That night, to make an honest man of myself, I began the novel. I had been working on old projects and a few short stories. The novel had been fermenting since the beginning of the year, and I had begun to feel some guilt that I had neglected it. I intended the novel to be about Ellen. I had been imagining how her life would be if she had been married the last ten years. I wanted to examine that hypothetical marriage. I thought she might be married to that randy car dealer from Sacramento, a little less pathetic and more intelligent than he had sounded, and her enough younger that she might fall for him. That's not the way stories work, of course. That night, I found myself more interested in Ruth. I thought of that rancher in Winnemucca who screwed Linda who looked like his daughter. Once the words began to appear on screen, Bethmy imagined Ellenhad a childhood and a father, and I was writing about that.
I wrote all night, trying to get inside that father's head, to understand the nature and particulars of his love. I had thought he would be connected to that mean voice, but something more terrible emerged, a father who truly loved her, a good, weak man who crippled her for love. It made a better story, even if Ruth's, and the father I imagined she had loved, were more real. At six, I set the printer running and lay down for half an hour. I had office hours on Tuesday, but no classes. My office hours were at eleven, but I usually came in at nine or so. That morning I read the last night's work instead. I had about forty pages, and Beth's father was gone after ten. It was moving too fast, and there wasn't enough of the man himself. I liked the girl's voice, but she looked too much like Ruth Stroh. I made marginal notes to change her appearance.
Sam and I went for a walk. I told her about the book, and she approved. It didn't mean anything; she always does. We usually walk over to the park, mornings that I have time. She alarms the ducks and saves sticks that have attempted to drown themselves, halting our progress to give her full attention to the soggiest, slimiest ones, which she holds in her paws and disintegrates efficiently. As we made our way around the "lake"actually a pond of less than two acre's surfacewe watched the morning's robins. A sparrowhawk couple lives in the park; some mornings I would see them together high in a particular Dutch elm. More often I heard one or both calling in a high, imperial soprano. Once I'd seen one stoop at something beyond my line of sight.
Sam and I were sitting under a tree, Sam watching a cluster of ducks in the water, I pretending to look for the silhouette of a sparrowhawk. A teenage boy was walking one of those ugly dogs, a pit bull, on a thing that looked like a logging chain. When he was ten feet away, he said, "Don't worry, mister. If she goes for your dog, I'll just slug her in the head."
I said nothing. Sam studiously ignored them. They passed by. The dog lunged at a bird and as if to prove his point, the boy yanked the dog back, reached down, and hit her behind the ear with his fist. The dog cringed from the swing and flinched when he connected, dropping her haunches into a half-sit. She sat then, a rebellious look in the cant of her ears, and without acknowledging the dog's grudging offer, the boy passed on, yanking the chain when they were the full length of it apart.
"OK, Sam, what makes dogs love their owners even after shit like that? What have you got to say for your kind? Where's your self-respect?" I scratched her ears. "That's different from the kind of relationship we have, right?" She glanced at me in acknowledgment, but she was, after all, pretty busy. "What would you do if I didn't love you back, huh? Bite me, I hope."
She was preoccupied, now that the vulgar dog and his human were gone. The robins had been taunting her, flying just beyond each charge she made at them. We moved on, continuing our circuit of the lake. She would race forward, stop, look back at me, then run back to me, then after a moment charge again. I was not being helpful. Together we could have surrounded the robin, or worn it down.
Dogs love, I thought as I watched her, but what we call unconditional love is just a physical and emotional dependency. A dog that has never killed its own food recognizes in its master the "superior hunter" who provides food. Humans direct the dog's natural desire for a known, dependable pack and clearly defined status into a relationship of subservience to us. Put six dogs together and make them find their own food. Before long, you won't be part of the pack. I smiled to myself. Put the right six dogs together, and you might become prey.
I revised my draft when we got back. I used the blonde girl whose father set the idea in motion, changing the descriptions to fit her, excising Ruth's unique feral mouth and delicately invisible body hair from the text; I considered making her hair platinum white, or at least a pale vanilla. As a compromise I lightened it to the shade of yellow brown I remembered from the pool. I missed my eleven o'clock office hour; when I got in at one, the office was locked and empty.
