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J U N E   1 9 9 5

Horace and Margaret's Fifty-Second

by Charles Baxter

IN late March, at its low flood stage, the Chaska River rises up to the benches and picnic areas in Eurekaville's city park. No one pays much attention to this flooding anymore. Three years ago Conor and Janet organized a flood lunch for themselves and their three kids. They started their meal perched cross-legged on an oilcloth they had draped over a picnic table. The two adults sat at the ends, and the kids sat in the middle, crowding the food. The family had had to walk through water to get there. Water was flowing across the grass directly under the table, past charcoal grills and the bandstand. It had soaked the swing seats. It had reached the second rung of the ladder on the slide.

After a few minutes they all took off their shoes, which were wet anyway, and sat down on the benches. The water slurred over their feet pleasantly, while the deviled eggs and ham sandwiches stayed safe in their Tupperware and waxed paper. It was a sunny day, and the flood had a peaceable aspect. The twins yelled and threw some of their food into the water, smiling when it floated off downriver. The picnic tables, bolted into cement, served as anchors and observation platforms. Jeremy, who was thirteen that spring, drew a picture, a pencil sketch, the water suggested by curlicues and subtle smearings of spit.

Every three years or so central Michigan gets a flood like this, spilling over the top banks, submerging the baseball diamond and the soccer field, soaking a basement or two along Island Drive, and then receding. Usually the water passes by lethargically. On the weekends people wade out into it and play flood volleyball and flood softball.
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See other short stories by Charles Baxter published in The Atlantic:

  • "Fenstad's Mother"
    September, 1988.

  • "Horace and Margaret's Fifty-Second"
    July, 1983.

  • Eurekaville is the sort of town where floods are welcome. They provide interest and variety. This year the Eurekaville High School junior class has brought bleachers down from the gym and set them up on the paved driveway of the park's northwest slope, close to the river itself. There you can get a good view of the waterlogged trash floating by. Jeremy, who is Conor's son from his first marriage and is now sixteen, has been selling popcorn and candy bars to the spectators who want to sit there and chat while they watch the flotsam. He's been joined in this effort by a couple of his classmates. All profits, he claims, will go into a fund for the fall class trip to Washington, D.C.

    By late Friday afternoon, with the sun not quite visible, thirty people have turned out to watch the flood -- a social event, a way to end the day, a break from domestic chores, especially on a cloudy spring evening. One of Jeremy's friends has brought down a boom box and is playing Biohazard. Young people are dancing in the bleachers, their movements slowish and tidal against the music's frantic rhythms.

    CONOR'S dreams these days have been invaded by water. He wakes on Saturday morning and makes quiet, closed-door love to his wife. When he holds her, or when they kiss, and his eyes close, he thinks of the river. He thinks of the rivers inside both of them, rivers of blood and water. Lymphatic pools. All the fluids, the carriers of their desires. Odors of sweat, odors of salt. Touching Janet, he almost says We're mostly water. Of course everyone knows that -- the body's content of liquid matter. But he can't help it: it's what he thinks.

    After his bagel and orange juice Conor leaves Janet heading upstairs with the twins, Annah and Joe, who generally conspire to dress as slowly as they possibly can, and he bicycles down to the river for a look. Conor is a large, bearish man, with thick brown hair covered by a beret that does not benefit his appearance. He knows that the beret makes him a bit strange-looking, and this pleases him. Whenever he bikes anywhere, his body motions seem somehow violent. Pedaling along, he looks like a trained circus bear. Despite his size, however, Conor is mild and kindhearted -- the sort of man who believes that love and caresses are probably the answer for everything. But you wouldn't know that about him unless you saw his eyes, which are placidly sensual and curious -- a photographer's eyes, just this side of sentimental, belonging to someone who quite possibly thinks too much about love for his own good.

    The business district of Eurekaville has a sleepy aura, a morning shroud of mist. One still-burning streetlight has an orange pall of vapor around its glass globe. Conor is used to these morning effects; he likes them, in fact. In this town you get accustomed to the hazy glow around everything, and the sleepiness, or you leave.

