The next morning, we left at nine. Ann drove back. Tina and Teresa traded recipes in the back seat. After a while, it registered in my half-attentive mind that Tina's were Greek and the names of Teresa's dishes were Basque.
"Where'd you learn to cook Basque food?" I said, glancing over the seat.
"My mother is Basque," she said.
"I didn't know that."
"There's a lot of things you don't know," she retorted archly. I looked scandalized; Tina was shocked, Ann gleeful.
Teresa registered for the second semester a few weeks later, the day of the faculty Christmas party. She showed me her class list that evening before we left. She was signed up for Shiera's Contemporary Women Poets. "I hear she's a good teacher," she explained.
The Christmas party was a reprise of the Fuentes reception. Teresa was, by then, accepted as my "significant other." Ann and Tina greeted her with glad cries. Later in the evening, I spotted Teresa against a wall, Aaron Corso standing too close. She looked disgusted; he looked triumphant.
"What did he say?" I asked her. He had fled when he saw me coming, his face smug. I watched him cross the room.
My heart fell.
"What do you want me to do?" she said.
"I don't know. I guess..." I hesitated. "I guess I don't care if it gets out. So you were a hooker. People accept you for who you are, not what you were."
She nodded. She was looking at the floor; she didn't speak. Tina was coming toward us, her smile friendly. Aaron Corso was talking to Bill Wetherill. Bill gave me a sharp look over Aaron's shoulder. I didn't say so, but I resolved to stay with Teresa for the rest of the evening, except to go to the bathroom. Then, when I came out of the bathroom, Bill was waiting.
"We need to talk."
I knew, but I said, "About what?"
"Aaron Corso just told mehis words, not mine, Thomashe cornholed your girl in an Ely cathouse."
"He's a liar," I said.
"OK. But he's confident he can get away with saying it."
I wondered what Bill expected me to do. A fist fight to defend Teresa's honor? A slander suit? What I wanted to do was simple: kill him in some painful way. I was at the same time furious and appalled at the idea of a brawl on the dean's front lawn. Christ, I thought, what can I do? Speak to him? Threaten him? What good was that? If I had had a gun, I think I would have killed him with sociopathic nonchalance. That made sense. Nothing else did.
"I told him if I heard he'd told that to anyone else, I'd feed him his balls," Bill said. Bill was a big man, with hands that could span a basketball and a torso like a barrel. He had a thick grey beard and gentle, grandfatherly eyes. His teeth were stained with years of Camels and then, when Camels got sissified, European cigarettes. He was a poet of marvelous delicacy and precision. I imagined that soft deep voice making that threat. Looking up into those hazel eyes, sleepy eyes shaded with grey shag, I understood that there was nothing idle in the threat.
"Thanks," I said.
"Don't mention it," he said. We shuffled out of the way; we were blocking the bathroom door; Walter Mann was headed toward us. As he passed, he gave me what I took to be an odd look. I tried to remember if I had seen Corso talking to him. I imagined calling Corso out. The two of us scuffling in the snow. If he beat me senseless, what purpose was served? If I crippled him, who would care that I was "in the right"? The crippling paralysis of consciousness. The moment for blowing up, charging across the room and assaulting him was past, and anything I did now I had to choose to do.
"What can I do, Bill?"
"Shit, I don't know," he replied with some exasperation. "Kill the little fucker."
We both laughed then, not quite sincerely.
"Who will he tell?"
"Who knows? Maybe nobody. He's a craven little shit. He'll do what he thinks he can get away with. Tell a couple of people the truth. You, I mean."
"Is she a hooker, Thomas?"
"She was. For a couple months."
He chewed on that. Teresa had noticed us. She was talking to Rosemary Mann near the punch bowl. She glanced at us occasionally. The glances became more frequent when she understood that Bill was studying her.
"How did you meet her?"
I almost said, "She answered an ad." Then, my mouth open to speak, I thought an innocent lie would be better. I shut my mouth. I reflected. Bill did not look at me; he was still watching Teresa. Finally I said, "It wasn't in a brothel."
"I don't know what the dean would think," Bill mused.
"That my girlfriend is an ex-hooker?"
"I won't pretend I didn't know," I said. I spotted Corso. He was standing with his back to us, talking to Dan Fussell and Walter Mann, a bit away from other ears. I was at once furious and helpless. "I have to talk to him," I said then. I set out across the room, glancing again at Teresa.
