First Things & Final Changes
A Short Fiction Collection

Part VI

Includes The Neglect of Joy, The Climate of Loveliness, The Ontological Excuse for Optimism
and The Poet as Day-Laborer.
Copyright 1992-95, 2000, 2011 Katherine Anne Harris. All rights reserved.




The Neglect of Joy


"When a house burns down, people
often rescue the most worthless items.
You can do the same in your confusion.
Do not be hurried."

- R. Nachman of Bratzlav

Just beyond glass doors, the blueglitter Ionian rocked over time's deep hoard, yet every day she woke up to the shitfuckgoddamn chorus.

"Good morning," she’d once dared to say in the midst of it – to which Neal had barked, "I already have enough problems!" Although he'd promised his attitude would change if only she’d marry him and come to Europe, he still greeted each dawn like unexpected bad news and, from there, his glad spirits deteriorated.

As usual she pretended to sleep until the storm reached its fierce banging finale. With his exit, peace descended from the high heavens or somewhere. Now everything was beautiful in her tiny world: The Villa Never Left Unattended. After several months under house arrest since a break-in turned Neal security-mad, she'd adjusted. She'd moved here to write and she was writing. Poems and stories found her ready to receive them, removed from the ad-biz maelstrom and not even distracted by friends lovers whims. Others -- not least her son -- professed shock of the first order, but there was something to be said for this setup. Might as well view it that way and it was probably true, given her penchant for Looking for Trouble.

"Okay okay okay" the cat was puffing in her face, because "okay" was what she always told the cat as she roused to feed it. Nobody believed at first that Watteau had any word except "Watteau," but by now both Neal and Evan had heard it.

Downstairs, Evan naturally was busy ironing -- at fifteen he had to look perfect for school -- so she gave him his morning kiss through the steam.

"Old Neal was really bent today," Evan chuckled. "What was he off on this time?"

She shrugged. "Who knows?"

"I don't see how you stand it."

"One can live with almost any how, provided there's a why," she recited, dishing cat food. "That's from Frankl; originally Nietzsche."

"So who's Frankl?"

"I'll show you his books."

Evan groaned. "Just tell me, Mom. You've dumped a pile of books on me already."

"Existentialist, Holocaust survivor, therapist. Logotherapy, he calls his approach: You get by when you can give circumstances a meaning but not if they seem senseless. Example from the camps, there was a --"

"Cut!"

"Education by sound-bite, huh? My own son!"

Evan flashed a grin and put his crisp shirt on as a car horn blared in the driveway. Another kiss and he was grabbing blazer Walkman necktie backpack, dashing for the door. "Oh I'll be late this afternoon because we have hair appointments," he advised -- meaning all the kids he rode to school with.

"Don't get another perm, please!" she called after.

He grinned again and waved from the end of the terrace. "I want to. And remember Jackie's party is tonight, so do something to your own hair!"

Jackie's party, oh dear. Well, she wouldn't think about that until after morning prayers or later.

She read the blessings and her favorite weekday service, worked out to a Fonda video, then took her breakfast Coke to the roof garden where you could often see as far down the coast as Siracusa. Closer at hand, a lava-stone castle stood dark sentinel in the little Aci Castello harbor and next door, off Aci Trezza, fariglioni spiked from the sea. Stalagmite-like, the tall rocks were in legend hurled furiously at fleeing Odysseus by a Cyclops then resident on Mount Etna. She could picture Neal having that wild a fit. It also occurred to her that those fariglioni rose immediately behind Jackie Milliken's beachfront apartment -- which returned to mind That Other Topic: Jackie's start-of-Easter-break party. This very evening, just hours away, oh dear.

Of course Neal wouldn't go, which was handy for maintaining guard at the villa, but she wasn't strong on attending, either. Evan was more than determined to be present, though, so she'd have to take him. His pet teacher, Jackie had a group of students she treated as if they were grown -- no, a group she played with as if she were a kid: the biggest coolest kid, the only one with her own place and unlimited liquor. Dressed like the high schoolers in preppy Izod and Polo gear, Jackie even had a baby boyfriend: a Roman hunk not quite twenty.

She felt frankly embarrassed for Jackie, a pudgy slightly butch gal set on becoming Miss Popularity l983 -- which would be about two decades too late. Jackie on the other hand seemed drawn to her, eager to cultivate a friendship, and Evan was promoting this to the max.

"You'd like her if you really knew her, Mom," he kept appealing. "Jackie hates the stuffy people at the base, too." Doubtless there'd be few military types at Jackie's gathering tonight -- and not many more from the American teaching community, since she'd freaked them by hauling young Gianni along to a recent faculty function. Even Evan agreed she should've known better than that, but wouldn't let up on fostering an alliance between his mother and Jackie. "She needs more grownup friends and you need to get out with people," he'd insisted last night after their escape to the roof because Neal was bellowing for total silence during some war video. "You're younger than Jackie, but you never have fun anymore. And lately you go around talking to yourself and making strange humming noises. You're getting weird, Mom."

There was such a thing as overdoing the solitude trip, she granted. Certainly she didn't want to turn into a blithering old broad when she was barely in her thirties. Maybe it was dangerous how little she'd come to miss her former life filled with clients deadline projects colleagues lovers chums. At least she still looked the same, with a modicum of effort. To please Evan with the huge cloud-of-curls effect he liked on her, she washed her long hair and wound it on about a hundred dinky rollers before setting to work in hair-drying mode at one of the sun-baked terrace tables.

Hearing volcanic booms and breathing air flavored with citrus flowers, oddly she found herself writing again about childhood epiphanies in Texas. Presumably sufficient distance had been attained -- geographically, emotionally -- and being in an unfamiliar setting served to take one Back, perhaps, by greasing if not literally cleansing doorsofperception. Even the water here was different, notable: very precious and so European. She recalled the flow of liquid moonstones through her hair, and her soak in opals -- drifting and listening while the leaky bathtub faucet dripped its brilliants in baroque time.

Dealing with Neal was a pain in the ass, but this setting and these long days of liberty to write were gifts and she was grateful, as when the Stravinsky record appeared one summer morning on her lawn and led her, five or six years old, into the lonesome hopeful inexorable heart of mystery and making.

"What are you all dolled up for?" Neal asked when he slammed in on schedule at five. She was at the piano by then, having learned to spare herself the annoyance of being torn away from her manuscripts in mid-phrase, commandeered to hearken unto Neal's litany of workworld complaints.

"Jackie's having a do," she answered but he wasn't there to hear. Having dumped three briefcases in the entryway, he'd headed directly for cold beer or, she hoped not, gin.

Neal reappeared in the living room with a Coors and shed his suit jacket. "What was that?"

She turned away from the keyboard and the cat jumped into her lap. "Oh, there you are, Watteau --"

Neal was tapping his foot. "I guess you didn't hear me."

"Actually you didn't hear me: I said it's Jackie's party tonight."

"Who the hell's Jackie?"

"Milliken. Evan's chorus teacher --"

"The bimbo!" Neal shifted into colossus stance, feet spread, fists on his hips.

"I remember you said you didn't want to go --"

"Maybe I do."

"Well, do you?"

"We can't both leave. Unless Evan stays here."

"He's the one who's excited about this party, Neal, and we're always forcing him to babysit the place on weekends. It isn't fair."

"You act like that's my fault!"

Gee Who Else would live under siege, afraid thieves would return for ordinary electronics and silver; who else would keep his family awake in the dark with crude weapons, nights after everything precious was gone -- her grandmother's jewelry, her great-grandmother's? Those irreplaceables were going-away gifts conveyed with comically poor timing by her mom.

"All I mean is I'll stay if you go." She kept stroking the cat, awaiting a reply that didn't come. "Or let's take turns; I'll put in an appearance first, then --"

"Why you first?"

"No reason, not a one. You stop by first if you want to."

The Emotional Terrorist hunched into his favorite chair. "Let me just think about it. Can I just think about it, do you mind?"

"Sure. Whatever. I don't care --"

"You don't care about me, that's obvious."

"I only mean I'll do as you prefer. This party's nothing --"

"Right, that's why you're dressed to kill. Who'll be down there?"

"Probably the usual -- her little groupies of course, some of their parents, neighbors, maybe a few teachers if it's like Christmastime. She didn't publish her guest list."

"Cute, that's real cute!" Neal was kicking at the three-foot stack of old newspapers and magazines he refused to part with in case he wanted to reread them, as Evan entered.

The smile fell from Evan's face as he saw the brat going at it. "Uh, hello."

"Hi, Hon." She put Watteau down and went over to kiss her freshly permed son whose dark blond hair was at its best straight and shiny.

"You're looking hot, Mommy," he said. "Hello," he repeated to Neal. “How are you, Neal?"

"Hello, Evan," Neal muttered after a minute.

"Well, anybody want a Coke or something else?" Evan volunteered, edging toward the hall. "Neal?"

"No, thanks."

"I don't know what I want, Doll. I'll come with you."

"Wash your hands before you touch anything. You've been petting the cat."

"Of course, Neal," she sighed and Evan whispered "grr" as they walked away together. From the hallway, he nudged her through her office door, not into the kitchen.

"I got you something, Mom," Evan said, handing her a big bag of M&M's from his backpack. "No, don't open it now."

"Don't you want any?"

"It's for you. I get dessert at school and I can buy junk anytime. We'll just stash it here in your desk so he won't gripe when it's gone."

Evan opened a drawer and she dropped the candy in.

"This is so nice of you, Darling."

"Well, you're stuck here. You need something decent to eat."

Bless him, Evan really did try to look after her. Neal bought every form of sweets known to God but somehow thought they should be permanent acquisitions. He'd search the cupboards for candy and cookies weeks after bringing some home and get mad if she'd eaten them, or Evan had. There'd been a particularly big row about goodies last night. Once she tried splitting a package of chocolate mints three ways and almost all of Neal's turned hard grey and had to be tossed out; he liked that better, though, than sharing.

"He's not coming to Jackie's tonight, is he?"

"Honey, I don't know. But you're going, so get yourself together."

After Evan grabbed his Coke and ran upstairs, she poured a lemonade and wandered onto the side terrace with its view of the blossoming groves. Neal stalked her. By now he was drinking gin and seething about his bosses instead of Jackie's party.

"You know what those bastards pulled today? Those fucking stupid bastards -- and that bitch Norma --"

Joy, she thought, trying to remember it. Joy is a foreign country. Not in any bumperstickerish "happiness is..." sense; she meant joy is as far away as Tibet or Tahiti. Joy has a different language, implausible buildings and all the customs are extremely odd.

Joy, it's the grace of being fountain that you are -- burbling that recirculating selfjuice in your own sweet space of sunshine that can't fall down anyplace else. And now that life was strange to her as an Eskimo's.

Joy, excitement, love were sinking cities like Venice. Unmoored continents drifting away. Perhaps mountain villages already lost to lava.

"Excuse me a minute, please," she interrupted Neal. "Just one sec, okay?" She stepped inside and quickly poured herself a scotch.

While he ranted, Neal was stacking blobs of charcoal, squirting fuel across them, firing up his barbeque as he did practically evening since all he really liked to eat were grilled slabs of dead animal. It hadn't crossed her mind before, but now she thought of Hephaestus, another legendary Etna-dweller like fariglioni-flinging Polyphemus. Sad twisted Hephaestus at his forge. Over the flames, Neal's beard and too-long hair, dyed much too black, were streaming in the pungent breeze, along with the snapping points of his tie which wasn't even loosened. So pathetically uptight. She supposed his hair would be white if he didn't color it; after all Neal was old enough to be her daddy.

"You're cooking?"

"Somebody has to."

"Not if we're going out; there'll be tons of party food."

"I am not going to" -- he sneered the name -- "Jackie's."

"Oh."

"That bitch Norma's sure to be there."

"Norma does live next door to her."

"What a pair, the arrogant stupid bitch and the fat stupid bimbo!"

"You're so hard on people," she said very quietly.

"People are hard on me!"

Since when? she thought but said nothing. Aside from having messed-up parents a thousand years ago, Neal's life had been stunningly easy. Prep school, fine college, lots of travel, always money, security. A retired Air Force officer, now he had a good government job.

"Do you want me not to go?"

"Suit yourself. I'll just make my dinner the way I usually do --"

"Excuse me but you love to barbeque, or so I've heard consistently."

"Maybe I do and maybe I don't."

"What in the world is that supposed to mean?" After a couple of silent minutes, she shrugged, "Oh I give up," and went to find Evan. As soon as she could get him to stop fiddling with his hair, they headed down the hill early for lemon granita and a walk along the esplanade.

"Bella!" the passing signori congratulated her; many brushed close and some even grabbed while teenaged girls smiled from a modest distance at blushing Evan, who was fast turning into a James Dean clone. Super to be admired, especially since Neal's behavior made her feel repulsive; he wanted to screw now and then but never took his time, never kissed her. Feeling good, she took Evan's hand -- so much larger than hers now -- and strolled along swinging it.

"Mom!" Evan complained after a minute, which was out of character since he wasn't one of those kids who hate for their mothers to touch them. The puzzle resolved as she saw what he'd seen: A modish matron's gaze of wicked curiosity told her she and her son could actually be mistaken for a couple a la Jackie and Gianni. At this notion, she felt herself blush redder than Evan. She released his hand and veered away from the promenading crowd onto the next side street.

Arriving at the party, she spotted Jackie and Gianni across the living room, engaged in some elaborate conversational charade that finished in cuddles.

"Good Lord, they still can't talk to each other," she whispered to Evan.

"They don't need to talk," Evan giggled with a wave his hostess returned from atop Gianni's lap.

"Where's our Neal?" Norma Salinas zoomed over to ask, offering every evidence of sheer conviviality.

Naturally Norma didn't know Neal loathed her; at the office he was invariably so sweet sugar wouldn't melt in his mouth. What he had against this pleasant glamor-grandma from Phoenix was an enigma; Norma's retired husband Fred also seemed perfectly charming. They'd gotten right into the spirit when she livened up a dull Navy banquet by writing Zelda Fitzgerald on her nametag; Norma immediately flipped hers over and wrote Sophia Loren, Fred decided he was Roy Rogers and soon the whole gang was gleefully fantasizing. It was almost a masquerade.

"I think he'll be along a little later, Norma," she fibbed.

"Oh I hope so!" She was probably fibbing, too.

While Evan joined his chums to play party-elf, passing out tidbits and booze and answering Jackie's doorbell, Norma elected herself pinch-hit hostess to handle introductions. She was such a Presence, as emphatically There in Keen Light as if she'd been painted by Hopper.

"We have several new neighbors since you were down our way," Norma was saying. "We don't see enough of you, Dear, but you're busy with your writing, aren't you? Here we are, this is Tracy Glover; she'd not with the base at all, she sells boats in the Med for a maker in Miami. Isn't it great, a young woman in a job like that? Brava, Tracy! And these dolls are Ellen and Mitch Weiss. He's new in the legal office; that's right, yes? Ellen's raising twins! You know Steve and Darcy, sure you do, and Laura, Pietro."

As hands were shaken, greetings exchanged, Norma cased the room and continued. "I know who you haven't met -- look at that! Francesco Antonelli. He has a boutique -- very upscale -- in Taormina, and a house there, but he took a place here to get away from all those tourists. Such a beautiful man, don't you think? Mm-mm, if I were twenty years younger --" Norma winked and broke off laughing. "He doesn't have much English, Dear, but I can tell our Francesco's dying to meet you."

With Norma's big beringed and scarlet-lacquered fingers clamped around her wrist, she allowed herself to be tugged toward Francesco, whose tiger-eyes had locked with hers several moments before. By the time buona seras were traded and names were repeated, Norma had simply vanished.

For something to do, they both peered around for their suddenly misplaced large woman in red. Not sitting with Fred on the sofa, not beside the doorway monitoring arrivals, not grazing the buffet table, not at the bar. Perhaps outside. This established their options. Francesco gestured toward the darkening terrace, where some people were dancing under festoons of twinkle-lights. The music was Italian, something fairly slow.

She smiled, "Va bene," so they walked outdoors.

"Bellissima," he nodded, looking her over, then opened his arms.

Francesco was a graceful dancer -- also very tall, slim but not skinny, with suntanned skin like a blend of gold leaf and cinnamon. His clothes looked Armani. His face, she considered at first, belonged on an ancient coin or heroic statue -- but no it was gentler than that. Such a shy grin. Eyelashes like velvet valances. Long supple hands of a pianist. This guy was terrifying. Aiming for chitchat in her guidebook Italian that kept confusing itself with high school Spanish, she managed to establish that his flat was on the top floor above Jackie's, he lived alone and he was thirty-six.

Evan ambled by with an approving smirk and a tray of champagne glasses, which he offered first to Jackie. Clenched in a corner with Gianni, she came up for air. Impossible to hear what they were saying, but the gist of it was evident; those three pairs of eyes tracked her twice around the dancefloor like follow-spots, then Jackie dashed over to bestow Huge Jackie-Style Hugs.

"I'm so glad you came this time! Evan said he'd make sure you did." She turned to Francesco. "See, I told you you'd meet her this time."

He shook his head, bewildered.

"Her," Jackie pointed. "Tonight. Notte -- this."

Now he grasped it, nodding, grinning, "Si. La poetessa – bella e triste." So she'd been billed as a poet, pretty and sad; how touching.

"And Evan told you all about Francesco, didn't he?"

