I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
From the bed where she lay with her feet propped up on a pillow, Jill could see out into her garden, now in its most lavish aspect, and beyond, over the hedge to the Binghams’s lawn, on which their white house floated. It looked as pristine and enigmatic as a freshly-ironed dress, but only two days before, someone had forced the lock on the door while the Binghams were out, and had raged in, appropriating some of their possessions and leaving others in ruins.
“We should have invited them tonight,” Jill said.
“The Binghams?” Nicholas said. “We never invite the Binghams.”
Nicholas, just out of the shower, was wrapped in the most beautiful, soft robe. As he walked by the window the last shining strokes of sunlight fractured around him as though he were an emissary from some wholly harmonious universe, and Jill was newly abashed by his perfection. But right behind him, across the lawn, the Binghams, previously so hale and confident, were falling at this very moment—turning and turning in bottomless space. Jill steadied herself, rubbing her cheek against Nick’s robe as he sat down next to her. “It’s just that I dropped over to see them after work today. They seemed so shaken. Really, we should make a gesture …”
“But we couldn’t exactly invite them now, could we?” Nick pinched a lock of Jill’s yellow hair into a little switch and brushed at her face with it. “If you want, you can … bring them a casserole.”
Nick said it to amuse her, Jill knew, but occasionally she would be overcome by an actual little terror that he really did yearn for something beyond their enveloping domesticity, that he might simply disappear one day back into the city, the palace of steel and glass that rose above the lake, bright blowy evening and nights dense with reflections and murmurs.
The city. As a child, Jill had driven in with her mother, to go to one of the stately old department stores, or to a matinee when the ballet came to town. She always wore one of her nicest dresses then, and Mary Janes with white knee socks. “Lock your door, Jill,” her mother would say, and at that moment the earth seemed to become transparent, and they would drive towards its center, penetrating worlds and then worlds. When they re-emerged on the surface, which was settled on a human scale with houses and shrubs and newly-covered driveways, her mother would draw in her breath deeply, and the road would heal up behind them and become opaque. But later, the hidden day would emit around Jill the troubling light of a dream, and she could see herself and her mother sitting across from one another in the wood-panelled restaurant that smelled deliciously of rolls; she could see how they’d watched from the red plush seats as tiny figures spun and trembled on the distant stage, how they’d driven without stopping by sidewalks that glittered with glass and heat where congregations of thin black people sat on stoops fanning themselves and staring with inturned concentration and then along lakeside boulevards where the very rich strolled in the breeze and mild sun.
“Don’t go away,” Jill said, reaching as Nick stood.
He smiled and disengaged himself “So, who are we tonight?” he said, disappearing into the dressing room.
“No one exciting, I’m afraid,” she said. “Bud and Amanda. Kitsy and Owen.”
“No one exciting!” he said. “Had you not realized that Kitsy has ensnared Bud?”
“Nick, no.” Jill frowned. “What makes you think such a thing?”
“A deep source,” Nick said. “No, but after all—subtlety is hardly Kitsy’s strong suit.”
“What is it about me?” Jill said. “I never see these things.”
“You,” Nick said, “are not meant to see such things.”
Jill surveyed her distant toes for a moment. “Poor old Owen. Poor Amanda. Anyhow,” she said, “I don’t believe it.” Jill never believed the intermittent tales about Kitsy. She suspected that people made them up simply because Kitsy was so irresistibly unlikely a subject of the stormy infatuations and disappointments to which she was rumored to be susceptible. And Kitsy and Bud! No, impossible.”
“Poor Amanda?” Nick said. “Is that what I heard you say? ‘Poor Amanda’? Poor Owen, yes. And poor Bud—obviously he’s only obliged Kitsy in order to get some response for ‘Poor Amanda.’ But you watch—Poor Amanda won’t even do Bud the courtesy of being jealous.”
“Oh, dear. Well, in any case—” Jill sat up slowly, appearing in the mirror behind Nick. “I suppose I should go downstairs and see how things are going.” Was it the light, or were there circles under her eyes?
Nick concentrated on the mirror, toweling his wet hair. “The thing is, Amanda’s problem is that she considers herself to be irresistible.”
“Well, she is very beautiful,” Jill said, letting herself lie back again into the square of sunlight that spilled over the pillow, “as even you must admit. And I think you’re hard on her. She loves Bud, in her own way.”
“I wouldn’t absolutely count on that if I were you,” Nick said, but he turned from the mirror to smile directly at her.
Jill really did like Amanda, and so, she was sure, did Nick. Nonetheless, it was partly for the pleasure of Nick’s protests that she would praise Amanda, whom she had known ever since Amanda had arrived, the new girl in Jill’s 6th grade class, from California, the golden place where people’s fathers went when they got divorced. Amanda, equipped with bright loops of hair and an amazing charm bracelet, had been immediately and steadily the center of attention, and even then, her calm, puzzled stare of displeasure had been a terrible thing.
“Oh, and Susan and Lyle are coming,” Jill said. “Is that better, or worse?”
“That’s good,” Nick said, returning his attention to his hair. “I like them. And it’s fun to be charming to Susan.”
“Nick, that’s wicked. You know it makes her uncomfortable.”
“It doesn’t,” Nick said. “Why?”
“Because,” Jill said, and stopped. It amused Nick, she knew, that she considered her Jewish friend exotic.
“Because why?” Nick said.
“Because she’s—oh, you know Susan. I mean she’s so … intelligent,” Jill said, and was rewarded as Nick exploded in laughter and gathered her up.
“You’re wonderful,” he said. “Do you know that? You’re perfect.” And Jill tingled with a sheepish pride, like a child who has fortuitously performed some clever act. “By the way,” Nick said, stepping back to study her, “how are you feeling?”
“Fine,” she said. Although actually, she noticed, she was feeling rather queasy. “Much better.”
There had been no need, after all, for Jill to check on anything in the kitchen, where Roo had everything completely in hand.
“Dressing—” Jill said. “Should I make some?”
“All done,” Roo said.
“And the silver?” Jill said.
“Everything’s done, Mrs. Douglas,” Roo said.
Four years earlier, when Roo had come to work, Jill had asked to be called by her first name, but Roo had simply, magically, caused the suggestion to vanish. Although the small formality had come to appear to Jill an implicit and constant antagonism, at the time she had hardly noticed—she had been far too grateful to have someone in the house who could take care of things so marvelously well.
It was Amanda who had arranged it. Jill had been about to have Joshua, but she hadn’t wanted to leave work, and she had interviewed, she told Amanda, full scores of half-wits and psychopaths. Then, one week before Joshua was due, Amanda called. “Lucky Jill,” she said. “I’ve got something for you.”
Subsequently, Amanda had not only become further involved with Roo but had involved herself with Roo’s family as well. Amanda had helped out financially when Roo had her own baby, James, two years ago, and Amanda had helped Roo’s sister May get into a nurse’s training program. Moreover, Amanda successfully waged an ongoing campaign to shame the entire neighborhood into providing odd jobs for Roo’s older brother, Dwayne, though he was too passive and defeated, Jill thought, to do a decent job of anything, even were he not taking drugs. And so, suppose she were to go completely insane and fire Roo because she couldn’t stand the tension, Jill had several times reminded herself, the fact was she would have to answer to Amanda.
