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On his office recorder there was another call from Mrs. Borstikyan. He knew what it meant, but he called her anyway.
“Did you send the letter?” she asked.
He had already pulled out Officer Borst’s file. “Yes, I see that I sent it six weeks ago.”
“Well, it didn’t work. The sonuvabitch was sending half, but this month he hasn’t sent me a dime. I want him in court.”
“All right,” Mason said, recognizing that she was beyond any dissuading. He did feel the need though – for his own protection – to caution her about the possible consequences of a hearing. “You realize that with this hearing he might end up in jail; and if he does he’ll probably lose his job with the police department; and if he loses his job there isn’t going to be any more money. Maybe ever. I’ve seen that happen.”
“Hah!” she exclaimed. “I know how these things work. I’ve got friends who’ve been through it. When the well starts to dry up, Mr. Prewitt, nothin’ brings the water back, no matter how hard you keep pumping. We’re going for justice now – no, maybe just plain old revenge.”
“I see,” Mason said, not really seeing anything except that Mrs. Borstikyan was willing to invite hostility, anger, and turmoil into her own life for the sake of irritating a man from whom she had been divorced for several years, a man in whom theoretically she should not longer harbor any kind of personal interest.
When he had ended the call he set aside other work and in quick succession drafted the motion, order, and citation for the show cause hearing. They were routine documents and he completed them without much effort. He ordinarily would have taken them in their turn among things he needed to do, but he had grown to dislike Mrs. Borstikyan. He was even beginning to understand the possible origins of some of her ex-husband’s violent tendencies, and he did not want to give her reason to call him again. He assumed that Officer Borst’s days on the force were numbered, that both the policeman and his ex-wife already recognized that, so they might as well get on with it so that the two of them would have nothing further to hate each other about. Maybe he would shoot her and be sent away for murder, which from Mason’s point of view might be the best of all possible solutions.
Mason checked over the papers for errors, wondering at the same time how his law career had degenerated to the extent that he had become the instrument for a woman’s personal battle against an arrogant ex-husband. He tried to reassure himself that Officer Borst was probably a genuinely violent person who had made life miserable for Mrs. Borstikyan; and that from a strict review of the case facts, Borst had not paid the money that the court had ordered him to pay. Maybe Mrs. Borstikyan was asserting a worthwhile principle on behalf of other abandoned women. Maybe some other women didn’t complain about lack of support because they were too intimidated, or did not want to sink into a vengeful motivation that could poison their own lives. Regardless of hypothetical motives, Mason felt cheapened by the case. His exercise of the law was obviously counter-productive and no one besides him seemed to care.
There was a light knock and Mason stared at the door for a moment, gathering the resolve to face whatever was on the other side.
It was Jane Moss, his first wife. She smiled in the bright, warm way she employed when she wanted to indicate that she still regarded him fondly enough to ask for another favor. Her hair was freshly styled and she was wearing an attractive dress that he judged to be new and expensive.
In a way he had never felt before, Mason was irritated by her apparent assumption that he was an easy mark for money. As she asked about his mother’s health and made other preliminary small talk, he realized that he had been wrong in his past regard for these solicitations. He had thought they signified that she lacked self-respect, demeaning herself by begging. But she seemed to think the same of him, that his self-respect, his ability to deny her, had been overwhelmed by his sense of guilt. At that moment it appeared to him that she was the one who was right.
“Well, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve put the house up for sale,” she finally announced.
“Oh,” he said, mildly surprised. “That’s probably a wise decision.” He was struggling with himself to avoid being sucked in again, which he felt certain was on the horizon. “Have you got it listed with a broker?” He already expected that his attempt to limit the conversation to real estate talk probably would be futile, but he couldn’t resist making a token effort.
“Yes. But they tell me the market’s bad now and it will probably take awhile before they find a buyer.”
“I see. How much are you asking?”
She showed him one of her impatient looks – always too quick on the defensive, he thought. “Ninety-one thousand.”
“What does the broker think of that? Maybe a bit high? Might scare off some potential buyers.”
“Mason, it’s worth all of that. If the real estate people didn’t think so I guess they wouldn’t have taken the listing.”
He could see that she had become fixed on what she regarded as the right price and there was no point in trying to discuss it with her. It would be equally pointless to try to explain to her that real estate brokers would take whatever listings they could get and worry about negotiating a fair price later on. Real estate sales remained one of the few remaining instances of the ancient barter system. But if he told her that, she would regard it as criticism. So instead he sighed and waited for her to get to the inevitable purpose of her visit.
