1. At the Pond
"No fish there, mister."
She startled him so that he blew the cast. He had thought he was alone. His first impression wasn't ‘she,' either. She was sitting on a stump, off to his right, a cross-legged pyramid, a jumble of sexless clothing topped by a black tumble of hair and a small, sharp face. He thought for a moment of a squirrel gone human for a bit, one of those wiry squirrels that con the park visitors out of their nuts, gone human to work him over.
For a moment, he thought she was Indian, Swampy Cree maybe, and her statement some fractured attempt at a second language: ‘fish' a verb. She set him straight at once.
"I said, ‘There are no fish in that pond.' You're wasting your time."
"I'm not trying to catch fish. I'm just fishing."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean I didn't come here to catch fish. I mean, I don't care if I catch any. And how do you know anyway? Maybe there are. There could be fish." He looked at the water, half expecting a head and a friendly, waving fin to greet him.
"I don't care." He cast again, defiantly, ignoring her. "How do you know?"
"It's my pond." Squirrel. Frog? Too angular for a frog. But she was leaning forward, braced on her hands across her ankles. Her smile was closed, too certain, more rodential than amphibian. She had little paintless fingernails like claws.
"What do you mean, your pond? You own this pond?"
"It's. My. Pond. What's hard about that? The grammar?"
"I teach grammar!"
"That'd be fun to watch."
"It would! I mean, I'm a good teacher."
She nodded patronizingly. She looked around, as if wondering if anyone else agreed. There wasn't anyone else.
"Look, I didn't mean to be trespassing. If I'm on your folks' land...." He moved as if to gather up his things and go.
"Who said anything about trespassing?"
"But if it'sLook, what do you want? I wasn't bothering you?"
"What do you care what I want? Haven't you got anything better to do?"
"No. I was enjoying myself" until you came along, he added silently.
"Until I came along."
"Yes," he said angrily. "Up till then. Just fine. And not even hurting your damn fish, especially if there aren't any. Which I don't believe. But I wasn't. I don't want to catch a fish."
He turned to exclude her from his view and cast again, defiantly, away from her. Something broke the water, just to his right, just out of focus, and he glanced in time to see ripples grow away, as if a fish had lipped a floating bug from the surface. He turned to face her. She was smiling grimly, her eyes squinting calculation, her right hand cupped in front of her. When they made eye contact, she bounced her hand a bit from the wrist and a small stone rose like a balloon, then fell into her cupped hand with a ‘toc' that meant more rocks. In case he didn't get it, she tossed a rock lightly into the water, watching him, not the ripple.
"What would you do if you caught one?"
He watched the new ring. He considered. "Eat it. Ok? Or maybe I'd let it go. I dunno."
"Get pulled in? Dragged under?"
"Yeah. Sure, some ancient hundred-pound catfish, waiting here for me a hundred years, pulls me in and my ankle gets tangled in the line and the line snags on a rock and I drown and I hang like an upside-down Christmas ornament inside your pond, lipped to bones by your fish."
"There aren't any fish."
"All right! I don't care if there aren't any fish!"
"I thought you didn't want to catch one?"
"Then you care. You'll be disappointed if you catch one. You'll have to handle it."
"I'll cross that bridge when I get to it."
She smiled, a tight-lipped scallop like a cartoon Puck, and glanced meaningfully around.
"I know! There's no bridge! It's a figure of speech."
"A tired cliché."
"Why are you doing this to me?
"I'm just telling you. No fish. Do what you please."
"I can't. This is ridiculous." He was reeling in; he cranked faster. "I'll go somewhere else."
For a crazy moment, he wanted to cry, and he thought she was hoping he would. I didn't do anything to you, he thought. I didn't do anything to deserve this. Bitch. Bitchbitch.
"Cheese," she said.
"If you want to catch catfish. Use cheese."
"I don't want to catch anything!"
She grinned. He wanted to fish. She wouldn't let him. I'm not stopping you, she'd say. He wanted to leave. She wouldn't let him. Do what you want, she'd say. He wanted to be left alone. She wouldn't leave him alone. You got it, she'd say. He felt like spinning around and around, stamping himself into straw. He felt like a baby. Boiled.
"What's your name?" he said.
"You don't know me," she said.
"I know! What's your name?" He imagined himself telling her father on her. "What is it? Your name."
"You think it's Belle. It's not. You think it's Cathy. Nope. It's not Gertrude; it's not Jennifer or Virginia. You think it's Miriam. Stella. Wrong!"
"Rumplestiltskin," he snapped.
She jumped up like a creature on a spring. When she landed she stamped one foot on the stump.