Happy shouts floated into the kitchen from the yard. Jill went to the window and saw Joshua and James working away with paper and crayons in the back yard, under the casual supervision of Katrina, who lay next to them, sunbathing. “It sounds like the boys are having fun,” Jill said.
Roo relented and smiled.
“I think I’ll go out and inspect,” Jill said. She hoped Roo didn’t think her own little smile was cowardly.
“Joshua is making a portrait,” Katrina said, shading her eyes from the late glare and smiling up at Jill. She pulled up the straps of her inadequate bathing suit and sat up. Jill looked away for an instant. If she were that girl’s mother, she thought, and then remembered that Katrina’s mother was someone far away. “What is your picture, Joshua?” Katrina said.
“Mommy,” Joshua said, without looking up. He was absorbed, or so it seemed, in his drawing, and Jill obligingly bent over to admire it: yellow crayon hair, round blue crayon eyes, pink crayon cheeks—it could have been a drawing of Nick’s idea of her. “How pretty, darling.” And what a dazzling little boy Joshua was; how exactly like Nick. “Thank you.”
“This is a picture of you, Mommy,” Joshua insisted with academic clarity.
“And what about James?” Jill bent down over James’s squiggle-covered paper, and James looked up at her wide-eyed. He was so dark—much darker than Roo. “What is that, James?” she said.
“Mommy … ?” James said. He looked at Joshua, who did not respond.
Jill resisted a potent impulse to pick James up. Her new baby would be—she was sure of it—much more approachable than Joshua, sweetly dependent, and cozy.
“That’s mine—” Joshua yelled, grabbing for a crayon that James had casually reached for, and James started to wail as the crayon split in two.
“Joshua,” Jill said. “You’ve frightened James.”
“He broke it.” Joshua’s face was bare with outrage. “It was mine. I was using it, and he took it.”
“It will work just as well like that,” Jill said. “Look—poor James. He’s frightened.”
Joshua stared at her. “This is really not fair,” he announced.
“Look, Joshua—” Katrina said. “Look at that little animal in the tree! What is that called? Look, look, look—” And Joshua did look while Katrina picked up James, who was now bellowing with sorrow.
It was too complex, Jill thought as she returned inside, it was too difficult. How could Joshua be expected to know how to behave or to feel? And James—surely it couldn’t be good for James. Of course Jill wanted the boys to be together on an entirely equal basis, but there could be no pretending that their situation was identical—how could there be? With Roo working in the house? It would be transparently false of her to pretend such a thing, and therefore unsettling to both the boys.
Yet even as it was, she felt that she seemed to be in the wrong about something, and that no matter what she did—since things would necessarily remain unsatisfactory in one way or another—it would still seem to be she who was in the wrong. But what more could she do? Every action, every thought, was fastidious. Yet it was as if they were engaged in some secret war, the terms of which were known only to Roo. Well, she was just going to have to speak frankly, she decided, as she stepped into the kitchen. “Roo—” she said.
“Yes, Mrs. Douglas,” Roo said, but the blood that was crashing in Jill’s ears drowned out her thought.
“I don’t know what I was about to say,” she said. “Isn’t that silly? Oh—in any case, I tried to think of anything I might need Dwayne for, but I’m afraid I don’t have anything right now.”
Roo didn’t glance at Jill, though she must have known, Jill thought, that she was desperate to have something done about the garage. “Yes, Mrs. Douglas,” Roo said.
“At least there isn’t anything at the moment,” Jill said.
Still, perhaps it was best that Roo understand that Jill did not intend to have Dwayne around her house again. After the last time, when he’d done the floors, Jill had been so concerned that she actually checked the silver, as absurd as that was, she realized when she calmed down. But he had been so high—”I’m sorry,” Jill said.
“Dwayne ’s out in St. Louis now, anyhow,” Roo said. “He’s got something steady.”
“Well, that’s wonderful,” Jill said. Wonderful, though if Roo had only bothered to mention it earlier, they could have avoided this dangerous exchange.
“Mother,” Joshua said from right next to Jill.
“Hey, now,” Roo said. “Where did you come from?”
“Mother, do I get to help you?” Joshua said.
“Aren’t you going to say hello to Roo?” Jill reminded him.
“I want to help you,” Joshua said.
“Don’t whine, please,” Jill said. “We’re all finished. Look, Roo’s even finished with the fruit salad.”
“Roo?” Joshua said.
“Yes, baby.” Roo ruffled his hair, and he smoothed it out automatically.
A year or so earlier Jill had been bringing a stained tablecloth down to the basement to be laundered, and there was Joshua, sobbing in Roo’s arms, absolutely shrieking, really, with an extravagance that was unfamiliar to Jill, as Roo rocked him. When they saw Jill, Joshua stopped crying immediately, and Roo set him down. Joshua walked out then, right past Jill, and Roo turned back to her work as Jill stood, holding the tablecloth. The truth was, that Jill had been riven by jealousy at the time. Of course she was ashamed of her jealousy later, and she had regretted that, after the episode, Joshua had become so formal, really rather distant with Roo. Still, even that formality was better than the actual rudeness Joshua was displaying this afternoon. Where could he be picking that up?
“Roo,” Joshua said, “is James coming back again Tuesday?”
“Depends on whether May’s working Tuesday,” Roo said. “If May can’t mind him for me, I’ll have to bring him.”
Joshua sighed theatrically and scuffed his feet.
“Joshua,” Jill warned.
But Joshua overrode her. “He doesn’t play right. He breaks things. He’s too little.”
“I know, Baby,” Roo said. “That’s why you’ve got to be patient with him.” But Joshua shook her hand from his shoulder, sighed again and scuffed his way loudly to the screen door, which he allowed to slam behind him.
“I don’t know what that’s all about,” Jill said, burning. “He adores James. He’s always asking for James.”
Altogether it was a relief when the doorbell rang. Owen and Kitsy were the first to arrive, and when Jill opened the door, Owen was already in the middle of a bow. “Goodness me—” he said. His voice was a graphite-like emollient, a granular medium in which the words spread out soothingly.
Jill laughed and kissed him. How innocent he made the world seem; he was so completely himself, rueful and mysterious, precariously balanced, like an underwater explorer. Behind thick, goggle-like glasses, his eyes swam in unstable magnification.
“Mosquito,” Kitsy said, slapping.
“Uh-oh,” Nick said. He put an arm around Kitsy and gave Owen a pleased, telegraphic nod. “Let’s run for cover.”
“Let us,” Owen said, wandering inside. “Possibly the shelter of the bar …”
“What to drink?” Jill asked.
“They’ve got me on scotch tonight,” Owen said vaguely.
“Gin-tonic, please, darlin’” Kitsy said. A healthy one. I’ve been doing battle with the tomatoes all day.” Kitsy smoothed back her oat-colored hair as her attention travelled across the room, randomly encountering and dismissing objects. “I don’t know how you do it all,” she said. “And with a job. Jobs, tomatoes, Joshua …” Could it be true, Jill wondered, about Kitsy and Bud? Kitsy was so … like a parakeet on a perch—blinking and rounded over her prim little feet. But when the doorbell rang, Kitsy didn’t move, though her eyes brightened and narrowed.
