Forbes Connolly sat on the front porch of the duplex in the old mill village and looked at the big white moon through the trees across the street and sipped an Old Milwaukee. A citronella candle burned yellow on a small table beside him, positioned in the exact middle of the porch between the two apartments, and Jeoffry the cat lay napping in his lap. He had finished nursing the animal. He had wrapped him gently in a towel to baffle his claws while he carefully dropped the thick, purple antibiotic fluid into the two deep punctures behind Jeoffry's left ear. When he was done, the cat jumped down and batted at the sores with his paw and shook his head rapidly from side to side, then circled and recircled the porch and finally leaped back into Forbes' lap and sat up and stroked his head against Forbes' chin, then turned about once in his lap and lay down.
Forbes had stayed home, to nurse the cat and get high and sip the Old Milwaukee, while the two girls from the other half of the duplex had gone over to the campus to go skinny dipping in the artificial lake. He had fucked one of them the night before, the sad one, Lena, and he was pleased with himself now that he had not had to follow her back over to the school, where he had just left work, and trail after her everywhere. He had gotten high instead and listened to the record of T. S. Eliot reading The Waste Land that he had brought home from the library. He listened to the half-sung poetry and, stoned, he understood it. He do the police in different voices. Now he sat on the porch, pleased with himself and drinking a beer, and the other record, Beowulf in old English, played behind him, a chanting and a harp carrying out on the cooling air of the summer night: thear was hearpan sway, swiotul sang scopus.
And he thought about Jessie waiting tables at the beach in New Jersey, and he felt guilty about Lena, but he thought that it was wrong to feel guilty about it and thought that he had always looked at things like that in the wrong way, some guilty bourgeois way, and he thought that he might not have fucked her at all if he had not been so drunk. He could not remember now how many beers he had had by the time she joined him on the porch with her bottle of sweet Greek wine and the two glasses and began to talk, or how many he had had, along with the wine, by the time she said, "Let's go for a walk," but he remembered that it had been very late, that actually it had been very early in the morning, and that he had not been able to walk very far up the street into the poor suburb and that he had stopped and said, "I can't walk any farther." She had stopped and looked at him and looked over his shoulder at the moon and stood still with the moon shining white in her face, and her all white in a white t shirt and white gym shorts with purple piping down the sides. She was very close, she had been close to him all the while, he had brushed against her, touching her arm as they walked, and he could smell her faint scent of some kind of flower, and she stood still in the moonlight, waiting for him, so he kissed her. And she had kissed him back, she had been waiting for it, she kissed him deeply and hard, she tasted sweet from the wine, and she pushed her whole body against his until he had dropped his beer to free his hand and caress her while she lifted her leg and stroked his outer thigh with the bare inside of her own. He did not know how long they embraced, standing before the moonlit white and yellow houses, but when they broke apart they both turned and walked back to the duplex and straight into his bedroom at the back, Lena undressing as she went, stopping in the doorway of the bedroom and crossing her arms before her and taking the hem of her t shirt in her hands and sweeping it beautifully off over her head, then going inside and bending out of her shorts and lying down on the bare mattress in the corner and waiting for him.
He had lain down on top of her and held her from behind with her breasts in his hands, and she had made love awkwardly and begun to cry just as she came, and scared him into thinking he had hurt her, but she shook her head No and said, "Don't stop, don't stop," coming desperately, and, later, he had asked her if she were a virgin. She just looked at him then and nuzzled into his shoulder and lay there against him warmly until she finally fell asleep.
Now he sat on the porch listening to Beowulf and pleased with himself because he had done what came naturally to him rather than follow her over to the school and do something he did not want to do, take off his clothes in front of other people and go skinny dipping, just because she had fucked him, and thinking also about Jessie, and thinking he had two women at once now, he had never had two at once before, and feeling cocky, stripped to his cutoffs and cool in the evening with his feet up on the porch railing and sipping the Old Milwaukee and glad he had not signed up for summer school this year but had gotten the library job instead and could just relax now and take it a day at a time and listen to Eliot chanting despair and listen to the singer and the harp and have two at once and just sip the Old Milwaukee.
The girls were not gone long. "That was quick," he said to Lena as she came up the front steps.
