Bobby wondered if JB had offered him the Airstream so he could hook up with his sister. Her cabin was just up the hill, and on his first day at work she stormed past in a beat up Mercedes. She wore a cap to hide the hair loss from the cancer JB had mentioned without saying what kind, and despite the cancer she still smoked, biting the filter and wiggling the cigarette playfully. Later she came down to the Airstream where she backed up to the woodpile and stepped around to open the trunk. She was built like JB, tall and wide shouldered. She moved like him too, manlike and hulking in high boots and woolen trousers. After flipping away a cigarette she began picking splits from the stack and throwing them into the trunk, so careless of her aim that one or two pieces hit the bumper.
“That’s no way to treat a Benz,” Bobby said.
The words brought her up short. She was square faced and drawn from the winter, and Bobby sensed a challenge as she cradled a split in one arm and held up her free hand as if stopping traffic.
“Machines don’t feel pain, they’re inanimate.”
Bobby didn’t agree on that point. Tools and machines had souls, and he’d held conversations with plenty of inanimate objects – the miserable pop riveter he’d used back in Pekin, assorted hammers and tools, and every vehicle he’d ever driven. How many cars had he patted on the dashboard when they charged up a hill or needed encouragement under load? Even now as he worked up firewood, how often did he whisper to his maul before taking a swing?
“I’ll give you a hand,” he said, stepping between her and the car. He caught each piece she threw and set it carefully inside. “You’d better take as much as you can carry. We’re going down near zero tonight.”
“I’ll survive, thanks be to God.”
There it was, God, the word rolling off so easily that Bobby could have predicted it. She and JB were both God people. When JB learned of Bobby’s conviction he asked if they could pray together, to actually kneel in the office where Bobby had asked for a job. The space was so cluttered with home salvage that Bobby had to force his knees down between some copper pipes. He’d done it because he wanted the job.
Bobby placed the splits in and around the mess in the trunk. Thanks be to God. Religious like the brother, and sooner or later she’d want to know everything too.
“I’d like to do more than just survive,” Bobby offered, lifting his cap in a gesture of politeness, but not high enough to show that he was, at forty-two, bald except around the edges. Both of them were hiding their hair.
She paused with a split in her hands. “Of course there’s more to life than just survival. The winters here might be rough but they don’t last forever. At some point we can open our doors and sit in the sun.”
“I look forward to that,” Bobby said, puttering around in the trunk to keep her there longer. He moved the spare and some buckets of sand and tools to one side, then packed in more wood.
“You’re set for a while,” he said, waiting for her approval and lowering the lid partway. It needed a tie down and he searched for a piece of rope in the trunk, hoping not to find one. The only people he spoke to these days were JB and a few men from the shop. Years of practice being alone, but the mountain and the snow and the darkness under the pines made the loneliness harder to bear, not to mention confinement inside a small trailer, the space reminding him of the cells he’d occupied for years.
“So, do you like your new situation?” she asked, producing a bungee from inside the car. Bobby unknotted the cord and wondered how much JB had told her beyond the basic story, that he was heading for Canada and White River was where his car broke down. After Bobby had spent several weeks in a furnished room JB offered him the Airstream on family land, rent free plus minimum wage in exchange for labor. He now worked mornings in town with JB and afternoons on the mountain, splitting wood and doing anything else JB wanted. Sugaring was next on the list. The situation was good enough, but once his car was fixed and he saved some cash, he planned to start out again.
“When you say a new situation, that implies an old situation,” he said, hooking up the bungee. The old situation could either mean prison or the furnished room, and Bobby was certain she was referring to prison. He didn’t answer until she sat back in her seat with the window open.
“If you mean that miserable room I had in town, then I’m good.”
She lit a cigarette with a flip lighter, and after pulling in the smoke she nodded with an expression of understanding. Bobby was relieved that she hadn’t pushed him on the prison issue, but it would come up sooner or later. She was a talker, and divorced. JB had told him that too.
“So you think you can handle living up here?”
“And why not?”
“Because you’re from a city,” she called back.
Bobby came around to the driver’s side and placed both hands on the car roof, wanting to challenge her but keeping a distance, not hovering, not wanting to scare her because of what JB might have said about him. Where did these people get their ideas? So what if he’d grown up in a city. Did that mean he couldn’t use a chain saw? That he couldn’t split wood? He was about to list the merits of city life when he saw the pistol jammed between the console and the driver’s seat. The grip stuck out from a fabric holster with the safety catch unsnapped.
“Jesus!” he said.
The word barely passed his lips when she drew the gun and held it to her ear, as if listening to the muzzle.
“Watch it!” He turned away and covered his ears.
“Don’t worry, the safety’s on.”
“Why the hell did you do that?”
“I’m sorry, I was just making a point.”
