There Was a Time

"Bulls are unpredictable," my father said. "They can be as nice as can be one day, and for no reason take you out the next. They can go crazy in the spring".

Unpredictable Bull

W HEN my mother gasped, a china cup dropped out of my soapy hands and shattered in the sink. She moved faster than I've ever seen her, out the kitchen door. I wiped my wet hands on my jeans and followed, not sure what was happening but knowing it was bad. She loped out toward the barn, her long legs gleaming white. The air was so clear I could see a range of snowy mountains in Montana, across the Idaho state line. At the back gate my mother raised her hand and stretched her fingers out as if she meant to press her hand into clay. She shoved her whole arm forward in the sign for "Stop!"

"Clara," she called, trying not to show that she was scared. My little sister stood out in the pasture. Her grimy T-shirt was too small, and her diaper sagged. Our Angus stood just beside her, his head lowered to her height. He looked like a sculpture made of black boulders, one for his neck and hump, one for his chest, another for the muscles bulging on his ribs. While we watched, hardly breathing, Clara turned her back on the bull and gazed at us. She took a small step toward my mother.

"Clara, no!" my mother screamed. "Clara, watch the bull. Back up. Back up all the way to me." My mother climbed over the gate and began to walk, one slow step after another, as if Clara were stranded on a patch of thawing ice. The bull stretched his neck and sniffed so hard at Clara's diaper that she fell down. She stumbled up, her face dark with mud and manure, and, as if she'd just decided to come in for lunch, walked straight over to my mother.

My mother was so mad she yanked down Clara's filthy diaper and smacked her wet, bare skin. She hit Clara as if that alone could make sure that my sister would never, ever scare her again -- as if my mother's fury could force Clara to be safe.

Half dragging Clara by one arm, my mother made her trot back into the house and dumped her in her crib. I waited until she had gone back to the kitchen and I could hear water running in the sink before I lowered the side of the crib to change Clara's diaper. Clara was past four by then, way too old for diapers or a crib, but it was easier on all of us to treat her like a baby. The crib kept her from wandering through the house at night while the rest of us were sleeping. She could have climbed out any time, but she never did.

My parents thought Clara was "slow." She had been slow to walk, and she hardly ever talked, though we knew she could. My mother's hand had left a red mark the shape of a crooked valentine heart on Clara's bottom, but she wasn't even whimpering. While I washed the mud and manure from her face and tangled hair, she stared at me with round blue eyes. Her hair was golden, not blonde but darkly shining, like spun maple syrup. It was damp with sweat and pulled back off her forehead with a broken pink barrette. I think my mother was terrified by Clara's backwardness, and at the same time convinced that Clara was purposely trying to thwart her. At times I thought that my mother believed Clara was some kind of monster.

My dad had been out to a cattle auction, and when he got home, he sat down in his lounger and called Clara to climb onto his lap, checking first to make sure she was dry.

"Give your dad a kiss," he said, "a wet one," and Clara made a sloppy smack on his lips. While my mother told him what Clara had done, he looked at her in a way that said "Why can't you keep an eye on the kids?"

"Bulls," he said to Clara, though he was really talking to my mother and me, "are unpredictable. You never want to be on foot in front of one. They can be as nice as can be one day, and for no reason take you out the next. They can go crazy in the spring. Holsteins are the worst -- pin a man in his corral for no reason whatsoever. Now, a Hereford's different. I've had a Hereford bull come after me until I tripped and fell down in a snowdrift, and then stop. Stop and wander off. But you can't trust a bull."

My father always talked like that, like he thought everybody had just been born. My mother grew up on a ranch, and for the most part I did too. I called it "Don't stick beans up your nose" advice. But you still had to sit and listen. My dad had a lot of sayings he thought were full of wisdom, and any time you had the slightest complaint or argument, he pulled one out.

My favorite was "Least said, soonest mended." When I baby-sat for Clara, I'd ask her questions like "You finished with your milk?" and "Have you gone to the bathroom?" Or, just to tease her, "Well, whadda ya think?" Her reply was always the same -- nothing. We knew she could talk because once in a while she shocked us by saying "No" or "Sure." If my parents weren't around, I always beamed and said right back to her, "Good girl, Clara. 'Least said, soonest mended!'"