"Yes," she said, leaning back against the porch railing opposite him and crossing her legs. "The campus cops showed up, so we had to make it short."
"You should have come along," she said. Her long black hair curled wetly around her face and shoulders and her nipples showed through her damp red t shirt that said Folly Beach Follies in yellow script at an angle across her breasts. Her cutoffs were wet from the inside out.
"I'm a drinker, not a dancer," he said.
"You dance all right," she said, and flung her wet hair backward in a way that threw out her chest. She slid down the porch railing to sit on the floor at his feet.
The other girl, Karen, smiled at them from the porch steps. "Weird," she said. Water dripped from the ends of her long red hair. "Who's dancing?"
Forbes looked at her wet body through her clothes. She was round everywhere with no angles to her. She was smart and whole and wholesome and naturally drawn to the natural. She smoked dope and slept around a little, he knew from school, but she was peaches and cream, a glowing complexion with perfect white teeth and a B.S. in biology and could name all the trees in the forest, had sat on the porch the day she and Lena had moved in and told him that the plant beside the railing was a ligustrum, "You can name things," he had said, delighted, and she nodded, "That's a ligustrum," she said, fingering a small oval leaf and lifting a dull white blossom to smell it. She was waiting tables now, but she had a teaching job starting in the fall, if she didn't go back to school, she had a chance at that, too, and could not make up her mind.
So that she had her problems, but they were reasonable problems, not the kind that put you in a hospital and made you into a twenty-four-year-old sophomore and eluded you down the years like a mystery without a detective, not the kind of problems that made you sad all the time, like Lena, who sat now at Forbes' feet against the porch railing, smiling up at him a little smile, with her legs crossed, who cried when she came and whispered something about her mother in her sleep.
He looked down at her now, and she looked back at him, he had fucked her and she had told no one, it was their private thing together between them. Karen went inside and brought out her lid and sat on the other side of the candle and rolled a joint one-handed, and Forbes looked down at Lena and thought it had been the talk with her the night before that had done it, that was why he fucked her, because her talk, sitting on the porch steps with her bottle of wine, had been not at all like Jessie's big wide-eyed gee-whiz when he talked, but had kept up with him, she had understood every word he said, so that her listening and her replies had reached him, while she drank her wine and leaned back against the porch railing, and let him see her body, the same way, he thought, she sat now at his feet in her clinging damp clothes and let him see it again. He had said, "Hamlet is about consciousness, I realized that when I was in the hospital, getting the electroshocks," and she had nodded and smiled slightly and said "Yes," in time with him, and completed it for him, "He comes to consciousness in five acts," so she had made him not-alone, had dispelled the air in which he had always been alone, even with Jessie, since he had left the hospital the year before, that was how she fucked, he thought, and now he smiled at her and she smiled back up at him from his feet, she auditioned for it.
Karen lit the joint and passed it to him and went inside to put some music on her stereo, and the sounds drifted back out with her onto the porch with just the small yellow circle from the citronella candle for light, and Forbes drank his Old Milwaukee and looked at Lena and waited.
They went into Forbes' half of the duplex after Karen went to bed, they sat on his sofa and smoked some more dope and listened to Eliot chant in the light from the moon and the street lamps while the cat circled the room around them, cleared the territory, and settled down in the easy chair to sleep. "Yeats is like that, too," said Lena. "He sings it," and she lifted her head high, sitting beside him with her legs folded under her, and she sang out, I will arise now and go now, and go to Innisfree.
He watched her breasts rise and fall as she sang, and he knew that she also had waited patiently for Karen to leave them alone, and he knew that she would fuck him again if he wanted to, and he wanted to, because he could. He thought that he would fuck her just one more time and then quit, because fucking her gave him a guilty feeling afterward, and he did not like that. He liked, instead, the shared secret feeling that he had with her about the fucking, that he could fuck her and she would never tell, Jessie would come back in the fall and she would never know, unless he told her, and he would never tell her, because what he had with Lena was not real, like what he had with Jessie was real, what he had with Lena was secret and hidden in the night after everyone had gone away.
Eliot said, My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
She scooped some more of his dope into the pipe from the baggie on the coffee table and she lit it and sucked hard on it, he watched her, he said, "You like to get fucked up, don't you?"
