© John M. Williams
“Well, they sold that land,” said Mama.
“That’s a shame,” the son replied. “Who bought it?”
“Some contractor. So I guess they’ll go in and cram it full of houses. At first they said the City was going to buy it and make it into a cemetery.”
“Somebody’s got to live next to them. I got to thinking about it. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Well, I already know whatever they do I’m going to wish they hadn’t. I’m just too used to it the way it is, and you all used to play out there. I’m glad your daddy’s not alive to see it when the bulldozers come—Thelma Wiggins told me she thought they got about a million dollars for it—ever how many acres it is—but you know there’s six or seven of those Tatum children scattered all over the place—so after you divide it all up, and the taxes, they might get what? a hundred thousand dollars apiece—if that?—and you think that’s not really that much.”
“Beats what you usually go out to the mailbox to find.”
“I don’t know. Especially Hal and Elaine, their own back yard—after all these years—like selling off your life.”
“I guess they thought, what do we want—some kudzu behind the house or a hundred thousand dollars?”
“They should have kept the kudzu behind the house.”
“I wouldn’t argue with you,” almost fifty himself, he said. “Do you ever wonder how hard it is for the things that never were not to be?”
“Honey, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t answer that even if I knew what you asked.”
“I wanted to show you what I found,” he went on. He opened the book in his lap and took out a corner-creased 5X7 photograph.
“What is it?”
He offered it across the space between them. “Well, look.”
“Where’s my glasses?”
She held it out from her and fine-tuned the angle of her head. “Oh my goodness,” she remarked. “Where’d you find this?”
“I’ve had it. It was stuck in this book. I just found it by accident, and then I remembered putting it in there. You gave it to me.”
“Right after that time he came.”
“What time he came?”
“When you and Aunt Margaret went to see him.”
Her features turned incredulous. “How did you know about that?”
“Mama. It wasn’t any secret. I was right here—you told me. And when you got back you dug that picture out from somewhere and said you were going to throw it away and I said don’t do that, give it to me. So you did, and I stuck it inside Kidnapped.”
“Hm,” she grunted, done looking at it, handing it back.
“Do you ever think about him?”
She gave him a peculiar look. “What makes you so interested in him?”
He shrugged. “The riddle.”
“Of being invited to contemplate the universe where one wasn’t.”
“Whatever that means.”
“Well, do you?”
“Child, he never crosses my mind.”
“You don’t ever feel guilty or anything?”
“Guilty?” She cocked her head indignantly toward him. “I most certainly do not.”
“Because I can’t help the way I felt.”
“Do you feel sorry for him?”
“Well—yes—I do. Or did.” She drifted into distraction. “He was just real sad. And if there had been something I could have done to make him not sad and have a happy life I would have done it. But there wasn’t.”
“I guess not.”
“And it’s certainly not something I’ve ever dwelled on—it was over and done with a long time ago. Who I feel sorry for is the wives.”
“How many did he have?”
“He died not long after you saw him, didn’t he?”
She nodded. “Yes—he’s gone. Mother sent me a clipping.”
“When was that? I remember it—I must have been in my twenties.”
“Oh, a good fifteen years before your daddy. A long time ago.”
“So he would have been what?—in his fifties? His early fifties.”
She shrugged. “But you wouldn’t have believed it to look at him.”
“He was just worn out looking. Tired. He looked like an old man.”
“Old before his time.”
He studied the photograph: like somebody’s golden halfback, the smile, the bright eyes, wavy blonde hair—or a proposed film idol who didn’t quite manage to exist.
* * *
“Bruce?” he asked. “As in—Bruce?”
“Yes, and I’m taking Margaret with me.”
“Oh Mama, come on—what kind of a date is that?”
“It is not a date.”
“Well, I can tell you he’s going to be disappointed.”
“He’ll just have to be disappointed then.”
“Where are you meeting him?”
“The question is why am I meeting him?—and the answer is I don’t know.”
“He must have begged.”
“Did you know who he was?”
“Did I know who he was?”
“When he called.”
“Yes, I knew who he was.”
“I mean, immediately.”
“I said hello—he said who he was—and I knew who he was.”
“But you didn’t recognize his voice?”
“Why are you asking all these questions?”