    He stops his bicycle to get a breath. He's in front of the hardware store, and he leans against a parking meter. Looking down a side street, he watches several workmen moving the steel platform of a huge wide-load truck under a house that has been loosened from its foundation and placed on bricks. Apparently they're going to truck the entire house off somewhere. The thought of moving a house on a truck impresses Conor -- technology somehow outsmarting domesticity.

    He sees a grackle in an oak tree and a wren fluttering overhead.

    An hour later, after conversation and coffee in his favorite café, where the waitress tells him that she believes she's seen his ex-wife, Merilyn, around town, and Conor has pretended indifference to this news, he takes up a position down at the park, close to the bleachers. He watches a rattan chair stuck inside some gnarly tree branches swirl slowly past, legs pointing up, followed by a brown broom, swirling, sweeping the water.

    Because the Chaska River hasn't flooded badly -- destructively -- for years, Eurekaville has developed what Conor's son Jeremy describes as a "goof attitude" about rising waters. According to Jeremy, the flooding used to be a disaster thing. The townspeople sandbagged and worried themselves sick. Now it's a spectator thing. The big difference, according to Jeremy, is sales. "It's ... it's like, well, not a drowning occasion, you know? If it ever was. It's like one of those Prozac disasters, where nothing happens, except publicity? It's cool and stuff, so you can watch it. And eat popcorn? And then you sort of daydream. You're into the river, right? But not?"

    Early as it is, Jeremy's already down here, watching the flood and selling popcorn, which at this time of morning no one wants to buy. Actually, he is standing near a card table flirting with a girl Conor doesn't quite recognize. She's very pretty. It's probably why he's really here. They're laughing. At this hour, not quite midmorning, the boom box on the table is playing old favorites by Led Zeppelin. The music, which sounded sexy and feverish to Conor years ago, now sounds charming and quaint, like a football marching band. Jeremy keeps brushing the girl's arms, bumping against her, and then she bumps against Jeremy and stabilizes herself by reaching for his hip. A morning dance. Jeremy's on the basketball team, and something about this girl makes Conor think of a cheerleader. Her smile goes beyond infectiousness into aggression.

    Merilyn is nowhere in sight.

    The flood has made everybody feel companionable. Conor waves to his son, who barely acknowledges him with a quick head flick. Then Conor gets back on his bicycle and heads down to his photography studio, checking the sidewalks and the stores to see if he can spot Merilyn. It's been so long he's not sure he'd recognize her.

    IT'S Saturday, but he doesn't have many appointments -- just somebody's daughter, and an older couple who have recently celebrated their fiftieth anniversary and want a studio photo to commemorate it. The daughter will come first. She's scheduled for 9:30.

    When the girl and her mother arrive at the appointed time, Conor is wearing his battery-operated lighted derby and has prepared the spring-loaded rabbit on the table behind the tripod. When the rabbit flips up, at the touch of a button, the kids smile, and Conor usually gets the shot.

    The girl's mother, whose name is Romola, has an errand to run. May she leave her daughter here for ten minutes? She looks harried and beautiful and professionally religious somehow, with a pendant cross, and Conor says sure.

    Her daughter appears to be about ten years old. She has an odd, eerie resemblance to Merilyn, who is of course lurking in town somewhere, hiding out. They both have a way of pinching their eyes halfway shut to convey distaste. Seated on a stool in front of the backdrop, the girl asks how long this will take. Conor is adjusting the lights. He says, "Oh, fifteen minutes. The whole thing takes about fifteen minutes. You could practice your smile for the picture."

    She looks at him carefully. "I don't want to practice a smile. Can't I just smile?" she asks.

    "Sure," Conor says. He checks his camera's film and the f-stop, refocuses, and says, "Seen the flood yet?"

    "We're real busy. We work a lot," the girl says. Her name is Sarah, he remembers. "It's a nothing flood anyway. In the old days the floods drowned everybody. You've got a beard. Why did you grow that? It looks like dried grass. Anyway, we go to church and I go to church school. I'm in fourth grade. The rest of the week is chores, so I haven't seen much of the flood."

