It wasn’t the smartest thing to do. It might even worsen the situation, which wasn’t great to begin with. But since she refused to let him in or hear him out, he rammed open the door with his shoulder.
Dan hovered a moment on the threshold, weary, about to give up. She raised her head and gave him a blank stare—he could have been just anyone, just anything. The heat wasn’t on and the air in the room was frigid. Listen, he said. Come eat something. Let me think about it.
She swiveled in her chair to face the window, scraps of melting ice sliding down it.
Mona, I’m talking to you, he said to her back.
He hadn’t taken the time to change and he considered the mark his footsteps left on the floor, the imprint of his wet soles on the pale wood. He winced—that kind of detail bothered him. He danced from foot to foot for a moment, then retreated without another word.
Nath sighed: her daughter was driving her bonkers. She no longer knew what to do with her; she felt as if she’d tried everything and had run out of steam.
He remained silent at the other end of the line. He knew all this.
Dan, I need a break, she moaned.
Outside, darkness was falling, and lights had gone on inside the surrounding houses. He was stuck. Fine, he said eventually. But you’d better be careful.
You’re not in my shoes. I’m just saying.
He glanced at Mona, who had fallen asleep in a chair. Putting her up, even for a few days, wasn’t his idea of a fun time. That temper of hers. He was very fond of her, but at a distance, and definitely not from morning till night. He’d already battered in a door, and she had only just arrived. That wasn’t a good omen. If her mother was throwing in the towel, what was he supposed to do—he who knew nothing and had no desire to know anything about an eighteen-year-old girl whose head and heart were like a vat of boiling sulfur. His back wasn’t broad enough for this. It was just broad enough to take care of himself. And even then, only on condition that nothing upset the order he’d worked so hard to establish.
A storm had broken out overnight. Nothing special—lawns torn up, trees knocked down, roofs damaged, alarms, firemen, TV, power outages, etc.—but he could have done without this extra worry. Even at rest, immobile, now quietly asleep and harmless, Mona didn’t promise anything good.
He went out to get some air. It wasn’t too chilly; the wind had all but died down and the sky was again stretched smooth like a black satin sheet. They’d cleared away the main debris that had been blocking the road—though not blocking it enough, rotten luck, to keep Mona from arriving at his doorstep as he was sweeping away the sawdust from an old fallen tamarisk he’d cut up. The tart aroma of freshly sawed wood and sap lingered in the night air. Broken glass sparkled all around, and several figures, silent and resigned, were still cleaning up in the twilight, slowly dragging mangled refuse to the curb. He watched for a moment. It seemed appropriate to offer his help. People appreciated that kind of gesture. Having a guy like that as your neighbor. Not very chatty, but always ready to lend a hand. And well built, to boot. And who minded his own business, rarer still.
Nath was dressed to kill. Dan had rattled her a bit with his warnings, but she had zero intention of heeding them. She glanced at her watch. She felt feverish.
Apprehension, guilt, excitement. The whole goddam circus. She poured herself a drink and tried to remain calmly seated while waiting for it to be time.
She wondered how the two of them had managed to live together even this long, by what masterstroke or dark miracle. Calling her own mother a whore. And so coldly, so contemptuously. Sweet Jesus, who did her daughter think she was.
She shook it off, pinched her cheeks to give them a rosy blush, and hopped in a cab.
And she hadn’t even slept with this guy. Not that she didn’t want to, but that’s how it was. She wasn’t a whore.
She was just a woman on her own, and that tended to drive her a little crazy at times. But about that, of course, Mona didn’t give a flip.
He hadn’t realized she was married. He knit his brow. He seemed nice, not terribly bright. My husband works on an oil rig, she told him. We don’t see each other much. She shrugged. Let’s talk about something else, she said with a smile. He was in insurance. Okay, she said, never mind. Let’s go dancing.
He propped himself up on one elbow and knit his brow again as she got dressed. He was young. It occurred to her that the girl he’d someday marry would have a very simple life.
Dan set his alarm for four in the morning, but he always woke up earlier and started his exercise routine while listening to the radio, then went running for several miles without ever varying his route, keeping count of his steps. After that, his day could begin. He could attack the housework.
His inability to sleep more than a few hours a night no longer bothered him. He had other worries. The moment he had opened his eyes, this time, and strained his ears in the dark, his usual reflex, he had immediately sensed the difference. Nothing betrayed Mona’s presence in the house, but one thing he could still rely on was the instinct he’d developed, the indispensable vigilance, the faculty of perceiving an invisible presence in the sector, even in an ocean of silence and shadow. He hadn’t dreamed. He remained upright in bed for a few minutes—whereas normally he leaped to his feet—sitting cross-legged, forehead damp, taking the measure of this new lousy annoying disturbing situation.
