Bernard Carey's father had always said that shutting up and then staying shut up was the smartest way to go through life. Silence, he said, was without risk. Silence, he said, was often taken as wisdom. Correctly, he said. People would always be waiting for you to say something, which was good.
He held nightly demonstrations in his parlor, in long nights of infinite wisdom, unfiltered Camels in his soundless mouth, his eyes going into a semi-roll as he watched the smoke flare from his nostrils and waft toward the ceiling. But Carey the son, himself a mostly silent man, suspected that his father's philosophy was less calculated than a justification for a natural muteness over which he had no control. That his mother was only moderately verbose heightened the effect. She took her cue from her husband. At some point in her life she had just gotten tired of talking and not being answered. They had both gone to the grave without much change in their general dispositions.
The older Carey gets, the more he feels that wordlessness is the way to go on with things. His lack of children, and his wife's declining state, only reinforce this conviction. After many days over the past few years he has slid under the bedcovers at night and, in a recounting of the day that smoothes his passage to sleep, has realized he has uttered not a single word. How amazing that seems. At the end of these lean days he feels no sense of loss.
How his brother got to be such a motormouth is a genetic mystery. Or perhaps Tommy has come to fill a necessary role, leavening the family pall. His presence oozes into the voids. He became a raconteur early on, despite their father's proclamations that talkers were fools. The family tenement seemed to be Tommy's rehearsal stage. Often, as a boy, Carey had passed Tommy and his pals, at the park or in front of the old Pleasant Street Drug Store, and heard from Tommy's mouth the same monologue he had heard at supper the night before—but polished and tightened now, the timing and delivery down.
Yes, Tommy has done well in this respect; he is always bent toward the ear of one of the local pols, always gripping and grinning at their fundraisers and their public appearances. But is this the way for a grown man to conduct himself? Carey, despite his lowly station as a laborer in the mills of Fall River, can't help seeing that political crowd as nothing more than boys in arrested adolescence. What does Tommy want, and how will he get it? Carey remembers the nasty business of kickbacks on construction of the city high school, and Tommy's sudden public persona, denying charges with an arrogant and winning smile. The school was built, and Tommy moved out to his big new house, unbloodied. What a piece of work. What a talker. Is he really from the same family?
Carey wonders this now, on this morning of the Fourth of July, 1978, as he sits with his coffee at the kitchen table, waiting. He has on a pair of wool pants (half of the only suit he has ever owned) and his white shirt, which has hung unmolested in the closet since Christmas, when they went out to Pittsfield to visit Joyce's cousin. Now he feels its starchy constitution moistening in the heat of early day. The coffee is tepid, from sitting; he goes to the refrigerator, fishes two ice cubes out of the aluminum ice tray, and dumps them into the cup, and adds sugar. He has already gone down to the corner variety store for his newspaper, which lies before him. He has been through the sports pages twice, and now he's getting edgy.
"Joyce," he calls. "How are you coming along?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Fine. He flashes his mind forward to the end of this day, which he understands will consist of too many dredged words, too many forced remarks. He thinks of tonight, when he and Joyce can pull chairs up to the kitchen window, turn out the lights, and watch the fireworks soar over the adjacent roof line. Small traditions. The closeness of the park makes the kitchen a perfect vantage—so close that the booming finale always makes the windows vibrate in their frames. But that will be later, across the chasm that will be this day.
Tommy called at seven this morning, proposing an outing, a drive in his new Chrysler to points undetermined. When Carey tried to put him off, Tommy said—low, as if he didn't want someone there to hear—"Hey, we have to. How would it seem if we didn't do anything with Joyce before, you know."
"I know," Carey said. "I know."
So they're coming, any time now. He sits, waiting for Joyce to finish with her makeup, which has become, in the past few months, a mask to maintain the veneer of health. But when he told her, she seemed to think this drive was a good idea. To get out, to do something.
