One spring day early in the second Johnson Administration, Maggie stopped in the street and looked up at the sun, a white hole in a lavender blanket of sky, looked right into it, then worried that people might wonder what she was looking at. She dropped her head, blinking away spots, and kept walking. She was on her way to see Jim.
Jim was in his shop putting up shelves, high on a wall out of reach. The shop was his garage, which stood apart from the house he’d grown up in. Jim spent a lot of time in his shop, usually by himself, unless Randy, who sometimes helped him, was out of school.
But Randy was in school of course, sitting at his desk by the window, wishing he were putting up shelves with Jim. Randy liked to think about being out of school on a school day like this. He liked the idea, the feeling of it, that there was work, or nothing in particular, to be done.
Jim finished putting up a shelf, then got down off his stepladder and stood looking up at it. It was crooked, a bit. He didn’t think it would matter, didn’t think things would tumble down off of it. Just the same, it bothered him. But now that he had sunk the screws he knew he couldn’t sink others so close to the ones he’d already sunk. So he didn’t know what to do.
Then Jim heard the tentative crunch of gravel of Maggie approaching his open door. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” Jim answered but kept looking up at the shelf because he was annoyed at being interrupted, especially by Maggie.
Maggie was in love with Jim, and it hurt her to see that she was annoying him, but she knew if she turned around and left, Jim would think he’d done something wrong and feel even more uncomfortable around her. So she stood there and didn’t know where to look—at the shelf, at the floor, at him—and she trembled with the familiar fear of losing Jim before she could give him her love. She held one hand in the other to keep still and waited for time to help her know what to do.
Jim kept looking at the shelf but stopped thinking about it, thinking now of Maggie and how he knew that she cared for him and he didn’t know what to do about it. She was nice, and wasn’t awful looking, but he sure didn’t love her. There was something about her that made him know he would never love her, something in her face that made him know he would never kiss her. Once, he tried to imagine it, and he could, but only when she wasn’t there, only when he saw her face a certain way in his mind. But when she’d show up again, her face wasn’t like that, and he knew he couldn’t do it. He’d become irritated at himself and impatient with her. He’d think, “Why that face?” even as he knew how stupid and mean such a thought was.
Maggie was a sweet, modest woman, years past what should have been the end of innocence, now struggling to resist the temptation to despair. People—her mother and few friends—had always told her she was pretty. And while she knew she wasn’t beautiful, looked nothing like the women she knew were beautiful, she believed her mother and friends. She felt lucky to be just pretty enough and did what little she knew, from shy conversations with girlfriends, to enhance her simple prettiness.
Jim appreciated this in a way that made her all the more repellent to him, especially recalling a moment of lonely drunkenness in his empty house when he’d actually shed a tear realizing how perfectly lovable Maggie might be, if only he could stomach it.
Still turned away, he said, “Does that shelf look crooked to you?” Maggie gratefully took a couple of steps closer to get the angle Jim had on his work. Quickly he said, “I mean, I know it’s crooked. It’s crooked, no doubt about that. But what I’m wondering is, how crooked does it look?”
Maggie, who was nodding vigorously, watching Jim while he said this, now turned again to regard the shelf. “It’s a little crooked, you’re right,” she said. “But not very, not a lot. I wouldn’t even notice if I weren’t looking right at it.”
“Well,” said Jim, “that I think I know,” and immediately regretted his sarcastic tone. He tried to make up for it. “The important thing is, I guess, when I put things up there, will they stay, do you think, without falling off?”
“What are you going to put up there?” Maggie asked. She let her hands come apart to gesture, then quickly rejoined them.
Eyes on the shelf, Jim felt the blood rush to his face. He didn’t have an answer. He knew how strange an admission this would be, how stupid in fact. His throat was tight with shame. Maggie waited, smiling. “Supplies,” he finally said. “Things I don’t need every day. Because it’s high up.”
“Sure,” said Maggie. “Makes sense.” Then they looked at each other and Jim felt his mouth twist into a small grimace of disgust. He looked away quickly, back up at the shelf, and Maggie, pretending not to notice, kept talking. “Maybe if you put things up there that aren’t breakable,” she said, “so it won’t matter? Things that you don’t often, like you say, need, like—like peat moss or sandbags or something.”
“Sandbags,” said Jim and smirked. “I don’t have any sandbags.”
“Oh, I know you don’t,” Maggie said and smiled like it was just a joke she was pleased he could share with her. “I mean something sort of like—sandbags.”
“Yeah,” said Jim, “sure,” and was about to comment on how smart it would be to put something like sandbags in a place where they might fall on his head, but he couldn’t get the wording right, so he just stood there and felt stupid.
Randy sat at his desk at school, a hard wooden seat attached to a wooden writing board that came out under his right arm like another right arm with a slot for a pencil and space beneath for holding books, and he looked out the window at a tree across the street. The classroom was on the third floor and Randy was even with the top of the tree which looked to him like the top of a man, arms out and head nodding at him in the wind, as if expecting something from him. The tree, it seemed to Randy, knew him well and wasn’t impressed. No matter how Randy set his mouth and stared it down, the tree was not going to cross the street to see things his way.