She held the smoke and looked at him and passed him the pipe and ran her tongue out over her lips. He took it and drew easily on it and coughed a little, then drank some Old Milwaukee. She exhaled the smoke and said, "I like to get high. That's what this does," and she gestured at the stereo, at the poetry.
He nodded, and he smoked a little more of the dope, then handed the pipe back to her. He said, "I like to get high and try to read."
She nodded. "I read poetry then."
He shook his head. "No," he said. "I try to read philosophy, history. Novels."
She said, "That's too much to keep together. Why get stoned, just to keep it together?"
He shrugged. He said, "That's what I like to do."
"You're funny," she said.
"You're funny, too," he said. "Do you always cry when you come?"
She looked at him. She said, "Only when it's good." She lay her hand on top of his, and they sat looking at each other for a moment.
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag --
It's so elegant
They fucked again, there on the sofa, and this time she did not cry, he said, "Wasn't it good?"
"Yes," she said, and lay back against the arm of the sofa and held her red t shirt between her breasts.
He said, "You didn't cry." He sat up at the other end of the sofa and lit a cigarette. The moonlight and the streetlight swept through the open door and across the room. The cat lay sleeping.
She said, "Do you want to make me cry?"
He looked at her. He said, "Yes."
"Why?" she said.
"Because I can," he said.
She looked at him. "Yes, you can," she said.
"What's with your mother?" he said.
"My mother?" she said. She sat up and reached toward him. "Give me a cigarette," she said.
He passed her the one he was smoking and lit another for himself. She said, "What about my mother?"
"Last night, in your sleep, you were talking to her."
"Was I?" She drew on the cigarette and blew a ring of smoke. "What did I say?" she said.
He shrugged. "I couldn't hear. But you said mother several times."
"I don't know," she said. "What about your mother?"
He shrugged again. "I don't have much to do with either of my parents."
She nodded. "I thought not," she said.
"Why?" he said.
"Because you're alone all the time."
He looked at her. Her body was white in the light from the moon and the sodium lamps along the street, and the red of the t shirt was black against her skin and her nipples were dark circles and her lips a dark smear across her face where he had messed her lipstick. He put his hand out and touched her right breast, he felt the nipple grow hard beneath his touch and he took it between his fingers and squeezed it slightly. She put her hand on his. She said, "I'm alone all the time, too."
He said, "What do you do about it?"
"I fuck," she said.
"And you cry when you come."
"When it's good."
"What was so good about last night?"
"I had waited for it for a long time."
His hand moved down to her side and she let it go. He said, "I didn't know."
She shook her head, she brushed at her hair. "Now you know," she said. She sat up and put the cigarette out and slid her cutoffs on. She stretched tall as she pulled the t shirt on. She looked at him and said, "Does it make a difference?"
Her face was white as the moon and her hair was raven black and curled around her eyes and lips. He stood up and pulled on his cutoffs. He sat down again and drew on his cigarette. He said, "Yes."
She looked at him, and she took the cigarette from him and finished it. She got up and went to his desk and opened another pack from the carton that sat on the end of it. Jessie's picture was there, she smiled, all tanned and blond and white teeth and red lips. She looked at the picture for a moment, and he watched her looking.
She came back to him and put a cigarette in her mouth and leaned down to him and said, "Light me, please," and he struck the Zippo for her, the flame burst brightly in the room and the cat sat up suddenly, alert.
She stood up straight and blew smoke in a long thin line in the shadows. She turned and stepped out onto the porch. She let the screen door close softly behind her. Forbes looked out the door after her. She stood in the moonlight with the cigarette burning and she ran a hand through her hair.
"Yes?" he said. He sipped on Old Milwaukee.
"It was Beethoven. Piano sonatas. It was an FM station."
"She likes Beethoven."
Lena shook her head. "She doesn't know shit about music, but she knows what's good. She's that way, she has quality."
He sat looking at her.
She said, "I almost cried tonight."
He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair and smiled at her.
She said, "Every time with you is the last time."
"Is it?" he said.
"When is Jessie coming back?" she said.
He looked at her. He said, "September. Six or seven weeks."
She blew smoke from her cigarette. She said again, "Every time with you is the last time."
"Does that make it good?"
"It almost makes me cry."
"You want me to cry."
"Yes." He looked at her steadily.