Still, everybody in our family except Clara was afraid of my dad. His voice was loud, and when he came home from working at the grain mill, he stood in the kitchen and yelled for me or my mother until we stopped doing what we were doing and went to see what he wanted. He was always on a schedule, and he had a schedule worked out for us, too. The schedule was the most important thing, because on a ranch "the weather isn't going to wait for you."

Herding cows with him was torture. When I was much younger, he got an old mother cow in a pen with no gate and told me to stand in the opening. "Don't move," he said, "no matter what." I took up position with my arms out while my dad tried to get a rope on the cow. She scrambled in a circle, fell back on her haunches, gave a heave, and ran right for me. I didn't move. She knocked me down and nearly tore my arm off at the socket. My dad was furious. "Damn it," he said. "When they get that look in their eye, you move." He lectured me for a week about "cow sense."

It wasn't so much that my dad yelled -- he just had this "Big Dad" voice that nobody wanted to go against. It was a sound that wore me down, a voice that always seemed to ask, "What kind of an idiot would do that?"

My mother always got me with a look. Though she had given up on Clara, she had a strict set of rules too. Hers had to do with manners and appearance. She would never have put it this way, but she believed you could change your social class through grooming. In her constellation of sins a safety pin in your bra was right up there with murder or grand larceny.

We never had much money, and my parents' standards were impossible to meet. I always felt shabby and poor. Everything I did was wrong, not just at home but also at school. I was too smart. I had the wrong haircut. My dresses were too long or too short, my shoes way out of style. I was fourteen and starting at the big high school in town, where I spent all my free time in the girls' bathroom, pretending I was busy with my hair.

My father and I fed cattle in the morning before he dropped me off at school. Until Clara was born, my mother had worked as a secretary. Now she stayed home in the daytime and dressed up in long hostess gowns to work the dinner shift at a nearby steak house.

ONE morning at the end of winter my father and I took Clara with us to feed the cows, so that my mother could sleep in. Bundled in my old ski clothes, Clara sat on the last bale of hay. When a cow tried to get at the hay in the truck, Clara reached out and touched its broad, damp nose, where the skin was thickly pink and dotted with white bumps. I watched, amazed. Our cattle weren't wild, but still you couldn't touch one.

The bull came right to the truck. When I looked down, his head seemed three feet wide. His hide was smooth and black, his hair so tightly curled that it took on a rusty sheen, like old black silk. From the safety of the truck Clara placed her small hand just between his eyes, where the hair whorled in a circle. He didn't even flinch. My dad was pitching hay and didn't see the bull slip out his long blue tongue and wrap it like a tentacle along her arm. Clara drew her hand back, giggling. I didn't tell my parents, especially my mother, what I had seen. Even to me, it seemed too strange. It made me feel that Clara was an animal herself. That's why the cattle weren't afraid.

Clara and I were home alone when I caught her out in the pasture again. It was spring, the grass seeming to grow an inch or two a day. She was walking along, picking dandelions, and the bull grazed right beside her. The picture was shocking: the humped black bull and Clara, her hair pulled back with a barrette, one hand holding up her soggy diaper.

I pulled on a pair of rubber irrigation boots and ran to intercept them at an angle. I'd been on foot in the field with this bull before, and all I'd ever seen him do was get down on his knees and bellow at the neighbor's bulls. But I knew that in this case my father was right.

I tried to get Clara's attention by waving my arm in a big arc, but slowly, hoping she would catch the movement out of the corner of her eye. When she didn't see me, I circled around in front of her, the way you would to herd a cow, and waved again. She saw me this time and stopped, staring at me solemnly. The bull kept on grazing, putting one splayed hoof in front of another, until he stood just behind her small body.

I winced and waved at Clara. "Come to me," I said quietly. Clara smiled, but didn't pay attention. She just looked straight ahead. I got so frustrated that I wanted to hit her as hard as my mother had. "If you don't come here, you little shit," I said, "I'm going to kill you."

Then something happened. Clara backed up to stand beside the bull, as if he could protect her. I felt terrible. She was just a little kid. I walked across the field, my feet sweating in the black rubber boots, the sun scorching my shoulders through my blouse. As I got nearer, the bull looked up at me, alert. I waved my arm again in a slow arc, and the bull stepped back. He shifted his body to one side, like a bull in a ring. Then he swung his head around and began to shuffle away.