"Corso," I said to his back, trying for a normal tone. I tapped him on the shoulder. My voice was shaking. Teresa was out of earshot. The three of them turned to face us. I could sense Bill's huge bulk behind me. Corso glanced at Bill's face and looked, for a moment, frightened. Not of me, of course. "I understand you have a taste for anal intercourse."
"What are you talking about?"
"I understand you've been discussing sodomy. Do you prefer doing boys or girls? Was it boys that time in Juarez?"
"What the hell are you talking about?" Corso said again. The look he shot at Bill told me he knew.
"Sexual preferences. Come on, Aaron, we're all adults. We've read Papa's last books, and Mary's memoirs. We know about how he begged her to finger-fuck him. It just never made sense to me. Anal sex, I mean. So untidy."
"Thomas" Dan said. I ignored him.
"I figure a man who prefers a woman's rectum to her vagina is either a latent homosexual or a woman hater or both. Or maybe his penis is so small he can't get any sensation otherwise."
"You motherfucker, I don't have to listen to this."
"Mother fucking. Have you tried that too?"
"No, but I tried your little twat, and she wasn't much!" I had spoken in a conversational tone and volume. Corso had raised his voice. Dean Anderson was hurrying toward us.
"I don't have a twat, Aaron. That's girls. You do have a problem with sexual differences, don't you?"
Then he swung at me. The blow connected, but not very well. I deflected it slightly with my hand, but he struck my cheek, on the muscle of my jaw. It was more painful than I had anticipated.
"Professor Corso!" The dean's voice was low and fierce, with an edge of hysteria. "What in the hell is going on here?"
"This" Corso blurted. Then he reconsidered and cocked a fist as if to hit me again. Teresa had arrived; she murmured my name from Bill's side. I kept my eyes on Corso. My mouth was beginning to taste salty. Corso looked over my shoulder. "That bitch! She's a whore!" he said, as if explaining to the dean.
"No. You and Papa are the whores, Aaron. There are worse things than whores, Aaron. You know that."
"I want you out of my house. All of you," the dean said. "You two. In my office tomorrow morning." His voice was still a furious whisper. I turned to Bill. He had his arm around Teresa's shoulders.
"Larry," Bill said in that soft voice I was beginning to love, "we ought to talk."
"Teresa, let's go. I'm sorry about this," I said to Anderson. "I'm sorry it had to happen here. Nine o'clock?"
Dan Fussell dismissed himself, and Walter Mann rounded up his wife and disappeared. I murmured to Bill, "Thanks."
Only Corso was left, and as Bill, Teresa, and I moved away, I heard the dean hiss at him, "Get out of my house!"
When I arrived the next morning, Mrs. Willard, Dean Anderson's assistant, greeted me like a mortician. Ushered into his office, I stood just inside the door, which she pulled shut gently. The dean was embarrassed. He did not look at me when he said "Good morning."
"I can give you my resignation, effective immediately."
He looked at me then. "Bill told me what happened."
"I don't suppose you can imagine yourself in such a situation," I said.
"A former lover of my wife begins to spread obscene details about her in public. It's not hard." He looked down at his desk again. "Sit down, Thomas, won't you?"
I sat opposite him. He offered me "a coffee." I demurred. He lit a cigarette. He had one of those little ashtrays that collects smoke. He took a hard drag, holding the cigarette European-style cupped in his hand, and then put it in the ashtray. I watched the smoke rise and disappear into the top of the ashtray.
"What am I going to do?" he said.
"I don't know," I admitted.
"I want to fire Corso's mean little butt," he said then.
"Thank you," I said.
"You haven't done anything wrong," he said, then he added, "technically." He took up the cigarette again, pulling deeply on it, then opening his mouth to inhale and force the smoke into his lungs. I thought of my father relishing a cigarette the same way. I was moved by the recollection.
"I don't know what I would do."
"Is this woman a prostitute?"
"She lives with you?"
"Is what Corso said true?"
"I knew she worked for a while in a brothel, in Ely. She says he saw her there. What part do you mean?"
"The whole thing. I don't know. So she was a whore. For a while."
I wanted to say something philosophical. "Yes," I said.
"Christ, Thomas. You knew this when you got involved with her?"
"But you didn't meet her in a brothel."
"But you've been in the brothels."
That was unexpected. Were we headed toward a discussion of Ellen? "Yes," I said promptly. "And I'm writing about it," I added.
"What? A novel?"
