A five-year-old child had been lost; the menof the town had gotten together a search; they'dfound the boy and he was fine. Why not celebrate?
BUSY night," Byron said, over the noise, when Brenda set his beer on the bar in front of him.
"For a weeknight," she agreed. "Hear you found that little deaf boy."
"Yup," he said, and raised the bottle in a mock toast.
Brenda gave the bar a pat. "On the house--excuse me," she said, and went to wait on somebody else. He watched her go, sorry, vaguely and not for the first time, that he wasn't the least bit in love with her. She reminded him pleasantly of a girl in Texas, almost fifteen years before.
"Hey, Doatze," Mike Connor called from down the bar.
Byron nodded back at him, and then at the other men with him, who raised hands or beers in greeting.
Most weeknights when Byron came in, he could stand at the bar and joke with Brenda for three beers and be interrupted only once or twice--the place stayed that quiet. But tonight, as if the tornado two days ago, or last night's search, had changed even the Rainbow, the place was so full he could hardly hear himself think.
Brenda went behind the bar again, uncapped a fresh beer, and set it in front of him. "It's on Frenchie," she said, pointing toward the back of the barroom.
"I'll be damned," Byron said, because Frenchie'd never bought anybody a beer, and that made Brenda laugh, so he said, "I better get out of here before chickens grow teeth."
"Oh, you," Brenda said, taking a little slap at his shoulder.
Then somebody called her. Byron caught Frenchie's eye, raised the second beer, and nodded his thanks.
Maybe it was that--thanking somebody he didn't like for something he didn't want--or maybe it was the noise in a place he preferred quiet, but he'd come for something else, and he didn't know what. He took another swallow and gave up. Next thing he knew he'd be feeling sorry for himself, and even as he thought that, he thought of Maude Nash and how she'd made fun of him the night before last in her kitchen. What a clean, surprising thing talking with her had been. And she didn't remind him at all of that old lost chance in Texas.
He pulled a dollar from his pocket and tucked it under his bottle. He hadn't planned on giving Brenda a blow-by-blow of the search, but there were a few things he'd have liked the chance to say, maybe just to hear how they sounded. And he sure didn't want to say them to Frenchie, or Mike, or any of the rest of them.
"'Night," he called to Brenda, and she looked up, surprised for a second. Then she waved, and he waved and left.
He had spent the day tuning his truck's engine, so when he turned the key, it started right up, and now he tried to take some satisfaction in that, sitting there, listening to how smooth it was. But even as he listened, he grew aware that he was paying attention to listening, not to the engine, so he pulled the truck around and headed back toward town. His own house, which he had built himself, of stone, and where he lived alone, was a mile in the other direction, but he wasn't ready for that much quiet just yet, and he wasn't sure what he did want.
For a long minute at the four-way stop he considered turning down East Main and seeing if Maude was home. It was still early, maybe eight o'clock. The night of the tornado, night before last, she'd called him into her house to take shelter from the rain, bullied and bossed him into her kitchen, and sat there talking with him about nothing for hours. He'd known who she was for years, but this was the first time he'd talked to her, and when he left, she'd offered to lend him her umbrella. If he'd taken it--well, then he could have returned it, and she'd ask about the boy, and he could say this and that. And then? He remembered her strong, laughing face there in the candlelight in the middle of the night: the electricity out, she in her bathrobe and he in his socks. They'd talked and had a good time. No foolishness about Maude Nash, candlelight or not. He smiled. "Smart woman," he said aloud. She had a funny way of tilting her head when she was listening, and the candlelight had shown the white in her dark hair, had softened the small scar that split one eyebrow and made her look critical in the daylight.
All those requirements for romance had been satisfied, and what he'd felt, what they'd both felt, was simply comfortable. So he hadn't taken the umbrella, and he knew why, and she knew why. So he didn't have it to return, and that was that.
He turned east anyway, and saw that the lights were out in her house, and then he turned his truck around at the high school and drove past Nobel Aldrich's house, where Aldrich's car was in the driveway and the lights were on, upstairs and down. Man's got sense, Byron thought.