Bud and Amanda and Susan and Lyle arrived in a clump and were reabsorbed, after some initial milling, into configurations that left Jill with Bud and Susan. Bud looked controlled, Jill saw—possibly furious, and when, in another part of the room, Amanda laughed, he closed his eyes almost blissfully for an instant, before turning his attention, with surplus force, to Susan. “So where do you get all these wonderful garments, Susan?” he said, tugging at a tassel on the large shawl she wore.
“Oh—” Susan waved her hand and laughed, but Bud waited unyieldingly with a half-smile and lifted eyebrows. “All right,” Susan said. She cleared her throat. “Well, this particular one’s from Mexico. And it is lovely, thank you, Bud, isn’t it?” She turned to Jill, and her large eyes looked lost, and metallic. “You know, when Lyle and I were back in March, we didn’t see anything of this calibre. Hardly any cotton at all, in fact. Isn’t that odd? It was my understanding that they grew it.”
“Cash crop,” Bud said. “Grow it for export.”
“Oh, yes,” Susan said dubiously. “Well, that doesn’t sound so good, does it?”
Clearly Bud was beginning to enjoy himself now, Jill saw, that Susan was flustered. Really, he was rather attractive with that little space between his teeth and his raffish, dark halo of receding hair. “Hear you’ve been having the worst kind of trouble with that painter you and Lyle have in your beach house,” he said.
“Gracious, this drink” Susan said. “Naughty Jill.” But Bud only looked down at his glass and swirled the ice patiently, so Susan, patting at a fan-shaped ornament that was struggling upwards from her heavy hair, sighed and continued. “I’m afraid it did turn into a bit of a melee,” she said.
“What a shame,” Bud said. “But very generous of you and Lyle.”
“Well, the man’s an enormous talent,” Susan said. To her astonishment, Jill saw Kitsy direct a damp, shining glance in their direction, but Bud shifted slightly, so that his back was squarely to her. “And the dreadful truth is, that Lyle and I hardly ever use the place. So we thought, now isn’t it criminal to waste it like this when there must be—oh, well …” she laughed self-deprecatingly.
“Not a bad way to pick up a bargain,” Bud said. He laughed along with her, then made an elaborate display of sobering. “Oh, Bud, how vulgar,” he said in falsetto.
“Not that Lyle and I minded for ourselves,” Susan said, reddening. “But the Foleys found trash all over their beach. And they actually had to call the police about the noise …” Bud clucked sympathetically.
Susan, having gained momentum, was now irrepressibly confidential. “We did manage to get him out finally,” she said. “But there was quite a scene. He pointed his finger, and accused Lyle of ‘artistic imperialism’ if you can believe it.”
“Artistic imperialism—” Jill laughed. “My!”
“Yes—” Lyle said, joining them. Towering over Bud, Lyle rocked, mournfully back and forth on his toes, and pushed his floppy hair behind his ear in discomfiture. “It really was funny.” Jill smiled at his baffled sorrow and put an affectionate hand on his arm. He was like a gigantic boy, with those glasses and that pink, open mouth.
“Mrs. Douglas—” Roo said. She stood just behind the entrance to the livingroom, holding James.
“Yes, Roo,” Jill said. Roo had changed into very high heels and a white dress that Jill had kept in the closet for two years after Joshua was born, before coming to terms with the probability that she would never fit into it again. “Come in.”
“I’m just saying the taxi’s come,” Roo said.
“Oh. Well, thank you, Roo.” But she’d never—she’d never seen Roo actually wearing the dress. “Goodnight, then.”
“Oh, Roo,” Kitsy called. “Don’t you look stunning.” And there was a silence as Roo turned slightly to readjust James, exposing the fine articulation of her arms, and her narrow bare back. Where could she be going like that, Jill wondered. And with James—
“Hello, James,” Amanda said, raising her glass slightly.
“And will I see you on Tuesday then, Roo?” Jill asked senselessly.
“Yes, Mrs. Douglas,” Roo said, her face scrupulously expressionless.
Jill sighed. If only there were still people in the world like the people who had worked for her parents—people made flexible and melodious by their hard lives; special, quiet people with gentle hands and outlandish, old-fashioned names. Jill remembered one woman in particular, Evaline, and her husband Vernon, who had helped occasionally in the yard. Jill hadn’t thought about them in years, she realized with surprise. How she had adored them! But then once—sometime, she did not remember when, sometime when she was a child—her mother had told her something; a story about a past that Vernon and Evaline had in common, things that had happened before they’d met, even before they’d been born.
And the story was (Jill’s mother had been doing her nails, Jill remembered, when Jill had gotten her to tell it) that Vernon and Evaline each had a grandparent, or grandparents, who had been slaves, whose own parents had been taken to America—kidnapped away from their families, bound up in chains, and put on boats with other prisoners whose language they could not understand. And then they had been brought to America and sold.
Jill stood very still. She felt as though she knew what her mother was telling her, but did not know, at the same time; and she wanted her mother to tell her again, but for some reason she did not dare to say so. “‘Sold’?” she repeated very, very quietly.
“That’s what I said, Jill.” Her mother spread out her fingers and stared at her nails with a sorrowful, absent irony.
So, they’d been sold. And bought—just like the little lizard Jill’s father had bought at the circus. “But you must never, never mention this to them,” her mother said. “They would be terribly hurt.”
Jill’s throat was dry, and her skin prickled oddly. “Why, Mother?” she said.
“Because,” her mother said. Then she looked at Jill, as though Jill had just come into the room, and stood up. “Because, Jill, it was their own people who did that to them.” And after that, Jill had felt very shy with Vernon and Evaline.
* * *
“How she does it,” Kitsy said, when the door closed behind Roo. “And that adorable little boy.”
“You send her home in a taxi? ” Bud said.
Jill laughed, and the memory of Evaline and Vernon and her mother dispersed. “Do you think we’re rich like you? Just to the station.”
“I was going to say” Bud said.
“I suppose she has to go all the way to the far side of the city,” Kitsy said. “What a saint that girl is—but, oh, that dreadful brother!”
“The Utterly Worthless Dwayne,” Nick said.
“Not utterly,” Amanda said, and sat down. “Roo adores him.” She crossed her legs and surveyed the little gold sandal dangling from her high-arched foot. “He practically brought her up, you know.”
“Be that as it may—” Kitsy addressed Amanda’s shoe, “—things are otherwise now.”
“Mmm,” Amanda said. And in the pause Kitsy ‘s comment flopped about like a stranded fish. “Incidentally,” Amanda added, “he’s doing something creative about his problem, finally.”
“You don’t mean to say he’s hocked his needles?” Nick said, and Bud laughed shortly.
“How ashamed you’ll be, Nicholas,” Amanda said, “when I tell you that he’s joined a drug rehabilitation program in St. Louis.”
“A drug rehabilitation program—”Jill frowned. “Are you sure? That’s not what Roo—”
“Of course I’m sure.” Amanda raised her eyebrows slightly. “I helped him get into it.”
“Quite a triumph, Amanda,” Nick said. “But it could be short-lived.”
Amanda smiled faintly, but Jill was distressed: It was part of Nick’s charm that he was contrary, absolutely intolerant of hypocrisy. But therefore—because he considered Amanda’s activities to be merely adornments, that issued from vanity rather than conviction—Amanda could provoke him into assuming and defending truly unattractive postures.
“After all,” Nick said, “this is your little project, not his, isn’t it, Amanda. A man like Dwayne is almost certain to drop out. Just look at the statistics.”
