A Short Story


LONG BEFORE HE TURNED RADICAL AND DISAP-PEARED INTO THAT UNDERGROUND WE ONCE USED TO HEAR so much about—and well before he showed up in my life again—Jimmy Spalding and I were best friends.

As kids, we swam the flume, the irrigation canal that passes under a railroad trestle where my father’s farm— now my own—backs up to the levee for the Rio Grande, north of Las Cruces. At Alameda Junior High, the only middle school in what was then a town of thirty thousand, we co-captained our bowling team, The Flying Aces, one of whose trophies I still have in a closet somewhere. In the ninth grade we climbed a nearby mountain, dragging my mutt, Raleigh, along, and from a cliff thousands of feet higher than any bush in our desert we turned our backs on what we knew was Hicksville to watch clouds churn our way from the wonderland we’d heard could be found in California.

“Going out there,” Jimmy said, “soon as I get my driver‘s license. You and me, pal. Do the whole scene, the beach trip.

In those days we aimed to be surfers. Or astronauts. Or truckers. We had the healthy fantasy life of all teenage boys—a dream life composed of open space and money and women from the pages of Nugget and Gent. We smoked cigarettes and talked tough and brought other guys—Jay Bullard and Mike Runyan—into a club that became part Three Musketeers, part Three Stooges. We’d watch the Bowery Boys at Jimmy’s house, in the rec room his father had built after buying the American Linen Supply firm. We joined the wrestling team, me at 136, Jimmy at 144. One month we read everything by Leon Uris—especially Battle Cry, which, when I’ve looked at it since, seems nothing like the Second World War Sherwood Forest I remember from that first reading. We saw Psycho at the State Theater, and a week later read Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Jimmy declared was art with all the glands left in.

“I’m meant to do something,” Jimmy would say. “I got a real relationship with destiny.”

Then, the summer after we graduated, in 1966, as if one of us had died, we stopped being friends. I went to a National Thespian Conference at Indiana University, stayed on for a course in drama—still one of my interests—and did not hear from him for two months.

“How come you didn’t answer my letters? I asked in August. “I called three or four times too. Your dad said he didn’t know where you were.”

“Been on the move, man.” He shrugged. “San Francisco, Telegraph Avenue, the VDC—the whole works.”

He was standing inside his door, more in shadow than out.

“It’s all coming together,” he was saying. “Rock-androll, the race thing, Vietnam. It’s a process, Buddy. Medgar Evers, Reverend King, Bob Dylan.”

As I had planned, I told him about the kid I’d met at IU, Morgan Maxwell, whose father was a VP with Kemper Insurance. Morg had said that maybe the company plane would take us all—Jimmy, too, I’d insisted—to the Rose Bowl that winter.

“No can do, Jimmy said. “I got priorities now.”

Sunlight was flying off a thousand surfaces, dizzying and sharp.

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” I told him. “We’ll see a movie, go up to the club.

“Better not,” he said. “I’m real busy. Got many things to do.”

“After school starts, then?”

We were going to the local college, New Mexico State University, a deal we’d agreed to the September before.

“Yeah,” he said. “That could be a real possibility.”

I was trying to keep my mouth shut and back up at the same time. This wasn’t Jimmy, I was thinking. This wasn’t anybody I knew at all.

“Listen, man,” he said, “I’ll call you, okay? I got to straighten some things out first, serious head stuff.”

So that fall we left for what I know now were two different worlds: me to that future opened up by Econ 102, Range Management, and Principles of Organic Chemistry, by Petry and Wallace; Jimmy to the fractured present revealed to him by the Evergreen Review, Alan Watts, and The Doors. I’d spot him every now and then, a figure moving alone and always upstream against the seven thousand shitkickers and jocks and sorority girls we undergraduates were. In front of Corbett (’enter one time I saw him handing out leaflets—a broadside from Senator George McGovern, of South Dakota: “Who really appointed us to play God for people elsewhere around the globe?”

“Long time,” I told him. “How’s it going?

“Great,” he said. “Got work to do, my man. Minds to change, hearts to heal.”

