The trees gave way to fields. Pete drove on between metal fences plastered with windblown scraps of paper. Tule fog hung above the ditches, spilling into the road, dimming the ghostly halogen lights that burned in the yards of the farms he passed. The fog left beads of water rolling up the windshield.
Pete rummaged among his cassettes. He found Pachelbel's Canon and pushed it into the tape deck. When the violins began to play he leaned back and assumed an attentive expression, as if he really were listening to them. He smiled to himself like a man at liberty to enjoy music, a man who has finished his work and settled his debts, done all things meet and due.
And in this way, smiling, nodding to the music, he went another mile or two and pretended that he was not already slowing down, that he wouldn't turn back, that he would be able to drive on like this, alone, and have the right answer when his wife stood before him in the doorway of his home and asked. Where is he? Where is your brother?
On her thirtieth birthday Ted threw a surprise party for Helen. A small party-Mitch and Bliss were the only guests. They'd chipped in with Ted and bought Helen three grams of white-out blizzard that lasted the whole night and on into the next morning. When it got light enough everyone went for a swim in the courtyard pool. Then Ted took Mitch up to the sauna on the fifth floor while Helen and Bliss put together a monster omelette.
"So how does it feel," Bliss said, "being thirty?" The ash fell off her cigarette into the eggs. She stared at the ash for a moment, then stirred it in. "Mitch had his fortieth last month and totally freaked. He did so much Maalox he started to taste like chalk. I thought he was goingto start freebasing it or something."
"Mitch is forty?" Helen said.
Bliss looked over at her. "That's classified information, okay?"
"Incredible. He looks about twenty-five, maybe twenty-seven at the absolute most." Helen watched Bliss crumble bacon into the bowl. "Oh, God," she said, "I don't believe it. He had a face-lift."
Bliss closed her eyes and leaned against the counter. "I shouldn't have told you. Please don't say anything," she murmured hopelessly.
When Mitch and Ted came back from the sauna they all had another toot, and Ted gave Helen the mirror to lick. He said he'd never seen three grams disappear so fast. Afterward Helen served up the omelette while Ted tried to find something on TV. He kept flipping the dial until it drove eveiyone crazy, looking for Road Runner cartoons, then he gave up and tuned in on the last part of a movie about the Bataan Death March. They didn't watch it for very long, though, because Bliss started to cry and hyperventilate. "Come on, everyone," said Mitch. "Love circle." Ted and Mitch went over to Bliss and put their arms around her while Helen watched them from the sofa, sipping espresso from a cup as blue and dainty as a robin's egg-the last of a set her grandmother had brought from the old country. Helen would have hugged Bliss too but there wasn't really any point; Bliss pulled this stunt almost eveiy time she got herself a noseful, and it just had to run its course.
When Helen finished her espresso she gathered the plates and carried them out to the kitchen. She scattered leftover toast into the courtyard below and watched the squirrels carry it away as she scoured the dishes and listened to the proceedings in the next room. This time it was Ted who talked Bliss down. "You're beautiful," he kept telling her. It was the same thing he always said to Helen when she felt depressed, and she was beginning to feel depressed right now.
She needed more fuel, she decided. She ducked into the bedroom and did a couple of lines from Ted's private stash, which she'd discovered while searching for matches in the closet. Afterward she looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were bright. They seemed lit from within and that was how Helen felt, as if there were a column of cool white light pouring from her head to her feet. She put on a pair of sunglasses so nobody would notice and went back to the kitchen.
Mitch was standing at the counter, rolling a bone. "How's the birthday girl? " he asked without looking up.
"Ready forthe next one," Helen said. "How about you?"
"Hey, bring it on," Mitch answered.
At that moment Helen came close to letting him know she knew, but she held back. Mitch was good people and so was Bliss. Helen didn't want to make trouble between them. All the same, Helen knew that someday she wasn't going to be able to stop herself from giving Mitch the business. It just had to happen. And Helen knew that Bliss knew. Still, she hadn't done it this morning and felt good about that.
Mitch held up the joint. "Taste?"
