A story by John L’Heureux
In that country there was never a wind. Dust hung in the air, flung by the wheels of jeeps as the soldiers tore down Finial Street to the Blue Spider Café. Cozy Oaks was also located on Finial Street; the men from the farms and from the foundry went there, but the soldiers went to the Blue Spider. In April, with all the windows open, the singing and the short high whoops that meant they were having a good time could be heard far out in the fields and sometimes even beyond, where the lucky soldiers with cars brought the girls who seemed most likely to go all the way.
It had been like this every spring of the past four years, even when the base was new and nobody had yet sorted out how they really felt about the soldiers. Beryl Gerriter gave birth that first spring to her son Jason, her deep moans and howls punctuated with the drunken singing from the Blue Spider. Luke Gerriter waited in the sitting room with his daughter Elissa. They said nothing, though from time to time he would send her to the kitchen to get him another beer.
“Why can’t I go in?” she asked him.
“Shut your mouth. You’re not old enough.” “Twelve is old enough.”
He held his beer can to his mouth for a long slug and then he looked at her. Nothing. A face like an axe, everything pulled out to a point, with her mouth pinched already like Beryl’s, a worried face. And skinny. How in hell would he ever marry her off?
“Twelve isn’t old enough for much,” he said.
She knew his voice when he spoke like that, she was afraid of it, she didn’t know why. She leaned over Pal and hugged him, rubbing the fur along his back.
“We should get rid of that mutt. It stinks. That’s what the hell’s the matter around here. That mutt. One of these days I’m going to take him out and shoot him.” Luke slammed his beer can to the floor in fury, “If she don’t hurry up in there! Hurry up, you!” he shouted at the bedroom door.
The bedroom door opened and Dr. Pharon stuck his head out. “We’ve got problems,” he said, “serious ones. It’s gonna be a while and I can’t promise anything. But I suggest, if you got a brain left in that addled head of yours, that you stop drinking and start praying.” And he closed the door.
“I’ll be at the Oaks,” Luke said to his daughter. “You can come and get me when the mule is born.”
Elissa nodded, her eyes glazed with fear, and she hugged Pal again. “It’s going to be all right, Pal.” she said, rocking back and forth, the dog’s muzzle in her lap. “Everything’s going to be all right. Everything.”
She was awakened later by Dr. Pharon, who told her to go find her father; he had something important to tell him.
Outside she paused for a minute to think what she was doing. The sun had gone down and in the still air she could taste the dust. She crossed the lawn to the evergreen tree and held a spiky branch to her face, breathing its sharp smell of oil and gum, a bitter smell, but it was special to her.
Pal whimpered at her feet.
“It’s all right,” she said, and ran down the dirt road to where it met Finial Street. A small stone caught in the sole of her sneaker and she stooped under the streetlight to poke it out. It had wedged between the rubber sole and the canvas lining and the more she pried at the hole the deeper she pushed the stone.
A jeep roared by, then screeched to a halt and backed up, crookedly, weaving from side to side.
“Hi there, sweetheart.”
“She’s too young, Ron.”
“They’re never too young.”
Elissa stared at them, not frightened. They were soldiers from the base. Nobody minded the soldiers. The men had jobs now that the soldiers had come. Even her father had a job.
“What do you say, sweetheart? You want a ride?”
He was blond, with a wide, funny smile. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen.
“I’ve got to go to the Oaks to get my father.”
“Well, you jump right in here between me and my friend and we’ll take you straight to the Oaks.”He leaped out and held the low door open. She hesitated.
“Come on. You’ll be all right.”
“For Christ sake. Ron.” the driver said.
“What about my dog?”
“Bring your dog too. Come on.”
She climbed into the jeep and held out her arms for Pal, who wriggled from the soldier’s hands into her lap. Ron climbed in beside her, slamming the small door. “And away we go,” he shouted as the jeep took off. His arm. thrown over the seat at her back, drifted gradually to her shoulder. She could feel his hand lightly touching her bare arm.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Elissa,” she said, throwing her head back to feel the air blowing in her face.
“Elissa. Well, that’s some name. I never heard of a name like Elissa. I think I’d call you Cookie, ‘cause you’re so sweet.” He put his hand on her knee and ran it slowly up toward her thigh.
“Ron, if you want to get your ass in jail, you’re going in just the right direction.” the driver said.
“What’s the matter, for Christ sake? I’m only petting the dog.” The two men in back laughed. Ron rubbed Pal’s ears and his back. “Isn’t that right. Cookie? No harm in petting the doggie.”
Elissa thought she had never been so happy.
“My mother just had a baby,” she said. “I’ve got to tell my father.”
“That right?” Ron said, his hand going back to her thigh. “You gonna have a baby? Hm? Would you like a baby?”
His hand was hot on her thin dress and she could feel sweat break out on her thigh and up higher. She wished he would move his hand there. She wanted him to touch her all over. But most of all she wanted to put her two arms around his neck and lay her head on his chest and just stay like that for a long, long time.
“Cozy Oaks.” the driver said, slamming on the brakes.
And then she was out of the jeep and it was roaring off, the men in back laughing and Ron shouting, “See you around. Cookie.” She stood for a long while watching the trail of dust the jeep left behind. She could still feel each of his fingers on her thigh and his thumb moving back and forth.
All the way home she repeated their conversation in her mind. I think I’d call you Cookie, ‘cause you’re so sweet, he had said. And he had asked if she would like a baby. She put her hand on her thigh where he had put his. For once she did not care that her father was stumbling along in the dark, cursing every goddamn stone in his path, the goddamn wife who called him away from his buddies, the goddamn baby that would put them all in the poorhouse. She had not even minded going into Cozy Oaks to get him. She had only half heard the sarcastic comments of the men at the bar, the double-meaning jokes, the laughter. While he bought a round of beer for everyone, she had stood at the screen door looking down toward the Blue Spider, where Ron was probably dancing or drinking with some pretty girl he was calling Cookie because she was so sweet, but it didn’t matter. He had been nice, and whether he meant it or not, he had said it.
