Helene Adams guided the car haltingly into the garage and shut the engine. She held the steering wheel and turned her profile toward the street, listening. Crickets hummed weakly in the grass. A light wind moved through the leaves on the trees, making a sound like paper being bunched in a nervous hand. Helene felt the effort of her concentration. Even her own house, in the early evening, seemed absent of sound, asleep behind closed doors and pulled shades. She shifted her grip on the wheel and was aware of a deep, hidden tremor in her hands. Turning on the car’s interior light, she checked her reflection in the rearview mirror. She adjusted the mirror and looked into the small silver rectangle so she could see behind her, down the driveway and to the street beyond. All of her senses were involved in listening, in waiting. A bough tossed under a streetlight. There was nothing in the mirror. Nothing else.
Taking a light sweater from around her shoulders, Helene lifted the grocery bags from the back seat and entered the house. “Hello, hello,” she called to the upstairs and to the closed door to the basement. There seemed to be nothing, no one. She stood in the center of the kitchen in the silent house. Victor had placed a pitcher of martinis in the refrigerator to chill. She poured herself a drink.
The sum of the contents of two bags of groceries had little to offer toward dinner. Helene lifted a tin of coffee, a box of cocktail crackers, and a bottle of vermouth from one of the bags. She took down three china plates and gathered three place settings from the chest of silverware that had been a wedding gift from Victor’s parents. Now there were other groceries on the counter, and the bags were folded and put away. She held a can of French onion soup under the electric can opener and spooned the soup into a saucepan. Then she arranged slices of turkey from the delicatessen on a platter. The family, through tacit agreement, left her alone during the preparation of dinner. She was a good housekeeper but she didn’t believe she had enough flare as a cook to be an example for Allison. She’ll have to learn another way, Helene thought. She put a head of broccoli in a small pot and drank another martini while the broccoli simmered. But how men abhor cold food, she sighed. She centered a sprig of parsley on the platter and called her family to dinner.
Victor knocked on his daughter’s bedroom door. Over the sound of the phonograph Ali called, “Come in.” Victor opened the door. In the wallpapered room a pegboard was decorated with the ribbons Ali had won at summer camp for excelling at rock climbing and first aid. A small table set against a dormer held her two brothers’ high school track, basketball, football, and baseball trophies, brought by Ali to this place of honor from their old bedroom. A set of pom-poms was crossed like a warrior’s spears on the bed, the long strands her high school colors of red and gold. Her ink-scarred maple desk, with a matching chair and a metal folding chair pushed under it, held a stack of school books and notebooks. Ali had placed a piece of graph paper at the center of the desk and a No. 2 pencil beside it. Above the desk hung posters of the solar system, the periodic table of the elements, and the Beatles with their strangely girlish haircuts. The room was under laid with color and frill, Helene’s idea of the feminine principle–a pink bedspread and curtains, a white carpet scuffed by sneakers and penny loafers, and lamp shades with pleats and bows. Victor sneezed once in protest; the excess of color and cloth seemed to him like a fate waiting to claim his daughter.
Ali sat on her bed, apparently doing nothing except hypnotically combing her fingers through her long brown hair. Victor, holding his martini glass, shut off the phonograph. A Beatles song, “Eleanor Rigby,” wound down to incomprehensibility. Victor raised an eyebrow at his daughter. She tried to mimic him, but raised both eyebrows and one corner of her mouth, then slid off the bed.
Victor put down his glass and switched on the drafting lamp that had been his birthday present to Ali two years before, when she turned fifteen. Father and daughter seated themselves at the desk and Ali opened her algebra book. “Miss O’Malley has us doing word problems,” Ali said to her father. “She gave us a set of exercises and we have to use lines to solve them.” She looked at her father, her mouth pursed in mild dismay. Victor scanned the open pages of her textbook. “Ah,” he said, on seeing the familiar lines. “What’s the first question?”
Ali read: “‘Bob wants to talk to Sally. Sally is driving home in her car at 30 miles an hour. Bob starts to drive 10 miles behind where Sally started to drive. He is driving at 40 miles an hour. How long will it take Bob to catch up to Sally?’”
Parallel, nonparallel, perpendicular, Victor thought; curved, parabolic, straight. Then there was the big one, the skew line, where in three-dimensional space two nonparallel lines never cross. A line exists in proximity to another but is forever without connection. It was a fact of math he still struggled with. Why the proximity if never the connection? Victor turned to his daughter. “Tell me the equation for a straight line,” he said.
