The Peak

A Vassar graduate and the mother of three children, MAY DIKEMAN made her first appearance in the ATLANTIC in 1961 with her short storyThe Tender Mercies.” which won an Atlantic ‟ First ” prize. Her next two stories in our pages, ‟ The Sound of Young Laughter” andThe Woman Across the Street,” were selected for the Martha Foley collecion, THE BEST AMERICAN SHOUT STORIES.

A Story by May Dikeman

IS THIS not glorious!” said Sonya, in her middle-aged baritone, sitting down by Frances so that the whole cog train seemed to flinch. “It is once the faculty of a university makes an outing which is not nuts. Only you don’t like to take such an experience beside James, your husband?”

“No, no, sit here,” said Frances, moving her trench coat. “Do.”

“Ah!” said Sonya. “James I see with the men, my Jackie and Marvin Miller. He sits beside Helen, the creature of beauty. And you are not jealous?

But what should you be jealous?" Sonya pried open a can decorated with a poinsettia and offered Frances some candied grapefruit. “No? I make it not too tart, not too cloying. You have got looks yourself of more nuance, transluccncy.”

“Oh, I’m house-mouse brown.”said Frances.

“You are not!” Sonya’s blond face puffed into many small convexities like those in a complicated mold. “But Helen is what, copious, do you agree? I get from Helen an impression all of eyelids and lower lip, too rich for a diet of taking steadily, thick cream and honey. Oh, she is a gorgeous girl OK.”

Giant firs with split limbs and rocks cleft like totem faces started to move past the windows of the cog train, all in heroic scale and shocking paint-box colors, lavender and velvet-green. Now it was too late for Frances to get off. At the back of the car, next to the heater, a trainman sat eating a dish of oatmeal, making little chopping taps in it with the side of his spoon. He looked to Frances like one of those genre figures of doom. “Something will happen,” James had said to her the night they talked all night. “I feel that something will happen.” It was this idea only that made his eyes light up and his thin lists clench.

He hopes I’ll die, Frances thought at once. She did have a rheumatic murmur, but it was nothing to die of, not at twenty-seven. Still, on top of the mountain she might get an attack, or one of them might have an accident, she or Helen. She imagined Helen falling, with her eyes green half-moons of terror and her black hair snaking in the air. She saw the oval face getting small in space and the pale-orange mouth open but with no sound coming out. She imagined herself saving Helen, and both of them averting their eyes. She kept saying the name Helen to herself; she wondered how Helen’s parents came to name her Helen — did they ever think of it classically, did they choose it because they just liked it, or was it after somebody; she wondered if James ever thought of her as his Helen of Troy. This business of Helen went in and out of everything for Frances, in colors like colors of pain that threw out the tonality of life itself, with the black hair and green eyes and orange mouth, dressed in dye colors, purple, cerise, and turquoise, which made everybody on campus say, “But she can get away with it.”

“You have been married to your James how long?” asked Sonya, shooting her knitting needles in and out of red wool. “Look already how high we are. I am excited, or I think. Some days I don’t know one hundred percent. How long did you say?”

“We’ve been married eight years,” said Frances. “I was a sophomore.” The only thing that kept her voice inconsequential was the satisfaction at another woman’s gaucheness. She looked at the view and saw pale-green distance starting to flow out from below the mountain, like increasing leakage.

“And you strove in trailer village while James makes all degrees, and now is all fulfilled and he is the celebrated physicist and you have the big house on Faculty Avenue, yet still you have the luster! Myself, I do not know. Jackie and I are close, and we are not so close. Some days I say to myself, Sonya, it is fallen, your luster. You do not feel, ever? But such nonsense, you are young — you are a honey, my Jackie calls you. You and Helen both are honeys.”

Through his speaker the guide called their attention to a rock formation called the Mad Elephants. The rocks had big flat ears and were charging the train. Then more rocks came that were camels and tortoises. The world behind them got bigger, flowing off in inlets and shores of plains and foothills.

“WHILE Sonya went on talking to her about the scenery, the cable knit stitch, and about Helen, James, her own husband, Jack, and Marvin Miller, the physicist who did sleight-of-hand tricks, and while the trainman told them names of rock formations, Frances tried to catch looks across the aisle at Helen, dressed in gold fur seamed with narrow black and silver bands of what looked like peasant embroidery.