“Same reason you do—I’m nosy.”
“Okay, I’m interested.”
“I didn’t have time to recognize his voice. He said Ruth, this is Bruce Malone, and I knew who he was.”
“So where are you meeting him?”
“It was his idea.”
“Shoney’s? After all these years?”
“Oh pttpt all these years. Who cares? It won’t take ten minutes.”
“Mama and Brucie sitting in a tree . . . ”
* * *
They sit upright on their chairs, having declined a booth—carefully dressed, both of them, after some deliberation, and drinking coffee—it wouldn’t be right to just sit and not order something. He’s ten minutes late.
“Still late,” says Ruth.
“I remember him having car trouble all the time,” Margaret adds.
“Now when I look at you I want you to stand up and say it’s time to go.”
“Or you could yourself.”
“I need your support now. Just be ready.”
Fifteen minutes late. At last a low rumble from the parking lot turns their heads and they see a battered Buick, the driver hunched behind the wheel, creeping along and angling into a space ten yards down. Both stare, without speaking—Ruth over her shoulder, Margaret straight ahead—and they keep staring through the rather lengthy process of the driver extricating himself from the car, taking a last drag on a cigarette and tossing it, pulling his worn tan overcoat tightly around him (it is January), and starting for the door. Ruth turns back.
“It’s him,” Margaret says.
They look at their coffee.
“It’s not him.”
“It’s him,” repeats Margaret, whose eyes have furtively re-risen. “Uh oh—he sees me.” She smiles, and her hand rises in feeble greeting, and then he trudges into Ruth’s view with a glance over his shoulder and their eyes meet. Something passes over his face and Ruth looks down, and he continues along the walk.
“See? I told you,” says Margaret.
“But he’s an old man.”
* * *
He brushes off the hostess curtly, hacks a resonant cough, and slowly heads their way across the sparsely peopled mid-morning room. Ruth watches him without staring until their eyes meet and they simply consider each other. He brings with him nothing threatening. It really must be what he says, she thinks—he just wants to see her again.
He stops at the table and coughs again. He smells smoky, musty. He manages a little smile and his teeth aren’t good.
“Ruth,” he says, with just enough inflection to give it the sound of a greeting.
He turns his head. “Margaret. It’s been a lot of years.” Contemplatively, wistfully, with only a little self-pity—more awe at the gulfs of time that open up in life.
“Hi, Bruce,” Margaret says brightly with a big smile, then turns solemn feeling the blistering stare of her sister.
“Well—can I sit down?”
Ruth nods. “Go ahead.”
She keeps her eyes frankly on him and he smiles, those missing side teeth complementing the deeper, no longer dashing recessions of his hairline. “You don’t have to look so shocked,” he says smiling.
“Oh go ahead and say it. How much I’ve changed.”
“We’re all older.”
“No, good Lord, you look about thirty—just like I knew you would.” He coughs.
She stiffens in her chair, not sure if she should be hearing this. “Why did you want to see me?” she demands. The encounter, with its iceberg words, has suddenly resolved like a focusing lens to the two of them, leaving Margaret wide-eyed and peripheral, acutely listening and not really there.
“What I told you on the phone—I just wanted to see you again.”
“Well, I don’t have anything to say to you.”
“I know that.”
“How did you get here?”
“I mean—from where?”
“You stayed in a motel?”
“You live in Memphis?”
He shrugs again.
“What do you do?”
“Well, right now I’m in between. I’ve been in insurance.”
“Well—I can’t say I’ve done all that good at it.” He coughs. “Or anything else.” He finishes his cough. “I’ve made my way though.”
“Are you married?”
He smiles weakly. “I’m kind of in-between in that too.”
“Where are you living?”
He hacks a little laugh. “And I thought I was going to be the one asking all the questions.”
“I was just asking.”
“In a boarding house—not really a boarding house—a woman that rents out rooms.”
She just listens and doesn’t respond. Margaret cuts her eyes back and forth between them. The waitress brings his coffee—he methodically adds cream and sugar then sips with the relish of a small pleasure.
“You mind if I smoke?”
She shrugs and he lights a cigarette. He missed a place shaving and there’s a little hole spreading from the corner of his shirt pocket.
