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F E B R U A R Y  1 9 9 8

Fiction
All Things, All at Once

He was recently separated from a wife he didn't understand. He was a father who tried to supply what children are said to have need of. But mainly he was a man wobbly in the departments that public moralists like to yatter about

by Lee K. Abbott

Temptation SHE was Betty Porter, a being as much of magic as of muscle, and I who I ever am -- Heath "Pokey" Howell, banker, commissioner of Luna County, New Mexico, and, as events will prove, the dimmest of sinners, male type. We'd known each other, yes, as acquaintances in this commodious desert, she a widow and I a recently estranged husband, and then, at the Valentine's Dance at the Mimbres Valley Country Club not so very long ago, we shed the selves ordinary folks had said howdy to and, fumbling fiercely at each other, we took up the private half of lived life.

Our moment was as quick as heat lightning, wicked and unpredicted -- as odd, I'd say, as ninety nights on Mercury. I had taken a break from the boogaloo, or whatever it was that Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers were hollering at us, and made for the door to the men's locker. I was hunting quiet, plus at least one damp towel for my face. Betty Porter was apparently anxious for much the same, and so we came upon each other, she in hesitation at the door to the ladies', I using the wall for a handrail. I was not drunk, I hold. Just smitten -- by her dress, which was as blue as heaven's bottom and at least four times as sparkly as a poet's idea of nighttime; and by her legs, which were as long as hope itself; and by her skin, which seemed to glow like moonlight; and by her shoulder, which was bare and which something crooked in me wanted to lick.
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  • I said nothing, and I would tell a jury now that I had nothing to say -- not, at least, in this feeble language. Rather, I was listening: to Uncle Roy in mid-yowl and to cocktail chatter as annoying as power tools, not to mention to my own loose heart; and to my bones as they ground against the considerable meat I am; and to my breathing, which was certifiably gasplike; and to her own swish-swish as she marched deliberately toward me. Even when it had started, when we had pushed our way down the hall to the trophy room and had locked its door and, in the glow of several weak but happy lights, I had touched her face and felt certain fibers in my chest snapping free, I didn't talk. Did not wonder. To that jury that sits in my brain -- and to the one in your very own -- I would say that Heath Howell was but a bystander, no smarter about this than is a dog about democracy.

    Deep down, of course, your narrator knew exactly what he was doing. He knew the fever that swamped him and the midnight hour and the green of her eyes and the hoopla outside. He knew, even between her legs and afterward, the sourness of his breath and where he'd come from in the world and how, a dozen years before, he'd gotten his wife to say yes, never mind the three children they had once vowed to rear together. Yes, Pokey Howell knew it all. And he expected it would come back to him, like a tide pent up in the oils and other liquids he was, when Betty Maxine Porter, in the hall, cocked her head as if sizing him up for an old suit she had before she took his hand, her own as cool as tap water, and placed it hard against her own hard crotch. But nothing came back to that man -- unless you count, as I must, the cruelest hunger and the most vulgar thirst.

    So yonder we went, she in the lead, I an animal eager to catch up. Ours had been a sudden recognition, I say, and not knowledge you can have twice about the simplest thing you are. Behind us the door clicked, and we, like butchers or other workaday folks with common business to conduct, stripped ourselves. Time was moving by not in ticks and tocks but in whooshes and chunks, as fast as a nightmare you partly enjoy the terror of. A moment later I was in a chair sufficiently comfortable for a man five times as fat as I, and she was more or less astride me, still not saying her say or asking me mine. I was as erect as a fence pole, as hard as I've ever been and thoroughly amazed by it, and for a moment, before I let myself go and waited to see her slip over her own crumbly cliff, nothing was happening between my head and my hoof but wind and fire and thudding organs.

    A week later she would tell me why, but in those minutes when I had started to sweat and when I could see her face go slack but before various notions became plain, she said nothing. Inside her I was still stiff, spectacularly so, and she was wet in a way as spooky to me as travel in space. The world was coming back now, piece by piece -- a screechy voice perilously close, another Uncle Roy tune I could sing two thirds of, the light in the farthermost trophy case flickering, my cigarettes smashed in my shirt pocket, her weight on my thighs adding up pound by pound by pound until, nearly out of breath, I had to shift. Then I could see it, a thought sift through her face and almost get to her lips. She seemed to have settled something, a concern or an insight she had just found the sentence for, and I could feel her let me loose down below.