Three weeks before, Frances had accidentally found out, at a costume party given by the chairman of the astronomy department, that her husband was having an affair with Helen, who was a choralensemble instructor. At the party everyone was giving screams of admiration as people walked in with sheets and red tights and aluminum ware and mop-fillers on. Sonya was Brünnhilde. One woman, a Blake to Keats associate professor, had little signs pinned all over her. All through the party Frances was embarrassed for this woman who had gone to so much trouble, and felt she should make the effort to read all the little signs.

The word “shattered” now seemed precise to Frances, because the campus life of their whole marriage had been like a vacuum jug, sealed by the surrealistic Western scenery outside, empty even of time. One of the worst things to Frances was the embarrassment she felt at the things she used to do, as if there were no world and no time, as if the physics department’s theoretical space-time-continuum world were true. She had clipped recipes and made candlesticks out of empty garlic-salt shakers and Christmas presents out of old shirts and lipstick caps. Because they were so poor while James was still a student, and spent so much time sitting on desk chairs studying and typing, they made love a lot, often in the afternoon in the trailer bunk, with the Venetian stripes of shade making their bodies more naked.

Three years, at this rate, was as long as they could go without an accident, and their daughters, Sydney and Regan, were now four and one. For outside recreation they did only very snob things, like going to old Marx Brothers movies at the one arty theater. The Marx Brothers seemed to make them sad. But occasionally, James had a conventional, sentimental seizure, like the Christmas Eve —when they had a thousand things to do that he came in with rolls of foil and a quart of raw cranberries and said they were going to make their own tree decorations. The thought of these little conventional outbursts made Frances’ eyes tear automatically, as an external irritant would.

Now the vacuum jug was shattered, and the sharp air of time came in. Frances thought of a visiting lecturer who had come to speak on marriage and divorce. He drew something that looked like a family tree on his blackboard, but it was a diagram of how husbands outgrow their wives, and the branch that was the husband stretched out across the blackboard, and the lecturer made little chops with his chalk lopping off’ the wife, and Frances thought of James stretching out, lopping her off while she was making crazy things from grocerystore magazines.

But the night of the costume party, although he admitted the affair with Helen, James said it wasn’t serious. He said a lot of nasty things about Helen. Naturally, Frances tried to think of uncatty things. She couldn’t bring herself to mention Helen’s looks, but she spoke of her voice. But James said Helen was a poor man’s Margaret Truman. He said she was fit to tour West Virginia with the Paterson Symphony.

He said the trouble with him wasn’t Helen; it was that he was trapped. He denounced everything good that had ever happened to him. He said he had been saddled with scholarships and fellowships and grants, accursed with approbation and encouragement. He said, “It was always my goddamned brains, my goddamned brains.”

James had the boy-genius scarecrow build, all wrists and feet, and although his features actually were handsome, he would look like a boy-genius till he was an old man. This loosely hinged build made Frances feel whenever she looked at him that her look articulated his body, like the long-drawnout touches in lovemaking, and she wondered if Helen ever felt this, too. He lunged around as he talked, and his verbal tic of repeating phrases came on strong, so that he sounded as if he were stuttering. When she said, “But you love the children, don’t you?” he said, “I do, I love them. But not with passion. Not with passion.” When she said, “Isn’t Helen at all concerned about the children?” he said, “She is, she worries. She worries.” She said, “What about Marvin Miller?” The thought of Marvin Miller, who seemed capable of elixirs, reassured Frances for a moment. “Isn’t Helen supposed to be in love with Marvin Miller? But James said scathingly, “That was a fortuity, a fortuity!” as if people had affairs and dropped them every day of the week due to fortuity.