    Conor turns on the little blinking lights in his derby hat, and the girl smiles. Conor tells her to look at the tinfoil star on the wall, and he gets his first group of shots. "Good for you," Conor says. To make conversation, he says, "What do you learn there? At church school?"

    "Well, we learned that when He was up on the cross, Jesus didn't pull at the nails. He could have, but he probably didn't. We learned that last week." She smiles. She doesn't seem accustomed to smiling. Conor gets five more good shots. "Do you think he pulled at the nails?"

    "I don't know," Conor says. "I have absolutely no opinion about that." He's working to get the right expression on the girl's face. She's wearing a green dress, the color of shelled peas, which won't photograph well.

    "I think maybe he did. I think he pulled at the nails."

    "How come?" Conor asks.

    "I just do," the girl says. "And I think they came out, because He was God, but not in time." Conor touches the button, the rabbit pops up, and the girl laughs. In five minutes her mother returns, and the session ends; but Conor's mood has soured, and he wouldn't mind having a drink.

    THE next day, Sunday, Conor stands in the doorway of Jeremy's bedroom. Jeremy is dressing to see Merilyn. "Just keep it light with her," Conor says, as Jeremy puts on a sweatshirt at least a size too large for him. "Nothing too serious." The boy's head, with its ponytail and earrings, pokes out into the air with a controlled thrashing motion. His big hands never do emerge fully from the sleeves. Only his callused fingertips are visible. More will come out when it is needed. Hands three-quarters hidden: youthful fashion irony, Conor thinks.

    After putting his glasses back on, Jeremy gives himself a quick appraisal in the mirror. Sweatshirt, purple Bermuda shorts, sneakers, ponytail, earrings. Conor believes that his son looks weird and athletic, just the right sixteen-year-old pose: pleasantly scary, handsome, still under construction. Jeremy does a pivot and a lay-up near the doorframe. He has difficulty passing through the doors in this house without jumping up and tapping the sills -- even in the living room, where he jumps and touches the nail hole, used for mistletoe in December, in the hallway.

    Satisfied with himself, Jeremy nods, one of those private gestures of self-approval that Conor isn't suppose to notice but does. "Nothing too earnest, okay?"

    "Daad," Jeremy says, giving the word a sitcom delivery. Most of the time he treats his father as if he were a sitcom dad: good-natured, bumbling, basically a fool. Jeremy's right eyebrow is pierced, but out of deference to the occasion he has left the ring out of it. He shakes his head as if he had a sudden neck pain. "Merilyn's just another mom. It's not a big puzzle or anything, being with her. You just take her places. You just talk to her. Remember?"

    "Remember what?"

    "Well, you were married to her, right? Once? You must've talked and taken her places. That's what you did. Except you guys were young. So that's what I'll do. I'm young. We'll just talk. Stuff will happen. It's cool."

    "Right," Conor says. "So where will you take her?"

    "I don't know. The flood, maybe. I bet she hasn't seen a flood. This guy I know, he said a cow floated down the river yesterday."

    "A cow? In the river? Oh, Merilyn would like that, all right."

    "She's my mom. Come on, Dad. Relax. Nothing to it."

    Jeremy says he will drive down to the motel where Merilyn is staying. After that they will do what they are going to do. At the back stairs, playing with the cat's dish with his foot, and biting his fingernail, Jeremy hesitates, smiles, and says, "Well, why don't you loosen up and wish me luck?" and Conor does.

    FIVE days before Merilyn left, fourteen years ago, Conor found a grocery list in green ink under the phone in the kitchen. "Grapefruit, yogurt," the list began, and continued with "cereal, diapers, baby wipes, wheat germ, sadness." And then the next line: "Sadness, sadness, sadness."

    In those days Merilyn had a shocking physical beauty: startlingly blue eyes and a sort of compact, uneasy voluptuousness. She was fretful about her appearance and didn't like to be looked at; she had never liked being beautiful, didn't like the attention it got her, and wore drab scarves to cover herself.