He had a pile of dead-baby pictures—napalmed, he said—and a smile that had little to do with making Bs in Intro to Sociology.

“You really believe this stuff, don‘t you?”

“Abso-goddamn-lutely,” he said. “You ought to join us, Buddy. We have no rules and everybody sleeps late.”

Walking around us, as if we both had the plague, were kids who wanted to be doctors or mechanical engineers or state lawmakers or teachers—plain college kids who, I hoped, would one day be my friends and neighbors.

“Sorry,” I told him. “If I knew what to do, I’d do it— honest.”

“Man,” Jimmy was saying, “you’re young, you can be like me. I got it knocked. Buddy. I say what I want, smoke a little dope—it’s paradise.”

That October I heard that Jimmy intended to march on the Pentagon with Joan Baez. I learned, too, that he’d burned his draft card and planned to send the ashes to General Hershey. In April of 1968, before Johnson ended the bombing in North Vietnam, I found an essay, “Liberation From the Affluent Society,” clipped under the windshield wiper of my truck.

“Read this shit, man,” an attached note said. “Essential knowledge herein. Dig the part on mechanisms of manipulation and repression.” He‘d signed his initials inside a peace symbol. “It’s like the man said,” Jimmy had scrawled. ‘“Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball.’”

That summer I worked for my father—chopping cotton, running the cultivator, odd jobs—and spent my free time at the country club. I didn’t see Jimmy until I ran into him outside Young Hall, the English building, more than a year later.

“What’re you taking?” he asked.

“Lit survey,” I said. “Keats, Byron, those guys.”

“I approve,” he said. “The revolutionaries, first-rate. Broaden the mind, let the light shine in.”

His hair hung long now, braided in the back, and watching his face was very hard work. He was pale, too, as if he’d spent three months in a closed room.

“I talked to your dad a couple times,” I said. “He said you’d disappeared.

“Dig rally next month,” he said. “The Moratorium. You ought to show up. We’ll get stoned, do miracles outrageous. It’ll be highly provocative.”

I thought about my own father, particularly the happy noises he made about Nixon, and Agnew’s remarks about an “effete corps of snobs.” Plus I had a girlfriend, Mary Jane Byrd, a Chi Omega who would one day be my wife and is part of the reason I’m telling this.

“I got classes,” I said. “Maybe I’ll watch.”

He nodded, and I felt old—less his pal than his enemy.

“I like the hat,” he said. “You’re gonna make one hell of a cowboy, Buddy.”

For three straight weeks his name was in the Round-Up, the student newspaper. He even made the Sun News, the local daily. He was quoted often and with what seemed like considerable care. He called for upheaval and anarchy, a repudiation of mindless affluence. He mentioned H. Rap Brown and the SDS, and also what Fidel Castro was said to have accomplished.

“You know this guy, don’t you?” Mary Jane asked me once.

She’d worked a year in Up With People and had a cheerful disposition I couldn’t get enough of. What’s more, she planned to be a TV newscaster, and I wanted to be around w’hen the world saw how beautiful she was.

“Well,” she said, “I think he’s an idiot.”

I was there that Friday, part of the curious who watched nearly two dozen students and faculty members and lonely townsfolk march across the steps of the administration building. They were what motley is. Waving signs, they shouted, “Hell, no, we won’t go!” and Jimmy gave them a speech full of words like oppression and imperialism and colonialism—the language and habits of mind, he has since told me, that we have to learn anew every time murder or public suffering occurs in the world we own.

“We want ROTC off campus,” he hollered once. “We want Bob Hope off TV and Frank Sinatra out of the movies.” He waved his hands. “We want classes in nudity.”

Toward the end, before the campus cops and four state policemen broke it up by dragging Jimmy off, he delivered a rambling, singsongy declaration that mentioned Abe Maslow, Aldous Huxley, Carl Rogers, D. T. Suzuki— names that passed over me like clouds. They were the dead or the living, or the never-were. I wanted to talk with him—if that’s all this was—about being afraid, about what dead William Wordsworth’s verse skills had to do with anything, and about what I was supposed to be doing in five or ten years. But he went on—“We’re discussing human worth here!”—his hair flyaway, his T-shirt too small and covered with buttons, his cheeks painted like an Apache’s, ignoring the hecklers who said he was queer, or chicken, or a Commie.