"Does Jessie cry?"
"You've never talked about her before," he said. "Why now?"
"I just wondered," she said. She blew more smoke. "What would you do for me if I cried for you again?"
He shook his head. "Nothing," he said.
She looked at him. "That's true," she said.
He said, "She's coming back, you know."
"I don't care," she said. "It doesn't make anything different now."
"What does make a difference?"
"You want me to cry, and I won't."
"Why did you quit school?" he said.
"You don't care," she said. "You just want me to cry."
"I care," he said. "Why did you quit?"
"Because it doesn't make anything different."
"Beethoven." She put her cigarette out and lit another. The cello played low, from the stereo, and the piano graced the bass line with eighteenth century elegance.
"Something's got to make a difference," he said.
"This," she said. She sat in the corner of the sofa, with her legs crossed and the smoke rising straight up into the darkness from her cigarette.
"This." He looked at her from the other end, holding his beer and smoking.
"Making love makes a difference," she said.
"Making love," he said, and he thought about it. "What if it's just fucking?"
"It still makes a difference," she said.
He looked over at his desk, at Jessie's picture, he could barely see her in the shadows, and he thought about the ways she made love to him, how she was different from Lena, and Lena from her, and how they were the same. They were the same in the vaguely anxious feeling he always had after he had made love, a soft fear that crept over the good feeling of cleanness and strength, an emptiness that made him start talking to fill it in, in the darkness, asking questions about what made a difference, thinking.
And he was thinking now, and he thought he understood the difference the fucking made to her, if only for a moment. He turned back to her and reached for her down the length of the sofa, and his hand found the inside of her thigh and he squeezed it softly and he lay down with his head in her lap, and she ran a hand through his hair, and she whispered, "See?"
"I told you," he said and he looked at her black hair curling down her back in the light from the street lamps, he looked at her shape in the shadows. "September."
"You never told me if she cries."
"She doesn't cry."
"You would love her better if she cried."
He blew smoke and said nothing. She said, "You don't love me."
"No," he said. He said it immediately.
She said, "Would you love me if I killed myself for you?" He could hear the fine, sarcastic smile in her voice.
"No," he said. He would not let her do it.
She smoked her cigarette. She said, "I'll have to kill myself for someone else, then."
"Yes," he said. And he smiled, too. "Let me help you pick them out."
"I'll kill myself for Jessie," she said.
"That might actually work," he said.
"What does that mean?"
"She might actually believe it."
She laughed. She said, "You wouldn't believe it?"
"People don't kill themselves for anyone," he said. "I know about killing yourself."
"That's right, you've done it, haven't you?"
"I've been crazy," he said.
"I'm crazy," she said, and she looked at him over her shoulder.
He sat up and turned and put his feet on the floor.
"I am," she said, and she got up and crossed the room to the stereo. She bent down and thumbed through the records stacked and leaning against the wall.
"All right," he said. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Nothing," she said, and she picked one record out of the stack. She held it up and looked at the cover in the half light, Miles Davis blew a trumpet, she stood up and put it on. He recognized it, a blues, "So What?" She turned and looked across the room at him. She said, "Is Jessie crazy?"
"No," he shook his head.
"I didn't think so," she said. She came back to the sofa and sat in the corner opposite him. She said, "I am going to kill myself, you know."
"Yes," he said, "I know." But he did not know. He reached to the coffee table for his beer and drank some. It was warm.
She put out her cigarette and lit another and smoked it and sat with her head down, listening to the music.
He said, "Does this blues make a difference?"
She sat still for a moment. Then she shook her head no.
He said, "Nothing makes a difference?"
She said, "Fucking."
He said, "Fucking makes a difference."
She nodded. "While we do it," she said.
He said, "You want me to love you." It was not a question. He was figuring it out.
She smoked her cigarette. She looked at him. She said, "I don't ask you to love me. You know that."
"Why don't you ask me?" he said.
"It's too complicated," she said.
"When are you going to kill yourself?" he said.
"Why?" she said, looking at him. "Are you going to be there to stop me?"
He turned away from her and put out his cigarette. He said, "You pulled this stuff on the people at school, didn't you?" He looked down the sofa at her.
"All of this. Nothing makes a difference and you're going to kill yourself."
She looked away from him.