“It’s y = mx + b.” Ali looked up at her father, whose silence affirmed her answer. She began to solve the problem of Bob and Sally by drawing on the graph paper two perpendicular lines that formed the shape of a cross. She drew an x at the horizontal, and wrote “Time (min.)” under it. At the vertical she drew a y and wrote next to it “Distance (mi.).” She stopped and bit her lower lip.
“What is b in the equation?” Victor prompted her.
“It’s the y intercept,” Ali offered. “The distance each car is starting from.”
“Good,” Victor said. “What is the y intercept for Sally?”
“Zero,” Ali said, looking up again at her father before plotting the paper.
“And for Bill?”
Victor nodded. She plotted that.
“Now,” Victor said, “what is m?”
“Slope,” Ali said, finally. “The angle of the line.” She paused again. Her father breathed quietly next to her. “Slope is speed,” she asserted, “the rate of miles per hour each car is traveling.”
“Good,” Victor said. “And where does your answer lie?”
“On the x axis,” Ali said. “Because where the lines cross is when Bob and Sally’s cars intercept.”
“Good,” Victor said. “Very good.” He turned his glass in his hand while Ali began to work through the equation in her notebook. She was not brilliant by any stretch, Victor thought, but she was above average because of the innate capacity of her mind. Victor had sat beside her at her desk while she had fretted over addition and subtraction, long division, and eventually, finally, the relational issues of numbers, the elegantly unfolding questions that could lead to equally elegant answers. He admired her belief that she could arrive at an answer if she worked hard enough. He used to say to her: Everything could be translated into variables and placed into an equation. Then one only had to solve it.
Ali put down her pencil. “It’s going to take Bob sixty minutes to catch up to Sally.”
Victor looked over her calculations. “Well done, Ali,” he said. “What’s next?”
“‘Sally sees Bob’s car behind her ½ mile before he would have overtaken her,’” Ali read. “‘She speeds up to 65 miles per hour. Bob speeds up to 70 miles per hour. How long does it take Bob to catch up to Sally?’”
Victor looked at the question and frowned. Ali wetted the tip of her pencil and plotted two more straight lines to form a perpendicular.
Victor sipped his drink and, watching his daughter work, thought, She is not beautiful, her jaw is too square, her eyes set a mite too close. Even with her brothers gone from the house, who had taught her how to pitch horseshoes and throw a fast ball, she has not learned the charm of her sex. A difficult thing, perhaps, a young lifetime in subtle warfare with a pink room; a father and a mother… He looked at the equation Ali had set up. She was nearing its solution. Time, distance–math provided the answers. But the question bothered Victor: Why didn’t Sally want to talk to Bob? Victor’s drink was gone. He put the empty glass on Ali’s desk.
The light in the room was changed. Victor stood at the window and pulled back the curtain. The sun had recently set. The horizon was streaked with purple and yellow that dissipated into a darkening sky like drops of color in a water glass, until the sky was a starless bowl inverted over the curve of the earth. Beyond the light of the patio was the lavender dark of the back yard. The lawn was unbroken except for a statue of the Virgin standing in front of a row of arborvitae. The statue disturbed him. The lawnmower moved poorly around it, and it had become for him a sort of adversary. He often neglected to shear the grass around it, and the statue had assumed for him the quality of a reproach. The Virgin herself he regarded with the instilled reverence of his upbringing. He thought, Dear God. But the whole vocabulary of faith–sin and salvation, fall and redemption–remained abstract, so unlike his work at Sikorsky Aircraft, where slide rule and complex math became engine thrust, rotations per second, the blind terror of war and of rescue; the story of our labors, however imperfectly conceived. Grasping the frilled border of the curtain, he watched Venus appear like a faceted rhinestone beside a pale sliver of moon.
Victor crossed the room and looked at his daughter’s work. She had achieved the solution. She beamed up at him. She had four more questions to solve but he thought she would be all right. He squeezed his daughter’s shoulder and, taking his empty glass, descended the two sets of stairs to the basement. Adjusting the overhead light at his workbench, he applied a screwdriver to an old garage-sale Zenith radio in an attempt to get it to work. He put the screwdriver down, opened a drawer, cleaned and filled his pipe, and struck a kitchen match against the workbench. The tobacco curled and smoked under the flame of the match. Victor drew on the stem and the taste of hickory was in his mouth and nostrils. He sat back in his chair and puffed on the pipe. He had driven that afternoon to the flight hanger to see a helicopter in the SH series brought out to be tested, and it rose from the landing strip and flew out toward the Sound, its rotators turning marvelously, thrum, thrum, thrum, like the heartbeat of an athlete, its tail straight and sure. He would tell Helene at dinner. He checked the draw on his pipe and lit it again.