    For weeks before she finally left, she had been maintaining an unsuccessful and debilitating cheerfulness in front of Conor, a stagy display of frozen failed smiles. She half laughed, half coughed after many of her sentences, and often raised her fingers to her face and hair as if Conor was staring at them -- which he was. He had never known why a beautiful woman had agreed to marry him in the first place. Now he knew he was losing her.

    She worked as a nurse, and they had met when he'd gone up to her ward to visit a friend. The first time he ever talked to her, and then the first time they kissed -- after a movie they agreed they disliked -- he thought she was the meaning of his life. He would love her, and that would be the point of his being alive. When they made love, he had to keep himself from trembling.

    Women like her, he thought, didn't usually allow themselves to be loved by a man like him. But there she was.

    When she said that she was leaving him, and leaving Jeremy behind with him, that that was the only action she could think of taking that wouldn't destroy her life, because it wasn't his fault but she couldn't stand to be married to anybody and she could not be a mother, and it wasn't personal, Conor had agreed to let her go and not to follow her. Her desperation impressed him, silenced him.

    She had loaded up the Ford and a trailer with everything she wanted to take with her. The rain had turned to sleet, and by the time she had packed the books and the clothes, Merilyn had collected small flecks of ice on her blue scarf. She'd been so eager to go that she hadn't turned on the windshield wipers until she was halfway down the block. Conor had watched her from the front porch. From the side her beautiful face -- the meaning of his life -- looked somehow both determined and blank. She turned the corner, the tires splashed slush, the front end dipped from the bad shocks, and she was gone.

    HE has a trunk in the attic filled with photographs he took of her. Some of the shots were studio portraits; others were taken more quickly, outdoors. In them she is sitting on stumps, leaning against trees, and so on. In the photographs she is trying to look spontaneous and friendly, but the photographs emphasize, through tricks of angle and lighting, her body and its voluptuousness. All the shots have a painfully thick and willful artistry, as if, in her involuntary beauty, she were under a glaze.

    She asked him to destroy these photographs, but he never has.

    NOW, having seen Jeremy go off to find his mother somewhere in Eurekaville and maybe take her to the flood, Conor wanders into the living room. Janet is sprawled on the floor, reading the Sunday comics to Annah. Annah is picking her nose and laughing. Joe, over in the corner, is staging a war with his plastic mutant men. The forces of good muscle face down the forces of evil muscle. Conor sits on the floor next to his wife and daughter, and Annah squiggles herself backward into Conor's lap.

    "Jeremy's off?" Janet asks. "To find Merilyn?"

    Conor nods. Half consciously he's bouncing his daughter, who holds on to him by grasping his wrist.

    Janet looks back at the paper. "They'll have a good time."

    "What does that mean?"

    She flicks her hair back. "'What does that mean?"' she repeats. "I'm not using code here. It means what it says. He'll show her around. He'll be the mayor of Eurekaville. At last he's got Merilyn on his turf. She'll be impressed."

    "Nothing," Conor says, "ever impressed Merilyn, ever, in her life."

    "Her life isn't over."

    "No," Conor says, "it isn't. I mean, nothing has impressed her so far."

    "How would you know? You didn't follow Merilyn down to Tulsa. All sorts of things in Tulsa might impress Merilyn."

    "All right," Conor says. "Maybe the oil wells. Maybe something. Maybe the shopping malls. All I'm saying is that nothing here impressed her."

    A little air pocket of silence opens between them and then shuts again.

    "Daddy," Annah says, "tip me."

    Conor grasps her and tips her over, and Annah gives out a pleased little shriek. Then he rights her again.

    "I wonder," Janet says, "if she isn't getting a little old for that."

    "Are you getting too old for this, Annie?" Annah shakes her head. "She's only five." Conor tips her again. Annah shrieks again, and when she does, Janet drops the section of the newspaper that she's reading and lies back on the floor; her head is propped on her arm, and she can watch Conor.

