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.”

“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?”

“Yes, Jim?”

“This might be a burn.”

“Yes, Jim.”

“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.

Mrs. Mundy turned from the blackboard just as Randy reached the top of the row. Eyes ahead, he calmly crossed in front of her, pushed open the door, and let it hiss closed behind him. “You have fifteen minutes,” Mrs. Mundy said to her class. “Begin.” And she glanced at the door before taking the slow, short walk to her desk. Randy was a student to whom she gave little thought. He was quiet, bright enough, got average marks. When she had reason to speak to him, some light still came from his eyes. The kind of bland, gloomy kid who would never find his way without a push, a lot of pushes, and so would be ignored all the way to an abrupt adulthood, where he’d make his own kind of unhappy life.

And then, sitting there, Mrs. Mundy wondered if it might be time to have a talk with Randy. Here, without permission, he’d walked out—and clearly not because he was ill. He had never been one to make a show of insubordination, he wasn’t trouble. Yet today he had broken a rule, and quite flagrantly, something that could mean much more in his little life than anyone but Mrs. Mundy would ever suppose. And he had done it here, in her classroom. He had done it to her.

 

A warm wind blew cut grass across Randy’s sneakers and lifted the hair from his eyes. Hands in pockets, he leaned into it walking up the road from school. He’d left his books behind. He thought he could say he upchucked. He did feel a little funny. But he didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to say anything. He just wanted to go. Just keep walking up this road till he was gone. To be left to his own devices—those were the words now going through his head, mysteriously suggesting those things to which everybody least wanted to leave him.

Then he knew he was just heading for Jim’s. He’d go help Jim with the shelves. That was something he could do in the meantime, before he did anything else. He might even talk to Jim about it, ask him what he thought. Although he was the only adult Randy ever called by first name, Jim was not like a friend, which might make him exactly the person he should talk to, if only to ask if he should say he upchucked or just say, I left class, Mrs. Mundy, because I wanted to. Jim was a man. He did what he wanted and nobody bothered him about it. Randy liked to be there in Jim’s shop, even when nothing was going on. It felt like a place where the things that mattered might be up to him. A place he could be all day.

 

Jim ran down the slope of grass, water from the bucket in his hand sloshing over, wetting his pants and shoes. From the garage doorway he saw Maggie’s head on the floor, her face showing undisguised agony. “You’re crying,” he said without thinking.

“It’s like it’s eating away my skin.”

“They say to flood,” he said. “Flood the burn with water for at least seven minutes, I think it is,” and he leaned over and tipped the bucket, very slowly pouring the water over her foot as if he could make it last seven minutes. The water splashed against her red foot and spattered her shirt and face and hair and ran down her leg into her shorts and ran out darkening the floor around them until at last the bucket was empty. “How does that feel?” Jim asked.

Maggie’s eyes were closed, water droplets in her lashes. She was breathing through her mouth. “Help me, Jesus,” she whispered.

All at once Jim dropped the bucket, grabbed hold of Maggie’s calf above her burned foot and sat down on the wet floor, resting her leg across his lap, keeping it elevated.

“Thank you,” she said.

The water on the floor seeped into Jim’s pants and underwear and made him remember an awful day in sixth grade, too old to wet his pants. Sixth grade, way too old to wet his pants. But now there was the weight of Maggie’s leg in his lap, pressing him into the wet. And Jim thought about what he was doing, holding Maggie’s leg, and that this was what she needed him to do, and he wondered how long he could do it.

Mrs. Mundy sat by an open window in the empty teachers’ lounge smoking a cigarette she’d found. She wasn’t a smoker. It was a filtered cigarette and didn’t taste like she remembered. She fingered a dog-eared file folder in her lap. A breeze came in and made her shiver though it wasn’t cold, and she crossed her legs beneath her skirt. She blew smoke at the open window and it jumped and scattered inches from her face.  She looked over her shoulder at the door. Then, holding the folder against her breast, she put the cigarette on the edge of the sill, slouched into the chair and re-crossed her legs at a right angle—like a man, she thought—with a foot on the sill. Wouldn’t that be fine, she thought. To be that careless. She picked up the cigarette, took a puff and exhaled, and the smoke and everything she was feeling blew back through her.