She stalled by launching into a description of all the features of the house that caused it to be worth ninety-one thousand dollars. “In the meantime,” she concluded, shrugging her shoulders and showing open palms, waif-like, “I hate to say it, but the children and I don’t have enough to live on. Once the house is sold, everything should be all right, but right now there just isn’t enough.”
Mason felt the rat gnawing at his bowels. “I’m sorry things are that way, Jane. Nice dress and hairdo, by the way. You’re looking good.”
He didn’t say more, which visibly confused her and forced her to be more direct with her request – since he was not even acknowledging yet that she had made one. “I can guarantee you that this will be the last time I have to ask for your help, Mason, but if we don’t have four hundred dollars right away it’s going to get very difficult for the kids and me.”
“In what way?” he asked, genuinely curious to learn how much trouble four hundred dollars could buy at current inflated prices.
She blinked. “In the usual ways. I mean, there are bills to be paid, clothes for the kids, the mortgage payment is due again, and the phone company is threatening to disconnect me.”
“The phone company? Why would they do that?”
She sucked in a breath, becoming more impatient with him. “Because the bill hasn’t been paid.”
“Is it a lot?”
“It’s about a hundred and twenty dollars. That’s a lot if you don’t have it.”
To Mason it seemed like a lot in any consideration. He could not remember ever having had a bill on his home phone greater than thirty dollars, which included some long distance calls. One hundred and twenty reinforced every low opinion he had of her: that she was extravagant, foolish, indiscriminate and undisciplined. In matters relating to money, Mason knew he was almost excessively disciplined. He had heard himself called miserly and workaholic, although he thought such epithets represented little more than the envy of less organized people. Conscious of his own thrift, however, he tried to take a more detached view of her spending. But any way he considered it, a phone bill that had been allowed to grow to one hundred and twenty dollars when there was no money available to pay it was, in his mind, unconscionable. He thought of Thorstein Veblen’s phrase, “conspicuous consumption,” but did not mention it because she had heard it from him before.
All that mattered to him now was that it did not seem right that he was expected to absolve the debt, to renounce his own principles of frugality in support of a doctrine of financial irresponsibility and carelessness. And wasn’t this part of why he had been unhappy with her when they were married? If he accepted that, it also meant that to give in to her again was to renounce their divorce and acknowledge that after all these years she still had the same grip on him that marriage had vested upon her. He saw a chance to end it. At last he felt that he was under no obligation to compromise.
“When you were here before,” he said quietly, “three or four months ago, I thought you understood that I couldn’t continue to help you indefinitely. I…”
She interrupted. “My circumstances were desperate, Mason. And they still are. You can’t expect me to resolve all these problems in just a couple months.”
“I can expect you to try. What will it be like in another three or four months, as more bills become overdue?”
She licked her lips. “You bastard,” she whispered and turned her head off to one side. He knew that the tears had started. But to his own surprise, unlike any other time she had cried in his presence, he didn’t care. Maybe it was her phone bill and what it represented to him.
“If you knew how hard I have tried,” she said.
“Have you interviewed anywhere for a new job? You said you were going to.”
“I like my job!” she said, leaning forward assertively. She apparently didn’t realize she was admitting she had lied to him about looking for another job. It occurred to him they had both been playing roles: he hadn’t believed her about a job search, and she had realized that.
“What you call your job is part-time and only pays you $200 per month.”
“That’s why I need your help,” she countered illogically.
“And if I weren’t here?”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with where you are. You owe it to your children, Mason, you know you do. And you owe it to me.”
He squeezed the arms of his chair. How dare she say that! “I’ve never missed a child support payment. Beyond that, over the years I’ve given you at least another two or three thousand dollars. You’ve called them loans, but – let’s face it – they’ve been gifts. And I’ve paid the kids medical and dental bills, taken them on vacations, bought them clothes. No divorced woman has it as good as you do. Ask around. Just don’t come in here and tell me that I owe you anything. I’ve made damned sure that I didn’t.”
She daubed at her cheeks with a handkerchief from her purse before continuing, her angry voice broken by sobs. “It’s not just a matter of what’s written on some piece of paper down at the court house, you know. If that’s what you want your children to think of you, then I guess that’s your decision. Why don’t you just tell them that you only pay because the court ordered you to. I suppose if there wasn’t a court order you’d figure you didn’t have any obligation at all. That’s the way you are, Mason. Everything by the book.” Her voice rose, “Well, life isn’t by some book or some court order. Don’t you have any sense of decency?”
