And this leads to the impossible belief that most everything of significance can be found on the surface and that the richness of this surface is invariably limited by explanation, be it psychological, biological, or any other theoretical approach. “The surface of the world where all beauty resides,” is what I've written in another novel, and less portentously, “not the tales /but the details” in a poem.
I set out to illuminate the present in the face of nostalgia, regret, and impending death, trusting that the details of this present might go a long way toward capturing the significance of life lived in the here and now. What an impossible idea that now seems to be, but impossible or not, it proceeded from a certain single-minded passion. Maybe a residual of that passion remains in the sentences of this book.
North Truro, Massachusetts
HE NO LONGER WONDERED WHERE TO LAY DOWN BLAME or whose was the responsibility or what the responsibility was. Her body, finished with its rage, had settled in the cancer the way one slips into a tub in a dark bathroom, into hot water, and soon the skin is no longer a barrier, an integrity and definition; one becomes part of the water, the cancer. The skin goes in the way the breath does, out like a ripple of the surface of a still pool; part of a quota, it does not return. She lay in the tub, and under the water, crossing the rise of her belly, a place that was darker than water: a dark towel, taken from the blankets and pillows and towels in the backseat of the car, because it gave her some comfort. Her head rested on a rolled towel, placed where the tile and the porcelain met; chalk of the small hollow valley of her left cheek, her lips slightly parted, her shallow and stertorous breathing. The glass doors in the wall of the room beyond her were a field of light, reflection cast from the side of the rented car, up from the white gravel outside the motel room in Arizona. Occasional figures of yucca advanced, danced, and faded in the opaque field. He sat in a chair, in the dark in the side of the room, watching the gun.
The gun lay on the bed in the middle of a white towel.
She sighed in the distance. It was a small, blue-metal instrument with symmetrical indentations on its surface. He liked the romance of it, his privacy and her groggy sound. He reached out
with a finger and touched the tip of the butt, better aligning the L â shape with the towel's edge.
And then he thought of the two bags of cocaine, each pressed in a Diamond Kitchen matchbox that was taped shut, in the trunk of the car, under clubs, blankets, and clothing. He thought of the way Melinda would give it up, her body slipping as her quota of breaths left her: neck, chin, and upper lip, her nose blowing feeble air against the water's surface (small indentations, minute waves), then going under. He lifted the gun up from the towel then and put the barrel between his teeth and pulled the trigger on the empty chamber.
“Melinda, are you okay in there?”
“Yes, I'm okay, honey, fine.”
He came back from the click as he had come back from the Tea Dream that time. In the Tea Dream, he was sitting on a bench to the side of the blue markers at the back of a narrow tee. The tee was long enough to accommodate all the markers, and from where he sat he could see the white ones halfway up, and near the foot of the tee, where it dropped off into rough and the slope started up to the high par-three green about a hundred and eighty yards away, the red, women's markers, were set in. He had his cap and his glove on, and he was holding a seven-iron, the head resting in the grass to the side of his right foot. He looked from the club head, down the row of markers and up to the green. Beside the flagstick, gripping the shaft in her left hand, there was a woman standing in full view and facing down at him. She was wearing a white bathrobe, and she wore no jewelry.
Her hair was dark and uncombed, and she was holding hazy implements in her free hand at her waist. There was a smoky fog, a thick cloud that began coming up behind her, rolling over the green's surface. It got to her, and her feet and legs were enveloped in the smoke, and he couldn't see them clearly anymore. But he could see their changing bulks and her right foot rise a little and paw at the low, delicate carpet of grass.
