Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories

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"Get out," the driver said.

By the time Mallon unfolded himself from the cab and closed the door his pant legs were already wet and clinging. Only as the driver pulled away did he remember the umbrella. Rain streamed down his face. He took his suit jacket off and draped it over his head, holding the collar forward like a bill, and trudged along the shoulder for a while, then walked backward when the wind gusted into his face. Something caught his foot and almost pitched him over. A half-buried block of cement had torn the heel off his shoe. He picked up the heel, looked it over, then tossed it aside and kept walking.

What was the driver getting at? You knew? Knew what? And why at those words had he felt caught out, laid bare? The driver couldn't have known what Mallon knew, but Mallon knew what Mallon knew. He'd come awake to it only at this accusation, but he knew, all right, and had known at the very moment back in that room, at rest yet not asleep, the hand slipping across his chest, between jacket and shirt, then the discreet caress of the billfold sliding free and the lightness that followed, as if it had been a weight of lead. That lightness-the strangest thing!

Thunder rumbled somewhere. The blown rain plastered Mallon's shirt to his back and glittered in the headlights of the cars rushing toward him. On a whim he stuck out his thumb. He hadn't hitchhiked since college, and not much then. Maybe the tie would help. Or maybe it would seem wrong, too calculated or cunning-a danger sign. And of course he was soaking wet, as anyone could see. Would he offer himself a ride? He soon gave it up and turned around and saw the taillights of a car not far ahead, a man hurrying toward him with an open umbrella.

It was the driver. He walked with a dipping limp on short legs. He came up to Mallon and held out the umbrella, which billowed and heaved in the wind.

"Too late for that," Mallon said.

"No, please." He held it uselessly over Mallon's head. "Come, please. Come." He escorted him back to the cab and opened the door. "Please," the driver said again when Mallon hesitated.

He got in. "I will pay you," he said.

"No. No fare. Look!" He touched the meter. It was off.

"Nonsense. Of course I'll pay you."

"No-a gift. But please no report, okay?"

Mallon saw the man's eyes in the mirror. "Ah," he said.

"No report?"

"No report. But I'm still goingto pay you."

"My gift to you. American, right? California?"

Mallon took the easy way out and said yes. Illinois just confused people; he hadn't been there in years anyway.

"What car do you have? Chevrolet? This taxi, it belongs to my wife's father. Michele. He's sick. No money, you know?"

The driver chattered on: his father-in-law's sickness, his sister's sickness, a problem with the taxi license. As he talked he checked the mirror for Mallon's response. He sounded like a project director making excuses, wheedling for a passing grade. Mallon was bored and disappointed. So much for the fierce mountain clansman, the implacable avenger he'd imagined and feared.

Mallon's wet clothes had turned clammy. His feet were swimming in the ruined shoes. No matter-he had another pair in his room, and another suit, and still more at home. Of course the hotel manager would greet him with cries of sympathy and give him whatever he needed until Geneva wired him money in the morning. He was minutes away from a hot shower. He would step out of it into his air-conditioned room and stand by the window. The terry bathrobe was thick and soft, and he would settle into it, hands deep in the pockets, as he watched the people on the street below. He could already see himself doing this. By tomorrow afternoon he'd have a new passport, new lines of credit, the works. He knew that many men, even most men, losing what he had lost today-their money, the very proof of their identity-would find themselves helpless in the world. He was not one of them. He would not be allowed such a fall. And for all his brooding over the alienations inflicted by comfort and privilege, would he have it any other way? No, he supposed not. He was certainly ready for this little adventure to come to an end.

By the time they pulled up in front of the hotel the storm had passed and the doorman was shielding his eyes against a flare of evening light from the top of the street. The driver beat him to Mallon's door and held it open, offering his hand as if to a woman. Mallon ignored it, emerged damp and blinking.

"Okay?" the driver said. "The umbrella, where is your umbrella?" He leaned past Mallon into the cab. "There! Friends, okay?"