I approached Clara with a calmness I didn't feel.

"Hi, Clara,"I said. "Nice flowers."

She looked down at the dandelions, closed up and drooping in her fist. She held them out to me.

I took the flowers and let my hand rest on her shoulder. Her skin was hot, her round arms browning on the top like bread. We strolled back to the house together.

"Nice bull," I said to Clara. She nodded to herself.

We got back hot and sweaty, with dust stiff in our hair. After I changed her diaper, I made us each a glass of ice water and sat down in my father's chair. Clara climbed onto my lap, her arms around my neck and her entire body pressed against me. She fell asleep like that.

WHAT my mother taught me, what I learned from magazines and other girls at school, was that popularity was a kind of magic. You could sew a new dress or get a new haircut -- even a new lipstick -- and suddenly the popular kids would take you up. A football player would ask you for a date. Behind this was a firm belief that it was up to you to get it right. If you didn't get a date, it was your fault.

I tried many times, without success. Then, suddenly, my life changed. I went on a diet and lost ten pounds. That was hard, since in my family you ate what was set before you, all of it, and no excuses. For weeks I got up earlier than everybody except Clara, who always lay in her crib staring at me when I went into her room. I put on the coffee pot for my parents, which they thought was great, and had a cup myself. When my mother started breakfast, I told her I'd been hungry and had already eaten. Then, at school, I gave my lunch away.

I developed cheekbones and headaches, but I also got a date. A boy I'd had a crush on for some time asked me to a dance three weeks away. His name was Brian, and he played junior varsity. He was a solitary boy, not part of any group, but handsome. He told me he lived with his dad, and his dad would drive us to the dance.

This fascinated me -- a boy who lived only with his father. I imagined them eating together and talking, having a kind of freedom and ease I could hardly imagine. It made him more masculine, more boylike, in my eyes.

When I asked my parents if I could go to the dance, my mother got a little weepy over my first date, but my father hit the ceiling. "Absolutely not," he said. My mother left the table, and my father started a lecture on how ugly it was for girls my age to wear makeup. How we didn't realize how beautiful we were, and how cosmetics made us look like tarts.

All the girls in my class had permanents and sprayed their hair. They wore high heels to school. You would think that in the country parents are more strict, but the truth is just the opposite. I was the only girl I knew who wasn't allowed to wear makeup; I had to put it on at school. I had a lot of tricks. I used a fingertip to Vaseline my lashes and eyebrows and bought lip gloss instead of Chap Stick.

Oddly, no one at home commented on my weight. But my mother started sewing me a dress. We bought a pattern and material, and I remember hearing the even humming of the machine on the evenings when she didn't work, the rhythm punctuated by her gathering the fabric to clip a thread off with her shears.

The spring dance was not a formal one, and the dress my mother made was simple polished cotton, but it made me look taller and thin. For the first time, it seemed to me, I had a dress that fit. It made me feel smooth and contained. For the first time, I felt right.

During those weeks dinner was tense and silent. My father spent the time correcting Clara. "Don't play with your food. Use your napkin. No, you're not excused." His voice was like backfire. My mother got so nervous that she spilled things. Clara didn't seem to mind. When my father barked at her, she just stopped what she was doing and looked at him as if she were awaiting new instructions.

My mother went on as if I were going to the dance. My headaches got worse, and I swallowed aspirin by the handful until my stomach hollowed out and burned. When I ran into Brian in the halls at school, he would pause and mumble something. Every time, a rush of fear swept up from my thighs and through my head -- a burning, white sensation. It was like staring at a headlight. During these moments I couldn't see. Afterward I had no idea what Brian had looked like, what he had said, or what I had said to him.

I had told him yes, I could go to the dance. But day to day I didn't know. I dreaded the moment when I would have to tell him. It would be too late by then for him to ask somebody else.

My mother took me shopping, her cure for almost everything, but it was near the end of the month. I knew she didn't have much money. We went downtown and looked at hostess gowns and at shoes.

My mother adored shoes. She had lovely legs -- trim ankles and long, tapered calves. When she wore shorts, you could see dark-purple veins branching on the insides of her thighs, just above the knee, but her feet were perfect. My father told me more than once that it was too bad I didn't have my mother's feet. When I was born, he said, it was the first thing he looked for. At fourteen, however, I already had feet much larger than my mother's, and too wide.