I opened the door. The office smelled of cigarettes. They have a burnt paper odor distinct from the smell of cigars or pipes. One reason I am sensitive about smoking around others is that I hate cigarette smoke as much as most people hate the smell of a good cigar. I had quit smoking in the house before Martha was born. Then after Andrew, Dorothy started complaining about the smell of my clothes, how much it bothered the children (who never mentioned it to me themselves). Dorothy had been a "three-pack-day smoker," as she had loved to brag, when we got married; then one day she quit, and anybody who smoked was a creature of lesser self-discipline.
I opened the window. When I turned around, Ruth was in the doorway.
"Hi," I said, returning to my desk.
"Can I come in?"
"Without an appointment? Sure." I meant it to be funny; she looked serious. She came to the visitor chair and sat down. She was holding her books in front of her, her purse dangling from the crook of an elbow. She sat with her knees together, her feet flat on the floor. I sat down and turned my chair to face her. She looked down at her blue-denimed knees, as if sighting over them at something on the floor behind me. I picked up my coffee cup; it was empty. She pursed her lips as if to speak. I waited.
"Can I smoke?" she said, without making any move to get cigarettes.
May I, I thought nonsensically. My mother would corrrect that one and "between you and I." The sum of her linguistic knowledge. I needed a cup of coffee. "Sure. I didn't know you smoked."
She fumbled through her purse, still not looking at me. Finally she came up with a package of Marlboros. Her dad's brand? While she got one to her mouth, I fished in my desk for a box of my wooden matches. I struck a match and lit her cigarette. She sipped smoke and blew it from her mouth a couple of times. She'd not met my eyes when I lit the cigarette; Lauren Bacall would've, I thought, watching the performance with some sadness. She held the cigarette in her mouth like a straw, forgetting to drag on it and blinking when a curl of smoke scratched her eye. Still she said nothing.
"They're bad for you," I ventured.
"You smoke cigars," she replied.
"They're bad for me," I said.
She looked puzzled.
"When we mimic our elders' bad habits, we slow the progress of evolution."
She smiled. "Who said that?"
I looked around the room for a third party. "I did."
She was sucking the cigarette too fast, when she did pull on it, and it was burning quickly. The ash was more than an inch long. I grabbed an ashtray she couldn't have reached, and gave it to her. She lost the ash just as the cigarette was above the glass ashtray. She looked at the remaining cigarette like it was someone else's, hesitated, and then stubbed it out.
"When did you start?" I asked.
"Try cigars or a pipe. They're healthier, they're made with a better class of tobacco, and they carry an air of sophistication. People are addicted to cigarettes; they choose to smoke pipes and cigars."
"I'n just see me smoking a cigar."
"Well, you'd never learn to inhale. I haven't inhaled in twenty years. Actually, a demure little pipe, maybe white clay, or a briar with a bowl like a perfume bottle, and a sweet Virginia shag would suit you better. Stay away from dark brown and black tobaccos; the darker, the stronger the taste."
"You're making fun of me."
"No, I'm not." We were silent for a moment, then I added, "I'm telling you the truth, kiddo. I may not tell you everything, but what I tell you is the truth."
"Tell me why you told that story in class."
I thought about that. "Because it was important to me at the time."
"That's no answer."
"Sure it is. It's true. Sometimes the truth is like a tree; you can't see the whole thing all at once, and from some perspectives you don't see much of it at all."
"I'm too young to understand?" she said, her tone injured.
"No, I didn't say that. You are too young to understand some things, sure. King Lear, for instance. How a person can vote for politicians he despises and have a clear conscience, maybe. You might understand, if I told you the whole truth. If I knew it, which I don't claim to. And I know people my age I could never explain it to. And people with my own education," I added. I went on. "On the one hand, in a sense I don't know exactly why I told the story; I'm too emotionally involved in the need to tell it. Not as much as I was yesterday, but some, still. More important, though, a complete answer to the question would step inside privacy I don't want to share with anyone. Not even you," I added hesitantly. "You have a right to ask; I have a right to refuse."
"Don't you want to talk about it?"
"We are talking about it." I considered my words. "I had a realization about myself last weekend. I realized that when I define my closest relationships, I cast myself as Sir Lancelot. You know, I've always thought that was one of the silliest names ever given a hero. Since he was French, I suppose it was actually pronounced 'lawn sello,' but the British, with their burdensome humorlessness, transformed it to 'lance a lot' and expected us to take him seriously."