"No report," Mallon said.

"Mr. California!" the driver said. "Hollywood, right?"

"Of course," Mallon said. "Hollywood."
Chapter 31

Deep Kiss

When Joe Reed was a boy of fifteen, his craziness over a girl became such a burden to his family, and such a curiosity to the small town where they lived, that his mother threatened to pack him off to his married sister in San Diego. But before this could happen Joe's father died and his mother collected a large sum from Northwestern Mutual, sold the family pharmacy, and moved both Joe and herself to California.

Thirty years passed. In that time he heard nothing from the girl, Mary Claude Moore, but now and then word of her reached him through people back in Dunston. She dropped out of high school in her senior year, had a baby, got married, divorced, then remarried a few years later. That second marriage was the last thing Joe knew about Mary Claude until he learned of her death.

He'd dropped by his mother's house one Sunday afternoon. She couldn't keep the house up anymore, alone as she was, and failing, and she'd finally agreed to buy into an assisted-living "community"-oh how she hated that word, how icily she served it up. Joe had come by to make sure everything was in order for the realtor's walkthrough later that week. They had coffee together and that was when she told him about Mary Claude and gave him the letter. He didn't want to be thinking about what his reaction looked like, or ought to look like, so he excused himself and took the letter outside, to the backyard.

According to the newspaper clipping his mother s friend had enclosed, Mary Claude appeared to have fallen asleep at the wheel and drifted into the oncoming lane of traffic. She'd been killed outright and so had the driver of the car she hit, a dentist from Bellingham heading home from a weekend of fishing. That was the newspaper account. The unofficial version, which his mother's friend disparaged but passed along anyway, was that Mary Claude had been having a fling with a real estate agent named Chip Ryan. He drove the same unusual car as the dentist, a red Mercedes station wagon, and Mary Claude had an equally distinctive old Mustang convertible, powder blue. Both of them lived outside town and frequently passed each other coming and going. The stoiy was, whenever they met on an empty stretch of road they played a game where they switched lanes at the last moment. A sort of lovers' game. Mary Claude had mistaken the dentist's car for Chip's, and that was that.

Joe could hardly make sense of the story. His mother's friend doubted it was true, but conceded it certainly was a puzzle how Mary Claude could have fallen asleep just a hundred feet past a series of tight curves. Still, she wrote, there were probably other explanations that wouldn't insult her memoiy and give needless pain to her family.

The newspaper article said that Mary Claude and her husband owned a tavern. They must have done well; not long before all this, the chamber of commerce had named them Businesspersons of the Year. She was survived by her husband, three children, two grandchildren. For some reason the paper hadn't run a picture of her with the piece. Joe was glad of this omission.

Joe had lived another, submerged life, parallel to the one known by those around him. In this other life he hadn't left for California but had stayed on in Dunston with Mary Claude. He fell into this dream during the first months after the move, in the immensity of summer on a sunstruck street where old people peered anxiously from behind their parted blinds and sprinklers ran at night on lawns visited only by the Mexicans who mowed them. When his mother left her darkened bedroom long enough to chase him outside, Joe took the Saturday Evening Post to a pool in a nearby park and watched the girls oil each other and shriek when loitering bravos splashed water on them. He lay on his stomach and stared at the Post and lived his ghost life with Mary Claude.

After Joe started school, his mother took an accounting job at an office-furniture store. A few months later she and another woman formed a partnership and bought the owner out. Joe's mother began to dress smartly. She wore her hair straight instead of piled up on her head, and let a gray streak show through. One night at dinner she said "Joe!" so insistently that he realized she'd been speaking to him without his knowing it, and when he looked at her she said, "You can't bring him back, son. You have to let him go." Joe was embarrassed at the depth of her misunderstanding, but he played along and let her think she'd read his mind.