“You said it’s a boy.”
“What?” She stopped and tried to wiggle the stone into another part of her shoe.
“The baby. You said it’s a boy.”
“Did you see it?”
“No. Dr. Pharon said to go right away.”
“Then how do you know it’s a boy?” His voice was angry.
“I don’t know. I just think it is. I don’t know.”
She put her arm up to ward off the blow, but he had only meant to caress her. They stood looking at one another.
“I thought you were going to hit me.”
“I never hit you. You’re like your mother, you try to put me in the wrong. You try to make me look bad.”
“No. I don’t. I . . .” She lowered her eyes.
He put his arm around her shoulder now, stiffly, feeling the small, tense muscles beneath his fingers. They walked this way, father and child in a book of photographs, until they reached the little house where all the lights were on.
Dr. Pharon explained patiently that the child was a mongoloid and would probably not live
John L’Heureux is a poet and novelist whose most recent book is The Clang Birds.
long. The mother had required many stitches, she should be in a hospital, but there was no hospital, and he would have to pay Mrs. Botts to stay with her.
Luke Gerriter listened with his head in his hands and, when the doctor left, he saw him to the door. Then he went into the bedroom, where he looked in the crib for a long moment, for the last time. And then he stared at the gray figure in the bed.
“So you had to do this to me, too,” he said. “One lay in three years, and you had to produce this. You bitch.” He turned at the door to look at her again. “You miserable bitch,” he said, and lumbered up the stairs to Elissa’s attic room.
Elissa stretched out on the sitting-room couch where she stroked Pal and whispered over and over again. “It’s all right; it’s going to be all right.”
The next morning Luke bought a bed frame that folded in half and a mattress to go with it and he set them up in the tiny bedroom. He said nothing to Beryl—everything between them seemed to have been said already—and she remained with her face turned resolutely to the wall. She had not asked to see the baby.
Almost at once they had settled into a regular routine. At three o’clock Elissa returned from school and Mrs. Botts went home. Elissa prepared her father’s dinner and then he disappeared until midnight or later, when he came stumbling home from the Oaks. Meanwhile Elissa sat with her mother, saying nothing. No one in the house said anything.
Elissa had instructions from Mrs. Botts about caring for the baby and she went about the work methodically, automatically; it was the way she made dinner, the way she did schoolwork: it was as if there were some more important part of her that simply stepped out and walked away, leaving the methodical, automatic Elissa behind to do the work.
School was the worst part of the day. The others teased her about her idiot brother and once one of the teachers had called her aside in the school yard and asked about her mother and her father and finally about her brother. She wanted to know if he had a big head and if his eyes were pink; she asked her to describe him. Elissa said she didn’t know how and tried to pull away, but the teacher had hold of her arm.
“You tell me, you hear. I’ve got to know these things. I’m only doing my duty.” She tightened her grasp on the girl’s arm.
Elissa tried to run, but could not get away. And then something inside her took over and it was as if she were talking with her father when he was drunk and impossible. She said in her dreamy way, “He’s just a baby, just a little ordinary baby.
His eyes are blue, a pretty light blue they are. and his head is only as big as a baby’s head. He cries when he’s hungry and then my mother feeds him, but most of the time he just laughs and plays with his toys and sleeps. Just like any baby.”
“Are you telling me the truth?”
“That isn’t what everybody says. What do you say to that?”
“Maybe they haven’t seen him,” Elissa said. “He’s a real nice baby.”
More and more she found herself alone; she played with the dog and sat with the baby in her mother’s room, waiting.
Luke had to be very drunk before he could get courage to come back to that small bedroom smelling of sour sheets and milk and he there knowing Beryl was not asleep and that thing lay in the darkness.
He thought sometimes he would get up and place a pillow over the baby’s face and put it out of its misery. He thought of shooting it. Some nights as he turned off Finial Street into the dirt road that led to his house, he saw himself approach the door and walk through the house and down the cellar stairs and get a gun—the small pistol maybe, with its shiny blue barrel, or one of the rifles—and go back up the stairs, through the sitting room and into the bedroom, and there . . . He could not imagine the rest in detail, but there was one small shot into the crib and then a scream from Beryl, followed by two shots and then a silence. He held the gun at his own head. On those dark nights staggering home from Finial Street, he would weep at how rotten life was. He would go home and fall into bed. and it did not matter anymore that Beryl was lying there awake, staring straight ahead.
After the first day Mrs. Botts gave up trying to talk to Beryl, but she could never be sure whether she was asleep or awake. Sometimes it was as if she were staring even when her eyes were shut. She’d be plumb glad, she told herself, when this whole thing was over.
Only Elissa was indifferent to Beryl’s silent stare. Often, coming home from school, she would stand at the bedroom door and look at her mother, thinking, she’ll never come back, she’s gotten away to some place where there are trees and air and no more shouting and she’ll never come back. She envied her.
And Beryl lay there, with her gray face on the pillow, staring. It was almost a month before she asked to see the baby. There had been no warning, no signs of a return to life; suddenly one afternoon she simply turned in the bed, lifted herself on one elbow, and spoke to Mrs. Botts. Her voice was clear and strong.
“Let me see it,” she said.
Mrs. Botts looked up from her knitting. “How’s that?”
“Let me see it. The baby.”
“Well, now, Berla. Are you real sure you want to do that? Might be as how well enough should be let alone till you’re feeling better.”
“I’m real sure.”