The night before, he and Nobel had been one of the search teams assigned to Clayborne Woods, the team that took the old logging road in, the team that found the boy and walked him out of the woods. Nobel had seen what Byron saw, and had had the sense to stay home tonight.
, he thought then. Celebrating, for crying out loud (he was thinking now of all the men at the Rainbow). And why not: a five-year-old child had been lost; the men of the town had gotten together a search; they'd found the kid and he was fine. Why not celebrate?
Because. If Kyle had been a normal little kid and they'd found him crying, if he or Nobel had picked him up and said, "Hey there, little fellow, it's okay. Let's go find your momma, okay?" and held a bandanna so he could blow his nose, all right: go ahead and celebrate. The other fellows probably didn't see the difference, and no reason why they should. But he and Nobel Aldrich had been there, and that's why he wasn't celebrating, and why he felt a little ashamed that he'd gone to the Rainbow in the first place, and admired Nobel Aldrich for staying home.
IT was a mild night for September, moonlit, as the previous night had been, the night of the search. When he got home, his barren Holstein cow stood near the board fence, one hind leg delicately bent. He walked across the yard and reached over the fence to scratch the white center of her broad, hard forehead, taking in the good, deep, familiar smell of hay, manure, and cow. "Might as well tell you," he said, grinning to think what Maude would say about that, but then something like the upward swoop of being in love scooped into his stomach and throat, and for a second he thought he was going to cry.
He stroked the cow's black ear, running it through his fisted hand, feeling how warm and thick and tough it was, the coarse hairs distinct against his palm, and she didn't shake him off. The moonlight lay on the roof of the shed. "I guess all I was ready for was not to find him," he said. "I probably expected we'd hear the signal that somebody else had. Or that nobody would, and the search would get to be one of those long, ugly ones, and next spring his body would show up. But I didn't expect to find him sitting there like that with that dummy." He rubbed his thumb against the grain of the soft inside hairs of the cow's ear, smoothed them, and then let the ear slide free. He leaned his forearms on the fence and clasped his hands loosely together.
"So it made me feel strange. Right then, and it just keeps on. I've been trying to figure out what he was thinking. I don't know anything else to do about it. Probably the smart thing to do is talk to Nobel, see what his read on it was, a man with kids of his own and all."
He shrugged, looking past the cow's bony back. "Seems stupid, though. Don't know why, but it does." He sighed, opened his hands, and looked at his palms. "You take this boy, deaf and dumb since he was born, and here he is, four miles from home in the woods, lost, it's getting dark, and he's sitting there with a dummy. What does he think it is? Ventriloquists. They pretend they're not talking, make you believe the dummy's talking. He can't talk, can't hear. What does he think--it's just a doll or something?"
He stood up straight and looked the cow in the eye. "And he wasn't playing, either. That's the thing."
The cow switched her tail slowly and shifted her weight.
"He wasn't playing. I never saw anybody more serious than that boy was."
Byron rubbed his hand over his jaw while the moon hung steady and the cow stood still.
"Here's how I figure it," he said. "Here's what I think happened."
And then he was silent for a long minute, seeing in his mind how the boy and his mother would have been just sitting around in Ike's yard, a nice day, sunshine, the boy probably with a toy truck, Louise having a glass of tea and chatting, Ike opening a box somebody had just dropped off.
"The boy, Kyle, he's watching, curious, even though it's the kind of stuff Ike does all the time--unpacking the junk people bring him, the leftovers of their yard sales, whatever.
"Sure he's curious. You've got to think what the Trash and Treasure Trailer looks like to a kid. This fat old trailer just full of all that kind of junk Ike had. Old hats, a birdcage, trunks full of busted toys, rusty tools."
Byron smiled and leaned on the fence again, easy. "You know, one time when he was little, Will told me that when he grew up, Dad would grow down." He smiled again, thinking of Will big and Dad little, of Will, his brother, when they'd still been boys together. "Well," he said softly. "Well, so kids figure things out the way it makes sense to them. And maybe it seemed to Kyle that when he grew up, he would get the trailer, get to keep all that stuff. Or maybe he had some money from birthdays or something, and he figured he could buy some of Ike's stuff."