He hears the beep of a car horn outside, and then Tommy's unmistakable voice, in comic falsetto: "Oh, Bernard!" It's the same call Carey grew up with, the half-demeaning summons that had seemed a reaction, so far back, to his stalled fighting career. In those teenage years Tommy had seemed troubled as attention shifted from himself briefly to his brother; he had quickly gotten into the habit of needling Carey in the many tender places. "Hey, Bernard," he'd sing, "those guys punch some smarts into you yet?" "Hey, Bernard, aren't you getting tired of the taste of leather?" He continued to needle, probably just out of habit, even after Carey quit fighting. Now, as always, he is calling "Bernard" in that singsong way. But Carey doesn't care anymore.
He goes to the window and waves. The car, black and gleaming, is double-parked. "That'll be hell to keep clean," Carey shouts down. Tommy, in sunglasses, calls back up: "Yeah, take your time. We got the AC going here."
Carey moves to the bedroom door. Joyce is sitting on the end of the bed, looking at herself in the mirror over the dresser.
"Joyce, they're here."
"Oh." She looks at him. "Okay."
She's wearing a tan dress that he remembers as having once been tight on her. She stands up, adjusts her hair with a quick motion, and smiles blandly. "Okay," she says again.
The drive turns out to be to a house that Tommy and Ellen are thinking of buying as a rental property. Tommy already owns three triple-deckers, although he has put two of them back on the market. This is a duplex, Tommy says, just a minor stop on a carefree day. The kids are along, Tommy in the front seat between his parents, Margaret in back between Carey and Joyce.
Tommy controls the conversation, telling stories of past Independence Days. Carey feels himself relaxing, now realizing that all that will be required of him is a few well-placed words of assent, of acknowledgment, to keep the ball rolling. Tommy goes into a long-winded recitation of the time the two of them, as boys, had spent two days after the Fourth collecting unexploded firecrackers, slitting them, and accumulating the gunpowder in a baby-food jar.
"Remember that, Bernard? What were we—you eight? Me ten? We filled that jar halfway up and spent all morning walking around with it, out in the sun. Unbelievable. I mean, why not just put hand grenades in our pockets, right? Didn't we drop it?"
"You did," Carey says. "On Brayton Avenue."
"Oh, shit, that's right," Tommy says. "We're walking, and my hands were getting sweaty, and I drop this jar of gunpowder, and it goes, like, bonk! and rolls into the curb. Joyce, we decided to go swimming then, down at Stafford Pond, so we put the jar on a rock in the noonday sun! We're out there swimming, and like, POW! Remember that, Bernard?"
"I remember," Carey says. He remembers clearly: the flinch and turn he did as the jar exploded. A piece of flying glass had caught him above the shoulder blade, embedding itself in the soft flesh. He remembers, too, how Tommy, scared that their father would punish them, removed that bloodied shard with the tip of his penknife. Yes, he remembers exactly that sharp sting in his back, this many years later. "Did we ever tell Dad about that?" he asks.
"Are you kidding?" Tommy says. "Never." Joyce looks at Carey and manages a wan smile. Ellen, in the front seat, turns and looks at Joyce and then at Carey. A look of worry and fright.
At the end of a wooded street they slow to have a look at the duplex. Tommy dismisses it as of no interest and guns the car into a swerving U-turn, announcing that business should give way to pleasure. He gets on the interstate and takes the bridge out toward Providence.
"Feel this," Tommy says.
Carey doesn't understand. "Feel what?" he says.
"That's exactly what I mean," Tommy says. "You don't feel anything. No sense of motion. Is this ride smooth? It's like we're standing still. What do we think, Joyce?"
She looks mildly startled, like a daydreaming pupil suddenly called on by the teacher.
"The car," Tommy says. "You like it, Joyce?"
"Beautiful, Tommy. It feels like we're standing still."
"Yeah, well we're not," Tommy says.
Carey looks out the window. Indeed, the landscape is hurtling by.