“What about children?” she asks.
“Three.” Her eyes wonder. “They’re grown. I don’t see them.” He takes a puff on his cigarette and she watches him. “A daughter from the first marriage—kind of a short one—the marriage, I mean—they’re out west—Colorado, I believe. Then two sons. I think one of them’s still at college. The other one finished.”
He laughs bronchially. “I told you I don’t see them. At least they went—so somebody in the family did—I guess you could call it a family.”
“How can you say that?”
He shrugs. “I won’t even ask about yours—I know they’re doing just great.”
“I like to think so.”
“With such a good mama.”
He shrugs again. “I never really got along with any of them.”
“Well, I think that’s just as sad as it can be.”
“How do you think they’d feel if they could hear you?”
“I’m sure you’ve been a good father.”
“No, Ruth, I haven’t been. I haven’t been a good anything—whatever difference it makes now—but, you know, you’re going to have some of that in the world—along with everything else—I guess it has to be that way. And finally you understand what a man really is—not what they look like. I’ve been in the service, I’ve worked in logging camps—I know what men are. They’re not strong, they’re not anything—a man by himself is just nothing.”
They stare at him in rapt silence.
He smokes. “But you—you were one of the ones it’s easy for.”
“I have not had it easy, I can promise you.”
“I’m sure.” He finishes off his coffee with a little grunt.
Ten minutes later, the words having dried up and the morning feeling a year older, they leave him—two well-dressed, 70’s-haired, middle-aged women. “Well, that was no fun,” Ruth says to her sister as they get into Ruth’s 1976 LTD Brougham—and drive away.
* * *
The world, four years old—stretching from the honeysuckle-smothered fence, the house where the two girls live, the clover, past the foreboding and abandoned garage, the pecan trees, the ridge, to the nice lower end of the yard with the bamboo thickets and the two old ladies and their cookies—he comes around the cool side of the house, Ginger following, to the more alien front yard where the sticker bushes lurk—stops, Ginger stops—looking for his stick horse—then halfway across the yard stops again—Ginger stops—and they both look—Ginger’s little stumpy tail standing straight out, his eyes wide—hot summer, just wearing shorts, a red cowboy hat, and smushed-down Keds—and the man standing by a shiny car parked on the opposite side of the street, white shirt and tie, just standing there, bright in the sun, smoking—and across those twenty or thirty yards, half a mile to him, their eyes meet and the man smiles and seems friendly, almost familiar—but when the man gestures he slips back around the house, Ginger a little excited now, past Daddy’s fish-cleaning table, and he pulls open the battered back screen door.
Mama is sitting at the kitchen booth with papers, and he reports.
“Man?” she says, looking at him. “What man?”
He tells her.
“Where—in the street? Right now?” Nodding. “Well, honey, I don’t think he’s coming here. He’s probably somebody with the City, or a salesman—but if he is he’s wasting his time at this house—what are you doing, darling, playing?”
Nod. But doesn’t know how to tell her it seemed like something else—so he says it again and with a sigh she puts down her fountain pen and scooches out of the booth and goes through the dark, cool middle room with its flower furniture and looks out the window. She turns rigid, crosses her arms, and just looks a long time, and he coming up behind her sees the man in the driveway now and hears Ginger bark from the side of the house.
“Honey, just go in your room for a few minutes, okay?”
He whinily protests but she stops that with her means-business look and he obeys, but doesn’t quite close the door.
Why would he never forget this?—the honeysuckle out the open window, the hot smell of the bamboo as much as the man and Mama’s odd emotion—all in one package.
Something about the nerve to come here when James is at work—you should not be here—say what you have to say and go—then they retreat into the sterile almost never-entered living room with its sealed-up hearth and folded card table against it—and he hears only the muffled rise and fall of their talking—and ten minutes/an hour later their voices grow bright again and she has him at the door where he desperately hesitates though she’s holding it open and waiting.
Can make you very happy, you know that
Please please please
No. And you know this is not fair to her
She’s not you
And the words die, then the sounds—and he can neither see nor hear but feels him walking away into the obliteration of time.
* * *
She’s finished school—lives in an apartment in Montgomery with her identical-aged cousin Florence where they work in an office—home now for a few days—has agreed to meet him. In her room a too-big man’s blue sweater hangs on the back of her chair.