He sighed. "If he knows about buying. That's the thing--you can't tell what he knows, how he figures things out."
Byron thought again of Kyle in the dark woods--when they turned the flashlights on him and he froze, and then stood up, not scrambling up like a scared kid but getting to his feet, almost like a man would.
The cow sighed, her stomachs sounding.
"Anyway. So Ike opens the box. It's got some other junk in it--maybe old Christmas decorations, curtains--but then Ike lifts out this dummy." Byron could see the dummy's face as he had seen it in the woods, menacing and tragic, could smell the old wet leaves. He tried hard to imagine it in sunlight, as Kyle would have seen it, with his mother nearby, nothing scary about it, and not knowing what it was for.
"It's a boy, wearing a brown tweed jacket and brown trousers, and it's almost as big as Kyle. Ike holds it up, and its arms and legs dangle down, and he gives it a little shake. He says, 'Look at this,' and Louise looks and she says she hates it--'I hate those things,' she says. 'They're weird.'
"Ike says it's a collector's item. That's how Ike is. He'd say that. He'd say, 'It looks a little like that what's his name--Charlie McCarthy.' And Louise wouldn't buy that. Charlie McCarthy wore a top hat. This one's ugly, and it's got a smart-aleck face, and its hair's all ratty. But Ike puts his hand into the hole in the dummy's back and makes it blink.
"And the kid doesn't know what they're saying, but he's watching now. Ike makes the mouth open and shut, like he's the ventriloquist, and he screws his face all up and says, 'Hey there, kid--what you lookin' at?'
"Louise says 'Don't,' but it's too late--Ike makes the dummy wink at Kyle. It's too late. Ike makes the dummy look back at Louise, makes it say, 'Whatza matter, lady--you don't like dummies?' and Louise says, 'Don't use that word,' and Ike goes red, because he didn't mean anything, and he says, 'No offense,' and he takes his hand out and puts the thing down on the grass. And it lies there for the rest of the afternoon, while they unpack the other boxes and have another glass of tea.
"Maybe they notice how the boy lies there near it; maybe they don't. Maybe they should have known right off when he disappeared that he'd gone after it, but they're not really paying attention, maybe. It's got to be easy to ignore a kid who doesn't talk to you and can't hear when you talk to him."
The cow shook her head, began to chew, and stepped closer to the fence.
"I don't know--Louise loves him, no doubt there, and she's a good mother. Maybe she did notice, and then the tornado just shook everything up so it slipped her mind. So when he came up missing, she thought he'd been stolen.
"In a way, I guess, he had been. Lying there on the hot grass, watching that dummy lying there on the hot grass."
Byron stroked the cow's dusty neck absently, seeing in his mind the oddly rough skin of the dummy's face, the heavily painted eyebrows, the full smirking lips, how the flashlight had picked up the shine of the paint and made the eyes glitter.
"He knew the dummy wasn't alive. I'm sure about that. But there's something about those things. He'd probably be careful not to stare too hard, for fear it would turn and look at him again. Maybe he felt kind of sorry for it." He rubbed his palm over the bony top of the cow's head. "Maybe one time his mother took her fingers and lifted the corners of his mouth to make him smile, and he kept his face like that, like the dummy's was now, all the time they were in some place where he knew his mother wanted him to smile, and he remembered how sad he'd been. So maybe he lay there on the grass and thought how he'd like to push the dummy's grin down, so the face could relax."
The cow lowered her head and stepped away from his hand. The moon had moved, and Byron was thinking about the time Mom had done that, had not said a word, just forced his mouth into a smirk, and he'd kept it that way, all through the long afternoon of his sister Kate's getting married. Damned if he knew why she had, to this day.
"That's probably just me, you're right," he said to the cow's profile. "What the hell do I know what he thought? I don't even know what I think half the time. And here I am, talking to a cow--not much better off than him, am I?"
Byron dusted his palms against each other and put his hands in his pockets. "Talking to your cow, By," he said, and tried to laugh, to dodge the return of that sad, sweet feeling.
