I said, "If you're a real nurse, how come you don't wear a uniform?"
She said, "If you're not a Christian, how come you're talking to Jesus? Twilight Zone is on. Grave robbers. Right up our alley."
DON'T let them leave without him," Merry said on the telephone later that night. "And listen, sugar. About the reward money: Get cash. I'll give you a third."
"I don't want it." Talking to Cyndi, hearing her voice, had made me feel guilty about tricking her.
"I'll start a savings account for you," Merry said. "For college."
"I'm not going to college."
"Escape money, then. In case you get into another jam. You're impulsive, just like Brother."
So this could go on and on, I thought, this getting into one jam after another. "Okay," I said.
"See you on the weekend," Merry said.
"But what if they know I'm lying?"
"Remember: You're not saying he is their dog. You're just saying he could be."
I hung up and wandered into the den, where LeeAnn sat in the recliner, finishing a crossword puzzle, her reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. "Whatever you and Merry are cooking up," she said, "I don't want to know about it."
"It's a losing proposition," I said.
"Six-letter word for nuts," LeeAnn said.
"Insane." I flopped down on the hairy brown couch.
My bare thighs immediately started itching. "What was my father really like?" I said. "Was he some kind of rebel?"
She lowered her newspaper. "Because he held up the liquor store?"
I sank back into the couch, feeling queasy. After a while I said, "How long was he in jail?"
"Not a day," LeeAnn said. "Your grandfather got him and his football buddies off scot-free. They were drunk when they did it, but still. Worst thing that could've happened, him not being held responsible. He slunk off in the dead of night and never came back."
I closed my eyes.
"Didn't you know?" LeeAnn said. "Shoot, I'm sorry. You acted like you did."
"I knew," I said, and I felt as if I had. My father had committed a stupid public act, left his home forever, and was still waiting for his comeuppance. I might be doing the same thing if Merry hadn't come along. It was much smarter to operate in the gray areas of life, the way Merry did. She would never cower; she'd never wait around for anything. And she'd never get caught.
CYNDI called me at noon from Española on the third day, and I gave her directions to the house. Afterward I sat on the front porch in my white sundress, drinking lemonade and telling myself I was the picture of trustworthiness. LeeAnn had gone to the laundromat, and when she got back, I was going to tell her that Junior's rightful owners had shown up out of the blue to claim him.
I gazed down the road. With Junior gone, I thought, I'd be too afraid to go on hikes, and Lisa had grown up and left us. That's what I was focusing on then--how bored I'd be without them.
A dusty gray Volvo pulled into the driveway. Cyndi stepped out first, smoothing down her flowered smock. She was very pregnant. "Tabitha?" she said, starting toward me. That was the name I'd given. My alias.
I set down my glass and jumped up to greet her. Confidence, I told myself. Pretend you're Merry.
Steve climbed out of the driver's side. He wore a sweaty T-shirt and running shorts, as if he hadn't even bothered to change before heading off across the country. He looked at me skeptically and didn't speak. I knew then that this trip was Cyndi's idea.
"Hello," I said, shaking Cyndi's damp hand. Her hair was long and wavy, pulled back in a messy ponytail. She had a large, pleasant face. I said, "How was the drive?"
"Horrendous," Steve said. "Illinois. And then Missouri."
"Would you like some lemonade?" I said.
"Where is he?" Cyndi said. "Where's Crunch?"
I'd shut Junior in my bedroom, thinking they should see him first in dim light. "Resting," I said. "It's his nap time."
When I opened the bedroom door, my knees were shaking. Junior reclined on my bed like a prince. He raised his head but didn't get up. Cyndi gasped and covered her mouth.
Steve crouched on the floor. "Crunch. Come here, boy."
Junior stared at them. "He doesn't remember us," Cyndi said, swaying on her feet. "Is that possible?"
"He's not awake yet," I said. "Wake up, Junior." He leaped up and pranced over to sit on my foot. I said, "I've been calling him Junior."
Junior. Steve patted the floor. Junior went to Steve, wagging his tail. I held my breath. Steve scratched Junior's ears and then inspected him all over, even examining his teeth. Finally Steve looked up at me, but I couldn't read his expression. "Thank you," he said gravely.
Cyndi plopped down on my bed, her face pale. "I still can't believe it. I haven't been able to sleep; my blood pressure's gone up. My due date's in six weeks."
"Sit," Steve said to Junior. Junior licked Steve's face. "Lie down," Steve said. Junior jumped up and put his paws on Steve's shoulders. Steve said, "He doesn't remember anything I taught him."