“No,” says Daddy, “you have to talk to him, Ruthie. You. I can’t do it for you—nobody else can.”
She knows this.
“But I’ll be right out here.” He studies her deeply for a moment. “You’ve only known this young man for a few months, Ruth. You’re sure.”
“I’m sure.” Then she sighs deeply, trying to find the strength in her nineteen years to face it. She hadn’t really believed it could be done by mail, that this wouldn’t come.
He’s dressed in a gray flannel suit—very handsome, she notes unmoved—and sees at once the crazed hope still alive in his face, who doesn’t yet understand that she has permanently closed the valves of her affection, and that he’s not going to be but already is an abstraction, a ghost in the backstage of memory—that everything about him—he blonde, James dark; he high-spirited, James introverted—is unchosen, that in her mind she hasn’t simply preferred James but become so personally disintegrated and re-absorbed into him that in his dark glance she can see the whole span of her own life.
She tried to explain this in the precocious cliché-ridden lecture of her letter, but didn’t succeed.
Fifteen year old Margaret lurks inside the kitchen door watching, as they go into the front sitting room and he closes the door.
“Ruth,” he plunges, turning to her with the ardor of a man pleading for his life. “I’ve come all the way back here to give you this.” Playing his only card he takes out a small maroon felt jeweler’s box and opens it. She crosses her arms, turns three-quarters to him, and sets her face hard.
“I can’t accept that. I’m sorry.”
“Why? Why can’t you accept it? We were going to spend our lives together, remember?”
“I never promised you that.”
“Then I must have misunderstood.”
“Yes. You did.”
“Ruth—you can’t do this. You can’t do this to me. This is going to kill me—you know that.”
“It’s not going to kill you.”
He shakes his head. “Not right now. Not tonight. No.”
“It’s not the end of the world. You’re young—you have your whole life. You’ll meet somebody else, forget about me, and be very happy.”
“No,” he says. “It is the end of the world. You can’t do this. You just can’t.”
“Now I want you to stop that. Be strong—and accept it—and go on with your life.”
“Be strong?” He laughs bitterly. “That’s so easy for you to say. Be strong. Goddam, Ruth.”
“Don’t you talk like that in this house! I will not stand for you talking that way!”
“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. Can’t you see I’m out of my mind?”
“Now I’ve told you my decision. We don’t have anything else to discuss, and I think you should go.”
“But I love you. Don’t you know that? I loved you the first minute I saw you. I loved you the first second I saw you. I’ve never loved anybody like I love you and I’m not ever going to.”
“It’s not ridiculous! It’s true. And all these dreams—these plans—I never thought—now I don’t—what am I—we were engaged.”
“We were not engaged, Bruce.”
“You just let me believe it.”
“I did not let you believe anything! I realize we were a little more serious than just friends, but I never promised you and we were not engaged.”
He proffers the box again. “Please take this, Ruth. Please.” She turns away more. “You’re not even going to look at it?”
“I think it would be better if I didn’t.”
He withdraws it and bleeds a wounded groan. “How could you be so sure after—what?—three months?”
“Four months? Who is he anyway? How could you possibly—”
“It doesn’t concern you who he is. And it’s just something I know.”
“How could you know? You’re only eighteen.”
“Nineteen. And I know because I know.”
“It’s a mistake—it’s a terrible mistake, Ruth—I can’t let you do it. You’re going to wake up and realize you let the only man that loves you get away—and it’s not just going to ruin your life, it’s going to ruin my life and everybody’s life and I’m not going to let you do it!”
She starts for the door. “Okay. That’s enough. I don’t want to hear any more of this. It’s time for you to go now. I’ve told you my decision—you need to honor it—and not come here anymore.”
He blocks her path and falls to his knees. Tears stream down his face—the first time she’s ever seen a grown man cry. “Ruth! Please! Please please please please don’t do this to me! You can’t. You can’t. Please don’t do it! Can’t you see? I’m begging. This is going to kill me—you’re going to be my murderer.”
“Stop it! Stop saying that!” she hisses, trying to keep the scene in the room. “Get up. Get up!”