Mrs. Botts picked up the baby and laid him in the bed next to Beryl, who twisted beneath the sheet so that she could get a better look at him. She took a long, deep breath and her chest heaved twice as if she were going to sob. And then she whispered “No.” a long breathy sound that turned into a deep moan. She forced herself into a sitting position, picked up the baby, and crushed it to her breast, swaying her body from side to side as she clutched the white unresisting thing.
Mrs. Botts stroked Beryl’s hair and said over and over, “That’s all right. Berla, you go ahead and cry. That’s all right. Berla,”and she went on stroking. waiting for the release of tears. But the tears did not come.
After a long while she said, “Look at it. Just look at it.”
The baby had smooth, almost puffy skin, moist in the airless room. His ears were small and round and his nose only a blob of flesh, not like a nose at all. His lips were thick, the color of raw meat. Beryl bent closer and looked at his tongue. It had two deep grooves and protruded from his tiny mouth. But it was his head that astonished her most. It was small and hard and completely round. She had expected a monstrosity, an enormous watermelon head. Looking at him at first, she had been relieved, she had almost begun to hope. And then she recalled the doctor’s warning. “He’s a mongoloid. he will never be normal, he will probably not live very many years,”and she saw the huge lips and the tiny slits for eyes. With her thumb she gently pushed up one eyelid. The eye was milky blue and empty.
She had not wanted him. she had not wanted sex in the first place, and now this had happened. She crooked her finger under his tiny palm and looked at his hand. Even his hands were wrong. There was a space between his first finger and the rest. His feet had that same strange cleft, as if they were paws, as if he were Pal.
“Put him back,”she said, and then a long while later. “I’m going to call him Jason.”Her mouth bent in a thin bitter smile.
She was herself again for a few months and then in the fall she had a hysterectomy and after that she left the baby’s care entirely to Elissa. She never wanted to see him again, she said.
Jason died just before his second birthday.
Elissa missed him. He was not a mongoloid to her. some strange monster her father would not look at, or a mockery her mother hated. He was that ordinary little baby she had told her teacher about, a baby who cried when he was hungry. but who most of the time played with his toys and slept. She would have a baby of her own someday, in a place different from this one; and she would be loved someday too.
Elissa was fourteen now and plain. Her hair was long and thin, falling straight on either side of her wedge-shaped face. She looked nearsighted, though she was not. The glassy look in her eyes came from daydreaming, her teachers said, but Elissa knew it was something different. She was escaping, she was going away.
Soon after Jason died, she had begun taking Pal for walks each evening. After supper, when her father left for the Oaks and her mother settled into her chair by the radio, Elissa took the dog and walked slowly down the dirt road to Finial Street. She pulled a stick of straw grass from a clump by the road and chewed on it, kicking stones ahead for Pal to chase. She walked slower as she came into sight of Finial Street and under the streetlight she stopped and waited. When she heard one of the jeeps approach, she bent over as if she were taking a stone from her shoe. This was how she had met Ron. There was no saying it couldn’t happen again.
And then one night a jeep did stop and come roaring back.
“Hi,” a girl said, giggling. She was in the front seat beside a soldier and there were two other soldiers in the back. Her dark red hair tumbled around her shoulders in big curls and her mouth glistened with lipstick. It took Elissa a full minute to recognize her as Florence Kath. Florence was also a freshman at the high school.
“Hi,” Elissa said, her eyes darting from face to face. Ron was not there. “Oh, it’s you. I didn’t recognize you, you’re so . . .”
“We’re going to the Spider,” Florence said. “Want to come?”
“Yeah, why don’t you come?” a soldier in back said. “Here, you can sit right between us. We’ll take care of you.” The other just grinned.
“I’d like to.” she said. “I really would, but my dog . . . I’ve got to get back home.” She could not take her eyes off the soldier in front, who had his arm around Florence and was pushing the shoulder of her peasant blouse lower and lower.
“Fresh bastard,” Florence said, pleased, and she pushed his hand away. “Come on. Lissa, you’ll really love it.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I just can’t. My father . . .” She stood there speechless as the jeep took off, scattering dust everywhere.
Elissa and Florence became friends. Each morning during third period they met in the girls’ room and smoked a cigarette. And they had lunch together. Though they ate in the cafeteria with everyone else, there were always empty chairs at their table. Florence was cheap, everyone said, Florence did it with the soldiers.
“You ought to come to the Spider, Lissa, it’s really terrific. I go only on Saturdays now, but next year I’m gonna go on Fridays and Saturdays too, once I convince my old lady. You ought to come.”
“My mother would never let me.”
“Well, you ought to come anyway. Last Saturday there was this guy. Oh my God. he was so cute. He bought me a beer by buying it for himself, you know, and letting me drink it. He had real curly hair, black, and we necked like crazy right in the booth. I didn’t care. And when he took me home . . .”
“What happened when he took you home? fell me.”
“Nosy bitch, aren’t you? I’ll tell you on Saturday when we put up our hair.”
Every Saturday morning at Elissa’s house they put up their hair in huge pink rollers, whispering and giggling at the kitchen sink, splashing water everywhere. Then they sat outside on the back steps letting the sun dry their hair.
Beryl would sometimes lean against the doorframe smoking a cigarette. She had put on weight since her operation and the faded housecoat she invariably wore bulged now with two small rolls around her waist. She kept her hair tied back with a blue and white bandanna.
“Boy-crazy,” she would say, and the girls would giggle. “I know,” she said, nodding in agreement with herself, “don’t think for a minute I don’t know.”
And sometimes she would study the two girls. Elissa was developing a good bust. Funny about that because she was so skinny, especially in the face. She’d get a man someday all right. Beryl smiled bitterly to herself. Florence was pasty white with a plump face and a red mouth that was always pouting. She’s looking for trouble. Beryl thought, and she’ll find it.
“You keep going to that Spider,” she would say, “and you’ll get what you’re looking for.”