"What's wrong with being Sir Lancelot?" she said, ignoring my aside. "Doesn't every woman want a knight in shining armor?"
"Does she? She's supposed to, and so she probably thinks she does. But does she, really? That's kind of the point of the story."
She waited. She was looking at me, finally. I was not looking at her.
"Men grow up thinking they want a beautiful wife. They talk among themselves as if a woman's physical appearance is the key to her attractiveness. I wonder if other men noticesurely they dothat a woman's appearance changes as you get to know her. One's first impression may be that she is beautiful, plain, or ugly; but an unattractive woman that a man begins to find appealing in other ways becomes more beautiful physically. The mole becomes a beauty spot; the odd nose becomes unique and distinctive, thick lips become full. And when he falls out of love, the glamour falls away. It's like retouching a photograph."
I paused. I met her look as I continued. "I was having lunch one day with three male professorsat another schooland we got to talking about movie stars. I mentioned that I thought Michelle Pfeiffer was gorgeous, but I'd rather spend the evening with Sigourney Weaver. One guy at the table said he wasn't picky, he'd be happy to have sexual intercourse with either one. I felt like an idiot, trying to explain that I wasn't talking about getting in bed; I meant that Weaver was someone who seemed to have ideas in addition to sex appeal, a person you could talk to."
"Like Alice Walker," she said.
"Yes!" I said, startled. "Or Leslie Silko. How do you know about Alice Walker?"
"You mentioned her in class. I got her short stories out of the library. I'm reading The Color Purple. She's beautiful."
"Yes. In both senses. Isn't her picture on In Love and Trouble?"
"I guess everybody knows that men are such slaves to their glands that they don't know what they want or recognize it when they've got it. What hit me over the weekend is this disintoxicating realization that women are the same way. I'd always assumed they had more brains. I've spent a lot of my personal life offering my loversmy wife, for examplewhat I thought they wanted. Trying to beNo. Being Lance A Lot."
She glanced at Claudine's desk. I chose to ignore that look.
"Some women really do want it," she said softly, looking at her hands.
"I don't think so. I really don't think so. Any more than pot-bellied, middle-aged Leon Alton really wants to find himself naked in the same room with Madonna."
She smiled. We each had invented "Leon Alton" in our mind's eyemine was Ned Beattyand imagined what happened next. It was not pretty.
I picked up my empty coffee cup; put it down.
"Love is not just a mystery, Ruth; it's utterly irrational. The heroes and villains are interchangeable. The plot is chaos and the denouement has no inevitability. It all just happens. Like who dies in the train wreck. Or winning the lottery. And it's a lottery we can win even if we don't enter," I added. "We make up love because if the truth were written down, nobody would believe it."
I had a Doors poster taped to the wall behind her; a relic of a Fillmore concert. I had been looking at it, thinking of Jim Morrison, how simple he tried to make things. And it all fell apart. It does. I looked at her, and I was startled by her expression. Telling her, I felt clumsy and stupid, like a man building a wall with round stones. But she had understood what I meant, however stupidly I had said it. That was unexpected. I was about to go on, when she spoke.
"Sometimes what two people think is an act of love between them, other people see as evil," she said. I examined all the meanings of that. I put the coffee cup down. She had raised her head to look at me, gauging my reaction.
"We have no right to judge others' loving relationships," I said. "But we have to, anyway."
"Why do we have to?" I thought about it. "Because we have a tremendous emotional investment in understanding valuable relationships. The universe has been a very lonely place since God died. And even before, when He was too busy to speak with us. Some of the most terrible acts of love have been attempts to attract his attention."