Joyce sits again in the waiting room of the doctor's office, passing time as she always passes time when she comes here to be examined. The waits are always long. Hour upon hour, it seems, a mounting fraction of her life. As the future grows short and the news less promising, how is it that this place takes up more of her time? But there is the air conditioning. She sits wedged into the end of a hard couch, scanning magazines, not worrying about when she will be summoned to the doctor. If she weren't here, she'd be lying on her bed in this demonic heat, with a wet washcloth across her forehead and over her eyes, her cool shroud. So she's here instead. She has spent the past year overcoming her fear of this small space, of the attenuated flow of time as she sits jangly and watchful, waiting for her name ("Mrs. Carey?"), and of the horrible sense that something just beyond the temporal horizon, something she has to wait for, will determine ultimate outcomes. She remembers once, years ago, when Carey went nuts and bought a forty-dollar block of raffle tickets on a car, and how he said to her, "By tonight we could be driving a Lincoln," and how she thought of the bridge of hours that had to be crossed to get to that moment (which of course turned out to be disappointing). Now, here, the issue is remaining comfortable. The doctor will sit with her and ask the questions he has to ask: Any discomfort? Can I give you something for the pain? Despite all the waiting in the outer office, these visits are down to three or four minutes, extended handholding. Plans have been made for what will happen when she has to go to the hospital. Her paperwork is done, waiting in some drawer.
Across from her, on the opposite wall, is a framed print of a famous painting she recognizes but cannot identify. The colors lean toward dark, and the glass silvers in the fluorescent lights overhead. She can see her reflection. Her hair. It had been a light brown all her life, and when it fell out, she took a tuft, put it in a sandwich bag, traveled to Providence on a bus, and bought a wig that, although cheap and obvious, at least approximated her color. Then her hair grew back, but it wasn't her hair. It was steely-gray, wiry and severe, and just not hers. This neither shocked nor upset her. She has mentally catalogued all the things in her life that are done with and irretrievable; this is just another one. She is only a little beyond thirty, yet gray-haired and aged. She wore that wig for a long time, until the summer heat made it impossible.
Her husband has stopped taking days off to accompany her. He has used up all his sick time on her sickness. She told him months ago that he might as well stay at work. They need the money. She takes the bus alone and then eats at the Woolworth's lunch counter, chicken salad on lightly toasted white bread, with cole slaw. Then she walks slowly down South Main Street toward her doctor's office, relaxing so as not to sweat too much and induce a chill while she's waiting. She knows that if she's a bit late, no one will mind.
Her parents are dead. She has a sister who went out to Illinois five years ago; their correspondence thinned and then disappeared altogether. In the doctor's office she often sees women like herself encumbered with stunned and worried mothers, or with children already hardened to these deadening trips, beyond worry and in the process of readjusting the way they understand their own lives. Joyce has no children. She is glad, because she can think of no greater worry than leaving a child in life's hard light while giving oneself up to the void. She has told this to Father Casey, told him as she crouched in a dark confessional on a cold winter's day, and she could tell by his silence that he was thrown off by the truth of this thought.
How odd, though. After all the years during which her reproductive workings lay dormant, why were they so coldly efficient at producing this contorted fruit? Her stomach has been swelling for months. This is, the doctor says, an "aggressive" cancer. People who don't know her think she's pregnant.
She waits to be called. She waits to tell her story, although she knows her story is nothing special. The nurse behind the window smiles and then returns to her charts. All so nice. These people have become friends, in a way, as have a few other patients she has come to know by their frequent and proximate appointments. She knows their faces and stories, but rarely their names. Then, one day, a new person is filling the appointment slot.
It's a Thursday. By the time she gets home and has a rest, he'll be coming in, reforming his energies for his softball game. Sometimes, lately, he'll tell her about it when he gets back, if she is awake that late. His enthusiasm reminds her of when she was first sick, when her illness was an opponent, when they tried together to understand the treatments the doctors had laid out for them, when they became conversant in the ways malignancies were attacked and battered. They hadn't understood; neither of them had ever been good at that sort of thing. But they had fed on the excitement and the unrelieved dread.