“Nick,” Jill said.
“He’ll tear through a wad of state money,” Nick said. “Or Bud’s money, if that’s what it is, and then he’ll drop out, and we’ll all be back where we started, except that his self-esteem, and Roo’s hopes, will be shattered.”
“I’m sorry to admit,” Kitsy said, “that I think Nicholas has a point.”
“Oh, my—” Owen’s voice spread into the room. “Look at this tray, all undefended and just littered with shrimp.”
“These are delicious, Jill,” Lyle said. “Anyone else? Kitsy? Amanda? Bud?”
“No, thanks,” Bud said. “So how’s life in the futures, Lyle?”
“What?” Lyle said. He looked up, his mouth open. “Oh, picking up, Bud, thanks.”
“The thing is, Amanda—” Nick leaned back in his chair, “—you’re not doing anybody a favor. Dwayne is just pulling your strings.”
Amanda made a little face at Nick and pushed her gleaming bracelets up her arms. “You do have to agree,” she said, “that Dwayne would have had a very different life if it hadn’t been for the war.”
“Isn’t it strange, Amanda,” Nick said, “how everyone would have had a different life if it hadn’t been for everything? Certainly I agree that men like Dwayne had a very hard time. We know that it was easier for white kids to avoid the draft; and we know that the men who did end up fighting were treated pretty badly—and by people who never had to confront the issue of what they themselves would have done if they’d been drafted. I had a few things to say about those soldiers that I’m damned ashamed of now, myself. Of course I was practically a child at the time. But you’ve got to remember, Amanda, that it’s possible to have any number of responses to a problem, and I think that you’ll agree with me: no one has to take drugs, and no one has to become a criminal. Now, I was as opposed to that war as anybody in this room. But in hindsight, we see—whether we like it or not—that, once there, we should have stayed there. Look what happened the minute we left—people over there are really suffering, under the very regime that we allowed to take over. But here are Dwayne and his friends, behaving as if they’re the only people in the world who ever had a difficult time. ‘Oh, us poor Black veterans—sacrificed to do the dirty work of the US Government …’ well, of course I’m sympathetic to their situation—it’s unfortunate; no one would deny it, but the truth is that this position of theirs is untenable. And it’s disingenuous. Because in point of fact, it was those very men who stood to gain from being in the army. They picked up some valuable skills, they picked up a free education—”
For a moment Amanda’s face was white, but then she laughed and shook back her hair. “You’re really quite a Nazi, you know, Nick,” she said.
“And don’t you forget it, Fraulein,” Nick said, smiling at her slowly.
“Frau, to you.” Amanda smiled slowly back.
“Jill—” Owen glided in front of her, severing her attention from—from what? Jill felt a gust of irritation. “Now I have a serious question for you,” he said.
Nick got out of his chair and walked to the window. He stared out, in the direction of the Binghams’s.
“And that question,” Owen said, “is this. Does Joshua plan to put in an appearance before dinner, or must I hunt him down?”
“I’m afraid I told him he had to stay upstairs,” Jill said. “He was a horror this afternoon.”
“Not Joshua,” Kitsy said. “It’s not possible.”
“Alas, it is.” Jill stopped for a moment, overcome. “In fact—well, as a matter of fact he was gruesome to poor little James. And absolutely rude to Roo.”
“Roo-too-roo,” Lyle said. “Roo-too-roo—”
“What are you saying, Jill?” Nick said, turning from the window as Lyle tossed a shrimp in the air and caught it in his very pink mouth.
“The truth is,” Jill said. “I think Joshua sometimes resents sharing Roo.” She didn’t dare look at Nick. “And Katrina.”
“He knows how to share,” Nick said. “I’ve seen him share very generously with his friends.”
“It must be hard for him in his own house, though,” Kitsy said.
“Certainly,” Bud said. “I know I wouldn’t share Katrina with anyone.”
“No one imagines you would, Bud,” Amanda said, as Kitsy erupted in a volley of tiny coughs.
“Excuse me,” she gasped. “Swallowed.”
“This is something I don’t enjoy hearing, Jill,” Nick said.
“He was just tired today, honey,” Jill said. “I don’t think Katrina gave him his nap.”
“Nick,” Amanda said quietly, “you’re making a scene over nothing.”
Nick looked at her, then took a large swallow of his drink.
“In any case,” Owen said, taking Jill’s arm gently, “I’d quite like to see the little viper.”
“He’ll be thrilled, Owen,” Jill said. “He was asking for you all afternoon.” And at that moment, she felt so grateful to Owen that she might have been telling the truth.
Upstairs, Joshua welcomed Owen with a bonhomie and poise that caused Jill’s eyes to brim. He presented Owen with a select offering of toys and stood back as Owen, sprawled out on the floor, affected to be defeated by the workings of first one, then another. “Don’t be discouraged, Mr. Plesko,” Joshua said. “These things take time.”
Owen put down a little plastic hammer and sighed. He really did look sad, Jill thought.
“Does Mrs. Plesko like toys?” Joshua asked.
“Mrs. Plesko has a way with a toy,” Owen said. “She’s younger than I am, you know. By virtually hundreds of years.”
“Do you think she’d like to come play, too?” Joshua asked hopefully.
“No more come-play tonight, Mr. Joshua,” Katrina announced from the doorway.
“Katrina—” A bolt of candor cleared Owen’s face as he struggled to his feet, and his eyes loomed up behind his glasses like fish.
Katrina lifted her light, springy hair from the back of her neck for a moment and smiled at Owen. “Joshua,” she said. “It’s time for our bath.”
Owen’s expression had resumed its unclear underwater shiftings, but Jill had seen enough. “Well, Katrina,” Owen was saying, “it looks like you’ve been in the sun.” He looked down at his shoes.
“This sun—” Katrina closed her eyes and leaned her head back. At the opening of her shirt, Jill saw, was a little triangle of skin that glistened as white as her teeth. “I could spend my whole life under this sun …”
Owen started to speak but looked down at his shoes again instead.
“So, Joshua.” Katrina smiled. “Are we ready?”
But Joshua had gone oddly sullen. “I have to see my dad first,” he said. “Tell my dad to come upstairs.”
“He can’t,” Jill said sharply. But then she knelt and hugged Joshua so hard he squeaked. “I’m sorry, darling. Not right now.” As they went downstairs together, neither Jill nor Owen spoke.
Everyone else had gone out into the garden, and Jill and Owen, drawn out behind them through the French doors, were able to disengage from their distressed intimacy. Jill paused on the terrace and watched as the others fanned out across the sloping lawn. They drifted alone or in twos among the spires of delphinium, and the peonies, whose huge blossoms shed a waxy glow and a lovely, tormenting fragrance. The colors of the lawn and the flowers intensified with the dark; the night was saturated with the concentrated colors of summer. Beyond the hedge, lights showed in the top story of the Binghams’s house. Little clusters of sound sparkled in the air like fireflies—the chiming of glass, little leaves clicking against one another, Amanda’s tiny, shimmering laugh. Jill closed her eyes, and the sounds intermingled, into a distant surf. For a moment, Nick was behind her. His hand moved up her neck, then down. He let her hair glide through his fingers. When she opened her eyes, he was gone.
By the time they had all sat down to dinner, they had become an ensemble; the night and the garden had uncoiled the skein of associations and habits, memories and dependencies that ran between them, dropping it over them in a loose net. Jill lifted her glass, and the amber sea in it moved—these were her friends.