Later while refilling his glass from the pitcher in the refrigerator he looked at his wristwatch and wondered at his wife’s absence, and the old thought surfaced once again, a wish, a fear, a prophesy, that one evening she would not come home from her job as a teller at the People’s Bank on Main Street, or that she would vanish and return as he had once done, but, unlike himself, she would remain beyond reach. He would continue to go to bed after the nightly news and fall asleep turned toward the bed on the other side of the night table, and Ali would go to college and move away as her brothers had done, and he would grow old in rooms vacated one by one by his family; he would spend more time over his workbench at abandoned radios that one day he would repair (how, he wondered, could he make helicopters fly but not make a radio work). He saw the headlights of his wife’s car make a double arc through the kitchen window as she swung it onto the driveway, heard the engine die in the garage, and waited. She did not come. Out of delicacy and tenuousness he returned to the radio on his workbench.
Helene regarded the bottle of vermouth on the kitchen counter. Had her calls to her daughter and husband been heard? She called again. Victor came up the basement stairs and kissed her cheek. She was pouring a glass of milk for Allison, and she turned her face away from him. Ali thundered down the stairs into the dining room. She poured iced water from a sweating pitcher into the family’s drinking glasses and did not look up when Helene entered the room.
Victor broke the seal on the bottle of vermouth. He prepared another pitcher of martinis and left it in the refrigerator to chill until Ali went upstairs again after dinner. Lately it seemed that they were either low or running out of one thing or another on the liquor shelf almost continuously, and he wondered if he should worry privately or discuss with his wife an appetite for mixed drinks that had accelerated steadily since their younger son, James, had left home. At least we have this in common, he thought, putting the bottle away.
At the dinner table Victor bowed his head and said, “Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” He lifted his head and the polite, slightly reckless clatter of silverware against china began. He watched Helene bring a spoonful of soup to her mouth and remarked to himself her elegance, even in this, like the unselfconscious grace of her walk, which had attracted him to her immediately, a girl Ali’s age moving uncertainly into womanhood. Helene, touching her napkin to her mouth, seemed unaware of him, folded into herself, guarding secrets, the great female gift and preoccupation, though what she guarded so that arrived out of each ordinary day he couldn’t imagine. He wondered what they would do when Ali left home and they were alone in the house with no one else but each other.
“They brought on two new men to our department today,” Victor said, his voice to Helene like an abrupt knock against a door. “Sweet talked them away from Boeing. I bet they got one big bonus. They’re supposed to be involved with the new project on distance and fuel capacity. Of course that’s making Ed pretty mad.”
Helene looked across the table at her husband. He was waiting for her to answer, to help thread the conversation along. But she felt disoriented, agitated. She should have put out sliced bread, or rolls; such a meager meal, but no one complained. She turned to Allison.
“We should discuss your party,” she said. “A successful party is always planned well in advance.” Allison was taking a spoonful of mayonnaise from a small glass dish. She shook it onto her dinner plate. “For example,” Helene continued, trying to overlook Allison’s table manners, “how many boys and girls are you inviting? Are you sending cards or making telephone calls? Does the party have a theme?”
Ali crushed the hem of the napkin in her lap. Talking to her mother was harder than math. It was like looking at an unsolvable equation. “About thirty, I think,” she said. “I’ll just catch them at school. It’s the beginning of the school year, so it could be a send-off.” She was making it up as she spoke, but it sounded all right. So she said, “That could be the theme.”
“Well then we can have as a color scheme your school colors. I’ll get a few decorations to put around the living room.” What am I to do with red and gold, she thought. “Have you considered a menu?”
Victor sliced a broccoli bud with his knife. He put his knife down and picked up his drink. He was supposed to have told Helene something. Something about a helicopter rising tremendously into the sky.
“A menu,” Ali said. “Oh, peanuts, pretzels, stuff like that. Some Cokes and root beers.” She didn’t want to host a party. It had been her mother’s idea.
“Well then,” Helene said. “I’ll put them on my shopping list. I’ll get some ice. Now. When your guests ring the doorbell you should greet them at the door. Your father and I will help you. Take their coats and put them on the sofa in the den. I don’t want to see anyone turning off any of the lights, and no one is to go upstairs.”
Ali’s napkin slid from her lap. It had landed on her foot. She nervously tapped her foot, and the napkin bounced on top of her shoe. She speared another slice of turkey with the serving fork and dropped it onto her plate, then rested her chin in her hands. Already the party was a disaster. All those rules. How could she remember? She looked up at her father, but he was looking at his plate, his eyes unnaturally wide, as if trying to regain his lost place in the conversation. Ali’s knuckles fanned across her mouth.