    She would be off me in a second, I knew. She would be off and gathering up her pantyhose and slipping on her high heels and messing at her hair very professionally; but first she leaned close to me, almost nose to nose, the light behind her as harsh as the word "no," and she spoke, hers a sly smile to wonder about, hers a voice with as much rue in it as there is in mine when I tell a debtor the Goddamn end is nigh.

    "So you're a naughty so-and-so too," she said. "Goody."


    THIS is why. The next time we met -- at her place, on Fir Street, a ranchette-like spread that seemed to have been decorated by spirits too angry to have names in English -- she said it was fate, a word she even bothered to spell for the houseguest in the three-piece suit.

    "We were destined for each other, Pokey. You and me, a cosmic conspiracy."

    I didn't know about such business, I told her. I was average, as undistinguished as white bread, plus burdened with a laugh like Daffy Duck's.

    "Don't be modest, Pokey," she said, all but wagging her finger. "You're just enthusiastic, that's all."

    I had been to college, I told her, where I had memorized enough about real estate and arithmetic to be my father's partner at the Farmers and Merchants Savings Bank, plus I was pretty fair at snooker, but about fate -- a word I now believe too puny to describe what happens boy to girl -- I knew only what you know when you tear up on Sunday morning that lottery ticket you bought Saturday night.

    That is when she asked about Lizzie, the wife I was apart from but who, unbeknownst to me in the days I pawed over Betty Porter, was pregnant with our fourth child.

    "There's nothing to know," I said. Lizzie was average too -- just better than I with the please and thank-you necessary among our kind.

    This was a weird afternoon, I tell you. Like events out of The Twilight Zone or the second page of The National Enquirer. Betty Porter had met me at the door in an outfit from the peignoir pages of a catalogue, and the instant I stepped inside she had roiled over me like a dust devil, pulling and tugging, her skin as hot as a frypan, both in and out of reach, on my neck when I thought she was about to tackle my knees, or at my ear with a whisper or two when I paused to get my balance. Then, as quickly as she'd begun, she stopped -- became downright businesslike, more a teatime hostess than somebody who means to slap your naked butt like a farmyard beast to be shooed out of the way.

    I was directed to sit on her couch, a leather monstrosity as red as the devil's hindmost. She put a drink in my hand, lemonade with too little sugar to get down easily, and sitting across from me, as prim as Sunday school itself, she ordered me to shut my trap -- her phrase exactly.

    "I got something to say," she said. "You got something to hear."

    I was recently separated from a wife I didn't understand any more than I do high jinks in Hungary; I was a father who sought to cross the ts and dot the is that children are said to have need of, plus a taxpayer with a checking account big enough to pay for the minor disasters of bad weather and poor planning. But mainly I was a man wobbly in the departments that our public moralists like to yatter about, and so, not suspecting that in exactly fifty-one days I would say no, I said yes and waited to hear what Betty Porter, mistress and friend of fate, had to say about the to and fro that was she and I and planet Earth.

    "Heath Howell," she began, "I intend to have you one hundred percent."

    I was looking at the dozen or so candles on the coffee table between us, thinking myself as suave as Yancy Derringer himself, when most of that round, usually nice number caught up with me.

    "Don't be scared," she said.

    I wasn't, I said. Big old thing like me.

    "Then swallow," she said, "before you dribble on yourself."

    She told me then, the whole kit and kaboodle -- more words per minute than I could keep up with. How after Marv died, she was adrift, jumpy, et cetera. Not especially aggrieved. Just couldn't focus. Couldn't sleep. Like a person waving to America from the moon.

    "That was tough," I said. "About Marvin, I mean."

    She was getting something out of her eye -- stage business, I think now, if a stage can be a living room as echoey as a hotel lobby.

    "Marvin Porter was a high school assistant principal," she said, another tone completely. "About as exciting as Velveeta cheese."

    I looked into my lemonade and found nothing there to study.

    "He was company," she was saying. "And good enough, I guess. Now I want something more. I deserve it."

    I should've gotten up. Honest. When she began talking about Marv -- how he was a penny-pincher, for example, and not much of a poon hound; how he ironed his hankies -- I should've risen and fled for the front door. But Betty Porter was heat and light and water -- all things, all at once -- and I, something dumb in nature, did not want one without the others.

    "I have a proposal to make," she said at last.

    She had candles. Furniture heavy enough to hurt you. A coatrack that all but picked your pocket when you came in the door. And now she had a proposal.