What we bought that day was shoes. My mother found a pair of soft Italian shoes, sweetheart slippers, pearly gray and so soft that you could make a mark on them with just your finger. For people who lived ten miles out of town on a dirt road they were as practical as stilts.

I kept them on a high shelf in my closet, wrapped in tissue in their box. I liked to take them out and smell the box. It had the smell of leather and of newness, of everything brand-new. Most people don't know how cows smell. They have a smell like sweat and fresh-tanned hides, the same sweet lather smell as horses. But unless they're very sick, you never get close to beef cows. You can catch new calves the first or second day after they're born, when their curls are soapy and clean, but they have almost no smell at that age.

Our calves were on the ground by then, a few cows coming back into heat. We should have moved the bull, but my dad just hadn't gotten to it. I used to stand out at the gate and watch the bull pick out a cow and trail her up and down the fence. Muscle-bound as he was, I saw nothing bestial about him. He loved the cows up, snuffling at their flanks and nuzzling along the ridges of their necks. You get used to steers and cows, awkward and clumsy, trying to mount anything. One time a steer broke another's back. But the bull's hips were slender, and he lifted up with grace; he mounted for only a short time, as if he were just flirting.

That same spring our neighbor moved his Angus bull into a pasture right across the road. One day I went out after dinner with my dad to doctor a late calf with scours, a dysentery that could kill him. We walked without speaking. The sun was going down behind the mountains, and the air had turned cold enough to make my nose run. The sky seemed higher and bluer, and the low light glowed in every blade of grass, as if the field were full of tiny golden lamps.

Our bull grazed in the pasture's far corner, half a mile away, and I was looking down, watching for wet cow piles. Snipe were calling in the air above us, their whistling like the sound of tiny dropping bombs. We found the cow and calf we were hunting for, and my dad set down a bucket of grain and backed away. When curiosity drew the mother cow to the grain, he stepped in fast and caught the calf -- something I could never do. He sat on it while I shoved a bolus on a plunger down its throat. The calf rolled its eyes back in its head and cried as if it were being skinned alive. The mother cow spun and came at us. My dad just stepped aside, and we moved back.

"He's not hurt, old girl," my dad said to the cow. "Take it easy."Then he said to me, "You can't hurt a calf that size."

The next thing I heard was the bull. He was trotting toward us in alarm, his neck arched high and his mouth open in a bellow like a stuck car horn. His tongue hung out the side, and saliva foamed white on his jowls.

My dad shoved me behind him, hard, spread his feet, and waved his arms. "Go home,"he said to me over his shoulder. "Go slow."

The bull looked at the cow and calf and then swung his head back toward my dad. He bellowed again and went down on his knees, his neck stretched out. My dad took a step toward the bull. "You just got to show 'em who's the boss," he said, as if he were lecturing himself. "Whoa," he said. "Get. Get back." But the bull heaved to his feet and came at us.

"Don't just stand there," my dad said to me. His tone was disgusted. "Run!"

I did run, but I looked back and saw the bull charge my father. I heard the oomph of air when my dad was hit. Then he lay still. The bull kept on going. He bellowed at the Angus bull across the road, his eyes fixed there. When he got to our fence, he stopped, and the other bull stood on his side of the road and bellowed back. I had the sense that they could break right through both fences and kill each other, that my dad was right: bulls in the spring were like wild animals; you couldn't know what they would do. While I watched, our bull got back down on his knees, shoved his head and neck under the tight barbed wire, and stood up. He yanked the fence poles right out of the ground; the fence wires sang and popped, and he was across the road and on the other fence. I thought he was going to go right through that one.

I went to my dad, who sat up dazed and stared after the bull. Suddenly the neighbor's bull began to graze, and our bull shook himself. He wandered up the road along the fence line headed who knows where.

All I could think of was that old joke: Where does a 5,000-pound canary sit? Anywhere he wants to. It was the kind of joke my dad would tell. But my dad was like rock. His jaw was set so tight that I knew better than to say a word. We walked back to the house in near darkness. My dad walked as if he were trying not to breathe, and I knew he must be hurting. I wanted to help him somehow, but I couldn't think of anything to do. I ran and closed the gate in the cross fence to keep the cows from following the bull.