When she appeared, much later, at the kitchen doorway, in sweats, barefoot, sleepy, he had just returned from shopping and was putting away the groceries.
What’s that noise I heard in the middle of the night, she said, yawning.
She meant the rowing machine, the back-and-forth of the saddle and the rhythmic wheeze of the fan blade each time he tugged on the oars and sucked in air.
Oh, yeah, right, she said. Guess I’ll have to get used to it. He paused in front of the open fridge, grimacing to himself.
He washed his hands again as she sat down at the kitchen table for lunch.
I thought you said you’d be there, she said. Anytime, anywhere. What was that supposed to mean. He set a cup and the coffeepot in front of her.
Your mother doesn’t have an easy life. Let her work it out with your dad, don’t get mixed up in it.
She reached toward the coffeepot. I didn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, she sighed, but even so. Shit, coming from you, that’s cold.
He turned toward the window, beyond which lay a pale, uncertain sky. He waited for her to get up so he could clear the table and wipe the Formica, whose perfect brilliance drew a smile of satisfaction from him.
There was still one thing he knew how to do—which had gotten him through more than one desperate situation—and that was make a quick decision.
In the space of several months, Richard had put on weight again, his outline had thickened, but he didn’t give a damn. Never mind about my waistline, he smirked, crushing Dan in his arms like a brute.
They sat down at a small, austere table, facing each other amid the noise of the room.
I always gain a few pounds in winter, he said.
In warm weather, he melted. Without abstaining from fat, or sugar, or alcohol, which pissed off more than a few people and turned girls’ heads as soon as the sun came out. At thirty-seven, he still led the pack with his handsome bad boy looks. That thought comforted him as he gazed after Dan, while the latter went through the door and headed with furtive steps down the hall. If he had to choose, he’d rather be in his own shoes than in that guy’s. Be half alive rather than half dead. A matter of temperament.
Richard rubbed his chin for a moment, thinking of Mona and the falling-out she’d had with her mother. He’d deal with that all in good time. At least they hadn’t demolished the place. If only these little spats were as bad as things got in life. Nothing to make yourself sick over. Dan wanted everything to be clear, no misunderstandings. There weren’t any. There couldn’t be. Mona was Richard’s daughter. That fucking Dan, he mused, shaking his head. He stood up with a smile and went about his business.
If Nath had hoped to enjoy a moment’s peace, take advantage of there being no Mona (who really could get her goat), it didn’t work out that way. She should have figured as much. She wasn’t twenty anymore, nothing should have surprised her. She finished grooming Scotty—a white, belligerent toy poodle—with clenched teeth, then pulled on an anorak and went out for a smoke.
She crossed the parking lot to stand in the sun and think, but thinking got her nowhere. Marlene was coming. She was almost here. And being in the sun didn’t get her anywhere either, as the east wind was biting and she felt no warmth, no softness caressing her face. At times, life seemed like nothing more than that, light without effect, a dead reflection, a trap, a sick joke. You always got screwed.
Wait till you meet her, she said.
Dan was no picnic either, in his way, but at least she didn’t have to live with him.
I’m cursed, I swear, she continued.
Dan studied the pictures in an album she’d opened for him. He’d heard about Marlene but had never met her in the flesh. Nath never brought her up. In fact, he’d almost forgotten she had a sister. In a photo of the two of them at age twenty, Marlene was the one wearing glasses.
While Nath was already sexy, luminous, and supple as a young stem, Marlene was stiff and dull, as if a black cloud had maliciously settled above her head.
That’s the long and short of it, said Nath. Outside, the sun was at its zenith.
You see, she went on, if Marlene were here, sitting where you are, it would be raining buckets. It’s not a nice thing to say. She’s my sister. But some people are like that. Some people just attract lightning, or I don’t know, whatever calamity is nearby. I don’t need that. Especially now.
Dan buried his nose in the mug of black coffee that was getting cold at the edge of the table. Nath liked it strong, put in three times the normal amount. Enough to give you palpitations.
She waited for Dan to leave before going to lie down a minute, then headed back to the salon to shampoo those miserable mutts who bared their fangs at her. She had to take advantage of every instant of calm she had left before that evening, when she’d go pick up Marlene at the station.