“I said, I was just making a point. I didn’t aim at you. I’m sorry I scared you.”
“And what’s that point again? Can you remind me?”
“That I protect myself at all times.”
She holstered the pistol as Bobby stood aside. Above the motor noise she said, “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry,” then shifted into gear and pulled away, accelerating so the wheels splattered snow. The Benz picked up traction and fishtailed up the hill as the snowbound woods muffled the motor to silence and the beating of Bobby’s heart against his chest.
The next day she pulled up to the shed and opened the car window. Bobby was drinking tea and sitting on the hood of his Camry. He waited for her to speak first, she owed him that. Her expression was both playful and penitent as she handed over a plastic container with a wedge of pie inside.
“Peace offering,” she said. “I don’t make the best apple pie. There’s too much water in the crust so you’ll need a chain saw to cut it, but there’s enough sugar and cinnamon so you can probably choke it down. And I’m sorry for what I did yesterday.”
Bobby took the pie as she lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply once again, capturing the smoke before it escaped. He noted a rhythm to the process, cigarette with the filter between her teeth, lighter flipped open and shut with a metallic finality as she inhaled the first puff so not to waste it. Bobby didn’t like to see this desperation in anybody. He’d been a smoker and quit years ago. He resolved to call her on it once he knew her better.
“Will you accept my apology?”
“No problem, people pull guns on me all the time.”
“Alright, you win on that one. It wasn’t anything you did. You were nice and polite and helped me load up the wood even though I could have done it myself.”
“I am nice, and I’m glad to help, but you don’t look like the type who’s afraid of anything, especially the way you drew that firearm.”
“It was an impulse. I was a little scared even though you gave me no reason.”
“How much did JB tell you?”
“That you’d been convicted of second-degree murder, but he wouldn’t say anything else except that you were on your way north when you broke down. You only had two hours to the border. Why were you going up there?”
“To practice my French.”
“That’s a joke. What’s the real reason? Do you have friends up there?”
“Considering all the choices on this side of the line, Canada’s pretty far away.”
“I wanted to feel that extra bit of freedom and see what the place was like.”
“I can understand that,” she said, but a slight furrow of her brow told him she wasn’t buying his explanation.
She opened the passenger side door and waved him inside. “Put away that pie and get your things. I’ll take you shopping in town. Don’t worry, you can take time off. We don’t run a slave camp.”
Bobby took a jacket from the Airstream and strapped himself into the car, noticing as he clicked the belt that she’d covered the pistol with a scarf. She lowered her sunglasses and gave him a knowing look about the pistol before heading downhill to the main road where she turned toward Bethel, gunning the car onto the blacktop and throwing Bobby back in his seat. The old Benz had more power than he thought. He leaned back and enjoyed the sense of motion and this bit of freedom from his routine.
“If you were so worried about me why didn’t you ask JB for the transcript? He got it from his lawyer before he hired me.”
“I’d rather hear it from your point of view. If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand. JB’s a pretty good judge of character. He wouldn’t have hired you if he thought you were trouble. Maybe I just want to confirm my judgment, that you don’t seem like the type who could kill somebody.”
“I didn’t kill anybody, not on purpose anyway. He came at me with a knife and I defended myself.”
“Weren’t you afraid?”
“It helps when you’re about to be scarred for life, or killed.”
“JB said you killed him with his own knife.”
“I didn’t know he was dying when I walked away. That’s the extent of it, unless you want the particulars.”
“Do you think he wanted to kill you?”
“You don’t think in that situation.”
She pulled the car over and cut the motor, then turned to him and said, “Maybe my questions are out of line.”
“I can’t back away from what happened either,” he said.
“I’ll bet you were raised Catholic.”
“So it’s like I’ve sinned and need to confess?”
“Sometimes it’s still worth talking things out.”
Bobby wished he could laugh at the implication that confession was good for the soul. The clergy at Saint Joan’s had drummed that idea into his head from day one. Examine the conscience, then confess. The black soul turns white. Too bad it wasn’t that simple. Bobby had told his story to lawyers, parole boards, even a few cell mates, but he didn’t feel much better afterward. He still carried the whole mess around like a bag of rocks and he couldn’t shake an image from a kid’s book of a man wandering the world with a heavy sack over his shoulder. His last “confession” had been to JB, who at least could distinguish between what Bobby had done and what the law said he’d done. JB made no moral judgments about Bobby having sex with the man he’d killed. Bobby sensed that Rebecca was equally open minded, so he would give it a try.
“It happened in Queens, where I grew up. There was a schoolyard near my apartment building. It was my public school, but at night it was a place where men looked for sex with other men. That was where I met him. Do you want to hear more?”
She slapped him playfully on the arm and said, “Come on, I’m not a prude.”