"Yeah, well, I've been crazy," he said. He lit another cigarette. He felt like the fire from the lighter, he felt like the sharp clear metallic clicking sound it made. He wanted to hurt her. He wanted to hurt her really. He sat back with the cigarette and he said, "If you want to do it, do it. You wouldn't tell me about it unless you wanted me to do something. So what do you want me to do?"
She sat back on the sofa and stared out into the room. She put the cigarette to her lips and drew on it and blew smoke.
He said, "What do you want me to do?"
She said, "I want you to tell me about the electric shock."
He said, "What?"
"The hospital you were in," she said and she leaned over to the coffee table and put the cigarette out half-smoked. "I want you to tell me about the hospital."
He looked at her. Her body was white in the darkness, her hair curled black down her neck and across her breasts. He smoked the cigarette and looked at her.
She looked back at him. "Tell me," she said. "Please."
He said, "They wake you up at six in the morning and give you a shot of insulin."
She said, "My mother takes insulin for her diabetes."
"If you don't have diabetes, insulin makes you hungry. You eat two breakfasts. They like that, a hearty, healthy breakfast."
She said, "I can see how they would."
He smoked the cigarette. "Then the next day, they wake you up at eight and they don't let you eat at all, because they give you the shock, and you'd lose your breakfast if you had any."
"Tell me about the shock."
"They put you under with a shot of pentothal first."
"Does it make you high?"
"Yes," he said. "For a split second just before you go under, the smell of the pentothal fills your nostrils and your whole body shoots up high, right off the bed."
"Then you go under."
"What happens then?"
"You wake up around eleven. You have contact gel in your hair, you wash your hair, you take a shower."
"And that's it?"
"Then the next day, you eat a hearty, healthy breakfast again. And they do you that way for six months or so."
"Then you're not depressed anymore."
"Not at all?"
He shook his head. "It goes away."
"It just goes away," she said. She made a small motion with her open hand.
"It comes back," he said.
She said nothing for a moment, then nodded her head. "I believe it," she said.
"There were people in the hospital who'd had it done three or four times."
"I couldn't do that," she said.
"Neither could I," he said.
She looked at him. "What do you do when it comes back?"
He looked at her. He shrugged. "You feel it," he said. "You go on anyway."
She shook her head a little. She looked away.
"You have to go on," he said. He watched her. He saw her head shake slightly. He said, "You have to."
She turned slowly away from him and rested her elbows on the arm of the sofa and rested her head in her hands. He looked at her and he put his cigarette out and moved down the sofa to her and put his hands on her hips and held them there a moment, then moved them gently forward and down between her legs as he leaned over her and began to kiss her down her neck and shoulders, down her back and side. She lifted her head and she took his arms by the wrists and moved them up across her body, across her belly and over her breasts to her face. She lowered her face into his hands and she began silently to cry. He felt the tears wet his palms and fingers, and he drew her back into him and he lay them both down together and he kissed her.
She lay beside him on his sofa. She lay on her side and traced along his hairline and down his face with a finger. The cat Jeoffry napped in the easy chair across the room, stirring every few moments to look at them, then nap again. The stereo played at a low volume, the singer sang mutedly, Sail away! Sail away! We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay!
She said, "To my parents'."
"Why?" he said.
"My mother is having surgery."
"Really?" He leaned over to the coffee table and got his beer and drank some. He put it back and got a cigarette and lit it.
She waited on him. Then she said, "They're amputating her left leg."
"Jesus," he said. "What happened?"
"She has diabetes."
"Diabetes does that?"
"It affects your circulation."
"Jesus, I never knew that."
"Yes," she said, and she took the cigarette from him to finish it. "Can you give me a lift to the bus station?"
"Sure," he said. He looked at her. "Where is home, anyway?"
"Is that all?" he said. "I can drive you to Spartanburg."
"You don't have to."
"It's all right. It's not even an hour."
"I'll be fine on the bus."
"No. Buses are too depressing."
"Are you sure you want to?" she said. She ran her fingers through his hair.
"Yes." he said. "When do you want to go?"
"The surgery is Friday."
"We'll go tomorrow, then. Can you get off work?"
"I told them today."
"Then it's set," he said, and he reached again to the coffee table and drank some more of his beer.
