The First Twenty-Nine Minutes
by WILLIAM GEORGE
SHE had been a bit too lovely in the mirror and had felt a bit too professional. Through the past three years she had grown used to this; but then, having seen him smile, and now, feeling the length of body, she was not a bit too of anything.
They were together standing on the gray canvascovered front porch of her father’s summer house near the bay in Santa Cruz, California, at eight-thirty that night. He had phoned her from his family home and she said: —
“Why, darling, I didn’t know.”
“You do now,” he said.
“Sammy, please drop by. I want to see you so much.”
“I will,” he said. “Tonight all right?”
“You know it is. I have my hair up but I’ll fix that.”
“Don’t get reckless, lady,” he said. “I can see you tomorrow on the beach.”
“Please, Sammy, don’t be ridiculous. Come over tonight. What time?”
“All right,” she said. “Sammy, are you smiling?” “I am now.”
“I want to see you smiling. Please be smiling when I see you. Right at first.”
“Sure, lady,” he said. “The best for you.”
When he drove to the cottage near the beach, and got out of the car, and it was dark enough and no one could see, she, the perfect of face, perfect of body, came up very close saying, “Hello, soldier.” He smiled and she kissed him and she learned a lot more than she ever intended.
“It’s so good,” she said now.
“Sure, lady,” he said.
“You’ve always called me ’lady.’ You remember why, I suppose?” She was laughing pleasantly.
“Yes. When you were fifteen I got sore and called you a forty-cent thing or other. After I left, you cried, and when I found that out I thought, that’s what a lady is, with blondie hair and blue eyes. A lady.”
“I hated you for three days,” she said.
“You bawled like hell.”
“Oh, Sammy, I’ve missed you so much.”
“Friends do, I guess. I’ve missed everything.”
“I’ve just missed vou.”
He kissed her and then moved her in very close. “You feel little,” he said laughing. “Just right and little.”
“I love this,” she said. “I love it with you here.”
“It’s fine, lady. I love it too.”
He did not have to glance around to see how things were. In the half-dark he could remember and he had the damnedest, the most easily remembered feeling in his arms.
“We have an awful lot to talk about,” she said. “Should we go in? Mother wants to see you.”
“No. I like this better.”
As he held her by the shoulders and smiled foolishly, she told herself, this, this, this must be how you are paid off. You go along, neither caring nor writing, behaving like a coot and enjoying, just so publicly, the pretense of temporary addiction, and he comes back and you know a few things with the kidding not workable any more.
“I’ve been terrible, haven’t I?" she said.
“ Been rotten. I’ve just been so terribly selfish and rotten. I hate myself right now.”
“I have been, Sammy, I have.”
“That’s rot. The British have some lovely words. ‘That’s rot,’ they say.”
“But I have, Sammy.”
“All right, then. If you have, you have. Don’t let it worry you, though. Typical American girl rottenness, pretty and mixed up.” Why, he wanted to know, does she do this now? Believed I knew the score to her song and dance, It’s not like her. Can’t quite see this. She always depended on her pedestal of beauty and purity and sophistication, and what, are the other words? Doesn’t make a lot of difference. Just can’t quite see this is all.
“I didn’t write as I promised,” she said. “I made so many promises and that was one I wanted to keep. I tried. I tried all the time. After a while the address you gave me was worthless. You move around so fast. I didn’t have the nerve to ask your mother.”
“You’re lovelier than ever. God, you’re lovely. I’m very proud of you.”
“No one else heard from you. I wanted to write and make a fool of myself and say I miss you.”
“You’re awfully pretty, lady.”
“Please, Sammy, can’t you be serious?”
“I don’t care now, lady,” he said, precisely as he had planned to say. Then he smiled happily and tilted her chin up and kissed her.
“You’re sure you understand?”
“Yes,” he said, “I understand.”
“Waste of time. Let’s walk to the beach.”
“I’d love to,” she said.
WALKING quickly then, past the hedges and across the lawns, then on the pavement, holding her hand, with the smell of bay water and hearing the roll of water onto the sands, he was happier than he was capable of feeling slowly.
“This is swell,” he said. “I’ve loved this and dreamed it so often. Know what I mean? See, lady, see how dark it is and you can still picture it all. I could paint it at night.”
There was the stucco house on the corner on the cliff, all dark now, and the wire fence at the end of the asphalt street. Behind the houses that lined the street was the alley, where people walking down for a swim stopped and talked and made jokes and the children picked blackberries. There were the split cypress trees in the lawn at the Giffons’ place they climbed through, and the steps there in front leading down the chalk cliff to white sand.
“Shall we go down on the beach?” she said.
“Ya,” he said, “sure.”
He helped her down the chalk and caught her at the bottom and kissed her. In the distances lights were shining and he could see the bay curve by the lights.
“Not bad,” he said, holding her neatly and smiling. “When the others were here, we’d come down and make a fire and count the lights. Remember? We never finished the lights.”
“No, we never have.”