Helene looked at Victor. Surely Allison was smiling under her knuckles. Amused no doubt at her mother’s presumptions about teenage boys, at her attempts to take precautions. But Victor was eating a broccoli bud; he was uninvolved. Briefly she was alarmed. How does one speak of such things to one’s daughter? Victor had once reported to her that Allison had taken a two-week program called Human Reproduction as part of her biology course; further, there had been the overheard conversation in which her brothers had attempted to decode for her the symbolic language of plugs and sockets. There was the time Helene had walked into Allison’s room with full intentions and Allison looked up at her mother, her eyes cold and removed, and Helene had shut the door behind her and fled down the stairs. But now Allison was in her last year of high school, and Helene wanted to say, It can happen so quickly, and there is nothing you can do when it’s done. She looked at her daughter, not thinking of her at all.
Under her mother’s flat stare, Ali quieted her foot and retrieved her napkin.
But, Helene thought, Allison’s dates (who arrived as if conjured for a prom, a winter dance) seemed pleasant enough, though how could one really know? Do they treat her like her brothers did? She acts no different with them. Helene clucked her tongue at her daughter’s lack of mystery. Perhaps she was better off. She wouldn’t be deceived by romance which was a lie, she would know how to take care of herself. But the body was such an adversary; the heat of young men… Helene lifted her drink, aware again of the hidden tremor in her hand.
Ali tramped up the stairs to her bedroom because slamming doors was not allowed. Helene had excused her from the dinner table. She had told Ali in dismissing her to brush her hair from her eyes–she gave the impression to the world of all hair and nose and nothing else–and to please learn to stand straight, to carry herself, or she will find herself walking around forever more with a curved spine and sloping shoulders, looking not quite human.
Ali opened her closet door and stood before the mirror, hunching her body and letting her hair fall over her eyes. She took a handful of bobby pins from her dresser and tamed her hair with them. When she was done her hair was pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, which imitated her mother’s in effect, if not in fact, because her mother still wore her hair in a short careful wave after the fashion of twenty-five years ago. Ali smoothed her clothes and looked into the mirror with the preoccupied air of the late afternoon drinker. “This is what it got you,” she said to the ghost of her mother. “This is what it got you.” She heard her mother’s footsteps on the stairs and stood frozen until the door to her parents’ bedroom softly clicked shut.
Ali brushed her hair into a ponytail, buttoned herself into her cheerleading uniform and grabbed the pom-poms from the bed. She crept past her mother’s door and down the stairs, even though she knew that the closed door signaled the end of her mother’s criticism as well as the end of any further intercourse with the family that evening. Ali shared the evening paper with her father on the living room sofa, breathing the comforting odor of his pipe, while she waited for the blare of the car horn in the driveway.
The sitting room that adjoined Helene and Victor’s bedroom contained a chintz-covered chair, a side table, and a lamp. It was a small room, but it had windows on three sides, and during the day it was full of light. Helene settled into the chair. She had considered using the boys’ bedroom, but it still held their belongings stretching all the way back to their childhoods, and she would not have been able to live with the boy wallpaper and the boy bedspreads. She cherished the family illusion, which began and ended with her, that one or both of them would return. A few lines sometimes reached her. The previous summer James had sent a picture postcard, addressed “Dear Family,” from a trip with his brother Paul to northern Oregon to fish the Clatskanie River.
Helene stirred her fresh drink with her finger and touched her finger to her tongue. She enjoyed a drink in the evening, remembering Victor’s mother, who would not permit it. How difficult it had been to live with that woman, whom she had been required to call Mrs. Adams, as a guest in her home in Highland Park for almost four years, while Victor, after hastily marrying her, had enlisted in the Army and fought in the European Theater Operations under the command of General George S. Patton. At night she said her rosary, moving the small, hard beads under her fingers. When her body became large and round with her first son she prayed for deliverance, though she did not know what that could mean. Victor’s father treated her as if she were a glass vase; actually, as a courteous man would treat a whore. She nursed her son Paul behind her closed bedroom door in shame and joy, long past the point that Victor’s mother thought decent. Victor’s father would say, looking at her swollen breasts under her house dress, “Stop that now, put on one of your pretty dresses, we want to see you!”
A darning egg lay on top of Helene’s sewing basket and she tried to pick up the stitches on one of Victor’s socks where she had left them the night before. She pulled the needle through in concentration, then set down her work. She looked out the window. The street was quiet. She thought she heard canned laughter from a neighbor’s TV, a car drive slowly by. But all was still and dark. It was nothing; there was nothing but the slow hum of the crickets, the leaves stirring in the night.