Evan bit his lip and shoved a champagne glass at her. "Surprise!"

She glanced around, thanking goodness that Norma and Fred were nowhere to be seen, then took Jackie aside. "You can't do this. Really. Thanks for the thought and all, but you can't be fixing me up with people."

Evan, who'd followed, jumped in. "Oh lighten up, Mom. It's just for a little fun at a party."

Francesco appeared behind Evan. "Problema?"

"No problema, Sweet Stuff," Jackie said, pulling him away to dance with her.

"Neal would have a hissy and you know it."

"So fucking what?"

"Evan!"

"When did you get so pure? Half the time I was growing up, I never knew who you’d be in bed with in the morning! I'm not complaining -- at least you had a life then --"

"I have a life now."

"All you ever do is hide and write and get bitched out."

"I want to write."

"Is it worth it?"

She shrugged and gulped her champagne, thinking I surely do hope so as Francesco approached her again.

"Dance with him, Mother. There's nothing wrong with that."

Francesco was a great rock-dancer, too, and they began attracting excessive attention. Pantomiming fatigue, she retreated to a chair in the shadows.

"Vino?" Francesco offered, then went indoors to fetch it. Such a lovely gliding stride he had. Of course Tracy Glover Marine Sales Rep accosted him as he passed her. Clearly there'd been something between them, at some time.

Twiddling the straps of her madras sundress, Jackie sat down beside her. "You're not mad at me, are you? I'd hate for you to be mad at me."

"I'm not mad at you, Jackie."

"When we were dancing, he told me he likes you."

"I'd say Tracy appeals to him, too."

"She's just an old friend. She knew his wife."

"So he's divorced?"

"This is Italy! She died. It was a car crash about a year ago. See, he looks like the play-around type but he isn't, and he likes you a lot --"

"We don't even know each other, for Pete's sake, nor are we apt to develop much of an acquaintance. The language --"

"Oh that's nothing."

"Maybe for you, but I'm a word-person."

"So if Francesco spoke wonderful English, you'd go out with him?"

Rather struggling to light a cigarette, she answered, "I didn't say that" -- although she knew she probably would.

"Anyway, there are other ways to communicate," Jackie laughed. "Gianni and I do! Why don't you give Francesco a chance?"

"I'm married."

"Right, so I have a plan if you want to hear it."

"Not if I'm the last to hear it."

Assured it was a brand-new plan, she listened. During the holiday week, Jackie and Gianni were booked to spend a few days at a beach hotel in Naxos, just south of Taormina -- a big hotel where getting reservations should be simple if she and Evan wanted to come along. And he could hang with them, if she happened to decide she'd see Francesco. Either way, Jackie argued, it would be a good little vacation.

"No. I don't know," she said when Jackie jumped up to telephone the hotel forthwith. "Let me get back to you." She'd sounded like Neal then -- not the woman with the motto Any Decision Beats Indecision.

Francesco, who’d returned with wine plus a plate of fruit and cheeses, dropped strawberries into their glasses and slipped a chunk of pecorino into her mouth. It crunched with crushed peppercorns.

"You like?"

"My fave. I mean, molto buono, grazie."

"Salute!" he toasted.

"Salute!" So frustrating. Lost without vocabulary, she simply let him kiss her. That was, she giggled to herself, a novel excuse. And his was a delectable kiss -- fragrant, edible. Brief for obvious reasons.

"Titian," Francesco murmured, tangling her hair. "Botticelli." Given linguistic limitations he couldn't have said anything lovelier. Of course he was only remembering from earlier, since their surrounds were fully black-and-white now -- with the one-process-color moon and swaying light-strings. Tallest willow stood spiraling smoke and Catania was polka-dots, distant. Sadly impossible to detail any of this to Francesco.

"Are you interested in rearranging the freezer?" Neal asked her next morning -- early, just past Shabbat prayers and while she was still exulting in the day's first rush at the typewriter. It was a power thing with Neal; he adored interrupting when he sensed that she was on a roll. And you couldn't ever tell him no without paying for it straight through to sundown. Oh she was in the wilderness, all right; she could practically see the camels coming. But wasn't it true that God guides only in the wilderness? Some days there was manna, some days the earth opened up to swallow somebody, some days scouts came back telling lies and some days you worshipped idols. The fixed places were strictly human inventions.

"Well are you coming with us tomorrow?" Jackie phoned to ask when they were roughly midway through restacking a chaos of steaks and roasts, pizza and lasagna boxes, ice cream tubs. Neal overbought, always.

"I'll have to call you later."

Francesco's voice swept across the line, cooing, "Per favore, Cara," and a wind of things she didn't catch. So strange to hear her lunatic aunt's name invoked, although she knew the word was an Italian endearment.

Later, how did one say it? Later, for heaven's sake, not now. In her schoolgirl Spanish, yo no se popped in for I don't know -- but how did that go in Italian? Perhaps? She didn't even know perhaps.

"Spero," she said, saved by high school Latin; she believed it meant I hope so. "Telefono -- later." Afternoon, what was afternoon? Sera meant evening. "In un'ora -- oh shit -- o due. Uno poco while --"

Francesco was laughing his head off.

"Who was that?" Neal predictably demanded.

"Jackie wants Evan and me to ride up to Naxos with her tomorrow."

"With her and her little college boy, you mean. Has she lined up one of those for you, or does she have a crush on Evan now?"

She let that slide, reaching in to steady a potential avalanche of broccoli in cheese sauce. "I think Darcy Peale is coming, too. We're all planning to stay there a few days during spring break; okay with you?"

"What the fuck for?"

"A change of scene, a -- you know I enjoy that area --"

"You want a change, go back to New Mexico. Bringing you here was a big mistake, I knew it would be."

Almost every day since they’d arrived in Sicily, Neal had threatened to send her and Evan home. Since there was nothing in New Mexico she wanted to go back to, just a scene of shame and carnage, this used to upset her considerably; by now, though, she realized she had some rights and could fight him. Besides, single-handedly arranging to ship her off would take a more vigorous act of will than Neal ever mustered. Unless of course he caught her cheating on him; that might do it.

"Darcy's going with you?"

"She's probably driving on her own, but she'll be with us."

"What about Steve?"

"He has to work next week, but may come spend an evening --"

"There are some good restaurants up that way."

"Sure," she agreed, thinking Barf He Really Might Do That. Neal's only concept of recreation -- drinking and eating -- was fulfilled at a very high standard in and around Taormina. Oh well, she could certainly handle one Neal-directed night in exchange for two of her own devising.

"So is this hotel Jackie picked out expensive?"

"It's Naxos, not Taormina, and I'm making this trip on my dime." Kinky how Neal would fling away hundreds on dinner, thousands on travels and more clothes than he'd ever wear; he doled wads out to Evan, too – twenty bucks for school lunch -- yet anything she wanted for herself represented wanton extravagance. Fortunately she'd written several stock recommendation reports in New York lately and had another pending. Doing those gigs made her feel like herself again: like somebody capable.

"Don't you still have bills?"

"Not many." They were practically cleared when she left Albuquerque last winter: whopping media debts incurred by a big client who'd gone under without paying her. For almost two years those took every buck she made above stark subsistence level. Worst of the ordeal was what it did to her son, she considered as the poster child for Disordered Priorities zombied through the kitchen for his wake-up Coke.

Fuzzy from sleep and too many drinks last night, Evan shuffled past in silk shorty-pajamas.

"Suffering, Baby?"

"Blug," he replied. "I don't even feel like going shopping."

No wonder the kid was hopelessly money-crazed now, style-wild after the Long Era of Doing Without Everything. It could have been easier on him; would have been but for Neal -- who nonetheless liked to view himself as their rescuer.

Intent on restacking all contents of the enormous pantry closet next, Neal was slamming this here/that there based on product size and projected use frequency instead of alphabetically. She'd never find a thing again.

"I suppose you'd rather be writing," he snipped.

"Well, yes -- "

"You think I'm having fun?"

"You don't need to be doing this, either."

"Then who will, with you running off next week with your little pals, the chorus teacher and the art teacher? It must be nice to do whatever you please. Oh you 'creative people' -- you're just great --"

Standing by to hold whatever Neal handed her, which he could simply have set down instead, she knew she'd spent way too long Just Standing By. While her own world was splintering, she stood by letting Neal dither back and forth between he loved her/couldn't live without her and he couldn't bear her/she was the root of all his problems. Again again he asked her to move in with him -- then changed his mind; he'd even moved her and Evan in one day, out the next. Again again again the man apologized, begged her to marry him at once but backed out. Never mind that her agency was dying dying dead and she should go where serious money was -- to dig out faster with less sacrifice -- she stood by as Neal tooled her around, kept her in town by pledging love and help repeatedly though not quite now.

In fury then at other bosses, Neal wanted to go Far Away -- back to Europe where he claimed he'd formerly been blissful -- but he wouldn't dare Europe Alone, lest he succumb as twice prior to Some Foreign Woman Another Stupid Foreign Bitch who wouldn't stay with him when he tried to bring her home. Never so sick so lost so tired before, of course she longed for the escape he promised and helped him write killer application letters. Ground down to writing suicide notes by the time his overseas job came through, she repeated the words when he told her to: I do.

With regard to Neal's other wives and their departures, she was presently reflecting that a yen for their native lands was probably the least of it, when the telephone rang. Had she inadvertently said Francesco and Jackie should call back in an hour or two, not that she would? Hearing Evan rise to answer -- signalled by a moaning Ouch as he crashed into something -- she yelled down the hall, "If that's Jackie, say we'll go!"

"Go where, Mom?"

"Get her to tell you about it, and ask her if she'll please reserve our hotel room --"

"One? I want my own!"

"If she can get it wired, okay."

She got through Saturday by focusing on Sunday: Tomorrow I'll be elsewhere; tomorrow this is part of the past. As a child, she'd cheered up that way when she faced major tests and dental appointments. Doing All Possible to avert further unpleasantness with Neal, she cleaned the house, even cooked and let him say every ugly thing on his mind without disputing.

It came out at last: the inevitable. By early evening, he'd had plenty of leisure to get loaded.

Snarling at her office door, Neal had abandoned the gore-ridden television news he couldn't understand a word of but normally wouldn't miss on a bet. "Excuse me, but what about this place next week while you and your boy go play? I'll be at home tomorrow, but after that -- I guess you expect me to take off from work to guard it for you."

"For me? You're the one who wants the house guarded."

"Yeah, it'd be my stuff they get next time!"

"Nothing you couldn't replace, Neal."

"You don't care about what's mine, you don't give a damn about things anyway, you always say you don't."

"And you don't give a damn about people. Neal, nobody else stays home constantly. I've been alone here for months and I need a holiday."

"I guess you've made up your mind then," Neal muttered, stomping away. "Ms. Free Spirit. We'll just see about that, we'll just see."

"You're the free-est person I know," her girlfriend Margo used to praise her -- and wasn't that a kick in the head to think of as she drew Evan apart with cautions not to act too pleased about getting away?

She waited to do her own packing until after midnight, hiding all the happiness as if it didn't come from God.

Surely your desires were Adonai's own words to you; pleasures and displeasures were a sort of choreography: Step this way yes, not that way. As she selected dresses, she caught herself humming "Put Your Little Foot Right Here" and knew Evan was right; she was headed round the bend. Over the river and, barring considerable changes, smack-dab at those trees. She couldn't keep squeezing into any old opening, making herself smaller and smaller, asking so little, wanting less and less. She couldn't, not because it wasn't doable but because it was wrong. She'd even read that somewhere, in "Sayings of the Fathers" maybe, something she ran across when she was reading Everything in preparation for converting; one of the rabbis said we'd be held accountable in the World to Come not just for any evil things we'd done but for every good thing we might have enjoyed and didn't.

Now this, she'd thought at the time, was precisely the sort of religion she wanted to practice. This was the way to honor God and life, by living in the blessings; the way to keep it all, too, wrest it safe from oblivion. Out of the blue, she'd been given a line then -- Let us not choose emptiness; let us remember we remember what we bless -- and the line stayed with he,r but look at her now, exiled from so much it was her place -- and grace -- to savor. What had happened to her? And where was that marvelous quote anyhow? It should hang over her desk forever.

She left off packing to ransack her library shelves but an hour later, sleepy, she still hadn't found it.

Sunday noon she was riding north along the Autostrade, shoehorned with Evan into the back seat of Jackie's devastated Fiat. Together they figured out and wriggled into the least-worst of possible postures, laughing and singing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes with Jackie and Gianni. Evan's voice had become so deep and resonant.

Yes in a crunch the world could transform itself in twenty minutes; there was sandy Naxos on their right and, just beyond on its towering headland, chic ever-so-floral Taormina.

"Thanks for bringing me, Mom," Evan said and kissed her. Stupendous he still wanted her kisses, her hugs, talk and time. They'd be friends always. As far as her own parents were concerned, she seceded at age eight or so; the shell stuck around, dealing in chatter and lies, but she'd taken her mind and heart and vanished.

After checking in, they climbed -- telling the little car We Think You Can We Think You Can -- toward lunch in Taormina. Like most her, the ristorante Jackie chose was a shady, stone-floored bower. Of course it was silly to watch Jackie and Gianni acting moonstruck, pawing each other, and a bit sickening to think anyone might view her and Evan as an analogous duo, but the Rappitala was exquisitely chilled, the scampi and four-alarm penne al'arabiata were to die for and frankly the whole superego-based notion of scandal stewed down to what the fuck, didn't it?

They walked through the theatre next, a Greco-Roman ruin sited for fireworks with its Mount Etna view, and then window-shopped Corso Umberto.

At a sidewalk cafe, while the group debated over cappucino on the topic of whether to take a cable car down to the beach or drive it, she felt the fear return because there he was in the fabulous traffic -- rounding the corner, honking hello: Francesco in his (even so, deargodno) red Lamborghini. Where would she end up if she actually sat down inside it? This wasn't Life; this was Off to See the Wizard.

Looking dangerously gorgeous, Francesco motioned to her: Come. She countered, motioning for him to join them, so he made an as-you-wish face, zooped the car onto the sidewalk and deposited himself on a chair beside her. Innocuously draped there -- merely grinning and breathing, wearing white linen -- he was an unbelievable menace to her peace of mind.

"You see teatro?" he asked her.

"Si, a few times." She held up three idiot fingers before it came to her. "Tre occasiones." How to say I love this theatre, love all theatres? How to say I studied theatre and acted in shows for years? "Teatro amore -- I know that isn't right. Io attore --"

"Attrice."

"That's the feminine? Actress?"

He nodded, looking impressed. "Poetessa e attrice! E bella." He lifted the corners of her mouth. "E triste, No! You see cattedrale?"

How to say not this one in particular but don't go on my account since cathedrals look alike to me? She shrugged with a no-big-deal face.

Shit, what was she going to do about Francesco? This must be making him stone crazy, too.

"Andiamo, Cara," he finally announced, pulling her to her feet. After a spate of speech with Gianni, presumably about meeting later, Francesco led her rather firmly to his car. He pointed up the mountain, down toward the coast, then southward to Naxos. "Castel Mola. Lido. Albergo. Si?"

"Castel Mola, beach, then hotel. We're going for a drive now."

"Si, Cara. Drive now. Tonight dancing."

"Sounds fine to me, Francesco. Molto bene, grazie." Oh dear.

As he opened the car door for her, her mother's voice whined Don't Do This. But Evan drowned that out, shouting "Go for it, Mommy!"

Castel Mola, a tiny fortified village far in the sky, overlooked Taormina and everything. With its big blue ooh of a view -- taking in mainland Calabria as well as Sicily's coast from Etna north to Messina -- this was of course One of Those Public Lookout Points. Developed as such, it was charmless. Amid far too much pavement and cafes that were only a hop-skip-and-a-jump ahead of tacky Sandia Crest House in Albuquerque, she and Francesco looked but didn't linger.

Winding downward, he stopped by a wildflower meadow to decorate her. When he got through, she was made out of flowers: Daisies, poppies and something lilac-y blue cascaded through her hair and sprouted from her neck belt pockets buttonholes, even straps of her shoes. Last he wound a wreath and crowned her "Titania." This dude read.

Still in full bloom, she waded with Francesco in the surf at Mazzaro, sucking blood oranges. "Ophelia now," she laughed as she stumbled and he picked her out of the waves, half-wet and more than half past caring. Kisses certainly and oh the way his arms felt when her fingers climbed their taut hot cording. Yes she had breasts she'd quite forgotten about until he found them. It was one of those too-perfect pitifully fragile times but, since they couldn't talk much, they couldn't spoil it. Only the trip toward the hotel brought her back to ground; that was the place where messages from Neal might be or, heaven help her, Neal.

Francesco lifted the edges of her lips again. "Triste, No-no-no. Uno sorriso, Titania. Piccolo. Uno sorriso -- per favore."

She smiled for him. "Uno sorriso -- that's a smile?"

"A smile," he repeated. "Also I learn."

Francesco wanted to walk her inside the hotel, but she wouldn't let him; she needed to know first that her good luck was holding. Assuming no glitches at her end, he'd return at seven -- which gave her a couple of hours to fluff up before dinner and subsequent nightclubbing. And so forth, if indeed there should be So Forth.

Sandals in her hands, she padded -- dripping just a bit -- into the lobby. She asked; no messages. She peeked around; no evidences of intrusion. So far so good. Excessively good, actually.