She tries not to wonder how far forward he imagines his life. Does it stretch into old age, into stages beyond her scope, like constellations not visible to her? So be it. He has to, she supposes.
When she is called by the nurse, and led to the examining room, she goes without much feeling either way. She expects the usual prodding and movements—"This way, please. And now the other."
She encounters the usual talk, the writing of prescriptions. She is left alone to dress, and she takes her time. On her way out of the office she says her good-byes. At the glass door to the sidewalk, where people hurry past in the heat, she lingers, if only for a minute or two, to savor the undemanding coolness of this place.
The Red Sox are playing a twi-night doubleheader tonight. Carey has brought his radio to the kitchen table and turned it on low, so that he can hear it as he eats. It's a little past six. He stares at the small speaker as if it were a television.
Eating, he finds he can't meet his wife's eyes. Joyce is sitting across from him, her hands folded on the table, but he eats as he would if she were not here at all. He has known, from the moment he came up the back stairs and through the door and found her dressed and seated in the living room, that she prepared herself all day to talk about "the future." For weeks she's been saying, "We have to talk about the future," but what she means, of course, is his future. That's what they need to plan, and he isn't nearly ready to get into it with her.
He eats fast, mechanically, taking down the lasagna that she has baked but won't eat. He knows she won't, but still he looks up at her and points his fork at her food and says, "Eat."
"I'll eat some after you go to softball," she says. He knows that she'll scrape the food into the garbage pail after he leaves.
"We should talk about the insurance," she finally says. He wants to say to her, Why? The insurance amounts to almost nothing. He can already envision the medical bills stretching out over the years, infinitely. She said to him once, "I can't stand thinking you'll have to carry that on your back." But he sees it differently, preferring to think that those offerings will connect him to her for a long time after. He shouldn't get out of this so easily. He has to be punished for being well while she disintegrates in front of him.
"We don't have to talk about all that now," he says. "Why don't you try to eat? It's good." He hasn't much to say. Because they have no children, they have never had more than a vague feeling of anticipation about how a child might make things different. They've never lived in a house they owned. Carey feels in himself the fundamental failure of her two miscarriages, whatever his contribution to those tragedies. Here she is, dying in a dingy place. He has given her nothing.
But now she's pressing him, and despite her condition and her suffering, he is beginning to feel annoyed. A few nights ago she wanted to talk about her funeral. He got angry, convinced that this was somehow none of her business. He knew she wanted to lobby for the cheapest way; he had tried to joke. "You don't get off that easy," he said. "Joyce, you're being way too dramatic. Someday they'll call you Widow Carey."
"Yeah, right," she said, and she allowed a slight smile, and that was the end of it, temporarily.
"We can't just keep putting all this off," she says now. He leans into the radio and hangs on the progress of the first inning as if absorbed by its importance. She sits quietly, waiting.
"We don't have to talk about it," he says.
He doesn't want to talk because any talk will involve lying about things. She doesn't know that he has already called on his brother for a loan to cover the arrangements.
He met Tommy at a bar, the Sportsman's, a week before. The phone call Carey placed to Tommy's office divulged nothing specific, but he knew that Tommy would have a pretty good idea what it was about. Indeed, at the Sportsman's, Tommy (fat with his construction company, and with his politician friends) listened grimly and then took a thick sheaf of bills from his wallet. "Anything you need, Bernard," he said, and Carey was caught off guard by Tommy's easy generosity and by the vulgarity of the money being waved around.
"Jesus, Tommy, she's not dead yet," he said. "Put your money away. I'm going to call you when I need it. Maybe she'll get better."
Tommy looked him hard in the eyes. "It would be a lovely miracle, wouldn't it?"
Carey slurped the top off his beer and said, "Yeah, it's not going to happen."
He hadn't seen Tommy in a year, and for two years before that time. Tommy has built a place in a rustic pocket outside the city, past Mechanicsville. Oh, the ironic trajectories. He would never have guessed that Tommy, only two years older and perpetually in scrapes as a kid, would find a way to build his own company and be out there calling the shots.