He took a deep breath and felt his heart pounding in his chest. He wanted to slug her. Talk was obviously useless. Now that she had sunk to accusations she had become, in his view, totally irrational. He saw her as a red-eyed middle-aged woman squeezing a wad of handkerchief, a person who had the intelligence, the personality, and the appearance to provide herself with a reasonable degree of self-sufficiency but who was weak and sniveling and willfully dependent. And seeing her that way, at that moment he hated her with more passion that he had ever brought to loving her.
He spoke to her in a quiet, forcibly controlled, monotone. “I think you’d better leave.”
For a few seconds she looked as though she were going to say more. But as he watched her face he saw fear come into her eyes, fear of him. He had never seen it there before and it startled him.
She stood up, clutching her purse close, and went directly to the door behind her. Not until she had opened it did she turn and look at him again. She did not speak, but her expression revealed the depth of her own hatred. She slammed the door and was gone.
Mason let out a breath that he seemed to have been holding all of his life. He rested his head against his left hand and felt the spasms in his gut caused by his own crying. “Jesus Christ,” he whispered, shaking his head in disbelief. A tear ran down his cheek and through his open lips. He tasted the salt and felt an odd measure of reassurance from it.
He sat there not moving for a long time, vaguely conscious of his own heartbeats marking the passage of moments, each pulling him further away from the distress he felt had been forced upon him. When he looked at his watch he saw that it was nearly one o’clock. His stomach was empty and the room was oppressive. He needed to establish one of those points at which one event cycle clearly stops and something else begins. He switched on his telephone answering machine and left for the cafeteria in the student union building.
He stood in line behind two Asian students who were conversing in their own language. He looked around but saw no one he knew, which was not extraordinary among a student body of 14,000 and a faculty of several hundred, few of whom ever visited the student eating area. He picked up a plastic wrapped sandwich, some kind of sliced meat on brown bread, and got a glass of milk from a machine. The two Asians got hamburgers from under a heat lamp, limp fries and soft drinks. From watching them order and listening to them talk together in an unintelligible language, his present sour mood caused him to dislike them, convinced that all foreign students conversed in their native language out of contempt for any Americans who might be listening. When they turned to the right to find a place to sit, Mason turned left. He sat at a table at which a fat girl was working on a paper. She had her accessories – pens, books, bags, umbrella, cup of coffee – spread out over nearly half the table. Mason knew that no one else would be sitting there. She didn’t even look up, but went on gnawing the end of her ballpoint pen, when Mason sat down at the remaining small space at the opposite end of the table.
The encounter with Jane had gravely upset him. He had nearly lost control, which he was certain she had noticed. He had never hit a woman but it had almost happened with Jane and he was now both regretful that he had not done it and ashamed that he almost had. He chewed the tasteless sandwich slowly, looking around, searching the faces of the others for a sign that someone else must have experienced these same angry passions and might know what they foretold.
At another nearby table was a girl with a three-sided plastic baby seat, the kind that was designed to be strapped into a car seat. She had positioned it on the table just beyond her plate. From the way it was situated, the back of the seat toward Mason, he could not see what was in it, but he was fascinated by the girl’s attention to it. Without looking down, she raised a sandwich to her mouth and took a bite. He had seen people eating in the inattentive manner while watching TV. Occasionally the mother would smile slightly and stop chewing. She did not touch the seat or its contents or talk to it; she just watched, totally absorbed. When she had finished her lunch she put on a nylon jacket with a bold diagonal design. She looked so young. She zipped the jacket up to her chin. If the baby hadn’t been there he would have thought she was a high school student. He looked around. Everyone else looked almost as young. He sighed. None of them would have any answers for him.
He went back to his office, picked up the papers on Officer Borst and some other papers that needed to be filed, and locked up. He couldn’t tolerate sitting inside that room any more that day and knew that if he tried he would not accomplish anything. It was almost a mile to the court house, but he walked briskly, forcing himself to exercise, releasing some of the tension. He returned to the university at the same pace, got his car and drove home, where he stood under the shower, his arms crossed, for twenty minutes. On the way home he deposited in a mailbox an envelope he was sending to Jane. It contained a check for four hundred dollars. No note or letter.