In the hotel's wide glassy Santa Barbara-ish bar, Evan and Jackie were avid for news of her afternoon and Gianni, as ever, was amenable to listening; for him it must be like hearing squirrels or monkeys – with an occasional word breaking through like Watteau's naming-mew or okay. As she told them all, if It Feels Good Do It was doubtless going too far. However, a corollary still seemed to hold water: If It Feels Bad Stop It. Being under Neal's thumb of course felt bad but, after so much misery, today -- at least in retrospect -- was also feeling bad. Extravagantly superfluously good, it felt awkward, out of hand and thoroughly impossible.

"I'll stay here this evening," she concluded, amazing herself. "Maybe."

Jackie, another fan of single-malt scotch, quickly ordered two doubles. "Relax," she counseled. "We'll stick with you tonight as long as you want."

Darcy charged in then, laughing hugely. "What sank you, Flower Lady? Unh-unh, let me take the wildest guess. Francesco?"

"Sank is mot juste. At least sinking."

"Teckon I'd do him if he said please," Darcy grinned as she began settling in: dumping luggage on every nearby chair, corraling the waiter to bring her Campari, rustling up dishes of bar snacks, generally grabbing the bull by the horns. A tall thoroughbred, congenitally confident, she clearly Came from Money -- as it happened, Colorado money so she was Real Laidback About It All. Having somehow crossed paths with handsome Steve when he was stationed in Hawaii, Darcy maintained a chirpy pursuit; he was dumb as mud and it was only a matter of time now. Weird how Neal thought of her as "the art teacher." She painted a bit, not well, and substitute-taught since it was comfy to have base privileges, but she was running on trust fund essentially. Guys lacked a clue when it came to women.

Bizarre being on the loose with these two gals, so much at variance with her ethically correct girlfriends at home, and for that matter so much at variance from each other. One on course with a manipulative agenda and the other fooling around with an almost-child -- well, almost fooling: If Jackie got any farther from fooling, she'd be riding for a fall.

Evan found both women wonderful and was in his element chatting with them about sights to see, places to shop and anything else it pleased Jackie or Darcy to mention. She allowed herself to recede from their conversation -- feeling comfortably offstage, heartened by good scotch and glad her son was raised under the mighty standard Tolerance Above All -- right next to the banner He Who Can Read Can Cook (you want brownies, fine; they're page three fifty-seven).

Summoned to the phone, her calm shattered to wrenching nausea, but the caller wasn't Neal.

"Buona sera, Titania. Problemas?"

"No problemas, Francesco."

"Bene, bene, Cara. Tonight seven. I happy. You?"

"Scared to death. That went over your head, right? Happy – not a word I would've chosen but -- okay, Francesco, si."

"I kiss you, Titania. See you seven. Albergo. Ciao."

He was gone before she could stammer out something about albergo noton a bet and arrange a more discreet site for meeting. Knock wood.

Everywhere they went that night, and they covered lots of territory, Francesco was Known and Visibly Adored. Despite an overflow crush here and there, appealing tables always opened for him and his guests. It was like dating the fucking Prince of Taormina and of course she thought to ask but Jackie and Gianni said not-to-worry; he was merely fashionable, fun and rich, no mafioso. Nevertheless, the experience strained credulity, as voices in her head -- her mother's and Neal's -- kept insisting. Even granting he was real, what would a charming educated successful spectacular widowed businessman want with her? She was very cute but no stellar beauty; fairly young but no nymphette; available sporadically at best; and for once her brains and way with words weren't even on the scoreboard. Why the merry hell was he doting on her?

With unnumbered bottles of champagne under the bridge and florist scents that were nearly psychedelic, things were getting steamy on the dancefloor around two a.m. A quaking blowsy sea-rose of a feeling as Francesco's body moved against hers, more or less knowing it now, and as he kissed her -- swallowing her breath and then returning it, which was alarming and very very high, a stunningly sexy trick she'd never run across.

"Evan's getting sleepy," Jackie sidled among dancers to say. "Me, too, and Gianni nodded off an hour ago. Look at him."

"So help me, if you guys abandon me now, I'll track you and shoot you down like wild animals."

Selfish, that, but she was terrified. Revved to this frequency, she couldn't be left to her own devices; no telling what she might do.

Jackie yawned. "If you're not going to Francesco's house, you can get back to the hotel with Darcy. She has wheels and she's still functional. See."

Darcy, who'd been dancing all evening with a succession of Francesco's chums, was at the table now, clearly alert even agog as she laughed with the guy who had such fluent English from his Brit schooling.

Jackie yawned again, looking with her pixie-short hair like Wee Willie Winkie. So definitely ready for her nap that you could picture her dumpling-shape in softest footy-pajamas. "I already asked if she's ready to split and she said she isn't. She's having a good time with Nino."

"So be it. Buono notte."

Francesco was lapping at her ear. "They go?"

"Jackie Gianni Evan, si," she said, miming sleep. "Darcy, no."

"You want go?"

Adore it here, she acted with both arms outstretched and a dorky Suzy Creamcheese grin. The music picked up and she swung into action, yelling over the heavy bass-line, "Let's boogie down." As things stood, tonight could still be explained away: Just went out partying with Evan and some friends, she imagined herself saying. Very reasonably and righteously.

When the music switched to slow again, it was hard to stay composed.

"Ah Cara Cara Cara," Francesco moaned with both hands kneading her ass.

It had been so long since she'd felt passion for anything but typewriter keys and so long since she'd been close to a man who honestly wanted her that the experience seemed like some crazy amazing conjunction of planets. Given that such might never recur in this lifetime, so much for having her cake and eating it, too; she craved more than a fingertip taste of it, even more than licking frosting off the candles.

As for the risks, Gee Life Was Risk and she wanted lightning to strike, didn't she? She always used to. And there was no hope of this unless you stepped outdoors and kicked off your tennis shoes.

About to settle it -- the burning question Casa o Albergo? – she noticed Darcy exiting the club with Nino, which left her Alone in the Night with a Strange Man. Sure Darcy could handle a situation like that, but Darcy was, well Darcy: armed with a well-honed motivational and self-protective system, and a free agent to boot. Never out of her depth, Darcy'd be okay anywhere. Besides, Nino spoke flawless English.

Now the movement of Francesco's hands was transmitting nothing but Bleakest Ulterior Motives; at least these were all her equipment would receive. It was severely bashed equipment, sure, but she had no other. What had made her think she could trust him -- or her own reckless judgment? She'd fucked up everything else and now she finally had a comp ticket to write and here she was hazarding it for a rush. Quite a blast of a rush, she had to admit, but just a rush, no?

Of course she wouldn't sleep with Francesco and it seemed he could read that from the instant she decided. As he kissed her less insistently and studied her face carefully, she felt safe with him again and determined to make the most of the little she could get away with. Never expected this, expected anything other than this, but what a despicable coward she'd turned out to be. For the first time in her checkered extensive career, she was carrying on as idly, greedily as a high-school tease -- and she kept dancing flirting playing thus-far-no-farther until the damn club closed.

"A walk," she suggested then, making her fingers skitter, and he followed patiently as she raced uphill toward the teatro. Only a glowing postcard now, its gates were locked, signed chiuso, and every club they'd passed along the way was dark or in the process of shutting. For the moment it was Truly All Over.

"Andiamo, Cara," Francesco said and for the second time he led her like a wayward tot to his car, then put her in it.

"You --" he began but stopped, leaving that hanging.

"I know," she sighed. Really messed up, yes. Sick about it but barbed behind an impassable wall.

"Albergo?"

"Si, grazie." Minding her manners, she added, "Per questa sera, mille grazie."

"Piacere."

His pleasure, indeed. "Oh yeah I'm sure." When Francesco arched an eyebrow at that, she waved away the question. "Nothing. No importante."

Saying "bella Titania dolce Titania," Francesco stroked her hair as you would a child's and kissed her gently.

Sweet and beautiful, huh? What was the deal here? Could it be that he thought she was just being ladylike, not the kind of girl to put out on first dates?

"Domani we go --" Groping for words, he raised his perfect hands in every direction, miming Wherever You Like. "I no work domani. All you."

Oh gosh, what about tomorrow? If she could, she'd just go home. Monday was a day to write in peace, with Neal blessedly at his office.

"Telefono domani, okay?"

She nodded. Between now and when he phoned, she'd try to get the right words together for Francesco, but how could she ever explain how her desire, the holy fire, was overruled by fear and spluttered down to nothing?

Wishes, yes she knew, were welcome fairies by the cradle yet the uninvited witch was always stronger: That one bit to the heart's stump and buried it, cold hollow toadstool carcass rotting underground with the pale slugs, stinking rotting from its inside.

Uncomprehending but ever willing to be helpful, Jackie ran her back to the villa early next morning. Alone inside the velvet cave, she felt unalloyed relief -- apart from being horrified by the feeling.

During that week when her phone rang and rang and rang but she didn't answer, she looked grimly for the quote, the one about the sin of missing out on joys. After searching every book on her Judaica shelves, she couldn't find it anywhere. Must've dreamed it.



The Climate of Loveliness


"Santa Fe," as she always pointed out to guests on her northern New Mexico tours, "is not a place for grown people."

Albuquerque, candidly put, was Little L.A. with Mountains -- your basic sunny scuzzy metro area -- and Taos, though artsy and darling, so far remained largely unstaged. Many locals also led outwardly normal lives in outwardly normal Los Alamos and even in Jemez Springs, mystically gorgeous Agrigento of the American Southwest. Like the ancient Valley of the Temples honoring every deity known to, well, God, Jemez Springs was Religion Row replete with Buddhists, silent nuns, nature-worshippers braising in hot springs and, opposite the old mission ruin, priests drying out after faithfully ecstatic service -- yet the place was still real.

Compared to these and the rest, she explained, The City Different differed. With its too-precious toytown quality, adobe Santa Fe was a squat brown variation on Colorado Springs. And you'd swear the place was populated by phoning Central Casting.

"I see," Daniel deadpanned, eyes twinkling. As ever, he instantly did. By the time she cruised Canyon Road, looped around Paseo de Peralta and scored parking space within a hike of the Plaza, her since-junior high pal had identified most common forms of indigenous wildlife: Artists and Artisans, Cowboys and Indians, Chic Retailers, Timewarp Freaks. With help he honed fine distinctions between Granola People and Trust-Fund Hippies; also among Actual Gallery Owners, Fringed Matrons in Artifact Earrings (generally real estate agents, wealthy idlers devoted to creative shopping or both) and Tourists Taken in Yesterday by Junk Turquoise.

"Those two guys look fairly ordinary," Wesley whispered as he clambered out of her back seat, neon-sunburnt from the inanity of wearing short-shorts and a tiny-sleeved shirt in the high desert. Daniel wore the same getup -- Lord these Visiting Texans -- but at least he had a tan.

"It's deceptive until you view them as a flock, but they're Rumpled Corduroy Attorneys with Artistic Pretensions."

"What's she, Darlin'?" Daniel asked, nodding toward a young woman in raggy layers of freeflow knitwear, which culminated in legwarmers of of an ethnic weave.

"Kiva Ballerina, probably a waitress or boutique girl but maybe a college student or possibly opera crew --"

"A catchall category."

Daniel wanted bourbon and Coke right-now-this-minute and the time was decently midafternoonish, but she couldn't let him miss the Compleat Santa Fe Experience. Since bar staff were sometimes mercenary enough to be marginally polite and almost efficient, it was important to begin with cappuccino at the pastry shop, where even if you weren't attired in a skimpy yellow tennis outfit you could count on slug-slow service with the typical Overeducated Minimum-Wage Worker's Sneer.

Leaving the boys to await refreshments at their snide server's good pleasure, she went to phone Monica. As soon as coffee arrived, so had their friend who made Indian jewelry for a store around the corner.

Not an Indian or even an Artisan since she churned out production- line beads, Monica fell essentially into the Timewarp Freak genre but with complex crossover elements. Indeed Daniel greeted her by pointing and squealing, "Santa Fe Timewarp Freak! Come hug my neck, Darlin'!"

She pointed and squealed back, "Daniel Beck! You Half-Naked Texan!"

Just left of Daniel's neck which, after sixteen years, she was once again hugging, Monica loosed a thin angelic smile toward her girlfriend. "You've been giving Santa Fe lessons.

"Actually," she owlishly instructed Daniel, "I am beneath Freak fashion standards around here. And I'm not quite an Overeducated Minimum- Wage Worker since I never did finish any degree --"

"And you're too sweet-natured," Daniel snickered, then went on to demand. "Well then, what are you, Darlin'?" Whenever possible, he liked keeping things clear; though Monica didn't care much about clarity except on a theological level, she gave it an excellent shot: "Working Poor Pandering to Tourists. L'il Ole Deprived Mommy subset."

Never having met Monica, Wesley looked on with mild confusion while the patisserie personnel were looking on with Texan-loathing and disdainful awareness that Monica's persona carried overtones of Trust-Fund Hippie. A few Really Good Rings indicated serious money in her family, though the fact that she wore a man's denimblue workshirt over snagged black tights and cheap new sneakers proved she didn't have her hands on much of it yet.

Potentially quite rich, Monica was truly disadvantaged at the moment due to having several small children and an Artisan-slash-Timewarper as her old man. Artisan/Timewarpers like Curtis Larson could also be fairly termed Santa Fe Entrepeneurs; they did it Their Way all right, but seldom and usually at a loss.

"Gosh you're so lucky to live here," Wesley drawled after being introduced to Monica.

The ladies exchanged a significant look -- which concerned New Mexico, not him, since Monica had been better prepared for Wesley Palmer than he was for her. Not that she was easily taken aback but Wesley was a big change after Lisa, Daniel's wife when Monica knew him in school.

Responding to the New Mexico question, Monica said she felt mostly lucky most days. Almost every day but payday. There wasn't much she could add to Monica's assessment; by now the place was just home. Except for several European years with one of her exes, she'd spent practically her whole adult life in Albuquerque so it didn't occur to her to move anywhere else when she left England.

"I want to live here," Wesley sighed. "Help me persuade Daniel that we want to move to New Mexico."

"Oh I'm persuaded that we want to," Daniel chirped. "But what kind of job can you get compared to Dallas? Wesley's the breadwinner," he explained, giggling. "I work but that's our travel money, party money."

"Well I'm sure I'd find something, Daniel."

"It has to be good, Darlin' -- you know I'm expensive."

Despite his sunburn, Wesley had been charmed by every sight all day -- even menacing low-riders clogging traffic through Espa¤ola; even allegedly holy mud at the old church in Chimayo.

"Do y'all suppose that Chimayo mud can really heal people?"

"Some say," Monica nodded; she'd always had it in her to take anything seriously, which was simultaneously one of her best and worst features.

"Maybe I ought to bring my mama and sister."

"I'm surprised he didn't mud-pack his red knees," Daniel tittered before adding, "I'm gettfng bitchy but I know what it'll take to heal me."

Fortified with his can't-live-without-it-any-longer booze from a cozy hotel bar next door, Daniel was ready to take on Santa Fe Landmarks. Both the boys got off on those, though the signage was fanciful: Oldest Church, Oldest House, Oldest Seat of State Government. So many rude piles of sticks and clay claimed to be the most venerable something in North America if not on the entire western side of the planet that it turned into a joke as they darted around identifying additional monuments.

Daniel began when he almost stumbled on one. "Oldest Sidewalk!"

"Oldest Sidewalk Crack," Monica said. "And Second-Oldest Mailbox."

By the time they wound down, they had a collection including Oldest Fire Hydrant, Oldest Streetlight, an Oldest Hollyhock of every shade, even Oldest Most Motheaten Indian Blanket Spread Outside the Palace of the Governors. Not to mention Oldest Indian and Oldest Tourist. It was a shame her son Evan missed the fun; he would've loved that game, but he had to pull an airshift on Saturday afternoons.

"See what I mean about Santa Fe?" she laughed after designating Oldest Patio Restaurant Serving Third-Oldest Salsa and sweeping her hysterically overwrought entourage onward to sample nouvelle-southwestern fare at the trendy new Wolf Cafe. "We're not acting like grown people, either." Eventually, though, she had to get adult and hurry back to Albuquerque or she'd be late for final dress rehearsal. Unthinkable.

"Come, Kinder," she beckoned, marshalling the guys.

"I can't wait to see you act again tomorrow," Monica said during needlessly comprehensive parting hugs. "I hear you daily on radio, Dear, but it has been far too long since I saw you on a stage."

"Far too long went by without stages."

After college performances -- the last Monica saw -- and a handful of Dallas productions, she got mired in a workaholic schedule without room for shows. Through years of too much traveling, too many rush deadlines, too many crises at her agency and frankly too many men for too few off-hours, her only acting was done in audio and video studios, taping clients' spots.

"Yet another incarnation for you, Dear," Monica beamed, waving 'bye. "You have gone through so many, more than anyone I know."

With worn-out Daniel and Wesley dozing before she passed Cochiti, she cued a Strauss waltz tape and reviewed Monica's comment. It was true now and then she'd changed courses -- from princesse-‚loign‚e child, making herself up out of books and deciding each day who she'd be, to nympho- nymphette and superscholar, then flashy theatre major and poet, pregnant agoraphobic, ultracool babydoll divorc‚e. Next speedfreak, failed suicide and acidhead, she reigned as undergraduate hippie queen when Monica came in.