    "I'm giving you six months," she said.

    I took a drink here, and, using both hands, counted my way toward August. "For what?"

    She laughed, as sharp as gunfire. "For you and me, silly. I'll be your girlfriend for six months. Then you've got to make up your mind. Elizabeth Howell or me."

    In retrospect, here was another place for your narrator to rise. To button his cuffs. To reknot his tie. But in those days I wasn't good at thinking ahead. The moment belonged to her, strange and forbidden and fetched up only eight feet away, and yours truly, more than six feet of flesh that had somehow learned its ABCs and how to drive a pickup truck on the right side of the road.

    "I've been watching you," she said. "Hell, I know which pump you use at Ray Bill's Texaco. Your shirt size. How much you paid for that house."

    I chuckled. Your classic BMOC. "You've been busy," I said.

    She sniffed -- an allergy, I thought.

    "I've been lonely, Howell."

    I heard my blood then, as buzzy as a box of bees, and waited for my arm or hand or leg to act in some significant way. I could've thought of Lizzie, I suppose. Of my boys, Brad and Lonnie. Of their toddling sister, Mary Beth. But I didn't. The widow Porter had her own drink at her lips now, her slender throat yet another fine creature feature that Heath Howell could see himself crawling toward. I could smell her too. Roses and mint and what the skin gives off on its own. Then I wasn't thinking at all, my head as hollow as a gourd you could shoot a BB clean through, and I was standing -- impossibly lonely my own self -- and stepping toward her, behind me a million doors slamming shut.


    LIZZIE has since said it was the sex. Well, sure. It was going into a room and knowing you had a surprise to find -- a bomb, a flying saucer, Old King Cole himself. It was being blindfolded and turned a hundred times about, our desert a new vista to behold when it stopped spinning. It was a pulse, as loud as an oompah from a Sousa march, and the shriek that time makes when you are yanked from it. Hell, yes, it was the sex -- what Lizzie's preacher, the Reverend Oram Tinsley, M.Div., once called the den and lair and roost of us. And for nearly two months it was more of everything than you're supposed to have in this vale. More of more.

    And then one day -- our fiftieth, in fact -- it was something else, too.

    "Pokey," she said. "Answer me this."

    We'd been at it for an hour, we the litter on her queen-size bed, she reclining on her elbows and I on all fours ready for round two. I felt I hadn't taken a breath for a week.

    "What's the capital of Peru?" she said, yet another new person to tussle with.

    I looked around like a hungry pound dog ordered away from the dinner table. "What?"

    "Peru," she said. "It's in South America."

    I knew where it was, I said. Just -- ha, ha, ha -- didn't know where the mayhem was made.

    "What about this?" she said, sitting up, I so close to her breasts that I could see their network of veins, plus a hickey I was awfully proud of being responsible for. "Where are King Solomon's mines?"

    "Betty, what is this, a test?"

    She was looking at me hard then, yours truly a goopy mess on the rug that you'd have to spend the whole afternoon scrubbing up.

    "Just answer the question, Mr. Howell."

    I made a show of checking my watch. I had to be at Lizzie's in two more hours to take the kids to the movies, an agreement we'd thought civilized way back when.

    "This is a game, right?" I said.

    "What about yogurt?" she said. "What's it made of?"

    Don't know, I told her. Yogurt -- ho, ho, ho -- wasn't food I cared to fret much about.

    She was out of bed now, tying the belt to her robe, and suddenly Heath Howell, the guy with the watch and the devil-may-care attitude, felt stupid to be naked and alone. Just another peckerwood caught picking his shorts up off the floor.

    "What about the Seven Dwarfs?" she said. "Can you name them?"

    I could, I declared, though a moment later I found myself two short. "Who's after Dopey?"

    She was in her dressing room, a lovely thing in the mirror dabbing on lipstick. Evidently we were done for today.

    "I suppose," she was saying, "you don't know the dates of Chester A. Arthur, right?"

    I wanted to say something clever then, but didn't. Couldn't. Instead I suffered a vision of Marvin Porter, dead husband, cross-legged in the chair at the other end of the bedroom, an ironed hankie in the pocket of his sport coat and the answers to all questions on the tip of his silent tongue.

    "Did you hear me?" Betty was saying. "I asked you to name the longest river."

    I had my pants on now. Socks, too. I had a shirt somewhere and was hoping to locate it soon.