The fog rose up around her; she seemed to recede back into
the cloud. It cowled her head, and then she disappeared completely. He started to get up, to go and find her, though he feared her, but as he rose the smoke-fog began to clear. It gathered up from where her feet had been, and when he followed its path, he saw the place of the cowling shrink and the smoke gather and disappear into two rings, and as the final billows were sucked in, he saw the head of the horse appear where her head had been, and he realized that the rings were the horse's nostrils, the smoke his breath blowing in the suddenly cold air. The horse was white and large, very stately and very powerful looking. There was a device attached to its side, a leather trussing, and the long stick with the small red flag with the white number 3 sewn into it was standing, straight up above the horse's broad back, the little flag waving. The horse pawed at the green, scarring the surface, kicking little divots out. It blew its heavy steam. And then it dipped its head once and started down the hill toward him. It pranced a little, slowly selecting places for its hoofs as it came down through the rough. He fell back on the bench and waited for it. It was massive and getting larger in its coming, but he did not fear it, not in the way he had feared the woman. He had tightened his grip on the seven-iron when he had seen her, but now he released it, his knees parted a little, and he relaxed.
The horse reached the far end of the tee and started down between the markers as if they were running lights. He could hear the creak of the trussing, the hoof-thuds, and the sound of the nostrils blowing. It got to him, and he could smell its sweat and see the doe-leather look of its soft muzzle, its powerful grinding jaws. It stood for a moment over him, moving its head from side to side, looking around. Then its thick neck began to arch over, and it brought its huge head down to him. He sat very still. He could feel the blow of the nostril smoke on his cheek, and he could smell it at the same time. It had the smell of jasmine, slightly sweet and musky.
And in the dream he seemed to open his eyes as if they had been closed, and he turned his head slightly toward the horse
and looked up into its face. And the horse's eyes grew smaller, and through the smoke between the two of them the face of the horse began to change into the face of a woman. Melinda began to appear to him as he woke up. She was sitting on the floor beside the bed, at a level with his head, and between them, on the night table, was a steaming cup of tea. And he saw the oval of Melinda's lips as she lightly blew the rising tea smoke across his face. Her mouth changed to a smile as his eyes came into focus. He had risen gently from his dream; it was the smell of tea and its touch against his cheek, insinuating itself into the dream without breaking it, that had awakened him. And the dream and what he might have chosen to call reality had come together like a kind of smoke net to lift him up. He had moved to his elbows, turning his head toward her. He had never come to himself so gently. And Melinda had seemed to know this, and that is why she smiled and did not speak for a while but only looked at him as the tea smoke lifted.
“Melinda, are you okay?”
“Yes, I'm fine. I'm ready to come out now.”
He wrapped the gun in the towel and put it in the suitcase and then he went to the bathroom. She smiled up at him from the dark water in the tub.
“Should I put the light on?”
“No. Leave it off, okay?”
He put his hands down into the warm water beside her body. “The towel,” she said. He pulled back and reached to her belly and lifted the wet towel off of it, wringing it out as he took it from the water and placed it in the sink. He took a dry towel, folded it, and put it over the edge of the tub. Then he reached into the water with both hands and arms to his elbows, sliding one arm under her back and the other under her knees. He knelt down on the floor and lifted her up carefully out of the water and swung her legs over the edge of the tub until she was sitting on the towel. He took another towel and draped it over her shoulders. She began to rub herself with the towel, and he took another
towel and dried her legs and feet. Then he got up and stood over her, looking down at her matted hair, her huddled body. He steadied her with one hand on her shoulder. He pressed her after a few minutes.
“Are you ready?”
“Okay,” she whispered softly and with effort. She held the towel with a white hand across her breasts, and he reached under her again, making a chair for her. He lifted her and carried her into the other room and sat her down on the edge of the bed. The reflection in the glass doors had changed slightly. It was midday, and the light now brightened the foot of the bed. The glass doors were still opaque. He made sure she was steady; then he left her sitting and went over and pulled the drapes.
He returned to her and helped her recline on the bed. He took a blan-ket from the shelf in the closet and offered to put it over her.
“No. No thanks,” she said, raising her arm slightly. “But could you turn down the air conditioner a little? You can leave the blanket here.” She motioned to the bed beside her. He did these things. He bent over and kissed her forehead.
“I'm going out for a while. Do you want anything?”
“No, just a little rest is all.”
“Not long,” he said.
“Oh, I don't think I'll sleep.”
“I mean, I won't be gone long.”