Helen shook her head. She glanced over her shoulder toward the living room. "What's the story on Bliss?" she asked. "All bummed out over World War Two? Ted should've known that movie would set her off."
Mitch picked a sliver of weed from his lower lip. "Her ex is threatening to move back to Boston. Which means she won't get to see her kids except during the summer, and that's only if we can put together the scratch to fly them here and back. It's tough. Really tough."
"I guess," Helen said. She dried her hands and hung the towel on the refrigerator door. "Still, Bliss should've thought about that before she took a walk on them, right?"
Mitch turned and started out of the kitchen.
"Sorry," Helen called after him. "I wasn't thinking."
"Yes you were," Mitch said, and left her there.
Oh, hell, she thought. She decided she needed another line but made no move to get it. Helen stood where she was, looking down at the pool through the window above the sink. The manager's Afghan dog was lapping water from the shallow end, legs braced in the trough that ran around the pool. The two British Airways stewardesses from down the hall were bathing their white bodies in the morning sunshine, both wearing blue swimsuits. The redheaded girl from upstairs was floating on an air mattress. Helen could see its long shadow gliding along the bottom of the pool like something stalking her.
Helen heard Ted say, "Jesus. Bliss, I can understand that. Everyone has those feelings. You can't always beat them down." Bliss answered him in a voice so soft that Helen gave up trying to hear; it was hardly more than a sigh. She poured herself a glass of Chablis and joined the others in the living room. They were all sitting cross-legged on the floor. Helen caught Mitch's eye and mouthed the word Sorry. He stared at her, then nodded.
"I've done worse things than that," Ted was saying. "I'll bet Mitch has too."
"Plenty worse," Mitch said.
"Worse than what?" Helen asked.
"It's awful." Bliss looked down at her hands. "I'd be embarrassed to tell you." She was all cried out now, Helen could see that. Her eyes were heavy-lidded and serene, her cheeks flushed, and a little smile played over her swollen lips.
"It couldn't be that bad," Helen said.
Ted leaned forward. He still had on the bathrobe he'd worn to the sauna and it fell open almost to his waist, as Helen knew he intended it to. His chest was hard-looking from the Nautilus machine in the basement, and dark from their trip to Mazatlan. Helen had to admit it, he looked great. She didn't understand why he had to be so obvious and crass, but he got what he wanted: she stared at him and so did Bliss.
"Bliss, it isn't that bad," Ted went on. "It's just one of those things." He turned to Helen. "Bliss's little girl came down with tonsillitis last month and Bliss never got it together to go see her in the hospital."
"I can't deal with hospitals," Bliss said. "The minute I set foot inside of one my stomach starts doing flips. But still. When I think of her all alone in there."
Mitch took Bliss's hands in his and looked right at her until she met his gaze. "It's over," he said. "The operation's over and Lisa's out of the hospital and she's all right. Say it, Bliss. She's all right."
"She's all right," Bliss said.
"She's all right," Bliss repeated.
"Okay. Now believe it." Mitch put her hands together and rubbed them gently between his palms. "We've built up this big myth about kids being helpless and vulnerable and so on because it makes us feel important. We think we're playing some heavy role just because we're parents. We don't give kids any credit at all. Kids are tough little monkeys. Kids are survivors."
"But I don't know," Mitch said. He let go of Bliss's hands and leaned back. "What I said just then is probably complete bullshit. Everything I say these days sounds like bullshit."
"We've all done worse things," Ted told Bliss. He looked over at Helen. When Helen saw that he was waiting for her to agree with him she tried to think of something to say. Ted kept looking at her. "What have you got those things on for?" he asked.
"The light hurts my eyes."
"Then close the curtains." He reached across to Helen and lifted the sunglasses away from her face. "There," he said. He cupped her chin in one hand and with the other brushed her hair back from her forehead. "Isn't she something?"
"She'll do," Mitch said.
Ted stroked Helen's cheek with the back of his hand. "I'd kill for that face."
Bliss was studying Helen. "So lovely," she said in a solemn, wistful voice.
