wildlife, but Grace had always left Victor free to follow his nose, and John couldn't bring himself to rein him in now. Anyway, Victor was too creaky and cloudy-eyed to chase anything; if he did catch some movement in the brush he'd lean forward and maybe, just to keep his dignity, raise a paw-Eh? That's right, run along there!-and then go back to smelling things. John didn't huriy him. He lingered, waving away the mosquitoes and flies that swarmed around his head, until the hint of some new fragrance pulled Victor farther along the trail.

Victor was drawn to the obvious delights-putrefying carcasses, the regurgitations of hawks and owls-but he could just as easily get worked up over a clump of shrubbeiy that seemed no different than the one beside it. He had his nose stuck deep in swamp grass one damp morning when John saw a dog emerge from the low-hanging mist farther up the trail. It was a barrel-chested dog with a short brindled coat and a blunt pink snout, twice Victor's size, as big as a lab but of no breed familiar to John. When it caught sight of Victor it stopped for a moment, then advanced on stiffened legs.

"Scram!" John said, and clapped his hands.

Victor looked up from the grass. As the dog drew near he took a step in its direction, head craned forward, blinking like a mole. Huh? Huh? Who's there? Somebody there?

John took him by the collar. "Beat it!" he said. "Go away."

The dog kept coming.

"Go!" John shouted again. But the dog came on, slowly now, almost mincing, with an unblinking intentness. It kept its yellow eyes on Victor and ignored John altogether. John stepped in front of Victor, to break the dog's gaze and force himself on its attention, but instead it left the trail and began to circle around him, eyes still fixed on Victor. John moved to stay between them. He put his free hand out, palm facing the dog. Victor gave a grumble and strained forward against his collar. The dog came closer. Too close, too intent, it seemed to be gathering itself. John reached down and scooped Victor up and turned his back on the dog. He rarely had occasion to lift Victor and was always surprised at his lightness. Victor lay still for a moment, then began struggling as the dog moved around to face them. "Go away, damn you," John said.

"Bella! Whoa, Bella." A man's voice: sharp, nasal. John looked up the trail and saw him coming, shaved head, wraparound sunglasses, bare arms sticking out of a leather vest. He was taking his sweet time. The dog kept circling John. Victor complained and squirmed impatiently. Put me down, put me down.

"Get that dog away from us," John said.

"Bella? He won't hurt you."

"If he touches my dog I'll kill him."

"Whoa, Bella." The man sauntered up behind the dog and took a leash from his back pocket. He reached for the dog but it dodged him and cut back in front of John, keeping Victor in view. "Shame. Bella!

Shame on you. Come back here-right now!" The man put his hands on his hips and stared at the dog. His arms were thick and covered with tattoos, and more tattoos rose up his neck like vines. His chest was bare and pale under the open vest. Beads of sweat glistened on the top of his head.

"Get control of that dog," John said. He turned again, Victor still fidgeting in his arms, the dog following.

"He just wants to make friends," the man said. He waited until the dog's orbit brought him closer, then made a lunge and caught him by the collar. "Bad Bella!" he said, snapping on the leash. "You just have to be everybody's friend, don'tyou?"

John set Victor down and leashed him and walked him farther up the trail. His hands were shaking. "That dog is a menace," he said. "Bella. Jesus."

"It means 'handsome.' "

"No, actually, it means 'pretty.' Like a girl."

The man looked at John through his bubbly black shades. How did he see anything? It was irritating, like the display of his uselessly muscled, illustrated arms. "I thought it meant 'handsome,'" he said.

"Well it doesn't. The ending is feminine."

"What are you, a teacher or something?"

The dog suddenly lunged against its leash.

"We're going," John said. "Keep your dog away from us."

"So, are you a teacher?"

"No," John lied. "I'm a lawyer."

"You shouldn't have said that about killing Bella. I could sue you, right?"

"Not really, no."

"Okay, but still, you didn't have to get all belligerent. Do you have a card? This friend of mine had his film script totally ripped off by Steven Spielberg."

"I don't do that kind of law."

"You should talk to him. Like, D-day? You know, all those guys on the beach? Exactly the way my friend described it. Exactly."

"D-day happened," John said. "Your friend didn't make it up." "Okay, sure. But still."

"Anyway, that movie was years ago."

"So you're saying statute of limitations?"

The opening notes of "Ode to Joy" shrilled out. "Hang on," the man told him. He took a cell phone from his pocket and said, "Hey, lemme call you back, I'm in kind of a legal conference here."

"No!" John said. "No, you can talk. Just please keep Bella on the leash, okay?"

The man gave the thumbs-up and John led Victor away, up into the mist the other two had come out of. Right away his skin felt clammy. The bugs were loud around his ears. He was still shaking.