And once she said. “I remember when I was a kid. about your age. maybe younger, I thought getting married was the best thing that could happen to anybody, just getting away, not having to answer to nobody for nothing. I thought men were . . .” She was looking out over their heads, squinting against the sun, and then suddenly she threw down her cigarette and ground it out. “Men.” she said. “They only want one thing.” She went inside and slammed the door.
Florence waited a minute until she was sure Beryl was gone and then she said. “Jesus, your mother, is she ever some kind of nut! She’s worse than mine. My old lady just keeps nagging and nagging, but at least she’s not crazy.” She touched the rollers on top of her head gently, protectively. “You know something? I think she’s really crazy. I really do.”
“It’s since the baby died.” Elissa said. “And then her operation.”
“Maybe it’s the change. They get crazy during the change, that’s what Tussie told me. Tussie’s my aunt and is she ever gorgeous. She’s the one that showed me how to put on makeup and everything. She told me all about sex and everything. As if I didn’t know already.” She shrieked with laughter and Elissa laughed with her.
Florence rummaged through the large embroidered bag she carried everywhere with her. She pulled out her makeup box, flat plastic containers of base and powder and rouge, and she gazed into a small, round mirror as she drew the crimson lipstick across her mouth. She was making it larger, she explained. Men liked lips that way; it was sexy. She held the lipstick lovingly, caressing her lips with it, gently expanding her lip line above and below its natural ridges. Her lips looked wet. She pursed them at the mirror, lazily stuck her tongue out and curled it to one side of her mouth, tossed her head back, and gazed into the mirror with half-closed eyes. She was thinking of tonight, of what might happen.
Elissa looked at her and ached. The pancake makeup, the hair in rollers, the glistening red mouth. Someday she would go to the Blue Spider. Someday all that excitement would be hers.
On the night before her fifteenth birthday, Elissa woke to angry shouting. She could hear her mother’s voice screaming “bastard” over and over against her father’s drunken laughter, a choked hollow laugh with no joy in it. Pal was whimpering at the foot of the bed. Her mother’s voice grew louder and she heard her father’s voice, too, thick and angry, though she could not make out what he was saying. And then there was a crash. The voices stopped. The house was completely silent. A floorboard creaked and Pal whimpered once again, but the house remained silent the rest of the night.
The next day Beryl and Luke did not speak to one another, nor would she sit with him while he ate. When Luke returned from work, the table was set for him and Elissa, and the dinner was ready on the counter next to the stove. Beryl sat in the bedroom looking out the window. Elissa and her father ate in silence, Elissa only toying with her food. She was not hungry.
On the third day Luke said to her, “Where’s your mother?”
“In the bedroom.”
“Doesn’t she eat at all? When does she eat?”
“She eats before you come home.” Elissa pushed the beans around her plate with her fork. “Can’t this stop?” she said. “Can’t this all stop?”
She held her breath, fearing what he might say or do. But he only went on eating, mopping his plate Anally with a piece of bread. He leaned over the table, his head in his hands. Elissa listened to the kitchen clock ticking, saw her father shake his head from side to side. It will always be like this, she thought; nothing will ever change. She will sit in the other room looking out the window and he will sit here with his head in his hands and I will be between them listening to the clock tick and tick and tick. She wanted to run, she wanted to scream, it was better to be dead.
Luke stopped shaking his head from side to side. He looked up from his plate, his eyes strange and wild, his face bruised-looking. He was not drunk now; she had never seen him look like this.
“Oh, Christ,” he said, his face contracting, growing hard, “what’s the use! What’s the goddamn use!”
The next day he went back to his guns. He had three of them; two were heavy-gauge shotguns and the other was a twenty-two, revolver-size, with a snub barrel. He had not touched them since the soldiers came and he had gotten a regular job. But before that, in that endless time when there had been no work and he had a wife and daughter to support, he had spent the days hacking at the sand and stone that stretched for miles behind the tiny house, trying to coax the sterile land into producing vegetables. And at the end of the day, when they had eaten dinner, he would get out the guns. With Beryl and Elissa by his side, he would trudge to the end of the garden, where he placed tin cans on a large rock to use for target practice. He was quiet and methodical, setting up the cans and walking back to the shooting box drawn in the sand, lifting the gun to his shoulder, clicking back the safety catch, bring. Elissa would watch as his face tightened in concentration, his jaw went hard as he focused on the target, and his chest expanded in a sort of sigh as the bullet struck the can and sent it spinning into the air. He would do this over and over until it grew dusky and then they went into the house. None of them enjoyed the shooting; it seemed, somehow, a necessity. He had taught Beryl to shoot the twenty-two and insisted that Elissa learn also. But all this had stopped once the soldiers came and there were jobs and money. And now he was back with his guns.
“What’s he do that for, anyhow? What’s he want to shoot tin cans for?” Florence narrowed her eyes and stared into the distance where Elissa’s father was shooting. It was Saturday and they were doing their hair. “That makes me really jumpy, boy. that gunshot.”
“It’s just a hobby. He just does target practice.”
“Jeez, your family. I’d be afraid to live here. Honest to God. With your mother in the change and everything and your old man shooting out back, I’d be afraid he’d go off his nut and shoot me. How do you know he’s not gonna miss someday and hit somebody by accident?”
“Wait a minute. Shh.” Elissa stared out across the garden at her father. “I think he called me,” she said. He was waving his arm at her. “He must have,” she said, and began walking toward him.
Luke was standing in a litter of tin cans holding a small bunch of purple flowers, weeds that had somehow grown through the barren soil and bloomed now in the shade of the rock Luke set the tin cans on. The stems were thick with brownish green leaves and the blossoms were small but numerous. “Here,” he said, handing the flowers to Elissa. “Take them in to her.”
“Should I say they’re from you?”