    Then it came, more questions about X and Y and Z than I had heard since Deming Senior High School. What's the formula for determining the circumference of a circle? Who wrote The King and I? Who was the fifth Beatle? Where is Madagascar? How high is Mount Everest? When did Neil Armstrong land on the moon?

    "Nineteen sixty-nine," I told her.

    "What month?" she said.

    I was dressed now, completely presentable, and Marvin Porter, former assistant principal in charge of attendance and discipline, had disappeared.

    June was my guess. Maybe July.

    She had come out of the dressing room, no evidence in her eyes or expression of what had happened elsewhere in her house that afternoon. She looked as she would were she to appear before the Luna County Commission to ask young Chairman Howell and his white-collar cronies for an emergency zoning variance.

    "Pokey," she began, "how do you make it in the world?"

    I thought about what I'd be doing an hour from now -- in the dark with three young people, before us in images fifteen feet tall the world as it looked to somebody with a movie camera and an imagination as peculiar as the imagination itself.

    "I manage, Betty. I do very well."

    She had her arms crossed, her head tilted, and I was tempted to wipe my face, get the lint -- or the spiders -- off. It was a full minute, I'd say, time enough anyway to suck in the belly and square the shoulders for whatever came next.

    "Heath, honey," she began, "you have to know stuff to get around. You got to have some facts. Some ideas."

    I was looking at the picture above her bed, a chunky sweetie pie on a horse leaning over to smooch a guy got up in the kind of armor Lancelot wore. "Stuff?" I said.

    "That's right, darling." Hers was the high-wattage smile you see on folks who believe they'll live to be a hundred. "Knowledge of the world."

    And then, convinced I knew what she was talking about, I was smiling too, I one day to be a very old man with this equally old woman, and she was ushering me to the door, hand at my elbow. "Girls' night out," she was saying. "Uncle Roy's playing at the Hitching Post." Next she had given me a good, if too brief, kiss on the cheek, and I was out in the sunlight, the day as hot as the fifth floor of Hades, and making my way down the walk to my Ford. She'd call me tomorrow, she was saying, tell me when to come over, tell me what -- stuff, I hoped, glorious and wanton stuff -- we'd do then.


    LIZZIE found me in the front yard, sitting on Mary Beth's tricycle, every now and then ringing the bell on the handlebars.

    "How long you been here?" she said.

    I hadn't seen her in nearly a week, having picked up the children the time before this at her mother's house, so for an instant she looked like somebody I recognized only from a magazine. An instant later, naturally, she became someone I had known for more than half my life. Her hair, which was brown, was snatched up in a clip behind her ears. Wife legsHer chin, which was strong, had a cute dimple in the center of it. Her eyes behind her sunglasses were as blue as lake water on a picture postcard from Colorado. Then, finally, I knew every other inch of her, heel to hair -- another of us critters that I presumed to know the actual in and out of.

    "You all right?" she said. "You look a little goofy, Pokey."

    Screwy, isn't it? Like living at the whim of crackpots named Zeus and Mars and Athena. Like having your back and forth managed by, oh, ghosts or gremlins or twinkly items who show up on your doorstep with wings flapping from their backsides. What I'm saying is that at the moment she found her wayward husband spread-legged on her daughter's trike, Lizzie already had her news. For three whole days she'd had it -- that she was pregnant with what has turned out to be John Robert, now a child with two permanent teeth and a modest ability to run. For three whole days, news from grumpy Dr. Forest, a young fart who -- so Lizzie once said -- liked to practice his college Español over women with seven or eight or nine pounds of squalling, red-faced life to deliver. For three whole days, while I was shagging Betty Porter, Lizzie Elaine Howell, honors graduate of the University of New Mexico and onetime assistant director of services for the city of Deming, had had her news, her own secret, and she'd already made up her mind about both it and the other human being it might grow to resemble. Fate? Whatever. Watch it come.

    "Where are the kids?" was what I said next.

    "Brushing their teeth." She was standing between me and the sunset, her shadow stretching from me to the street and halfway up the door panel of my four-by-four. "I fed them earlier, so don't buy too much junk. No more than one Coke each, okay?"

    That was dandy, I said, and then -- on account of the unaccountable parts of me, I assume -- I was talking this talk: "Lizzie, you know the capital of Peru?"

    She looked at me the way I imagined I had looked at Betty only an hour before: perplexed, as if the joker in front of her were wearing an arrow through his ears.

    "Lima," she said. "I'm not sure."