The high school was new and bright and vast. In the echoing hallways the voices of the students mingled in a roar that Joe came to hear as an aspect of the silence in which he passed his days. He sometimes went home without having spoken a word to anyone. It seemed to him that he might go through the whole year that way, and the next year too, until he graduated, but before long he became friends with his biology lab partner, who took him to parties and introduced him to girls. When Joe got his driver's license that spring he began dating Carla. He aced his courses and played Officer Krupke in West Side Story. In the fall of his senior year he and Carla left a dance early and went to a motel. It was the first time for both of them, and a failure. They tried again a few days later in Carla's bedroom and had better luck, and by Christmas Joe was starting to see Courtney on the sly. He didn't really prefer her, but it seemed inevitable that sooner or later either he or Carla would be unfaithful, and he wanted to be the one. This became far more complicated than he'd expected. Joe was soon exposed and denounced by both girls as a heartless cheat, which did not, it turned out, entirely discourage other girls from going out with him.

And through all this he continued his phantom life with Mary Claude. He was with her on a blanket in a moonlit clearing or in a car parked above the river with Ray Charles on the radio, her fingertips grazing the back of his neck, her mouth open to his, her caramel taste on his lips and tongue and deep in his throat. Only the kiss was a memory; only the kiss was real. He'd hardly been anywhere with Mary Claude except when they could sneak off at school, and a few times in town. But from the kiss he made everything else, or everything else made itself, for that was how it happened-without any effort of imagination or sense of unreality, he watched his life with Mary Claude go on as he had once believed it would. The scenes grew more particular as time passed, each new one framed by those that had gone before, and always with a kiss at the heart of it.

At Berkeley Joe went out with Lauren, and when she left for a year at the Sorbonne there was Toni, then Candace. He and Candace shared a house with two other couples until they graduated and afterward rented an apartment of their own through Joe's first year of medical school. Then Candace went to New York to visit her family and never came back. She sent Joe a letter in which she asked his forgiveness for the problems she'd caused through her alcoholism, which she was now in the process of confronting. She said she couldn't return to the life she'd led irf Berkeley, as he surely understood.

No, Joe didn't understand. They'd had their troubles, the two of them; he'd been going all out and so had Candace, waitressing nights as she worked toward a degree in dance therapy. Of course there were problems, but nothing all that serious, and he certainly didn't begrudge her a little relaxation. Yet when Joe's mother heard about Candace leaving, the first thing she said was that she hoped she'd get some help for her drinking. Joe hadn't mentioned the letter.

Until he finished his training and met the woman he would marry, Joe had no more love affairs, just occasional sessions with women working too hard themselves to want much more of him. The practicality of these arrangements gave the whole enterprise a starkly biological cast, which made Joe nervously conscious of his masculine duty and thus left him unmanned with oppressive frequency. By the time he started his residency, in Seattle, he'd entered a state of near quarantine that made his shadow life more moony and detailed than ever.

Dunston was just three hours north of Seattle. Joe sometimes thought of driving up on a free afternoon, but never did. By then he'd heard that Mary Claude was married again. There was no purpose in making the trip except to see her, and he was afraid she wouldn't want to see him, and also afraid that she would. It was too late for that. She had a daughter and a husband and a house to run, she had work to do. So did he-useful, exacting work. It depended on a clarity Joe knew he couldn't rely on, that he had to improvise day by day. He'd lost it before and could not risk losing it again.

When Mary Claude was killed, Joe had been married for seventeen years. His wife, Liz, was a pediatrician in the same clinic where he practiced as an internist. They had a son in his junior year of high school, a daughter a year younger. The boy was a gifted cellist, unworldly, an aesthete. Their daughter was more calculating but fiercer in her attachments once she'd made them. Joe began taking her rock climbing when she was still in grade school and found her to be the most fearless and inventive partner he'd ever had.

Then came a time when his daughter ceased to confide. Both daughter and son developed private sources of amusement, and Joe began to detect a certain condescension in their handling of him. His children were slipping away into the deep forest; he tried not to huny them with the panic he felt at the gathering signs of their departure.