Monica subsequently followed the news as she metamorphosed from freak royalty to struggling teen mom and grad student, then Dallas housewife wed to a bore, then anorexic P.R./journalism fledgling. After a brief doper reprise, she hit her mid-twenties, blinked and woke up as an award-winning copywriter/creative director/commercial talent. No supershock to advance from that role to agency owner, lauded penny stock analyst, yummy executive mistress of the Rocky Mountains OTC emperor (until the SEC toppled him).

This took her up to nearly thirty, when she became recession victim, escapee to Europe, sad lady of the villa miserably remarried and scribbling her lonesome heart out in Sicily, sad but stylish London gallery-hopper, restaurant-reviewer and vintage jewelry-collector, ultimately escapee in the other direction because her sad son was threatening suicide. Yes a fearful symmetry when you viewed it thus, but the situation worked out nicely thanks. Now she was editing an arts mag, freelancing ad copy for a few fun clients, decorating her apartment deliciously, entertaining often and dazzling folks with her tarty European clothes. Since the demise of her last time-wasting amour, she'd also written several poems and stories that weren't half shabby and begun acting again -- scarfing loveliest leads as if she'd never left theatre. All she had to do was show up and get cast.

When she slowed to exit the highway, Daniel opened his eyes, caught her smile and patted her knee. "I'm so glad to see you happy, Darlin'."

"And I'm glad to see you here." Life would be totally perfect if the boys moved to Albuquerque, as she felt a warm suspicion they would, and if Evan would either go back to school or get a real job and his own place.

She was puzzled when Daniel said, "I thought you might be down.

"About what's-his-face, your classy anthropologist," he clarified.

"Ah right, that was rough at first but then I started doing 'Separate Tables' and picked a fresh playmate. Hugh really was too old for me."

"That's what Mary Fran said."

"I can't believe you go to see her on purpose."

"I get a kick out of her sometimes. It was funny how she put it --"

"Funny how?"

"That Hugh'd be fine for now but what about ten or twenty years from now? Your mom can't even see you, can she? You're not into anything for years. She should lecture you about -- maybe November."

Evan was gurgling over the newspaper when they got in. "Oh Lord," he howled. "Look at this, Mom! Now we have a Sacred Tortilla!"

"Something to serve with the Holy Mud," she spluttered. "Sorry, Wesley, I couldn't help myself."

"It's not that I think it's really real," Wesley drawled softly with his tiny breezy laugh. "It's just interesting to me."

"Then for sure you'll be interested in this," Evan said, passing Wesley the paper before he joined Daniel who was mixing drinks.

"Only Orange Crush for me," Wesley called to the bartenders as he settled down to read. "Hm, this lady was frying a tortilla and the face of Jesus appeared. Now she has it framed and people are making pilgrimages to her kitchen."

"One born every minute," Daniel clicked out in his zingiest crisp manner, zipping into the living room with Wesley's disgusting sodapop luminescing on ice and his own partly gulped Wild Turkey and Coke.

"But look at this picture, Daniel. It does look a little like Jesus. Evan, you come over here and look with us. What do you think?"

"Evan was practically rolling on the floor when we arrived, Darlin'."

"Well don't be an old bitch, Honey. I only asked."

She grabbed her toolbox full of makeup, tossed kisses and left them to it; Evan would stuff the guests into his "Andiamo"-plated ragtop Fiat and take them somewhere cute for drinks and snacks while she rehearsed.

The current production was "Confusions," five one-acts in which she played five wildly various parts: an abused punk, a village teacher in disgrace, a homebound mum who'd gone well around the bend, a flirty traveling saleslady and a soign‚e straying wife. Based on what she'd been thinking earlier, it struck her as type-casting. She was also reminded that an actor she used to date said she found all her characters inside herself; she could make them her, instead of making herself into them.

Walking through the small empty theatre, she imagined it as it would be tomorrow for opening night: close to half-filled by her own friends from business and from other shows, this time even with old school-chums. That so many good people wanted to watch her and party with her afterward was a real rush. And of course the reviews would be fabulous; this director and cast were sensational. "Sheheyanu," she murmured from the stage, having forgotten the rest of the prayer except for the English: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, Maker of the Universe, Who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season."

"Adore what you've done in here," Daniel told her next afternoon in the main bedroom, where he was keeping her company while she froufrou-ed her hair with the curling iron at the sweet Edwardian vanity she'd gobbled at auction for ninety dollars, with the tapestry-covered bench for thirty-five. Evan had taken Wesley to Old Town for trinkets so only sounds of Rampal playing Telemann were floating upstairs.

"I'm giving myself what I need, finally. You know how I always wanted a canopied bed and Mary Fran called them dust-catchers? Well I made one. Four ceiling hooks and four lengths of velvet ribbon to hold up some sheers. Then I tore the curtains into points and sewed on glitzy beads and silk flowers. Took one morning, a whopping forty bucks and my bed's from "Midsummer Night's Dream" -- so stupid I never thought of doing it sooner."

She sipped her champagne and felt moved to generalize. "It isn't hard to have what you want, Daniel."

"The trick's in knowing what that is."

"And being a scootch flexible. You're not sure what you want, are you, Baby?"

"Never was, never will be."

"Ooh, attitude, attitude. You're doing okay for yourself."

"But I'm not excited, Darlin'."

"Gee whiz."

"I've been with Wesley twelve years. You can't fathom it, can you?"

"Not precisely but I know the drill: The ease goes, or the electricity -- usually the latter. You start thinking Oh Dear How Long this thing has grown to be nothing, nothing pulled out to a thread and twisted; Oh My this trip is palest chewing gum with all the flavor gone. But if after a while you still give a damn, it's the ease that goes; craving eternity, you slip into edits and awkwardness. Right?"
"There's more to it."

"Of course. Just a dilettante's view."

"Okay it's the electricity. And Wesley's right, you know. We need to move out here. We need to do something."

"So come by all means." She raised her champagne glass. "Cheers!"

"You've changed."

"I've changed."

"Lightweight!"

"I'll drink to that." She did. "And now, my pretty new philosophy --"

"Bet the French have a word for it --"

"Austrians. 'Vergnugungssucht.'"

"Yuck! Sounds like a nasty condiment for -- pigs' feet."

"Simplest pleasure-addiction, proven antiserum for nostalgia and despair. Do have some please; take all you want, I've plenty."

"I suppose you do." Daniel thought a minute and poured more bourbon -- not bothering with more Coke. "What kind of nightmares are you plagued by these days? Do vandals break in and hang hideous wallpaper?"

"I'm not going to feel guilty for you, Daniel, or sorry for you. You're unhappy? Be happy; it's choosing. Over and over when you need a jolt, it's choosing another kind of looking. And giving yourself treats."

Daniel jumped off the bed for pacing. "Do you know what you're talking about? This isn't some new spin on the party-girl routine you get into? I know you. You're a basically serious person."

"And I'm seriously convinced there's nothing inherently noble about being unhappy. Furthermore angst, at least among grownups, is in lamentable taste."

"Maybe you should think about moving to Santa Fe, open a chichi restaurant or something."

"Daniel, that's low!"

"Yeah sorry." He looked so contrite.

"Besides, I already thought of it!" she giggled.

Santa Fe did need a place like Menage-a-Trois in London, serving only the good stuff, luscious appetizers and sweets. The main course/massive slab of dead animal routine had gone completely stale, as she detailed to Daniel, and in fact there were eager backers pushing her to go; she'd have the resources to make it adorable.

"You," Daniel puzzled, "running a toy restaurant in a toy town?"

"It's something to think about when I'm maddest at advertising; the question is whether it would be any more fun."

"You're really off on one this time." Daniel's reflection joined hers in the mirror as he squeezed her shoulders. "But your hair looks marvelous, Darlin'."

She pinned up her curls and soaked in deep bubbles after adding a splash of framboise to her champagne. Oh lovely lovely lovely and Evan got Wesley back in time for all three guys to give her a big sendoff.

"Break a leg!" they chorused from the door when she departed for the theatre -- where the dressing room was filled with cards and flowers, mostly for her.

Besides bouquets from all the men she'd dated lately and from Johnny and Lucia, who had the studio where she made radio spots, there were office-style plants from two clients, an exotic-beyond-belief arrangement from Daniel and Wesley, a potted pink azalea from her clan of closest girlfriends and, from Monica, a yellow rose tied to a photo she'd entirely forgotten. Gosh what a doggy-edged picture but no wonder; the year must've been l969 since she was costumed as Ophelia and Monica wore black to run crew. She placed the shot and the rose among Evan's flowers. He'd sent masses of her favorites, gardenias, though he certainly couldn't afford them as a part-time deejay for a lesser-light station; one way or another, she'd be paying for those posies herself.

What was she going to do about Evan? All his life -- all those years when Mary Fran kept thrumming "It's his turn now" -- she'd borne in mind that she'd still be young enough to start smooth over, once Evan turned eighteen. But now he was pushing twenty, disinterested in leaving home and, as Daniel deemed himself, expensive. After Evan dropped out of college last winter, jettisoning a full-tuition scholarship to protest impersonality and inadequate parking at the University of New Mexico, she tried getting him to go away to school; they could manage that if he lived modestly on-campus.

"But I couldn't possibly stay in a dorm!" Evan scoffed then. "There's no privacy, and dorm rooms are ugly and tiny. I couldn't even cram in my clothes. I'd have to rent a proper apartment. And buy furniture, black leather yeah, and black halogen lamps. And I'd need appliances and dishes, all the usual kitchen stuff --"

Their discussion simply dissolved into his shopping list, and of course Evan would have no truck with the notion of hand-me-down equipment from her and Mary Fran. If an item didn't look just right, he wouldn't let it near him.

Of course she liked for things to be attractive, too, but what she had in mind for herself was less, not more: a simplification, a purer distillation of her current living standard. She wanted to buy a place, a smallish one-person place that she could proceed to make exquisite.

Lining her lips, she licked them -- envisioning a stylish little adobe, her own private climate of loveliness. Just as bad taste costs no less, good taste needn't cost more so she knew she'd find ways of making every room as unorthodox but jewelbox-perfect as her bedroom was today. Then, since it didn't take much to run her -- she was already well-wardrobed and ate lightly -- she could minimize connections with the world's work to focus on her own. With suitable effort, her acting and real writing might turn into money but, if not, she'd survive. Given any luck, she could cover bills with journalistic assignments and ditch advertising altogether.

If Evan would kindly cooperate by growing up, she thought while she powdered down and dressed for Act I, she'd finally have a turn again. As Monica's photo kept reminding her so keenly, she hadn't really had a turn -- although she'd had a lot of other things -- since she was seventeen. In all that time, she'd never been alone for more than a few weeks, either. Could she even handle freedom, or would she get bored? Perhaps afraid? Could she write anything sustained, anything you couldn't read out loud in sixty seconds? And what if those new-directions bells kept sounding? Would she throw more time away on men? Would she turn into a ski bum? If workaholism reared its ugly head again, she might be incited to take a fling with her restaurant concept after all. What she'd do, left to her own devices, was at heart a mystery.

Adding a tad more pink shadow, she searched her eyes wondering who exactly was In There, then winked because mysteries were made to be solved. After setting her costumes, wigs and handprops in the wings for lightning changes, she joined the other cast members in a bottle of orvieto and a vicious game of entertainment trivia until curtain.

Smashing show, smashing party night; it was like living in a musical comedy, she reflected as she hummed, tearing herbs for the omelettes; she'd stack about a dozen of them, each a distinct flavor, into a torte on an antique cakestand and then sauce the lot with pur‚e of grilled red peppers. Her guests for Bathrobe Brunch were expected in half an hour. Though the occasion was also a Review-Reading, she'd already read them: They were smashing, too.

Until he had to haul ass to his station and go on-air, dolly Evan helped her out with hosting; really he was fun to have around. If she were rich, she'd be happy to keep him for a pet although that would be foul for him psychologically.

"How'd you get yours to move out?" she polled the older actors once Evan had gone. On the trail of fresh ideas, she'd been asking everyone she knew. Single guys usually lost their kids years ago in some divorce or another and single women usually had them at home, often into their thirties, but couples like Liza and Bill from "Confusions" could be a fount of useful information. Turned out, however, that they hadn't been together long, so Bill fell into the single-guy category and Liza never had any children. So much for that appeal.

In line with advice from others, she'd already insisted that Evan get a job to cover his car expenses, clothes habit and pocket cash -- but she stopped short of charging anything meaningful or regular for rent since he was earning so little. She couldn't attempt to restrict his freedoms, either; given business commitments, shows and inevitably men, she was never around long enough to set any onerous house rules, let alone enforce or debate them. Besides, they'd never had that sort of sick relationship. Once Evan outgrew the you-mind-or-I-swat stage of imperilled toddlerhood and knew how to survive on an everyday basis, she'd functioned as big sister/provider/rescuer as necessary, not Mold You to Her Image Mom. Which was doubtless why they'd remained on the friendliest terms. No way he'd ever run from her as she'd fled Mary Fran and Ray, which was vastly flattering but Really.

"Let us have a talk with him tonight," Daniel volunteered, and she gratefully assented.

"It's high time for you to do something with your life, Evan," he began -- shouting over the mariachis during dinner. "Do what with my life?"

"Get one!"

"He doesn't mean it that way," Wesley interrupted, the soul of courteous concern.

This was as far as they'd gone when she had to excuse herself and drive like hell to be ready for the second night of performance, always anticlimactic. Maybe between them, the guys could get through to him.

Entrenched in his room Monday morning, Evan had to be cajoled into saying farewells before she delivered her guests and their absurd quantity of luggage to the airport. Feeling dreadful about the prior evening's events, Daniel and Wesley bickered.

"I told you you should've been easier with him."

"He's a grown person," Daniel said. "Almost twenty."

"Well he doesn't feel like a grown person yet."

"Who does?" As Daniel spoke, she could see him recalling how they'd laughed in college at Will bustling around with that oldfashioned briefcase, so pale and frail he seemed a child playing dress-up. "I wonder what he'll be when he's grown," one of them said then -- to which the other answered, "Oh but look, he thinks he knows." That was more than they could say now, for each other.

Still, Evan should start moving in the right direction -- a socially approved direction, anyhow: amassing those meaningless credentials, eventually taking a stab at paying his way, as everyone had to.

"I don't have a home anymore!" Evan was sobbing on his bed when she got back to him. "I don't have a home! Daniel says you want me out of here, you need me gone so you can do what you've always wanted. It's none of his damn business! I hate him!"

"Don't hate him, Sweetheart. Daniel's trying to help both of us --"

"Oh sure! He went on and on about how special you are and how you've waited long enough --"

"And didn't he talk about your future, too?"

"I don't want to think about future! It just makes me scared."

She held him as he cried and then subsided into gulping. "I know it, Mom. Look, I know you've always wanted to do other things with your life, I know you're really smart and talented and you could've done anything -- except I kept you from it."

Evan choked with fresh sobs. "I don't see why you even had me!" You should've just had an abortion. Then Goomom couldn't have made you miserable, making you do what she said, telling you she'd take me if I didn't have everything she thought I should. But I don't know what to do about it now, Mom! I don't want to be in your way but there's no other place for me --"

"There's the whole world for you. You're smart and talented --"

"Not like you! Don't you think I know that?"

"Oh please! In a lot of areas, you're better than I am. You can do anything you want. You really can."

"I don't know what to do."

"That's what college is for. You can figure out what pleases you and suits you. Then go with it, trust yourself and you'll be happy."

"Like you've been?"

"I'm pretty happy now."

"But nothing's ever worked out for you."

"I had to make too many compromises. You don't have to make any. I had things stacked against me --"

"Yeah! Me!"

"I love you more than anything, my darling!"

"Then why can't I stay with you?"

"I have to try, Evan. Like you have to try. Just exactly like you have to try."

"I don't have anybody but you!"

"And you'll always have me. We'll always be together, not always in the same place but always together."

On the day when Evan left for college in Texas, she built a redwood deck outside the little house she'd bought, crying freely since her neighbors couldn't hear above the hammering and top-volume Mahler. Inside herself, she was several years younger than Evan and almost surely more frightened, given the personal track record which was the dark reverse of her record professionally. No fear there: Dependably she found the right ideas and words to meet deadlines. Track records counted for a lot.

During the next week, squeezing the time among writing assignments, she began rag-painting in terracotta and stone-grey to give her white adobe walls a palazzo-fallen-to-decay effect, which turned out stunning. Since she was far beyond consideration of starving for her art in garrets, and furthermore was through with every form of pain and self-destruction, she had to believe that something worthwhile could be nourished in this lovely space growing steadily lovelier.

At night she drank good scotch, read Iris Murdoch and spoke regularly with Evan. Living with his grandmother wasn't the world's most inspired idea -- naturally she was nudging him toward a business major and away from set design -- but he was very comfortable there, and redecorating his room between classes.





The Ontological Excuse for Optimism


"At least we had twenty good years between the Pill and AIDS," she wrote on the card for Jeanie's fortieth. Since her girlfriends had definitely made the most of those two blessed decades, the sentiment cracked everyone up; even tall shy ivory Jeanie broke her customary El Greco stillness to giggle "Perfect timing!" when she read it.