“You still weigh 106. With blondie hair and blue eyes.”
“Of course, silly.”
“There’s nothing of-course about it, I haven’t seen you for a long time. I used to tell everyone how you are, just anyone, anywhere, and I told them
— blue eyes, blondie hair, whiter in summer, and 106 pounds, and then all the rest. The way you move and so on. All the time I was merely reciting. I only halfbelieved and really hoped for these 106 pounds.”
“And you still talk crazy.”
“Sure, why not ?”
“You’re nice, Sammy. I like your niceness.”
“Let’s sit,” he said.
They sat facing the water coming white on the sands and the bay curving on the lights.
“You haven’t told a word about your work,” she said.
“It’s grand work.”
“We kill things,” he said.
“That doesn’t sound very grand to me,” she said.
“It’s murderous. Want to know more?”
“If you can say it and still be funny, yes.”
“Then tell me about school and Stanford,” he said; “though, come to think of it, some of the fellows are having the last laugh out there after all. But tell me about your education.”
“All right,” she said. “What?”
“Well, what are you?” he said eagerly.
“A junior,” she told him.
“Learning a lot?”
“The proper things. You loved it there, didn’t you?”
“I love it too when I pretend it’s like we dream it once was. It’s a little different now, you know.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.” He looked carefully at her and then at the water and the black beyond the lights that seemed the end of all there was.
“The spirit is there still. Seeing the chapel down Palm Drive and the mystery of the museum off alone at dusk. Then there’s the drinking at the Shack and food in the Stone Cellar. We swim at Lauganita, and
— oh, Sammy, I don’t say it very well, do I?”
“You’re trying,” he said quietly.
He thought, she is different and not familiar, and I like it too, I suppose. Damn. Had this straight once. Had it cold in the back of my mind. Been carrying it like a cocked pistol. Looking back on what had happened so far, he had gone puny, betrayed himself. There was not going to be any slop. Seeing the good, well-remembered things had potted him all right. Well, oh, to hell. Be decent and play it safe. Don’t be a damn fool for the sake of a little bitterness. Don’t hurt anyone — that has been your job long enough. But don’t betray it all either. Good God, man, stay mixed up. You’re doing all right. Then aloud: —
“Come on, lady, tell me more.”
WELL, sometimes,” she said, leaning against him, “in the lanes, there are parked cars and people make love and listen to the radio and say crazy things.”
“Go on.” He could feel the eagerness again.
“There are dances, and the Chappie has a male editor, and the Daily is still a daily. We walk to classes or ride bicycles over the gravel and some have cars. It’s fun to sleep-in when you have an eight o’clock. Oh, Sammy, you know how it is. I’ve lied. Things haven’t changed so terribly. It’s all there, charming and crazy like when you people left.”
“Really?” he said. “Yes, yes, of course. Things like that seldom get very far by changing.”
“I know,” she said.
“People only lie to themselves if they say those things change. Nothing about it changes except the populations. Changing would wreck it.” He stopped. Then, “I’m glad it hasn’t changed. You still meet the guy and strut around being foolish, I suppose?”
“What’s he like now?” He was, he told himself, merely interested and making sure business was as usual.
“You wouldn’t like him.”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t. What’s he like?”
“You already have your private picture drawn. Let him fit,” she said.
“Go ahead, lady, what’s he like? Big, little? Bright, stupid? A hero or a coward?”
“Don’t be mean, Sammy.”
“I’m not being mean. Do you still practice that special butchery of yours?”
“I want to know how things are.”
“Ask someone else then, and quit being a fool.”
“He must be utterly-utterly for you to act like this.”
“Well, what are you ashamed of?”
“Sammy, please stop.”
“Lord, he must be a mess.” He was nearly through being amused, or not amused; he could not tell. She was really losing her control.
“Stop it, Sammy.”
“You are ashamed, aren’t you?”
“All right, Sammy.” She stood up and he realized she was ready to cry.
“I’m sorry, lady,” he said, not moving. “I was acting not very funny.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she cried. “I’m sorry you’re the way you are. I wish you hadn’t spoiled it so.”
“I am sorry. Very sorry.”
“No. You’re not sorry and you don’t care.”
He was afraid he would get sore, but now it was over anyway.
“I care,” he said. “You weigh 106 pounds. That’s something I care about. That and your education.”
Then, when he said that, she was not going to cry, and now she was cool and sure of herself. He was staring at her, and she said, “Shall we go home? Mother wants to see you.”
All at once, then, standing there, lovely, damnable, very new and unused, simply standing on a pedestal of her own, absolutely distant, she was truly familiar, absolutely damnable, and what he remembered exactly. He got on his feet and he was embarrassed. Then he began to smile. At first she looked away and watched the lights. When she turned again, he laughed, and then he was moving her in against him.
“I’m glad that’s over,” she said. “I’m glad you care.”
“So am I,” he said. “And I could destroy you for it.”
“I know,” she said. “I know.”