Summoning up and putting together all the directives she had ever heard for the situation, Frances tried to regard it as a phase that they had to ride out, although the membrane sealing them in was ruptured and the air had come in and infected everything. But now that Frances knew about Helen, James seemed to feel that it was all right to be with Helen more, and soon he told Frances that it was Helen, he was in love with Helen. He kept using the phrase “in love”—“The reason I’m in love with her . . .” and “I first fell in love with her. . .” — as if he couldn’t hear himself say it enough, like some kind of status phrase-dropping such as “when I did the islands.” When Frances said, “What about the children?” his face seemed to light the way it did when somebody presented him with a problem in physics, and he agreed warmly, “Yes, what about the children?” But at the mention of a divorce so he could marry Helen, he seemed as mirthfully incredulous as if at a dirty story about the graduate dean and a professor emeritus.

While his voidness about it embarrassed Frances for him, as if he were drunk or childish because of sickness, it made Helen seem Olympian, parting weather and memory with her breath, helpless in her own unaccountability. Then James said, “I feel that something will happen,” and his face fixed brightly with sinister faith.

THIS long-planned trip up the Peak had been Jack’s idea. Jack, Sonya’s husband, was in the sociology department. He was totally bald and hatchet-faced, with an unlit pipe always clenched between grinning teeth. “Broke the bank, broke the bank, but marvelous, marvelous,” he said of his and Sonya’s latest trip to Egypt or New Guinea. His congeniality with the faculty was a double misunderstanding. He was a John Bircher, and everyone assumed he was joking, while he assumed that this was a joke on their part. “Do you know why he is called Jack!”’ Sonya would ask, dotingly. “It is short for ass.”

Jack had invited Frances and James, and Helen and her supposed flame, Marvin Miller, who, as a magician, would pull silks or eggs out of everything. Marvin Miller’s physicist genius seemed to have taken him a stage beyond James’s nervous talkativeness, to muteness. Usually he made only deferential ejaculations— “Ah!”— or mimed with his silks and eggs and candles so that his tricks seemed a language; and his bearing made his silence an attainment rather than an incapacity.

All this had been set up before the thing with James and Helen. Then Frances wasn’t going to go, but she changed her mind and decided that she would, and would dress brightly and act gay, and she got a freshman to stay with the children.

Jack had been very excited about the project. “Because here is the Peak in our laps, and we’ve been to Egypt and New Guinea, broke the bank, broke the bank, and never been up the Peak, right in our laps. Crime. Sin.” “Jackie,” said Sonya, “you are the consummate ass, but a beautiful ass.”

But now that they were all on their way up, with the idea of Helen grown so big in her mind that it seemed a mountain itself, and Sonya sitting next to her like a hearty Cassandra, Frances felt that her final decision to come had been one of those unmarked doors of which only the wrong one can be chosen, with invisible watchers perched above.

At timberline, the cog train passengers got out for ten minutes. The rocks looked like a desecrated cemetery. Some scrub pines had hooked claws around the rocks. The men’s and women’s rooms were built like sentry boxes, approachable by catwalks. The trainman who had been eating the oatmeal said grudgingly, “You can take a picture if you want.” Underneath them, four states flowed in seas, billows and peninsulas of pale green, with three vast buffalo, which were the shadows of clouds, coursing over the expanse. Marvin Miller stopped doing tricks with his silks and eggs as if out of respect, but without them he seemed to feel feckless, and looking at the view, he remarked politely, “Ah.”

They piled back into the cog train. Above timberline, strange wildlife started to appear. The guide said, “To the left you will see a mountain goat,” and Frances thought, How did he get there? when she saw the white goat standing on an absolutely unapproachable pinnacle. “Also to the left there are two falcons,” said the guide, but Frances didn’t see the falcons before they flew away. Then the guide announced whistling marmots, and suddenly there were whistling marmots all around the train, standing up with their paws pressed to their chests. “I am in love!” cried Sonya. “Jackie! Jack! I will have one. But they are precious, with their suede chests and their little triangular noses of black felt.” The guide said, “This prairie-dog-like rodent feeds upon dried moss which he stores in rocky crevices.” Then there was the Continental Divide, and everybody piled to one side of the train, which seemed to tip as if to roll down the mountain. The guide said that those on the right side of the train going up would be on the left side going down. He also announced the sequence of train departures. He said they were in train number three, which was preceded by train number two and followed by train number four.

Then he told them to be careful on the Peak. He said not to exert. He said, “Restrain children from running about and exhausting themselves.” Then they were there. Through the curved observation glass in front of them was bright space.