She took off her sunglasses and sat back, looking upward, giving him the freedom to go on. Now he couldn’t not continue. He heard birds chirping and saw some robins searching for worms in the watery fields nearby. She’d closed her eyes to put him further at ease and in one burst he said, “We met in the schoolyard and made love there, in a little corner hidden from the street.”
“Yes, love, or what I thought was love.”
“So you went to that place for sex and it somehow turned into love, and then death, all in the outdoors? It sounds crazy!”
“You need to understand, there’s something about a schoolyard that’s hard to describe and might not make sense to you because you didn’t grow up there. In the city, a schoolyard is the center of life, like a stage to grow up on, or a testing ground. With a little moonlight the open space is almost like daylight, and even without a moon the concrete reflects light from the sky, as if all the lights in the city go up and come back down. In the early morning after the bars close there’s a sense of danger and excitement. You never know who you’re going to meet or what might happen. This was my school too, kindergarten to eighth grade, where I rode my bike, played ball, hung out. There was a corner with three walls, hidden from the street. We called it The Dungeons because the space covered a window well. Chance and I would wait for each other there, and that’s where everything happened.”
“That was his name and it was real, I found out later.”
“And you did everything in that dark corner, never inside, you never went to your place or his place?”
“Do you want me to draw you a picture?”
“I know what men do, but I just can’t see how you fell in love and then there was a death. How do you get from love to where it ended up? I can see a relationship going downhill, but how did it all happen, exactly?”
For all of his willingness of moments ago, Bobby was now discouraged by her curiosity. The story wasn’t coming out the way he’d told it to others. Somehow her questions made his rendition more personal than legal. She understood the sex part, but he still hadn’t answered her question. She wanted to know why he did it and that was painful to think about. He took a breath and exhaled. He took another breath. He lowered the window and scanned the scrub fields and melting snow banks. He pictured himself on the way to Canada. He thought of JB’s promise to help him pull the head on the Camry as soon as it was warm enough to work outside. In a matter of weeks he could be heading for Quebec City. Why tell her anything else?
“Maybe you should stop,” she said, putting her sunglasses back on. “This would be hard for anybody.”
She touched his arm again, not playfully as before, but with a sympathetic pressure to make him understand that he didn’t need to go on. The gesture relaxed him enough to find another starting point.
“Sometimes when the sex or love or whatever was over, we’d walk on the street, not holding hands or anything, but just touching maybe with our hips, or brushing together like we were practicing being public with what we’d discovered. Those were our better moments, but most of the time we fought, over being late, over whether one of us had gone with somebody else, over who should satisfy the other one first. He kept asking me to prove my love, and when I finally did, he turned.”
“So how did you prove your love?”
“By doing whatever he wanted.”
“So why did he turn, and what does that word mean?”
“It’s the only word I have. I didn’t see him for what he was. You don’t think people can change in an instant? That something can come out of nowhere?”
“No, I don’t believe that. We don’t always see it, but there’s always a basis.”
“Maybe he wanted to kill that part of himself he couldn’t live with. Being gay, having sex, or even being in love with another man. That part was in me, he put it there. Then he wanted to kill it.”
“Why did you do it then? You could have walked away once you had the knife in your hand. Did you have to stay and fight with him, and stab him? Was his betrayal worth a death?”
“He was bleeding when I walked away, but I didn’t think he’d die.”
“Maybe the part about killing himself in you might be reversed. This is only a suggestion, but maybe that’s why you didn’t walk away sooner.”
Bobby tried to gather his thoughts. How many times had he told the story, to lawyers, cell mates, even to JB. Only Rebecca had pushed him to this extra step, that he and Chance were so braided together that they were one and the same, equally uneasy about what they were doing.
“It’s just a suggestion,” she said, starting the engine. She was about to pull out when he stopped her and said, ‘You’re the only one who’s taken me this far.”
It was dark when he returned to the Airstream where he lit the candles and camping lamps – there was no electricity on the mountain. He started the wood stove and ate some dinner at a table with a view to Rebecca’s place and closer by to the woodshed and the Camry, which he kept clear of snow. For dessert he opened the lid on Rebecca’s pie. The apples were tightly packed and the filling had none of that cheap, jelly-like substance found in diner pies. He ate slowly, craving the sugar and cinnamon. The crust was a little tough as Rebecca had said, but this was the first time in years that somebody had given him a gift, so he breathed out, defenses down. He’d made this small place his own and had acquired a friend who not only liked him but wanted to understand him. That was plenty for now. He scraped the last bits of crust and apple from the container, all so tasty he could have licked it clean.
A few days later when the temperature was above freezing Rebecca came down and they upended some unsplit logs for a table and chairs. Bobby brought out mugs of tea and they sat with their boots in the wet sawdust. After talking about wood stoves and mud season and the stronger angle of the sun in late winter, Rebecca lifted her cap partway to show him the hair growing back.