Helene prepared for sleep and sat on her bed in her nightgown and robe. She heard Victor on the stairs. He entered their bedroom softly, almost apologetically. Helene got up quickly. He stood near the door frame, observing her. She put her hand at the collar of her robe, and the other hand at her side, and she was still as an animal is still before the attempt at desperate flight. She sat down again, as in defeat, her eyes lowered away from Victor’s.
Victor wanted to walk across the room and take her roughly by the shoulders, to disturb her beautifully ironed nightclothes. He remembered returning to his parents’ house–a war veteran, about to go to college on the G.I. Bill–to his wife, and a son, she had written to him, and looking at them with wonder and terror, secretly appraising his three-year-old boy’s head and limbs, watching the child’s eyes follow him, a large, awkward stranger. Moving his son, Paul, from their room to the spare bedroom after that first week when she wouldn’t allow him to be moved, the son she loved more than Victor. When he held her finally, alone with her in his old bedroom, she strained away from him, her fingernails on his back like talons, as if trying to achieve a purchase on her own life. Then she lay on her side and cried, her belly working in and out in furious anger.
He had been honorable, he had married her, because marriage was honorable, but also because when he first saw her, visiting her cousin on Green Bay Road, he wanted to marry her. When it was done he didn’t know her and she was afraid of him, as if he had hurt her and that injury would always remain. He returned to a girl who had borne their child without him and was living in a household where his mother called her “Helene, dear,” and neither of his parents would hold his son. He understood then that love lay in sharing the living of one’s life and the construction and recounting of memory–sometimes as ordinary as a hand brushing a fallen leaf from another’s jacket on a country walk–but that love could not succeed when a man and a woman saw their lives together as the long aftermath of an irreversible act. So he courted her with gifts of wildflowers and books of poems and he thought he had won her; at least, all these years, she had remained.
Helene sat on her bed, her hands in her lap, still as a hunted creature. He said quietly, “I heard your car, but you didn’t come into the house.”
She looked up at him.
He sat beside her. He took her hands and unclenched them gently. She was a girl in a muslin dress on the Green Bay Road. “I might have lost you to someone else, if not, if not…” he said, his voice lowered, watching, as he spoke, her eyes lose their focus and drift from his face. “We have so much, we have–”
Who would it have been then. She tried to imagine another man in a room with her, in the night. What would he say and what would he do? She said, “But then you see, the boys don’t call, and Allison…” She leaned against him, smelling the familiar odor of pipe tobacco in his clothing. He did not at this moment want to talk about their children, she knew. He was the man in the room with her in the night, by the accident of a brief desire. Her children didn’t speak to her. They kept a far distance, as if in rebuke.
Victor caressed his wife’s hands and thought about his Ali, so different from his wife, angry sometimes, and withdrawn, but only from being seventeen; not difficult. Did mothers and daughters never get along? “She’s a good girl, Helene,” he said, longing for it to be right between daughter and mother, between himself and Helene. He took a clean pair of pajamas from his dresser drawer and prepared for bed. When he returned she was sitting as she had been. As he turned off the light he saw the familiar terror on her face when he crossed the space between their beds to lie with her. He lay her head against his shoulder and sang to her, a song he had heard in Belfast.
Even in the night, with Victor holding her, guarding her, she felt as if she was being watched. How long. Hoping that that might explain. Maybe it had to do with her absent sons, her daughter. Their vigilance over her failures. She dreamed it, and then it was gone, like a melody, but a shape remained, of something as if seen from afar. Then it was in a familiar room with her, coming toward her. Helene clutched Victor’s arm.
“What is it?” Victor said, coming from the border of sleep.
“I don’t know.” But she would dream about it: a man, a stranger who made her want to cry out.
He encircled her body with his arms. She closed her eyes, smelling his pipe tobacco even on his freshly laundered pajamas, hating their awkwardness together–her refusal of him, his hesitancy only increasing her loneliness. A man, she thought, drifting into sleep, not quit so careful of her, a man who would make her cry out.
The evening of the party, Helene sat in her chintz-covered chair, pushing her stockinged heels into a pair of pumps. She was dressed simply in a gray dress with a cloth belt; she wore a silver circle pin at her shoulder. Already people were coming to the door. The girls Allison had invited were pretty but Helene was of the opinion that they showed too much leg; the boys wore to a one khaki trousers and letter sweaters, if they owned one, a sports jacket if they did not. Victor hospitably answered the door during the first hour, then retired to the basement, trailing the smoke of his pipe after him. Helene wondered if this was the type of party teenagers were used to, though it seemed instead to recall her own brief social career in living rooms under a watchful parental eye. Some of the girls and boys she knew distantly from pajama parties and school events. Allison, her cheeks in high color, introduced her to the others as they came through the door which Victor had abandoned, or as they came into the kitchen where Helene found herself preparing another tray of snacks without her daughter’s help. She had placed an enameled serving dish on the coffee table filled with hard candies wrapped in red and gold cellophane, which no one ate. None of them smoked, perhaps because Helene had put away all of the ashtrays, and she was comforted to see that they looked healthy and in general not dangerous. They talked in small clusters and danced in the living room to Allison’s phonograph.