Victor stopped to squeeze out a few turds, then looked up at John. My savior. I guess I should be panting with gratitude. Licking your hand.

No need.

How'd you put it? I'll kill him if he touches my dog. What devotion! Almost canine. Victor finished and made a show of kicking back some dirt. He raised his head and tested the air like a connoisseur before starting up the trail, feathery tail aloft. I could've handled him.

Maybe so.

He wasn't going to do anything. Anyway, since when do you care? It's not like you even wanted me. If it hadn't been for Grace, those guys at the pound would've killed me.

It wasn't you I didn't want-you in particular. I just wasn't ready for a dog.

I guess not. The way you carried on when Grace brought me home. What a brat.

I know.

All your little conditions for keeping me. I was her dog. All the feeding, all the walking, picking up poop, baths, trips to the vet, arrangements with the kennel when you went out of town-her responsibility.



I know.

Her dog, her job to keep me out of the living room, out of the study, off the couch, off the bed, off the Persian rug. No barking, even when someone came right past the house-right up to the door!

I know, I know.

And when they kicked me off the beach, remember that? No way you were going to get stuck back here. No, Grace had to walk me in the swamp while you walked along the ocean. I hope you enjoyed it.

I didn't. I felt mean and foolish.

But you made your point! Her dog, her responsibility. You let her walk me in the rain once when she had a cold.

She insisted.

Then you should've insisted more.

Yes. That's what I think, too, now.

I miss her! I miss her! I miss my Grace!

So do I.

Not like me. Did I ever bark at her?

No.

You did.


And she barked back. We disagreed sometimes. All couples do.

Not Grace and Victor. Grace and Victor never disagreed. Did I ignore her?

No.

You ignored her. She would call your name and you would go on reading your paper, or watching TV. and pretend you hadn't heard. Did she ever have to call my name twice? No! Once and I'd be there, looking up at her, ready for anything. Did I ever want another mistress ?



No.

You did. You looked at them in the park, on the beach, in other cars as we drove around.

Men do that. It didn't mean I wanted anyone but Grace.

Yes, you did.

Maybe for an hour. For a night. No longer.

Then I loved her more than you. I loved her with all my heart.

You had no choice. You can't be selfish. But we men-it's a wonder we forget ourselves long enough to buy a birthday card. As for love... we can love, but we're always forgetting.

I didn't forget, not once.

That's true. But then you missed out on being forgiven. You never knew how it feels to be welcomed home after you've wandered off.

Without forgiveness we're lost. Can't do it for ourselves. Can't take ourselves back in.

I never wandered off.

No. You're a good dog. You always were.

Victor left the trail to inspect a heap of dirt thrown up by some tunneling creature. He yanked at the leash in his excitement. John undipped him and waited as Victor circled the mound, sniffing busily, then stuck his nose in the burrow and began to dig around it. To watch him in his forgetfulness of eveiything else was John's pleasure, and this is where he found it, Sundays in the bog with Victor. He looked up through a haze of insects. A buzzard was making lazy circles high overhead, riding the sea breeze John could not feel down here, though he could faintly make out the sounds it carried from beyond the dunes, of crying gulls and crashing waves and the shrieking children who fled before them. Victor panted madly, hearing none of this. He worked fast for an old fellow, legs a blur, pawing back clumps of black earth. He lifted his dirty face from the hole to give a hunter's yelp, then plunged back in.
Chapter 26

A Mature Student

Theresa left the library for a cigarette and came upon Professor Landsman in the smokers' corner under the overhang. Professor Landsman taught the Art History survey course Theresa was taking. She was alone, leaning back in one of the two plastic chairs they'd set out for incorrigibles, eyes half closed against the afternoon sun. It was late March and the day was warm; snow had fallen a few nights earlier, and patches still remained here and there in deep shade, but the rest had melted. A glaring sheet of water covered the courtyard below. Theresa slid her book bag under the other chair and lit up.

Professor Landsman didn't appear to notice her. She had her long legs stretched straight out, high-heeled boots crossed at the ankle. She was a tall woman with unruly red hair and a harsh accent of some kind. She didn't wear glasses but was obviously nearsighted; whenever she bent over her notes during lectures her hair swung forward into her eyes, and she pushed it back with an exasperated gesture that dramatized the unveiling of her face-the sharp cheekbones and wide, heavily lipsticked mouth. Today she wore a black coat draped over her shoulders and another of her long, beautiful scarves; in class she restlessly tugged and rearranged them as she spoke. Though not beautiful she had a certain glamour, vivid on this large urban campus where the women faculty dressed as sensibly as the men-as Theresa herself.