I told him about Love Crafts. I explained that my research had involved one specific brothel in Winnemucca, and I had a personal, not sexual friend who worked there.
"How did you meet her?"
"I stopped there once out of curiosity," I said. His face became suddenly alert.
"So you did meet her in a brothel," he snapped.
"No," I repeated emphatically. "I thought you meant the friend." Then I lied without hesitation. The complex innocence of the truth could never be explained. "Teresa's a fan. She came to my office. I fell for her."
"She's a lovely woman," he said. Then he added, "She seems very nice. Mary likes her. And Bill. So does Ann Edmundson. And Don Albers," he added, as if tallying Teresa's advocates. He stopped at four.
"Larry, is being a prostitute for a few months so different from being a loose girl with a 'reputation'?"
"In fact? Probably not. In appearance..." He paused.
"Do you want my resignation?"
He did not answer for nearly half a minute. I watched him think. Teresa had talked to me in the car, insisting on an explanation. I told her what had happened.
"I never did that. That's what he liked."
"Did you fuck him?" I asked, as calmly as I could.
Her silence answered my question. She realized she had waited too long. "But not that," she said.
"It only matters because I need to know how much he can say truthfully."
"Yes," she said. "That would be important." Her tone was, I thought, dry, ironic. I glanced at her. She was looking out the window; all I could see was the gleam of one eye, the set of her cheek. "Did he hurt you?" she said without turning her head.
"He cut my mouth," I said.
"I'm sorry." We did not speak again until we got home. It was a long night. I lay awake silently; Teresa kissed my shoulder before going to sleep, but she slept on her back, not touching me. In the morning we had made love briefly, quietly, a kind of affirmation.
Dean Anderson sighed, a long, evacuating breath.
"God's truth, Thomas, I don't know what to do. I'm going to tell Corso that if anything about this incident resurfaces, I will take action."
"What action?" I said.
"That doesn't concern you," he said brusquely. "You stay away from him."
"The semester is nearly over," I said.
We left it at that.
For a week I met my classes, carried on the casual hallway conversations, talked with Dan Fussell about our Christmas plans. I spent a lot of time in Don Albers' office. The old cowboy had become a great advocate of Teresa's. One afternoon I told him the whole story. The truth. "So she was a whore f'a while," he said. I nodded. "And now she's a paid mistress."
"I never thought of it that way, but I guess so."
"You don't want to tell anybody that. Nobody. Probably not a great idea to tell me."
"I need to think through what's going to happen. If they're going to fire me for moral turpitude, it's time to start looking for a job."
"Don't do that," he said. Something in his tone made the advice seem suggestive.
"I sure don't want to."
"It'll blow over."
We had Don's door shut and his window open. He kept a fan in his office so he could smoke. With the transom open and the window cracked, the smoke went outside. He rolled a cigarette attentively. After he sealed it, he said, "Some of the great families of Nevada got a fallen angel in the woodpile." I nodded. He glanced at me, feeling for matches in his shirt. "That ain't good, bucko." He struck the match. "They ain't gonna like to be reminded," he explained. "I just meant, I don't think no less of her."
I had read Don's history of the Nevada sheep industry. "Never liked sheep much, but nobody'd done it when it was dissertation time," he had grumped one afternoon when I mentioned it. It had been published by the University of Nevada Press, one of their first books. It was written with a precision and clarity of language justly praised on the jacket flaps. Impressed, I had gotten his latest book, a biography of the prophet, Jack Wilson, published by Oklahoma. He also wrote fiction for the University of Nevada Press, drawing on his father's life for plots. The family, four generations of Nevadans, had pioneered cattle raising along the Truckee River. His personal voice was not an affectation, merely a comfortable level of diction. I had heard him lecture with the diction of a Yale graduate.
"Way I see it," he went on, "you got two problems. One, if Corso opens his mouth again, he can make her and you the laughingstock of the campus, and Larry Anderson's gotta worry about that. You can't go after Corso because the truth isn't slander. So he's got you by the balls." He glanced at me; I was impassive. "Two," he went on, "if the dean learns that the woman you have been passing off as a live-in girlfriend is a paid 'employee', he's going to have to decide what to do about that. I wish you hadn't told me," he added.
"I'm beginning to feel the same way," I observed ruefully. "Will you tell him?"
He stubbed out his cigarette. "She's a nice lady. I don't see no difference between her getting a paycheck and her getting a monthly allowance. I don't see no difference between a woman that fucks her husband for financial reasons and a woman who fucks somebody else's husband for financial reasons. And I known lots of women never broke the law who were world-class whores."