Bud was asking Owen’s advice about a lawsuit he was considering bringing against an account, Lyle was counselling Kitsy about London hotels, Nick was unusually animated—Susan was, in fact, enjoying the focus of his charm, Jill saw, as he embarked on a lengthy and involved anecdote; her large eyes misted with effort as she nodded, listening intently. “But how true!” she said earnestly when Nick completed his story and burst out laughing. Amanda twirled between her fingers a little flower she had broken off in the garden, smiling at it quizzically.
“Isn’t that the Bingham house?” Lyle asked. “Right next door?”
A silence fell. “Yes …” Jill said.
“So terrible,” Kitsy said.
“Just what exactly was it that happened?” Lyle asked.
“Well, it might not seem like much to you,” Kitsy said. “But it was devastating for them.”
“No,” Lyle said, “all I meant was—”
“Of course they’re insured,” Kitsy said. “But it’s their privacy, isn’t it? And to have one’s own home invaded like that! Those poor old people—they never did anyone any harm.”
“I don’t know,” Bud said. “Spencer’s a hard man on the golf course.”
Kitsy cast a reproving glance at her fork. “You know what I mean, Bud,” she said.
“Doesn’t he make pesticides?” Susan said, and looked brightly around the table. “I mean, doesn’t Mr. Bingham manufacture pesticides?” she said.
“Well—” Nick stopped smiling. “At least, that’s what he did.”
“That’s so strange,” Susan said. “Or really, there’s nothing really strange about it, is there? And that’s—I mean, Mr. Bingham manufactured pesticides and there’s nothing strange about that, and someone broke into his house, and there’s nothing strange about that, either. But don’t you sometimes have the terribly vivid sensation that under this thing we refer to as ‘life,’ is something that—how do I say this?—that there is this thing going on, and we make it, or it makes itself possibly, and then there is this other thing that it looks like, or seems like, which is only sort of a top view of the first thing. A reflection, if you see what I mean. And usually those two things are exactly alike, or at least, reasonably alike. Or—well, I suppose you might say, they coincide, the bottom and the top. So in any case, it’s as though we decide what our lives are going to be like—we deal in futures, or we manufacture pesticides, or we take a trip to Europe, or whatever it is, and everything seems to be just the way we’ve planned it, because, in the vast majority of instances, it is. Exactly the way we’ve planned it. And so the thing that we think is going on is just like the thing that is going on, and everything is just the way we’ve decided it ought to be. But sometimes the … the thing on the top and the thing on the bottom are completely different—they’ve diverged, somehow, and we wouldn’t even know that they’d diverged, except sometimes the thing on the bottom just pops out, it pops out! Into the top thing. Because, suppose, for instance, that one of us—oh, goes to Venice, for example, and just falls into a canal. Well, I don’t suppose any of us would do that, but I mean people still die, for example. Not that that’s exactly—but, you see, things are going on in some continuous way, somehow, and, in a sense—Well, look. If you have a party, then people talk to other people. Things happen between people. Or even just happen, like somebody’s baby has Down’s syndrome, just to mention a—well, happen. When there isn’t anything to do about it, nothing, nothing, nothing at all to do about it, because things only happen in one direction—”
Susan stopped, and a laugh bounced slowly out of Owen, like a rubber ball falling down steps.
“It’s strange,” Susan said, turning to him. “I don’t know what I mean …”
Susan was never much of a drinker, Jill thought. But in fact, she herself was expanding outward, and the few sips of wine she’d had with dinner were causing everything to pass over the convex surface of the evening in long, slow, luminous flashes. Nick, at the other end of the table, seemed to be at the other end of a tunnel; the gentle sounds of conversation rode at the margins of a darkness enclosing her.
There had been things—there was something about Owen … She had been angry, if she wasn’t mistaken, but the anger had consumed itself, leaving an ashy void. And something had happened—Oh, Nick and Amanda had had … was it a quarrel? about Roo and her brother; and something had happened with Roo—yes, Roo had been wearing Jill’s dress, of all things. And before that was when Joshua had been so bad. And before that—oh, yes. Before that, she had visited the Binghams. Of course; she had visited the Binghams, and that must be why she felt so sad. And so ill, really—like an apple with a hidden soft spot spreading under the skin. It must be because of her visit to the Binghams that everything seemed so flat and bad—so stained.
Although Hattie and Spence Bingham lived right next door, they and their house seemed to belong to an earlier era, distant in space as well as in time. They were near 80, Jill thought, though they’d never looked anything like it until today, when they had looked much, much older. Even their vitality, issuing, as it did, from an untroubled and unreflecting pleasure in success, seemed to sequester them in a more vigorous and brightly-colored period.
Jill and Nick had attended several enormous parties or receptions held on the Binghams’s lawn, which was glorious in the spring and summer with flowers and blossoming fruit trees. The Binghams were marvelous hosts. And once or twice a year, Jill would stop over to have tea with Hattie. The heavy drapes in the living room were always open, allowing the light to fall in rich panels across the polished floor and the deep silence of the old furniture, and Hattie would serve Jill tea and slices of a dense buttery cake, as well as cookies so fragile they almost disappeared by themselves.
But this afternoon it had been Spencer who opened the door. “Well, Jill,” he said. Without letting go of the doorknob, he glanced back into the dim hall.
“I’ve interrupted, haven’t I?” Jill said. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“No, no,” Spencer said, and displayed his cordial smile. “Come in, Jill. Hattie—” he called, “—we have a visitor.” He dropped his voice. “She’ll be glad.”
“Well, invite Jill in, Spence,” Hattie said, and then Jill saw that Hattie was having difficulty with the stairs, so there was nothing to do except wait through the painful descent. “A visitor is supposed to come in and visit. Come in, Jill, and sit down.”
But when Jill did sit, in a generous upholstered chair near the fireplace, there was a silence.
“I can’t stay long,” Jill said. “I just dropped in to say how sorry I was to hear about—about the other night.”
“Oh, yes,” Spencer said, as if he were picking up a story in the middle. “Wednesday night. Well, we’d been over at the DeForests for cocktails. They had a little do for that young man—the new head of cardiology over at Lakeview. And then we went into town for dinner. We usually do on Wednesdays, party or no party, so you see what a bad thing a habit is. Because this Wednesday, when we got back and opened our door—well, it was just like being somewhere else—it was like something that hadn’t happened. I mean, if you were to go back outside and come in again, it wouldn’t have happened.”
“What Spence means,” Hattie said, “is that we opened the door of our own house, and we didn’t even know where we were—Everything torn apart—drawers dumped out, furniture every which way, papers all over the place—private papers!”
“And the dolls, of course,” Spencer said.
“We want some tea, don’t we,” Hattie said.
“Hattie,” Spencer said. “Sit down, Hattie—don’t bother with that—”
“Not for you, you tyrant, for our guest—”
“No, no,” Jill said. “I really can’t stay.”
“Well, Spence has to have his tea,” Hattie said. “Unless he’s going out. Are you going out, Spence?” She turned to Jill. “He’s just been sitting around like an old man. Why don’t you call Bob Niederland, dear, and play some golf? Get outside and do something.”
“Why should I do anything?” Spencer chuckled unhappily. “I’m an old man, and I like it right here.”