Helen laughed. She got up and drew the curtains shut. Spangles of light glittered in the fabric. She moved across the dim room to the dining nook and brought back a candle from the table there. Ted lit the candle and for a few moments they silently watched the flame. Then, in a thoughtful tone that seemed part of the silence, Mitch began to speak.
"It's true that we've all done things we're ashamed of. I just wish I'd done more of them. I'm serious," he said when Ted laughed. "I wish I'd raised more hell and made more mistakes, real mistakes, where you actually do something wrong instead of just let yourself drift into things you don't like. Sometimes I look around and I think. Hey-what happened? No reflection onyou," he said to Bliss.
She seemed puzzled.
"Forget it," Mitch told her. "All I'm saying is that looking out for the other fellow and being nice all the time is a bunch of crap."
"But you are nice," Bliss said.
Mitch nodded. "I know," he said bitterly. "I'm working on it. It gets you exactly nowhere."
"Amen," said Ted.
"Case in point," Mitch went on. "I used to paralegal with this guy in the city and he decided that he couldn't live without some girl he was seeing. So he told his wife and of course she threw him out. Then the girl changed her mind. She didn't even tell him why. We used to eat lunch together and he would give me the latest installment and I swear to God it was enough to break your heart. He wanted to get back together with his family, but his wife couldn't make up her mind whether to let him. One minute she'd say yes, the next minute she'd say no. Meanwhile he was living in this ratbag on Post Street. All he had in there was lawn furniture. I don't know, I just felt soriy for him. So I told him he could move in with us until things got straightened out."
Mitch stared at the candle. "His name was Raphael. Like the angel. He was creative and good-looking and there was a nice aura around him. I guess I wanted to be his friend. But he turned out to be completely bad news. In the nine months he stayed with us he never once washed a glass or emptied an ashtray. He ran up hundreds of dollars' worth of calls on our phone bill and didn't pay for them. He wrecked my car. He stole things from me. He even put the moves on my wife."
"Classic," Helen said.
"You know what I did about it?" Mitch asked. "I'll tell you. Nothing. I never said a word to him about any of it. By the time he left, my wife couldn't stand the sight of me. Beginning of the end."
"What a depressing story," Helen said.
"I should've killed him," Mitch said. "I might have regretted it later on, but at least I could say I did something."
"You're too sweet," Bliss told him.
"I know," Mitch said. "But I wish I had, anyway. Sometimes it's better to do something really horrendous than just let things slide."
Ted clapped his hands. "Hear, hear. You're on the right track, Mitch. All you need is a few pointers, and old Ted is the veiy man to give them to you. Because where horrendous is concerned I'm the expert. You might say that I'm the king of horrendous."
Helen held up her empty glass. "Anybody want anything?"
"Put on your crash helmets," Ted went on. "You are about to hear my absolute bottom-line confession. The Worst Story Ever Told.'"
"No thanks," said Helen.
He peered at her. "What do you mean 'No thanks.' Who's asking permission?"
"I wouldn't mind hearing it," Mitch said.
"Well I would." Helen stood and looked down at Ted. "It's my birthday party, remember? I just don't feel like sitting around and listening to you talk about what a crud you are. It's a downer."
"That's right," Bliss said. "Helen's the birthday girl. She gets to choose. Right, Ted?"
"I know what," Helen said. "Why don't you tell us something good you did? The thingyou're most proud of."
Mitch burst out laughing. Ted grinned and punched him in the arm.
"I mean it," Helen said.
"Helen gets to choose," Bliss repeated. She patted the floor beside her, and Helen sat down again. "All right," Bliss said. "We're listening."
Ted looked from Bliss to Helen. "I'll do it if you will," he said. "But you have to go first."
"Sounds fair to me," said Mitch. "It was your idea."
Bliss smiled at Helen. "This is fun."
Before Helen began, she sent Ted out to the kitchen for more wine. Mitch did some sit-ups to get his blood moving again. Bliss sat behind Helen and let down Helen's hair. "I could show you something for this dryness," she said. She combed Helen's hair with her fingers, then started to brush it, counting off the strokes in a breathy whisper until Ted came back with the bottle.