    I nodded then, thankful, and found myself ringing the bell one last time. "That's what I thought," I said, rising to my feet. Time to see what Walt Disney knew about things. "I'll have them back by nine, okay?"

    It was coming, her news. Quick and dire and three days old. Or, rather, it had already come. Heath Howell just hadn't heard it. He'd been thinking about his socks, the intricate pattern the machines at Gold Toe had knitted together. Socks and the tassels on his loafers, plus a black bug as thick as his thumb crawling its way through the thatchy Bermuda grass between his feet.

    "It's a boy," she said.

    Socks and shoes, a bug and something that was a boy.

    "What?" I said.

    "I'm pregnant, Pokey. About three months, Sherman says. They did an ultrasound."

    Sherman Forest. Dr. Buenos días himself. "When?" I said.

    She wasn't sure, she said, her shadow not moving even one iota. In January, probably. Maybe at the Commissioners Congress in Gallup. Maybe after that champagne reception. Maybe in that Holiday Inn. Maybe on that bed in that Holiday Inn. Maybe.

    "You're crying," I said -- something harmless to say.

    "It's a cold, Heath. Pay attention."

    I was. I was paying attention to the heat. And to the wind. And to our daughter, Mary Beth, now behind the screen door, ready to go. Yes, I was paying attention -- to the gravel and the grain of us, the string and the spit, the mud and the melt we are.

    "I'm keeping it, Pokey. Him, I mean. The baby."

    I was hearing everything clearly now. Her words. My breath. The ugly thump of one heart.

    "What about me?" I said -- not the only selfish sentiment Heath Howell had that evening.

    "What about you?" she said.

    The children came out of the house then, as wooden as play soldiers, and went straight for my truck. "Hi, Dad," Lonnie said on his way by, the oldest one, in charge. "Hi, Son," I said -- my words, given the fist in my gullet, unexpectedly loud. They climbed in, boys in the back, Mary Beth buckled in the front, three small citizens for Pokey Howell to keep track of.

    "You're going to be late," Lizzie said.

    I'd put the shot in high school. I, a Wildcat in warm-up pants and a green-and-white shirt. I, with eight pounds of lead cradled in my right hand. I in the circle, the shot between my chin and shoulder, crouching, coiled. Strong enough for second place. I was thinking about that. And about Lizzie one day in the stands, in her lap an algebra book she would later conk me on the head with for getting fresh.

    "Why'd we go bust, Lizzie?"

    She was beside me now, the two of us hip to hip, watching our well-behaved heirs.

    "I don't know," she said. "You got bored, honey."

    You could see the arm of one shadow then, mine, rise to the shoulder of the other, a sight worth a picture or two.

    "I'll see you later, Lizzie."

    Then those shadows parted -- one to the house, the other to the rest of the story.


    IT was The Lion King that evening. Simba and Scar and Timon, and four Howells howling from the front row. They ate rope licorice and Paydays and jumbo buttered popcorn, the junkiest of junk. Yes, the Howell clan, and a hundred others probably, all went "ooohhh" and "aaahhh" and rooted hard for the good guys.

    Then it was the house on Palace Circle and three little ones saying "'Night, Dad," followed by the apartment on Olive Street and Dad there in the night. Then it was hours -- more than a few, so the clock claimed -- and I moving among them, chair to stool to bed to chair again, the world without a root or a hook to hang on to.

    Newsweek had come, in it typing about Clinton and Saddam and that sappy Russian drunk Yeltsin -- more woe you're relieved to see happening to the other fellow. But I kept losing my place, something about Syria becoming something about a homegrown villain becoming something about a wolf in Wisconsin. On the dining-room table my briefcase was open, in it spreadsheets of which I was known to be the master. Tomorrow my father and Bert Cummins, our treasurer, would want to know what the numbers said, but in these minutes those figures seemed about as familiar to me as the Persian our enemies speak.

    To my credit, I did stay away from the whiskey. At midnight I was away from it, as I was when the clock next gonged, and gonged again. At three, however, I was with it, a juice glass with a lone cube of ice to keep myself respectable. After that I was respectable at least a dozen more times. I considered the small things nearby -- the chair and table holding me up, the floor holding them. I considered, too, the big -- love, and the inward idiots we are because of it. I even thought about that sizable black bug, wondering if it had gotten where it was going. Then it was morning, and, remarkably, Heath Howell was ready for it -- buttoned and zipped, buckled and buffed. He was that go-getter at the well-waxed conference table across from two cigar-puffing coots with bank books as thick as the Yellow Pages and hair as white as storybook Christmas snow.