When Elaine Bettendorff visited him again a week later, he was no longer thinking about Jane. As the days had passed, so had his shame. She had not come back or called, which was fine with him. He had seen Gail three times during that week and she had asked a couple times if something was bothering him. He did not tell her about the episode with Jane; he felt uncharacteristically defensive toward Gail, as though she was somehow conspiring with Jane to humiliate him. That the two women had never met did not make any difference. The increasing frequency of Gail’s hints about marriage was altering her identity in his eyes, forcing him to regard her less as an ideal and more as a real person – and persons could be unappealingly possessive and expectant.
When he opened his office door to Elaine, his first reaction was relief at her blatant sexuality. In a devious world, she seemed to be an exception. No surprises. He invited her in and made sure that the door was locked when he shut it.
She was wearing her hair in two thick pigtails and had on a muslin blouse with what looked like hand-done embroidery, a skirt that reached to mid-calf, and stylish boots. It was one of her “Old World peasant” outfits.
“How’ve you been?” she asked when they were seated. Her manner was that of a news reporter, direct, without any coyness.
“I’ve been having a bad time with my ex-wife,” Mason admitted. He had only hinted to George about his problems with Jane, but Elaine was the first female with whom he had discussed details. Then he moved off of Jane and onto Gail. “And a girl I’ve been seeing for several months wants me to marry her. I don’t understand it. I never ask other people for things. How come I get so many demands?”
Elaine nodded, thinking about what he’d just said. “I try not to let other people bother me. I do what I want to do or need to do. If somebody doesn’t like it, too bad.”
Mason tried to remember if he had ever been that detached. He noticed that Elaine had painted her fingernails a dark gold color. She was probably all wires and batteries inside. “What makes you the way you are?”
He tried out some words. “Impersonal? Dispossessed? A little cold, at least. I don’t know. What do you think would be a good description?”
“Maybe it’s just an act. Maybe I’m soft as butter inside.”
“No, I think you are who you appear to be. It’s sexy, in a way.”
She rolled her eyes. “Men get turned on by the funniest stuff.”
He realized that they had nothing to talk about, that they had never had anything to talk about, that they had never even tried to pretend that they did. He was attempting to breach that understanding and it wasn’t working. Maybe he put too much emphasis on categorizing, using words to set limits. Maybe life was too slippery and undisciplined for that.
“I brought you something,” she said and pulled a fat, unevenly rolled joint out of her purse.
“Ah-hah. One of your funny cigarettes.”
“Instant vacation, Mason, and I think you need it.” She lit it.
When she passed it to him, Mason drew in with a vengeance, expanding his lungs until he thought his shirt would burst. It was potent pot. In ten minutes they had consumed it and were telling each other how good it was.
In the disjointed, abstract impact of a drug high, Mason looked upon her, a slight smile on her face, eyes mostly closed, and he wondered who she was and what she was doing there with him. Her eyelids lifted dreamily and she looked back at him, a mask of sadness appearing on her face. He had never seen her look like that before, and he didn’t think it was just an effect of the marijuana.
“We’re all strangers,” Mason said, in the meaningful way in which being high could color any comments. She watched him for awhile longer without speaking before crossing her arms in front of herself and pulling her blouse off over her head. He began to disrobe.
He felt increasingly guilty about Gail. She had been faithful to him, as far as he knew, and had stood by him for many months. Maybe in recognition of her commitment she was entitled to expect more from him than movies, dinners, sex, and occasional vacations. He liked having her around; he liked having someone to call; even liked having someone get angry with him over his obvious failings – it was a form of caring. And he disliked the turmoil and grief that he knew would result from trying to break off his relationship with her. He did not consider only her expected unhappiness; he knew that he too would be crippled by it, by the sense of failure again and by the loss of companionship, an intimacy of the kind he needed and could not extract from the casual acquaintances that constituted life on the other side of his relationship with Gail.
But it was an unsympathetic world that demanded he structure his relationships. Where he wanted limited commitments that could be subject to re-negotiation at any time, he was forever being pushed toward full commitments, the most comprehensive being marriage. Where most people liked systems that imposed predictability and stability on their lives, so that all they had to worry about was understanding the rules, Mason wanted a more fluid existence. He had tried the other with his two previous wives and it had not worked. He wasn’t sure why it hadn’t, but he believed that for him it would never work. It wasn’t that he had not thought of marrying Gail. He had both thought of it and desired it. But then another part of him had awakened a vision of pettiness and boredom, spitefulness and ultimately contempt. In his consideration, to avoid marrying her was to preserve their relationship in an ideal state.