    "Mom!" Joe shouts from the corner. "The plutonium creatures are winning!"

    "Fight back," Janet instructs: "Show 'em what you've got." She reaches out and touches Conor on the thigh. "Honey," she says, "you can't impress everybody. You impress me sometimes. You just didn't impress Merilyn. No one did. Marriage didn't. What's wrong with a beautiful woman's wanting to live alone? It's her beauty. She can keep it to herself if she wants to."

    Conor shrugs. He's not in the mood to argue about this. "It's funny to think of her in town, that's all."

    "No, it's not. It's only funny," Janet says, "to think of her in town if you still love her, and I'd say that if you still love her, after fourteen years, then you're a damn fool, and I don't want to hear about it. It's Jeremy, not you, who could use some attention from Merilyn. It's his to get, being her son and all. She left him more than she left you. But I'll be damned if I'm going to go on with this conversation one sentence more."

    Both Annah and Joe have stopped their playing to listen. They are not watching their parents, but their heads are raised, like forest animals who can smell smoke nearby.

    "All I ever wanted from her was a reason," Conor says. "What was it about me?"

    "I told you about that one sentence." Annah gets out of her father's lap and snuggles next to Janet. "All right," Janet says. "Listen. Listen to this. Here's something I never told you. One night Merilyn and I were working the same station. We were both in pediatrics that night, third floor. It was a quiet night -- not many sick kids that week. And, you know, we started talking. Nursing stuff, women stuff. And Merilyn sort of got going."

    "About what?"

    "About you, dummy, she got going about you. Herself and you. She said you two had gone bowling. You'd dressed in your rags and gone off to Colonial Lanes, the both of you, and you'd been bowling, and she'd thrown the ball down the lane and turned around and you were looking at her, appreciating her, and of course all the other men in the bowling alley were looking at her too, and what was bothering her was that you were looking at her the way they did -- sort of a leer, I guess, as if you didn't know her, as if you weren't married to her. Who could blame you? She looked like a cover girl or something. Perfect this, perfect that, she was perfect all over; it would make anybody sweat. So she said she had a sore thumb and wanted to go home. You were staring at your wife the way a man looks at a woman walking by in the street. Boy, how she hated that, that guy stuff. You went back home. It was cold, a cold, blustery night. She got you into bed, she made love to you, she threw herself into it, and then in the dark you were your usual gladsome self, and you know what you did?"


    "You thanked her. You two made hot love and then you thanked her, and then in the dark you went on staring at her; you couldn't believe how lucky you were. There she was in your arms, the beauteous Merilyn. I bet it never occurred to you at the time that you aren't supposed to thank women after you make love to them and they make love to you, because you know what, sweetie? They're not doing you a favor. They're doing it because they want to. Usually. Anyway, that was the night she got pregnant with Jeremy, and it was the same night she decided she would leave you, because you couldn't stop looking at her, and thanking her, and she hated that. For sure she hated it. She lives in Tulsa -- that's how much."

    Conor is watching Janet say this, focusing on her mouth, watching the lips move. "Son of a bitch," he says.

    "So she told me this," Janet says, "one night, at our nursing station. And we laughed and sort of cried when we had coffee later, but you know what I was thinking?" She waits. "Do you? You don't, do you?"


    "I was thinking," Janet says, "'I'm going to get my hands on this guy. I am going to get that man come hell or high water. I am going to get him, and he is going to be mine. Mine forever.' And do you know why?"

    "Give me a clue."

    "To hell with clues. I wanted a man who looked at me like that. I wanted a man who would work up a lather with me in bed and then thank me. No one had ever thanked me before, that was for goddamn certain sure. And you know what? That's what happened. You married another nurse. Me, this time. And it was me you looked at, me you thanked. Heaven in a bottle. Are you listening to me? Conor, pay attention. I'm about to do something."