When we got back to the house, I thought we'd get in the truck and go after the bull. The longer we waited, the farther he would get and the harder it would be to find him. But my dad sat down in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, taking a sip and setting the cup down hard on the table as if my mother and I were supposed to guess what was wrong and what to do.

I DID math homework in my room and went to bed, because I had a test the next day. When I woke up, I went to get Clara out of her crib, but she wasn't there. The wet spot where she'd slept was warm, and I thought someone else must be awake. I figured my father had gone out looking for the bull and had sent Clara out to play.

When my mother came into the kitchen, I could tell she hadn't slept. Her eyes were swollen, and her forehead looked pink and pale at the same time, as if she'd gotten too much sun. She started breakfast without saying "Good morning."

"You can go to that dance,"she said.

"How come?"

"You don't need to ask,"she said. "Just go ahead and plan on it."

"Where's Dad?" I said.

"Getting dressed," she told me.

"So then, where's Clara?" I stood up and went out the back door. I don't know why I wasn't worried. It never occurred to me that Clara wouldn't be right there, in the barn looking for kittens or just playing in the ditch.

"I can't find Clara," I said when I came back in. I was confused but not worried.

My father was at the table by then, dressed for work, but he looked at me as if to say "Don't tell me you can't find Clara." As if I had made it up just to annoy him. "Look again," he said.

"I looked," I said.

"Well, look again."

I thought, Okay, I'll look again. I went outside and just wandered from place to place, because I knew Iwasn't going to find her. I was going to be late for school. I threw my leg over the top rail of the fence and looked across the field, counting cows and calves. I scanned for the dark shape of the bull, but I didn't see him. He could have been behind a bunch of cows, but, given what we had seen him do to the fence, he could have been in the next county. The neighbor's bull was at the fence, right where he'd been the night before.

When you have to deal with cows, you get used to disaster and to things taking a long time. I understood that we were moving into a long day, maybe a long night, and I couldn't do anything but start. I was glad to miss the math test. I didn't even think about the dance. I couldn't imagine how my mother had persuaded my dad, but I knew something was wrong. I had to wait and see what my dad did.

When I finally convinced my parents that Clara wasn't on the place, my mother started calling neighbors and my dad got into the truck to go look. I knew Clara couldn't have been gone very long, because the dampness in her bed had been warm when I got up.

I went out to hunt for her on foot. Our land was flat and without trees, but there were dips and wallows deep enough to hide a calf. That place was only eighty acres, but it seemed like more when you had to walk it in a hurry. I was hot and thirsty, out of breath, by the time I got to the back corner. Beyond our last fence the ground got seepy and dropped down into willow swamps. It was a place where three creeks flowed together around islands of wild grass and stunted aspen trees.

That's where I saw the tracks, deep tracks in the mud where some animal had wallowed to its knees. I tried to leap from hummock to hummock of swamp grass to keep from sinking into the mud, but I eventually missed. The mud sucked off my shoe, and I had to go back and dig for it. I kept thinking that I should go home and get my father -- get somebody. I wished I'd saddled a horse instead of going off on foot, with no hat and no water.

The ground dried up and the tracks were gone. They just disappeared. I thought I'd found the bull, but it could have been a moose or even a deer. Tracks in mud lose their shape and fill with pitch-black water. They all look like postholes.

I knew better than to drink out of a creek, but my mouth was so salty and dry that when I got to the first one, I stuck my whole head in the water. It was so cold that my temples ached, and I came up gasping. Across the creek a flock of ducks flapped out of the scrub with loud, scolding quacks. Ducks always sound annoyed, but something had disturbed these. I waded the creek on slippery, mossy stones, stumbling and sliding. I pulled myself out of the mud and sat down on a dry island to pour the muck out of my shoes.

Pushing my way through the willows on the other side, I was very quiet. When I saw the bull, I sank down out of sight. I thought I would crouch there and watch to see what he was doing. Below me the second creek had carved out a small beach of round stones. The bull stood sucking deep, loud slurps of water. He stopped and raised his head, a stream of water falling from the corner of his mouth.

Right at his feet Clara sat with her legs spread out, looking in the same direction. She wore a tiny skirt that had been mine, a gypsy skirt with flounces edged with red and green and yellow ribbon. Underneath she still had on pajamas. She had dressed herself.