“Oh, I see. Okay.” She let her head down on the pillow and looked at the ceiling. He went to the door, opened it, and left the room.
THE MOTEL WAS A LONG RECTANGULAR BUILDING, WITH a brief aluminum awning running over a narrow sidewalk the length of it. At the far end was a slightly larger building, a restaurant, and in front of the restaurant were two banks of gas pumps. Across the wide gravel drive in front of the motel was the old highway, now a secondary road, and across that, beyond the shoulder that was lined with a few yucca, and scrub he could not identify,
the desert began. In the distance were the low mountains, very distinct in the sun. It was hot and dry. Across the road from him, about seventy yards away (a half-wedge, he thought), there were two Indians in rough clothing working at a shallow ditch with shovels. Between the ditch and the road, two women sat on blankets with a few pieces of what looked like jewelry spread out in front of them. They were very close to the road, and when an occasional car went by, their loose, faded shirts stirred on their arms and around their necks and the corners of the blankets rippled.
He stayed under the awning and walked the length of the sidewalk, past the two cars in front of other rooms, the two air conditioners fixed in the window casements, humming. He walked across the few feet of gravel and entered the restaurant. There were a dozen or so formica tables along the windows, facing the old highway, and a long counter. He sat on a swivel stool and ordered coffee. A girl of about sixteen got it for him. He heard a car on the gravel behind him, and a middle-aged man in Western clothing, who had been sitting at a table near the door, went out. Along the counter to his right sat two men ; one looked to be a truck driver; the other was an Indian. The Indian looked his way and smiled. Like the men working across the road, he wore a faded chambray shirt and khaki pants. A red polka-dot handkerchief circled his head, tied in the back with two tails that touched his neck. The truck driver was bending over a plate of eggs and home fries; he gave his attention to his eating and did not look up. Pinned on the wall behind the counter, above the coffeemaker and glass shelves with pieces of pie on them, were a few post cards, a dollar bill in cellophane, and a small photograph of the restaurant taken from across the highway. He could make out two figures in the picture, a man and a woman about to enter the door. In the left corner of the photograph, standing at the end of the building, was a tall, erect man. He was facing into the camera. His figure was hazy and slightly out of focus, but he looked something like the Indian down the way.
He stirred his coffee and thought of the way the one had moved in behind him. The other was on the couch before him, sitting, hips at the edge, legs spread, and he was on one knee between them, touching her waist and breasts, biting her carefully, looking at her, putting his fingers in the sides of her mouth. Richard reclined in the orange chair watching; he was naked also, and the shadow push of the dim lights elongated his compact body, forcing the angles; he looked like a wasted El Greco, one arm on the back of the chair behind his head, his smile, the slant of cheekbone and dark hair. A small, plastic, crescent moonlight, with a face with little red eyes, sat on a shelf above Richard's head, and music was playing. He felt the tips of her fingers, her nails, on the small of his back, down over his buttocks, as she moved in behind him; she nipped his leg. The legs of the one he was in came up to gather his hips. The music was Santana, Little Feat, and the Doobie Brothers, various driving and loping popular pieces to which the three of them adjusted their movements. But really it was the two of them: he was in the middle, and though treated as he imagined a god might want or a man of wealth and power, it was the two smaller creatures who had control.
The one behind him squeezed something and ran cool fluid on him; he felt a thin line, delicate, but with a gravity like mercury, run down his inner leg, some gathering at his anklebones; the other one squealed and talked. He pulled her hair, held handfuls of her flesh; her heel bumped down his spine. For all he knew, the one behind him, in her somewhat mechanistic approach, could have brought the gun with whatever container held the cool liquid, could have placed them on the floor beside his foot. Andthen she could have caressed his flanks with one hand and taken the gun in the other, and what he felt of metal and thought was rings or hard nails or the edge of some instrument would be the barrel touching the delicate meat there. She could have been moving his passage toward some emblematic action as the other urged him on. And when he exploded or arrived some place they knew of, or almost arrived there, she could have
pulled the trigger, and he would have seen the final eyes in the plastic moon before he saw snow.