THEY formed into pairs as they got off the train. James took hold of Frances formally as if for some legality and remarked, “We made it.” Sonya and Jack were making too much noise with their excitement to be understandable, and Helen said to Marvin Miller in a singer’s carrying whisper, “I’m wondering whether I’ve ever been moved before.” James said in a bitter murmur, “God,” and Frances guessed that they had quarreled on the train, which first seemed a good sign but then a bad one. Sonya cried, “Is not this air prophylactic?” and Jack said, “Watch your language, darling.” The use Helen made of Marvin Miller when she got angry with James made Frances dislike Marvin because he reminded her of herself. And since any sympathy between her and Marvin would corroborate the situation, she resolved to ignore him.

They walked to the end of the tracks and looked at the world far beneath them, with its railroad-modelsized mountains and hand mirrors of green lakes. The view unrolled on into nothing. They were above the horizon. Four white falcons with angel wings flapped in the air below them, and there was a pharmaceutical smell of snow.

Jack took movies, and then they made for the little cinder-block shelter as if the souvenir and refreshment shop were the goal of their pilgrimage.

They had hot chocolate and fresh doughnuts and tried the oxygen machines and looked at the Apache dolls and horses, the ashtrays and muddlers and wallets, the cuff links, studs, and pendants made of spurious jewels: marbelite, spectrite, goldstone, and ebonite; and at little shrines made of a plastic model of the mountain, a looking glass, a perpetual calendar, and a birthday candle with a one-watt bulb. They all remarked, “Made by the Apaches in Japan,” and Jack bought a Navaho warbonnet and started to dance.

They went out again. Frances was by herself now. She wondered whether, if she ran, the high air would do something to her heart the way the guide said, but she did not suppose that this would make James feel anything except relief, and she didn’t think this air could really do anything to her anyway. But she walked fast toward the lookout tower, which everybody went up onto, as if the added twenty feet confirmed the elevation.

She started up the steps without stopping to catch her breath. The cold had gotten through to her, and her heart seemed solidified. The steel gave a little under her loafers, The world seemed to sink farther beneath her with every twelve-inch step she climbed. Not until she reached the observation platform did she see that someone else was there.

Helen turned around. The tower itself gave a lurch in space, and for an instant Frances was not sure whether the steel rail she was gripping scorched or froze her hand. It was too late to go back, there was no place to go to. Helen’s gold-fur thing had the hood up, and her face gleamed oval in an outline of black hair, with the spikily eye-lashed green eyes and lips cut clear with the light orange. For the moment that she couldn’t look away, Frances thought, so powerfully that she felt her jaw tremble, Slip, fall. Who knows, I may save you, but let there be something.

Helen didn’t pretend by trying to speak. Frances admired this while she herself had to murmur something about the mountain as she went over to the viewer for something to do. She looked through the lens and saw not the view but her husband. James was walking back and forth as if waiting for a late bus, huddled, and his face was set with suffering. Frances couldn’t keep looking at him, and couldn’t look around at Helen, who had set the focus. She shut her eyes, but shutting her eyes at this height made her dizzy.

The tower started to shake violently under her. She grabbed the viewer. Sonya’s voice bellowed, “What ho, girls, so have you conquered the summit!”

Like a grizzly with a pink plastic face, in her fur coat, Sonya came panting up the last step. “Ah,” she exclaimed. She looked around. “You may well be speechless. It is too—” She looked through the viewer. “But what is this! You are taking aim at James. Poor James. You do not plot to kill James by shooting?” She turned back around on them. First her pleasant grin blanked out when she saw their faces, and then a second change Frances couldn’t define occurred, but she got the impression that Sonya’s puffed face became oddly dignified and composed. Then Sonya fell. It happened so suddenly that her weight seemed resilient. She lay on her face.

Frances and Helen dropped down next to her. Across her, their eyes met. They spoke in courteous, efficient whispers, ‟Don’ move her, no. But turn her over? Call Jack! Oxygen. Heart? She’s fainted.”