I hate thinking of something important at the moment I say it. I was embarrassed, and I had spoken to the empty coffee cup. I looked at her, and her eyes were wet. I wondered what, precisely, had caused that. Not my pathetic theology. I thought of her father, giving her a kind of love that he needed, she wanted, and they both knew was somehowhow?wrong. If they'd had the courage to face their accusers, then their arguments, at the bench of reason, would sound more convincing than the medieval incest taboos and Talmudic constraints of sexual habit ever could. I had learned that the night before. But I couldn't say that, without knowing for sure what they had done. I didn't want to know. Or rather, I was ashamed of wanting to know, like a little boy who peeks at his mother in the tub. And I thought, then, of that savage, high-pitched voice on the phone, the voice of a man jealous of his property, not the voice of a sexual pioneer. Don't assume good or evil, I thought suddenly. One thief was saved. I had no right to judge love. I would. The other was damned. I would not pretend I didn't recognize that voice. But Ruth? It wasn't what she had done that I cared about, it was what she thought. Finally, it's not the act but the motive. I was a man, and father of a girl, and I knew his motive. Writing into last night, I had invented Ruth's seduction, and I had tested the prospect of her seducing him, the little girl who comes to her daddy's lap a year longer than she should have, the "accidental" exposure of nakedness, the delicate self-deception of pretended ignorance when an innocent touch turns, tentatively, seductively, almost unwillingly, to something less than innocent. I chose the father's aggression for my imagined lovers, partly because I didn't want to know the woman the other choice required. It was easier for me to envision the father imagining sexual content in the child's love. I had tried to imagine Martha responding to my overtures: what would she be thinking, what mixture of fear, love and desire? Entangled in the adult's hunger, what would she be taking, what giving? Two people commit the same act, God between them.
I went on, looking at the poster again. I did not want to look at Ruth. "No one has enough love. And the giving and taking of love is ruled by grace. We can't choose to love, or choose to be loved. We can't find it, because we can't agree on what it looks like. We can't grow love. People talk of nurturing it, as if it were a living thing. But if it's a plant, fertilizer and water and sunlight don't work any better than starvation and shade. We talk about dogs as if they were the epitome of loving. Do you think cats love?"
"Good. I'm sure they do. But look how different it is from the love dogs give. None of this unconditional bullshit. None of this 'speak and I obey' baloney. Love is a contract for a cat, with solid escape clauses. You know why?" The question was rhetorical. "Because cats can fend for themselves. It's their nature. They don't need us. In a way, that makes a cat's love neater, cleaner, than the self-serving love of a dog."
"That's a cruel way to put it," she said.
"I'm sorry, Ruth. You asked me why I told the story. You asked me for the truth, and I gave you what I think it is. Now you have to decide for yourself, how much of what I believe is the real truth and how much is just what I think. You know, I have a dog, not a cat."
"Isn't that dishonest?"
"No, just weak."
"I think you're wrong."
"You should. I don't like the idea that I'm right."
"I don't think dogs love unconditionally," she said after a thoughtful silence. "I think they love us more than we deserve. But that's not the dog's problem. Just because we don't deserve it doesn't make the love itself wrong. What's wrong with loving someone more than they deserve?"
"What has justice got to do with it?" When I did not reply, she continued. "I guess I'm not like you; I'd rather be loved by a dog than a cat. I'm not sure I want justice." Still I said nothing; my silences punctuated her sentences. "My minister said once, 'Expect justice; hope for mercy.' I guess that's how I feel."
We sat quietly, neither speaking.
"I brought you some more poems." She made no move to get them for me.
"Good. I like reading your poetry."
"I wrote one about yesterday." Still she didn't offer them. I rummaged through a pile of papers and retrieved the ones I had. We talked about them; it was as if our conversation had never occurred. I wondered what she was thinking. I made some suggestions about a couple that were too wordy, too concerned with telling rather than showing. There was one, a description of horses playing, that I suggested she give to Solstice.
"They aren't going to use my essay," she said.
"That doesn't mean anything. I doubt if they use more than a quarter of the submissions. Rejection notes are part of being a writer."
"I don't mind. I didn't like it that much." She opened her notebook, popped the rings, and handed me another twenty pages.
"I probably won't read them till the weekend."
We talked about class. She was writing a paper on "The Little Mermaid." We talked about it; I made some suggestions; the conversation dwindled. Claudine was usually in the office from one to five, but that was primarily to work on the research project.
"I guess I better go," Ruth said. "I have Poli Sci at two-thirty."
As soon as she left, I went home. I was back at the novel; I wrote till eleven, taking a break at six to make a tuna sandwich and play with Sam.
When I got back from my nine o'clock next morning, Claudine was at her desk. I said good morning. "How's your Ruth?" she said.
I thought of objecting. Pointless. "OK. I think she's OK."