“I don’t care what you say. Say whatever you want. Just give them to her. Say, yes, you can say they’re from me.” He was lining up cans on the rock. He was sweating.
“I’ll tell her,” Elissa said.
“Oh. and kid, Elissa.” He scratched his head and stared at the ground. He spoke so softly she could hardly hear him. “Tell me, uh, tell me what she says.”
Elissa ran to the house, her heart pounding. It would end now, the fights and the anger and the silence.
Suddenly she was shy. She did not know how to give her mother the flowers, how to say they were from her father. She went slowly into the bedroom and stood there. Beryl was sitting with her face to the window. Her blue and white bandanna had come loose and the hair at the back of her head stuck out in little clumps; it was matted and damp at the temples. She turned and blew a stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth. Her eyes were swollen and there were dark smudges beneath them. She looked at Elissa questioningly and then she saw the flowers.
“What are those? What the hell have you got there?”
“Look.” Elissa held out the bouquet to her.
Beryl began to tremble, her mouth working furiously and her eyes darting from Elissa to the door behind her and then back to the flowers.
“Where did you get those?” she said, breathless. “Are they from him? Did he tell you to bring me those?” Her voice rose; she was almost screaming. “Get those out of this house! Get them out of here! Out! Get out!” She stood up, one hand at her hair.
Elissa backed to the door. “They’re only flowers. He just wanted to give you some flowers.”
“Look at them. They’re death flowers. Death! You put those on coffins. Don’t you see? Don’t you see what he wants? He wants to get rid of me. He wants me dead.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. She was clutching Elissa’s arm, her thumb and fingernails deep in the soft flesh. “He can get rid of me, you know. He has grounds. You can get rid of a woman like me. Once you can’t have children anymore, once you’re like a chicken with its guts ripped out, they can get rid of you. He’d like to, too. that’s what he wants.”
“He just wanted to make up. He just wanted to give you the flowers.”
Elissa pulled away from her but Beryl continued on, talking rapidly, in a whisper, her words piling on one another.
“You’re with him too. You’re like him. The both of you, you want to drive me crazy. You want me to go crazy and then you can get rid of me. Bringing me those flowers. Death flowers.” She began to scream again. “Get them out of here. Get out.”
Elissa ran out of the house and stood on the back porch, white and gasping for breath. Inside she could hear her mother sobbing wildly. Florence was staring at her, motionless, one hand gently touching the pink rollers on her head, the other suspended halfway to her mouth. Somewhere in the distance her father was waiting. And all she could feel was the sun, beating heavily on her head and shoulders, numbing her entire body. There was a terrible crashing sound in her head, rhythmic and painfully loud, like a gunshot. But it was not a gunshot; it was something inside her head and it would not stop. Florence was saving something, but she could not hear it.
“Wait. Wait,” she said, “it’ll stop.”
Florence watched her come stiffly down the stairs, walking as if she were in a trance. Her arms hung limply by her sides and the flowers in her left hand trailed along the ground as step by step she approached her father. He was standing with one foot on the rock, staring off into the space that stretched out forever behind the house. As she approached him, he turned and saw the flowers. He made a sound that was half laughter and half groan.
“She didn’t want them?”
“What did she say? Did you say they were from me?”
“She said to get them out of the house.”
“But did she say why?”
“She said they were death flowers. She said you wanted her dead, because . . . She said you wanted to drive her crazy, that we both did.”
Luke’s face went gray and he put the gun down carefully against the rock. He began walking toward the house. Elissa ran after him.
“No, oh please no,” she said. “Don’t say anything to her. Don’t do anything. Please. Please no.”
She was snatching at his sleeve but he pushed her away and kept on, a furious determined walk. She turned and went back to the rock where he had left the rifle. She picked it up and held it in position, the butt against her shoulder, her eye at the site. She turned the barrel toward the house, toward Florence, but Florence had gone home. Without thinking, she sited the kitchen window and waited and waited, and then pressed the trigger. Nothing happened. She had forgotten to release the safety catch.
Voices came to her now; she could hear them shouting. The word “crazy” drifted toward her on the windless air and then “bastard.” She shook her head; she would not listen.
And then—she did not know why—she turned the rifle so that the barrel pointed to her chest. She reached for the trigger, but her arms were not long enough. She crouched. She placed the gunstock on the ground. Nothing worked.
Yes, she thought, you’d have to use your toe.
You put the stock on the ground, the barrel at your chest, and you push the trigger back, away from you, with a toe. It would work perfectly.
She smiled at the thought and then looked around, suddenly self-conscious. She put the rifle back, leaning it against the rock just as it had been, and she walked slowly to the house.
“Look, kid, you can go if you want to, but if your father ever finds out, don’t come crying to me.”
Beryl had said this to her late at night on that same Saturday Elissa had brought her the death flowers, and now it was Saturday again, and she had been going to the Blue Spider for almost a year.
Elissa stood in front of the bathroom mirror touching her hair. She wore it in immense curls that tumbled about her head, some of them only half combed out, still springy from the rollers. Florence wore her hair this way; it was the fashion, she said. Florence helped her with everything. She had taught Elissa how to spread the thick laver of pancake makeup evenly over her face and how to blend in the little dot of rouge so that her cheekbones stood out flushed against all that pink. She had helped her pick the peasant blouse, elasticized at the shoulders, and the plaid skirt, yards and yards of material that swirled around her when she danced and that concealed her thin legs and hips. And she had taught her how to act at the Blue Spider. She called Elissa Cookie and Elissa called her Candy. The soldiers liked their names.
She continued to pose before the mirror, distracted from her own image by the thought of Len.
She had met him on her first Saturday at the Blue Spider. They danced once or twice that night, but she did not remember him a week later; she had been too excited, too confused. Everyone seemed to like her. They laughed and drank and danced. How could she have remembered one soldier out of so many? But when he reminded her that they had danced together only a week earlier, she was embarrassed and grateful. She fell in love with him at once. And now, every Saturday night, they drifted together early in the evening, kissing and touching in the booths and on the way home.