"Any regrets, Girls?" Vanessa polled, leading class discussion, and Margo answered, "Just the six I missed. You know, fuck 'em all but leave six for pall bearers." Jeanie, whose little laughs wouldn't stop wisping, was mopping her eyes with a lacy new hanky from Barb, and soon had to toss another to Glori, who was helplessly hooting and streaming.

There'd never been a better time to be past forty, as all the others agreed, and even she -- the baby of the clan -- would know the thrill of verifying their assertion before long. Barf. It wasn't that the number itself loomed vile in her mind but the idea of being forty years old and afraid of fucking was almost too much to think about; such was supposed to be the province of neurotic college sophomores, if anyone.

Barb was also wandering ahead, along the dark line. "I wouldn't trade places with my kids for anything," she pronounced between nibbles of pate.

With a shudder to prove she meant it, Margo concurred. "I shudder, I absolutely shudder whenever I think about Lynette."

"Makes me glad we've just got the boys," Glori bubbled -- referring to her ancient Yorkies, a matched set except one had no teeth.

As Barb tore into the cigs she allowed herself only at parties, Margo paused during rounds with the champagne bottle to sigh, "Mmm, blow that at me." Still tolerant still skinny, Margo was the ideal nonsmoker -- a you-can-live-without-it poster as Modigliani would have done one.

"When I look out at my classroom," Vanessa began before firing up, too. "Well, it's creepy, wondering how many will live to see thirty --"

"This partly depends on how many you let live through senior English!"Laughter rose again from Glori's usual spot on the carpet, where she sat cross-legged gnomish Hals-like, rocking fore and aft in a red sweatsuit.

"You almost didn't make it," Vanessa teased back; she'd student-taught at Glori's school when Glori was a senior, which was the fluke linking her to the advertising women whose uninhibited company she raved to straighter friends about. ("I tell them it's better than therapy.")

Through blur of the wine Vanessa was a Giacometti shape colored by Hockney, and Barb was a Henry Moore with face and hair fluffed by the deftest makeover team at "Glamour" magazine. Among El Greco, Modigliani, Hals, theirs were easily the most modern looks in the room though Vanessa and Barbara were already fiftyish.

So long so huge-eyed, Jeanie brought her back from pretty reverie. "I guess you're really worried about Evan." More than usually beatific lately, Jeanie was also more than usually interested in her friends' children now that she was finally expecting her first.

"No more than anybody with a gay son barely in his twenties," she responded after gulps of wine. Lord how pitiful to be a new grownup, gay or straight, in such an earnest fearful era, a time of maladies marryings dyings. And how profoundly threatening at any age, just being on the loose in the nineties. Damn it.

At the grimly intimate turn of the decade, she like Margo, Glori and Jeanie had felt impelled toward pairing off again; moreover, like Barb and Vanessa she'd been dealing lately with a moribund parent. In her singularly strenuous combination of circumstances, the latter had already proved lethal to the former and she'd chalked up a fresh divorce -- which occasioned an extra celebration welcomed by all since the group was short of birthdays between Christmas and springtime.

"So are you seeing anyone yet?" Jeanie wondered, twiddling gift wrappings and sipping fruit juice like a good girl. It was so different when she had Evan. Now you'd be lined up and shot if you partied while pregnant or opted for a wake-me-when-it's-over birth. America had gotten so bloody structured; rules rules rules were the main things she noticed upon returning from Europe after splitting with second-most-recent-ex Neal.

What number was Neal besides second-most-recent? Five or four, she wondered idly while she answered Jeanie. "Only Zack."

"Zack!" the gallery of gals responded. "Zack. Oh. Again. Oh." They were a Greek chorus sounding off in you-two-are-doomed-to-be-together tones. As she tapped a cigarette against her case, she reflected that Zack's divorces like her own had been rather beyond counting for ages. It must've been ten years ago when colleagues at the ad agency where she and Margo worked had given her the cigarette case for Christmas -- unengraved in the monogram spot because her initials changed so often. Soon afterward she resumed her real name permanently but without sacrificing excursions into marriage: quick halfhearted forays, virtually daytrips. Strange, though, with Brett she'd meant it when she said the nonsense-words; maybe they could've worked out their troubles if Mary Fran hadn't fallen ill and taken over their lives a month after they married. From abandonments in childhood, Brett had a furious resentment of other claims on her attention.

"So tell us what's going on with you and Zack," Flori urged. She was particularly interested, having known him forever and even learned the business at his knee or rather cocktail table. "Is he still not drinking?"

"It's been -- what? -- a year and a half, he said the other day."

"You've got to give him credit for that," Barb commended, adding, "I never would've believed it."

"I don't!" Margo shouted from the patio, barbequing.

"Oh the not-drinking's real," she yelled back, "but he's still a total maniac. For instance, he can't even drive as far as Santa Fe without another speeding ticket. Between here and Taos, he can score two or three. I think they have a warrant out in Espa¤ola."

"Well it's not D.W.I." Jeanie smiled; she had no harsh words in her.

"What's with you two?" Glori insisted. "Is it serious this time?"

"Serious spring skiing while the snow lasted. Whenever I could get away from the witch for a day."

"How's your mom doing?" Jeanie asked.

"She's actually gone home for a while, knock wood; she'll have chemotherapy there for a month or two and then come back to be checked."

"Must be a relief to have your house to yourself again!" Margo called.

"You can't even imagine!" she bellowed in return, then told Barb and Vanessa, "I know you can," and got updates on their ailing relations.

After admiring Barb's eyelids, which were lifted only two weeks ago but seemed barely bruised beneath the rosy shadow, and reviewing Jeanie's honeymoon photos once more, the group migrated to Margo's deck for dinner, featuring Vanessa's elegant crab salad, Glori's homemade tagliatelle, an abundance of respectable bubbly courtesy of Barbara and Margo's array of crisp produce, grilled perfectly al dente. Since they'd all been raised on green slime masquerading as an edible vegetable, Margo liked to quip, "We must've had the same mom" -- which was true for most of them on other levels also. Martyr Mother in the Sky has a surfeit of offspring.

"Just think, we used to order green chile pizza and swill Gallo," Barb remembered and Glori giggled, "Only when we were living really high!" Everybody agreed there was much to be said for maturity -- provided, Margo made clear, that one said it strictly among close friends and quietly.

As they lounged, discoursing on work and men, universally banned from the scene for the evening, the late April night dimmed sufficiently for birthday candles so she stepped inside and lighted them atop an apricot- glazed apple tart shaped in a rustic Eurostyle oblong; her friends always went wild for that dessert and for the herbed pate she'd produced as their cocktail nosh, another recipe inspired by her overseas sojourn.

"Drat!" Glori moaned. "I forgot the sparklers."

"Don't worry about it," Jeanie soothed, but Glori was downcast; even her wedding cake had been crowned with a firestorm of sparklers.

Song ensued, Jeanie blew out her candles and Barb, an adept at mommy- style food service, took over tart-slicing while natural-general Margo plucked another bottle from the ice and passed it to the official cork- remover. "Will you, please, my de-ah?" After fifteen years as a cohort, they all had fairly clear-cut job descriptions and her own centered on being consistently outrageous, supplying homegrown herbs and novel words, pruning roses properly and opening any wine known to God without a mess, no matter how ripped she might be at the moment.

Aiming away from glass and flesh, she stripped off wire and foil, tucked the cork under her sweater for a better grip and crouched into champagne-invasion posture. With the cold dripping bottle braced to twist between her knees, she could exert strength beyond her size if a cork proved recalcitrant.

In charge of new jokes and general gaiety as well as pasta, superb ski-boat driving and when even remotely appropriate fireworks, Glori was relating her latest funny story as the cork popped and the phone rang.

"She's back in the hospital, Mom," Evan reported from Texas, "and they're talking about an operation in the morning."

"Nunh-unh, no. Not there."

"They have to. There's some obstruction. She, uh -- she's not in a bunch of pain but she -- hasn't been to the bathroom."

"Spare me the details, Sugar."

"You'll hear them soon enough," Evan snickered. Only input and outgo engaged Mary Fran's interest anymore. She'd already been kept alive months longer than projected -- without enjoying one minute of it.

"You'll have to bring her to me, Doll." No way those idiot doctors in Grayson were going to carve Mary Fran again. Anything they did just had to be redone later in Albuquerque.

"But Mom! I only brought here last weekend!"

"You're telling me?"

"I have classes Monday. And I was planning on Dallas this weekend."

"The Oak Lawn bar scene will just have to manage without you, Baby. Listen, I'll get it wired with people at this end and you let me know in the morning when the plane's due."

So much for peace, privacy and her own weekend plans -- an orgy of copywriting. If she worked night and day, she could just about make her deadlines; instead, she'd fall desperately behind since Mary Fran would demand her constant presence. Her mom even expected her to sleep in the hospital room, on the hard floor.

"Tough break," Glori sympathized, refilling wine glasses, and Margo asked, "How the hell did Evan track you over here?"

She exchanged glances with Vanessa and Barb, who took the question. "You don't just go out, Kiddos. You say where or use call forwarding."

"You poor girls," Jeanie said, "and Evan, too. He's been so great. Amazing for a kid his age."

"True." With a headache stabbing around for the right site, she poked at the slab of tart on her plate and thanked goodness for Evan. This assignment wasn't what her Peter Pan-ish son, her Renoir babe turned Corot courtier, had bargained for when he opted to go back to college and ensconced himself in the considerable comfort of Goomom's Lovely Spacious Lake House. He got less than two years to play spoiled blond ditz before he had to start caretaking the place, Mary Fran's hometown financial affairs and his goomom during intervals when she was well enough to be home. Fortuntely he was up to his tasks. Of course Evan was mindful of the money he'd inherit once Mary Fran was gone and frankly so was she -- no fortune but there was nowhere else for it to go, just as there was nobody else to share current burdens.

"I wish I could just die right now," Mary Fran snipped as they wheeled her through Albuquerque International on Saturday morning. "Why can't I just go ahead and die?" One cheering thought passed through the patient's head when they reached the car. "Maybe I'll die on that operating table today. I do devoutly hope so."

"Don't talk like that, Goomom," Evan chided her.

"Well why not? Then you and your mama can just get on with your lives. I'm sure she's more than ready to --"

"Mother!"

"You're going to put the top of this vehicle up for me, aren't you?"

"It's perfect today, Goomom. I want it down," Evan protested but of course he knew better than to press the issue. Besides, he could run it back down as soon as Mary Fran went into surgery; he'd want to spend the afternoon cruising around, visiting his friends and she didn't mind if he did. Unlike her own mom, she wasn't into Misery Loves Company.

"Now let's hurry and turn on that air-conditioner."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Can't you hurry up?"

When Evan urged her to put in a tape, Mary Fran of course demurred. "If you have to, but I doubt if I can stand the noise." It was a silent ride except when Mary Fran whined things like, "You'll stay with me, won't you? Don't leave me!" and "Your hands look horrible."

He was still catching naps in the surgery waiting room -- Gary, the guy she met there several months ago during one of Mary Fran's operations. His son had died in a car wreck that nearly killed his daughter, too.

"How's Robin?" she asked when he woke, yawny but smiling to see her.

"A whole lot better now. They may let me take her home next weekend. She'll have to come back for work on those scars but, after what she's been through already, that'll be like nothing."

"Her vision?"

"Little problems. It'll be okay," Gary grinned. His attitude was simply astounding; if necessary to glimpse a silver lining, he'd turn the damn jacket inside-out.

"But your news isn't so good or you wouldn't be here again."

Well certainly not, she thought; though stark as Ryman, emotionally hospitals were so Bosch. "Bingo," she told Gary. "They're removing some obstruction, so I suppose it's spread."

"Maybe not much. Even if it's spread a little, these docs are aces."

When she went outdoors for a smoke, Gary came along. He studied her hands on the lighter and said, "I wish you wouldn't do that to yourself. I'm glad you don't have those long fake fingernails, though."

"I don't have fingernails period." Whenever she got a chance, she worked on her house, mostly plastering and refinishing cabinets and doing specialized trendy paint tricks, but she'd also built a deck and knocked down the wall between two dinky closets. After real fun stopped, lavish decorating, collecting and gourmet cooking caught on as social palliatives, so almost every woman she knew had made dramatic home improvements. While others spared their hands by using guys for heavy work, she'd taken the process -- like everything else -- substantially farther than the norm; its frivolous physicality was a welcome counterweight to excesses of abstraction.

She smiled, remembering how it was when she first moved in -- before Mary Fran got sick, before she crossed paths with Brett: Rapt by her remodeling projects, she used to sweat the night away as though with a new lover.

"What are you grinning about?" Gary asked her.

"Nude sanding. It was easier to clean up when I was doing cabinets." Wrong thing to say, since Gary was clearly Conjuring an Image. "Anyway these hands are tools, as you may recall from prior conversations."

"I remember," Gary laughed. "Missed your calloused hands and cute face around here, Little Lady. Yeah I've -- thought about you."

He'd flashed into her consciousness from time to time, also, with Evan's acronym blinking underneath like TV-screen Chyron: "N.O.T.D." Not Our Type Dear and indeed he wasn't. Into weight-lifting in a major way, Gary was built like Mighty Mouse and he always wore teeshirts, usually legible, with cowboy boots and jeans that were spray-on tight. Impossible to look at him and play Name That Artist. Such a darling pixie face, though, plus sunbeams for a soul and a sexy perfect haircut -- which figured since his background was Italian. Knowing he routinely hefted seven-hundred-some-odd pounds, she couldn't help but be aware this dude could take any other man she knew and snap him in half like a beige crayola. Not that he'd want to.

What he might be capable of doing with her and presumably wanted to, based on the quasi-salacious glint in his eyes, presented an endlessly fascinating subject for speculation. On second thought, perhaps not endlessly; she'd have a few free nights before Mary Fran was moved from I.C.U. and the campouts began.

Oh dear, she corrected herself, that was seventies-thinking: a sad burble from the Go For It Why the Hell Not? world which submerged, it seemed, long ago as Atlantis. Nowadays it was immeasurably far from bright to consider going to bed with the odd, okay very odd, stranger. Damn it.

"Have some coffee with me, huh? Then we'll check on Robin and your mom." Gary draped one of those leg-sized arms around her shoulders -- in a tactful buddybuddy kind of manner. "Sound like a plan?"

"It'll suit for the short-term."

"You're something else," Gary assured her and she felt assured; his was after all a statement that couldn't be argued, much less wrong.

What, she mused as they sat in the hospital cafeteria -- a ghastly- bright set with all the charm of an insecticide factory or any eatery with the word "family" in its name -- would adman Zack Martineau make of builder/bodybuilder Gary Cecconi? And vice versa, since that deserved deliberation, too? Chances are they'd begin and, for that matter, end by laughing at each other. In between they'd find a few points of contact, based on business and sports, since Zack could bullshit clients of every ilk although he preferred to talk about contemporary novels.

That scenario was better than she projected when she imagined Gary in converse with various others: Brett and Robert with their ardor for metaphysics and poetry, say, or uptight eternally necktied bureaucrat Neal. Neal's only notion of fun was frequenting world-class restaurants, though he considered himself macho because he flew Air Force planes a thousand years ago. Gary'd scare the dickens out of her three most recent exes, not to mention her parade of hardcore aesthetes -- actors painters musicians writers photographers; graphic and landscape designers; gallery and museum people; all the guys she played her artsy games with. ("Heavens yes she's a Fragonard visually but when you get to know her, well, she's a cross between Justine and Balthazar, trying to look like Melissa.")

Wheelerdealer Sam McGrath was the one man she'd been close to who'd have sense enough to respect Gary from any impulse but purest craven fear.

With Gary on its opposite side, the dainty cafeteria table appeared made for a toddler's playhouse. Hulking over there like the lumpiest of Rodin bronzes -- at last she'd found a hook, provided you kept a mental bag over his face -- Gary wore a fifth-grader's "Look Ma" grin while he rhapsodized on the talents, sweetness and beauty of his children and described a seemingly infinite store of delightful siblings and other relations. He didn't kvetch about his family; he noticed them, enjoyed them, listened.

Gary listened to her, too; he asked questions and awaited full replies, showing every indication of honest interest -- not patient civility, not suspicion and appraisal. She thought, not for the first time, that this exceedingly strange man was both a hundred percent present and a hundred percent nice. Surprises started coming when he also proved to be something of an authority on cooking, not just Italian style; even before his wife ran out on him and their kids, he'd been experimenting in the kitchen. Further, he was stunningly knowledgable about twentieth century music: blues, her own favorite, plus jazz and the latest rock. Obviously Gary was wide-open to the tunes his kids liked hearing which, given her assessment of Evan's musical taste aside from a wholesome appreciation for Beethoven and Mozart, struck her as a saintlike quality.

"I can't believe he's their father," Evan gaped after Gary left to fetch the tacos Robin woke up wanting for her supper. "Robin and Rick before he died, I met them at some parties and they were like -- normal. Hot clothes, you know, great hair. A little younger but Rick was tight with Darren, the one who paints the murals. Or maybe the guy who makes those freaky puppets in drag? Jamey, yeah. Rick was gay or at least bi and Robin's sort of a baby fag-hag. Pity about her face, she was gorgeous. So was Rick. I can't believe their dad's that -- whatever. Have you been hanging out with him all afternoon or what?"