"She talked about you yesterday. That's all she could talk about. She thinks you're a great writer. She likes your class."
"She's bright. I think she may have some real potential as a writer. I hope her taste improves."
"She's planning to stay through the summer. She asked if you teach summer classes. I think she'd take a course in early Australian laundry lists if you were teaching it."
"I'm not going to teach this summer."
"Thomas, what's going on?"
It took me a moment to understand what she had changed the subject to. The pain of realization was still there, like the pain in a torn ligament as you try to negotiate steps. I was silent too long, considering my reply, to get away with claiming I didn't know what she meant.
"You know your relationship with Peter troubles me."
"Yes," she said. She waited. I chose my words as carefully as I would chose my footing in a stream bed.
"I've gotten too personally involved in your life."
"I thought we were friends."
"I don't have friends," I blurted.
We sat with that declaration between us. I had never thought it in those terms, that drily as a fact of my life rather than a bit of braggadocio, before. She did not speak.
"I don't get close to people. I don't like it. I let myself get involved with you more than I meant to. I need some distance."
"So you don't want to be friends."
I could not think of a reply that said clearly what I wanted. There was no explanation that did not sound cruel. I did not feel cruel, just tired, and sorry that I knew her. She stepped into my silence.
"So you don't want our relationship."
"It doesn't work. Our relationship. I look at your bruises, and I want to stop him."
"So I can't. It's not my place."
"So you turn your back."
I thought about it. "I turn my back. I have to," I added.
"Why can't we be friends?"
"I don't understand you! You are an intelligent adult. Why do you let him do this to you?"
"I don't 'let' him; it happens."
"You put up with it."
"I don't 'put up with it'. I called the police once."
"You stay. You let him back in. You go to him. That's putting up with it. You want it."
"I want it? You think I want it?" It was out, loose in the air between us like a freed bird. I was both sorry and relieved. "You think I like having him knock me around? That's" she struggled for a word. "That'sHow can you think that?"
"Give me another explanation," I said. Now that it was said, I was strangely calm. Claudine was furious.
"I don't need to explain anything," she snapped. She turned back to her desk angrily. I turned to my work.
"You don't know anything about people loving each other," she said after a minute of rearranging her desk. When I did not speak, she added, "You've hated Peter from the moment you met him. I never understood what you had against him."
It was my turn to be angry. "I hated him from the moment I realized that he was a pathetic little wife-beater. Before that, I scarcely noticed him."
"Little? You're jealous of him."
"Why? Why, for God's sake?"
I looked at her. she was eyeing me speculatively.
"I don't know why," she said. "What is it?"
"'It' is nothing. He has nothing I want."
"Nothing?" Her voice tilted upward slightly.
I wondered what she was getting at. She read my look of puzzlement differently than I would have. She smiled.
"Nothing?" she said again. "What is it? Why can't you admit it?"
"I have nothing to admit," I replied with some heat. I was becoming angrier; she was taking my anger as proof of guilt rather than innocence. "I don't know what you're getting at."
She continued to smile. "I'm not getting at anything. I don't know what it is. It could be anything."
"It must be his age," I said with furious irony. "I wish I was a fuzz-faced little boy again. You know, with all the girls wanting to be my mommy and all the teachers thinking I have so much potential. Or maybe it's his great bod," I added.
"He has a great body."
"Or maybe it's his brilliant mind. I wish I could be his intellectual equal. Or his moral equal. Or have his daddy's money. Or his pony tail. Or his cute little curly goatee."
"Stop it," she said. "You know it's not those things. You're jealous. You want." She left the object of my desire unidentified. I did not reply. I looked at the floor; I could feel her eyes on me. "We all get old," she said without gentleness; "we all start looking at younger people, hoping their youth will be contagious. That little girl. It's."
"There is no 'it.' It isn't Peter. He's contemptible. It's you."
"Me what?" she cried.
"I could stand what he was doing to you" I said, and she interrupted to say, with some sarcasm, "Thanks."
"What he does is bad; I wish I could stop it; I want it to stop; but it is trivial, explicable, the petty evil of a commonplace creature. But you collaborate in his violence. You said yourself, you trigger it."
"You're twisting my words."
"I'm quoting you. You set him off."
"You despise him."
"Yes," I said, with the flat tone of a man acknowledging his name.