Carey drove by Tommy's new house once, on a summer evening a year ago, on his way to fish a lake with Machado, from the mill. He saw the fresh-cedar place in a graveled clearing among firs, with a battered pickup truck in front, ladders laid across the topframe, and a new station wagon next to the truck. Tommy had started out as a fighter too, but with his height he'd made middleweight; he was hired in his first construction job to herd and break some of the laborers. Then he made some friends, particularly politicians. Tommy frequently attended "times" for nascent officeholders. This could not have hurt.
At the bar Carey leaned toward his brother and said, "Not a goddamned word about this to Joyce," but he knew the chances of any such leak were remote. Their parents were long dead, their sister lived somewhere up in Maine, and the only family gathering that might occur would be an accidental encounter at a supermarket or on a downtown sidewalk. But Joyce spent more and more time tethered to their apartment, afraid of vomiting in public or of losing her legs underneath her; so even a chance encounter was unlikely.
At the end of their talk, outside the bar, Tommy said, "How long has she got, Bernard?"
Carey took a while to answer. "I don't know," he said. "Into next year, maybe. She might see the spring."
"That's too bad," Tommy said.
"Yeah," Carey said. "I'll see you."
Now, as Carey forks through his lasagna with his wife staring at him across the table, he sees no point in going through a matter already settled.
"How long do you have before you go?" Joyce says.
"Not long. I have to get down there early to make sure everything's set. Maybe we can talk when I get home."
She says nothing.
"I'd better be on my way," he says. He flicks off the radio and stands up. "You're going to eat, right?"
"In a little while."
"You have to eat, right? You can't just not eat, right?"
"Okay, then. I'll see you later."
"Eat," he says.
Out the door and down South Main toward the park, he knows he should be home with her. But what would they do? He's afraid that his memory of their waning time will become a frozen image of them staring at each other, searching for words.
Halfway to the park he's thinking about the team. He has found himself becoming more and more obsessed with the season, even more than he used to be. He wants to be lucky, the way he wanted to be lucky when she had her first, all too brief, remission. That kind of luck can't be wished for now. Fall and winter will bring breakdown and lingering death. Summer of next year, he imagines, will be a different life altogether. He wishes her the luck of a painless end. She is not yet at that point, but he can see the grim inevitability of it. He can see the constant small lapses that will grow and compound.
Lying in bed as the clock's phosphorescent hands creep toward three, Carey watches the slow rise and fall of his wife's back, edged in the weak light, barely perceptible in its actions. He wants to wrap his arm around her and pull her toward him, but she won't like being awakened; she hadn't liked it even when she was well. She has always kept a fundamental separateness, and he wonders if that is something only between them, or something that most people experience. She has her silence, now and waking, the odd way she has begun to be like him. They have so little to talk about, except the dry actuality of now: How was work, what did the doctor say, et cetera, et cetera. The future is not a frame for conversation, because of its obvious irrelevance to her. He can't bring himself to talk about the past, either, with its heavy sense of summing up: Remember when we ... ?
He knows he should, but he can't. He is trying so very hard not to think of the past or the future. But most nights he can't sleep, and he wonders how she can. Does the sickness anesthetize her? Or is she past worry? He can't ask her. He is afraid he will scare her. So tonight he is still, watching the metronomic rise and fall of her back, wondering what things he will forget and what he will always remember.
They married young and found an apartment on Division Street, a place with yellow walls and loud neighbors. Joyce was twenty and didn't want babies yet. She was so glad to be out of her parents' home and in a place that was really hers, she said, that she had to first get over the feeling of playing house, the feeling that the game would end and she'd have to go back. They paid ten dollars a week for the place; cars roared by outside at all times of the night. They'd lie in bed listening to the close sounds of quarrels, the slamming of doors, shouting from the street. It didn't matter, at least for then.
She went to her parish priest, Father Mac, who instructed her in the rhythm method, although he clearly knew more about other things, such as hockey. Carey trusted her expertise on this, but he found himself in the drugstore buying a big box of rubbers. He needed to feel safe from too many responsibilities too soon. When he came home, put the paper bag on the table, and extracted the box, she hooted. "Whoa!"