Helene mixed a drink for herself and put it with the tray of snacks. She set the tray on an end table in the living room and took a discreet sip of her drink. Allison put another record on the turntable, and couples formed and moved in step across the rug. Helene turned toward the stairs, cradling her drink, and saw a boy looking at her. She saw a young man staring at her. He stood next to Victor’s easy chair, his arms at rest at his sides. She looked at his hands, which were a young man’s hands, but strong, the fingers long and thick but slightly tapered, the hands of a magician, holding nothing but their own power. He was staring at her quite frankly, and she couldn’t read his eyes, hidden as they were behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. She no longer heard the revolution of the record on the turntable. It seemed to Helene that in listening, in waiting, she had found silence and stillness, and the boy had come to inhabit it, and she was caught in a moment of terror. Something in her body became taut, like a wire, and she thought she would cry out. She put one hand to her breast. His eyes followed her as she turned away. They were large behind the wire-rimmed glasses, and she couldn’t read them, distorted as they were behind the lenses.
She sought the sanctuary of her bedroom. The music returned to her ears, and the slow shuffle of feet on the living room rug. She switched on the standing lamp in a corner by the window and looked into the back yard, brittle and still with early frost as if held under a spell, and at the sorrowful statue of the Virgin. Helen lowered herself into the chair in her sitting room and sipped her drink. She took a skirt from her sewing basket and held it on her lap, running her hand over the cloth. The room was in darkness. She took the drink to the bathroom and threw it down the sink. This she did in darkness also, avoiding her face in the mirror, the unnatural puffiness of her cheeks where the effects of the alcohol had begun to show. She let her hands linger on her body, then hid them in the pockets of her dress. She rinsed the glass and then the odor of alcohol from her mouth. She returned to the darkness of her sitting room and tried to think of nothing.
She continued to hear the muffled bass from the phonograph, the high laughter of Allison and her friends; she sought the voice of the boy which she had not heard and which she could not guess at, feeling a headache coming on where the light from the bedroom lamp obliquely struck her face, and then the light was obstructed, and she turned and saw him, a shadow, his shoulders framing the doorway of her sitting room, the light glinting off the wire frames of his glasses.
He stepped down into the room and stood next to her where she sat. She watched him take his arms and shoulders from his letter sweater, quickly, unrestrained, as if he were alone in a room. He gave it to her, and she took it into her lap, feeling the thick texture of it with her fingers, sensing the smell of the wool, the man who owned it; the sweater covered her like a hand. She heard his voice whisper, “It’s ready to lose a button. They’re leather, you see, and expensive to replace. Here, I’ll show you,” and he leaned familiarly toward her, at the same time without awareness of her, as if in sleep, in a dream, and the moment was without sound or movement and she watched his hand seeming to hover near her, waiting, the gesture already irrevocable. Before she was fully aware of her flight she stood against the windows, facing him, and he leaned over the chair, as he had done while she sat there, blocking her body with his. Then he stood to his full height, leaving the sweater in the chintz-covered chair where it had fallen. She watched not him but any movement he might make toward her, while he took up the sweater from the chair, swung it over his shoulder, again without awareness of her, walked out of the sitting room, and closed the bedroom door as he left.
Helene opened a window. She breathed into the darkness, the cooler air that moved into the room with the night. She heard the front door close and she saw him, from the window, walk up the street to a car with double fins parked at the curb. She waited for the headlights to beam, for the car to move up the street, out of sight and memory. But the car didn’t move. Helene thought she saw the wire frames flash under the streetlight. She left the sitting room and readied herself for bed, feeling watched, feeling the weight of his breath as he spoke to her. She shut off the light and lay still in her bed, turned toward the wall. The party died down below her. Allison and Victor climbed the stairs together, and when Victor entered the room she closed her eyes. He leaned over her briefly, resting his hand on her shoulder. She heard him prepare for bed and then she heard the sag of the other bed, the movement of the bedclothes as Victor adjusted his body and began to fall into sleep. Helene lay in her bed with her eyes open. In the stillness she heard an engine catch and a car move slowly up the street, gliding invisibly in the darkness.