Before she could even nod, Evan was ranting again. "Aren't builders supposed to make money? You'd think the man would dress. Speaking of -- let's go change and have a decent dinner. Goomom won't be awake for hours and my God the slop in Grayson, well you know. You have to drive down to Dallas for proper food." Thanks to several years of visiting Poshest Dining Rooms of the World as Neal's stepson, Evan could be a pain in the ass.

"I am famished for ossobuco, Mom. I want to go to Pete's and then -- oh yes yum, Mille Grazie for that chocolate ravioli with citrus cream."

Evan spoke and it was so: They spent a fabulous evening drinking Bellinis, eating scandalously lovely food and roaring through town, a pair of unseatbelted scofflaws with the top down and the "Apassionata" blaring. The darling boy knew exactly what they needed.

Mary Fran was still so out of it she probably wouldn't remember that they'd stopped by I.C.U., but they did of course. Once again by all accounts the woman was cancer-free but, since she never would believe it, she'd just keep stewing and fussing until it came back. She'd miseried herself into getting sick in the first place, grieving nonstop after Pedro died. Actually her second husband was named Peter Gustafson but, after spending about fifty years keeping refrigeration systems alive in Central America, he liked being called Pedro. Hell of a nice man, he was, though no rocket scientist. If they put you away for slaughtering the language, he'd be among the most-wanted serial killers but Pedro was tall and strong, tanned and charming, close to hunky even at close to eighty. Mary Fran had more fun with him in seven years than in thirty-three with Ray, and Pedro could almost make Mary Fran act like a person; she was vastly easier to take when she was married to him, and he even managed to teach her a bit about cooking. Better late than never.

Gary, who come to think of it reminded her slightly of Pedro, had left a note with Mary Fran's nurse: "Robin sends me home around ten now to sleep so see you tomorrow, I'll be around most of the day or call tonite if you feel like talking." Disastrous punctuation and structure and "tonite" made her wince, but the overall message was well beneath Pedro's league; bless him, Pedro talked about exterminating "atheists" on his rose bushes.

As she lay in bed remembering how cute Mary Fran and Pedro were together, she had to hope their quick-succession illnesses meant they'd find each other sooner, next go-around -- perhaps as kids instead of widowed people in their sixties and seventies. It also occurred to her that, bizarre though it seemed and in spite of herself, Mary Fran would probably approve of Gary.

Evan was snoring gently in the next room, the bedroom that was meant to be an office and perhaps a very-occasional guest lodging in the small- but-heavenly adobe home intended just for her. For solitude; for rampant creativity; for parties with old friends from advertising and journalism, new friends she'd made by getting back into acting.

Now she could only dream of doing shows or serious writing; it was scarcely possible to get her mundane work-work done. And her delicious private space was wholly lost within this other edifice, as when Greek and Roman temples were enshrouded by church structures, rendered invisible for centuries. Finally exhausted from scribbling out urgent copy for Monday, she listened again to Evan's sinusy night-breathing and fell asleep in downy ease thinking she'd be gladly camped at the hospital, crashing just anywhere if he were the one in intensive care.

Atypically she nightmared calamity: terrorscape of desert houses shattered by a sudden torrent wall, washed down while smashed airplanes spun around them in floodwaters. Having managed to survive this, she woke feeling real blood in her veins, and afraid. And reckless, maybe brave.

She invited Gary over next evening, knowing Evan would inevitably be on the town until his flight time, and while Sandia Peak turned pink as the cloud-on-a-stalk tamarisk trees they strolled beside flowing acequias to the main canal, the acequia madre that paralleled the hardly-mighty- any-longer Rio Grande. Those stupid boots made Gary walk so pigeontoed, especially in sand, as she couldn't fail to notice as her stylish North Valley neighbors jogged by with stylish North Valley dogs or promenaded with goblets of wine. But each word he said had the strength of kindness.

Gary seldom drank, but she forced a little pinot grigio down him while they listened to Bessie and Billie and Blind Willie McTell. The fun began when he apparently decided that he'd like to have her sit on his lap; without even getting up, he simply reached one arm behind the sofa, grabbed her just above the knees and placed her there. She'd never felt so -- other; so, well okay, feminine -- and Gary was in the top ranks among kissers, too. As he proceeded to set her, doll-like, wherever it pleased him to put her, she flashed that the girls would never believe this, but she realized on review that of her they'd believe everything. Except possibly that she didn't screw him until nearly a week later.

They met at noon on the following Thursday and Friday, first at her place, then his. She felt like a flower being arranged, probably because she'd been writing several articles for a floral design publication.

Zack would have a hissyfit if he found out what she was doing; she hadn't gone to bed with him -- or anyone -- since Brett. It was dumb, deeply dumb but, though she preached "safe sex" continually to Evan, she hadn't practiced anything remotely of the sort subsequent to the boon of corrective surgery in l976. In deference to conditions prevailing through more recent years, she customarily married or did without. And lapses grew steadily fewer. But one couldn't live one's life in unremitting fear, could one? She'd much prefer to kill the coward in herself than feed it.

Mary Fran would grudgingly permit a few evening hours' absence by next Sunday, occasion of Robin's welcoming-home -- or rather welcoming; Gary was selling the house where they'd lived before the accident and had taken an apartment until they could figure what to do next. Attending this, she met a lively horde of Cecconis including every human type, yet these were just a modest fraction of Gary and Robin's kin. Seated, seventeen-year-old Robin was lovely, though one eye drifted and even artful makeup wouldn't cover every scar; in motion, however, she who should have been a butterfly was a stroke patient -- tedious, fumbling. She would need of course a great deal of care.

When the crowd thinned, father and daughter showed her pictures of Rick, a darkly stunning boy, and in her new room Robin slowly slowly hung a few posters he was fond of. She wanted to do it all by herself. Gilded iconic but lyrically sensuous, dear God they were Klimt.

"You know, you remind me of Rick," Gary said when he walked her to her car. "You bring the same things into my life that he brought into it. Beautiful things." At that moment she wanted very much to keep doing so.

Through Gary's phone calls, long ones almost every night, she could tell he was crestfallen when Robin chose to move in with her youngest aunt. He made light of it, naturally, saying kids were there, it was fun for her, he had to get back to business and all that -- but it hurt.

Sometimes Robin came back to him on weekends. Sometimes she weighed her mom's offers to move her to Chicago. Sometimes, according to word Gary got from his sister, Robin wouldn't get out of bed.

Gary'd kept himself together for his daughter, because she needed him; now he needed her but disappeared into his own pain, instead of saying so. After days of driving in the mountains, he returned with A Plan: He volunteered to move with Robin to California and, being interested in California, she was mulling that over. Meanwhile, every night she'd grant permission, Gary visited Robin. He always took flowers.

Hesitant to voice a response to all this, she didn't. But obviously Robin could pretend she still had a brother, by not living with her dad. And Gary was being a total wuss really. She'd never let Evan get away with such evasion; she'd confront, insist. Oh but if there were no Evan.

"Now and then we get together for a nooner," she told the gals over tapenade on Barb's birthday in June. "but mostly he avoids people lately, except family. They may migrate to the west coast, anyhow, so it's very cas'. Hot when it happens, though. I can recommend weight-lifters highly."

That evening Margo was limping a little when she arrived late at Vanessa's; one of her knees was fucked up after bicyling all afternoon. "I just went to the urgent care doctor and he said you're forty-five. You have to expect a few aches and pains now," she laughed. "Well I told him my other knee was the very same age and it didn't hurt!"

Sure enough Margo's knee was fine again when they celebrated Glori's forty-third in July; by then even Mary Fran was healed up and back in Texas. "Imagine what we'd be if nothing mended," she suggested after several Pimm's and seltzers. "Think about it. Every bloodied elbow and knee you ever got on the playground, every stubbed toe, every bruise --"

As Glori jumped in, adding "blisters, measle spots, raw throats and earaches," she let the talking fade in her head and pictured Gary at the scene of April's nightmare -- among the reeling floating airplane carcasses and house debris. This wasn't bad enough so she added tornadoes, flinging timbers and boulders, then brought in arctic wind and wildfire and he went running through the wreckage like a film hero, clearing the way with one hand. Not to show off but because the other hand was occupied. Against his heart he held a butterfly whose gorgeous wing would heal but who could never know unbroken flying.

Just across a gash of unbridged gorge astream with lava, there was paradise and the Gary in her mind could see it, hear it. Every breeze picked up sounds of it: Everyday grumbles were angel music; unwelcome jobs were waterfalls; car troubles were carillons; a money crunch was a footstep in a snowfield and the flu a fat bumblebee. On that near but unattainable side there was perfected weather: Paradise was a separate microclimate bitterly close by, the place where only parents die.

Tuning back into the talk, she heard her friends giving their imaginary cosmic victim abscessed teeth and black eyes, a face paved with oozing zits and eternally sunburnt, the world's most thundering cumulative headache and pierced-ear holes that never stopped seeping. The image was getting hysterical, not to mention quite enough to make you number unwarranted blessings at sleepytime instead of silly sheep.

Oh yes the mending, thought of the mending was good, frail but the strongest amulet and she wished it toward Gary and Robin although it afforded no shelter from cruelties, unnatural disasters. It was only ontology and even love couldn't keep people alive.

On top of her superspecial Sachertorte, she lighted Glori's candles -- and yes the requisite sparklers from her kitchen drawer. Entertaining in her own house for the first time in a long while but certainly not the last, she carried the cake onto her deck perfumed with honeysuckle jasmine roses. Then the laughing women sang.




The Poet as Day-Laborer


"To make a new world you start
with an old one, certainly."

- Ursula Le Guin

Along Texas highways, the signage was so bloody wild: "Priceless Motors" with the subhead "We Finance," for instance; the "It'll Do Motel;" "Overnight Parking By Day," which took a minute to interpret; and the supremely evocative "Mama's Place." As she sped by that board hawking "Home Cooking Truck Wash Tire Repair," she always pictured Mama -- a sweetfaced can't-do-enough-to-help old lady scrambling eggs with one hand while scrubbing semis with the other.

Noting Texana had become her main form of amusement in the past few years. She couldn't count the times she'd driven between Albuquerque and Grayson, north of Dallas -- tablet at the ready for jotting oddments of the farflung settlements which clustered at roadside, looking for a way out. There'd been innumerable flights back and forth, too, easier albeit less entertaining. This trip differed, however, in that she wasn't shlepping her sick mom, her mom's belongings, documents or ashes. When her dad died long before, she lived so far from the action that, at his funeral, Ray simply looked more attractive -- since there's no such thing as more dead. Mary Fran's death, by contrast, was a houseguest. From nether hell.

With nobody badgering her to slow down or keep making food and toilet stops, it was an eleven-hour run to Daniel and Wesley's. Now that Daniel's folks were failing, the boys had bought a bungalow for weekend visits in Grayson and she was welcome to stay there while fluffing up the rent-house she'd inherited. Knowing the strict limits of her skill with any mechanical object you didn't steer or type on -- which involved Hegelian negation-as- a-force, not just puny capability -- Daniel had taped instructions about his fiddly lock onto the key he mailed her. After opening the place without grave difficulty, she found another careful note reminding her how to manage a floor furnace; this also directed her to the good scotch, so she poured a double to still the road-buzz quaking her neural equipment. Frankly the prospect of operating on her own terms in Grayson also required serious steadying-down for; so far she'd been nothing but a daughter here.

During her bath Friday morning, she screamed just a couple of times over the running water, then -- as she'd pledged -- placed first-thing calls to New Mexico clients. Fuck all, there were rush jobs she'd have to fax back at Margo on Monday. Best to conquer these before the boys arrived, so she wrestled her word-processor and files from the car trunk, devised a makeshift workspace and knocked out a radio campaign and most of a brochure -- not what she'd prefer to be writing but this shit paid the bills.

At noon she aimed for Braddock Street to compile her next to-do list. It was no surprise that the garden looked pitiful: Mary Fran had often enough whined about its decline and twice she took a peek, herself, while the place was rented. Hydrangeas by the doorways were the first to go, for want of anyone who bothered to water, and Mary Fran's lush lawn had thinned inexorably for ten years. Now dark stumps sprouted ghost-trees -- the vanished mimosa and towering twin cedars, the elm that shaded twirling practice and harbored mistletoe -- and there was no evidence whatever of spirea by the driveway. No rose canes beneath bedroom windows, no berried sprays of delicate nandina, not a twig left from summer's sweet mock-orange.

Outdoors only the briar hedge along the side street looked right -- that wonderful monster was indestructible. The alley hedge, though bare in spots, was also living and the back yard's golden chain tree and redbud showed signs of partial survival; under the redbud a few crisp branches fanned to mark her memory of forsythia and quince.

Applying the oldest specimen on the overloaded key ring that made her feel like a warden, she entered the house to find its every surface beaten-up beyond belief.

"Attack of the Pig People," she joked to the guys that evening but at first it was overwhelming. Daniel almost cried, too, as he paced from room to room on Saturday -- viewing those sad empty spaces behind the mirage of what they used to be. Whatever else you might say about Mary Fran and Ray, which was considerable, they did keep things nice.

While Daniel and Wesley were helping her haul out pet-fouled carpet and lug in her tools plus the godzillion cans of paint purchased yesterday, the neighbors' capacity for curiosity containment was tried and exceeded.

As Mary Fran would've predicted, Leo Jordan showed up first; a retired postman, he felt thoroughly welcome on other people's doorsteps, discussing other people's latest news. "So are you moving home now?" Leo wondered, chewing words like a camel; he never did favor wearing his teeth.

"Renovating between tenants, Mr. Jordan."

"In the very nick of time," Daniel contributed with a giggle. "This place is a pit."

"You remember my old friend, Daniel Beck? And this is Wesley Palmer."

"Daniel," Leo ruminated. "Bitsy's boy. How's your daddy's heart?"

"Better than my mother's but that's not saying much."

"I think these last folks burned their garbage in the fireplace," Leo was gumming as Daniel led him away for the tour while she took charge of Alva Vest, Marilyn Carson, nearly blind Sallie Jordan and Alva's coffeepot.

"I said to Marilyn yesterday that I thought I saw you over here," Alva drawled, "but you got gone before I could come across. Let me look at you, Sugar -- will you look at this girl, Marilyn? -- still so tiny and pretty." Being retired from the gas company, Alva promised to get the heat turned on without delay, excused herself to make summary arrangements and, true to her word, produced a service rep within the hour. Such a precious woman though you could doubtless raze buildings with her hips.

"You know, I just love it here," Wesley said when the crowd dispersed. "Now that we have our little house, I wish we'd live in it all the time."

"Drive three hours every workday? Ugh. But you go ahead, Darlin' --"

"Maybe I will, Honey."

So the boys were at odds again. While living near in Albuquerque, they'd seemed happy together -- but why not? That was really an extended holiday since they never got around to looking for jobs until desperation set in -- an approach which wouldn't serve in New Mexico. After a Denver interlude, they wound up back in Big D. And now Wesley was eager for another scene change, seeking what Zack deemed "the geographical cure." Mad Zack Martineau and His Penchant for Pop-Psychology; this was a man who'd traveled every tangent, but she didn't mean to be thinking about him now. Certainly not this close to Mardi Gras season.

Thankfully the house was feeling less like an icebox but, with no electricity yet, she had to concede halfway through painting the living room. Wesley was glad enough to stop extracting carpet tacks from the dogpuddled hardwood, so they caught up with Daniel -- who'd been cooking for his parents -- and dressed for dinner at The Shore. A kinghell drive but it was the only decent restaurant in pig-stand and cafeteria country.

"Do you want to go in?" Daniel asked when they passed cemetery gates beside the darkening lake road.

"Once per quarter's sufficient." Her mom, the rattly can of her, had been at Fairlawn for not quite three months now, adjacent to whatever was left of her dad. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, even a great-grandmother were also ranged among those curliqued roads she learned to drive on since, as she and Mary Fran laughed then, there was nobody to harm. If she were nice, she'd check the floral arrangements but she didn't feel that nice.

"We straighten up all your baskets when they blow over," Daniel said, reading her mind as usual.

"Are they presentable?"

"Darlin', you know I'll take them up for you the minute they're tacky."

The next turning led past Mary Fran's last home, the lake house that belonged to her second husband and went to his son after she died. He couldn't wait to empty it, either. When she arrived for her mother's funeral and activated the garage door zapper, the space was so dense with Warren's packed-up boxes that she couldn't fit the car inside. Though much of the kitchen gear belonged to Mary Fran, not a plate or glass was left indoors and his "For Sale" sign was prominent on the sink counter.

Daniel grinned. "It'll never move for what he's asking."

"Good."

On Sunday Daniel scrubbed kitchen appliances at Braddock Street; it was the sort of detail-task he handled well but she performed horribly. Wesley snagged more carpet tacks while she finished painting the living room in an apricot shade to harmonize with the auburn maple floor and trim.

By midafternoon the boys needed to head for Dallas, and she was on her own with enough remaining daylight to undercoat the den paneling -- a grisly honey-colored ash which would soon succumb to three blended tones of Swedish grey. She knew what she was doing. With her dinky hands, fiercely strong though the size of an eight-year-old's, she'd already made her New Mexico condo a showplace. In a few weeks she could save this ruin from itself and of course she wanted to -- for her own investment purposes certainly but also as the last thing she could ever do for Mary Fran, Ray and the neighbors she'd known since childhood. Not that she'd ever cared much for any of them; it would be sick now to pretend that she did. Worse, it would also be tasteless, and something she didn't lack was taste.