She was talking. I couldn't quite hear what she said, but she talked in a steady rhythm, pausing and starting, as if she were in the middle of a lengthy conversation. I tried harder to hear. Out there in the heat sounds carried: Insects clicking in the weeds. The water in the creek. A hawk whistling from far away.

I inched closer. Clara reached out her hand and touched the bull's fetlock. He shook her hand off as if it were a fly and planted his foot back down just inches from her arm. That's when I got scared. For the first time all day I felt scared. But Clara went on talking.

"So then," she said, "the father, he went away and he left all the babies in the straw. The mother cried. She cried quite a lot. And the babies cried. The mother told the babies, Shush up. Shush up. The mother, she said to those babies, Don't cry. Good babies don't cry. Don't cry. Shush up. I feeded all the babies sugar water and I put all the babies in their beds so they could take their naps."

I couldn't believe that Clara had said "quite a lot." Her voice was sweet and clipped, distinct and proper, except that she said "they-er" for "their."

"Clara," I said very softly. "Clara."

She swiveled her neck around and gazed at me the way she gazed up at my dad: awaiting further orders. "Can you come here?" I said.

She nodded at me. "Sure," she said.

It made me want to burst out laughing. "Okay," I said. "Walk over here."

Though she was nearly five, she stood up the way toddlers do, falling over forward on her palms and straightening her legs. The bull swung his big head around to see and knocked her down again. I bit the edge of my tongue, and it hurt so much that tears formed in my eyes. But Clara got herself upright and started coming to me. The bull waited this time until she was walking and then turned slowly to watch.

"Come on, Clara," I said. "Good girl."

She smiled at me and stopped. I shouldn't have said a word. She turned back to the bull and gave him an impatient look, as if to say "So, what's keeping you?"

I ran forward and scooped Clara up, setting her wet bottom on my arm, and started back toward home. The bull lunged over the embankment, and I stopped still. The bull halted, looking at us warily.

"We can go now," Clara said to me, and I decided that she knew. Her feet were bare. I heaved her over my shoulder, because she was too heavy to carry any other way, and walked on like a fireman. In minutes my arms ached and my legs felt as if my jeans were filled with wet concrete. When I stopped to rest, the bull stopped too. When we got out of the swamp, I put Clara down to see if she could walk.

"Where are your shoes?" I asked her.

She pointed backward with her arm and torso, back toward the creeks. A shiver ran up the side of my neck when I thought of Clara crossing the swamp.

The grass was thick, but Clara walked on the outside edges of her feet, her legs bowed out as if she was expecting rocks or cockleburs. After a while I felt Clara slip her small hand into mine. The bull followed us like a milk cow, swinging his head from side to side. We walked him right into the corral and shut the gate. I slipped Clara through the poles and climbed over.

Nobody was home. I carried Clara to the bathroom and had her sit on the edge of the tub. While the bath water was running, I peeled off her muddy clothes. The front door slammed, and my father yelled my name. I had Clara halfway in the tub and couldn't go.

"In here," I yelled.

My father appeared in the doorway. "Don't you yell at me," he said.

"Sorry," I mumbled, but he had Clara by the arm, jerking her up and out of the bathtub. With his other hand he fumbled to unbuckle his belt. He yanked it out of the loops like a whip.

Clara never said a word. He hauled her into my parents' room. I ran out to the living room, looking for my mother. I found her sitting in the truck. She hadn't bothered to get out. I started to tell her I had found Clara. I wanted her to go inside and stop my dad. But she was crying. Just sitting straight-backed in the truck with small tears running down her cheeks.

It terrified me, seeing her do that. "Mother," I said. "Clara talked. I heard her talking."

She ignored me.

"Mom, you're scaring me," I said.

She covered her eyes with her hand so that I couldn't see.

MY father made me go to school that day, though by the time I got there, lunch was over. I had to take the math test. During the whole time I could almost see the right equations, but they seemed to float off in my mind. I started to panic, and I couldn't add or multiply.

When I got home, Clara was taking a nap on the couch, her round bottom humped in the air, and my mother was sitting on the rug, leafing through a big scrapbook. She called me to come see. Loose in the album was a yellowed piece of newspaper, an advertisement from a big department store. It showed matching rabbit-fur jackets, fluffy and white, for a mother and a little girl. The little girl's jacket came with a fur helmet, tied with ribbon underneath the chin.

