And so she did. This was something she could do, drive a car on Frontage Road, as she’d done for almost 30 years now. She drove past the Toll House Inn, past the bankrupt development with its unfinished, skeletal houses open to the weather, past the road to the bridge that would take her home, past the burned-out house with the trailer beside it, on past the brickworks and the quarry and a line of dairy farms and the farm her grandparents had worked as tenants to escape the tannery, where, after several years of learning the hard way, the owner sold out and a new owner found more experienced hands and sent them packing, back across the river. When she was young, Maureen and her sisters had picked strawberries with their mother on different farms, and Maureen had marveled at how her mother could chat with a woman in the next row or just look dully into the distance while her fingers briskly ransacked the plants for ripe berries, as if possessed of their own eyes and purpose. At the end of a day she’d look over Maureen’s card (punched for a fraction of the flats she herself had picked), then hand it back and say, “At least that mouth of yours works.”
Maureen drove on past the harshly lit 7-Eleven and the Christmas-tree farm and the old ferry pier where she and Francis, her ex-husband, then a sweet, shy boy, had parked after high school dances to drink and make out; on through pale fields and brief stands of bare black trees that in summer made a green roof overhead. She knew every rise and turn, and the car took them easily, and Maureen surrendered to the comfort of her mastery of the road. The silent man beside her seemed to feel it too; it seemed to be holding him in a trance.
Then he shifted, leaned forward. “Turn right up there,” he said in a low voice. “On that road, you see? That one up there, after the sign.”
Maureen made the turn almost languidly. The side road was unplowed, covered with crusty snow that scraped against the undercarriage of the car. She hit a deep dip; the front end clanged, the wheels spun wild for a moment, then they caught and the car shot forward again, headlights jumping giddily. The road bent once and ended in a clearing surrounded by tall pines.
“You drive too fast,” the man said.
She waited, engine running, hands still on the wheel, headlights ablaze on a Park Service sign picturing animals and plants to be seen hereabouts. The peaked roof over the sign wore a hat of snow. It came to Maureen that she’d been to this place before—a trailhead, unfamiliar at first in its winter bleakness. She had come here with Grace’s scout troop to hike up to the palisades overlooking the river. The trail was historic, a route of attack for some battle in the Revolutionary War.
The man sniffed, sniffed again. “Beer,” he said.
“I was having a drink with friends.”
“A drink. You stink of it. The great lady teacher!”
That he knew she was a teacher, that he knew anything about her, snapped the almost serene numbness that had overtaken Maureen. She thought of his seeing the essays. That could explain his knowledge of her work, but not his tone—the personal scorn and triumph in his discovery of her weakness, as he clearly saw it.
A small dull pain pulsed behind her eyes, all that was left of the drink she’d had. The heat blowing in the car was making her contacts dry and scratchy. She reached over to turn it down, but he seized her wrist and pulled it back. His fingers were thin and damp. He turned the heat up again. “Leave it like this—warm,” he said, and dropped her hand.
She almost looked at him then, but stopped herself. “Please,” she said. “What do you want?”
“This is not about sex,” he said. “That is what you are thinking, of course. That is the American answer to everything.”
Maureen looked ahead and said nothing. She could see the lights of cars on Frontage Road flickering between the tree trunks. She wasn’t very far from the road, but the idea of running for it appeared to her a demeaning absurdity, herself flailing through the drifts like some weeping, dopey, sacrificial extra in a horror movie.
“You know nothing about our life,” he said. “Who we are. What we have had to do in this country. I was a doctor! But OK, so they won’t let me be a doctor here. I give that up. I give up the old life so my family will have this new life. My son will be a doctor, not me! OK, I accept, that’s how it is.”
“Where are you from?” Maureen asked, and then said, “Never mind,” hoping he wouldn’t answer. It seemed to her that the loamy smell was stronger, more sour. She kept her eyes on the Park Service sign in the headlights, but she was aware of the man’s knees knocking rapidly and soundlessly together.
“Never mind,” he said. “Yes, that is exactly your way of thinking. That is exactly how the great lady teacher destroys a family. Without a thought. Never mind!”
“But I don’t know your family.” She waited. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No, you don’t know what I’m talking about. You have already forgotten. Never mind!”
“You have the wrong person,” Maureen said.
“Have you told a lie, lady teacher?”
“Please. You must have the wrong person. What you’re saying—none of it makes sense.” And because this was certainly true, because nothing he’d said had anything to do with her, Maureen felt compelled—as prelude to a serious sorting-out of this whole mess—to turn and look at him. He was leaning back into the corner, hunched into a puffy coat of the vivid orange color worn by highway crews. In the reflected glare of the headlights, his dark eyes had a blurred, liquid brightness. Above the straight line of his eyebrows the bald dome of his head gleamed dully. He wore a short beard. A few thin patches of it grew high on his cheeks, to just below his eyes.