He looked at her and she shivered, the words formed of themselves in his mind, Hack her to pieces, and he looked at her. She wore a skirt today, flowered with red, black, and white flowers, and a white peasant blouse, and the skirt rode high up and bared her legs, he looked at the white skin through the hose and he saw the scalpel tear across it, he smelled the alcohol and the sweet, close, vaguely fetid stench of hospital rooms, while the music played on the car radio, If you feel like china breaking, if you feel like laughing.
She rolled the car window completely down and leaned her head against the door frame and breathed deeply through her open mouth. He looked at her, her mouth was red and round and her eyes were lost-looking, the way she was when she came. The wind caught her hair and blew it about her face and neck, traces of it clung to the summer sweat of her face like a torn veil. He looked at her breasts as she sighed for air and at her white hands folded weakly in her lap, and he wanted to fuck her, with a sharp and immediate pang of shame that he should want her now, in such a situation, but he saw beneath her clothes, her white body naked and her crying eyes, in his secret mind, secret from her, and savage feelings ran freely through him as he drove and listened to the music and watched her suffer, huge and free and strong and cruel and merciful and abundant, until they frightened him and he forced them aside with a cigarette and more gas to the engine.
He went into the hospital with her. It was hospital green and brightly lit in the hallways with rooms on either side full of shadows behind partially closed doors. She lingered an instant on the threshold of her mother's room and he read the name card, Ellen Mooreson - Dr. Wicher, then she pushed the door open and led him in.
The two women had the same hair, jet black and curling the way it did on actresses in World War II romances. But the mother was wasted and small in the enormous hospital bed cranked up behind her for watching television, a game show turned low that still kept breaking into the conversation. Her dinner tray sat on a rolling platform at the foot of the bed, half-eaten and done, and Forbes smelled the hospital food, cold chuck steak and succotash. The father sat in a stuffed chair in the corner beyond the bed, balding, white-haired, and overweight and old and silent, nodding to his daughter and rising to shake Forbes' hand and thank him for bringing her.
"Certainly," said Forbes.
The old man sat again and let his eyes fix slowly on the television. The remote control lay on the arm of the chair beside his hand.
"How are you, honey?" said the mother.
Lena said, "I'm all right."
"That's good." The mother nodded. Her withered hands lay across each other on her lap. Each leg lay distinctly under the covers. Her face was lined gently and her lips were still like Lena's, full and a little pouty naturally, with the faintest suggestion of spoiled sensuality. The old man coughed and re-settled himself in the chair. The television shouted in a whisper: "Come on down!"
"Where's Hobie?" said Lena.
"He had to work tonight," said the mother.
The father spoke: "He'll be by after nine."
"Yes." The mother smoothed the blanket in her lap. "But I'm supposed to be asleep by ten. They're giving me a sleeping pill."
"When," Lena started, and then re-started: "when is the surgery?"
"Six-thirty in the morning," said the mother.
The father spoke: "Dr. Wicher got her a surgeon named Carlisle."
"Dr. Wicher says he's very good," said the mother.
And the father: "He's good."
"Dr. Wicher would know," said Lena.
"Now our last big winner picked door number two -- are you sure you want to do the same?"
Forbes touched Lena lightly on her arm. "I'm going to get a cigarette."
He stepped from the room. He stood in the hall a moment, then took the elevator down to the lobby and lit up on his way out to the car. He got in and sat for a moment, smoking and fiddling with the radio, trying to find a station. He reached behind the seat skillfully and pulled loose an Old Milwaukee from the six pack he had bought on the way out of Greenville. The lukewarm beer foamed out of the can when he popped it, and it tasted cheap and strong, but he drank long from it anyway, and then he had a second one, relaxing and smoking another cigarette.
He thought of the women in the hospital room, of the old man and himself, and he wondered why he had come. He thought of the way he had felt in the car and the way he had wanted her, and the timing of his urge troubled him and he wondered what was wrong with him, what had happened to him that left him so out of synch.
He had wondered it before. He could see the picture still from the family album, a little boy under a linden tree down beside a riverbank, and he whispered the caption, On the Rhine, and he whispered to himself, "We were on the Rhine," and he looked out the window of the car at the sky, blue and white over everything, and he wondered where he had lost what the little boy had had, there beside the river in his own skin, like the river itself, like the trees. Where had the deep doubt first come and cast its shadow, and why? When had he first asked himself whether what was he was doing was right, and how and why he did it, when had he begun the long effort to know himself to pieces, when had he started thinking?