Randy’s teacher, Mrs. Mundy, was writing something on the blackboard with yellow chalk—something long, a sentence, a few words in block print and the rest in script—when her hand twitched and the chalk broke. She bent down and picked up the smaller piece and put it in the metal lip at the base of the blackboard, then picked up the larger piece and continued writing the sentence.
Mrs. Mundy had been mourning the loss of Mr. Mundy, which she couldn’t do properly because he wasn’t gone, not from life nor even their home, but from her he was lost, and for good. A kind of senility of the heart she would say, to no one. Evenings, resting in her green chair in the corner, Mrs. Mundy said things, sometimes aloud, sometimes to Mr. Mundy, and sometimes they were no more real said aloud than imagined. Life together, like the rooms they lived in, damped and cushioned and swallowed the Mundys.
So she took comfort in the sharp, clear sounds of the classroom, shoe leather on tile, pencil on paper, chalk on blackboard. Everything here could be heard, even whispered: secrets over shoulders, a thirteen-year-old’s knees bending in corduroy, a breeze through new leaves. Face averted, Mrs. Mundy scratched and tapped out a question, a problem, a fact—chalk dust that wouldn’t last the hour.
It was something important, Randy knew, because everyone was bent forward, looking up, then down, writing, copying, up, down, quiet. And so Randy took his pencil out of its slot and began to copy it too. He wrote the first few words then looked up and wrote the next few words, then looked up, looked down, looked up again, and was confused, because he’d lost his place in the sentence, after only six or seven words, had completely lost the sense of it. And then he knew it was never his to lose. And then he knew it never would be. And he looked back out at the tree and the tree wasn’t nodding now, just standing with its shoulders high, shrugging. And Randy put his pencil back in its slot, and he got up and walked out of the room.
“Well, I guess I’ll be going,” Maggie said and took a step backwards, kicking something with her heel, and instantly, an ice-cold wetness soaked the back of her foot. “Oh God.” She looked down. “I’m sorry.”
“What?” Jim said. He hadn’t seen it.
“I’m so sorry,” said Maggie. “This here, I kicked and spilled it. By accident.”
“Oh?” Jim looked at the roller pan on the concrete floor. “That’s just turpentine,” he said, taking a rag from a bucket and blotting the floor around the pan. “No harm done.”
“That’s good,” she said, but then, involuntarily, she lifted her foot in a funny way, like a horse, which made her blush.
“What,” said Jim, “something wrong?”
“No, not at all. I mean—”
“What’s the matter?”
“Just—a little wet.”
“I spilled a little, you know, in my shoe.”
“Oh,” Jim said. He looked down at Maggie’s shoe which she now extended behind her on its toe, as if to take some pressure off her heel. “Your foot wet?”
“A little. Not a big deal, except—”
“It doesn’t hurt, does it?” said Jim, and Maggie tapped her toe hard on the concrete floor, then swung it to and fro before tapping it again.
“Well, you know, I think, maybe—” and abruptly she sat down hard on the floor and started pulling off her shoe and sock. “I’m so sorry, this is just—”
“That’s—that’s—that’s—okay,” Jim said. He stood staring down at Maggie who sat on the dusty concrete, knees splayed, pulling her now bare foot closer, trying to see what was wrong.
“Um, it hurts,” she said and stretched her leg up toward him. “Can you see it? My heel? I can’t really see it.”
Jim squatted down in front of Maggie, not quite close enough to be useful. He put his hands out as if to take her foot, then didn’t, bracing them instead on the floor between them, craning his neck around to look at each side of the heel that hung there in front of him. “It’s kind of red,” he said.
“Are you sure that was turpentine? Jim?”
“I—I think it was. It was in a can, once.”
“Oh, this hurts.” Maggie lay back on her elbows and squeezed her eyes shut. Her foot shot up and just missed kicking Jim in the face. “Oh boy,” she said.
He got up. “Okay. Maggie?”
“This might be a burn.”
“What they say with a burn is to flood it with water, I think, a chemical burn, like this might be here.” He felt a little dizzy.
“Okay,” she said. “Ow, ow, ow—”
“Okay,” Jim said and turned. Where was he? The shop, his shop, this one-car garage his father had converted years ago for projects and things. He looked around. Tools, paint cans, old metal cabinets, countertops with gadgets, little broken motors, dusty, greasy things in pieces. Buckets, some with screws, washers, some empty. Jim grabbed an empty one.
“Thank you,” Maggie said as Jim stepped over her, heading for the faucet behind the garage. But of course the garden hose was connected and yesterday he had dragged the hose all the way up to the road to remind himself to water the trees. But now he had to fill the bucket. So would it be faster to disconnect the hose at the faucet, a hose he could not remember ever being disconnected, or turn on the water and carry the bucket to the end of the hose? Bent over the faucet he squeezed the hose coupling trying to turn it, then released his fingers, brown with rust. He grabbed the bucket and ran up the slope toward the road, stopped, ran back, turned on the faucet full blast, and ran again to the end of the hose.