He laughed and said, "What?"
"Nothing," she said, and she laughed some more.
The box was emptied in no time. He had just started at the mill. Each day he worked himself into a sweet exhaustion and then nearly ran home to get to her. On summer nights they'd make love in the late light and then dress and take a bus downtown. On South Main was a place called Guy's that had wonderful ice cream, slabby stuff that crumbled under the press of their tongues. They felt like they needed that ice cream, and they would sit nearly every night on a bench at the bus stop, waiting for their return ride, watching the sun drop on the bay, sighting down the narrow gap along Rodman Street.
She liked to talk about the past and the future all at once sometimes, and he liked to listen, really liked it, not to humor her but in earnest appreciation of her talkativeness, the excitement she found in small moments. He thought it was a big change from his parents' steely self-restraint, and even from Tommy's silken ramblings, which always arrived finally at a price to be exacted from the listener. Joyce demanded nothing in return, not even his full attention; she just liked talking. She was still in the spell of loamy possibilities then. She gave their children names, and laid out a whole line of them in stories that seemed like recollections. He didn't have to say anything, and didn't.
"The first one is Bernard, of course, named after you," she would say. "The next one is a girl, Mary Margaret ..." He'd grin, and she'd see it, and she'd be off on a tear, for his amusement and discomfort, until their lives were filled: "... and then Matthew and Marty, the fraternal twins, and little Colleen ..." He'd laugh some more and try to cover her mouth with his hand, and she'd bite it, gently. The next day or the next week she would rearrange the names, the order, the characteristics. The oldest became Molly, flame-haired and demanding. The youngest of the five was Billy, who sucked his thumb too long and required expensive orthodontia. Billy the baby, with his wailing fits in the crib, next time became Sally, an angel, really.
But in that yellow-walled apartment they never consciously moved toward any such fruition. They had friends who, couple by couple, became parents, more often than not without trying. Carey assumed, as Joyce must have, that the time would come when she would be pregnant, despite their precautions. And when she did not become pregnant, they congratulated themselves on their expert execution of the rhythm method, and on the fine imperviousness of modern latex. Somewhere along that line of years Carey began to wonder what would happen if they tried and couldn't.
He noticed that their sprawling, fictitious family began to shrink in Joyce's telling. Now when she spun out her prognostications, there were four children, and then three, and then only Steven and Suzy, a year apart and good playmates. Then it was young Jack, an only child, but able to have the room of his own his parents had never had.
One night, somewhere along that continuum of years, they walked to Guy's for ice cream and then, as always, sat staring at the glint of visible water. This time they had come over right after eating dinner; like most people years into married life, they were beyond some of the novelty, willing to arrange their lives around other moments. That evening he ate his ice cream not thinking of anything in particular. She looked at him until he looked back.
"Do you think it's time for us to try for kids, really try?" she said.
"I think so," he said. "Sure."
And so his life with her shifted into what he would finally come to see as the second of three parts. They knew that their small apartment was unsuitable. Through that fall of their sixth year of marriage they began to look for a new place. Joyce would ask about the schools; Carey's thoughts would shift to Mary Margaret reciting a poem, or to young Billy scrapping in the schoolyard. When they finally arrived at the right place, fifteen dollars a week, upstairs from the Oliveiras and the insistent fragrance of baking bread, they declared themselves ready. The supply of rubbers was allowed to dwindle (ignoring them somehow seemed like wasting money), and after two months they began to feel that their task might not be so easy. After six months he could see that she was on the edge of panic, and when they signed to renew their lease for another year, he felt stunned that they were still childless.