"I can't believe this." Her tone was at once baffled and angry. "You expect me to sit here and put up with it while you talk about my husband as if he was some sort of beer-guzzling, gut-scratching thug who wanted me barefoot and pregnant. You can't talk about him like this!"
I had gone far enough, surely. I said nothing.
"Is that what you think?" When I did not reply, she said again, "Is that it?"
"What I think doesn't matter."
"It matters to me," she said, a bit hysterically. I wanted to weep. She stood up.
"All right," I said, "it matters. You care what I think. But it hurts me to think about what's between you two. You want me to watch, and I can't. I want to do something, and I can't. I'm pulling away from it."
She glared down at me. I met her eyes. "Well," she said, breaking the faceoff, "I guess that's clear enough." She grabbed up her purse and strode toward the door. I thought to speak, realized I had nothing to say, watched her go. I avoided her for the rest of the day. I arranged to be out when she was in. I made little side trips to avoid getting to my office before she had left. I skipped my office hours and went to the library. I went home early, and I cancelled my Thursday office hours. I tried to write during the day, found that I couldn't. Scripts of conversation with Claudine ran through my head constantly: pleas, confessions, exhortations. Peter's violence became entangled with Stroh's lust, and it made a creature I did not want in Beth's story. The second night, I emptied a rum bottle without thinking, and at midnight I sat in front of the phone, weepy drunk, and talked myself out of making a phone call that would have left me humiliated beyond recovery. As the days passed, I read, reviewing for my finals and taking notes for exam questions. Thursday night, Dan Fussell called.
"The dean's going to offer you the job tomorrow," he said. "He'll be calling to set up another visit. Are you still interested?"
"I'm ready to go."
"What happened?" he said after a moment. I told him, as emotionlessly as I could in daylight, about Claudine.
"That's not the real reason," I added. "I want a change."
"I think you'll like it here. We've talked with Bill; he wants to work with you."
"I've only met him a couple of times."
"He likes your work. He was very complimentary about how you handled his class."
We talked about the details of living in Reno: good places to look for a home, what civilan life away from the casinos was like. I had decided I wanted a house outside town. He said that would be expensive.
"It always is," I remarked.
"I'll bet you can find a good place, though. You going to buy?"
"I don't know. If it's the perfect place, I might."
"You want me to set you up with a realtor? I know a guy."
"Sure. But wait till it's official."
Dean Anderson called the next morning. I got the message after my nine o'clock; I called him back when I was alone in my office, during Claudine's eleven o'clock fiction class.
"Well, Professor Phelan, how would you feel about joining us in Reno?"
"Pleased," I said.
"Well, we'll be pleased to have you. I've met with the Vice President of Academic Affairs, and we have come up with a way to augment the salary a little. How would you feel about running a summer writing workshop with Bill Winterell?"
"With visiting faculty?"
"Yes. We'd start small, I think. A fiction workshop with you and Bill and one other writer with some national recognition. Limited enrollment by invitation. Twenty students?"
We talked through the details. He wanted me to come to campus next week to go over the contract. "If we reach an agreement on the details, we can make the announcement right then."
"I can do a couple of student sessions as well, if you want. To help cover the cost of the trip?"
I agreed to come the next Tuesday. He put me with his administrative assistant to arrange flights and a place to stay. After I put the phone down, I savored a sense of relief. There were students I would miss. I would be sorry to lose Margaret's steady clear-headed strength. I cared about her, I thought, sitting there, more than I could expect her to care about me. But she would miss me, surely; she would be disappointed. I framed my resignation, writing the letter and, in my mind, the script of our meeting.
That night, a little after midnight, I called Ellen.
"Are you flying out in the morning?"
"Back, you mean? Yes. Could you come down? I'll pay for your room."
"Why?" she said. "No, never mind."
"I'd like to see you." You are my friend, I nearly added. In my pause, I heard her voice again.
"Tuesday. Let me see. I'll call you tomorrow night." We left it at that. As I considered the move itself, only the misery of packing all my books brought a twinge of regret. My home was little more to me than a motel, a place I slept and ate.
Ellen called Saturday morning. She would come to Reno. There would be dinner with the president the evening I visited. I called Mrs. Willard, Dean Anderson's assistant, on Monday morning and asked if I could bring a friend. She said she was sure it would be all right.