Helene learned his name when he began calling on Allison: Danny Bates. What was his interest in her daughter, so sudden, without prelude? For two years Allison had jumped and cheered in her short skirts before the bleachers while the boy moved with his team across the court; surely he must have noticed her, and dismissed her, long ago. With Helene and Victor he was polite, almost deferential, while they waited together in the living room for Allison. Victor had assumed an attitude of fatherly camaraderie, inquiring encouragingly about the prospects for his team that season, and trading courtside stories about the magnificent Lew Alcindor, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. They called him Danny, except Helene who preferred the distance and formality of Daniel, thinking also, secretly, This is the name for a man, Daniel. The lean, muscled body sat in the easy chair that was Victor’s, the hands passive on the arm rests, and Victor did not protest. The face was open, friendly, young. Allison came down the stairs, her color high, and Daniel stood, and Victor and Helene stood, and Helene as if watching a fire, a conflagration, watched Daniel escort her daughter through the front door into the night.
“I use to fear, sometimes,” Victor now said, shutting the door and lighting his pipe, “that Ali would be sister to all men, lover to none.”
“You don’t think–”
“Helene,” he said, crossing the room to the sofa where she sat, “she’s still a girl. We’ve raised her to think carefully about what she does. We’ve raised her to believe in the tenets of the Church.” The statement had risen to a question. Victor knew his daughter less and less now that she was seeing this Danny. She was hiding something it seemed, shielding it from him, from
Helene. It was the flowering of her own womanhood, he thought, something wondrous, from within, but not yet fully known.
Helene watched Allison’s color rise when Daniel came for her, the way she favored him in her heretofore aimless or nonexistent conversations about her days. Helene felt her own face heat with the name that seemed to occupy all the rooms, most of all her own, leaving her feeling agitated, tainted somehow. She blamed it on the fact that she had abruptly stopped drinking alcohol, and she could no longer find refuge in the aloofness it afforded her, the glow that lit each room she entered. Now Victor made half-pitchers for himself and drank stiffly at the dinner table, as if her abstinence baffled him. She ate with violent appetite, hungry always; she felt as panicked as when she was Allison’s age, her desire an enemy, as if she were reliving an old terror. Her body was inhabited by fine wires pulled taut. Allison was gaining a softness, a womanliness Helene thought she was incapable of, and Helene wanted to tear at her. Still there was no sign from Daniel, no gesture of his hands, or the eyes magnified behind the wire-rimmed glasses, not a word spoken casually to her in the still, charged minute that Victor might absent himself from the room, before Allison came downstairs. She felt the color in her cheeks and was ashamed.
Helene sat at the near end of the rows of bleachers in Allison’s high school gymnasium, her coat buttoned to her throat, watching him. She had taken her car keys and left suddenly, a quick word to Victor about a drive to clear her head as he worked in the basement over his silent radios. How odd, Helen thought, to realize that they used to drink together, from before dinner until bedtime, but always alone, in different parts of the house. She sat in the dry heat of the gym. Allison in her school colors jumped in tight unison with the other cheerleaders as they performed a High Punch with their pom-poms in front of the packed bleachers. Helene watched Daniel crouch over the ball, his hands controlling it, cherishing it, until it was time to let it go, and the ball seemed to shoot from his hands like a command.
Helene sat away from the crowd, near the gymnasium doors. She felt the need to close her eyes. She heard cheering, the names of the various players shouted out by young female voices like a call. When she opened her eyes the team was standing on either side of Daniel, the players’ hands loosely cupped over their knees. Daniel stood at the free-throw line, holding the ball in both palms. He marked his aim like a priest about to kiss the holy cross. The gymnasium was silent, overheated, waiting. He lined up the ball to the basket, then turned his hidden eyes to the bleachers and bowed, almost imperceptibly, to her. Before she could comprehend it, he shot the ball and it found its mark. There were whistles and cheers; the stomp of shoes on the foot rails. Helene unbuttoned her coat. The heat was unbearable. Ali jubilantly punched a High V with her pom-poms. She searched the direction of Danny’s gesture into the crowd and saw her mother climb unsteadily down from the bleachers and leave the gymnasium.
Ali sat at the dining room table with her father, Helene having prepared a tray and taken it to her room. All the rooms seemed to Ali small now and without air, her mother’s room the most terrible. She felt the presence of the darkness behind the drawn shades and her mother, inert, lying within it. Her father sat with her over their cooling dinner, his fingers on the stem of his martini glass.