“And now,” he announced, “in keeping with the theatrical theme of today’s lesson, I will pee on this wall.

Instantly a state policeman, a sergeant named Krebs who is now an official of our Dona Ana County, burst out of the door behind Jimmy, and the scene was like two minutes of Walter Cronkite’s Evening News: words were exchanged, an official arm snatched my friend by the neck, and suddenly he was spread-eagled on the pavement, face down, blood oozing from one ear.

“We’ll surround this place,” Jimmy was shouting. “We’ll be holy men, chanting and beating drums, and this place will rise into the air. At three hundred feet all the evil spirits will fall out!

Every time I play this moment in my memory, I see myself interfering—honorably and fearlessly. I am strong in this dreamworld I construct, and I am angry. I act righteously, like Superman or a loudmouth world-beater that Jimmy believed in. I do not stand, as I did, beside my girlfriend, Mary Jane Byrd, and shake, breathing hard. I do not watch my friend being yanked away, one arm’twisted behind his back.

“I hate this sort of thing,” Mary Jane Byrd said. “Whenever I hear about it, I just close my eyes and pretend.”

A couple of hours later I visited him in a private room on the second floor of Memorial General Hospital.

“Your dad told me where to find you,” I said.

He was sitting up in bed, wearing a hospital nightgown, a knot of gauze around his head, one eye swollen shut in a pulp of blue and yellow flesh. The room had eight shades of white, and the half-dozen hairs on his chin made him look feeble, stupid.

“Big man, my father,” Jimmy was saying. “Pulled some strings, I gather. Asked me if I was concerned about my reputation, about a job. Man, I don’t want a job.

In a chair beneath the wall-mounted TV sat a girl Ed never seen before. She was dark as an Indian, and fleshy in a way that made you think about sex.

“That’s Carla,” Jimmy said. “We’re sort of going together. It’s anti-revolutionary—I guess I’m very retrograde. I see us having lots of babies.”

She made a point of ignoring my hello.

“Gonna run some errands,” Carla said, getting up. “I‘ll catch you later.”

“Classic bohemian,” Jimmy said after she left. “She’s from Parsippany, New Jersey. Came down here to molest ag students and be an agitator. We have a real spiritual thing.”

Out the window I could see traffic on Water Street. Directly across stood the Papen Building, an improbable tenstory bank and office tower whose basement Jimmy and I had explored when it was going up, years before. We’d been in its vault, all its secret rooms.

“Some scene, huh?” Jimmy said. “Man, what a rush the violence is. They wanted to rip my face off, three-D apocalypse. I was quoting Che Guevara in the cop car.”

We were going to break, I was thinking. Nothing connected us anymore—not music we liked, not stories, not anything to think about.

“You lost a tooth,” I told him.

He smiled. “I like the hole. Has symbolic value.”

We used to fish for carp in the pools of the Rio Grande. Carrying pointed bamboo or cottonwood branches, we’d sprint up and down, slapping the water and howling. I was thinking of that and where we used to hide the Pall Mall cigarettes we’d swiped from my father.

“You ever try LSD?” Jimmy asked.

In my mind I was already out the door, putting between us then all the time and distance I feel now about these events.

“I’m really disappointed in you,” he said. “You’d be so much more interesting as a leftist.