"What you need . . . ," he said, and didn't bother to finish. He got into his truck again and headed back to the Rainbow. It would have to be emptied out by now, probably almost nine o'clock. Better than nothing, he thought; and then, because he was a decent and honest man, he thought, No offense, for Brenda had always been as nice to him as she could be.
AS he drove, he thought, That's me too, not the kid. But he couldn't stop imagining Kyle lying in bed in the dark, being little, thinking of how next time they went across the road to the trailer, he would find the dummy and refuse to be parted from it. He'd hug it, hug that scratchy brown jacket, and the body would be against his, just sticks inside the clothes. That would give him a strange feeling in his stomach, but he would hold on. And when his mother carried him home, her throat moving with talk, he would bring the dummy with him.
The boy imagining theft: While Ike was asleep, he could look both ways and go across the road and go into the trailer and find the dummy, take its odd body in his arms, and carry it home. It wouldn't be too heavy. And then he would have it in his room.
And thinking of frightening his mother: He had seen Ike put his hand into the dummy's back, and if he had the dummy in his room, he could figure out how it worked. When he had figured it out, he would go into the room where his mother was sleeping and shake her by the shoulder, and when she opened her eyes, he would put the face of the dummy in front of her face and chop its toothy mouth open and shut and scare her. Then he felt very bad and frightened himself, because he knew how warm she smelled in the morning in her bed, and he imagined that when she got scared, she might cry; she had cried once, and he had cried too. Now, alone in the bed, he shook his head. No, if he had that thing, he wouldn't scare her with it. She didn't like it, he knew that much. And she did like him.
, Byron thought, and he didn't even put on his turn signal, because there were so many cars and pickups still in the Rainbow's parking lot. He drove on into town, listening to his truck's motor and trying not to think of Kyle thinking about the dummy's head, the face. How that rough, shiny skin would feel to his tongue if he got a chance to lick it. How cool and hard the grinning cheek would be against his own. Byron said aloud, "Knock it off," and wished that he had a radio in the truck. He drove past the feed store, past Poole's Ford dealership with the plastic pennants, past the Mobil station and the dark doughnut shop, and on into the center of town, where Maude Nash was just locking the library and coming down the steps. He pulled over on the wrong side of the street and called softly to her, "Ride?"
And there she was, Maude, not startled or even answering, just coming around to the other side of the truck in an ordinary way, the truck's headlights making the white flowers on her full skirt glow for a second as she passed. He leaned over and pushed the door open for her, thinking how strange it was that he wasn't worried about whether she'd have trouble with the high step into the cab--that he wasn't worried about a thing. She slid her books onto the seat and climbed up and in, slamming the door with a strong pull. She had on lipstick and her hair was wavier, combed back more carefully, but her eyes were no different. They still looked right at him, and in the dim cab light the funny eyebrow asked only the gentlest, most patient question.
"Nice night for walking," she said, observed, greeted.
And so, even though he could smell faint perfume and a slight nostalgic scent of the library, paste and paper and wood, he could say, as if they'd been having easy conversations for years, "Like to show you something, if you've got time. Out past--well, out past where Ike's Trash and Treasure used to be."
She nodded, an ordinary nod, simple, turning her face to look out the windshield, as if they were already on their way. "Where you found little Kyle," she said.
"Yes," he said. He put the truck in gear and drove.
After they'd passed her house and the high school and the old depot, she said, "I'd wondered about that," but not in a way that needed an answer, so he drove on. The two miles from the edge of the village to the lights in Ike's house were quiet except for the truck's smooth engine and the tires on the asphalt. The moonlight showed up once the houses thinned out.
"Looks funny without the trailer," she said--and it did, Ike's little house oddly naked to the road. The space in front of it, where the trailer had sat for twenty-some years until the tornado came and turned it inside out and upside down, looked too small for anything to have been there. Now only some chunks of twisted metal and some broken glass were left. Even the cinder blocks it had sat on were gone.
"It does," Byron said. "Pretty lucky it missed both houses." He slowed and put on his signal a quarter mile past Ike's. "Little bumpy here," he said, apologetically, and eased the truck off the shoulder and into Newton's cornfield. The headlights showed the neat rows of cornstalk stubble angling off from the wagon track.