As much as he was able, he had tried to tell her these things. But they were not the things she wanted to hear. He had never really gotten it all out. She had never let him. So as the weekend came around and he was feeling almost acute guilt toward her, he offered her the only gift that he could, what he had offered her before, another weekend vacation. A client had a cabin along a river.
“What’s it like?” she asked him again during the two-hour drive.
He had put off telling her, trying to make a surprise out of it. “How can I tell you, Gail. I haven’t seen it myself.”
“But he told you about it. I don’t know what the big secret is.”
At the first glimmer of petulance he caved in and tried to explain. “It’s not a secret. I just wanted it to be a surprise for you. He didn’t tell me much anyway. He said that it’s on a stream; that there’s ten acres with a lot of trees; and you can’t see any neighbors.”
“But what’s the house like?”
“He called it a cabin. I didn’t really ask him about it. He just said we didn’t need to bring anything except what we were going to eat, and he told me about turning on the hot water and heat. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see about the rest of it.” He opened another can of beer as the Jaguar droned on down the highway.
For nourishment he had brought a case of beer, a bucket of cold Kentucky Fried Chicken and a couple of tomatoes and some lettuce for a salad. He had also visited a sporting goods store and bought a crayfish trap. He had visions of frying a batch of tails for dinner.
“This must be it,” he announced after they had followed a gravel road off the highway for a mile. The mailbox next to the unpaved drive had his client’s name on it, although the cabin was not yet visible. There was a steel gate across the entrance, surrounded by thick brush and trees on either side. Mason put the car in neutral and got out, patting his pockets to locate the keys his client had provided. There was a “No Trespassing” sign on the gate and a padlock. Mason found the keys and used one of them to open the padlock. He drove through without bothering to close the gate.
It was a cold day, but the sun was shining, lighting up the cabin in its small clearing among the shadowy trees. When they got closer it looked like a treasure waiting to be taken. It was so quaint that Gail immediately said it reminded her of Hansel and Gretel, a comparison that only caused Mason to think of a witch.
It was a small cabin, fronted with a big porch for sitting. There was a chimney made of river stones and a stack of firewood under a shelter alongside the cabin. The windows all had small panes in them, as reassuringly timeless as the surrounding woods. Behind the cabin the stream could be heard.
“Let’s see inside,” Gail insisted, so Mason again retrieved the keys from his pocket and unlocked the front door. It was chilly and slightly damp feeling inside, but it was decorated just as anyone would want such a place to be. The walls were knotty pine; on the floor were oval rag rugs; the furniture was all from the 1930s and there was an afghan spread along the back of the small sofa. Missing were both a telephone and a television. Following his client’s instructions, Mason located both the switch for the oil furnace and the circuit breaker for the hot water tank.
“It smalls sort of musty in here,” Gail called to him.
He found her sitting in the living room with her coat on. “I just switched the heat on. That’ll warm it up. And I’ll build a fire, get a little woodsy smell in here.”
Mason went out to the car to carry in the beer and food. When he returned to the house Gail was checking the drawers and cabinets in the small kitchen. He was afraid that she wouldn’t find what she was looking for. He remembered passing a small store about five miles back. “How’s it look?” he asked.
“I think it’ll be fine. There’s plates and silverware and a few pans. But since you’re gonna do the cooking, maybe you ought to check yourself.” She turned and walked back into the living room, flopping again into the overstuffed chair, her hands shoved down into her coat pockets. Mason shut the cabinet door she had left open. He thought Gail seemed a bit tense. The plan to build a fire assumed new urgency.
“Where you going?” she asked.
“Firewood,” he said, trying to sound cheerful.
The shelter that protected the firewood was without walls. It consisted of poles supporting a canted roof. The wood was all cut to appropriate sizes for burning, but when Mason touched it he realized it was damp. He moved some aside and took pieces from a couple rows down into the stack, then he carried in an armload.
“Oh good,” Gail said. “A fire will be nice.”
He was glad she was more positive than a few minutes earlier, glad that he had calculated the right remedy. He went back outside for kindling, which he had forgotten when he got the logs. There was none. But worse, there was nothing lying around outside that he could use to make any. He went back inside empty-handed.
“Did you see an ax or hatchet,” he asked Gail, who had not moved from the chair.