"I'm so glad you have good taste," was how Mary Fran praised her at the ad awards ceremony where she won half a dozen categories and even Best of Show. Nearly seven hundred entries from all over New Mexico and her daughter's agency took top honors, but what thrilled Mary Fran as she surveyed the applauding crowd was an issue of comparative dress-sense; she was especially appalled by Dana Garrison's greenly spangled mermaid-skin. Similarly, how her daughter was costumed provided Mary Fran's touchstone for judging plays: "Oh that was a good one," she could hear her mom raving after Hamlet. "You got to look pretty."

Naturally there was a lot of noise in this silent house, beginning with those screeching giggles that weren't laughs at all. From end to end of the long living room, a baby went rolling and howling from tickling relentless fingers. Pans rattled in the kitchen; in the bathrooms, water ran. Buddy, buried out back, was barking. Down the hallway, where an untuned piano was being practiced, little girls squabbled over games and big girls grieved bad haircuts. Records played now and then, old ones more hole than plastic. Doors slammed.

If at the moment, she couldn't even squeeze time to finish the novel -- her stagework- and sex-surrogate through the consuming years of Mary Fran's illness -- she wasn't about to let poltergeists tug her toward snips of sentimental poetry. It was vital to do substantial things now, first by staying in action, too busy with her hands to listen. Or miss smoking much.

In her daddy's customary spot in the den, a Proustian tissue of Ray coughed furiously, drowning the drone of a television golf announcer.

"Go somewhere or shut the fuck up," she told him.

The house went quiet and was becoming shadowy. On her way back to Daniel and Wesley's, she stopped downtown at Garrett's for extra-coarse sandpaper and ran into, of all people, Debbie Dean -- looking good despite the same splitlevel hairdo, curlytopped but waist-long in back, that she'd worn since she was ten years old. She was junior high art teacher now and Debbie Taylor actually, although she wasn't married to Brad any longer.

"Hey there, Girl!" Debbie hailed her in the discount store aisle, then grabbed her elbow to confide. "Did you know Hale passed away? It's just the awfulest thing. She had three little girls. Teensy-tiny, one of them."

"Damn shame."

"Didn't I hear Daniel bought himself a house in town? And how is that crazy ol' boy?"

"Besides crazy and older? Maybe crazier but it's understandable. He's been tending to his parents a lot lately."

"Mm I heard they were bad. And I was s'sorry to hear about your momma passing. Thank the Lord my momma's not in any kinda that shape. 'Course she was just a baby when I came along. You got to come dancing with us one night soon and bring Daniel. How long you here for? And what have you been doing to yourself, Girl? More paint on you than anything you aimed at, I bet!"

So Mrs. Dean still went out to boogie and with her daughter, no less. June was the type who'd hang onto her looks and, by local standards, she was always interesting; used to be, she smashed cheap dishes by the crate for therapy.

It wasn't easy to shake Debbie, who wanted to whisk her off to a step-aerobics class and onward to a meeting of some mental health group seemingly based on telling yourself how normal and ordinary you are. The key to sanity, Debbie evangelized, is not considering yourself special.

Zack, she laughed to herself, would try any angle but that one. Lying in the bathtub, picking off paint crumbs, she tried to picture Zack at home with Renata and couldn't. Of course she'd heard tales of rows they had while they were married; he'd described them, playing for sympathy. Those took place when he was a drunk, though, and all disputes with Zack would have been rows then, as interchangable as his wives and other women -- exceptional ladies, mind you; no less special than he, to hear him tell it, yet he insisted on the term "interchangable." Even after he was supposedly in pursuit of perfect intimacy and permanent commitment and convinced he could achieve these only with her, certainly not with Renata, Zack liked pointing out that his loves were inevitably of the same ilk. Last winter he showed her a card deck of almost identical photos stuffed behind a framed snap from one of their ski trips; in each shot, he posed at the top of a run beside a different but, according to him, not appreciably different woman. If accurate, that was imponderably weird. As she answered people who asked if she had more than one child: Why keep making the same mistake when you can innovate? Besides, there was such a thing as too much candor. When she was a tot watching her daddy fiddle with an engine, her bubblegum dropped into battery acid; it was back in her mouth before Ray could stop her, and that was what truth tasted like -- many forms of it, anyhow.

Because it proved impossible to find a public fax machine in Grayson, she had to throw herself on the mercy of Mary Fran's former colleagues at the bank. Ida Lou was there, too, standing in line for a teller.

"My Baby!" Ida Lou smiled her gigantic smile, and they ran to hug each other. Besides looking after her when she really was a baby, Ida Lou also cleaned for Mary Fran until she got too old to shove the furniture. Since she was black, people always took notice when they hugged in public, though nowadays they tried to be less obvious about it. Ida Lou said she was tickled to know Mary Fran's house was being fixed-up right. No telling how she heard; word just got around. It was a pleasure to see her but then everybody had to visit and two solid hours melted before she escaped that bank; given the ubiquity of the small-town shtick, how did anything get done?

Talking about this with Daniel at The Shore on Friday, they decided there was a spell on the place -- nothing so radical as Sleeping Beauty's or Rip's, but a cruel time-illusion: Any townsfolk remaining past the age of twenty were dialed down to drowsy and finally woke up dead. Wesley disagreed; he found the pace charming, so she should've known better than to accept his offer to help her with painting. While he spent the whole weekend coating her parents' bedroom in iciest yellow, she covered the kitchen with nordic blues and greys, extended apricot down the hallway and replastered Ray's bathroom. She adored Wesley honestly but if, as Dr. Thayer suggested, she was suffering from post-traumatic stress and bordering on clinical depression, there were some in the world who'd profit from an epidemic.

Sick or healthy, of course it was simply her nature to rock on at full speed. "Just Do It" was Mary Fran's motto decades before it occurred to those who represent those who produce sport shoes, and she cut slack for neither physical ailments nor emotional disarray. As long as these were other people's. When seriously ill herself, Mary Fran fell smooth apart and refused responsibility for anything, but she never lightened up on her family. Flat out of patience with her home-from-college daughter, fresh from a speed-marathon-slash-suicidal-breakdown and crying over reams of research notes that needed to become an honors paper in the week before summer term, Mary Fran had howled, "Just do it!" And of course she did.

In the same Kantian spirit, she'd scarcely missed a schoolday, served as the other freaks' emergency number when she herself was nuts and never stretched a business deadline. She still didn't, as urgent assignments obtruded by telephone each day or so. Debbie Dean rang almost that often, cackling the way she did and importuning; Deb was not to be denied and furthermore had a guy in mind to fix her old pal up with. Ultimately she agreed to meet them both for lunch and it turned out this dude, though cute in the face, had the muscle tone of mozzarella, plus Dreams of Iowa.

"Imagine dreaming of Iowa!" she reported to Daniel.

"I can't," Daniel deadpanned and Wesley couldn't, either.

"His ex has the kids here and they're little, so he can't go to Iowa."

"Mercy!"

"I told him munchkins do travel. But he just kept raving on like Iowa's a mix of Timbuktu and heaven. Green fields spiel and the lot; it was a voice-over for Aaron Copland. And I was hearing this -- brace yourself well -- within the confines of a cafeteria."

"No booze then. Mercy!"

"Well you don't always have to have liquor, Honey," Wesley drawled.

"So you won't see him again I guess if you can help it. Let me think who's around."

"Grayson's not exactly an orchard. Anyhow, I'm not shopping."

"I don't believe you."

"You always believe me."

"Then I don't understand."

"According to the lore, it goes with the territory. Depression --"

"You've got to miss --"

"You shut down really. I never would've believed it, either." True enough, she'd been immune to men practically since Mary Fran's sickness took over her house and drove Brett away. Briefly with Gary, then Zack last Mardi Gras, there'd been weird flashes -- rays from past the horizon before absolute night fell. It was a year ago when Zack, after prying her open, decided they were having too much fun or something and let Renata move back in; guilty for hurting her while he was drinking, he said he meant to help a while but his ex meant to marry him again and would.

Now in Arctic Circle frozentime -- but with no clear prospect of spring -- her truncated emotional range encompassed random thorns of rage or spates of tears but mostly nothing. Aside from her son and Daniel, there was no one in her life she wouldn't walk quickly away from. They'd both seen her through prior recluse phases but nothing like the current streak, so it was natural for Daniel and Evan to worry. They couldn't do Jack Shit about it, though, any more than she could wave a magic wand to solve their problems. God the way Daniel drank; God the way Evan spent money.

All she could do was wait it out, her own stuff as much as theirs, while trying to stay as useful as possible. During intense times, she'd turned to God before but now that was troublesome; she'd have to create her own liturgy first. Crossbusting wasn't enough. Finally, even within the easy life-fostering latitudes of Reform Judaism, all the "Father" and "Lord" material had gotten to her -- but what an editing job to plug in terms like Maker, Protector, Mysterium, Guide, Soul of the Universe, Logos, Source of Light Freedom Joy. She frankly wasn't up for that.

Since, lamentably, service staff at The Shore were still introducing themselves in seventies-timewarp fashion, she called by name for Eddie and another scotch. With just one more plus a coffee and about three further bites of crab salad, she'd be in the ideal head to churn out a few news releases before bedtime. Funny given her distaste for the mechanical, but she knew precisely how to operate herself as a Writing Machine. This fuel. That additive. In a very real sense, she considered while the guys were debating residence in Grayson from the opposing perspectives of bourbon vs pina colada, we're all soup. Her second-most-bizarre ex Neal, for example, was usually tolerable unless he ingested vodka or gin and he'd been careful to avoid both lately; at least when he took her out, he stuck to wine or beer -- generally wine of excellent quality, and moreover he had the taste or caginess not to call her "interchangeable." As was becoming increasingly obvious, Neal badly wanted her back and, being up in years, sixtyish now, he didn't seem to care about the sex thing. If he managed to score another European job, it would be a bitch to turn him down.

"And where the hell are you, Darlin'?" Daniel shook a handful of her hair. "Earth transmitting."

"London, actually." Neal was shooting for a transfer to England and she really loved it there. "Galleries, theatres, antiques markets, river walks, sales at Brown's and Harvey Nic's."

"Beats Iowa!"

"I must've been so nice living over there," Wesley enthused in his squishy-soft buttery way, "except for what's-his-name raising an uproar over everything."

"Neal's mellowed out finally; this past year he's been a help to me, and he was a love with Mother. Did I say he went to see her in the hospital and then the nursing home? Up to when she died, he'd sit and talk to her like a person."

"Well he's old, too," Daniel grinned -- always looking like a kid when he did, almost the same as when she'd met him nearly thirty years ago at the library; he was thirteen then, swinging from the shelving system, and she was eleven. "No wonder the man felt comfortable. He's closer to her age than yours."

"So's Zack but he couldn't handle it. To his credit, he tried once or twice to visit her but he was hopeless, terrified. Imagine a toddler being interviewed by God in a mortuary -- that rigid and puckermouthed, about ready to wet his pants. Zack couldn't wait to get loose and go play."

After they went back to the house, Daniel said he forgot cigarettes and insisted she ride with him to buy some, even though it was freezing-cold and she had writing to do. "I'm seeing somebody," he whispered as soon as they were outside the door. "I've been dying to tell you."

Of course it was at one of the Oak Lawn bars that Daniel met Arthur -- minimally educated, minimally employed but, according to Daniel, so gorgeous. Thirty years old, not even bright or good-tempered, Arthur had been dumped by shiftless people and raised in some public institution. The situation did not strike her as a winner.

"I feel sorry for him. And he just turns me on so much, Darlin'. What more can I say?"

"How about 'Have a nice life; goodbye'?"

"Don't tell me to do that. I have to do this. Maybe it'll just run its course in another month or so."

"Maybe? Daniel Beck, you wouldn't --"

"Oh I might."

"Daniel, he's looking for somebody to take care of him. Like Wesley takes care of you."

"Um-hum. Arthur needs me."

"Think what you need, Daniel, and what about Wesley?" Poor underappreciated Wesley: so stable and amiable. For more than a dozen years he'd dealt patiently with Daniel and been the bulwark of their gracious standard of living. He wasn't even possessive; both guys ran regularly amok on Caribbean vacations. Surely Daniel wouldn't risk all this for riffraff. Suddenly Wesley's interest in moving to Grayson made the clearest sense. Doubtless he'd sensed something amiss during recent weeks when Daniel was sneaking around to see the Dickensian Arthur.

"Gosh oh golly."

Gosh oh golly, she thought again while producing news releases with one brain tied behind her back. What was going on here: Had they all been hexed, even those who fled Grayson early? Deb stuck around to decline from Most Original to village fitness and self-help queen, but Daniel was no better off for escaping. Once Most Humorous, now he was a bored boozy -- well -- queen of something, though still utterly lovable of couse and loving to a fault. As for Miss Valedictorian/Most Likely to Succeed, well this didn't bear thinking about, except to notice schoolgirl-craft had only a glancing connection with life-in-the-world viability. Adulthood's knocks made her a scholar of resilience but that second-rate skill couldn't survive another years-long bout with Mary Fran. Always lightweight, little more than a cosmetics case, today her bag of grownup tricks felt air-empty.

In one time and space, they'd been The Special Three, supplemented by Strange Peter Hammond. Too chilled-out cool for school titles but so bright, wickedly funny, Peter had become the sad projection of his Houston CPA practice, a rich fat brassy Lone Star Princess wife and, like his folks years before, booze. Terrifyingly resigned at their class reunion a few seasons back, he sighed weakly about how she or Debbie could've saved him. Vice versa, too, maybe -- though she strongly doubted it.

So far from saving her, men had flown her like a kite -- the way Mary Fran always tried to, and as clients did. At least the clients, most of them, paid for the privilege, but how unbelievably dull it was to do PR and advertising. In the fifteen years following her first corporate job, she'd scarcely learned a new thing; she just kept applying the same formulae with increasing expertise. Her original mentors, Jerry and Elaine, were so good that the rest of the industry was still playing catchup. On the strength of what they taught her way way back before before plus the naive inspiration of trade litanies e.g. Without Advertising You Wouldn't Know, she'd even created her own golems. Vampires, rather: bloodless, often bloodthirsty shadow-beings drained of their own creative impetus and refilled with the power to prey. Honoring Elaine's farewell words -- "Don't thank me, Dear; just remember you owe" -- she'd paid the old debt all right. It didn't make her proud.

Actually she couldn't think of anything to be proud of aside from Evan, yet it was no more suitable to claim credit for your kids than your looks, brains or talents; you can try to make the most of these, perhaps enhance them but the basic material's a given. In fact she should've done a great deal more with all her givens. So what a waste her life had been -- and waste, she'd always thought, was surely the worst, the most shameful sin.

How to redeem this? Of course the answer was do more; start now. Believe you have the will, skill, years remaining past this time that you can fairly hope is only noontime. For heaven's sake start now and here to do far more, because anything less is unworthy. Anything less is just dreaming of Iowa.

She used the same expression, saying goodbye to Daniel for another week. "Don't waste your dreams on Iowa," she whispered while they were hugging, but she needed to accept the fact that Daniel didn't really do dreams any longer. There was nothing he particularly wanted except to get through, and that required the aid of distractions. Her foes, not his.

On Monday she woke to a gift from the universe: snow, already a little too much for safe driving. And falling.

Confined to the neighborhood, she had a leisured CNN fix with her breakfast Coke, then watched Winter Olympics while clearing the decks workwise before wrapping up for a walk. Through patterned air, from hyacinth clouds, flakes sifted soft as spices as she wandered to a nearby park. Opposite the playground, a ranch-style midcentury showplace spread wide and low; it was where the Deans lived when Debbie Ann was small.

From the same jacket shown in her photo with Zack -- Portrait of the Skier with an Interchangeable Woman -- she extracted a notebook and pen to list memories of an almost singular kindergarten exile. She and Debbie shared the experience, long before that meant talking one over. For chatting about whatever they had, the two unruly five-year-olds were banished down a long hallway to Quiet Rooms -- where of course the captives stretched comfortably on their separate floors, stuck their heads in the hall and resumed their conversation. They were on intimate terms since, prior to kindergarten, they'd been acquainted from dancing school.

From those days, she also recalled tall Beryl, who wore braids and drew superb horses; breathtakingly beautiful Martha Sue, tan as apple crumble and cafe au lait-eyed but platinum-blonde, implausibly tiny; and the horrible Miss Aldredge who bitched her out every day because, knowing cursive already, she refused to print her name.

Images of little girls filled her mind: Debbie Beryl Martha; the older but nonetheless wrenchingly young Olympic skaters; and another kindergarten student -- the child just shot in Israel while running to meet her father. Because she was first off the schoolbus, her classmates had to follow those round footprints until they ended where a gingham bookbag tumbled into mud. Like winners on the ice at Meribel, the moppet sabra finished ahead of everybody else. But instead of wearing gold silver bronze on bright ribbons, she ended with bright ribbons and steel.

Each evening that week, she found she could compose a quick poem on the Daily News. It was something. "On any level you wouldn't recognize the place, Wallace," she wrote toward Stevens -- eternity's walker on the metaphysical streets of physical New Haven, now turned to a schoolboy gangland where a six-year-old's face was blown off from behind.