Maude said, "I imagine the search would have been harder if it had happened before the corn was cut," and Byron, who hadn't thought of that, could see what she meant: acres and acres of corn whispering, taller than the men, dense, impossible to search. Just thinking of it, he felt again the small panic of the night before, when he and Nobel had started back with the boy between them and he had for an instant believed that they were headed wrong, that the trees should have thinned by now.
, he thought of saying, the sentence in his head, but he didn't. He shifted down into second, his headlights showing the trees a quarter mile ahead, and said nothing. He brought the truck to a stop ten feet from the first trees, shifted into neutral, put on the hand brake, and turned on his high beams.
THE trees here were mostly young maples and skinny walnuts and wild crabapples. Behind them were older maples and a few dogwoods and oaks and hemlocks--an ordinary woods, with a path in and some honeysuckle and probably poison ivy in the undergrowth. But things hung from the trees, things that had never hung from trees before.
A bent black umbrella, its handle carved like a duck's head. A limp embroidered felt sombrero, rinsed pink, and a huge green lampshade, one side caved in. A blue tablecloth draped like bunting from one tree to another, gold threads in it sparkling in the headlights. A white-plastic doll stroller, a dish drainer, a flowered bathrobe hung as neatly from a spruce branch as if it had been on a bathroom door, a throw pillow with its stuffing dangling like a cloud, a work boot, part of a fishing rod.
And on the path itself a gray portable typewriter, driven half into the ground; the top of a pressure cooker, its round gauge like a monocle; silverware; a glass doorknob; the round wire cage from a Bingo set.
All this in the moonlight, in the headlights.
"Good God," Maude said.
It had been sundown by the time he and Nobel had reached here, and dusky among the trees. A trace of fog had risen along the ground, and they had both paused right there at the edge of the trees, touching their flashlights before they went in. First thing, he had stepped on a sodden stuffed animal and started back, feeling its softened shape as flesh under his foot. And then, seeing what it really was, a light-blue bear or dog with a limp ribbon around its neck, he'd gone on two or three steps before stumbling against the typewriter. Nobel had said, "Have to watch our step in here," and turned on his flashlight, even though it was plenty light enough to see, if they paid attention. They'd gone in along the trail maybe half a mile before the things the tornado had flung out of the Treasure Trailer began to thin out, began to be only a rag here and there, a baseball cap, a torn paper fan.
"He followed the things," Byron said. "Like they were a trail he was on. Clues." That wasn't at all what he had meant to say, and for the first time since he had pulled over by the library, he was uneasy. What was he doing, anyway? Farther down the path, he knew, lay marbles and the broken wooden cigar box they must have been in, a swollen book of piano music, a plaid sneaker. Off to the right, somewhere in the undergrowth, where he had kicked it in a reflex of fear, was a snake-like bicycle tire.
But Maude said, "Like Hansel and Gretel," quietly, the shock gone out of her voice, and Byron said, "Yes--like that. Hunting that dummy."
As they watched, the truck's motor humming, a broken gilt picture frame slid from a high place in a hemlock and hit the ground, separating into slats.
"We didn't know about it when we were looking. It was an old ventriloquist's dummy from the Trash and Treasure, blown out with everything else. He was looking for it. Nobel Aldrich and I went in along this trail about two miles, slow and quiet, listening for him, looking with our flashlights. Then we decided to come back--to spread out to either side of the trail about ten or twelve yards and come back that way."
That far in, the ground fog had been gone, and Byron had kept feeling that wet dog or whatever it was he'd stepped on, the weird weakening of his leg muscles as his foot hit it, had kept waiting for the real snake that the bicycle tire hadn't been. It had been so quiet that he wondered now if he'd been thinking anything at all. He'd listened to the noise he made and the noise Nobel made, invisible twenty-five yards away except for the flashlight now and then.