Together they tried to fix Sonya so that she wasn’t on her face. Her weight seemed bolted to the platform, but through it Frances felt the elasticity of Helen’s strength. They both called ‘’Jack! Jack!” Frances’ voice evaporated in the air, but Helen’s singer’s voice, harsh in a speaking tone, carried. The little crowd of people started to come, jumping the broken rocks. Jack ran toward the tower with his warbonnet blowing wildly.

The tower shook as everybody climbed it at once. “Darling,” Jack said. “Darling.” He said it over and over, as if trying to get through on a bad telephone connection. An officer in motorcycle boots kept the people back. Soon other officers and park rangers were carrying a collapsible stretcher across the small, broken white rocks of the mountaintop.

They got Sonya down and carried her into a cinder-block emergency room which looked like a garage. The officer talked to Jack, writing in a notebook. It seemed to Frances that there were many fatal delays while everyone waited for someone else. A man with a red-plaid lumber jacket and waders held a stethoscope. Frances felt that he couldn’t be a doctor, dressed like that. She noticed that the cinder-block wall was hung with murderous-looking tools and a big coil of new rope with a hardware-store smell. When she heard the departure of train number three being called outside, she realized fully that all this had happened.

But Sonya responded to the oxygen and regained consciousness. She said, “Jackie, please do not blubber.” They carried her to a park patrol station wagon and slid the stretcher in the back. “These girls go with me!” announced Sonya. “I wish them only. Only these two who have saved me. Good-bye Jackie, I see you at the bottom.”

Frances and Helen glanced at each other and then at the three men. James was holding up Jack, who still had his warbonnet on, and in a solemn stance like a priest with the Host, Marvin Miller had Sonya’s can of candied grapefruit. Frances and Helen each drew back slightly to let the other get in first, and then Helen climbed in ahead. She sat on one side of the stretcher, and Frances took the other.

THE patrol wagon swung down the serpentine road. An empty Teem bottle rolled off a folded poncho, and rolled on the floor mat each time they turned. Out the back window, Frances caught a glimpse of James and Marvin Miller trying to haul Jack between them. His warbonnet blew off, and Marvin Miller and James both stopped short and looked back at it as if unable to assess whether to retrieve it. That was Frances’ last view of them.

The speed of the winding car made Frances feel sick. The consciousness of the painted-mask symmetry of Helen’s face, even without looking at it, helped her focus. Sonya took both their hands. This brought their hands only an inch apart. Frances noticed that for such a beautiful woman Helen had rather stumpy fingers, with strongly spatulate thumbs. “I will tell you why I wished for only you. I don’t let Jackie come. Jackie is an ass. Don’t misunderstand. A dear ass.”

They told her not to try to talk. “Ma’am, I wouldn’t try to talk,” said the park man who was at the wheel.

“You may go to hell,” said Sonya, in her booming, facetious voice. “You are a man.”

The park man was hurt, and he said, “I was considering your own good, ma’am.”

A chain of mountains rolled around them in a spiral. Frances felt as if only the grasp of Sonya’s hand anchored her. “Frances,” said Sonya. “Helen. I ask you to forgive that coming up I don’t like you both. I hate you very much.”

In the quick look that flashed between them, Frances saw Helen’s face personally for the first time, with eyes that showed thoughts through flecks in their green. Then they both deprecatingly fussed with her stretcher blanket.

“Please!” said Sonya. “No, I hate you because you do not care. You are within yourselves with many things of men, love, God knows what, and I talk, I talk, but I am nothing, for I have lose the luster, only not really, inwardly in the heart.” Her voice became respiratory, as if she thumped her chest with her fist, and Frances suddenly saw slaty mottles on her face. She mouthed across at Helen, “Is she bruised from her fall?” Helen frowned in attention but couldn’t catch it, but this try at communication seemed to Frances a benefice.

The park man switched his reproofs to Frances and Helen and told them to comfort her.

Sonya pulled their hands together so that they touched. Both their hands were, of course, smooth, so that the slick touch felt somewhat obscene, but they stayed motionless. “Then, together, you give me all, con-cern, life, love.”

They smiled at her, and then smiled promptingly at each other as if to sustain the other’s smile.

“You save me, both,” said Sonya. Her voice became hollow and random.

“The ambulance is meeting us at the inn,” said the park man.