"Will you tell him?"
He looked at me speculatively, pursing his lips. "You ain't listenin', boy." He paused while I absorbed this. Damn laconic westerners anyway. "You an' T'resa comin' for Christmas, then?"
When I came home that evening, she had been sitting in the dark. When my car pulled in, lights began blinking on, marking her career from my office to the living room and then the kitchen. She came outside before I reached the door. She'd obviously been crying. She stood on the dark porch; she had not flipped the porch light on. Her arms were crossed under her breasts, a pair of rose clippers in one hand. She had slapped at a slick spot on her face with a quick swipe of the other hand as I opened my car door.
"Did you know about that rose?" she said. She gestured toward the side of the house, then she stepped off the porch, brushing past me and walking briskly out to the poplars.
I followed her. I hadn't noticed it. A wild rose, or maybe gone wild, wound into one of the poplars. It had had a few little yellow flowers when I moved in. They were barely recognizable as roses. I had forgotten about it. I said so.
"What's wrong?" I added.
"Nothing," she said. Then she shot me a glance full of worry. "I talked to my mom," she said. It sounded like a lie, but I hadn't known her long enough to be sure. "I was going to cut it back, but I kind of like it."
She was still holding the rose clippers in one hand. There were poplar shoots on the ground around the tall trees. She must have gone in to answer the phone. Her mother calling here: that seemed unlikely.
"You want to talk about it?"
"What? No. It's not important. It's your turn to cook." She gave me her back emphatically.
"Did Aaron Corso call?"
"No." Her answer came too quickly. "Why should he?" She was walking away. I followed.
"To bother you. To threaten me? I don't know."
"It was my mother. She says she's praying for me."
I smiled. "Well, it can't hurt." It was the wrong thing to say.
Later that evening, while I was writing in my office, I heard fragments of a conversation she had on her phone. One thin wall separated us; I couldn't help but hear. I tried not to. I heard nothing coherent, but the tension in Teresa's voice worried me. Twice she said, "What?" in an almost hysterical tone.
In bed that night, I said, "Was that your mother again?" I was sitting up; Teresa was fiddling with an aspirin bottle. Her endtable light was still on low. Otherwise it was dark.
"What?" she said again, turning to me. It was that same tone, as if she meant "Who?"
"No. It was Ellen." She went back to struggling with the bottle cap. "She called me about something." I did not point out that the phone had not rung. I held out a hand, and she handed the bottle to me with an exasperated sigh. Why was she calling Ellen?
"You two really hit it off," I said. I handed her the open bottle.
She looked confused. Then her expression changed, and she said, "Yeah. She's a nice lady." I thought of Don Albers calling Teresa that, a few hours ago.
"Don Albers has invited us to Christmas dinner. Want to go?"
"Sure." She popped the pills in her mouth and took a slug of her diet ginger ale. She always brought a glass of some carbonated drink to bed. Once she had taken one of the ice cubes in her mouth and demonstrated an unforgettable sensation.
"Tell me about Ely," I said.
"Ely or Professor Corso?" she said. She reached up and clicked her light off. It was suddenly black.
"Just tell me the truth," I said after a moment.
"The truth. I told you the truth. I worked in Ely a couple of months. My aunt came and got me out and got me that job in Tahoe. It was a year ago, when I left."
"What's your aunt's name?"
"I told you. Florence."
"Your Aunt Florence came and got you."
She was silent. Then she sighed. "No, not Aunt Flo. My other aunt." She paused. "Eloise," she said, then there was another silence. "Black sheep. Eloise came and got me."
"So you turned tricks for two months."
"Not quite. You get like a week of, like, learning the ropes. You have to screw the manager; he tries you out. Then he has one of the veterans talk to you, give you tips, like. At Loretta's they had these regulars, regular customers; you do a couple of them at first, before they put you in the lineup. Get graded like. Do you really want to know this stuff?" she said suddenly, her voice a little desperate.
"I know most of it. Ellen has told me about it. It's pretty much the same at Annie's."
She sighed again. "So I got put in the line and started turning tricks. I had a guy every couple of nights, I guess. Sometimes two or three. Maybe it averages out to one a day. It's not like you spend the whole night taking on one after another, fast as they can get off and out the door. You spend lots of time negotiating. You know, haggling on the price and what you get for it."