“Wait one year. Please—that’s all I ask. Don’t rush into it—promise me you’ll wait a year. And then if you—”
“Do you promise me?”
“No. Now get up or I’ll go get Daddy.”
He gets slowly to his feet.
“Now take a few minutes,” she says, “and get control of yourself. You’re not acting like a man.”
He laughs a bitter laugh. “I should never have left. I should never have left.” He shakes his head.
“Ruthie?” a voice just outside the door calls.
Before she can answer Bruce bolts over and opens it. “Mr. Hannah,” he appeals to him, “nobody’s going to love her, nobody’s going to take care of her like me. Nobody, not ever, you know that. You can tell. Nobody’s ever ever going to. Tell her.”
“You just need to tell her—she’s so young. And you and I—we’ve become good friends, haven’t we? You and I—look how we get along.”
“Now Bruce, you know this is Ruth’s decision.”
And then he just stands there, like the Governor at midnight, in shirtsleeves and vest with gold watch chain.
The house waits in perfect silence, the father before him, Ruth behind, turned away. He finally seems to understand that no more remains to him. He turns and looks at Ruth but she won’t meet his eye—then Mr. Hannah shows him to the door.
“Wait a year!” he pleads from the porch. “Please. That’s all I ask. Ruth!”
Mr. Hannah closes the door and faces his daughter. The anguish at last shows through his stern features and he shakes his head.
“Well, that was no fun,” she says, turning to him, her eyes bright—needing to be alone to bury the scene and conjure the consoling picture of James: the first time he came, standing outside building, a man of few words whose mere stance spoke for him—and catching the eye of Margaret, haunting the kitchen door, heads for their room.
* * *
A rather impulsive act, the move to Montgomery. At first she wouldn’t even consider it, the farfetched idea; then her so long strict and protective father’s strange encouragement—and all at once the restlessness and uncertainty, and even more the boredom, surged through her like panic, and in one second she decided.
On her dresser in the apartment sits a letter from Bruce in Oregon. The work is hard but there’s a lot of it and the money’s good. He’s living cheaply, saving most of it. His brother, who’s been there over a year, has his own crew. He’s decided to stay one more quarter and start at API in the winter. He’s a poor writer—it’s hopeless to even try to tell her how much he loves her and misses her. But it will all be worth it. She read the letter once through quickly for the information, then brooded over it a while longer luring out the other story from its spaces and shadows.
Hubert has called. Would she like to go with him and another couple to the movie?
He picks her up in his Chevy and introduces her to the couple in the back seat: his Navy friend James, and Sally.
At the Charles they sit in a row—Hubert on the aisle, then she, then James, then Sally. On one side Hubert owns the armrest; on the other she has some interesting misunderstandings with James.
They go to a café and sit in a booth across from each other. Hubert does most of the talking—a few Navy stories but mostly hope and jobs and the future. James works for the phone company and doesn’t say much, but occasionally smiles a half vulnerable half enigmatic smile.
Mostly he looks down, because when he looks up he’s looking at her, and he can feel his face grow warm and Hubert looking funny at him and there’s nothing he can do about it. Sally, beside him, is chattering away like a radio playing in another room, and occasionally he tries to appear to be listening. But when their eyes, across the table, meet—and it keeps happening—something rushes through him and at first he thinks something like I wish she wasn’t here—because it’s not a feeling he understands or has experienced, and scary: this sense of something so familiar it must have already been lived.
They take her home first, and without meaning or wanting to she leaves a glance that will over the following days suffuse itself into his conscious and unconscious thoughts like dye—carrying herself the relentless vision of those dark eyes just cutting up to her from the depths of the back seat where Sally, who would outlive them all, even Hubert just shy of their sixtieth wedding anniversary, chirps good night.
* * *
So this is love. It’s pretty nice.
The item of town—inseparable now for five months—all the girls whispering with each other and envious. She loves it. She loves being out in town, being seen with him. A deeply happy man—so self-assured, always smiling, something warm, friendly, encouraging to say to everyone—he entered the Air Corps in ’44 and spent a year in the waning days of the war on a B-25 crew in southern Italy, and has a few stories; but he’s far more focused on his ambitions, enrolled at API, a fountain of dreams. Reminds her of hers.