“Aren’t they the same thing, ax and hatchet?”
“I need something to make kindling with.”
She shrugged, suggesting it was his problems, not hers.
Mason looked everywhere inside but found nothing besides old jigsaw puzzles, extra blankets, and brooms of various sizes. “Maybe there’s something in the car I could use,” he told Gail, becoming irritated with her unwillingness to leave the chair. He also sensed some apparent displeasure with him, though he was not sure what inspired it.
In the trunk of the Jaguar he found all the leavings he had seen the last time he had looked there for something. He examined the lug wrench, trying to imagine a way it could be used to split wood, but he could only conclude that it would not work. He leaned back against the car, took a deep breath and stared at the wood pile. His eyes fell on scraps of wood, pieces that had flown off when someone else had split wood. He walked back over to the pile, stooped and picked up one of the pieces. It was small and wet, but he theorized that if he got enough of them and put enough dry paper underneath he could get them to ignite.
“What’s all that?” Gail asked.
He spread his hands and let the assortment of chips and splinters fall to the hearth. “Kindling,” he answered proudly.
He did get a fire started, but that was after at least a half hour of fussing around, a portion of that time with the cabin door open to clear out the smoke that filled the room when he forgot to open the damper. By the time the fire was burning on its own, Mason’s patience had been severely eroded, the oil furnace had heated the cabin comfortably and Gail was wanting to know what they were “going to do.”
“We can walk down and look at the stream,” Mason said. “I’ll put my crayfish trap in.”
Gail’s response was to say “yuk”, which she then explained referred only to the crayfish. The walk itself appealed to her.
Mason got the trap from the car and placed a chicken bone inside. He had never used the trap and wasn’t sure how it was supposed to work, but he had bought it after becoming captivated by an image of pioneering self-sustenance.
Gail took his hand as they walked down the path to the stream, and that simple touch buoyed his spirits once again. His relationship with her lately had come to be this ragged fluctuation between morose and serene moments, unpredictable and usually beyond his ability to diagnose origins. But he at all times shouldered full responsibility; he regarded her unhappiness as a product of his opinion of himself, and there was some consolation in finding proof that his self-image was accurate. To some extent he also derived a perverse sense of power in recognizing his impact on her emotions, but that was something that he tried not to think about.
The stream was shallow, clear and swift; and just broad enough to be at the limits of Gail’s range when tossing small rocks. She threw them into the water while Mason dropped the trap into the most convenient spot, directly in front of them, and tied it to a tree root. The ground was too damp to sit on, so he squatted on his haunches near her feet and listened to the sound of the water churning itself, dislodging and tumbling the smallest stones before rushing on. There was ozone in the air. So absorbed was Mason in watching the stream that he began to feel slightly dizzy from the motion of the water. He stood up and almost toppled over when his right leg, which had gone to sleep while he was crouched, failed to support him. He felt the painful sting of the returning circulation. He checked to confirm that Gail had not noticed.
“This is really nice,” she told him. And they embraced. Maybe the weekend would be wonderful after all.
On their way back to the cabin, he noticed a tool shed against the rear of the cabin. It’s presence only vaguely registered. Now that his use for an ax had passed, he had no interest in the possibility that there might be one inside the shed.
For dinner Gail found a roll of foil and they re-heated some of the fried chicken in the oven. Mason made a salad and surprised Gail with a bottle of wine and two stemware glasses that he had brought along concealed in the car. The two of them ate in front of the fire. It had become evident to him that she was more remote than usual. He did not try to figure out the cause, but assumed that if he treated her well she would relax. When they were finished eating he cleared away everything except the wine glasses and immediately washed the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. He thought it might please her. But when he rejoined her on the sofa cushions which they had re-positioned on the floor, she did not look any happier. She twirled the wine around inside her glass, getting herself ready to tell him something.
“Mason are we going to get married?”
He had hoped to avoid that topic. He winced a little before answering, knowing that any answer he gave except “yes” would hurt her. “I can’t, Gail. I’ve tried to explain why. I don’t think marriage will work for me. If we were married I’d just end up ruining our relationship.”
“What is our relationship?” she asked, still looking at the wine in her glass.
“I love you.”
“Then we should be married. I know it would work.”