“He loves me,” she said aloud to the mirror. She touched her hair one last time and then put on the soft pink lipstick her mother liked; she would put on the deep red just before she reached Finial Street.
“Don’t get in trouble, you,” her mother said.
“And you better get home before he does. If he finds out. he’ll kill you.”
“I’m always home before he is. Don’t worry.”
Beryl watched her daughter walk down the dirt road, her hips swaying, her curls tossing with the movements of her head. “You look nice, Elissa,” she said to herself, and then turned away, back to her empty house. Pal was in her way, sniffing at the screen door. “Get out of here, damn you,” she said. “Smelly damn dog.”
At Finial Street they were waiting for Elissa in the jeep, but Len was not with them. The two soldiers in back made room for her and even before she sat down the jeep roared away. One soldier had his arm around her shoulders, the other put his hand on her knee; she settled in comfortably between them.
“Isn’t Len coming tonight?” She tried to sound casual.
“Hey, is Len coming tonight?” The soldier repeated her question, laughter in his voice. He tightened his grip on her shoulder.
“I don’t know. Is Len coming tonight?” The other picked up the question, nudging her leg with his.
“What’s the joke?” she said. “What the hell’s so funny?” She leaned forward. “Hey, Candy, what the hell’s so funny?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Florence said, rolling her eyes.
“Come on, tell me.”
Florence leaned back and whispered in her ear. “Len’s gonna get a car. And you know what that means.” She laughed wildly, rocking from side to side, wriggling against the driver. Elissa tossed back her head and began to sing the “Pocaluma Polka.” It was going to be a perfect night. Nothing could spoil it. She was still singing when they reached the Blue Spider and went in.
Elissa was thrilled by the air of excitement in the place. Everyone was in motion, talking and laughing. There were some girls in the booths already, but most of them were dancing, and soldiers were lounging against the jukebox waiting for their turn. Someone called to her from one of the back booths. She waved to him and laughed. She was dancing, gliding backward to the heavy beat of the music, humming. She could feel the soldier’s hands moving on her shoulder and at the small of her back. She didn’t care. Let him. She was dancing with someone else now; she could feel his thighs against hers. She was floating, and always there was the music blaring and bodies touching hers. She was safe here. She was alive. Someone handed her a can of beer and she was surprised at the sharp bitter taste. She took a long slug from the can and everyone applauded.
“Jesus, are you ever the one!” Florence said to her, and then she whispered something to one of the soldiers. They laughed together and then he whispered to her. “You pig,” she said, and pushed against his chest with her fist, laughing. They sat down in a booth.
Len had come in and was standing by the jukebox waiting for the music to stop. They were dancing to the “Chicken Bop” and every few steps the girl would pull away from the boy and do a little hop. It was a popular dance because it gave the girls a chance to show what they were made of, Len had once told her. Elissa moved away from her partner, hopped, and returned. He grinned and said, “What’ve you got down there?” He pulled at the elastic on her blouse.
“Pig,” she said. She was flirting more than she would have if she had seen Len come in.
She swung out from her partner once again, did her little hop, and returned, and this time he said. “You’ve really got something. Let’s take a look.” And he pulled again at the elastic. The blouse slipped from her left shoulder and she pushed it back easily with a flick of her thumb. But she was annoyed.
“Come on,” she said. “Cut it.”
The dance was about to end. “I’ll be good,” he said. He held her tight against him, but when she swung out and returned for the last time, like a small boy he said, “Just one little peek,” and he pulled at the elastic.
She stopped dancing and stood there. “Now look what you done,” she said. The elastic had broken and her blouse drooped low on the left shoulder.
“Let’s see, let’s see,”he said, being funny. The music had stopped and everyone was beginning to stare.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Len said. He came between her and her partner.
“Hey, hold on there, soldier,” he said. “You stealing my little girlfriend here?” And he pushed Len to the side.
“Look at this. Look what he done.” Elissa was saying. “How can I go home with my blouse like this?”
“Quit shoving,” Len said to the soldier, and took Elissa by the arm.
The soldier spun him around. “You didn’t answer my question, friend. You stealing my little girlfriend here?” He waited for an answer. “Huh?” He pushed Len in the chest with the flat of his hand. “Huh?” Another push. “What do you say, soldier boy?”
The crowd around them had fallen silent, the faces hungry for a fight. Len glanced at them and knew what was expected of him. But he didn’t want a fight. Not now.
“Don’t try that again.” he said, and spat on the floor.
“Try what? Try this?” He pushed Len harder. “Why, this is the easiest thing in the world, no trying involved.” He pushed him harder still.
And then before anyone knew what happened, before anyone could holler “fight,” Len lashed out with his right fist and caught the soldier on the side of the head. He lurched back, but as he fell he struck the other side of his head on one of the upright beams. It made only a dull thudding sound. He slid down the beam to a sitting position, a look of surprise on his face, blood beginning to drip from the side of his head. Len took Elissa’s arm and pushed her to the door.
“Hey, no rough stuff.” the bartender was shouting. Everyone was talking loudly. “Who got hit?” “Who did it?”
They stood for a moment outside the door. Elissa holding the blouse together with her hand. They were breathless, flushed with excitement.
“I got a car,” Len said.
“I know it.”
He paused and she stood there fiddling with the material of her blouse.
“Do you want to?”
“Yes. Do you?”
Laughing, they ran to the car.
“Yellow bastard,” they heard the soldier shout as they drove off. “Come on back and fight, you bastard.”
They drove out of town, out beyond the houses and the fields and the base, deep into the pocked and sweltering desert. They were silent the whole way, an odd formality between them. Finally Len stopped the car and they got out.