Helene turned on the light and entered the kitchen. It was clean and orderly, the dinner things put away. She heard her husband in the basement. He was turning the dial of a radio; static played all along it. She called up to Allison’s room. Ali’s door opened. Helene waited. Finally she went upstairs. Ali’s face was red; she had been crying, Helene knew obliquely, for a number of days.
“What is it?” Helene said.
“I saw you at the basketball game,” Ali said. “I saw him look at you. I said to him, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I don’t know what you mean,’” Ali’s voice full of horror. “I said, ‘What about me,’ but he had nothing to say, and so you see he won’t be coming here anymore.”
“Allison,” Helene said, but Ali had shut her door.
Helene counted the money in her teller’s drawer and put it in a zippered envelope for the bank manager. She sat in her car in the parking lot and waited. The sun had already set over the Sound. She drove north along the coast. He followed her now; he could no longer come to the house but he appeared before her like the dead who have forgotten that they don’t belong. He stood in line at the bank, his hands empty, and watched her through his wire-rimmed glasses, the eyes large and seeming not to blink as she worked behind the bars of her teller’s window, folding and refolding the same piece of paper, and she looked up again in panic and he was gone. He followed her in his car with the wide fins, his hands caressing the steering wheel, as she drove to the grocery store and the post office, to the dry cleaner and the pharmacy, down farther roads that bordered farmlands and woods where he would find her. His car was quiet, like something that watched and waited, and she felt it first before she saw it, like a vibration, like an image that has become apparent not through the senses but through longing, the wish for the end of loneliness. Her body shook as if in a fever, and she had to pull into a parking lot or a driveway or onto the narrow shoulder of the road and hold the steering wheel, listening for the glide of the car and the smooth adjustment of the tires as it accelerated into a higher gear and passed her car, indifferent as a creature that has inexplicably abandoned the hunt. She raised her head when the shaking had passed and turned her car back onto the road. She looked again into the rearview mirror but there was nothing; there was always nothing. But his face–never kind, even when she first saw it, the eyes disorienting and his jaw now strangely set–was always before her.
After work Helene did not arrive for dinner. Ali scrubbed a handful of Idaho potatoes and Victor placed a chicken in a Pyrex baking dish.
From the coast she drove inland and followed a two-lane street to the center of a town. She parked in front of a small Catholic church and went inside. Stained-glass windows held images of saints in prayer, bowed and robed men caught in a moment of pure disregard. Incense burned on the altar. Helene covered her head with her scarf and knelt in the aisle, crossing herself. She heard the voices of women knelt in the pews in prayer.
Helene rose and walked toward the confessional. The screen was open but there was such stillness beside her that she did not know if the confessional was occupied. “Father,” she said, and she heard a phlegmy cough, the movement of a robe. The screen slid closed. Remembering, she said, “I earnestly beg Almighty God.” Then, “Bless me for I have sinned, I have not taken communion since my first child was conceived.” She bowed her head, hearing again the voices of the women in prayer. The cubicle was very close. She waited; there was nothing but the congested breath of the man behind the screened confessional, a voice that said, “Continue.”
“There is a boy, a young man,” she said, “for whom I feel– He has made me aware of my discontent.” Helene looked at her fingers entwined in her lap, the folds in the coat that made her body under it appear shapeless. She stood, feeling her skirt and slip fall around her hips and knees. “Forgive me, Father,” she said. “I take up your time with imaginary concerns.” She excused herself and the shadow of a hand fell on her, making the sign of the cross.
Then he was gone. Helene was free of him. She brought bags of groceries in from the car and began again to pour herself a martini from the pitcher Victor left in the refrigerator and she prepared dinner and ate with her family. After dinner, over the remains of the meal, Victor put his hand over hers and held it gently there. Guiding the car into the garage, she sat in the driver’s seat and listened, and she looked up toward the image of the road in the flat silver surface of the rearview mirror. But there was nothing; there had never been anything.
He had followed her, at a distance then close in, the hands with their rough power firm on the steering wheel of the car that glided silently behind her with the fins of a shark. She heard her own heartbeat, her blood pulsed through her like a current, she was in a fever of terror and longing and she wanted to cry out. But then his car drove past her car, pulled in panic to the side of the road, and she watched his car recede before her. Helene felt relief as if having been delivered exhausted on an empty horizon. But the terror that had kept her alive had been taken away. She looked for him, the man who had willed her to this and left her. She had imagined it all; but no, she knew those eyes now, what lay behind the distorting lenses, waiting for her. She saw them, when Victor held her, when she looked up from her teller’s bars, and she felt herself watched, and she was filled with fear, and she knew he would appear again, she had to believe this, there was nothing else.