Neither Carey nor Joyce had been to a doctor since they were children. Now they entered the terrain of office visits and tests and weekends nervously killed off in anticipation of the Monday call with lab results, which were brutally consistent. Of course they weren't completely shocked; the thought of infertility had crept into his mind some time before. Their friends had reached a point—three kids, four—where they announced each conception with rising disgust. One went into money panic for weeks when he learned he would have another mouth to feed. Carey and Joyce understood this as a problem they would never suffer. He began to push away thoughts of his anticipated children, not allowing them to play long on the vast fields of his mind. Their wraithlike voices came to him when he was on the cusp of sleep, petitioning him, demanding their due passage to flesh. In the morning he would walk to work muttering back at them to stop it.
They were in their late twenties and would not have children. Carey decided that he could live with this.
What seemed far more stunning, on a day when he stood stacking boxes in the mill, was that he had been there nearly ten years, the past nine at minimum wage plus a dime. That, too, had suddenly formed into the shape of his future. Was it so bad? Had he ever wanted more? He couldn't remember ever having any definite ideas. Tommy carried the family's thin strain of virulent opportunism. It seemed foreign yet somehow laudable. Tommy had money, a big house, a nice car. He had acquired these with the mouth, motored by a completely average mind, maybe even below average. He used his mouth to batter people, to wear them down.
Joyce had spent all those years working on and off as a temp, typing and filing, usually at minimum wage. They got by, in their small apartment, with their one car and their careful spending. They demanded so little. That was what he remembered her saying, the night after they had come from a new round of doctor's visits, this time for pains in her stomach, and they had found out exactly how sick she was. The doctor kept telling her that if she had only come to him earlier, he might have been able to do something. Carey suspected, but felt he could never ask her, that she had ignored this sickness because they already had so many bills. The doctor said, "Weren't you in pain?" and when she looked at the doctor and just shrugged, Carey knew. They got home that night in December at dinnertime, but they weren't in a mood to eat. For a long time they sat at the kitchen table with their winter coats on. She sat as if completely calm. She pushed back a loose strand of her light brown hair. When she looked at him, only her eyes, their glazed shock, gave her away. She quietly said, "What did I ever ask for?"
The question begged no answer. He did not speak. He knew that would become a memory someday, her asking that. He knew that, all in all, she had never really asked for anything. He wondered if she should have.
Carey tries the big oak door at the front of the church. It's closed, so he goes around the side, trying every door he comes to and finding each one locked. He supposes a prayer is just as good outside as in, but he has come to get down on his knees, and he thinks a person who needs to should find a way. Around back, now sure that he's locked out, he tries a little door between the shrubs, and it gives. When he steps into the dark, his foot at first touches nothing, and he lowers himself, realizing that he's on a steep stairway into the basement. He works his way down, and at the bottom he feels his way along a wall until his hand hits a light switch. When he flips it, he sees that all around him are the effects of the religion he has avoided for so long. The dusty forest of candlesticks and crucifixes and kneelers gives way to a hall and then another staircase, and when he comes up through, he is in the sacristy. He finds another door onto the chancel, and when the edges creak from parting, the echo bangs through the nave and into the arches. He lets his eyes adjust to the one altar candle that flickers in its red glass. He is at the side altar, and he moves toward the center, feeling along the marble altar rail. He lowers himself onto a red-velvet kneeling cushion that has gone flat, and the hardness of the marble beneath comes right up into his knees, the way it did when he was a boy, when the nuns punished him by making him kneel on pencils and say Hail Marys, so certain of the need for pain as a path to grace. He tries to start a prayer, but the words are all mixed up.
His knees are on those pencils again, and the terror is like a band across his chest. All the things that have been pushed down must be admitted now, must be the source of whatever plea he is trying to form. He lowers his head and thinks about what he wants.
Then a door flies open, and Carey pushes up to his feet. He is in the fix of a flashlight beam, and someone is behind it, breathing, speaking: "What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm praying," Carey says, his voice flat; it sounds like a lie, even to him.
"How did you get in here?"
"I found a way," he says. "I just needed to ... pray ..."
He is moving toward the back of the church, not quite running, and he calls to the flashlight, "I wasn't trying to make trouble." The footsteps are following him, and he hears them softening, slowing.