At Braddock Street, where things had been shaping up nicely, it was time for the hard bits: She spent two days steaming off torn wallpaper, then applying texture and paint in Mary Fran's big bathroom before doing the same in the bedroom that used to be her own. When she arrived at the tall-windowed corner where her bed always stood, tears suddenly choked her and she knelt in her under-the-bed hiding place. So often she'd slid under there with her books or to hear music away from Mary Fran's intrusions.

Well Mary Fran was gone now, she thought, and was surprised to hear her child-self answer: I didn't know that except maybe; is it safe to come out? She replied, only in her mind, I think it's safe now -- to which the phantom child responded: But you can't guarantee it?

I'm working on that, Dear.

Fine but don't push me. I'll be waiting right here.

Good God part of her, the little one with all those huge feelings she was told not have, had been cowering under that bed for more than thirty years. "Of course," Daniel said when he got to town that evening and Evan said more or less the same thing when she phoned him Saturday in New Mexico: "Yeah Mom, you can't help it but I hate how you're so cold in any crisis. I mean it's effective behavior but sometimes you're not human, no offense."

It was a gorgeous weekend -- the wintry weather had finally broken -- and happily the worrisome name of Arthur wasn't spoken. For Sunday brunch and several hours afterward, she sat with Daniel and Wesley on the deck outside The Shore, with waves floating under her feet and new ideas floating into her head, such as a notion there might be a future after all. Also the possibility of packing up advertising and PR forever; maybe she'd buy and rehab houses, saving all mental energy for what she wanted to write.

Last before painting outside, she started sanding floors and trim in all the original rooms; she could easily refinish hardwood but the added-on den was somewhat beyond her. Built in the sixties on slab, it required some decent form of vinyl flooring plus a real ceiling to replace junky suspended tiles -- so she turned the den over to Ow, the elder Becks' usual handyman. O. W. Newlin proved more adept than his nickname implied and, though an old fart, didn't gritch about her heavy rock tapes blasting.

"Ow's fifty-some," Daniel corrected at the next weekend. "If that."

"They just look older here," Wesley smiled, "because they're not vain."

"Well they could stand to be," Daniel winced, "but the thing is a lot of them don't give a rat's ass about teeth. It can fool you but Ow's not all that far ahead of us."

"Two years closer to you than to Wesley and me! We're barely forty," she teased, but the truth was difficult to stomach. She gulped her scotch and waved at Eddie for more. "Ow's really in his fifties? Shit, I've been known to screw guys in their fifties; I thought they were cute at the time."

"I'm sure yours had good teeth, Darlin', but what I said was Ow's inhis fifties if that."

"Oh Yucky Thought. UG-ly!"

Harking back to their teen-days, Daniel answered instantly, "PUT-rid."

"Well this calls for -- what?"

Daniel hid his wink at her from Wesley. "I've got an idea or two."

"Not Queens' Point at the lake tonight, I hope," Wesley drawled. "It's too darn cold and I'm sleepy."

Extra beauty-rest was what the situation called for, they decided, but when she tried to go to bed Daniel stopped her. Screened by sounds of midnight laundry, he provided an alarming update which began with how bad he felt about sneaking and lying but boiled down to Arthur's influence: Arthur, who allegedly felt bad about causing Daniel to sneak and lie, was obviously attempting to precipitate a crisis; he wanted to go home with Daniel and explain things sweetly to Wesley. Wouldn't you just know it?

"God don't," she begged but it was like bidding rain to go away or threatening a client who was already into you for forty grand. The weather committee or cosmos, wearing whatever face it happens to have on, will on such occasions reply ever so breezily: Or what, Sugar? Or big fucking what? Daniel was a force of nature now -- thus of injustice, divine and devilish as justice. Her plea was out of scale.

What would be would be, and in fact soon was. Wesley phoned her late Thursday, shattered after meeting Arthur, but at least he had sufficient pride to tell Daniel no.

"He said he didn't want us to break up, he didn't want to move out, he just wanted me to understand and let him date this Arthur openly. They think it's tacky lying to me. Not tacky to run around but it's tacky to lie, how's that?"

"It's all tacky."

"Then he took me off upstairs to say he believes this thing'll fizzle, he believes they'll get tired of each other before long and he doesn't want to lose me, he loves me, he starts trying to kiss on me -- excuse me while I blow my nose. I just don't get it. Daniel claims that I'm the one he really loves but he will not give Arthur up. I said if he would, I'd try to understand and handle what happened but he won't and I'm just supposed to take whatever he dishes out. Just supposed to say good night, have fun and I'll see you sometime tomorrow, whenever time suits you. Next thing he'll be having Arthur here for dinner and wanting him to sleep over. No. I can't believe he thought I'd let him do me that way, can you?"

"You were right to say no, Wesley. He's a fool for doing this to you."

"I think so," Wesley sniffled. Good for him.

"So where are they now? At Arthur's?"

"Beats me where they are. Arthur doesn't even have his own place, he's staying with somebody. Doesn't even have a car, Daniel told me when we went upstairs, because he just wrecks them. He rides the bus."

"The bus? Oh this gets worse and worse."

"He lost his license last year for drinking, the boy's been picked up more times than you can shake a stick at. He's pitiful. Last thing I said to Daniel is I better not hear about Arthur driving one of our cars. They're both in my name because Daniel can't get insurance."

"What the hell does he think he's doing?"

"That's what I'd like to know." Wesley was crying again, full-bore.

"He doesn't know how lucky he was to have you."

"That's right."

"He'll figure it out. Once the mania ends, will you take him back?"

"Shoot, I shouldn't. Prob'ly, though, if he doesn't take too long."

After another half hour, Wesley settled down enough to try sleeping and they agreed to talk again on Sunday after Daniel and Arthur left Grayson. Wesley was keen for her impressions of Arthur.

Daniel phoned early, glad she'd been around to comfort Wesley last night; they'd spoken already but it was no repentence scene, just a logistics-of-parting discussion.

"You are a first-class idiot."

"Um-hum," Daniel giggled.

"You're making the biggest mistake of your life."

"I'm sure."

"Then stop it. Wesley says he'll take you back --"

"But I'd have to dump Arthur. I can't do that to him, Darlin'. He's so excited about getting our own little place."

"Don't make me retch."

"I want you to like him. Give Arthur a chance."

"I'll be polite to him, Daniel, for your sake."

The product of extended time in a gym, doubtless thanks to someone's generosity not long ago, Arthur was well-muscled though slight and his features could strike you as model-handsome until he opened his mouth and blew the image. Then he became a cutish good-old-boy, farm or gas station sort, the male equivalent of rural waitresses who look to be filmstar material until their speech betrays the absence of measurable intellect -- not just their words tone dialect but the disordered babylike movement of their lips and faces. Yes Arthur was dumber than dirt, and that common. Too, something about him made her wonder if he was honestly gay or just punching his most promising ticket.

Debbie took the same reading when she stopped by Braddock Street as the guys were leaving. "That friend of Daniel's -- he isn't -- is he?"

"My guess is not. Could be bi --"

"Oh you're funny!"

"They do exist in nature."

"You're so funny!" Debbie cackled. "Mm, shame he's too young for us."

"What did you say to me?"

"Oh pooh! Just tell him when he comes back I do know a girl about his age -- gee, he's a hunk --"

"The porchlight's on, Deb, but nobody's home."

"I didn't claim he was smart, Girl, I said he was a hunk. And I tell you this house is looking nice, too. You do cute work. I think you need to move right in here, that's what."

By cruising town making notes on fixer-upper properties with For Sale signs, she managed to avoid Daniel and Arthur during most of their visit but had to pop in and say goodbye.

"He's appalling," she told Daniel while Arthur loaded the car.

He waved a cooking spoon that was handy since he'd been fixing a few last-minute dishes to leave with his folks. "Didn't your mama tell you not to say anything if you can't say something nice?"

"You're a good son."

"Well they can't help being old and sick now, Darlin', any more than they could help being bonkers all along."

They were, too -- Daniel's dad was deeply odd; his mom, certifiable -- but she didn't hold it against them, except that Mrs. Beck's freakouts used to scare Daniel so. "We're all descended from a long line of crazy people" was a cardinal tenet of her personal philosophy, the others being "We've all been through hell and it gives no one special privileges" and "Try to treat people very gently; simply anything could be the final straw."

"Okay, maybe I'm wrong about Arthur," she continued -- attempting to be gentler. "I'll reserve judgment for now." That perked him up. So did bitter candor when she rang Wesley. With everybody else perked, she felt drained and slept the sleep of a just four-year-old, then woke early.

Drifting around the park at sunup Monday, she crushed an icing of thin frost away and everywhere she stepped she tread on flowers. Tears poured as she repeated to herself: Everywhere I step I tread on flowers.

No rosemary-for-remembrance or pansies-for-thoughts but there might as well have been. Even the park's meadow of starry weeds got to her that day and in the Braddock Street back yard, from what looked last month like twiggy refuse, forsythia and quince buds were bursting. As she painted outdoors, her rainy gaze strayed to scallops of coral, trumpets of yellow. First blossoms every year, those were also her first flowers: the first blooms she ever noticed and had names for, though one name was wrong; uncharacteristically lyrical, Mary Fran called her quince "japonica."

"I see," Paul Luce answered Tuesday; she hadn't said much -- only "Hello again" and "History is heartbreak, the light-tracks of a snail" -- but with him she never had to rave on. In Sherman buying more paint, she'd stopped by Austin College, hoping to see Paul; she was covered with colors, so it would've been absurd to mention what she'd been up to on that plane.

"A classic quest," he nodded, gathering papers for next class.

"Stolen from the castle, yes. It's a fine way to think about winning them back."

"So." "So" was still Paul's question mark.

"My imagination. My courage."

Everybody assumed she had these, including Paul who looked shocked.

"What gaps seem more apparent?" she had to ask him.

"Direction. Confidence. Or is that one thing?""

She shrugged. "No telling. And what one never had can't go missing."

A little stooped, Dr. Luce was decidedly greyer than when she last saw him -- almost six years ago, that must've been because she'd just returned to the States after leaving Neal in Europe. They spoke then of Gil's death while she was overseas. Beside the hospital bed where Dr. Hendrix Philosophy Chairman arrived at his final conclusions, Paul held his hand while Gil giggled: "You know, I just love all kinds of silliness."

Today they spoke of other mutual friends, not so dear, and about the house Paul and his wife were building for retirement in, of all places, northern New Mexico -- but at the base of the stairs he hugged her as if they'd meet again tomorrow or not until the world to come, rather than next year for a spree in Taos. Always better than literal, he was usually right.

"England again, perhaps," she confided at last. "Of course the prior European experience trivialized me somewhat."

Paul laughed. "You can stand to be."

She gave him her Daily News poems and received Laertes' lines by post on Thursday: "Thought and afflictions, passion, hell itself, She turns to favor and to prettiness." Those were a brother's -- or a favorite English teacher's -- words, nobody else's. What she wanted from a lover, you just didn't get. Love, romantic love, posed the same mystery as gargoyles: Does such a bizarre presence in art and legend testify to something actual or merely a rather sick fancy? One likes to ponder, but experimental science has fairly well resolved the question.

So what the hell was she holding out for? How could she still half believe that Someday Somebody would really get a kick out of her? Why not Neal again, and Europe? If Neal reverted to type and began acting horrible, well she could view handling his fits as all-in-a-day's-work, couldn't she? Evan was nearly through college, pleasantly established in Albuquerque with another lovely blond boy, and Daniel had become unreachable; her work here was either done or un-doable.

As if on cue, Neal rang that evening to let her know his England job came through; he asked if she'd be going with him and she didn't have to think about this any longer than it took to finish the exterior painting. Her alternative, working on houses, had the benefit of being Nothing to Do with Any Man but opened less writing time and kept her on the mindboggling side of the Atlantic.

Born in a state too big to make sense, in a country too big to make sense, of course she found Europe more mentally manageable. It resembled a well-ordered spice cabinet from which you could instantly grab a dash of Spain a spoonful of France a dusting of Austria, whatever -- all the flavors stayed clear and accessible. That's how she put it to the invisible child under the invisible bed, before laying a final coat of stain-with-sealer and driving her already-loaded car back to New Mexico. She didn't want to leave the child trapped in that corner, not if she could possibly be persuaded to come along.

You'll like Europe; I can promise that.

What if she finds me? I bet Mary Fran goes everywhere.

The child pointed toward the doorway so she turned and Mary Fran was standing there. For the little girl, too smart to be tricked and much too hurt ever to be bullied again, she had a job to do: She punched their mom in the face and said, "I was right, Mother, right to feel however I felt."

The child's face gleamed with tears and gratitude. Will you do that again?

With pleasure.

She'll still say.

We'll put a big bandage over her mouth -- see -- and fasten her wrists behind so she can't ever catch you.

She'll still watch.

Not if you believe in me and help me. Will you reach out and hold my hand? It's my hand, not hers.

You won't pull me out from under the bed like she?

I'd never do that.

She honestly felt a tiny hand on hers and heard the child ask in a fearfully big voice: Do You Really Want Me with You? The little hand began to claw and in her mind she saw a furious furious baby tearing up everyone who tried to hold her. Only one person could hold this baby, if she dared to. When she took her, the dream-image melted and she was embracing the child -- who looked up, smiled like an angel and said in her sweet-as-pie whisper: That's a secret.

Yes, she told the little girl, and you can tell me more.

You want? Okay if you take care of me.

You do a pretty good job of taking care of yourself, don't you?

No.

Then you'd better come with me, Hon. Nobody needs to know it.

The child's eyes sparkled at that. Our secret.

They backed out of the room, down the hall and across the living room together as the last layer of varnish went down. Near the front door, the child touched it, trying to remember something.

Sticky like shoepolish. Chocolate bites oozy in cookies.

Gran's cookies, right?

Gran's, the child bawled. Take me!

They drove by what used to be their grandmother's house and parked opposite, alongside the schoolyard.

Early day, the child said, remembering slowly. Morning. Mama brings me. Walk up steps. Gran, her arms, Mama cries. Bruises hand-shape. She didn't mean, forgive, Gran says to Mama. Says to me about falling, not true. Mama goes to work. I eat sticky hot cookies in porch swing. Then comes music that isn't. I run inside but it isn't.

Was that the day?

The child nodded.

It still happened: Sometimes she heard music loud as can be. So that was the day she heard it first, swinging and watching the spider broaden its web. Yes she ran inside to the radio right away and it wasn't on but, back on the porch, the music came back to her again and again.

Well it couldn't have been a day she spent reading, alone in the empty side of the house where when she wanted to be there Gran called her out only at lunchtime; that part of the house wasn't empty then because her Aunt Dolores was living there. And it surely wasn't the day when larkspur bloomed all over Gran's back yard, three feet tall, and she learned about tree-rings and the four o'clock flowers opened right in front of their eyes at four and they both fell asleep talking poems. Because that day was perfect.

Too much to forgive Dolores for, the child assessed.

I agree.

Our gran said too. Said not to feel bad things you feel.

But it was different with her because she really didn't feel them.

The little girl considered this well. Hard act to follow then, she suggested. We can give Mary Fran that much.

That much, she admitted.

She was the saddest person, the child added. How come? Her mom was always happy and so good to everyone.

I guess we'll never know why.

Oh maybe. Let's think maybe.

She nodded yes to the child but was more than dubious. Exceptional virtue in one's mother would be a heavy cross to bear, true; we can scarcely endure it in a casual acquaintance. Too, there was the Great Depression's influence. Understandable for Mary Fran to feel some shame and overvalue security. And yet she'd known Gran's joyful respectful love, so why was there no love in her except as Bondage and Concern, relieved occasionally by cherishing-in-cotton-wool sentimentality?

Mixed with engine sounds were Mary Fran's whinings: "No wonder nobody likes you, you're the most selfish person I ever saw, you look down your nose at other people, you won't listen to a word I say, you think you're so superior, ha, you just go on making one mistake right after the other. I don't know what'll become of you. Nobody'll ever love you like I do but you don't give a damn about me, you don't care. You just go along your merry way, doing exactly as you damn well please, you always have."

Squirming, the child stopped up her ears until the litany ended with, "I try Lord knows I've done my best but you just want to be rid of me, I know that. Aren't you going to miss me at all, just a little bit?"

I hate her I hate her I hate her, the child screamed, then looked over for signs of approval.

Of course you feel that way.

Can't you do any better than that?

All right. Of course I feel that way.

Well then, for pity's sake scream or something. I can't do all the work.

After they screamed and dropped off Daniel's key with a thanks-and- kindly-come-to-your-senses note, which was the limit of what could be done there, the child spoke up again -- Redbud branch, please -- so they stopped at Braddock Street once more.

From the same tree as before, she cut a slender wand for witch-making. It was a perfect souvenir.

Not souvenir, the child grinned. Can't we try again some night?

There was plenty of time to explain how the little would-be witch was really looking first-last-and-only for God, forever straining to see through to the silver on the back of the mirror. And there'd be every chance to demonstrate that Mysterium Always Provides. Despite Mary Fran, maybe even because of her, another world did keep opening. Soon enough the child would understand they had a reserved seat at the scary lovely edge of something, so they might as well get their shit together and make themselves at home.

For now all she answered was: I think it worked for us already.

You don't say! the little girl wondered, her eyes moon-round.

After a long look at the briar hedge, they wheeled toward the highway. Of course it was an enormous risk for them both, but together they were off to jail or Iowa or freedom.

The End (so far).