"When you were a little girl," she said, "we took a trip to California. I wanted your father to buy us that." She pointed to the picture. "We had a good income then, but your father wouldn't buy it for us."

THE night of the dance my father stayed late at the mill. My mother was still hemming the new dress while I was combing out my hair. When she finished, she brought me a lipstick of hers, told me to smile, and touched it on my lips with her little finger.

When I slipped the dress on, the cool new fabric slid like satin. I went into the living room to show Clara and scuffed back and forth in the gray shoes, rubbing off the slipperiness. It made Clara laugh. She sat up on the couch and clapped.

"How come you never talk to us?" I asked her.

She screwed up her face.

"Well?" I said. "How come?"

I didn't hear if she said anything, because right then Brian banged on the screen door. When he came in, I introduced him to my mother and to Clara. My mother apologized for my father's absence and asked Brian if he would like to have a seat.

"No," I said. "His father's outside in the car." I was crowding Brian toward the door.

Flustered, he looked back and waved at Clara. "Bye," he said.

"Bye," she said, as if she said it every day.

BRIAN'S father was waiting in a black-and-chrome convertible with the top up. We climbed into the cramped back seat, and he drove with the engine throbbing as if he were holding back the speed. At the school Brian had him drop us next to the old front gate, a tall black iron contraption flanked by scrubby Russian olive trees. No one ever used that gate, which made the school look like a funeral home. Brian told his dad when to pick us up, but on the walk up to the gym, and once inside, he hardly said a thing. My mother had taught me that boys like a good listener, but I ended up doing all the talking. Brian barely answered, mumbling, until I got sarcastic. Under my breath I talked to him the same way I teased Clara: "Least said, soonest mended."

We danced all the slow dances, shuffling in a big box step. Brian was a town boy, and his hand was soft and freckled. I could feel a sparse and prickly stubble on his cheek. I kept making wisecracks, acting smart. I didn't feel funny, I felt awkward, but I couldn't stop. I told him jokes about the bull, and how every winter my dad looked through catalogues of prize bulls that cost more than new cars. Beside the fancy name they always gave the measurements of the bull's testicles -- but they used the metric system, and my mom could never figure out how big that was.

I was doing exactly the wrong thing, pushing him away. I did make Brian laugh, but then he looked bored and embarrassed. Finally I just shut up. The dance was coming to an end. The lights in the gym were lowered, and the band played only long, slow songs.

In the darkness Brian folded my hand in his and drew it to his chest. He held me tight against him, as if we had been going steady all along. At first I was unsettled, but as the song went on, I closed my eyes and leaned my cheek against his shirt. I cupped my other hand around his neck, my little finger raised as if I were sipping tea. It was a gesture from a language I seemed always to have known, like the way you hold a baby's soft and heavy head.

We danced close together, hardly moving now. At every place our skin touched, even through our clothes, Brian seemed to promise me. I answered with the barest touch along his neck. He was holding me as if I might fall down.

Brian kissed my hair, against my cheek, and the perfume of my shampoo surrounded me. I felt small and, for the first time, beautiful. Brian bent down and kissed me on the mouth. His lips were full and hard at the same time. I knew right then I would do anything for more of him. I was so full of tenderness that tears came. I ached inside to try to tell him, just by kissing, how I felt. As if all these people were inside me: a mother, and a woman, and a broken little girl.

When the music stopped, we stepped apart. Bright lights clicked on and we could see limp pink and green crepe paper drifting from the rafters and the walls. The gym floor was scuffed and littered with crushed paper cups.

We followed the crowd out into the dark and wandered across the lawn. Just inside the gates we waited in the shadows of the olive trees. In the moonlight the leaves shone velvety and gray. We stood beside each other, our hands barely touching when we shifted or breathed. When Brian finally took my fingers in his hand, a cool and airy feeling floated all along the surface of my skin. We heard the engine of his father's car, slowing down to pull to the curb. The headlights blinked. Hand in hand we walked out through the black iron gates and climbed into the car.

Illustration by Robert Goldstrom

The Atlantic Monthly; February, 1997; There Was a Time; Volume 279, No. 2; pages 60 - 70.