    Conor follows her gaze. A living room, newspaper on the floor, Sunday morning, the twins playing, a family, a house, a life, sunlight coming in through the window. Janet walks over to Conor, unties her bathrobe, pulls it open, drops it at his feet, lifts her arms up, and pulls her nightgown over her head. In front of her children and her husband she stands naked. She is beautiful, all right, but he is used to her.

    "I'm different from Merilyn," she says. "You can look at me any time you want."

    NOW, on Sunday afternoon, Conor cleans out his pickup, throwing out the bank-deposit slips. When he's finished, with his binoculars around his neck and his telephoto lens attached to his camera -- the 400-millimeter one that he uses for shots of birds -- beside him on the seat, he drives down to the river, hoping for a good view of an osprey or maybe a teal.

    He parks near a cottonwood. He is on the opposite side from the park. Above him are scattered the usual swallows, the usual crows. He gets out his telephoto lens and frames a swallow flittering and shivering in the flat light. A grackle and then a pigeon follow the swallow into his viewfinder. It is a parade of the common, the colorless, the drear. The birds with color do not want to perch anywhere near the Chaska River, not even the swallows. He puts his camera back in his truck.

    He's standing there searching the sky and the opposite bank with his binoculars, looking for what he thought he saw here last week, a flicker, when he lowers the lenses and sees at some distance, Jeremy and Merilyn. Merilyn is sitting on a bench, watching Jeremy, who has taken off his sweatshirt and is talking to his mother. Merilyn isn't especially pretty anymore. She's gained weight. Conor has heard from Jeremy, after his son's visits to Oklahoma, that she had gained weight, but he hasn't seen it for himself. Now, through the binoculars, Merilyn appears to be overweight and rather calm. She has that loaf-of-bread quality. A peaceful expression is on her face. It's the happy contentment of someone who probably doesn't bother about very much anymore.

    Jeremy stands up, throws his hands down on the ground, and begins walking on his hands. He walks in a circle on his hands. He's very strong and can do this for a long time. It's one of his parlor tricks.

    Conor moves his binoculars and sees that Jeremy has brought a girl along, the girl he saw yesterday at the flood show, the one who was dancing with him. Conor doesn't know this girl's name. She's standing behind the bench and smiling while Jeremy walks on his hands. It's that same aggressive smile.

    Damn it, Conor thinks, they're lovers; they've been sleeping together and he didn't tell me.

    He moves the binoculars back to Merilyn. She's still watching Jeremy, but she seems only mildly interested in his display. She's not smiling. She's not pretending to be impressed. That's what all these years have done to her. She doesn't have to look interested in anything if she doesn't want to.

    To see better, Conor walks down past his truck to the bank. He lifts the binoculars to his eyes again, and when he gets the group in view, Merilyn turns her head to his side of the river. She sees Conor. Conor's large, bearlike body is recognizable anywhere. And what she does is, she raises her hand and seems to wave.

    From where Conor is standing, it looks as if Merilyn has invited him over to join the group. A trace of a smile, Conor believes, has appeared on Merilyn's face. This smile is one that Conor recognizes. In the middle of her pudginess, this smile is the same one that he saw many years ago. It's the smile he lost his heart to. A little crow's-foot of delight in Conor's presence. A merriment.

    And this is why Conor believes that she is asking him to join them, right this minute, and to be his old self. And this is why he steps into the river. It's not a wide river, after all -- no more than sixty or seventy feet across. Anyone could swim it. What are a few wet clothes? He will swim across the Chaska to Merilyn and Jeremy and Jeremy's girlfriend, and they will laugh, pleased with his impulsiveness and passion, and that will be that.

    He is up to his thighs in water when the shocking coldness of the river registers on him. This is a river of recently melted snow. It isn't flowing past so much as biting him. It feels like cheerful party ice picks, like happy knives. Without meaning to, Conor gasps. But once you start something like this, you have to finish it. Conor wades deeper.

    The sun has come out. He looks up. A marsh wren is in a tree above the bank. He cannot breathe, and he dives in.