"Is this person going to fly in with you?" she asked. I smiled. She was delicately probing the issue of a possible "significant other" she hadn't been warned about. And politically correct, I thought with a grin. She'd carefully not assumed it was a woman.
"No. She's just a friend who lives in Nevada."
Ellen would be there at six; I warned her that we had a social engagement. Her voice became very businesslike, discussing how to dress. We invented a relationship, to keep our stories straight. On the plane, I wondered about my motives. I felt a sense of danger, a delicious feeling that I was doing something potentially disastrous. It was, I think, an act of defiance, but I wasn't sure who was the target. Myself, perhaps.
The dinner went smoothly. Ellen wore a simple dress, something a bank teller might wear to work. We had invented our backgroundshe was student I had kept in touch with over the years, a widow from Battle Mountain. I left it at that, with the agreement that she would elaborate her personal life and I was in charge of questions about our relationship when she was my student, briefly, in Utah. The Fussells were there; Shiera sat across from me, and she was civil to Ellen, but a moment of eye contact told me she could make trouble with what she guessed. I was glad we were friends. At the end of the evening, I happened to help her with her coat, a chance juxtaposition in the cloakroom.
"It's not what you think," I muttered.
"Who you fuck is your business, Doctor," she whispered, giving me a quick upward glance and then walking away before I could protest.
When the subject came up, Ellen had claimed she ran a horse ranch outside Battle Mountain. It satisfied Mrs. Anderson; no one else asked in a real conversation. Listening to her describe herself, I realized there was more truth in the invention than I had known. We talked about it later, when we were headed back to the motel.
"I keep horses," she said. "Not that many. I buy mustangs."
"A mustang ranch," I said. She grinned.
She had about a dozen horses, mostly adopted mustangs. Two were appaloosas for riding. Her home was nearly fifty miles outside Winnemucca, along that half-hearted river she'd pointed out to me the night we ate in Battle Mountain.
We stopped at a liquor store and I picked up a bottle of Bacardi Gold Reserve. When we got to the motel, it was about midnight. We renewed the ice; we sat in my room and drank and talked about the contract. I had made the most of the changes that she had suggested the day we went to Battle Mountain. I gave her a printout of the new draft, and she looked it over while we discussed the changes.
"I've started the book," I said.
"Are you going to do it?" she said.
"Write the book? It's started."
I knew then that I would. "I don't know. Maybe." I wanted to change the subject. "We never got around to role-playing the interview," I said.
"Go for it," she said. She put down her drink.
For half an hour, we talked as if we were considering the arrangement, as if she were interviewing for the job of companion.
"What about my personal life?" she said at one point.
"You mean dating?"
"No. Having friends over, things like that."
"You'll have a private area of the house. Separate if I can manage it. What you do there is your business. Well, no. No drugs or anything that could cause legal problems. And no extra-contractual sex. For health reasons," I added.
"How are you going to enforce that?"
I was taken aback. How could I? She let me think about it, then she bailed me out.
"How do you enforce it in a marriage?"
"You don't, I guess."
"Right. So you don't enforce it here either. You both honor the agreement, or you don't."
"But I'm dealling with someone whose sense of honor isn't known to me."
"Nobody promised you a rose garden."
"If you hire an employee, and you catch him stealing, you deal with it."
"Yeah. But you need to be clear about what 'stealing' is. Can she go to movies with a guy?"
I felt suddenly trapped. "No."
"A wife wouldn't."
"Not the way you mean."
"Isn't that the problem? How do you enforce what it means?"
She nursed her drink. She left me on that hook.
"It's a gamble," I said at last.
"So we get to know each other. The first month is probationary; we try it out with no binding committment except the attempt to make it work."
"You knew your wife what? A year?"
"Thanks a lot."
"You want the truth or happy talk?"
We talked till two, and then she left for her room. I'd be on the plane before she got up.
"So when do you move?" she said at the door. I thought how much I liked to look at her. When I shut the door, I would miss her.
"As soon as I get to Reno."
She smiled. "No, darlin', I meant when are you moving to Reno?"
"July. I have to get out of my lease, but it shouldn't be a big problem."
"Well, stop at Annie's on your way. Maybe we'll help you celebrate."