"You don't have to leave," the voice says. "I just needed to know what was going on ..."
"That's okay," Carey says as he tries the big door, pulling against its unyielding weight. With his searching fingertips he finds that it's locked with a dead bolt. "It's okay. I'm sorry."
"I'll let you out, but you don't have to go," the voice says.
Carey hears the keys jingling in the dark. The flashlight moves and is turned on its bearer, and Carey sees the priest, the face familiar but the name not. Carey gave up on religion at fourteen; he knows this man from the street, not the sanctuary. The priest is old and small, armed only with his flashlight and his waning indignation. His face is like a blade, and his white hair is cut close to the skin. He is sweating in the heat.
"People break in and steal, amazingly," the priest says. "Nobody's keeping you from making your peace."
"Just let me out," Carey says.
The priest tries three keys before he gets the right one. He holds the flashlight in his armpit while his gnarled hands work through the keys of a hundred solemn locks in this huge church. Even after he has stilled the keys, the jangling resounds up in the arches, faintly, ghosts of the offertory bells. When the priest pushes in the key, he breathes out, because he is as shaken up as Carey. He slides the bolt back and then straightens.
"I don't know what you came asking for, and I won't push to find out," the priest says. "But after all these years, I've come to believe it all boils down to pretty much one answer."
Carey lowers his head.
"It's 'Do your best,'" the priest says, and he smiles sadly. Then he pushes open the door, and Carey is out into the night, into the noise of the traffic. Behind him he hears the big door slam closed.
In some of his close-to-sleep deliberations he imagines robbing a bank and, with his wife and the money, going somewhere. Florida? The bank-robbery scenario somehow calms his guilt. He imagines himself at the trial, in an empty courtroom, explaining himself before being sentenced to prison by a sympathetic yet stern judge. Prison probably isn't so bad. Some guys he knows have been in prison, and they don't seem so bad off. He sees those guys in the warehouse from time to time, usually young offenders whose parents know the bosses. They don't seem to have minded prison. Who would want to hang around an empty apartment? The robbery scenario answers the main question that plagues him, which is the gnawing uncertainty of what will happen to him.
Joyce stirs and calms. She is looking so old. She is looking so broken, a mechanism of worn gears. And she always used to look younger. Younger than Carey, younger than her actual age. She has gone from being a bashful girl to being a fragile, aging woman. Watching this, he feels the acceleration of their lives; now, for the first time, he is thinking about what he might have let pass him by, what chances have intersected their lives and been ignored. In his years at the mill he has never even applied for another job. Now that he is arranging loans from his brother, he sees he has made mistakes, many mistakes; his biggest has been a too-easy acceptance of the kind of life he was living.
He turns over onto his stomach, and Joyce shifts and reaches back to feel for him. The back of her hand grazes against his leg, and then it goes limp and he can hear her breathing again. He thinks about his hits at that night's game, about his fifth-inning single, which brought Chaves and Murray loping in. He thinks about Chip's home run, the ease of it. He tries vainly to calculate his current batting average. It is somewhere around .360. Not all that bad—not very impressive for slow-pitch, but helpful to the success of the team. He drifts off near sleep, becomes sleepless again, and then drifts off. A few minutes later he opens his eyes. He looks at the clock. It's past two-thirty.
"You're awake," she says, her voice reedy.
"So Tommy's paying for my funeral."
He waits a long time, and then he says, "It's a loan."
"He wasn't supposed to say anything."
"He never is," Joyce says. "But what's a favor if you can't make a big deal about it?"
"I thought he'd have more respect. How did you hear?"
"I heard," she whispers.
"I didn't think you went out today."
"I go out sometimes."
She shifts, and he feels the lightness of her fingertips on his arm.
And here again he can think of nothing to say. His core silence chokes him, and if there is anything he could say right now, the words don't come to him. He forms a thought, moves to voice it, and falls back. He already knows he will remember this. When he finally thinks of what he might say, he hears her soft breathing and knows she isn't with him anymore, and that she wasn't waiting for anything at all.