2. Another Fun House
"You understand that if you said you loved me, or if you said, ‘I think I love you,' or if you said, ‘What if I loved you?' or if you asked me what I would do if you said that you loved me, I'd be gone. Just gone? You understand why you shouldn't do that, because I would call you liar liar and it would be true, that you were truly and indefensibly a liar, and that would be too much, just too much, to know that you would lie like that just to get to me, and I would be gone, just like that?"
"You understand whatever you want, whatever you think you want, you can't have it because I just don't have time for this, I have things to do, places to be, and you can't get in the way. You can't get in the way or it will break everything; I'll know what it means, exactly what it means, if you get in the way, and you'll be in such shit, such deep shit, when I know."
She came to bed. He imagined that they slept well.
"You understand," she said, "that if I want you, that's Ok, because I'm young and have lots of choices and can choose what I want. I'm so much younger than you and if I want you, it's because you interest me, you yourself and not some silly idea of you, some stupid illusion of who I want you to be or somebody who's gone and not forgotten. It's not because I'm trying to recapture my youth or obsessed with forbidden fruit, if I want you. You understand? But if you want me, that's because you're a dirty old man. Dirty. Old. Man."
He understood. She lay against the length of him, flank to flank.
"Just don't try anything. Ok?" She spoke slowly, enunciating like a translator. "Just don't try anything that would disappoint me. Ok? Don't ruin everything by trying anything. Ok? Don't ruin it." He lay very still. Her breath steamed his ear. She rolled on top of him like a seal slowly volving on the surf. She sank onto him soft as wet silk. He imagined he was asleep.
"I don't know when I'll be back," she said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
He didn't either. He imagined he was alone.
"I need to work. I need to work alone in the study. Probably all afternoon, or worse. I'm going to lock the door, Ok? No offense, but I'm going to lock the door because if I don't, I'll just play with you and Nikko instead of doing my work. I have to work. If I don't work, I'll hate you."
"So work," he said, grinning. Nikko wagged agreement. "We'll go for a walk." Nikko approved.
"Just leave me alone. I have to work. Just don't tempt me, Ok? Don't bother me. Ok?" He heard the door shut. He didn't hear it lock. He imagined it was locked.
When they got back, the door was closed. He read a book. Nikko organized his toys.
She came out of the study. He looked up. She was standing in the doorway, her hands on her hips, her face exasperated.
"So. Are you going to see how I'm doing? Fine."
He imagined she was happy.
3. The Last Merlot
He found the last Merlot in a backpack hung from bones, sheltered from the sun by an outcrop of rocks. Someone less fortunate than he, who had fled the plague too late. He believed in coincidences. He had always loved Merlot. He knew it would be his last Merlot; no shipments from France, if there still was a France, in his lifetime. He kept the bottle, unopened, for two months.
She was in his camp one evening when he came back from foraging.
"I got lost," she said, as if it was a temporary condition.
"Moab's down and over there," he said. You couldn't miss it.
"That's what I thought."
"Are you hungry?"
She stayed nearly a week. She showed him vegetables he hadn't thought of as food. She slept opposite him, on the other side of the fire. He watched her face sleep.
"What's this?" she asked him one night. She had found the Merlot where he kept it cool.
"It looks old."
"It's imported," he said.
"French wine," she said. It was not a question. "We make wine in Moab."
"Not like this."
"Can I taste it?"
"I'm saving it."
"I opened it. I've been smelling it. Once a week."
"What does it taste like?"
The end, he thought of saying. It would be pretentious. "I haven't tried it."
"Can I taste it?"
He got two cups. He poured a tablespoon in each. He gave her one, offered a toast.
She drank the Merlot.
"May I have some more please?"
He was silent. He hadn't seen a person in a long time, now that there were fewer to see. He liked her. They didn't talk much. The night before, they had sat across the fire for an hour, saying nothing. She had removed a boot and used a small knife to clean the cleats. She slept facing him, her face tranquil as a child's. He watched her sleep. Sometimes, he napped while foraging.
"I'm saving it," he said. "All right."
They had another portion. He pushed the cork home, returned the bottle to its bed of cool earth.
In the morning, she was gone. He had fallen asleep. She was gone at sunrise. The wine was where he kept it.
A week later, she was back.
"I brought you this," she said. In her hand were two peaches, like a pair of tennis balls.
"They would be good with the wine," she said.
"I'm saving the wine," he said. "It's the last Merlot."
"What good is it, if you don't drink it?"
"I am drinking it. Slowly."
"More is better," she said, grinning.
"And then it will be gone."
"Maybe you'll find more."
"Not likely," he said.
"I think you should drink it."
"Yes. We should drink it."
"What if it spoils?"
"Even spoiled, it's still the last Merlot."
"Drink it with me."
"It's a wonderful wine. Let's drink it."
They drank the wine. In the morning, she was gone.