In his eyes she was youthful and naive at that moment, which gladdened him but also confirmed that she did not know and could not understand experiences that had formed his convictions. “I don’t want to deceive you,” he told her. “Since my last divorce, marriage has been something I haven’t really been able to consider again. Maybe if we keep seeing each other, my attitude will change. I don’t know.” It was his usual deceit and he heard the lack of even a pretense of conviction in his own words. He wished he hadn’t said it.
She drank down what was left in her wine glass and finally looked directly at him. “Have you ever thought about having children?”
The conversation was not going where he had hoped. He swallowed before answering. “I’ve had children, Gail. They didn’t do anything to preserve my first marriage and they ended up being raised by a step-father who is a textbook example of inadequacy.”
“Whose fault was that?” she asked quietly.
“It was my fault that I didn’t keep the family together.”
She smiled slightly and shook her head. “Accepting blame is no answer, not when you’ve got the capacity to do things right. You and I could do them right.”
He could think of no response. He felt suddenly fatigued and was conscious of the fragile rhythm of his heart. He took a swallow of wine.
“You have a responsibility to me, Mason. Even if you won’t marry me, you still have a responsibility.”
He flopped onto his back and spoke toward the ceiling. “I do all that I’m able. I buy you things. I take you places. I spend a lot of time with you, more than most husbands do with their wives.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
He looked at her to see what she did mean. He felt a shiver run through his blood. He didn’t want to ask, but knew no way to avoid it. “What is it then?”
“I’m going to have a baby.” She shrugged as though it were a mystery and then beamed triumphantly at him.
For several seconds he said nothing, then “Oh, I see.” He heard himself from light years away trying to remain calm. “You’ve been to a doctor? I mean, you’re sure?”
“Yes,” she said, and her look of triumph had already been transformed into one of defeat.
“But I thought you were taking the pills. How could you have gotten pregnant?”
She snapped at him. “Well, I must have gotten off schedule or something. My fault. Right? How would I know? That doesn’t make any difference now, does it?”
Mason stared at the ceiling again, wondering why it seemed impossible for him to experience even the simple pleasure of a weekend in the woods. Every day some new trap opened before him. Everyone he knew seemed to want something from him. And he did not know why.
“Well?” she said.
He could foresee only one realistic solution. “How far along are you?”
“Two months. Doesn’t it mean anything to you that I’m carrying your child?”
He knew what it meant to her, visions of a happy family, little infant fists clutching daddy’s fingers, Sunday mornings in church, sunny days and smiles. But in his mind she had made an incredible miscalculation. “It’s no good, Gail. I have no desire at all to raise another child. I’ve just about got Elizabeth and Richard raised. I can’t start over now. And it would be no good for the kid, no father around.”
Her mouth was open. But how could she have expected any other response from him? Hadn’t she ever listened to him?
“You don’t feel differently now about marriage,” she said woefully. It was an observation, not a question.
For a moment he thought she was admitting she had lied about being pregnant to get him to marry her, but he saw quickly that he was mistaken. She began crying, silently at first and then in great gulping sobs that shook her like a mean hand. “Oh Jesus, Gail, I’m sorry,” he said and held her in his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder and continued trembling for several minutes. Without her seeing, he wiped away the tears from his own eyes.
Finally she pulled away from him and went to get a drink of water from the kitchen sink.
He took a deep breath and told her, “I think maybe you should consider an abortion. Of course I’d pay for it.”
She turned around at the sink, still holding the water glass, her eyes on him. Without looking away from him, she took another drink. When she spoke, her voice was dulled by exhaustion. “I wondered how low you could go.” She set the empty glass on the counter, walked stiffly into the bedroom and shut the door.
Mason wanted to get out. He thought of walking back to the main road and hitchhiking, leaving the car for her, but he decided against it only because he thought she might wreck the car out of spite.
He stepped outside, and because he could think of nothing else to do, he walked down to the river and felt around in the dark for the rope to his crayfish trap. When he had the trap out he held it up to the clear night sky and could see in the moonlight that it was empty except for the chicken bone, an artifact of the grim failures that plagued him. With all the strength his anger could muster he heaved the wire contraption and heard it land a few seconds later in the brush on the other side of the stream. A muscle in his back ached from the strain.
Mason walked back to the cabin and spent the night on the sofa. In the morning he tried unsuccessfully to get Gail to talk more. They drove back to town without speaking until he had stopped in front of her condominium. Just before she got out she looked into his eyes and said, “Set it up.” Then she walked away. He watched her until the condominium door closed behind her. She never looked back.
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