They had never spoken. Between Professor Landsman's lectures Theresa attended a discussion section led by a boyish graduate student from New Zealand who also graded her papers. In class Professor Landsman asked questions rarely, grudgingly. A good answer earned a curt nod; anything less and she responded with impatience, mockery, or despair. Only the boldest took the bait, Theresa not among them.

She had almost finished her cigarette when Professor Landsman said, "You're in my class."

"Yes, ma'am."

Professor Landsman turned and looked her up and down. "So. You are auditing, I suppose?"

Theresa understood the question. She had a good twenty years on the other students in the lecture hall, and knew that she looked it. "No," she said, "I'm a regular student. Hotel management."

"Hotel management! And this is a degree? Extraordinary. Such a country. One is found criminal for smoking, but one may become a scholar of bed-and-breakfast."

"Yeah, well, I'm taking your class just for interest. I've always loved art, not that I know jack about it." Theresa flicked the ember off her cigarette and fieldstripped the butt and scattered the grains of tobacco with her toe. When she looked up Professor Landsman was watching her intently.

"How very odd," she said.

"Old habit," Theresa said. "I really like your class, by the way."

"Do you? Why?"

"Probably for the same reasons you liked the first art history class you ever took."

"And what do you suppose those were?"

"Jesus. Okay, you want to know why I like your class. Well, big surprise, the art. Especially the paintings. Caravaggio! I really love Caravaggio. And quite the character, eh? So, yeah, learning about the paintings and the painters, all the history. You seem to know your stuff. And I get a kick out of how bitchy you are. Professor." This was true. Theresa didn't care for the chummy, ingratiating atmosphere she'd found in other of her courses.

"Ah. And you are from..."

"California. Mostly. You?"

Professor Landsman examined her without answering. Theresa knew what she was seeing: the sun-weathered face, one eyelid drooping a little from a childhood case of Bell's palsy. Finally Professor Landsman said, "How did you form such a habit?"

"Excuse me?"

"The cigarette. This business with the cigarette."

"Oh, it's something you pick up in the service."

"You were a soldier?"

"A Marine. Twenty-two years."

Theresa was ready for the next question. No, she answered, she hadn't been to Iraq. She didn't say that she had served two tours in Saudi Arabia helping manage an R&R center; that during the second tour her Marine husband, who'd rotated home from Iraq just before she left, had fallen in love with a friend's widow; that her son had graduated from high school without Theresa there to see it, then broken his promise to go on to college and enlisted in the Marines himself.

At forty-one Theresa was living alone for the first time in her life. It suited her. She went out to dinner now and then with the manager of the local Sheraton, whom she'd met after a presentation he'd given to one of her classes, but for now-to his evident impatience-she wasn't interested in anything more than some appreciative company and a chance to dress up a little. She woke early without an alarm and made coffee and turned on the classical music station and slipped back under the covers with a book. On weekdays she sampled lunch specials at the cheap foreign restaurants around the university. Every other night, sometimes more, she swam at the university pool; she hadn't taken a run since getting her discharge and intended never to run again. She was glad for her new life here in Illinois, most of a continent away from Camp Pendleton-a gladness that still surprised her, as she was surprised by her own freedom from regret. The sudden, breathless fear she sometimes felt was only for her son. He was out of boot camp now and in desert training at Twentynine Palms.

"So you love art." Professor Landsman said. "Let me guess. You paint in your free time, scenes from western life. The bleached skulls of cows on the pioneer trail. Pacific seascapes-the lonely lighthouse, storm-tossed waves breaking on the rocks below."

"You must be kidding. 1 can't even draw a circle."

"Nor can I. Few can, actually. So-this is correct?" She tore her cigarette open and spilled the tobacco out at her feet.

"Close enough."

"Now the enemy will never know I was here."

"Except for the filter you dropped."

"What did you do with yours?"

"I don't smoke filters. I should. But I'm quitting-this summer for sure."

"Such cowardice! You, a Marine, deserting the field."

"I wouldn't put it like that." Theresa heard the coldness in her own voice and only mildly regretted it.

"Oh, I have made a gaffe," Professor Landsman said. "It was a joke."

"I know."

"A stupid joke." She tugged on the ends of her scarf. "The way one uses words here, among one's clever colleagues, like a game, one grows careless. Of course such words have meaning." She took a pack of cigarettes from her coat pocket, shook one out and lit it.

"You don't talk carelessly in class," Theresa said.

"No, that's true. I am serious. Perhaps too serious?" Professor Landsman leaned her head back and closed her eyes and blew out a stream of smoke, exposing a splotchy purple birthmark on her neck. In almost the same moment, eyes still closed, she twitched the scarf and the birthmark vanished.



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