    "I can't say," I was saying into the phone.

    To which she, Betty Porter, was saying, "Go on, Pokey. Guess."

    Across from me my father and Bert Cummins were grinning and whacking each other on the back -- textbook wheeler-dealers. The numbers, a piece of me understood, were exceptional. For all they cared, the youngster in the room could've been exchanging confidences with the Count of Monte Cristo.

    "I really can't talk now, ma'am," I said, aiming to be a customer so cool he'd just arrived from frozen Alaska.

    "I'm looking in the mirror," she whispered. "Know what I see?"

    I could imagine, a bolt as thick as my wrist twisting in my stomach.

    "I'm wearing a corset, Pokey. I look good enough to eat."

    Bert Cummins was hacking now, a wiry man with a length of wire to spit out. Really excited. Umpteen umpteens ago he had given me my nickname -- for the sensible way I go from hither to yon -- and suddenly I hated him for it.

    "That's a joke, Pokey."

    "Yes, ma'am," I said, still pretending I wasn't talking to a woman with a great many ideas.

    "You come by at seven," she said. "I got something for you, too. A silk something."

    Again I said my say, still hoping the right side was still right side up.

    "Seven sharp, Pokey. You don't keep a lady waiting."

    And then I was through. The phone was down, Bert Cummins had got his breath back from wherever it went, Howell Senior was firing up another stogie, and Heath Howell was waiting for the hinges and hasps of himself to stop
    squeaking.

    You don't keep a lady waiting. Yes, that was true. You don't a lot of things for a lady. You don't carp and bitch and do the runaround. You don't, no matter the matter, lie and cheat and scold. You don't overlook or undersay or mealy-mouth. You don't wheedle. You don't whine. You don't fuss and fume. You don't. You really, really don't.

    But, as regular as sunset, you do.

    Your morning goes by, and you do. Your lunch, and you do. Your afternoon. Your close of business. Your drive home. Your open door. And then you are collapsed in your easy chair, a big boy still dressed for the working world, and beside you the phone is ringing -- you, luckily, with an answering machine modern enough to do all the lying for you.

    "Pokey," she said. "Are you there? It's quarter after, darling. Mysteries await."

    She went on, as giggly as a schoolgirl, for another minute -- she'd driven to El Paso, shopped at the Luv Connection, gotten us some toys to play with -- but I didn't pick up. Instead I watched the tape go round and took note of the shapes that were my loyal companions in the dark. My TV, my coffee table, my unlit lamps. I was thinking about Lizzie, about the bit of me dividing inside her. Maybe, à la his old man, he'd be able to roll his tongue. Maybe he'd have my cowlick, my teeny ears. Maybe, a chip from a chip from a chip, he'd be inclined to sloth. Lordy, I thought. Heath Howell knew some stuff now, didn't he?

    By eight o'clock I still hadn't moved. And the phone was ringing again.

    "Are you sick?" she was saying. "I'm worried about you, Pokey. You want me to come over?"

    No, I was not sick. I was, in fact, not anything. Not blood. Not bone. I was empty, one me for ten mes to rattle around in.

    "Pokey, you don't move, okay? I'll be right there."

    Smoke, I told myself -- and did, the Marlboro Man and I strengthening our relationship in the dark. Outside, I supposed, the stars were twinkling, up where up ought to be. I supposed that on Palace Drive, TV was being watched and noise was being made by three extraordinary noisemakers. I supposed that my father, behind the wheel of his brand-new Lincoln Town Car, was taking his supper at Del Cruz's Triangle Drive-In. I supposed that my wife, Elizabeth Elaine Howell, was folding laundry or balancing her checkbook. But about here -- the Olive Street Apartments, No. 6 -- I had nothing to suppose: I was just a man, now four cigarettes older, and somebody was rapping on my front door.

    "It's Betty," she was saying. "Pokey?"

    That would be me, I supposed.

    "Open the door, baby," she said. "I'll perk you right up."

    That Valentine's Day dance. I was hearing Uncle Roy again, a stringbean cowpoke with a guitar he'd named Dynamite. I was seeing again that squishy chair occupied by the human beings Porter and Howell. And those trophies, silver and gold and bronze, on several shelves behind them. I was thinking about Mr. Howell's brain, the knobs and knuckles of it, the fancy thoughts it cooked up. About the man's self, the narrow and the wide of it. About the man, his good fortune on earth.