FOR JAMES EDWARD SPALDING, I NOW UNDERSTAND, violence as a way of life started the day the citizens of Rush Springs, Oklahoma, voted to outlaw public dancing. “That was the last damn straw,” he told me. “After I heard that, I knew I wasn’t dealing with the rational. I was into Oz.” While I was being graduated and married (plus joining Kiwanis and our country club), and managing the farm and doing musicals like Guys and Dolls and The Music Man at the community theater in Mesilla Park, Jimmy was drifting outward and sinking, moving— so he admitted three days ago—underground, marching and protesting, going to jail, learning about machine pistols and pipe bombs that could be concocted from kerosene and guano. In fifteen years, while I was buying this and that, and planting onions and then lettuce and then chili peppers, and watching the world zoom by in a haze, Jimmy was going deeper and further and quieter. In the fifteen years between that day in the hospital and the night he appeared in my kitchen, while he was building a footthick file at the National Security Agency and whirling unpredictably under America, I was losing my dad to pancreatic cancer and my mom to alcoholism, and I was divorcing, and waking up every month, or year, to drink Old Grand-Dad and marvel at the quiet loneliness I was living in.

“There’s no movement anymore,” he confessed that night. “Just free-lancers. We wander, my friend. That’s what I do: I drift and live off my anger.”

I’d been at the men’s locker at the country club, playing stud poker, and when I got home, something in the air— “the big mystery that is the twentieth century,” Jimmy would say—told me I was not alone. My hair stood up on the back of my neck; I prepared myself to beat the holy Jesus out of the dipstick who was trying to rob me. And then I saw him drinking coffee at my breakfast table and, right away, I was pleased he was there.

“Hope you don’t mind,” he said. “I made myself at home. We old-time hippies consume a lot of caffeine. Keeps the edges sharp. Gotta stay one jump ahead of the bad guys.”

“How’d you get in?”

His was Brer Rabbit’s goofy grin. “Magic. Hocus-pocus from the criminal elements, plus an American Express credit card.”

He looked like a banker at a bowling alley: a good taxpayer’s haircut and black hornrimmed glasses that gave me the impression he had something to hide. He was gray at the temples and too tan for the March we’d had.

“Who mashed your nose?”

It was bent like those we’ve seen in the Godfather movies.

“Plastic surgery,” he said. “Had a mole removed too. Very hush-hush.”

He’d been gone, and now he was back, and for an hour he explained how he’d come here. Until the surgery he’d used a wig he’d bought at the Max Factor School for Makeup, in Hollywood. He’d taken classes at Kansas State University. He’d been a pen pal with the IRA’s Joseph McCann. He’d met William Kunstler, written for Overthrow magazine, done time at the Rahway Penitentiary, in New Jersey, been hooked up with the Peace and Freedom Party. The names came and went: Las Vegas; Havana; Chicago; Sulphur Springs, Florida. He’d even bunked at an SLA house owned by Donald DeFreeze.

“That man did a thousand push-ups a day,” Jimmy said. “He was once cornered by a cop with a police dog. Field Marshal Cinque was real pleasant until he snapped that dog’s neck.”

I asked a farm boy’s question about Patty Hearst. Something was up. As in the old days, we’d get to it in a minute, or an hour.

“Nice lady,” he said. “Not the sort to get nervous in a crowd.”

He’d spent one summer in St. Thomas, learned to scuba dive, and thought of becoming a deepwater laborer for Shell Oil in the North Sea. He’d attended a rock festival in Puerto Rico. “Saw Black Sabbath on Easter Sunday,” he said. “A bad scene—knife fights, too much heat, rapes, no medics. That’s when I knew it had turned serious.”

I was thinking of my own life—bacon and eggs, the price of dry fertilizer, the Agriculture Department that John Block runs, where my mind went when the sun went down. Jimmy was right: life was serious. I had two slipped disks and one tiny ulcer to prove it.

“Met Doctor Spock once,” Jimmy was saying. “He did a physical for my daughter, Ruthie. That man makes a mean banana daiquiri.”

“You’re married.”

“Exactly,” he said. “This is a very straight, nearly Republican child I have. She’s not like us at all.”

A name came to me from the long-ago days: “Carla.”

He nodded, and I had time to study this man who, I would learn, remains of real interest to the FBI for such activities as bank robbery, interstate flight to avoid prosecution, assault, resisting arrest— an accumulation of antisocial gestures that make fascinating reading in the Water Street Post Office. A kid, I said to myself. A wife.

“What’re you doing here, Jimmy?”

The silence went on long enough to be important.