“Well, we have to have something” Hattie said. “Otherwise it isn’t a party.”
Spencer and Jill sat quietly as Hattie made her way towards the kitchen. “Her leg is bothering her, I think,” Spencer said, frowning hopefully over at Jill. “Have you noticed?”
“Not at all,” Jill said, embarrassed.
The Binghams had never seemed absorbed in their own problems before. In fact, they’d never seemed to have problems, or to think of themselves at all, beyond whatever satisfaction they took from being themselves. Certainly they had never referred to their bodies, to infirmities. “And as you can imagine,” Spencer said after a time, “she’s heartbroken about the dolls.”
“I couldn’t even find the tea,” Hattie said, returning with juice and a plate of cookies that seemed to have come from a package. “Ruby and I worked all day to restore a modicum of order around this place, but I still can’t find a thing. That darned thief—”
“Don’t suppose he took the tea,” Spencer said. He smiled at Jill. “Didn’t have the style of a tea-drinker.”
“He got our Lacy, did you hear?” Hattie said. “He broke most of the others, or spoiled them, but he took the four or five really valuable ones, including Lacy.”
“She was the first one we owned,” Spencer explained to Jill. “We found her in Smoky Mountain country. The first time we went down there, the year we were married.”
“Oh, the Smoky Mountains in those days …” Hattie said. “Well, we went back after the war once, and of course everything had changed. But in those days—well, you can’t imagine—it was so remote, just those cloudy green hills and silent roads, dirt roads, with leafy little hidden enclaves here and there of those peculiar mountain people. You could hear the train whistle sometimes, from way up over the mountains, but that was as close as the world came. And they still spoke their own kind of English then, practically some sort of Elizabethan English—they were almost like an odd little race of animals. Anyhow, Spence and I were driving around up there, and we stopped in Asheville, to poke around some big barn of a place full of antiques. Junk, really—and I spotted Lacy. Can you imagine? She had a hand-made lace dress and a lovely white wax face—so elegant and perfect it was almost eerie. Some poor mountain woman’s dream of a lady, I suppose. And that’s what started us. Afterwards, we liked to look wherever we went, and eventually we found ourselves with a whole world, all sorts of nationalities, all sorts of periods. But we never looked for value. Who would have dreamt that dolls would become an item of value? Of course, everything does sooner or later, now. Isn’t it funny? Old toasters and everything—all that ugly kitchen trash we hated so. But we never even thought of that. It was the feeling. You couldn’t believe what people put into some of those little things—all the beauty and personality that anyone could imagine, that anyone could want in a human being …” Hattie sighed and looked past Jill out the window.
“And do you think that’s what they broke in for?” Jill asked. “The dolls?”
“What?” Hattie said.
“Oh, there’s no question about it,” Spencer said. “We’ve been over it a hundred times, with each other and with the police. There’s no question that there was someone involved who’d learned the value of the individual dolls.”
“Oh—”Jill said. She put down her cookie, which was slightly stale, she noticed.
“They got Spence’s confederate rifle, too,” Hattie said, suddenly indignant. “He was very fond of it.”
“Picked up some loose cash, and a bit of silver, too,” Spencer said. “But nothing much. Just enough to make it look like any old break in. Messed everything up to fool us into thinking that it was just a regular break in. At least until we could collect our wits.”
“There was stuff all over the place,” Hattie said. “There was even—oh, lord …”
“Oh, now, it doesn’t matter,” Spencer said.
“He had even taken a drawer of my underthings and scattered them around,” Hattie said. “You see, there was simply no need for all that violence.”
“We know,” Spencer said. “That’s what we’re saying.”
“But the worst was the ones he didn’t take,” Hattie said to Jill. “Oh, you could hardly believe your eyes—little arms and legs all over the place—their bodies all twisted; sawdust, stuffing pulled out of them, porcelain faces smashed up, eyes just staring at the ceiling, or the floor or wherever they’d been thrown. Hurled, really,” Hattie said. “They were ours. We found them, we loved them, but now they’re ruined, and now I feel sorry that I ever brought them here. It’s like this was never our house, we just thought it was. All you could think, was blood.”
Through the Bingham’s window Jill had looked at the hedge that hid her own house from view. Long shadows fell across the lawn, and a late, cider-like light sliced through the room charging a panel of tiny suspended dust particles between herself and the Binghams. Beyond it, Hattie and Spencer were insubstantial, wavering, as though they had just acquired a contagious susceptibility to old age. “I’m sorry about the tea, Jill dear,” Hattie said.
“I notice that Jill keeps her own counsel,” Owen was saying. “I’d give a penny, or more, for Jill’s thoughts on this matter.”
“I’m afraid I—” Jill ransacked the previous few moments for any words she might be able to retrieve. “Well, I’m afraid I really haven’t any thoughts on the matter at all.” She laughed.
That serene lawn. The china, and all that glowing old wood. What a flimsy fortress the Bingham’s house had proved to be. This was what their lives had come down to—the husks of their bodies. The Binghams had valued themselves highly. They had accepted as their due many beautiful things. But the instant the robbery tore away the fragile illusion of their invulnerability, their merit no longer seemed secure, either. And what the world had rendered up to them, it was now clear that the Binghams kept on sufferance. What they had, Jill thought, what they were, could be tossed aside at any moment, just like the oldest of their possessions, their bodies.
“Susan tells me you have some night-bloomers,” Lyle was saying. “May I have a tour?”
“Heavens—”Jill said. Only she and Lyle were left at the table. “Thank you, Lyle—no, I’d better make coffee.”
“As Jill went through the swinging door into the kitchen, a shadow swelled on the wall, twisted, and broke in two.
“Jill.” Nick spoke at her side. “Are you feeling all right?”
“—All right?” Jill said.
“Poor baby,” Amanda said. “You were looking all green out there.”
Jill looked at Amanda, and at Nick. “I’m fine,” she said.
“You’ll be fine,” Nick said, and patted her rear end. “You know,” he said to Amanda, “she wasn’t sick for one minute with Joshua.”
A hard presence stepped forth within Jill and faced her. Nick was selfish, this presence announced. He was arrogant; he was domineering and reckless; he overestimated his skill in all things, and underestimated the abilities of others; he drove too fast, he thought too little, he expected too much; he was careless, deceitful, and calculating. Jill had not told Amanda, she had not told anyone except Nick, that she was pregnant. “Did you make coffee?” she said.
“We were just going to,” Nick said. “You didn’t look up to it.”
“I’m fine,” she said. I’ll do it.”
Jill waited until the swinging door had come to rest behind Nick and Amanda, and then she turned out the lights and sat down at the counter. Was she going to be sick, she wondered.
Out in the garden Owen was wandering among the high, pale blossoms. Shapes and lines were etched shockingly against the brilliant night, and even from where she sat, Jill could see the tense flare of petals, blades of grass arching with the weight of gathering condensation, and the creases of Owen’s face, arranged, as always, into folds that might prefigure either bliss or grief Owen bent down over a flower, his large padded backside catching the moonlight, and straightened up again as Amanda appeared on the terrace. Her arms were crossed against her chest, although the air was warm and still. She closed her eyes and tilted her face back. Her nails, her hair, and her thin gold bracelets shone. “Hello,” Owen said, and the small sound was right next to Jill’s ear.