“This looks all right.” he said. “What do you think?”
“Yes, this is fine,”she said. What had happened? He was a stranger, she thought: he was just someone else she did not know. But I love him and he loves me. We’re going to make love, she told herself, trying to recapture the excitement of the Blue Spider. He was naked now. standing on the blanket he had spread over the sand. He was caressing his fat stomach.
“Come on,” he said. “Get those clothes off, for Christ sake. We haven’t got all night.”
They made love and afterward she said, “Is that all?” It had happened so quickly, just a brief hard pain that spread upward, taking her breath away, and then nothing more.
“What do you mean, is that all?”
“I mean, should we go home now?”
“Oh, yeah,”he said. And as he picked up the blanket and walked to the car, he added. “Hey, uh, thanks a lot.”
“That’s all right,” she said.
They were silent as he drove her home.
Luke had been home for more than an hour. He had gone upstairs and sat, waiting, on Elissa’s bed and then he had come down.
“Where is she?” he asked Beryl.
“She’s out for a walk. She was too hot up there.”
“Yeah, I hear she’s hot up there. I hear she’s hot down at the Blue Spider, too.”
“Who says?” He was drunk, she knew, but canny drunk. It was best not to antagonize him. “Men gossip,” she said, “they just make things up.”
“My own daughter, a friggin whore. I have to hear about it at the Oaks. My wife don’t tell me. Oh no. she’s helping her do it.”
“Who said . . .”
“It’s been going on for a year, they tell me. ‘Hey, Gerriter,’ he says to me, ‘I hear your daughter’s getting it plenty.’ I call him a dirty liar and he says, ‘No, it’s true.’ So I’m gonna punch him in the face and they tell me. ‘No. Gerriter. it’s true. She’s down there every Saturday.’ And there I was listening to them laugh about my own daughter. I’ll teach her. I’ll beat her to an inch of her life.”
“I let her go. I’m the one. I said she could go as long as she got home before you did. So if you’re gonna blame anybody, it’s me.”
“Yeah. I should beat you too. I should have years ago.”
“You’re not going to beat anybody, Luke Gerriter. Get that straight.”
“I’m not gonna be made a fool of by my own daughter. I’m gonna teach her a lesson.” He stormed into the kitchen and took a beer from the refrigerator. Beryl followed him.
They stared at each other in silence for a moment and then Luke took a long slug from the beer can.
Beryl spoke very slowly. “If you put a hand on her, I warn you. I’ll kill you.” She continued to stare at him for a moment and then she went to the bedroom.
She sat by the window trembling. They had not fought for almost a year now. not since the day he had sent Elissa to her with the flowers. She had changed since then, she knew it. Something strange had happened inside her and she found herself, despite the stored anger between them, wanting him, wanting him with her in bed. She could not tell him this, but there were times when she ached, when she lay in bed listening to him snore and had to keep herself from going to his cot and saying, “Come to bed with me, I want you.” And now it was all going to change again, within an hour, as soon as Elissa got home. She could foresee it, the accusations, the heavy hands, the screaming. She shook her head to clear it.
In the kitchen Luke had finished his beer and took down from the pantry shelf the bottle of whiskey he kept there. He sat at the kitchen table and watched the whiskey rise in the tumbler: he filled it only half full. He put his head on the table to rest, to wait for her. As the time passed and the whiskey sank in the bottle, he wept for himself as a betrayed father, for his daughter being used by filthy soldiers, for everything. He would grow angry and violent, pace around the kitchen, cursing and threatening to beat her half to death. And after a while he would sit down again. He dozed fitfully. By the time the small gray car turned off Finial Street onto the dirt road, Luke had finished most of the bottle and was thoroughly, violently, drunk.
The car stopped in front of the house and the two people inside sat there in silence. They had not spoken once since leaving the desert. Finally Len cleared his throat.
“Um, there’s something I should tell you. I’m being shipped out soon.”
“Oh.” As if she had expected it.
“Yeah, this week. Maybe I should have told you before. Maybe you wouldn’t have wanted to do it.”
“No, that’s all right,” she said.
“Well, anyway, it was, um, great.”
“Yes,” she said.
She got out of the car and closed the door softly.
“See you around,” he said and drove off, fast.
“That’s all right,” she said, and drifted toward the door, her hand at the shoulder of her torn blouse. Vaguely she noticed that the light was on behind the screen door. She couldn’t breathe very well. She stopped by the evergreen tree, bending into its spiky branches to inhale the bitter smell. The screen door creaked, but she did not turn around.
Her head jerked sharply back and there was a tearing pain in her shoulder as Luke grabbed her arm from behind and pulled her into the light.
“Look at you, you whore, you pig.” he said softly, staring at the curls and the makeup and the crimson slash at her mouth. He slapped her hard on the face. In the silence, the crack of his hand against her skin was like a gunshot and involuntarily he drew away from her, hesitating for a moment. And then he saw the blouse. “Look, look!” he said. “Is that what happens in the cars, huh? They can’t wait to get at you so they have to rip your clothes off.”
Elissa backed away from him. He was crazy drunk. He might do anything.
“Or do you like it that way? Damned whore,” he said. “Some like it that way. Do you? Huh? Do you like it?” And with one hand he reached out and tore her blouse down the front. His anger grew as he looked at her. “Look at you,” he screamed. “Look at you.” He tore at her brassiere, and as she struggled it came loose in his hand. She stood stripped to the waist in the light shining through the screen door. “Whore,” he said, “pig,” and slapped at her breasts, pulling her closer and closer to him as they struggled. She was screaming, pushing him away, and he was calling her whore, whore, while his neck and chest heaved with the violence of what he was doing. He felt fists on his back and he heard someone calling his name and then something struck his head.