Liz, too, kept changing on him. When they first met she was girlish and unsure of herself in spite of being three years older than Joe, but since then she'd grown calm and regal, which both unsettled and excited him. In their lovemaking he approached her almost wistfully and sometimes concluded with a bark of triumph, as if he'd brought a notorious virgin to ground. Away from her for more than a day or two, Joe hardly knew who he was.

And still through all these years he had thoughts of Mary Claude. He thought of her sitting across from him at a kitchen table, barely awake, drinking coffee. The kitchen was small and untidy, and Mary Claude's robe gaped open as she bent to drink. She saw him looking and looked back at him. He stood. She put her cup down and waited. He thought of them standing on a porch and waving as friends drove off. And when they were alone Mary Claude turned to him and slipped an arm around his waist, and they went slowly inside and up the stairs, stopping to kiss on the landing. Sometimes he thought of what was to follow, but this was the moment he lingered on, the kiss. Joe remembered veiy well what it was like to kiss Mary Claude; he'd done it as much as anyone could for as long as they were together, which came to just over three months.

Her father owned a daiiy farm several miles out of town. Her mother had moved away when Mary Claude was eleven, taking her along. She married again, but things did not go well between her daughter and this new husband, and she sent Mary Claude back to her father when she was fifteen. Joe had gone through grade school barely noticing her, drab little hick that she was, but she came back a different girl, flaunting and witchy. She mouthed off to the teachers and walked around in a pout with her back arched like a bow. She had no friends except for an equally friendless cousin. During volleyball games in her gym class she baited the other girls by deliberately hitting the ball out-of-bounds or into the net. She cut classes and smoked and made out with other girls' boyfriends, or so it was said, and Joe, curious to test the rumor, found it to be true: Mary Claude went behind the school with him during a dance to which he'd brought another girl, and kept him out there for over an hour. He knew she was doing it to shame his date-at first anyway, until she warmed to him-but once he started he couldn't stop kissing her.

Joe had by then kissed several girls and thought he had a pretty fair idea of the possibilities. Kissing was good, but he tended to think of it as a beachhead from which to launch more serious operations, or as a safe harbor when, inevitably, he was forced to retreat. But he didn't remember to try anything else that night, leaning against the gymnasium wall with this girl who tasted so good and pressed so fully against him, humming in his ear when they stopped to breathe and swaying to the music that rattled the high windows above them. There were other couples along the wall, and Joe knew his date would hear about this, but when he started to lean away Mary Claude laid her fingers along his cheeks and guided his mouth back to hers, and after that he forgot about leaving. He would have stayed there all night, with no sense of time passing, but finally a girl came out and told Mary Claude that her ride was waiting to take her home. She turned to go, then stopped and kissed Joe again. He walked around the school twice before going back inside. The gym was almost empty. His date had left with friends.

When he saw Mary Claude in the hallway on Monday morning he didn't pretend that nothing had happened. Nor did she. She let him take her books and walk her to class. At the lunch period they went to the cafeteria and sat across from each other. He understood what would happen-the hush around them, how they'd be looked at, even by his friends. Joe knew the rules. He'd been a shit and hurt a nice girl, and for Mary Claude, of all people. You could make out with Mary Claude, but you had to laugh about it later and cut her dead. They ate without talking. Her color was high, otherwise she gave nothing away. She helped herself to his carrots, and that was that. They were a pair.

There was a fern-choked gully behind the school. There were the stands by the football field. Empty classrooms. They met before school started and at lunch and for a few minutes after school, until her bus left. Joe didn't say much. When he heard the things he said, he felt hopeless. Mary Claude was either stone silent or gabby. She often got on a jag between kisses when they were making out, a steady murmur, vague, domestic, whatever came to mind. Joe liked feeling her low voice against his chest but paid little attention to what she said and afterward remembered almost none of it.