"What did you get?"
"From me? Pussy and mouth, OK? I never let anybody fuck me that way. I don't care what he says."
"Why not?" I said.
"I just didn't! What do you mean?"
"I mean what I said. Why not? It's just another place to put it, isn't it?"
"I guess so," she said sullenly.
"So you specialized in blowjobs," I said.
"Thomas, I don't want to talk about this."
"It's OK," I said. "I think I should have asked before."
"You want me to go?"
I felt a sudden pain in my chest. "No," I said. "That's not it." My eyes had adjusted to the dark. She was lying on her back, her hands clasped on her chest like a posed Victorian corpse, her hands framed by the dark fabric of her nightgown and the slight bulge of her bosom. I found the pose irritating, even though I knew it was not a pose, not in that sense. She was looking at the ceiling. "I don't care who you fucked or how. Or how many times. I really don't. I need to know about your relationship with Corso. I could lose my job over this."
"Oh my God," she said then.
"I need to know."
"I was an orange blonde then. It's stupid, you know, sometimes women with black hair, they think being a blonde will be more appealing, but with really black hair, you bleach it, it turns kind of orange, like you see on black girls sometimes. Mine's like that, but I did it, and I had light hair then, just a little darker than my complexion. That's why Professor Corso didn't recognize me at first; that and the makeup. You do makeup, tart up, huh?"
I nodded. She wore very little makeup. I wondered what she would look like, "tarted up."
"He only picked me this one time. I went by 'Dolly' because my brother used to call me that and I hated it." She stopped again, reflected, and then snorted a single, subtle puff of laughter, a soft "Humph." She went on. "So he got this blonde Mexican chick named Dolly and we went back to my room and he started in on me about how he wanted this and that. How much detail you want, Thomas?"
"Just tell me," I said.
"I told him I don't do that for less than five hundred. I wouldn't do it at all. There's some things.... Do you know what 'Wind, Rain, and Lava' is?"
"No," I said, feeling beset and resentful.
"I'll give you a clue. The wind smells of methane, the rain smells of ammonia, and"
"I get it."
She was silent for a moment. then she continued. "It's not cool to just say no. If I'd thought he'd pay that much, I'd've said a thousand. He got on me about that, said he'd complain to Aldous, that's the bouncer. I guess he thought he was the manager or something, so he was going to tell on me, and I said, 'Hey, I decide what I do and what I don't do, and Aldie just sees to it we don't get hurt and you don't get rough.' He didn't like that much and he called me a stupid bitch and I said 'Fuck for eighty.' I'd'a charged him a hundred for a blowjob.' I'd let guys talk me down to sixty and thirty, but for him I stuck at seventy-five for the main course 'cause the only way he wanted it was doggie-style. He said my ass for two hundred then, like it was a thousand bucks, and I told him we'd already settled that."
I was beginning to feel sick. It was more than I had bargained for. But I remained silent. She had not moved. I was not watching her, but in the corner of my eye I could see the chaste silhouette of her still body.
"So he paid seventy-five, up front, and I let him."
"You let him?"
"Fuck me from behind. So he could pretend," she added with a sneer. "On my hands and knees," she said, enunciating carefully. "And then the little prick stuck his thumb in me and I screamed because it hurt like shit." She stopped again. "I mean it really hurt, like he could've cut me. And Aldie banged on the door and called me, and I could feel the little son of a bitch shrivel up, so I rolled away and grabbed his money and handed it to him and told him to go get somebody else 'cause I was surely not his type. I said to Aldie through the door, 'This gentleman is just leaving.' Aldie said, 'You OK?' and Professor CorsoI never knew who he was then, you know. You get their first names, most of the time, and I don't remember what he said it was but it wasn't Aaron I don't think. You don't worry about that stuff, just like you don't use your own name. Anyway, he was pissed and I got chewed out, but none of the other girls liked him much, so Louis didn't fire me; he just chewed me out on principle. It's not like lots of guys ask for that, you know. Most of them, they think a blowjob is pretty kinky, I guess, or extras, like the chair."
She laughed. "Yeah. The chair is this thing, it's like an exercise bench, kind of, except it's like, special. When you sit on it, you're kind of exposed and, well, at a real convenient height and it makes you sort of helpless. I never did it, but I sat on it a couple of times. We charged a lot for it, and my johns were usually just guys who wanted a naked chest to lie on and a soft place to be inside for a little while." She sighed again. "What is that? Seven weeks, five days off. So I made it withfifty guys? Does that sound like a lot?"