Amanda opened her eyes. “Hello,” she said. She and Owen smiled at one another tentatively, sadly, and then Amanda returned inside.
Alone again, Owen made a circuit of the garden. Really, Jill thought, she ought to feel pity for him. In all the time she had known him—except for that one instant upstairs tonight—even in the face of Kitsy’s corrosive deficiencies, her inept, gnawing flirtations, his demeanor had never altered.
Owen stopped in the far corner of the yard, at Joshua’s swing set. He pulled the swing back and released it, pausing to watch as it rocked back and forth, before he moved on. Jill turned on the light and made coffee.
When she returned to the livingroom, it seemed to Jill that something must have happened in her absence. Nick was again stationed at the window, gazing darkly out in the direction of the Bingham’s, Lyle was perched, none too steadily, on the piano bench, and Owen leaned against the open French doors, but attention seemed to be directed towards the center of the room, where Bud, speaking loudly, strode back and forth between the armchairs in which Susan and Amanda were seated, while Kitsy hovered at the periphery, as though she were unable to approach more closely. Bud’s voice was poisonously reasonable, and although he addressed himself ostensibly to Susan who watched him like a browbeaten jury, he looked steadily at Amanda, who sat, eyes closed and head back, swinging her foot.
“I’m just trying,” Bud said, “to clarify what you were saying earlier, Susan, about product liability law. That is—correct me if I’m wrong—but wasn’t your point that we need those laws if we’re to have any viable protection of the consumer, and yet, at the same time, you say, those laws are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by unscrupulous people. Wasn’t that your point?”
“I really—” Susan said.
“And all I’m saying,” Bud said, “is that I’m in total agreement with you: it is no longer possible to rely on laws or institutions, because we now have a certain sort of individual who twists laws or institutions, and undermines them by using them for his or her own purposes. The rest of us can hardly be blamed if we’re suspicious. Or are forced to behave cynically ourselves.”
“You laugh, my darling,” Bud said. “But I’m serious.”
“But, are we saying—are we talking about something?” Susan said.
“Yes,” Bud said, as Amanda said “No.”
“I’m a bit lost here, myself Bud,” Lyle said, turning around at the piano. “Could you define your terms?”
“You’re a deliberate son of a bitch, aren’t you Lyle,” Bud said pleasantly. “I’m simply speaking in general terms. About the misapplication of principles.”
“But, Bud,” Susan said. “It’s hardly a principle’s fault if someone—”
“How true,” Owen said. “Now let us—”
“No, Lyle,” Kitsy said, claiming a central position on the arm of Susan’s chair. “I think that what Bud is talking about is a climate, a climate in which people invoke principles in order to pursue their own selfish—”
“Why not let Bud persecute his own wife, Kitsy?” Nick said.
“That’s right,” Bud said. “Why not let me persecute my own wife. I think I was doing a damned good job of it.”
Amanda smiled, but Kitsy flinched as though she’d been slapped. “Do whatever you want to be your own wife. I really don’t give a shit.”
“Would anybody like to tell me what this is about?” Jill said.
“Nothing,” Nick and Amanda said in unison.
“We’re talking about a climate, Jill—” Kitsy’s face was clenched with anger “—of selfishness, of turning things to our own advantage. Of taking things that belong to other people or pretending not to notice if someone else does. These are things—”
“ ‘Things,’ ” Susan said. “Does anything feel dizzy?”
“—and these are things we’re all involved in,” Kitsy said. “All of us. Collusion. Because take the thing we’ve all been thinking about all evening—the Binghams. My point is, for instance, that we’re all involved with the Binghams.”
“The Binghams!” Nick turned from the window with a laugh of surprise. “We’re all involved with the Binghams?”
“Heavens knows what you’re involved with,” Kitsy said. “I wouldn’t know.” She looked at Amanda. “But one thing I do know, Nicholas, is that every one of us understands exactly who broke into the Bingham’s house, and not one of us is willing to say or to do anything about it because of what some people call—”
“The plot thickens—” Lyle pounded on the piano. “We know who broke into the Binghams.”
“And just who is it,” Amanda said, “that we all know to have broken into the Binghams, Kitsy?”
“ ‘Who’?” Kitsy said. “Dwayne, obviously.”
“Who’s Dwayne?” Lyle said, lifting his palms comically.
“Dwayne!” Susan said gaily to Lyle, as everyone else looked at Amanda. “The brother of that girl who works here, isn’t that right?”
“What on earth gives you the idea that it was Dwayne?” Amanda said, recovering. But Jill had to sit down. Of course it was Dwayne, she thought. Kitsy was right. She’d only pretended to herself because of Amanda that she didn’t know. But now—”Would you mind telling me how we all know it was Dwayne?” Amanda said.
“‘How,’” Kitsy said. “What do you mean, ‘how?’ Who else could it be? He knows the house, he’s worked there. He always needs money—everyone knows what a drug addict will do for money. It had to be Dwayne. But we’re trying to protect a whole group of people, even though we know perfectly well—”
“‘Group of people’—” Amanda said. She stopped and stared at Kitsy.
“I am now going to play chopsticks,” Lyle announced.
“Shut up, Lyle,” Susan said gently and with unexpected lucidity.
“—Listen to yourself Kitsy,” Amanda said. “Just listen to what you’re saying—”
“And you,” Kitsy said. “Listen to what you’re saying. You’re saying that such people shouldn’t even have the dignity of being held accountable for their own failure to adjust to society. But that’s pa—”
“Do you think Dwayne stole Bunny McCrane’s Majolica vases?” Amanda said. “Do you think Dwayne stole that Soutine from the Art Institute?”
“—that’s patronizing. It’s not fair to them. Other immigrant groups have made something of themselves. Other immigrant groups haven’t depended on us for help. Even if they’ve come from tragic situations, even if they’ve lost everything-” Kitsy gestured towards Susan. “Like the Jews—”
“Well, now,” Lyle said. “Let’s not-“
“Look at the Jews,” Kitsy said. “Look at the Asians—they’ve suffered, they’ve been persecuted, they’ve been slaughtered. But their children play the violin. They get into Harvard. They carry out the garbage. Other immigrant groups-“
“Just one small point,” Owen said, “is, immigrants are people who decide to go somewhere. People who pack a suitcase, buy a ticket—”
“Oh, I know it sounds ridiculous when I put it like that,” Kitsy said.
“It certainly does, Kitsy,” Bud said. “Amanda—”
“I know how it sounds, thank you, Bud,” Kitsy said furiously, but as she turned to Owen, Jill saw, her expression was shockingly piteous. “And that’s what I used to think, too. You know, that they’d been slaves and so on, so they couldn’t be expected et cetera, et cetera—”
“But that’s not even my—” Owen said.
“And Owen, darling—” Kitsy sprang toward him, gesticulating with her glass “the terrible thing is, that you’re so good and kind yourself that you don’t see the terrible things that happen to people, the terrible things that people do to one another-” as she leaned against him, tears spilled from her closed eyes.
“There, there,” Owen said, but his arms hung at his sides.
“I’m sorry that you’re unhappy, Kitsy,” Amanda said. “I’m sorry if I’ve said anything or done anything to cause you unhappiness. But I’m afraid I have to clear the record, because the fact is, that it was not Dwayne who robbed the Binghams.”
“I’d be the last to doubt your word, sweetheart,” Bud said. He was breathing shallowly, Jill saw, just as she was, herself. “But just how are we to believe you?”