    "I know you're in there," she said. "I can see you
    smoking."

    Mr. Howell. Born in February, 1957. Mother deceased. An only child. Christened Heath after an uncle on the father's side. Married in 1982. A double-ring ceremony. Hundreds in attendance. Hundreds, I say.

    "Betty," I began, each word to follow twice the weight of the last, "I think I'll stay put tonight."

    For an instant, and for another, I imagined the hole to heaven, which was small and tight and already closing fast on my tail.

    "You're dumping me, aren't you?" Betty said. "I absolutely do not believe this, Heath Howell."

    I lit another cigarette. This time of night I could be home in fifteen minutes. Twelve if I made the light at Iron.

    "When I leave," she was saying, "I'm not coming back. It will be over, you understand?"

    Mrs. Porter. The edge after the edge. The other side. The way beyond the way.

    "You won't be welcome at my place either, mister. You know that, don't you?"

    I could see her silhouette, and I tried to imagine why she hadn't moved, left. She was, after all, a woman with a big house. A woman with big furniture. She had ideas. She knew about the Tigris, the why of a zillion whats. Hell, she knew atomic numbers. And words from the least visited pages of the dictionary.

    And then, bless her, she had moved. And -- a little sadly, I thought -- she had spoken.

    "Pokey Howell, you're a coward."

    One final fact.


    YOU think you know how this turns out, but you're wrong. Yes, yours truly does go home, but it's too late -- "Too too," the wife tells him -- so by December of that year Heath and Lizzie are no longer Mr. and Mrs., Bert Cummins having done the legal paperwork on both sides of the fence. Then, inexplicably, it is January, raw with cold; then March, windy but good for sleeping; then June, and Pokey Howell sports a beard he looks 60 percent sharp with.

    Of an evening you can find him sharing a meal with his kids or his father, or enjoying a snack from the grill at the country club. During the day you can find him behind his desk, still a big man on the outside. Some nights you can find him playing draw poker with four fellows from the bank, or watching what CNN thinks is useful for him to know. Sometimes you even find him with his nose in a book, for a chapter or two shaking his head over some made-up hero's hardbound ups and downs.

    Then, one day in late July, you can find him parked outside Betty Porter's house on Fir Street, waiting for his body to catch up with his mind. A minute later he's on her doorstep, ringing her bell, his dialogue about three quarters memorized. He's there for old times, he thinks. Maybe -- har-de-har-har -- new times, too.

    And then the door has been opened and there she stands, "Pokey" a greeting about as heartfelt as heatstroke.

    "Betty," he says, the next thing to say not the next thing he says. "Can I come in?"

    She looks over her shoulder, back in the house, before turning to him again, a little mischief in her eye.

    "This is not a good time, Pokey."

    Behind her, down the hall toward the bedroom, someone is singing a tune peppy enough to tap your toes to. A man -- too yodely for this time of day.

    "Got company," he says.

    She does, she says, and it hits him then. With a whomp.

    "Uncle Roy," he says, to which she nods.

    "The one and only."

    Heath Howell studies the street then. He knows this road. He knows the house next door, too. And the scraggly trees. And the dusty cars parked in the driveway.

    "Is there something on your mind, Pokey?"

    Oh, there is, and, the gears of him grinding and banging, he says as much.

    "Bashful," he begins. "People forget about him. Doc, most folks remember. Grumpy, too. Sleepy, all the rest. But Bashful, well -- "

    For a moment she seems puzzled, and Heath Howell has the urge, a shiver from his toes to his teeth, to touch her hair, to hold her breast, to taste her neck. Just once more he wants to be inside her -- hot and wild and falling free.

    "Bashful," she says.

    "The one and only."

    He's doing a lot of nodding now. This street. This house. This door. Fate has put a lot here for him to nod at.

    "Is that all, Pokey? I've got a guest."

    The ground is moving now. Only a little time left.

    "You didn't say anything about the beard," he says.

    She's giving him one of her looks again, hard and dry and as deadly as a bullet.

    That's right, she says. She didn't.


    Lee K. Abbott is the director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Ohio State University. His most recent collectioin of stories,
    Wet Places at Noon, was published last year.

    Illustrations by Doug Smock

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; February 1998; All Things, All at Once; Volume 281, No. 2; pages 71-80.

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