"No," I said. I had imagined more, based on numbers Ellen had given me. I suppose not being on the freeway made the difference. Still the parade of faceless men marched behind my eyes, Teresa posing for pornographic flashcards I couldn't stop.
"When things got beyond the basics, it was like costumes, you know? The girls were free too choose what they'd do. I was shy. But I didn't mind the costumes, usually. They'd want me to put on these Victorian corsets and stuff. Cutaway panties. Maid's costumes. Little girl's clothes, this one guy. That bothered me, but I did it, and talked baby talk and sucked him off like I was in heaven. I felt dirty afterward," she concluded. She reached out tentatively and touched my elbow, turning on her side to face me.
"You knew about this," she said, a little defensively. "I'm sorry if it bothers you, but you did know. There's lots of things people know they do but they don't talk about it."
"I'm not judging you. It doesn't matter."
She did not reply. I felt, in some strange way, that I had said the wrong thing again.
She moved her hand a little, stroking my forearm. We lay silent, drifting into sleep together.
Ellen called twice in the next week, the second time to wish us Merry Christmas. That time, she talked with Teresa for ten minutes. I pretended not to listen to Teresa's informationless side of the conversation, a series of agreements, negatives, and one-word questions like "Why?"
"What did she say?" I asked when they were done.
"Girl talk," was all Teresa would tell me. She went into her room. A little later I heard the urgent buzz of her angry voice on the phone again.
When the semester was over, I proposed a trip to New Mexico, to visit Bandelier National Monument and to hang out in Santa Fe and Española. Sam could spend her Christmas vacation at the kennel. The book was done and in my agent's hands. A trip to Bandelier was my traditional celebration. The acceptance letter for Mother Love had been waiting when Dorothy and I got back from a summer trip to Bandelier.
"You don't have to go, though. But I thought with your Hohokam archaeology class..."
"I'd love to! To Bandelier?"
She had taken Hohokam Archaeology at UC/Sacramento; I had hoped she might want to come along for the ruins.
"And Santa Fe. Soul food," I said. "The best Mexican restaurant in America is in Española. El Paragua. And the second-best: Maria's Cafe."
"I've never been to Bandelier. We went to Aztec Ruins once. And Mesa Verde. They're all Anasazi," she added. We were to leave the day after Christmas. Christmas afternoon we'd be at the Albers' place for dinner.
For Christmas, I gave Teresa a beaded Shoshone barrette. I knew the lady who ran the shop at Fort Washakie in Wyoming, and I sent her a photograph of Teresa and a check for a hundred dollars. She had selected perfect colors and sent me twenty in change. Teresa gave me a box of Partagas Sabrosos. "I told the guy in the cigar store who you were and asked him for something you would like but wouldn't buy for yourself. If they're wrong, he said you could trade them." We were both delighted.
Sam got a whole steer femur, courtesy of Don Albers, and she hung around outside with it, suspicious and possessive, all morning. The Albers' dinner was in the early afternoon. Their Christmas dinners were legendary, Viking feasts. We were bringing a pumpkin pie that would take up most of Teresa's morning and three bottles of sparkling burgundy.
After breakfast, Teresa used the phone in her room to call her family. When she was done, I called Andy and then Martha. Andy's mother was visiting him in Seattle for Christmas, so we talked in code, as we always had when she could hear. I had always been able to tell when she was in the room by the laconic way he answered my questions, as if he were being spied on and this conversation were a crime.
"She left," I said after a few minutes.
"Your mom. She just left the room."
"Someday I'll fool you," he said, laughing.
"Not unless I tell you exactly how you give it away, kiddo. So how's Marcia, really?" Andrew had never had a girlfriend his mother liked. Marcia Telford was an epitome rather than an exception. I tried to stay out of Andy's personal lifeat least that element. When I married Megan, I failed tell him first. When I told him, he said, "So how long will this one last?" and it was hideously embarrassing, a year later, to tell him how apt his observation had been. He never talked about his girlfriends with me. I had met Marcia, about a year ago. There was an intensity to this relationship that set it apart from the others, and it was clearI was not fool enough to say so to himthat he had wanted me to meet this one, to see what I thought of her.
"She's fine. I haven't seen her for a couple days."
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder," I said.
He laughed more than it deserved. "That's what I hear, anyways," he said.
"Is there a problem?"