 

“Are you sure that was turpentine?” Maggie said again, not crying now.

“No,” Jim said.

“Could it be some kind of acid or something?

“I don’t know,” Jim said. “My father bought all this stuff.”

“Your father—died when?”

“Four years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sure,” Jim said. “I mean—this stuff, it’s all his. He used to talk about it, I guess, but I didn’t know anything. I don’t know what things are.” He looked down, deeply ashamed, because of what he’d just said or because of his wet pants or because of everything else, it didn’t make any difference. His hands moved under Maggie’s leg to adjust her weight on him.

“That feels good,” she said.

“What? Oh,” he said, not sure what he’d done. “How’s your foot?”

“Better. Calming down,” she said. “The flooding helped.”

“Oh—but, I mean, it wasn’t seven minutes…” He looked away. After scratching his face his hand came to rest on her bare ankle. They were both soaking wet now, water was everywhere.

Maggie watched him. She asked, “What kinds of things did your father do in here?”

Jim looked at Maggie’s foot. It was still red, but not blistering or anything. He stopped himself from touching the red part. “I don’t know,” he said.

Maggie felt Jim’s hand move from her ankle to her calf. “Well, what kinds of things do you do in here?” she said.

Jim swallowed. “I don’t know,” he said.

 

From the road by Jim’s house, Randy came through the trees and heard water. A hose in the yard was running hard, jerking around the grass like a snake, spewing water down the slope. It must have been on a long time, so much water, all down the driveway into Jim’s shop. Randy started to run down toward the faucet but skidded, the turf sodden and slippery, then stopped, looked. Something was happening in Jim’s shop, in the shadows beyond the open door—people, on the floor, doing something. They didn’t seem to care about the water coming in. They were busy. They didn’t see Randy. Did Jim get a new helper? He cut across the slope, away from the door so they wouldn’t see him, and headed for the window on the other side. Who was helping Jim?

 

Mrs. Mundy got out of her car and the wind blew her skirt up around her knees. She smoothed it down with the file folder, Randy’s sparse record: report cards, attendance, a permission slip from the boy’s mother to work for this fellow after school. She looked him up. She didn’t remember this Jim, though he’d apparently been one of her students, not so long ago in years, but in another life. The other life. And now, here she came in this life, on this warm spring afternoon. Another spring, another ending, to leave behind. She stood by the road and heard water. A hose left on, lazily dragging itself around by its own flow. The gravel drive flooded, water running down into the garage—such a waste. Mrs. Mundy shook her head, went and stamped on the neck of the hose and slowly bent to pick it up.

 

Down on his haunches, Randy inched along the wall, the ground beneath dead rose bushes puddled and muddy. When he reached the window he carefully raised his head till his eyes were barely above the sill.  Oh, it was just Maggie. Jim and Maggie on the floor of the shop. But something wasn’t right. Their clothes were wet, sticking to them, they were lying in the water. Maggie was on her back, one leg sticking out, the other bent and spread, her bare foot in Jim’s hands, lifted up to Jim’s face. Then Randy watched Jim press the heel of Maggie’s foot against his cheek.

 

“I poured it in the roller pan last week,” Jim said. “I was going to see if it would strip paint. But there wasn’t any paint. Then I liked the smell. So I left it,” he said. “I don’t know what to do with anything.”

“Shhhhh,” said Maggie. “It doesn’t matter.”

“And the bucket,” Jim said. “How could I be so stupid? Why didn’t I just bring the hose down?”  He was gently banging the ball of her foot against his brow. “Then you would’ve gotten the full seven minutes.”

“Jim, be still. It’s all better now.”

He slid her foot down over his nose.

“Careful,” said Maggie.

“Sorry.”

“Oh, it didn’t hurt.”

“It didn’t?”

“Not me,” she said.

“Me either,” said Jim.

At the window Randy knelt watching openly now, for Jim and Maggie were blind to him, to the water pooling around them, to anything besides each other. Randy’s heart raced, a bad taste had come into his mouth, a taste from somewhere sick inside him, surging in around his teeth which were steadily working over his tongue, and he needed to spit, but instead he kept swallowing.

“Maggie,” Jim said and tenderly kissed the arch of her foot, then dragged his tongue up her toughened sole to the toes, slobbering a little. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and blushed. “Maggie?”