"Dumb dog," I said.
"Crunch," Cyndi called in a soft voice, and Junior trotted over and hopped up on the bed beside her. "Now he remembers," she murmured, hugging him. "He remembers. Hello, Crunch."
I thought. It could be. Or Crunch reincarnated. I started to cry, and I imagined Merry shaking her head in disgust.
"Are you sad about giving him up?" Cyndi said. "I'm sorry. I've been thinking only about myself."
"He's not Crunch," I said. "He's Junior. Hooneor."
Cyndi frowned at Steve. "Where are your parents?" Steve said.
"My grandmother." I gestured with my head. "She's senile." I wiped my nose on the back of my hand and then wiped my hand on my dress.
"I'm sure you're upset," Cyndi said. "You can get another dog."
"No," I said. "I'm trying to tell you. This dog came from the pound."
Cyndi and Steve exchanged concerned looks. "We're just glad you found him," Cyndi said, scooping up Crunch and handing him over to Steve. Crunch lay awkwardly in Steve's arms with his legs sticking straight out, and they both stroked him under the chin. They didn't care whether or not Junior was Crunch. They loved him no matter what.
"I almost drowned someone," I said. "I was scared and I took it out on her."
Cyndi patted my shoulder. "You'll be okay, Tabitha," Steve said.
"My name's not Tabitha," I said. "It's really Sophie St. John. My parents sent me out here from Iowa for the summer, but my grandmother doesn't even know me." I stopped crying, and my heart began to pound. I could feel their generosity infecting me. "You're not suckers," I said. "You're good people."
"That's nice," Cyndi said. She turned to Steve. "We should get going."
Crunch began to squirm, and Steve dumped him onto the floor. "I hate to leave Sophie here," Steve said to Cyndi. "We could give her a ride back to Iowa. It's on the way."
Cyndi slipped her arm around Steve's waist and sagged against him, but she didn't protest. I sensed they were playing some sort of game, a game in which they took turns leading valiant, ill-conceived rescue missions. One proposed a course of action that most people would consider absurd, and the other went along as though it all made perfect sense. Their game, the kindness and futility of it, and the way it bonded them together, made me like them even more.
"Why don't you call your parents?" Steve said. "We've got room in the car."
I sat down on the edge of my bed and blew my nose, remembering the last time I'd been home. Merry and I had swung by Magruder on our way to New Mexico. She stayed in her Lincoln, listening to the radio, while I went inside. My mother was there for the occasion. One by one they came forward and kissed me, blank-faced, as if I were in my coffin and they'd already cried themselves out. Daisy slipped me a fifty-dollar bill. "Buy yourself a summer dress," she said. My father hugged me with one arm, his face turned away. "See you soon," my mother said, opening the door like a hostess at a party. They seemed united, more like a family, with me gone.
Steve and Cyndi were watching me, waiting for my decision. "Thanks anyway," I said.
I followed them out onto the front porch, Junior trotting between them like their long-lost son. Cyndi and Junior climbed into the car, but Steve stopped in the driveway. "Is a check okay?"
I had forgotten about the reward money. "Don't worry about it," I said.
"That was the agreement," Steve said, turning toward the car. "I'll get my checkbook."
DURING the night my grandmother died in her sleep. LeeAnn discovered her in the morning and called the funeral home. After the coroner pronounced her dead, the funeral-home men took her away, wrapped in one of her quilts. LeeAnn and I spent all morning on the phone. We couldn't reach Merry. She was already on the road somewhere between Ohio and New Mexico. My father said they would come out to New Mexico as soon as they could get a flight.
In the afternoon I asked LeeAnn if she wanted to go for a walk. The sky was clouding up behind the mountains, but we set out anyway. "We get storms every day in midsummer," LeeAnn said. "No biggie."
"I never got to know Grandmother," I said. "I wish I felt sadder. I'll miss Junior more than I will her."
LeeAnn, striding along beside me in shorts and hiking boots, just nodded. It had never occurred to me that LeeAnn would own a pair of hiking boots. It was odd seeing her outside, in the daylight, moving along with such assurance that she seemed to leave an impression in the air behind her, like an echo. I realized she'd been walking on this road for years. "What are you going to do now?" I asked her. "Where will you go?"
"I've got a husband in Santa Fe," she said. "I need to make amends and move on."