They all had a drink.
"Ready and waiting," Ted told Helen. He lay back on the sofa and clasped his hands behind his head.
"One of my mother's friends had a boy with Down syndrome," Helen began. "Actually, three or four of her friends had kids with problems like that. One of my aunts, too. They were all good Catholics and didn't think twice about having babies right into their forties. This was before Vatican Two and the Pill and all that-before everything got watered down.
"Anyway, Tom wasn't really a boy. He was older than me by a couple of years, and a lot bigger. But he seemed like a boy-veiy sweet, very gentle, veiy happy."
Bliss stopped the brush in midstroke and said, "You're going to make me ciy again."
" I used to take care of Tom sometimes when I was in high school. I was into a serious good-works routine back then. I wanted to be a saint. Honestly, I really did. At night, before I went to sleep, I used to put my fingers under my chin like I was praying and smile in this really holy way that I practiced all the time in front of the mirror. Then if they found me dead in the morning they would think I'd gone straight to heaven-that I was smiling at the angels coming to get me. At one point I even thought of becoming a nun."
Bliss laughed. "I can just see you in a habit-Sister Morphine. You'd have lasted about two hours."
Helen turned and looked at Bliss in a speculative way. "It's not something I expect you to understand," she said, "but if I had gone in I would have stayed in. To me, a vow is a vow." She turned away again. "Like I said, I began taking care of Tom as a kind of beatitude number, but after a while I started looking forward to it. Tom was fun to be with. And he really loved me. He even named one of his hamsters after me. We were both crazy about animals, so we'd usually go to the zoo or I'd take him to this stable out in Marin that had free riding lessons for special kids. That was what they called them, instead of handicapped or retarded-special."
"Beautiful," Mitch said.
"Don't get too choked up," Helen told him. "The stoiy isn't over yet." She took a sip of her wine. "So. After I started college I didn't get home all that much, but whenever I did I'd stop by and get Tom and we'd go somewhere. Over to the Cliff House to look at the sea lions, something like that. Then one day I got this real brainstorm. I thought. Hey, why not go whale watching? Tom had whale posters all over his bedroom but he'd never seen a real one, and neither had I. So I called up this outfit in Half Moon Bay and they said it was getting towards the end of the season, but still worth a tiy. They were pretty sure we'd see something.
"Tom's mother wasn't too hot about the idea. She kept going on about the fact that he couldn't swim. But I brought her around, and the next morning Tom and I drove down and got on the boat. It wasn't all that big. In fact it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be, and that made me a little nervous at first, though after we got under way I figured the hell with it-they must know what they're doing. The boat rocked a little, but not dangerously. Tom loved it.
"We cruised around all morning and didn't see a thing. They would take us to different places and cut the engine and we'd sit there, waiting for a whale to come along. I stopped caring. It was nice out on the water. We were with a good bunch of people and one of them fixed up a sort of fishing line for Tom to hangover the side while we waited. I just leaned back and got some sun. Smelled the good smells. Watched the seagulls. After an hour or so they'd start the engine up again and go somewhere else and do the same thing. This happened three or four times. Everybody was kidding the guide about it, threatening to make him walk the plank and so on. Then, right out of nowhere, this whale came up beside us.
"He was just suddenly there. All this water running off his back. This unbelievably rancid smell all around him. Covered with barnacles and shells and long strings of seaweed trailing off him. Big. Maybe half again as long as the boat we were in." Helen shook her head. "You just can't imagine how big he was. He started making passes at the boat, and every time he did it we'd pitch and roll and take on about five hundred gallons of water. We were falling all over each other. At first everyone laughed and whooped it up, but after a while it started to get heavy."
"He was probably playing with you," Mitch said.
"That's what the guide told us the first couple of times it happened. Then he got scared too. I mean, he went white as a sheet. You could tell he didn't know what was happening any better than the rest of us did. We have this idea that whales are supposed to be more civilized than people, smarter and friendlier and more together. Cute, even. But it wasn't like that. It was hostile."