“Actually, I’m not going to be here long—you don’t need to know where I’m going— but I need a favor.”

I was concentrating on my coffee cup—how hot it was, how old. It had elephants in different positions that looked like sex, a gift from Mary Jane Byrd, and was meant to be the first funny thing we’d see in the morning.

“I’m meeting Carla,” he said. “She and Ruth are driving over here from Tucson.”

“That’s where they live?”

“It doesn’t matter where they live, Buddy. We do this reunion bit pretty frequently—a sentiment thing. I thought you wouldn’t mind.”

I took note of what is heard hereabouts at two in the morning: the wind, a wall clock, my mostly paid-for house taking its own pulse, the Fletchers’ three-legged shepherd in their onion field.

“There’s something else, isn’t there?”

“We’ll be out by daybreak. Maybe a little later.”

Eight at the latest, I told him. My loan officer, Victor Fears, from the Citizen’s Bank, was coming out at nine. I had a pile of debt and, at the moment, only a half dozen payment books to show for it.

“Right on, Buddy,” Jimmy said. “I knew I could count on you.”

“I’m doing a lot of dumb stuff lately.”

He stood at the stove now, and I thought of him as he had been at fifteen—too skinny through the chest, full of jokes about what a smooth operator he was.

“You’re like me, man,” he was saying. “I stole all my ideas from the Lone Ranger—goodness against evil and injustice. And never shoot to kill.”

AN HOUR LATER WE SAT IN MY BUICK STATION WAGON outside his old house on Amadar street, so that he could teach me about the property fetish that underlies genocidal war. His old house stood dark (his dad had died two years earlier), almost concealed by new landscaping, and Jimmy was telling me that the olden times, the hard rain, the winds that Bob Dylan sang about, were coming back.

“Nicaragua,” he said. “Salvador, people in the streets.”

I had mentioned what Mary Jane Byrd said men w ere— which had to do with not looking around yourself carefully and being pigheaded in matters of the heart.

“What’s it feel like?” I asked.

He was looking at his hands as if they held a surprise for him.

“The violence,” I said. “What’s it like?”

“You get used to it,” he said. “You abstract, invent stories.”

In Jimmy’s old house lived the Whittiers, a family I had met twice and now seemed connected to by something deeper than happenstance or the running forward of our lives.

“First time,” he said, “I wet my pants. The rush was incredible, just movement and light and voices. Then everybody^—the citizens, Via and Pa Kettle—everybody does what you say. It’s hard to understate a feeling like that.”

His words were piling up like stones.

“It used to be fun, a party.”

“And now?”

He shrugged.

“Now it’s work, a job.” He had a cigarette going. “Sometimes I have to remind myself what it’s for, who the enemy is.”

The silence had shape and substance. Between us was time, what the years had made. We had been brought together again—yes, like magic—but separating us, as if we were planets, was space we could only holler across.

“I get tired,ᾱ he was saying. “Sometimes I don’t know who I am.”

I knew that feeling, I thought.

“A fugitive’s brain is filled with data,” he was saying. “A hundred names, numbers, lots of ID. Revolution requires a first-class memory.”

He told me he’d been L. Manning Vines, from Sioux City, Iowa; blood type O; born August 13, 1948. And Archie Felts, from Atlanta, whose father was Ira, whose mother was Velma, who had brothers named Bert and Maxwell. The invented past piled up: a hundred jobs, a deck of Social Security cards, made-up work records, biographies borrowed from Seize the Day and The Old Curiosity Shop, surnames from the Guinness Book of World Records. Everything was faked: whole families imagined, breathed into life for an interview, a license check, “I got a whole population in my head,” he said. Family trees that stretched back to England and France and goddamn Holland, a story that put him in one place and not another, mirages he inhabited for an hour, a month, a bus ride. One part of him belonged to an Elks Club in Missouri, another to a YMCA Big Brothers program in Columbus, Ohio. He was a fifth-grade teacher, a bricklayer in Union City. A part of him—a part as impossible as men on Mars—owed money; a parr had stock in Biogen.