I waited for her to elaborate, but she didn't. "Me too," I said. Someday I would have to talk to Lisa, the real Lisa, face to face. A gust of wind kicked up the dust around us, sending a plastic cup flying past our feet. We bowed our heads and kept walking. Clouds rolled over us, and I felt the first drops of rain. LeeAnn stopped and pointed to an adobe house with a rail fence around it. I'd gotten used to seeing it every day on my walks. "That's where I used to live," she said, and we stood there in the rain looking at the house, which was for me transformed again into something mysterious. The windows in front were open, and white lace curtains whipped in the wind.
WHEN Merry pulled into the driveway that evening, I left LeeAnn in the kitchen and went out on the front porch to get it over with. Merry nosed her Lincoln right up to the steps as if she were docking a boat. Then she climbed out, brushing her hair from her eyes with a bejeweled hand. She was wearing the purple caftan, which was stained between her breasts. Coffee or chocolate. "I'm beat," she said.
I sat down on the top porch step, wishing I didn't have to give her bad news.
She came up and sat on the step beside me. "Run get the money," she said.
I forced myself to look in her eyes, which were both brown. "I've got a check, made out to me. I think we should split it fifty-fifty." I'd practiced saying this in front of the mirror, but even so my voice lacked authority.
She sighed dramatically and dropped her head. "And I've got a funeral to pay for."
"How did you know about the funeral?"
"I picked up negative vibes all across Missouri," she said, "but I didn't want to believe them. Finally I pulled over and called Brother."
We sat in silence, looking out at the sagebrush. My mouth was so dry I couldn't swallow. Merry glanced at her watch. "Holy moley." She stood up and jumped off the steps. "Help me get my stuff in, sugar," she said, dashing around to the rear of her car. "Then we need to carry the furniture out of the house. A man's coming for it in half an hour." She opened up the trunk and peered at me around the lid. "We have to do it before Brother gets here. He'll try to lay claim to the whole kit and caboodle." Her face disappeared and I could hear her rummaging around in the trunk.
I remembered what LeeAnn had said about Merry the majorette, making all the kids march behind her in a parade. I could see there would never be a halt unless I called it. "You're on your own, Aunt Merry." I hadn't practiced saying this, but it sounded as if I had.
Just then LeeAnn yelled through the open window, "Fried chicken!"
Merry slammed her trunk shut and blew past me into the house. I went in behind her, walking at a leisurely pace.
THE following summer, when I was sixteen, I got a part-time job at the Magruder city pool. They put me down in the basement of the rec center, next to the locker rooms. I sat on a stool behind a battered wooden counter, collecting admission fees and handing out wire baskets and locker keys attached to large safety pins. Most of my earnings I put in a savings account I'd started with my half of Steve and Cyndi's check. Escape money.
One Saturday afternoon after a heavy rainfall, when the pool was virtually empty, Lisa and her mother came through. Lisa's hair was cut in a bob, and she wore a Speedo bathing suit. Her mother, a beautiful, haggard-looking woman, trailed behind her, wearing thongs with big plastic daisies on them, smoking a cigarette.
"Hello, Lisa," I said. My face flushed, and I wished I'd kept my mouth shut.
Lisa looked up. She didn't recognize me or even seem to wonder how I knew her name. "Hi," she said. She grabbed her mother's hand and tugged. "I'm going off the high dive. First thing."
Her mother smiled at me and rolled her eyes. She didn't recognize me either. "We got a show-off here." She slid some change across the counter. "The diving board at the club isn't as high as this one."
I held out their baskets and keys, and Mrs. Lazar took them. I had to say something more to Lisa. "I'm the one who held you under water. Two summers ago." I smiled idiotically. "Sorry."
Lisa nodded. "Okay." She started running down the hall toward the women's dressing room. "Cowabunga!" she yelled.
A line was forming behind Mrs. Lazar. She glared at me, gearing herself up to give me a piece of her mind, even though, I could tell, she'd rather not be bothered. She took a drag of her cigarette. "I sincerely hope you got rehabilitated up in Des Moines," she said.
"I did," I said. "Completely."
Kids in line were pushing and shoving. Mrs. Lazar kept glaring at me, waiting for me to grovel. The ash on her cigarette was ready to drop onto my counter.
"But then again," I said, "I might do the same thing any time. Or worse."
"I see," she said. She turned and addressed a suntanned woman behind her. "I guess they let anyone work here. This place used to have some class."
"Hurry up," the suntanned woman barked.
Mrs. Lazar shook her head in a world-weary way and flip-flopped off down the hall, flicking her ash on the floor as she went.
The suntanned woman handed me a crumpled dollar bill. "Some folks think they run the world," she said. "If you know what I mean."
"I do," I said. "I certainly do."
The Atlantic Monthly; April, 1996; Junior; Volume 277, No. 4; pages 91-102.