"We were walking along as quiet as we could in there, trying to listen for him if he was crying or walking--not much else we could do," Byron said. He couldn't even begin to explain the kind of quiet it had been, as if the silence were a transparent absence, a clear waiting shape made by the crossings of branches and stems. Or what had happened in his throat and stomach when he heard the sound, how hard it had been to force his brain and then his mouth, tongue, throat, to call, "Nobel?" Nobel had stopped, and the silence had been sharp-edged, like held breath, even after Nobel called back, "Yeah?" and Byron called, "I think we got something."
"I heard this sound--this quiet little tup tup tup sound. Sort of wooden-sounding, not like a bird or an insect but steady, and then it would stop for a few seconds and start up again." The headlights made the yellow glass eye in the umbrella handle gleam. "I looked over to the right and I saw something move and then I saw him sitting there by a big old maple with this ventriloquist's dummy."
The boy had seemed to glow softly, his bare arms and legs, his blond head. All that paleness there in the dusk beside that dark old tree. He was sitting cross-legged, half toward the path, holding the dummy facing him, so that Byron had seen the dummy's face before he saw the boy's. The dummy's eyes had glittered as its thick lips opened and no sound came out. Nobel had come up beside Byron then, his flashlight, like Byron's, pointing down, as if they both knew that they had found something not to shine a light on.
"It was the strangest thing I ever saw. He had his hand in the back of the dummy, and what I'd heard was the dummy's mouth clopping shut--open, shut, open, shut." Byron moved his hand, flat-fingered, to show how the mouth had gone, but it was wrong--it was the silhouette of a quacking duck, silly. He put his hand back on the steering wheel. "The boy was making the dummy move its mouth for a while--like for a sentence, maybe--and then he moved his mouth the same way." Something small and dark, mouse or mole, rolled like a dustball across the path. "Up and down, up and down." How empty the boy had made his face to get his jaw to move that way.
Maude drew in a breath and let it out without saying anything, and Byron couldn't tell whether he was glad or not that she hadn't spoken. But he knew that the ease he'd felt with her the other night, sitting in her kitchen and deciding he'd had too good a time to spoil it by making suggestions, and watching her deciding the same thing--that ease was gone. To keep the sad lonesomeness of knowing that from filling him up, he started talking again, saying random things, looking at the junk hanging in the trees and sparkling on the path.
"I never knew Louise to speak of. Knew her dad some years ago, but I didn't know she was back in town. Ike said they'd been out looking for an hour, and she just kept calling and calling, like the boy could hear her. Ike was out of patience, I think, but I bet if he'd been looking alone he'd have been calling too. You feel stupid not calling--have to make yourself not do it."
He could feel Maude looking at him now, watching his face by the dim dashboard light, but he kept his eyes on the round gleam of the pressure-cooker gauge and his hands on the wheel. "First thing, there's this tornado, and no way Louise could explain it to him, make him understand why all of a sudden they're sitting down in the basement and it's dark at suppertime. Supper's on the table, and they're sitting on the basement floor. He can't hear the wind. I don't know, maybe she's got some way of talking to him. He's five, got to have figured something out by now--maybe he knows about storms from the vibrations. Maybe when the tornado went over and picked that trailer up and threw it, he knew exactly what was going on. Maybe he knows people talk and hear and he doesn't, but I keep thinking about it, and I can't make it make sense. It's like one of us suspected that other people could do something with their knees that meant something, or their elbows, that we couldn't do and couldn't even imagine--"
Maude laughed then--not her big roaring laugh, that he'd heard at her kitchen table when they'd been joking about Frenchie's skinny wife, but a gentle little laugh.
"Sorry," she said, but she was smiling. "It just sounded funny. Talking with our elbows." She looked back out, and now Byron watched her, seeing the delicate skin beside her eyes, the deep waves of her hair, the way her eyebrows moved when she talked. "You know, the first ventriloquists were fortune-tellers,"she said. "Prophets. Probably Moses was a ventriloquist--the burning bush and all that." She glanced at him and then away, and in Byron's chest the loop of sadness turned and sprang, arched near his throat.
TWO nights ago, in her kitchen, a moment had come, a little past midnight, when they'd looked at each other, clear and simple, and seen that they weren't in love. They hadn't said it, but that's what it was, and so she'd offered her umbrella, and he'd said thank you, no. And now this was another moment. Byron drew a long breath, looked out at the spangled blue cloth in the trees, and said the one thing he hadn't thought.