She tasted of lipstick and cigarettes and candy. When she opened her mouth to his the first sensation was a shock of relief as the tightness melted in a rush from his neck and shoulders. And then he was swaying with her, drinking that smoky sweetness, drinking forgetfulness of the schoolwork he hadn't done, the stammer he was developing, his mother dazed and pale, the room at the end of the hallway where his father lay gasping for the next breath like a trout dropped on the riverbank. He forgot to plan what to tiy next, where to touch, how hard to press. He stopped thinking ahead; there was no ahead, no before and no after. He was itchy with thirst and deeply satisfied all at once.

And Mary Claude was thirsty for him. He'd never had this happen before, a girl impatient for the taste of him, greedy for it. She didn't like to break off; when he leaned away for a breath she would close her fingers in his hair and pull him back to her. She sometimes said his name in a low, almost mocking way as they were about to return to class, and the sound of it whipped him back around as if she'd yanked on a leash.

Mary Claude soon grew careless with their privacy. She didn't care who saw them, or when. She'd command a kiss-a profound kiss-as she boarded her bus, or in the hallway, even on the street in town when her father let her go in for some shopping after school. Joe knew this was beyond carelessness, that she was making a display of their appetite, perhaps especially of his appetite for her. He could see she was proud of her claim on him, and this made him proud and brazen too. He didn't mind if people thought they were ridiculous, even a sort of joke, the two of them "stitched together at the mouth," as his mother put it. She'd heard about them, of course; she heard everything in the pharmacy.

At first she came at him aslant about it, then she lost patience. Was this the time to be carrying on with some girl? This was not the time, couldn't he see that? Now, of all times? Couldn't he sit with his father awhile instead of mooning in his room and tying up the telephone? Would that be too much to ask? Joe knew he should care that he was giving his mother trouble, but nothing she said touched him. It wasn't out of concern for her that he ruined eveiything.

He and Mary Claude were in the stands during a basketball game. She was bored and wanted to leave, go outside. Joe kept putting her off; the game was close. She started to play with the hair at the nape of his neck. He liked the feeling and almost surrendered to it, then something came over him and he shrugged her hand off. He felt Mary Claude go still beside him. He knew she was looking at him, but he kept his eyes on the players and even shouted when one of them muffed a pass. Mary Claude slid her fingers back into his hair, tightened them, and began to turn his head toward hers. Without taking his eyes from the game he gave a rough shake and pulled away. Mary Claude stood up and waited there a moment; though Joe knew he could still turn to her, even then he did not. She made her way to the aisle. He watched her descend the steps and cross in front of the stands and leave the gym. The game had become meaningless to him, but he sat through the rest of it. His mouth was dry, his heart thudding as if he were hollow.

Joe phoned Mary Claude when he got home. No answer. He called again just before he went to bed, and someone picked up but didn't say anything. "Mary Claude," he said. "Mary Claude, please."

She wouldn't answer. He knew she was waiting for him to give an account, to justify himself, and he couldn't think what to say. In the end, all he could say was her name. "Mary Claude."

Then she hungup.

She hung up whenever he called. He pushed notes into her locker and got no answer. He met her bus eveiy morning, and she walked right past him. He waited outside her classrooms and followed her down the hall and out to the bus stop after school. He knew he was making a fool of himself, but he had no choice; there was no other way to be close to her. When his mother demanded that he leave the girl alone, it made no difference. He kept trailing her. And still Mary Claude did not relent.

They had one class together, Washington State history. She sat two seats ahead of him in the next row to the left. He could watch Mary Claude without her seeing him watch her, though of course she knew. Back when they were together, before he ruined it all, she turned her head every little while to look at him and always found his eyes on her. She didn't turn now, but had to know-yawning, lifting her hair away from her neck with both hands and letting it fall again-had to know that he was watching her. And the way she slipped one foot out of its loafer and slowly scratched the other ankle with it-all this was to sharpen the ache he felt. The curve of her neck as she inspected her fingernails. Her lips, pursed with impatience as the class wore on.

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