He calls almost every day, they go out, sometimes drive up to Montgomery for an evening, long goodnight kisses. He often makes a fifth for dinner at home—talks hunting and religion with Mr. Hannah, lathers flattery on Mrs. Hannah, jovially big brothers adoring Margaret. His blonde hair waves over his head like the sea.
May: springtime. Springtime and love.
Lana Turner. She has a stack of movie magazines she got from Meg Pearson and all day has been picturing herself with them in her chair by the bedroom window where the jasmine is blooming and the fan pulls the fragrance into the room. So when the phone rings she throws her head back in vexation.
“Tell him I’m not here—tell him I’m sick. I’ve got a headache,” she instructs Margaret.
“I’ve got a headache.”
But a moment later Margaret comes back and says he has some very important news—and a surprise for her—and he only wants to drop by for a few minutes.
Only thing is, Margaret goes on, his car won’t start and could she come get him? He wants the whole family to hear.
She groans and rolls her eyes. “I hate that car!” she exclaims.
She’s still learning, but couldn’t honestly be said to have learned yet, how to drive—the word “clutch” to her breathes spite—and after five months she still doesn’t know where he lives. Daddy, who has called on his mother before, knows and tries to tell her, but after half a minute it’s obvious he will have to take her.
They head out Cobb Road for a couple of miles, turn down a dirt road, and when Daddy slows and angles into a mud driveway he glances at his wide-eyed daughter.
“Is this it?”
“Yes, darling, this is it.”
“Are you sure?”
He laughs. “Yes I’m sure. Just remember, it’s not where you come from or what you have.”
He looks at her. “Your character. Whether you’re sincere.”
“He’s sincere.” She looks around the bare yard as they park. “Wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, I think so.”
The wounded Nash sits parked to the side where a couple of other cars and an old truck appear to have come to their final rest. Two dirty children stare in mid-play from the edge of the yard. The unpainted house sags in the middle like a worn-out horse, showing its trusses like ribs, and some of the windows are patched with cardboard. On the shadowy porch in the gathering spring dusk sit two people: one, who bounds to his feet and comes down the curling front steps, the radiant Bruce; the other a tired woman in a shapeless dress. Staring, Ruth only half sees Bruce approach.
“I’ve seen that woman,” she says, but can’t quite place her. Daddy cuts his eyes to her and then in two swift unfolding seconds she sees her on the sidewalk downtown, in the store, everywhere. She looks at Daddy. “It’s her. Is she—”
She only has time to say “by marriage?” as Bruce closes in.
“No, it’s the sister of the mother.”
Bruce, beaming, opens her door; she gets out—then they settle in together in the back seat.
“What’s that?” she asks, pointing to the flat rectangular package in his hand.
“Your surprise,” he grins.
Her introspection, as she vacantly watches the fading landscape, makes an odd companion to his ebullience.
“So what’s the big news?” she asks after a brief silence.
“Just wait,” he smiles. “I want everybody to hear it.”
She’s curious, but miffed, thinking of her magazines and wondering what sort of news would reduce her to just another person to tell.
“Have you eaten, Bruce?” Mrs. Hannah asks as they arrive and Margaret bounces around him like a puppy.
“Yes mam, thank you very much.”
I wonder if they eat possum, Ruth is thinking.
Finally they’re all gathered in the living room and Bruce sits forward on the sofa, enjoying himself.
“You remember my brother—Raymond. He stayed out west after he got out of the service—one of his buddies, his family owns a timber business and he got in with them and he’s done real well. He’s living out there now—he’s married and everything—and he’s trying to start his own operation—he’s making real good money and he says he can’t keep up with the work and he wants me to come out and help him.”
Oregon? Ruth thinks, able to put no image or feeling or idea with the word. Not even a hundred percent sure where it is.
“Well, that’s wonderful, Bruce,” says Mrs. Hannah.
“You’re thinking about going out to help him, are you?” Mr. Hannah asks.
“Yes sir, I’ve been thinking very seriously about it.” He turns to Ruth. “Don’t worry—just for the summer,” he says. “I can save up two or three thousand dollars—and start at Auburn in September.”
“No, don’t leave,” pleads Margaret.
“It’s only for three months,” he laughs.