"I think he was in love with it," he said.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw her hand lift itself from her lap in a little flutter, not even close to high enough to touch her throat. But that's the gesture it was, stopped, held down.
But all she said was "So. When you found him . . . ," which brought back the boy and the heavy-lidded eyes of the dummy, the pale yellow of the flashlight beam. And Byron said, "It was just so private. But he--" Then he had to stop, had to put both his hands over his eyes and smooth his face, down and out, feeling the roughness of his fingertips on his eyelids, his palms on his cheeks, the day's stubble against his palms.
He and Nobel had both kept their lights down and had moved to the right, so that they could see the boy's face before they approached. Five years old. The sweetest mouth, that fragile neck, and the way he looked into that dummy's eyes. The way he was waiting.
"I don't know how to describe it," he said. "For just a couple of seconds I got to see him working at it--looking into that dummy's eyes and moving his mouth. Not like he was saying words. Just open and shut, just like the dummy's mouth did. Open and shut. And then he saw my light and he stopped. But he kept on looking into those eyes for a second. And I don't have any idea what he was thinking." He ran his palms along the steering wheel. "None of my business."
He turned his hands over and looked at his palms, the darkness of the palms, the calluses. "I guess some things you can't explain," he said.
Byron waited a long time, it seemed, in the humming quiet. Say it, he thought, but gently, as gentle and wishful as he imagined his hand on her hair would be if he allowed it to reach for her. He knew that if he did, if he touched her, the thing she would say would not be, could not be, the thing he was waiting for her to say, which could not be a thing he drew from her, with even the gentlest touch.
Maude didn't say anything. The moon went on shining, the junk in the trees hung there, and Byron thought of how the moonlight made the white splotches on his cow's back glow, and of how simply cheerful all those men in the Rainbow had seemed.
So Byron Doatze shifted slowly into reverse and half turned toward her so that he could see out the back window. He met her eyes, and saw how sad and steady they were, and how set her mouth was, the strong line of her jaw. He kept one hand on the wheel and the other on the back of the seat, and he said, "He stood up like a man would. He still had his hand in the back of the dummy, and then he pulled his hand out, so gently, and held the dummy out to me."
She nodded then, and he saw her mouth soften, and to keep from doing anything else, to keep from having to decide what that meant, he looked behind the truck and started backing up, his eyes on the wagon track that was washed red by his backup lights.
They rode the two miles to the edge of town in the silence of the truck's tires and the truck's motor and the knowledge of breathing. As they passed the first houses, Byron tried to remember if he'd held the boy's hand or not. But even as he was thinking it, he knew he was wondering about it so that he wouldn't be waiting to hear what she said, wondering if she'd say anything at all.
They were pulling up in front of her house before she cleared her throat quietly and said, "You should have been honored."
For just a second a smoothness appeared in Byron's mind, a simple smooth area, and then he said, "Yes. I guess I should have been. But I wasn't. I gave it to Nobel, and he carried it back." The words came out easy and surprised in spite of how the thing he could only call his heart rose up almost to his throat, so full and grateful that it should have choked him.
She didn't say anything else, and neither did he. He was waiting again now, but for something--for what it would be, not if it would be. So when he had pulled on the brake, and she had opened the door, and she reached to gather her books from the seat between them, Byron took her wrist gently and raised her hand and kissed her palm as if it was a thing that could be done, knowing the scent and taste of this woman's curved palm as he let her warm wrist slide free of his loose grasp. As if it was possible, she touched his face, her cool fingers briefly across his cheek, beside his eye, and then carefully, delicately, across his lips.
Neither of them said anything else, not even good night, as she stepped down from the truck, but he watched her walk to her door, the moonlight picking out those flowers on her full skirt, and when she paused there, and then turned and raised her hand, he raised his too, and then he waited while she went in, waited until he saw her kitchen light come on, before he drove on home, not even thinking, not even hearing himself whistling softly over the steady hum of his engine.
The Atlantic Monthly; August, 1996; The Dummy; Volume 278, No. 2; pages 59-68.