"Relationships have their ups and downs," I said, stepping gingerly into the minefield.
"No problem. If I had a problem, I could just dump her." He kept the tone light; as usual, I wasn't sure how serious he was. Once he had said, "Women. You can't live with 'em, you can't kill 'em," and I had wondered for days what he would not tell me.
"Andy, if you need to talk to someone."
I took that in. We always talk in lamina, I thought. Sometimes it's fun; sometimes it's the shits. "Say hello to Marcia for me, Andy. Why don't you give me a call when your mom's gone home?"
"On your cellular phone?"
"Right. I'll be on the road. I can call you, at least to tell you where I am. I'll be at Bandelier in three days, I expect."
"Say hello to the lions for me," he said. "And stay away from packaged meats."
He had been twelve when together we had one of the worst scares of my life. I had gotten food poisoning from a package of meat close to the far end of the hike. It had taken us three hours out, nearly ten back, and spent those ten hours wondering if I was going to die. In the last two hours, I considered sending him on alone to get help. I tried to suggest it; he refused to leave me. I think he would have dragged me out before he'd have left me there.
"Strictly vegetarian," I said.
"I gotta go, Dad. Merry Christmas."
Martha and I exchanged politenesses. Somehow Andy and I had made it back; Martha was gone forever. I think with Andy it was because he didn't take sides. He understood enough to see that both his parents were flawed, even if I was the one acting on our discontents. Martha identified with her mother. What I did to Dorothy, I did to Martha, and that made the slow unfolding of her mother's flaws more a shock than Martha could handle. Andy explained it to me in his hard way, one day when he was fifteen and weary of the world.
"It's the darnest thing," he had said. "Mom's so poor because of you, there's never money for stuff Marty 'n' I want. But she spent two hundred dollars on a pair of sunglasses this week. Darnest thing. Even Marty noticed...."
It was a few months later that she told Martha there was no money for college. She couldn't spare any of the child support money for college expenses, she explained. Martha told me she was going to Colorado State if she didn't get a scholarship. I offered to pay half of her tuition, room, and board to any school that didn't give her a full scholarship, and she ended up in Boulder getting a BA in Business. Three years after she graduated, she sent me a check for Christmasprecisely what I had paid for her schooling, down to a dime. I put the money in a savings account, planning to give it to her first child for college. There still was not a first child; the money sat growing, slowly and silently. She and her mother, so far as I knew, had not spoken in four years.
While I wished Marcia and her husband, Grant, a Merry Christmas, I could hear a televised football game in the background noise of the phone. Teresa had the television on as well, and turned toward the kitchen; she was watching the same football game while she made her pumpkin purée in the blender. The effect was a disorienting, not quite coordinated stereo.
"Thanks for calling, Mr. Phelan. You have a good time now," Grant said, with that bouncy heartiness of his that I could not imagine Martha failing to cringe away from. He was going to hang up, from the closure in his voice. I almost asked to speak to Martha again, then thought better of it.
The pie was scratch-built; it was a famous success. I gave Don a Sabrosa and we smoked together in his den after eating, while Teresa, Don's wife Annabel, his daughter and his daughter-in-law Louise tussled in the kitchen, arguing over who would do how much of what.
"You should marry that woman," Don said, in his best wise old uncle tone. I laughed.
The next morning we were off at sunrise. There's no easy way to get from Reno to Santa Fe. We were outside Ely late the next morning, just over the Utah border and headed for I-70 and the San Rafael Swell, when Teresa said, "What if I asked you for a raise?" I was startled. I had been wondering where "Loretta's" was, exactly. I hadn't seen it as we passed through town.
"Nothing. What if I did?"
"A month?" I said. We hadn't talked about money since the initial agreement was settled.
"OK," she said. She looked out the window. Utah is not interesting there, that time of year.
"I didn't say no; I just said what for."
She didn't speak again for an hour. She read a magazine. We crossed the mountains and came down to the beginning of I-70. When I began to accelerate into the freeway traffic, she put down the magazine and shifted in the seat to face me. "What if I quit?"
I glanced at her. "What's going on?" I said.
"I'm just asking."
"But why are you asking?"
"Well, it's a hell of a thing to speculate about," I said.
Another silence passed. She dragged a pillow out of the back seat. She curled it between her head and the window. She closed her eyes. I could see the huge Texaco sign at Green River on the horizon when she said, her eyes closed, "You never answered my question." I had thought she was asleep.