He was alert to any movement that allowed him a view of Mary Claude's mouth. She often turned to look at the clock over the door, and Joe never failed to seize that glint of her face in profile. When he saw her mouth he leaned forward, narrowing the distance by at least that much. It was wrong that he couldn't put his mouth to hers, it was an impossible mistake that kept him confused and on edge.
She must be feeling what he was feeling; Joe was sure of that. If he was cut off from her, she was cut off from him. Once it was over everything would be the same between them, maybe better, because they would value more what they'd lost and had to find again, but it went on and on, and Joe came to understand that Mary Claude didn't know how to end it-that she was waiting for him to do it. But what could he do when she wouldn't speak to him? When she wouldn't even look at him?
Then she began keeping company with A1 Dodge, a senior, a quiet and well-liked boy who struggled in school and had a limp from polio. He lived just up the road from Mary Claude and drove to school, and she started riding with him instead of taking the bus. They sometimes ate lunch together. Joe was thrown, at first; then he saw that this was his signal. He waited for A1 outside the wood shop and began to tell him about Mary Claude and himself, how they were meant to be together. A1 tried to brush past, but Joe wasn't through talking and blocked his way. A1 pushed at him, and his bad leg gave out and he went down, his metal brace clattering on the cement.
When Joe bent to help him up two boys ran over and shouldered him aside. One of them gave Joe a look as he struggled to lift A1 to his feet. Joe wanted to explain everything, and the impossibility of ever doing this left him no choice but to smile at the boy and tell him to go fuck himself.
He could see when he got home that his mother already knew about it. She set him to work in the pharmacy and spoke to him only when she had to. While he was doing the dishes that night she came to the kitchen and told him that his sister and her husband were willing to have Joe come live with them until things got sorted out-until his father died, he took her to mean. Her face was flushed, her eyes brilliant, she stood erect in the doorway and forced him to look at her. She was magnificent, and he resented it. Did he want to go to San Diego? Did he want to do that? No? Was he sure? All right, she said. She needed him here. But one more thing like this, he'd be on the first bus out of town. Did he understand? Good. Now she wanted Joe to go to his father and make the same promise to him.
Joe did no such thing. He listened to the weird submarine clankings emanating from his father's oxygen tank and studied the pattern in the rug and answered a few wheezy questions about his schoolwork and then he got the hell out of there, but not before his father put his dry yellow hand on Joe's wrist and pulled him down into an embrace that left him sick with horror.
He stopped following Mary Claude to her classes. She rode to school with A1 Dodge and sometimes walked with him between classes, but Joe could see there was nothing between them. She was alone, as before. So was he, more than ever-the guy who picked on cripples. Though Joe didn't follow Mary Claude he still watched her, from nearby when he could but mostly from a distance, cocking her hip to hold her locker door open, sitting at the end of a cafeteria table and tearing at the peel of an orange with her strong fingers. It was late May. In a couple of weeks school would be over and he'd have no hope of breaking this spell he'd brought on them.
He decided he would kiss her. She was like him. After the first taste she always wanted another, and then another, until she lost herself. That was what they needed-to lose themselves again.
Mary Claude's gym teacher took the girls outside on warm days for softball and track. Joe's French class met that period, though he sometimes cut out early to stand in the shade of the trees at the near end of the field and watch Mary Claude. She suited up with the other girls but usually drifted into the stands to smoke and chew the fat with her cousin Ruth, who was half Indian and never talked to anyone except her relatives. Mary Claude was pale anyway, and beside Ruth she gleamed like a white stone in a streambed. When the teacher led the class back inside, Mary Claude always made a point of lagging, as if the force that compelled the others had no hold on her. Even Ruth couldn't endure this exquisite dawdling and left her behind.
Mary Claude had her eyes on the ground, arms crossed, as she started in from the field. Joe didn't know if she'd seen him or not. He stood under a horse-chestnut tree beside the path that led to the locker rooms; the tree was in bloom, and his eyes had gone weepy from the pollen. When she drew near, he spoke her name and she looked up without surprise. He'd had something all planned out to say, but now that he was close to her he forgot what it was.
She waited, arms still crossed. Then she said, "You been crying?"