“I’ve even been you,” he said. “For two days, a long time ago, I was Joe Benson Neville, Jr. You were a mean son-of-a-bitch then, Buddy, but you were exceedingly happy.”

I understood then why he was really here—and as if it had already happened, as if I’d already read the newspapers or watched the six o’clock broadcast from KTSM in El Paso, I could see the smoke, the confusion, a person like me going every whichaway in a daze.

“Where?” I said.

“Close,” he said. “Very close.”

I took a second, attended to the thud my heart made and the way my breathing worked.

“Nobody’ll get hurt, right?” I asked. “This is important to me.”

A car drove by and his face filled up with light—a new nose, shapes from a geometrist’s mind, what emotion is.

”A few hours from now,” he began, “an invented PFC named Blocker, from Peoria, Illinois, will strike a blow for the Great Blah-Blah-Blah. It will be dramatic, telegenic, but very modest in terms of property loss. It’s the eighties, man—blood isn’t the issue anymore.”

I had the car started. We could go now, I thought. Or we could still be here when the sun came up. I had the sensation that I was somewhere else, perhaps in the room of Jimmy’s old house where the Whittiers now slept, watching. My ex-wife came to mind, Mary Jane Byrd, and the long-limbed Chevrolet dealer she had taken up with. I felt fifteen years roll up and unfurl, leading me back in a rush.

“Let’s go home,” I said.

NEAR AOOA.M. A CAR CAME CP MY DIRT ROAD FROM Highway 85, a four-door Ford so plain that I thought I’d seen it everywhere. “Carla,” Jimmy said. He’d been pacing for the past hour, quiet and deliberate, field-stripping his smokes. I’d asked him once about the duffel bag he’d dropped beside me on the steps. It was GI stuff’, olive drab, official. “Tools of the trade,” he’d said. “I’m a true believer, sad to say.” Now he walked over, his face blank, a sober man with an earnest mission, and picked up the bag.

“We’ll be back in two hours,” he said. “Three at the outside. Ruthie’ll stay here.”

Behind the wheel sat Carla, my garage light bright in her eyes. I was thinking about my dog, Raleigh, who had been run over, and what Carla might say about that. Behind her another. Ruthie. The passenger door opened. All right, I was thinking. Okay. And then Jimmy was inside, his Everyman’s Ford accelerating quietly toward the highway.

“You must be Mr. X,” the girl said. “Daddy’s real secretive about these things, so don’t tell me your name, okay?”

I felt something dry and small, possibly bonelike, break free inside,

“I’m Ruth,” she said, extending her hand. “I had a name from the revolution—Little Star—but Carla says public schools aren’t ready for a whole lot of poetry yet.”

She was fourteen or so, and too much like a nighttimeTV teenager to be looked at straight on—the wind-blown hair that is said to be popular nowadays, and eye makeup that maybe covers up the inner life.

“I take it you know what they’re up to,” I said.

“I’m in the ninth grade,” she said. “I stay in my room, or hang out with kids I know. I don’t know anything.”

We watched their taillights go south on the highway until a semi with its brights on passed us, too fast, going the other way.

“So what’s on our agenda?” she asked.

In an hour—after a breakfast I made and dishes she washed—we sang “Pink Shoe Laces,” by Dodie Stevens; “Great Balls of Fire,” by Jerry Lee Lewis; “If I Didn’t Care,” by Connie Francis; “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “No Other Arms, No Other Lips”—songs I had been collecting ever since my father died and the house became mine. I don’t know how we got from A to Z—from knowing about terror to knowing what old-time music says about love—but in one hour the big world vanished and we took up residence in the smaller world of broken hearts and now-expensive 45s. Once she learned the lyrics, Ruthie was terrific, unafraid to throw open her mouth and just yowl when the feeling hit. She even insisted that I play the bongos Mary Jane Byrd had bought years ago; and I, exhilarated and cut free for a time, banged away like a dervish, until Ruthie said, between records falling on my turntable, that she couldn’t wait to get out, go away.

“I have it all planned,” she said. “After I graduate, I’m going to Iowa, maybe—a real small college.”