"You probably got a bad one," Mitch said. "It sounds like he was bent out of shape about something. Maybe the Russians harpooned his mate."
"He was a monster," Helen said. "I mean that. He was hostile and huge and he stank. He was hideous too. There were so many shells and barnacles on him that you could hardly see his skin. It looked as if he had armor on. He scraped the boat a couple of times and it made the most terrible sound, like people moaning underwater. He'd swim ahead a ways and go under and you'd think Please God don't let him come back, and then the water would start churning alongside the boat and there he'd be again. It was just terrifying. I've never been so afraid in my life. And then Tom started to lose it."
Bliss put the brush on the floor. Helen could feel her stillness and hear the sound of her breathing.
"He started to make these little noises," Helen said. "I'd never heard him do that before. Little mewing noises. The strange thing was, I hadn't even thought of Tom up to then. I'd completely forgotten about him. So it gave me a shock when I realized he was sitting right next to me, scared half to death. At first I thought. Oh no, what if he goes berserk! He was so much bigger than me I wouldn't have been able to control him. Neither would anyone else. He was incredibly strong. If anyone had tried to hold him down he'd have thrown them off like a dog shakes off water. And then what?
"But the thing that worried me most was that Tom would get so confused and panicky that he'd jump overboard. In my mind I had a completely clear picture of him doing it."
"Me too," Mitch said. "I have the same picture. He did, didn't he? He jumped in and you went after him and pulled him out."
Bliss said, "Ssshhh. Just listen, okay?" "He didn't jump," Helen said. "He didn't go berserk either. Here we come to the point of the story-Helen's Finest Hour. How did I get started on this, anyway? It's disgusting."
The candle hissed and flared. The flame was burning in a pool of wax. Helen watched it flare up twice more, then it died and the room went gray.
Bliss began to rub Helen's back. "Go on," she said.
"I just talked him down," Helen said. "You know, I put my arm around his shoulder and said, 'Hey, Tom, isn't this something! Look at that big old whale! Wow! Here he comes again, Tom, hold on!' And then I'd laugh like crazy. I made like I was having the time of my life, and Tom fell for it. He calmed right down. Pretty soon after that the whale took off and we went back to shore. I don't know why I brought it up. It was just that even though I felt really afraid, I went ahead and acted as if I was flying high. I guess that's the thing I'm most proud of."
"Thank you, Helen," Mitch said. "Thank you for sharing that with us. I know it sounds phony, but I mean it."
"You don't talk about yourself enough," Bliss said. Then she called, "Okay, Ted-your turn."
Ted didn't answer.
Bliss called his name again.
"I think he's asleep," Mitch said. He moved closer to the sofa and looked at Ted. He nodded. "Dead to the world."
"Asleep," Helen said. "Oh, God."
Bliss hugged Helen from behind. "Mitch, come here," she said. "Love circle."
Helen pulled away. "No," she said.
"Why don't we wake him up?" Mitch suggested.
"Forget it," Helen told him. "Once Ted goes under he stays under. Nothing can bring him up. Watch." She went to the sofa, raised her hand, and slapped Ted across the face.
He groaned softly and turned over.
"See?" Helen said.
"What a slug," Bliss said.
"Don't you dare call him names," Helen told her. "Not in front of me, anyway. Ted is my husband. Forever and ever. I only did that to make a point."
Mitch said, "Helen, do you want to talk about this?"
"There's nothing to talk about," Helen answered. "I made my own bed." She hefted the bottle of wine. "Who needs a refill?"
Mitch and Bliss looked at each other. "My energy level isn't too high," Bliss said. Mitch nodded. "Mine's pretty low too."
"Then we'll just have to bring it up," Helen said. She left the room and came back with a candle and a mirror. She screwed the candle into the holder and held a match to the wick. It sputtered, then caught. Helen felt the heat of the flame on her cheek. "There," she said, "that's more like it." Mitch and Bliss drew closer as Helen took a glass vial from her pocket and spilled the contents onto the mirror. She looked up at them and grinned.
"I don't believe this," Bliss said. "Where did you get it?"