“Luke, Luke,” Beryl was saying. “Luke.”
He took his hands from Elissa and turned, with the face of a stranger, to Beryl. He looked at her, confused.
“Get in the house,” she said, her voice firm and low.
“She . . .” Luke said, pointing to his daughter.
“I know. Get in the house.”
Luke went up the stairs slowly, bent like an old man, never having noticed the pistol in her hand.
Elissa and Beryl looked at one another, uncertain, questioning.
“Nothing happened, did it,” Beryl said. Elissa continued to look at her. “Nothing happened,” she insisted.
“No. Nothing happened.”
“I know,” Beryl said, “I know,” and she threw her arms around the girl, sobbing uncontrollably. “Nothing happened. Nothing. Nothing happened.”
It was almost October and still the heat was unbearable. Luke wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and then mopped his plate with a piece of bread, swooping down on it to catch the drippings.
“How come she’s sick again?” he asked. “What’s the matter with her?”
Beryl pushed back her plate. “You want another beer?” She rose to get it.
“What’s the matter with the kid?”
She placed the beer can at his side and sat down at the table facing him. “She’s pregnant.”
“Oh no,” he said, and groaned.
“She told me this afternoon. She’s over three months.”
Luke sat staring at his empty plate, his hands at his head. After a minute Beryl saw his shoulders shake. He was crying.
“How do you think I felt?” she said. “I told her she’s gonna be punished and good. I feel like she tore something right out of me, like she killed something I had, the only thing I had.”
His shoulders shook again. He said nothing.
The clock ticked above the table. They could hear Pal upstairs, as his nails clicked against the wooden door. Finally Beryl couldn’t stand the silence any longer.
“It’s not yours,” she said.
He looked up at her, shocked.
“It’s not your baby. I asked her.”
He shook his head and looked back down at his plate. In the three months that had passed since he beat Elissa, none of them ever mentioned what had happened.
“Well, I had to know, didn’t I? After that . . “Yes,” he said. She could barely hear it.
“Do you want to know something? Do you?” There was fright in her voice and he looked up at her finally.
“Do you know what I felt first of all? I was jealous.”
He stared at her.
“You don’t know what it’s been like,” she said. “Oh Jesus, sometimes I want to just die.”
“It’s not mine,” he said. “I was drunk that time. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“I know,” she said. “Nothing happened anyway.” There was a long silence between them and. tentatively, she moved her arm forward on the table until her fingers touched his.
“Can I tell you something?” she said.
He moved one of his fingers against hers.
“Sometimes I want it now. With you.”
After a long moment he took her hand in his. “Oh Christ,” he said, “what a mess.” And for the first time in years, they went to the bedroom to make love.
Upstairs Elissa lay in her bed, one arm across her stomach. She studied the boards in the slanted roof above her head and whenever Pal put his muzzle against her, she scratched behind his ears. But she noticed nothing, was aware of nothing.
At first, after that night with Len. she had tried to understand what had happened. He didn’t love her, she knew that, but that hadn’t mattered. Not that he was going away either. It was something different. Everything seemed to have come to an end—the excitement of going to the Spider, men brushing against her, touching her. knowing that something was going to happen, that it was all going to be different. But nothing was going to be different now. By the time she discovered she was pregnant, not even that mattered very much. That seemed only to prove what she already knew. She was trapped forever in the sweltering heat, fighting for a breath of air.
Around midnight they awoke and made love once again. Luke collapsed against her, breathing hard, and then rolled away, half asleep already.
“She’s got to be punished,” Beryl said. “She’s got to be taught a lesson.”
“I’ll shoot her dog,” Luke said. “She loves the dog.”
“No. No, that’s not enough.”
There was a moment of silence.
“I’ll make her shoot it,” he said.
Before dawn Luke walked to town and borrowed the Garners’ car. He was back before the sun was fully up. Beryl had prepared a large breakfast for them and they ate it, as they always did. in silence.
Afterward Beryl said. “I told your father.”
“You’ve got to be punished,” he said. “You know that.”
Elissa pushed her hair back from her face but said nothing.
“We’re gonna shoot that dog of yours. You’re gonna shoot it, that is. You’re gonna take us out to where he did it and you’re gonna show us the exact spot and then you’re gonna shoot that dog.”
“You killed something I had.” Beryl said, “and now you’re gonna do the same.”
Elissa nodded. It was all crazy. Nothing mattered.
The sun was high when they passed the last of the farms and took the road to the air base.
“Left here,” Elissa said, numb. She stroked the dog and looked out the window. Miles and miles of sand, with the sun beating down. Nothing could live here.
“Where is it?” Luke said. “It must be around here somewhere.”
How could you tell? she thought; everything was the same. In a few minutes she said, “Here. Here’s the place.”
They got out of the car and stood by it awkwardly, looking around them. No one would ever hear a gunshot out here. They walked a long distance from the car until Luke said, “Where are you going? 1 thought you said it was here?”
“Yes, it is here. It’s right here.”
Luke drove a stake deep into the sand and tied the dog’s leash to it. He walked five paces distant, readying the gun. He cocked it, examined the shells, snapped it shut. Only twenty-twos, but at such close range enough to kill a dog. He released the safety catch and handed Elissa the pistol.
“Do it,” he said. “Do it or we just drive off and leave you. It’s your punishment.”
Luke and Beryl moved off and stood at a distance, watching.
Elissa looked at the pistol, turned it over in her hand, and then looked at Pal, who wagged his tail and tried to come to her. She looked up at the sky into the blinding sun and thought she saw a cloud coming, perhaps it meant rain, but it was just the sun against her eyes and when she looked back at Pal she saw only a blazing dog shape against the sand. Slowly, evenly, she raised the small gun, placing the barrel firmly beneath her right ear.
The only sound in the desert was the dog whimpering in the terrible heat.