“Yes,” Jill said, or didn’t say. She saw Amanda’s fluctuating color, her shining gold bracelets, as though through a fever. “How?”
“Since you must know,” Amanda said. “Since it’s been decided that it’s absolutely everybody’s business, the fact is, I checked. At Dwayne’s program. Dwayne was there-in St. Louis. He was at a meeting that night-“
Jill’s hand tingled, and for a moment all she heard was a breeze outside, riffling the leaves, but then there was an uproar. Kitsy was speaking loudly, and Owen turned away toward the garden. Lyle pounded on the piano, Susan, for some reason, was crying, and Bud and Nick were laughing. Nick whooped with laughter. “Amanda,” he said, flinging his arms around Amanda while she stood, furiously still, “you’re perfect, do you hear me? Perfect,” he was saying, as the room waved around Jill, gelatinous with Nick’s laughter. But Bud had stopped laughing, Jill saw. He was staring at Nick and Amanda, and it was only Nick who was laughing.
No, Susan was laughing, too, Jill realized. Susan was not crying—she was laughing. She was splayed out over her chair, laughing without pleasure or comprehension. “What’s going on?” she managed to say, through fresh inundations of laughter. “Why is everybody laughing?”
* * *
“Well, that really was the worst, wasn’t it,” Nick said later, with satisfaction. There had been kisses, and tears, and poorly-balanced hugs, and everyone had gotten out the door, though whether anybody had gotten home or not Jill didn’t care. She turned away as Nick unbuttoned his shirt—she had already changed in the dressing room.
“Tomorrow will be spectacular,” Nick said. “Everyone on the phone all day apologizing. If anyone even remembers what happened—”
Jill waited until the words came of their own accord. “What did happen?”
“Nothing.” He laughed. “You sound like Susan. Nothing happened. Just one of those tectonic upheavals between old friends.”
“Nothing matters,” she said. “Does it, Nick?”
“Well, this doesn’t matter,” he said. Her stare seemed simply not to reach him. She turned to the mirror and slowly combed her hair.
“You know—“ he climbed into bed. “We’re not going to need this blanket tonight. —the thing is, though, I really do feel sorry for Owen. Not a day goes by that Kitsy doesn’t make a spectacle of herself in one way or another.”
“You mean that she deserves to be humiliated because she’s not attractive. You think that only women like Amanda ought to be able to have affairs.”
“Darling—” Nick turned to her and held out his hand. “What’s the matter? You’re not feeling well, are you.”
“The truth is,” Jill said, “that Kitsy’s in a miserable position.”
“She’s damned fortunate,” Nick said. “Owen puts up with her completely.”
“Yes,” Jill said. “It’s like a sentence of penal servitude.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Jill.” Nick dropped his hand. “At any rate, it’s over.”
“Besides,” Jill said. “You should have seen him with Katrina tonight. It was disgusting.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Nick sighed. “Well, I suppose we’re going to have to be more careful of you from now on.”
In the mirror, Jill watched him close his eyes and turn.
“Would you get the lights?” he said. “Or do you want to read?”
“No.” She switched off the lights. “Go to sleep.”
She sat down in the chair with her feet up and her arms around her knees, watching as the night settled into the room. She saw Nick’s eyes gleam for a moment in the darkness. “Look at the moon,” he said, his voice thickening with sleep. “What a moon…
“Nick—” Jill said.
“When the baby comes, I want to stop working.”
“Stop working? I thought you liked your job, Jill.”
“It’s only a part-time job, honey. We spend more on help than I make.”
“That doesn’t matter. I can afford it. If you want to work, you should work.”
“But it isn’t really for anything, Nick. It’s just an office job. It isn’t really very interesting. I’m not particularly good at it, I don’t do anybody any good—“
“Do you want to be one of those women who just sits around the house all day?”
“Why are we married if you’re so disappointed in me?” Jill said. “Did you marry me just so you could be disappointed in me?”
“This is ridiculous,” Nick said. “You’re exhausted. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to work, that’s fine, and if you want to stay home, that’s fine, too. But I don’t want to discuss this any more tonight. I’m going to sleep, and I think you should, too.”
“I want to stay home,” Jill said. “I want to take care of my home and my children. I don’t want all these strangers in my house any more.”
But Nick lay still. He looked like marble, the sheet looked like carved marble in the pearly indigo of the room. “Nick—” Jill said. His lashes fluttered, his eyes gleamed again for an instant. He spoke indistinctly and turned.
Jill settled back in her chair, her face tilted towards the window. Cool waves of darkness slid in from outside; there was a brief, plangent rush of leaves. Below in the garden flowers were tossing about, sighing and giving off their tender light from generous blossoms, thick, pale stems. The grass was wet and tangled, and through it a little path led out from the far corner of the yard, past the swings, and out behind the Binghams’ house. It went along behind all the houses on the block—the tidy, sleeping houses—and picked up on the next block, and then the block after that, and then the block where the new houses were being built, and the smell of wood and wet concrete wound through the air. When the path faded out, Jill found herself in a meadow, where she had never been before. Or perhaps she had—yes, she had been there, but now it looked strange, with sticky shafts of milkweed and patches of rough, sour grass pushing up from the mud. Next to her, a layer of chemical suds floated on a ditch. Though it was only twilight, Jill could see the red glare from where the city curved out in the distance, the fierce glare from the steel mills. Jill picked her way among huge spools of wire and pieces of track that lay about the burned-looking ground, and sooner or later she found a little house where she’d seen Evaline once, a long, long time ago, in a Sunday dress and a hat with wooden cherries on it. There were a few chicks in the yard, and some tires, and a half-buried old washing machine; and she must have skirted the city, because now she could even see the metal lozenges of the mills at its far side. I’d better hurry and go inside, she thought; because the greenish wedge of twilight was pressing down quickly upon her and the little house.
In the bare wooden room that was the house, many people were waiting. Jill wandered around and around among them, but they paid no attention to her whatsoever, which was odd, Jill thought, because, of all those people—old people sitting and fanning themselves anxiously, and babies who sat, distracted and silent on the floor—she herself was the only white one. But evidently the people there were concentrating on something, waiting for something that was going to happen, and they had no time at all for Jill, none at all. And just as she was growing beside herself with impatience, she saw a woman stirring something on the stove from which came rich, dark tendrils of aromas, streaked with traces of something that was familiar, although Jill couldn’t place it.
“Don’t be rude,” said a voice in Jill’s ear. “You know what this is.”
That’s disgustingly unfair, Jill thought, and I’m going to leave; I never wanted to be here in the first place. But she could not make her way through the crowded vigil—even though morning was soaking into her sleep, and she could feel Nick pick her up and carry her to the bed, she could not fight her way through.
She was just starting to struggle in earnest, when she saw the two boys—Roo’s James and her Joshua. They had gotten ahold of some marvelous toy, a translucent sphere inside of which tiny figures whirled and orbited, and Jill watched as the thing spun, lofting into the air. She caught her breath as James tensed, his tiny face pointed with effort, but before James could catch it, Joshua reached out. “It’s mine—” Joshua called, and, as the fragile thing bounced from the tips of Joshua’s fingers, Jill, too, reached and cried out, just managing to wake, her hair damp and clinging to her forehead, before James was able to open his mouth.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee