Jade Buddhas, Red Bridges, Fruits of Love

SHE HAD WRITTEN TO HIM, SINCE NEITHER OF THEM had a phone.

I’ll be there Sunday morning at four. It’s called the Night Owl flight in case you forget the number. The number’s 349. If you can’t come get me I’ll get a taxi and come on over. I saw Johnny Vidocovitch last night. He’s got a new bass player. I want to go to that chocolate place in San Francisco the minute I get there. And lie down with you in the dark for a million years. Or in the daylight. I love you.

Nora Jane

He wasn’t there. He wasn’t at the gate. Then he wasn’t in the terminal. Then he wasn’t at the baggage carrousel. Nora Jane stood by the carrousel putting her hat on and taking it off, watching a boy in cowboy boots kiss his girlfriend in front of everyone at the airport. He would run his hands down her flowered shirt, then kiss her again.

Finally the bags came. Nora Jane got her flat shoes out of her backpack and went on out to find a taxi. I should have had a phone, she told herself. I knew I should have had a phone.

She found a taxi and was driven off into the hazy earlymorning light of San Jose. The five hundred and forty dollars she had gotten from the robbery was rolled up in her bag. The hundred and twenty she had saved from her job was in her bra. She had been awake all night. And something was wrong. Something had gone wrong.

Nora Jane was nineteen years old, a self-taught anarchist and a quick-change artist, and only eighteen hours before, she had robbed a bar in uptown New Orleans, leaving four men, including a federal judge, locked in the ladies’ rest room.

Nora Jane was not a hardened criminal. She had only been a criminal for half a year. Before that she had been a Roman Catholic and a record salesclerk. She had robbed the bar to get money to join her boyfriend in California. The whole time she was planning and pulling off the robbery, all she thought about was Sandy Halter’s soft blond hair. Flying across the United States in the middle of the night, she had begun to think of other things. Like her fingerprints all over the cash register in the bar. Like the house of detention and the central lockup and the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

“You been out here before?” the taxi driver was saying.

“It’s the first time I’ve been farther west than Alexandria,” she said. “I’ve hardly ever been anywhere.”

“How old are you?” he said. He was in a good mood. He had just gotten a $100 tip from a movie star. Besides, the little black-haired girl in the back seat had the kind of face you couldn’t help being nice to.

“I’ll be twenty this month,” she said. “I‘m a Moonchild. They used to call it Cancer, but they changed. Do you believe that stuff"?”

“I don’t know,” the driver said. “Some days I believe in anything. Look over there. Sun’s coming up behind the mountains.”

“Oh, my,”she said. “I forgot there would be mountains.”

“On a clear day you can see Mt. Diablo. You ought to go while you’re out here. You can see 80 percent of California from it. You came out to visit someone?”

“My boyfriend. Well, he’s my fiancé. He wasn’t sure he could meet me. Is it far? To where I’m going?” They were in a neighborhood now, driving past a row of stucco cottages built close together, like houses in the Irish Channel. The yards looked brown and bare, as if they needed rain.

“Couple of blocks. These are nice old neighborhoods. My sister used to live out here. It’s called the Lewis tract.” He turned a corner and came to a stop before a pink house with an overgrown yard.

“Four-fifty-one. Is that right?”

“That’s right.

“You want me to wait till you see if anyone’s here?”

“No, I’ll just get out.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.” She watched as he backed and turned and went on off down the road, little clouds of dust rising behind the wheels. She stood looking up the path to the door. A red tree, peeling like a sunburn, shaded the yard. Here and there a few scraggly petunias bloomed in boxes. Get your ass out here and see where the USA is headed, Sandy had written her. I’ve got lots of plans. No phone as yet. Bring some French bread. Everything out here is sourdough. Yours forever, Sandy. He’s here, she thought. I know he’s here.

She walked up the path. There was a spider’s web across the screen door. They can make one overnight, she told herself. It’s nothing to make one overnight.

She rang the doorbell and waited. Then she walked around to the back and looked in the window. She saw a large room with a modern-looking stove and a tile floor. I’m going in, she decided. I’m worn out. I’m going in.

She picked up a rock and broke a pane of glass in the door, then picked out all the remaining pieces and put them in a pile under the steps. She reached her hand through the opening, undid the latch, and went in. It was Sandy’s house. His old Jazzfest poster of Dr. John and the Mardi Gras Indians was hanging on a wall. He’ll be back, she thought. He’s just gone somewhere.

She walked around the house looking for clues. She found only a map of San Francisco with some circles drawn on it, and a list, on an envelope from something called the Paris Hotel. “Willits,” it said. “Berkeley, Sebastopol, Ukiah, Petaluma, Occidental.”

She walked into the kitchen looking for something to eat. The refrigerator was propped open with a blue tile. Maybe he’s in jail, she thought. Maybe I got here just in time.

She reached up and with her fingernail flipped open a greeting card that was tacked up over the stove. On the outside was a photograph of a snow-covered mountain with purple fields below and blue skies above. A hawk, or perhaps it was a buzzard, was flying over the mountain. FREEDOM IS THE GREATEST GIFT THAT ONE CAN GIVE ANOTHER, the card said, IT IS A GIFT BORN OF LOVE, TRUST, AND UNDERSTANDING. Nora Jane pulled out the pushpin and read the message inside.

Dear Sandy,

I am glad I am going to be away from you during our two weeks of abstinence. You were so supportive once you realized I was freaking out. I Want to thank you for being there for me. We have climbed the mountain together now and also the valley. I hope the valley wasn’t too low for you.

We will both hopefully grow from this experience. I want us to have many more meaningful experiences together. I love you more than words can say. In deepest friendship,

Pam

I’m hungry, Nora Jane thought. I’m starving. She walked over to a bed in a corner. She guessed it was a bed. It was a mattress on top of a platform made of some kind of green stone. It looked more like a place to sacrifice someone than a place to sleep.

She put her pack up on the bed and began riffling through the pockets for the candy bar she had saved from a snack on the plane. When she found it she tore open the cardboard box and began to eat the candy, slowly at first, then faster. I don’t know, she thought. I just don’t know. She leaned up against the platform, eating the chocolate, watching the light coming in the window through the leaves of a tree, making patches on the mattress. Maybe that’s all we are, she thought. Patches of light and darkness. Things that cast shadows.

She ate the rest of the candy, stopping every now’ and then to lick her fingers. When she was finished, she folded the candy box and put it away in her pack. Nora Jane never littered anything. So far in her life she had not thrown down a single gum wrapper.

DURING THE NEXT WEEK THERE WERE FOUR EARTHquakes in the Bay Area. A five-point, then a fourpoint, then a two, then a three. The first one woke her in the middle of the night. She was asleep in a room she had rented near the Berkeley campus. She had taken a bus from San Jose to Berkeley because she’d heard it was a good place for young people to be. At first she thought a cat had walked across the bed. Then she thought the world had come to an end. Then the lights went on. Everyone in the house gathered in the upstairs hall. When the excitement wore down, a Chinese mathematician and his wife fixed tea in their room. “Very lucky to be here for that one,” Tam Suyin assured Nora Jane. “Sometimes have to wait long time to experience big one.”

“I was in a hurricane once,” Nora Jane said. “I had to get evacuated when Camille came.”

“Oh,” Tam said to her husband. “Did you hear that? Miss Whittington have to be evacuated during hurricane. Which one you find most interesting experience, Miss Whittington, earthquake or hurricane?”

“I don’t know,” Nora Jane said. She was admiring the room, which was as bare as a nun’s cell. “I guess the hurricane. It lasted longer.”

The next morning she felt better than she had in a week. She was almost glad to be alive. She bought croissants from a little shop on Tamalpais Street, then spent some time decorating her room to look like a nun’s cell. She put everything she owned in the closet. She covered the bed with a white sheet. She took down the drapes. She put the rug away and cleaned the floor. She bought flowers and put them on the dresser.

That afternoon she found a theatrical-supply store on Shattuck Avenue and bought a stage pistol. It was time to get to work.

“What are you doing?” the proprietor said.

“Happy Birthday, Nora Jane. Have you ever seen it?”

“The Vonnegut play? The one with the animal heads?”

“No. this is an original script. It’s being done by a new group on the campus.”

“Bring a poster by when you get them ready. We like to advertise our customers.”

“I’ll do that,”she said. “As soon as we get some printed.”

“When’s it scheduled for?”

“Oh, right away. As soon as we can whip it together.”

FREDDY HARWOOD WALKED DOWN TELEGRAPH AVEnue thinking about everyone who adored him. He had just run into Buiji. She had let him buy her a cafe mocca at the Met. She had let him hold her hand. She had told him all about the horrible time she was having with Dudley. She told him about Dudley’s au pair girl and the night he threatened her with a gun and the time he choked her and what he said about her friends. It was Freddy she loved, she said. Freddy she adored. Freddy she worshiped. Freddy’s hairy stomach and strong arms and level head she longed for. She was counting the days until she was free.

I ought to run for office, he was thinking. And to think I could have thrown it all away. I could have been a wastrel like Augustine. But no, I chose another way. The prince’s way. Noblesse oblige. Ah, duty, sweet mistress.

Freddy Harwood was the founder and owner of the biggest and least profitable bookstore in northern California. He had one each of every book in the English language worth reading. He had everything that was still in print and a lot that was out of print. He knew dozens of writers. Writers adored him. He gave them autograph parties and unlimited credit, and kept their books in stock. He even read their books. He went that far.

In return, they were making him famous. Already he was the hero of three short stories and a science-fiction film. California Magazine had named him one of the Bay Area’s ten most eligible bachelors. Not that he needed the publicity. He already had more women than he knew what to do with. He had Aline and Rita and Janey and Lila and Barbara Hunnicutt, when she was between tournaments. Not to mention Buiji. Well, he was thinking about settling down. There are limits, he said to himself. Even to Grandmother’s money. There are perimeters, and prices to pay.

He wandered across Blake Street against the light, trying to choose among his women. A man in a baseball cap took him by the arm and led him back to the sidewalk.

“Nieman,” Freddy said. “What are you doing in town?

“Looking for you. I’ve got to see three films between now and midnight. Go with me. I‘ll let you help write the reviews.”

“I can’t. I’m up to my ass in the IRS. I’ll be working all night.”

“Tomorrow, then. I’m at Gautier’s. Call me for breakfast.”

“If I get through. If I can.”

“Holy shit,” Nieman said. “Did you see that?” Nora Jane had just passed them going six miles an hour down the sidewalk. She was wearing black-and-white-striped running shorts and a pair of canvas wedgies with black ankle straps, her hair curling all over her head like a dark cloud.

“This city will kill me,” Freddy said. “I’m moving back to Gualala.”

“Let’s catch her,” Nieman said. “Let’s take her to the movies.”

“I can’t,” Freddy said. “I have to work.”

An hour later his calculator broke. He banged it on the desk several times, then beat it against the chair. Still no light. He laid it down on a pile of papers and decided to take a break.

Nora Jane was sitting by a window of the Atelier reading The Bridge of San Luis Rey. She was deep into a description of Uncle Pio. “He possessed the six attributes of the adventurer—a memory for names and faces, with the aptitude for altering his own; the gift of tongues; inexhaustible invention; secrecy; the talent for falling into conversation with strangers; and that freedom from conscience that springs from a contempt for the dozing rich he preyed upon.” That’s just like me, Nora Jane was thinking. She felt in her bag for the gun. It was still there.

Freddy sat down at a table near hers. Your legs are proof of the existence of God. No, not that. What if she’s an atheist? If I could decipher the Rosetta Stone of your ankle straps. My best friend just died. My grandmother owns Sears, Roebuck.

“I haven’t seen one of those old Time-Life editions of that book in years,” he said. “May I look at that a minute?”

“Sure you can,” she said. “It’s a great book. I bought it in New Orleans. That’s where I’m from.”

“Ah, the Crescent City. I know it well. Where did you live? In what part of town?”

“Near the park. Near Tulane.”

“On Exposition?”

“No, on Story Street. Near Calhoun.” She handed him the book. He took it from her and sat down at the table.

“Oh, this is very interesting, finding this,” he said. “Look at this cover. You don’t see them like this now.”

“I’ve been looking for a bookstore to go to,” she said. “I haven’t been here long. I don’t know my way around yet.”

“Well, the best bookstore in the world is right down the street. Finish your coffee and I’ll take you there. I’m Freddy Harwood. Clara, I call it. The store. For light. You know, the patron saint of light.”

“Oh, sure,” she said. “I’m Betty. Betty Walker. Betty Walker James.” She stood up, to cover the lie. The stranger, she told herself. This is the stranger.

THEY MADE THEIR WAY THROUGH A SEA OF ICEcream chairs and out onto the sidewalk. The summer session had just ended at Berkeley, and Telegraph Avenue was quiet, almost deserted. When they got to the store, Freddy turned the key in the lock and held the door open for her. “Sorry it’s so dark,” he said. “It’s on an automatic switch.”

“Is anyone here?” she asked.

“Only us.”

“Good,” she said. She took the pistol out of her purse and stepped back and pointed it at him. “I am robbing you,” she said. “I came to get money. Please take me to the office.”

“Oh, come on,” he said. “You’ve got to be kidding. Put that gun down.”

“I mean it,” she said. “This is not a joke. I have killed. I will kill again.” He put his hands over his head as he had seen prisoners do in films and led the way to his office through a field of books, a bright meadow of books, one hundred and nineteen library tables piled high with books. “Listen, Betty,” he began.

“I came to get money,” she said. “Where is the money? Don’t talk to me. Just tell me where you put the money.”

“Some of it’s in my pocket,” he said. “The rest is locked up. We don’t keep much here. It’s mostly charge accounts.” “Where’s the safe? Come on. Don’t make me mad.”

“It’s behind that painting. Listen, I’ll have to help you take that down. That’s a Helen Watermeir. She’s my aunt. She’ll kill me if anything happens to that painting.”

Nora Jane had moved behind his desk. “Try not to mess up those papers,” he said. “I gave up a chance to canoe the Eel River to work on those papers.”

“What’s it a painting of?” she said.

“It’s A. E.”

“A. E.?”

“Abstract Expressionism.”

“Oh, I know about that. Sister Celestine said it was from painters riding in airplanes all the time. She said that’s what things look like to them from planes. You know, I was thinking about that flying up here. We flew over all these salt ponds. They were these beautiful colors. I was thinking about those painters.”

“I’ll have to let you tell Aunt Helen that. She’s really defensive about A. E. right now. That might cheer her up. Now, listen here, Betty, hasn’t this gone far enough? Can’t you put that gun down? They put people in prison for that.” She was weakening. She was looking away. He pressed his luck. “Nobody with legs like yours should be in prison.”

“This is what I do,” she said. “I’m an anarchist. I don’t know what else to do.” The gun was pointing to the floor.

“Oh,” he said. “There are lots of better things to do in San Francisco than rob a bookstore.”

“Name one,” she said.

“Oh, you could go with me,” he said. He went for his old standby. “We could go, you and I, while ‘the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table . . .Oh, do not ask “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.’ ”

“I know that poem,” she said. “We had it in English. She wasn’t pointing the gun at him, and she was listening. Of course he had never known “The Love Song” to fail. He had seen hardhearted graduate students pull off their sweaters by the third line.

“We could go ‘through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.‘ ” He kept going. Hitting the high spots. Watching for signs of boredom. By the time he got to “tea and cakes and ices, she had begun to cry. When he got to the line about Prince Hamlet she laid the gun down beside the broken calculator and dissolved in tears. “My name isn’t Betty,” she said. “I hate the name of Betty. My name is Nora Jane Whittington and tomorrow is my birthday. Oh, goddamn it all to hell. Oh, goddamn everything in the whole world to hell.”

He came from behind the desk and put his arms around her. She felt as good as she looked. “I‘m going home and turn myself in,” she was sobbing. “They’ve got my fingerprints. They’ve got my handwriting. I’m going to have to go live in Mexico.”

“No, you aren’t,” he said. “Come along. Let’s go eat dinner. I’ve been dreaming all day about the prawns at Narsai’s.”

“I don’t want any prawns,” she said. “I don’t even know what prawns are. I want to go to that chocolate store. I want to go to that chocolate store my boyfriend told me about.”

MANY HOURS LATER, THEY WERE SITTING IN THE middle of a eucalyptus grove on the campus, watching the stars through the trees. She was wrapped in his coat. The fog had lifted.

“ ‘The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,’ ” Freddy was saying, but she interrupted him.

“Do you think birds live up there?” she said. “That far up?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I never thought about it.”

“It doesn’t look like they would want to nest that high up. I watch birds a lot, I mean, I‘m not a birdwatcher, or anything like that. But I used to go out on the seawall and watch the sea gulls. And feed them bread or chicken scraps. Did you ever think about how soft flying seems? How soft they look, like they don’t have any edges?”

“I took some glider lessons once. But I couldn’t get into it. I don’t care how safe they say it is.”

“I don’t mean people flying. I mean birds.”

“Well, look, how about coming home with me tonight. I want you to spend the night. You can start off your birthday in my hot tub.”

“You’ve got a hot tub in your house?”

“And a redwood deck and a vegetable garden, corn, okra, squash, beans, skylights, silk kimonos, futon, orange trees. If you come over you won’t have to go anyplace else the whole time you’re in California. And movies. I just got Chariots of Fire. I haven’t even had time to see it yet.”

“All right,” she said. “I guess I’ll go.”

Much later, sitting in his hot tub, she told him all about it. “Then there was this card tacked up over the stove from this girl. You wouldn’t believe that card. I wouldn’t send anyone one of those cards for a million dollars. We used to have those cards at The Mushroom Cloud. Anyway, now I don’t know what to do. I guess I’ll go on home and turn myself in. They’ve got my fingerprints. I left them all over everything.”

“We could have your fingers sanded. Did you ever see that movie? With Bette Davis as twin sisters? And Glenn Ford?”

“I can’t stay out here,” she said. “I don’t know how to take care of myself out here.”

“I’ll take care of you,” he said. “Listen, N. J., you want me to tell you the rest of that quote I was telling you, or not?”

“The one about the trees dying?”

“No, the one about the lice.”

“All right,” she said. “Go on. Tell the whole thing. I forgot the first part.” She had already figured out there wasn’t any stopping him once he decided to quote something.

“It’s from Heraclitus. Now, listen, this is really good: ‘All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

“Am I supposed to say something?” she said.

“Not unless you want to. Come on, let’s get to bed. Tomorrow we begin the F. Slazenger Harwood memorial tour of the Bay Area. The last girl who got it was runner-up for Miss America. It was wasted on her, however. She didn’t even shiver when she put her finger in the passion fruit.”

“What all do we have to do?” Nora Jane said.

“We have to see your chocolate store and the seismograph and the Campanile and the Pacific Ocean and the redwood trees. And a movie. At least one movie. There’s this great documentary about Werner Herzog playing. He kills all these people trying to move a boat across a forest in Brazil. At the end he says, ‘I don’t know if it was worth it. I don’t know if movies are worth all this.’ ”

The tour moved from the Cyclotron to Chez Panisse, from Muir Woods to Toroya’s, from the Chinese cemetery to Bolinas Reef.

It began with the seismograph. “That needle is connected to a drum deep in the earth.” Freddy said, as though quoting from a high school science lecture. “You could say that needle has its finger on the earth’s heart. When the plates shift, when the mantle buckles, it tells us just how much and where.”

“What good does that do,” Nora Jane said, “if the building you’re in is falling down?”

“Come on,” he said. “We’re late to the concert at the Campanile.”

They drove all over town in Freddy’s new De Lorean. “Why does this car have fingerprints all over it?” Nora Jane asked. “If I had a car this nice, I’d keep it waxed.”

“It’s made of stainless steel. You can’t wax stainless steel.”

“If I got a car I’d get a baby-blue convertible,” she said. “This girl at home, Dany Nasser, that went to Sacred Heart with me, had one. She kept promising to let me drive it but she never did.”

“You can drive my car,” he said. “You can drive it all day long. You can drive it anyplace you want.”

“Except over bridges,” she said. “I don’t drive over bridges.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. It always seems like there’s nothing underneath them. Like there’s nothing there.”

He asked her to move in with him, but she turned him down. “I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to live with anyone just now.”

“Then let’s get matching tattoos. Or have a baby. Or buy a dog. Or call up everyone we know and tell them we can’t see them anymore.”

“There isn’t anyone for me to call,” she said. “You’re the only one I know.”

A FEW WEEKS LATER, SANDY FOUND HER. NORA Jane was getting ready to go to work. She was putting in her coral earrings when Tam Suyin called her to the phone.

“I was in Colorado,” he said. “I didn’t get your letter until a week ago. I’ve been looking all over the place for you. Finally I called New Orleans and got your phone number. ”

“Who’s Pam?” she said. “Tell me about Pam.”

“So you’re the one who broke my window.”

“I’ll pay for your window. Tell me about Pam.”

“Pam was a mistake. She took advantage of me. Look, Nora Jane, I’ve got big plans for us. I’ve got something planned that only you and I could do. I mean, this is big money. Where are you? I want to see you right away.”

“Well, you can’t come now. I’m on my way to work. I’ve got a job, Sandy.”

“A job?”

“In an art gallery. A friend got it for me.”

“What time do you get off? I‘ll come wait for you.”

“No, don’t do that. Come over here at five. It’s 1512 Arch Street. In Berkeley. Can you find the way?”

“I’ll find the way.”

She called Freddy and broke a date to go to the movies. “1 have to talk to him,” she said. “I have to give him a chance to explain.”

“Oh, sure,” he said. “Do whatever you have to do.”

“Don’t sound like that.”

“What do you want me to do? Pretend I don’t care? Your old boyfriend shows up at eight o’clock in the morning . . . the robber baron shows up, and I’m supposed to act like I think it’s great.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Don’t bother. I won’t be here. I’m going out of town.”

Freddy worked all morning and half the afternoon without giving in to his desire to call her. By two-thirty his sinus headache was so bad he could hardly breathe. He stood on his head for twenty minutes, reciting The Four Quartets. Nothing helped. At three he stormed out of the store. I’m sitting on her steps till she gets home from work, he told himself. I can’t make myself sick just to be a nice guy. Unless that bastard picks her up at work. What if he picks her up at work? He’ll drag her into drugs. She’ll end up in the state pen. He’ll put his mouth on her mouth. He’ll put his mouth on her legs. He’ll touch her hands. He’ll touch her hair.

Freddy trudged up Arch Street with his chin on his chest, ignoring the flowers and the smell of hawthorn and bay, ignoring the pines, ignoring the sun, the clear light, the cool, clean air.

At the corner of Arch and Brainard he started having second thoughts. He stood on the corner with his hands stuck deep in his pockets. A white Lincoln with Colorado plates pulled up in front of Nora Jane’s house. A tall boy got out and walked up onto the porch. He inspected the row of mailboxes. He had an envelope in his hand. He put it into one of the boxes and hurried back down the steps. A woman was waiting in the car. They talked a moment, then drove off down the street.

That’s him, Freddy thought. That’s the little son-of-abitch. The Suyins’ Pomeranian met him m the yard. He knocked it out of his way with the side of his foot and pried open Nora Jane’s mailbox. The envelope was there, in between an advertisement and a letter from a politician.

Angel, I have to go to Petaluma on business. I‘ll call tonight. After eight. Maybe you can come up and spend the weekend. I‘m really sorry about tonight. I’ll make it up to you. Yours forever,

Sandy

When he finished reading it he wadded it up and stuck it in his pocket. “All right,” he said out loud. “I‘ll show him anarchy. I’ll show’ him business. I’ll show him war.

He walked back down to Shattuck Avenue and hailed a taxi. “Where’s the nearest Fond place?” he asked the driver. “Where’s the nearest Ford dealer?”

“There’s Moak’s, down the street. Unless you want to go to Oakland. You want me to take you to Moak’s?”

“That’s fine,” Freddy said. “Moak’s is fine with me.”

“I wouldn’t have a Ford,” the driver said. “You couldn’t give me a Ford. I wouldn’t have a thing but a Toyota.”

Moak’s had just what he was looking for. A baby-blue convertible, sitting in the window with the sunlight gleaming off its chrome and glass. The interior was an even lighter blue, with leather seats and a soft blue carpet.

“I’ll need a tape deck,” he said to the salesman. “How long does it take to install a tape deck?”

At six-thirty he called her from a pay phone near her house. “I don’t want to bother you,” he said. “I just w’ant to apologize for this morning. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“I’m not okay,” she said. “Pm terrible. I’m just terrible.”

“Could I come over? I’ve got a present for you.”

“A present?”

“It’s blue. I bought you something blue.”

She was waiting on the porch when he drove up. She walked down the steps trying not to look at it. It was so blue. So very blue. He got out and handed her the keys.

“People don’t give other people cars,” she said. “They don’t just give someone a car.”

“I do whatever I need to do,” he said. “It’s my charm, my fabled charisma.”

“Why are you doing this, Freddy?”

“So you’ll like me better than old Louisiana Joe. Where is he, by the way? I thought you had a big date with him.”

“I broke the date. I didn’t feel like seeing him right now. Did you really buy me that car?”

“Yes, I really did. Get in. See how’ good it smells. I got a tape deck but they can’t put it in until Thursday. You want the top down or not?”

She opened the car door and settled her body into the soft seat. She turned the key. “I better not put it down just yet. I’ll put it down in a minute. I’ll stop somewhere and put it down later.”

She drove off down Arch Street, wondering if she was going crazy. “You don’t have to stop to put it down,” he said. He reached across her and pushed a button, then knelt on the seat, took hold of the bar, and the blue accordion top folded down like a wing. He opened it again, then closed it, then started to open it again.

“Stop doing that,” she said. “You’ll make me have a wreck. Where should I go, Freddy? I don’t know where to go.”

“We could go by the Komatsu showroom and watch ourselves driving by, in their glass walls . . . Don’t look like that, N. J. It’s okay to have a car. Cars are all right. They satisfy our need for strong emotions.”

“Just tell me where to go.”

“I want to take you to the park and show you the Brundage Collection, but I’m afraid they’re closed this time of day. They have this jade buddha. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen in your life. I know, let’s give it a try. Go down University. We’ll drive across a couple of bridges. You need to learn the bridges.”

“I can’t drive across a bridge. I told you that.”

“Of course you can. We’ll do the Oakland first, then the Golden Gate. You can’t live here if you can’t go across the bridges. You won’t be able to go anywhere.”

“I can’t do it, Freddy. I can’t even drive across the Huey P. Long, and it’s only over the Mississippi.”

“Listen to me a minute, he said. “I want to tell you about these bridges. People like us didn’t build these bridges, N. J. People like Teddy Roosevelt and Albert Einstein and Aristotle built those bridges. People like my father. The Golden Gate is so overbuilt you could stack cars two deep on it and it wouldn’t fall.”

“Go on,” she said. “I’m listening.” She was making straight for the Oakland Bay Bridge, with the top down. In the distance, the red girders of the Golden Gate gleamed in the sun. She gripped the wheel and turned onto University Avenue, heading for the Bay.

“All right,” he continued, “about these bridge builders. They get up every morning and put on a clean shirt and fill their pockets with pencils. They go out and add and subtract and read blueprints and put pilings all the way down to the bedrock. Then they build a bridge so strong their great-grandchildren can ride across it without getting hurt. My father helped raise money for the Golden Gate. That’s how strong it is.”

Nora Jane had driven right by the sign pointing to the Oakland Bridge. The little car hummed beneath her fingers. She straightened her shoulders. She kept on going. “All right,” she said. “I’ll try it. I’ll give it a try.”

“I wish to hell the Brundage was open. You’ve got to see this buddha. It’s unbelievable. It’s only ten inches high. You can see every wrinkle. You can see every rib. The jade’s the color of celadon. Oh, lighter than that. It’s translucent. It just floats there.”

“Don’t talk so much until I get through this gate,” she said. She almost sideswiped a black Mazda station wagon getting into the lane. There was a little boy in the back seat. He was wearing a crown. He put his face to the window and waved.

“Did you see that?” Nora Jane said. “Did you see what he’s wearing? She shook her head, then drove through the tollgate and out onto the bridge. She was into it now. She was doing it.

“Loosen up,” Freddy said. “Loosen up on the wheel. This buddha I was telling you about, N. J. It’s more the color of seafoam. You’ve never seen jade like this. It’s indescribable. It’s got a light of its own. Well, we’ll never make it today. I know what, we’ll stop in Chinatown and have dinner. I want you to have some Dim Sum. And tomorrow, tomorrow we’re going to Mendocino. The hills are like yellow velvet this time of year. You’ll want to put them on and wear them.”

I haven’t been to confession in two years, Nora Jane was thinking. What am I doing in this car?

The Mazda passed them again. The boy with the crown was at the back window now, looking out the open window of the tailgate, eating a package of nacho-cheese-flavored Doritos and drinking a Coke. He held up a Dorito to Nora Jane. He waved it out the window in the air. The Mazda moved on. A metallic-green Buick took its place. In the front seat was a young Chinese businessman wearing a suit. In the back seat was a Chinese gentleman wearing a pigtail.

A plane flew over, trailing a banner. HAPPY 40TH, ED AND DEB, the banner said. Things were happening too fast. “I just saw an airplane fly by trailing bread crumbs,” she said.

“What did you say?” he said. “What did you just say ?”

“I said . . . oh, never mind. I was thinking too many things at once. I’m going over there. In the lane by the water.” She put the turn signal on and moved over into the right-hand lane. “Now don’t talk to me anymore,” she said. “Until I get off this bridge.”

They got to Chinatown in time for the rain, a wild, unseasonable rain. The first rain of fall. They sat in a restaurant eating pigeon breasts, watching the rain pour down upon people on the street.

“Bread crumbs,” Freddy was saying. “That’s a brilliant concept, N. J. Wait till I tell that to Jerry. He’s a Jungian. He’ll go crazy over that.”

“It was really a plane pulling this banner for someone’s anniversary,” she said. “Didn’t you see it?”

“I know what it was. I mean, the concept’s brilliant. Don’t you see? Here we are, in 1982, in the middle of a feast. With computers, for God’s sake, and we’re trailing all these old defenses, old used-up ideas and religions, old used-up hates and terrors.”

“You think it’s brilliant? You really think it’s brilliant?”

“I think it’s devastating.”

“Well, I have a good mind. I know that. I have a very good mind.” She picked up her chopsticks. She sighed. “Well, the mind’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I mean, you just can’t tell what it’ll think of next.