Joe wasn't sure what happened next. Even right after it happened he had no confidence in any account, even in his own memory, and accepted the blame that fell on him without protest and without belief.
But he knew that it started with Mary Claude's crack about his eyes. He heard her mockery as forgiveness; forgiveness and summons. It sent a rush of heat to his face. He could still feel it, thinking back. Then he lost the thread. He remembered holding one of her hands in both of his, and Mary Claude leaning away and looking at him, but struggling? Perhaps. Then he remembered being with her under the tree, his arms around her, though how they got there he couldn't say. Maybe he just led her there, maybe he really did force her. The one thing he was sure of was that her mouth was opening to his when the gym teacher grabbed his collar. Even as she wrenched him back, shirtfront bunched at his throat, he was straining forward to seal the kiss. Then Mary Claude turned aside and started ciying, and he knew he'd have to start all over again.
He didn't argue with anything anyone said. His mother surprised him by trying to make the principal feel soriy for her, something he'd never seen her do, but it didn't pay off; he refused to let Joe finish out the year. As he was clearing out his locker a couple of seniors walked past and made smooching sounds, and other students took it up as Joe carried his stuff down the hallway.
His mother talked about sending him to San Diego that weekend. Though he'd made up his mind to refuse, it never came to a test. Late Wednesday afternoon his father went into a coma; until he died that evening Joe kept the watch with his mother, prowling the room while she held her husband's hand. Now and then Joe looked at the figure in the bed, then turned away, to the window with its darkening view of the neighbor's yard, to the bookcase, to the photographs on the bureau and nightstand. Joe in his Little League uniform. Joe looking over the edge of his crib. Joe and his father beside the Skagit River, holding up a pair of big steelhead.
He helped his mother make the calls and settle the funeral arrangements. He gave his father's best friend all his fishing gear and boxed up his clothes for the Goodwill. He was steady at his mother's side, gallant and grave. On the night after the funeral he slipped downstairs and felt for the car keys on the hook where they were kept. Not there. Not there the next night either. So-his mother had second-guessed him. Joe was surprised that she'd calculated so coolly in her grief. It made him think differently of her. Better, and worse.
Both house and business were sold within the week to a couple from Vancouver. It had all been arranged months back, pending his father's death. Joe was doing an inventory for the new owner, kneeling on the floor with a clipboard, when he heard someone walk up the aisle and stop behind him. He glanced back, and there was Mary Claude's father.
Joe had seen Mr. Moore from a distance a few times but never really considered him, didn't think of him except as a vague shadow cast by Mary Claude; he was unprepared for the man's actual presence. Mr. Moore loomed over Joe, catching a dusty beam of light square in the face. Wetness gleamed in the slack right corner of his mouth, and his right shoulder sagged as if he were holding a bucket. He wore new overalls and fresh-scraped boots, the marks of the stick still showing through a film of dried mud across the toe caps. He smelled strongly of camphor. His eyes were a pale, wateiy blue. He didn't narrow them against the light but looked down at Joe studiously. Joe was sure he knew everything, not only what he'd done with his daughter, and tried to do, but everything he'd dreamed of doing, even his plan to somehow get her in the car and run away to Canada.
Mr. Moore seemed about to say something, but instead he bent down and gave Joe's shoulder a squeeze. Then he turned and walked back down the aisle.
Joe took the letter into his mother's yard and studied it. Hunched in a lawn chair, elbows on his knees, he waited to be struck; down the street someone was blasting a Strauss waltz through an open window, and he couldn't stop himself from following it, even conducting it with minute twitches of his head, though he'd lost his taste for old Vienna after Candace went on a Strauss binge the year before she left. The chair had looked dry when he sat down, but the morning's dew still lingered between the straps of webbing and seeped into his pants, warm, clinging. The grass needed a trim. Joe knew that if he looked up he'd see his mother watching him from the kitchen window, pulling a long face for what she imagined he was feeling. What he did feel was embarrassment at this hambone attempt to create sorrow by imitating it.
He rocked to his feet, looked sourly around, then started toward the shed where the mower was kept. It would come later, if it came at all. Sometimes it didn't. He lost patients and hardly ever thought of them again, and then with a regret that he recognized as mostly formal.
No, if it came it would come from behind and push him into a hole so deep he'd forget what it was like to be out of it. That was what happened with his beautiful niece Angela, his sister's only child. Joe had warned her-she had diabetes and was drinking heavily-but somehow he'd failed to expect it himself. He got clobbered a few weeks after her death, laid low. And something like that happened to him after his son was born. One night, holding the baby, he remembered with suspicious clarity his own father holding him, looking down at him, and smiling; there was that roguish gap between his teeth, the crazy upcurved eyebrow. It was a look of unguarded benevolence. Joe knew it well, he'd grown up in the light of his father's pleasure in him, and now he figured that by some trick of the mind he had imposed it on a scene too distant for recall.
False or not, he couldn't shake the memory. And others followed that he knew to be true, though he hadn't thought of them for years: his father's amused, bottomless patience in teaching him to drive or tie flies or work the cash register; the stories he told about growing up wild in rural Georgia, and about his older brother Chet. Chet had been killed on Peleliu, his body unfound, and Joe's father was never able to hide the grief that still overcame him because of that death.
Joe's parents had been close to forty when he was born. He guessed he'd been something of an accident, but a welcome one, especially to his father. They'd been friends. And yet Joe had somehow come to resent his father's sickness as a betrayal, a desertion. He didn't think it out in those terms, didn't think it out at all, but it felt like that, then, as if his father had willfully-perversely-surrendered to the weak, wheezing, yellow-faced sufferer who'd taken his place. Joe's knowledge of his own real desertion, the depth of its injustice and cruelty, came slowly. He'd managed it well enough until the birth of his son, then hardly at all. For weeks it seemed that every new joy came with a shadow of remembrance and shame. His wife grew impatient with his moods, then disgusted. But what was he to do?
Others might forgive you-he knew his father would-but how do you forgive yourself? You don't, really. Yet one day the weight is lighter, and the next lighter still, and then you barely know it's there, if it's there at all. So it is with the best of men and the worst of men, and so it was with Joe.
The lawn mower had a bent blade and shook convulsively as he maneuvered it around the yard. It was folly to use it in this condition, but the pushing felt good and he kept muscling it on. He spun through a corner and saw his mother in the kitchen window, her face overlaid with leaves reflected from the orange tree. She looked worried. Joe raised a hand and she gave a little wave back, the same regretful gesture she used to make from the departing car when they left him at scout camp in the summer-except that she was strong and handsome then, and now she was old and had to wear a diaper. He turned his attention to the rock border where he'd pranged the blade last time, and when he looked up again she was gone.
He squared the yard and kept moving toward the middle. The shaking of the mower no longer held his interest. It was part of the cadence of the work, like the crisp turns he made and the extra push he gave when he hit a thick clump of grass. His hands tingled; his brow dripped; his shirt was soaked through. As he worked he ceased to think, or to feel himself think, and then it came to him. Chip Ryan, the real estate agent Mary Claude had been fooling around with . .. little Chip! He hadn't placed him at first because the boy was so young, just seven or eight, when Joe left Dunston. Chip's older brother had been a friend of his. Chip used to hang around while they played records and talked, but he didn't butt in or act bratty. Joe had been struck by that-what a nice kid he was, little Chip, sitting there with his pet rabbit, stroking its ears while he looked up at the big boys.
Little Chip and Mary Claude.
The letter didn't say whether Chip was married or single. Either way he was on the prowl, or they wouldn't be telling that story. And of all the women in that long green valley, he had to pick Mary Claude. If it was true. But of course it was. Leave it to Mary Claude to come up with a game like that, all or nothing, no room for error.
He bullied the mower through the last couple of turns and cut the engine. A pall of exhaust hung above the yard. He heard the music again. Violins. Strauss, still. He nodded helplessly along as he toweled himself off with his shirt. He'd heard the piece fifty times, a hundred times, Candace dancing naked through their apartment to the rise and fall of it, gleaming with sweat, eyes half closed-but when he reached for the name he felt it slip away. It baffled him that he couldn't hold on to something he'd known so well, and he stood fixed in his puzzlement as the song swelled to a finish and died, and a dog barked somewhere, and another waltz began.