He did not drink more than the two beers, because he had to drive, so he saved the rest for later and sat a while longer smoking another cigarette and trying to find a decent radio station. Then he looked at his watch and took a breath mint from the roll that lay in the tray behind the stick shift and got out of the car and went back into the hospital and back up to the room.
At the house, he played music on the stereo while Lena made him a sandwich in the kitchen. It was one of Lena's albums, Glenn Gould Plays Beethoven Sonatas. He put it on and adjusted the volume and wandered into the kitchen. She was working beside the sink, slicing bread for sandwiches on a chopping board with a butcher knife.
"Is that homemade?" he said.
"Yes," she said.
He watched her work. The knife sawed smoothly through the pale brown block, and again, and again. He saw that she was crying, and he went to her and put his hand on hers to stop her and he said, "It's all right."
She let loose the knife, it slipped from the counter to the floor at her feet, and she blinked her eyes to clear the tears away and it did no good, and she turned to him and said, "I'm crying for you now."
"You want me to cry for you." She leaned toward him, begging, her shoulders bent toward him, and he looked down at her breasts, he said, "Yes."
She said, "You like to hurt me."
His right hand shot out and slapped her hard, she rocked back from the blow, he said, "Fuck you, Lena."
She looked at him. She said, "It's all right. I want you to like it."
She bent and picked up the butcher knife.
He said, "Give me that."
She said nothing, standing before him, her lip split and bleeding a little, the knife held loosely in her hand. "It's not all right." She shook her head. "Nothing's all right."
He took the knife and lay it on the counter.
"It's not all right," she said again, her hands rising to her face to brush the tears away.
"You know what I meant," he said.
"I know what you meant." She pushed past him into the living room. He followed her, stopping in the doorway. Gould played Beethoven softly, alone. She stood before a picture window facing the empty suburban street, crumbling upon herself with crying, wringing her hands together and straining to speak.
"There was someone here once," she said to the room around her. "There was a person here." He crossed the room to her. She turned to him and shook her head and tears fell free from her cheeks. Her hands opened and closed in the air before her. He reached for them and took them in his own and held them together like little injured birds. "You don't know what happened," she said. "You don't know what she's done."
He took her arms in his hands, then put his arms around her and held her close while she cried. "What has she done?" he said.
Her head fell back and she cried and the words came out of her white throat trembling singly, ordered and one at a time. "She lay down to die a piece at a time." She pulled away from him and hid her face in her fists. "Oh, Jesus!" she said.
"Sit down," he said. He reached for her and took her lightly by the arms and led her to the sofa against the wall. "Sit down with me."
She sat with her face in her hands, and he sat next to her with one arm around her shoulders and his other hand touching her arm. He sat still and quiet for a while, and when her crying seemed to subside he said, "Tell me what you mean."
Her hands fell from her face. "That's what she did, don't you see? She has diabetes, she has bad circulation. She stopped living. She lay down and she turned on the television and she didn't get up any more, and she's -- do you realize what's happened? She has atrophied. Now do you understand?"
His hands fell from her slowly. "Yes," she nodded. She sat back. She held her hands in her lap and she stared down at the colored magazines and the ashtray on the coffee table before the sofa.
He sat forward and he put his face in his hands. He rubbed his temples and his eyes. His stomach felt empty and he wanted a drink. He shook his head slightly from side to side, as if he were trying to shake aside what she had told him. He whispered, "I'm sorry." He heard her sigh. "I'm sorry I hit you."
"It's all right," she said.
He said, "What do you want me to do?"
She said nothing for a moment. Then she said, "Stay with me."
After a while, the sun went down. They did not turn on the lights. She sat beside him on the sofa and he put his arm around her and said again, "I'm sorry I hit you," and he began to kiss her. Slowly he undid her blouse. He stopped when he had bared her breasts to hold them in his hands, and he kissed them again and again. She looked down at him and stroked his hair with one hand while she held him with the other and she wept softly, evenly, and she whispered through her peaceful tears, "Thank you."
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