On the record player the King, Elvis Presley, was telling us about his blue suede shoes.

“They don’t know, do they?”

She shook her head. “I get these quizzes at home. They make me read The Nation and Commonweal and Mother Jones. I’m supposed to save the world, they say. Go to Berkeley. Be there when the shit storm comes again. They started taking me on these trips last year.”

She was going to cry.

“You want me to turn them in, don’t your?”

“Daddy said you wouldn’t. Said you were a cool guy.”

I took in the character of my living room: the La-Z-Boy I sleep in, the Motorola TV I watch too much of, the Woolworth guitar I sometimes play when I need Merle Haggard’s view of things.

“What’d Carla say?”

“She said you were petty-minded, completely co-opted. That’s the way she talks. Said you were bourgeoisie, no balls.”

My heart did a strange turn, a twist on its thick root.

“Maybe she’s right,” I said.

So we waited. We sat on the steps where her father and I had waited and watched the new day come up—a day that would be hot and clear all the way to heaven. I had my eyes on the Organ Mountains, to the east, jagged purple spears of bare rock behind which, if my guess was correct, Jimmv and Carla would now be doing their business at the MAR site in the desert missile range. I’d driven past it many times, a bubble of glass a thousand yards north of the two-lane highway, miles and miles of unguarded flatland around it. Inside, from what I’d heard, was a radar arrangement that offered a view of the skies from California to Alabama. It was an eye that missed nothing from above, and I wondered who had built such a thing and who would care if a bomb went off near it.

“I’m not going to say anything,” I told Ruthie.

She was sitting beside me, a schoolbag between her legs.

“That’s okay,” she answered. “I’ll do it someday.”

I wondered what Mary Jane Byrd might have said about this, and I didn’t know. I thought of my golfing pals—Arch Stewart and Ray Berger and Coke Johnson—and I didn’t know. I thought about the twenty-six states I’d visited and the Italian food I prefer and the lame-brain way I go about finances, and I didn’t know. And then Jimmy and Carla returned and Ruthie stood up to shake my hand.

“Maybe Montana,” she said. “Maybe that’s where I’ll go.”

“Yes,” I said. “Good luck.”

And next Jimmy came over, and it was time to say goodbye to him, too.

“Don’t come back,” I said.

Carla was in the back of the car, maybe asleep.

“You’re mad,” he said.

I was practically inside him now, as close to him as that name of mine he’d used way back when. He had dropped away from me years ago, and now I was dropping away from him.

“I don’t want to hear from you ever again, do you understand?” I made a fist and held it under his chin, out of sight of his family. “I weigh a hundred and ninety pounds, Jimmv Spalding, I work every day out here with my hands, and I expect I could really hurt you.”

His eves widened slowly, by degrees, and then he understood.

“This is sad, isn’t it?" he said.

Here it was that I noticed his teeth. It was hard to tell which one had been knocked out, they were so shiny and even. He was that guy on TV who sells cars or land in Texas.

“My friend,” I said, “this is downright pitiful.”

IN THE MUSIC MAN, MY FAVORITE MUSICAL, WE LEARN there is trouble in River City. I here is trouble and it is fixed by brass and oompah-pah and spirited marching, and by what chemicals are released in the brain when folks find themselves caught up in the big parade. I had that on my mind when Jimmy left, and I set about to vacuum and dust and wipe away evidence that he’d come through my house. I took an inventory of myself —the growing pot belly of the kind that Johnny Carson laughs at, and the bad right knee that Dr. Weems says he’d like to fix one day— and with the record player going loud as thunder I had my house all to myself and to feelings I believe in.

I thought of Victor Fears, who was coming to lend me money, and Janet Miller, who is a Mesilla Park jeweler I sometimes sleep with. And then, the Shirelles singing to me about how it was between boys and girls, I thought of Mary Jane Byrd—what flower she smelled like and how she could roll over in a way that made nighttime beautiful.

“Oh, Lord,” I said to myself and the walls.

Maybe she would be up by now, I thought. And maybe she’d like to hear from someone—a terrible me—that she’d once known.