Sonya shut her eyes and sighed. Frances noticed the smallness of her mouth for the first time, because usually when she had looked at her, Sonya had been talking. She dropped the girls’ hands and raised one hand in a slight signal. The car lurched, and her forearm dropped from the stretcher. On the corrugated floor mat, the empty Teem bottle rolled to the door and rolled back. Frances quickly looked at Helen, who also looked at her, and then she realized that she was seeing the final expression of Sonya’s face. The car seemed to run around or go back. The mountainside bore down on them, and Frances thought they were crashing, and then they stopped. They were parked on the shoulder of the road on a lookout point marked by whitewashed stones.

The peak man came into the back. Frances and Helen both looked away, out at the massed firs of the mountain. Frances recalled bas-relief lettering on a plaque on the peak, ending llin their eternal silence.” The park man asked them if they wished to get in front with him. He was only slightly more solicitous to Helen, whose beauty always commandeered this. They told him no. He got back in at the wheel, and they drove down, slowly now. Helen started to try to do something with Sonya’s white chiffon scarf. Frances tried to help her, and refrained from gasping when at one point an accidental pull on the scarf caused Sonya’s head to jerk.

The park man said, “I could tell your friend was bad. That was why I didn’t want for her to talk.”

They had covered Sonya’s face. They spoke soothingly to the park man. Helen said to Frances, “It’s raining.” The mountain weather had come down suddenly now that it was past noon. The station came into view. The people for the one o’clock trains were standing with their faces anonymous under the pall of disappointment. A voice said, “But we can’t see the visibility.” Only the ones in the back saw the waiting ambulance and looked around as the station wagon pulled up.

Frances said to Helen, “I can’t believe it.” Helen replied, “I know.”

Jack had broken down, and while they all had to wait for the jam of tourists’ cars and buses to clear from the one o’clock cog train run, they took him into the inn to try to get him a drink. The proprietress let them into the bar, although that didn’t open until evening and was dark. Then she sat figuring her accounts with her bosom erect over a checked tablecloth, looking French, therefore timeless. In the adjoining café, a Kansas family was trying to get hamburgers, and a curious problem was going on because there were no buns or even white bread, only pumpernickel bread. The children couldn’t remember whether they liked pumpernickel bread, and in a stance of ironic patience the waitress was holding a slice for them to smell in turn. All this business seemed to Frances to make irrefutable the facts that she would be by herself now with her two daughters too young to talk, and that Sonya had already been dead for forty minutes.

“She adored life,” said Jack. He sobbed. Sonya’s can of candied grapefruit was on the table by the catsup bottle. “Crazy about parties. Crazy about kids. Went wild about kids.”

James had taken Helen in his arms in front of everyone. She burst into tears and said, “Horrible, horrible,” and he said, “My poor darling, my poor darling.” As they went into the rhapsody of “but you can’t imagine what I went through” and “my poor darling, how ghastly for you,” as if nobody existed and nobody were dead, Frances allowed her eye to be caught for the first time by Marvin Miller’s, and they refrained together from smiling.

The souvenir stand was heaped with pieces of ebonite and balsam and spectrite and marbelite, and as it occurred to Frances that Helen was merely a decent woman made stolidly practical by the chore of living up to her beauty, everything looked exactly what it was, and she thought how unbearable it would be if everything permanently looked like nothing more than what it was made of. She noticed pinecone notepaper, and it reminded her that she should write her family and say that after careful consideration of the best interests of the children, she and James were sorry to have to tell them that they had very amicably . . . She had an impulse to buy a toy for her children, but felt she shouldn’t, then.

“Everything to the fullest!” Jack wept. “Marvelous cook. Incredible things out of nothing. Fantastically creative. Loved people. Loved people!”

The police had cleared a lane for the ambulance and came in to get them. The can of grapefruit was left on the table, and Marvin Miller picked it up. As they went slowly out of the inn, he turned to Frances and gently touched her hair. She heard a rustle in her car. His mouth made its silent magician’s Ah of rueful wonder, and he held his linger out before her eyes. She exclaimed, and added “thank you,” although she hadn’t even time to realize that his little trick seemed a marvel, restoring everything to more than what it consisted of. He had taken out of her hair a small, live dove.