Inside his pants Randy’s thing, new to him in its explicit promise, thumped along with his heart. Never before like this had it been, not even with those pictures, those pawed-over nudist camp magazines that made him so crazy. No, this—these people, real people he thought he knew, who spoke to him, who knew his name, were no longer in the same world as him. He was witnessing something completely cut off from life, dark as night but in the middle of the afternoon, some secret corner of hell. Randy was watching Jim and Maggie, but he was seeing devils. And his breath was labored and the blood kept pounding in his thing as if to prove he too was damned.

At the sound of her name Maggie opened her eyes, waited. What had happened had been so sudden, she’d had no time to think about it. She had been in real pain and fear, and it was somehow only right that such pain and fear would be met with extraordinary acts, even from the likes of Jim, an ordinary man with whom she had long been hopelessly in love. But now—now there was nothing hopeless about it. And now she was struggling to remember the love. “What, Jim?” she said. “What?”

Mrs. Mundy, water still pouring from the hose she clutched, carefully side-stepped down the slope of grass toward the faucet. When she reached the yard behind the garage, she looked up and saw Randy, kneeling at the window. And here was something very wrong indeed, for she saw his bottom then, Randy’s bare bottom, white as a seashell on a day at the shore—such holidays long past, beachcombing with Mr. Mundy in the morning before it got too warm, the summer afternoons always too warm—pants to his knees, knees in the mud by the window, so filthy. Randy held himself in his hand and pulled, grunting and puffing, and didn’t look at her, at Mrs. Mundy, but gazed through the window and trembled and whimpered, kneeling there in the muck. Randy had walked out on Mrs. Mundy, and she had come to find him, and she would help him now, filthy and indecent as he was. She moved closer and looked down at the water running from her hand, her left hand with thin gold band and raw knuckles and spots, and she moved her hand up the hose, pushed her thumb over the flow, and squeezed it into a torrent, violent, directed. She had helped wash a dog, she remembered, once.

“Hello?” Jim said, holding Maggie’s foot against his cheek like a telephone.

She smiled. “Hello.”

Jim remembered a call. From his father in the hospital. To his mother. Jim had picked up the extension. They didn’t know. Talking about dying, the two of them. Putting their house in order. Talking about Jim, how would he manage, who could they find for him? Jim gnawed on Maggie’s little toe, and now she hardly flinched. After all, his mother had said, our Jim is no prize.

And he lowered her foot to his chest and pulled it against his breastbone, pulled hard, and he looked into her eyes which looked back, blinking, and he thought, Now I am looking at tomorrow. For now he, Jim, would have a son, someone like Randy, but who respected him, honored him, which Randy never would. Randy showed up, he helped, and he may have needed a father, but it sure as heck wasn’t Jim. Jim wanted a son. And here Jim was, lying here, looking at the mother of his son. Here he was, Jim was, looking down a plump wet leg at what was to come. Here, today, he’d found it. Here it was.

Mrs. Mundy sprayed Randy. She said to him, “No more.” The water hit the mud and splattered up his legs and bottom and member—beaten purple, poor boy—and she said, “There will be no more of this now,” and then she sprayed the mud off his legs and bottom and member. And Randy tried to get up and slipped and fell backwards in the mud by the window, pants down, squirming, and Mrs. Mundy sprayed his head, sprayed him up and down and said, “No more of this.” And Randy, shaking the water from his hair and face, a face now unfamiliar to her, glared back at Mrs. Mundy, and on his hands and knees struggled through the muck and the spray, fighting his way back to where she stood above him.

Maggie lay with her brown hair down and floating in the pooled water, her foot resting in Jim’s face, her eyes closed. The wind came in off the grass and along her wet body making her shiver. What was this, she asked herself, this lying here? Lying in the water with this poor man who had nothing to do. Because now having worried whether this man thought she was pretty enough was astonishing to her, and she had to cough to cover a harsh laugh that rose from deep inside her. My God, she marveled, there was going to be so much more to life than trying to love this man. And she winced, suppressing another titter. For there he was down there at the end of her, holding her foot in his warm mouth, and her foot felt better now.

But there was something else too now. Something outside, some noise. Sounded like an old woman and a boy, shrieking.

Pages: 1 2 3 | Single Page