On the way, Dan stopped at the bank to deposit his pension check. It was a good time of day, there wasn’t much of a line—in garrison towns, most guys were overdrawn and preferred to make themselves scarce, hide out in the corner bar rather than hover wistfully around the tellers’ windows. He had known times like that, and still skirted the precipice when he occasionally went
off the rails. He withdrew some cash, sent his mother a money order, and spent the afternoon at the bowling alley—maintaining the pinsetters, oiling the lanes, and so forth, three times a week—and when he got home after dark, Mona declared she was famished. He’d forgotten all about her and had grabbed a sandwich.
You shouldn’t have waited, he said. Couldn’t find the can opener.
He pulled a hunting knife from one of the kitchen drawers and showed her how not to starve to death with a can of beef ravioli.
Watching her eat, he imagined her doing a survival exercise in enemy territory.
What’s so funny, she asked.
He shook his head with a satisfied smile, appreciating that she’d asked the question without undue hostility. Mona wasn’t of a piece. Neither was the world. Besides, it was often in the evening, before he sank into the somber murk of his nightmares, that a ray of light filtered through and he felt he just might return to the surface.
You’ve got a healthy appetite, he said.
She shook her head with her mouth full. Then, pushing away her plate, she announced, I’m not sticking around this shithole forever. And as he didn’t answer, she added, I’ll see how it goes.
He remained silent. He was glad she wasn’t his daughter: he wouldn’t have to fret about her. All the same, she sure was ballsy.
Richard had gotten three months, but so what. That wouldn’t keep him from doing it again. They could lock him up as much as they liked. It made no diff, being shut up on the inside or the outside. Whether sitting still or driving like a maniac, the thrill was the same. The intoxication never subsided, and never had. With or without alcohol. With or without speed. The world flew by.
But that’s how it was in this country. That’s how they thanked you.
He raised his eyes to the guy shaving his head.
I’m getting out in three weeks, he said. Hold it for me till then.
The guy turned off the clippers. Yeah, but I’ve got somebody, he winced. That’s kind of a problem, know what I mean.
Richard turned and looked at the man over his shoulder.
All right, fine, said the other. I’ll hold it for you. Don’t have a cow.
Richard closed his eyes. All in all, he was anxious to get out.
Dan wasn’t curious, or was no longer curious, which amounted to the same thing. He wasn’t especially interested in knowing what she looked like and was in no rush to meet her. But Nath had called early that morning, just as he was noticing Mona’s hair in the shower drain and glaring at it in annoyance. Can you come, she’d asked. She hung up before he could answer.
Well, we’re off to a good start, she said, cursing at the zipper of her windbreaker. She’s lost the key to her baggage locker.
What do you mean, lost.
How should I know, ask her. I’m in a rush.
She left, slamming the door behind her in a whirlwind of snowflakes. He took the opportunity to wash his hands. With pale pink liquid soap, not entirely to his taste. Pressing on the dispenser pump, Dan accidentally sent a spurt straight to his chest. He stood there a second, nonplussed.
I did that too, said a voice behind him. Stupid piece of junk.
Marlene was wearing the same glasses as in the photo. During the day, she wore contacts, but they were packed away in the suitcase she had to retrieve from the station. Actually, she alternated. She hadn’t counted on snow. She didn’t know the area. She hoped she’d like it here, that Nath would take the time to show her around. She couldn’t understand how she’d managed to misplace that goddam key. She was sorry to bother him with this nonsense. It’s very kind of you. It’s really awfully nice of you, she said. It looks like a quiet little town, she said, wiping the mist off the windows. Quiet is important.
He slowed down, pointing out the main shops while trying to avoid looking at her. The snow never lasts very long around here, he said. In a few hours, it’ll pretty much be gone.
He handed her off to a station employee he knew, an old regular at the bowling alley—the guy had an impressive record for making some really tough splits—and he killed time in the cafeteria with a white beer while Marlene dealt with her key problem.
Outside, the sky was clearing. He lowered his eyes to the still viscous soap stain forming a halo on his sweatshirt. He touched it with his fingertip. It was gummy and made a faint unpleasant sucking sound. He forced himself to think about something else. That woman, Marlene—she seemed kind of flaky.When she reappeared, visibly relieved, she handed him a partially eaten bag of fries. I know, I shouldn’t, she said with a shrug.
There was a suitcase and a travel trunk. She looked around for a cart, but he grabbed the trunk with one hand, the suitcase with the other, and she gazed after him for a moment with a blank face while he headed briskly toward the exit.