“Well, that sounds like that will work out real well,” says Mr. Hannah.
Later, in the twilight, he at last has her alone on the porch.
“What am I going to do for three months?” she sulks.
“Oh, you have all your friends.” None of whom she’s really getting along with. “You can go to the movies, to the pool—” he says as though embarking on a long list of options, but that in fact exhausts them. “You have Margaret,” he adds scampishly. She rolls her eyes. “It’s only three months—just keep telling yourself that. I’ll be back in early September. You can make it that long, can’t you?”
He studies her. “What’s the matter, darling?”
She shakes her head. “Nothing.”
“I’m just, I guess, bored.”
“Well, that’s going to change real soon. And remember—this is going to be hard on me too.”
Is a ring going to appear? she wonders with an odd feeling, looking at the wrong-shaped package once more in his hand.
“What is that?” she finally asks.
He hesitates, smiling. “Something for you,” he answers mysteriously.
“Well, let’s see it.”
He looks longingly into her eyes and doesn’t respond; she looks up, then down, then back up. “What?”
“Oh nothing,” he replies. “I’m just standing here thinking how beautiful you are.”
“You’re sweet. Let’s see what it is.”
At last he hands it over and she unwraps it; as she folds the paper away she sees the little flap of a stand on the back of a picture frame. Well, not a ring, is it?—anyway, you don’t make the girl unwrap it. She takes it out and turns it over.
In all his glory—smiling like a sun god, coaxed into a 5×7.
“I had it made it Charleston—right after I got out of the service.”
A picture of you—and not even one you had made for me?
“Do you like it?”
“Something to get you through those long nights.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I know it might seem like a long summer,” he says, “but believe me, it will go by in a flash. It’s going to be hard but I’ll make it knowing you’ll be here when I get back.”
She shrugs. “Where would I go?”
* * *
She can be trusted to drive the three blocks to the train station—right in the middle of the track-halved town—Main Street dividing around it. It’s January and very cold—she is bundled in her gray coat and Margaret in her black: Aunt Ramona’s due on the Hummingbird at three-thirty.
Running about twenty minutes late, Mr. Gill says. Margaret finds a magazine while Ruth gazes distractedly over the schedules on the wall, saying the names of the faraway cities to herself, when someone slips beside her and she turns abruptly to see what looks like a movie star smiling at her.
“Hello,” he says in a rich tenor voice. “And who might you be?”
She tells him.
“Do you live here?” he asks, surprised.
“Then why have I never met you? I’m Bruce Malone.”
She takes his hand and looks at him, and feels her face grow warm. She’s heard of Bruce Malone, though he’s several years older, and has been away in the service.
“Are you married, Ruth?”
She shakes her head.
“Now don’t tell me—but I bet you’ve got men lined up in a row. You’ve had to put in a waiting room at your house.”
Margaret is watching like a hawk.
She laughs. “Yes—and sometimes it’s weeks before I get to them all and they get so restless in there.”
“They must get awfully hungry too.”
“Oh, we open the door sometimes and throw in food.”
“Well, I’m happy to hear that you don’t mistreat them.” They look at each other for a moment. “I wonder,” he says, “if there’s room in there for one more? Who’s seen some of the world and might even have a civilizing influence.”
She feels herself color. “Well, possibly, I guess.”
She turns her head; he keeps looking at her.
“Tell you what—why don’t I come by this evening and see? That is—if you don’t mind.”
“I’m picking up my aunt.”
Another whistle, closer.
“It’s not a good night,” he speculates.
“How about tomorrow?”
“Do you have plans?”
“Ah, no, not really.”
“Could I come by at, say, five o’clock?”
“Well—you don’t know where I live.”
He smiles. “You haven’t said I could come yet.”
“Well, all right, I guess—”
“The Hannahs of Green Street. That shouldn’t be so hard to find.” He’s smiling.
Just over his shoulder, through the end windows, she can see the yellow-faced engines and their elegant blue and silver trail snaking around the last curve into town. Margaret is already heading for the door, glancing behind her.
* * *
Back on his mother’s dresser sits a framed photograph—the handsome face in some unknown universe looking out upon another: brightened by hope and, if one could only see it, the profound peace of death.