    Conor is a fair swimmer, but the cold water is putting his body into shock and he has to remember to move his arms. Having dived, he feels the current taking him downriver, at first slowly, and then with some urgency. He is hopeless with cold. Tiny bells, the size of gnats, ring on every inch of his skin. He thinks, This is crazy. He thinks, It wasn't an invitation, that wave. He thinks, I will die. The river's current, which is now the sleepy hand of his death waking up, reaches into his chest and feels his heart. Conor moves his arms back and forth, but he can't see the bank now and doesn't know which way he's going. Of course, by this time he's choking on water, and the bells on his skin are beginning to ring audibly. He is moving his arms more slowly. Flash-card pictures pop up in his mind, and he sees the girl in his studio the day before, and she says, "It's a nothing flood anyway."

    He doesn't want to die a comic death. He realizes that the binoculars are pulling him toward the river bottom, and he reaches for them and takes them off his neck.

    He swirls around like a broom.

    He pulls his arms. He seems not to be making any progress. He also seems unable to breathe. But he has always been a large, easygoing man, incapable of panic, and he does not panic now. His sinking will take its time.

    THE touch of the shore is silt. The graspings of hands on his elbows are almost unfriendly, aggressive. Jeremy is there, pulling, and what Conor hears through his own coughing and spitting, when he starts to pay attention to sound, is Jeremy's voice.

    "Dad! What the fuck are you doing? What in the ... Daddy! Are you okay? Jesus. Are you ... what the fuck is this? Jesus! Daddy!"

    Conor looks at his son and says, "Watch your language."

    "What? What! Get out of there." Conor is being pulled and pushed by his son. Pulled and pushed also, apparently, by his son's girlfriend. Perhaps she is simply trying to help. But the help she is giving him has been salted with violence.

    "What do you think?" Conor asks, turning toward her. "Do you think He pulled at the nails?"

    Conor's trousers are dripping water on the grass. Water pours out of his shirt. It drains off his hands. Now in the air his ears register their pain on him; his eardrums are in pain, a complex pale aching inside the ravine of his head. And Merilyn -- the source, the beneficiary, of his grand gesture -- is saying, with her nurse's voice, "He's in shock. Get him into the car."

    "Merilyn," he says. He can't see her. She's behind him.


    "I couldn't help it. I never got over it." He says it more loudly, because he can't see her. He might as well be talking to the air. "I never got over it! I never did."

    "Daddy, stop it," Jeremy says. "For God's sake, shut up. Please. Get in the car."

    Jeremy opens the door of the old clunker Buick he bought on his sixteenth birthday for $400, and Conor, without thinking, gets in. Before he is quite conscious of the sequence of events, the car's engine has started and the Buick is moving slowly away -- away from Merilyn: Conor remembers to look. She grows smaller with every foot of distance between them, and Conor, pleased with himself, pleased with his inscribed fate as the unhappy lover, tries to wipe his eyes with his wet shirt.

    "I won't tell anybody about this if you don't," Jeremy says.


    "I'll tell them you fell into the river. I'll say that you slipped on the mud."


    "That can happen. I mean really." Jeremy is enthusiastic now, creating a cover story for his father. "You were taking pictures and stuff, and you got too close to the river, and -- you know, bang -- you slipped, and like that. Just don't ever tell Mom, okay? We'll just ... holy shit! What's that?"

    The Buick has been climbing a hill, and near the top an amazing sight comes into view and cuts Jeremy into silence: an old wooden two-story house on an enormous platform truck, squarely in the middle of the road, blocking the way. The house on the truck is moving at five or ten miles an hour. Who knows what its speed is, this white-clapboard monument, this parade, a smaller truck in front, and one in back, with flashing lights and a WIDE LOAD sign? No one would think of measuring its speed. Conor looks up and sees what he knows is a bedroom window. He imagines himself in that bedroom. He is dripping water all over his son's car, and he is beginning now to shiver, as the truck, carrying the burden it was made to carry, struggles up the next hill.

    Copyright © 1995 by Charles Baxter. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; June 1995; Flood Show; Volume 275, No. 6; pages 94-104.

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