“Pretty gross isn’t it.”
“It means you’re healthy,” Bobby said, agreeing that it was unpleasant to look at, but not saying it. The regrowth was like baby hair, but silvery gray.
“Since we’re in confession mode I might as well tell you that I lost my left breast. If the cancer doesn’t come back in five years I might be alright, might be. So far it hasn’t spread to my lymph nodes but there’s always this fear in my gut that never goes away. It feels like sandpaper down there. They found a lump in my other breast and even though it was benign they wanted to take that one too, but I wouldn’t let them. So now I just wait, and pray.”
“Why did you refuse?”
“Because I don’t want the cancer to beat me.”
She was smoking when she told him this, with that same way of inhaling, as if gulping. When Bobby asked why she still smoked she said, “In the first place what’s there is already there, or not. And what about the people who smoke and never get cancer? Or the people who don’t smoke and get cancer? Maybe my cancer was God’s decision anyway.”
“That doesn’t mean quitting won’t help. Aren’t you worried about it coming back?”
“Yes, I worry, but there’s no way to predict it. Things just happen. Look at what happened to you.”
“What happened to me didn’t come out of nowhere either. We talked about it that day in the car.”
“But my cancer? Can you say for sure it came from cigarettes? Maybe I was filling up my car one day and breathed in some gas fumes. Maybe I got it from transmission wires, or canned soup. All you have about my cancer is a theory. Even in your case it’s just a theory, that your friend hated himself and you became what he hated when you loved him back. Then it all flipped around and you hated him for what he brought out in you, some shame, some Catholic ideas you were raised on that what you were doing was wrong. But you’ll never know that for sure.”
“Okay but what happened to me makes sense, like smoking and cancer make sense. Why else would either one of us do it? He couldn’t face what I brought out, in him, and maybe I couldn’t face the same thing, but there was one difference, and it had nothing to do with being queer or gay or whatever people call it. I was capable of love and he wasn’t.”
“You throw that word love around so easily.”
“It’s because I believe in it, as naive as that sounds. I believed in love then, and I believe in it now. Can you tell me you were never in love?”
“I thought I was in love and look how that turned out. My ex- has a restraining order against him. Why do you think I carry that weapon?”
The sun was down and the tea mugs were cold and she stood up and stamped her feet to wake them up. She went over to the Camry and lifted the hood. “I see a broken hose and I smell burned metal.”
“It’s a head gasket. JB said he’d help me fix it.”
“Then what, will you leave? You were on your way to Canada. Are you still going?”
“Like I said, I was going to see what it was like.”
She lowered the hood gently then studied him. “I think there’s more to that story.”
Bobby offered nothing more. She was standing in front of the Camry with her feet wide apart as if preventing him from using it. The air was suddenly cold and the sun setting behind the trees mottled her clothing and part of her face. A purplish discoloration under her eyes which he’d noticed before now struck him as a sign of worldliness and interest in others. He didn’t understand what she saw in him, but he had a sudden desire to kneel before her and bury his face in those drab woolen trousers because she was smarter and more perceptive and therefore stronger.
JB pulled up in his tractor with a trailer hitched behind and Bobby jumped in and squeezed himself between hand tools and buckets of taps. He gripped the trailer sides with both hands. They rolled through the woods, lurching uphill past JB’s kit-built house. Topping the crest, they plowed into a narrow trail twisting through a hardwood stand, the chained tractor wheels digging into mud and snow.
“Heading for the sugarbush!” JB cried as they bounced over hummocks and bottomed out in shallow depressions. Bobby pulled his cap down over his ears as a gust of wind caught JB’s long beard and blew it aside. He liked JB. With his long beard he looked like a prophet. Bobby admired what he’d done with his life, started a salvage company with a warehouse full of anything reusable from the houses he tore down. Bobby had never considered anything other than working for somebody else. Now he saw that JB had built a business out of discards and wreckage. JB was no dummy. On the day Bobby asked for a job he looked him over and said, “You ever been incarcerated?” Bobby told him the truth about that and said he believed in God, which was true in a general sense, and when JB said, “You can just move your lips,” the praying part hadn’t been that hard except for the pain in his knees.
Once as they bumped through the hardwood stand JB stopped to study deer tracks and fresh droppings. “They’re moving around now!” he called out, and pointed uphill to a flicker of bobbing white tails.
Bobby hung on as they continued to wind their way through the woods, the mix of snow and mud thrown by the wheels flying past him. He gave into it, face to the wind, an explorer in a new world, proud that he’d found a job and a place to live and even some friends or at least acquaintances. He had nothing in Canada, but he still had to cross that border.
The trail ended in a stand of silver-gray maples. JB cut the motor. “We’ve got about two weeks to do this, more if we’re lucky,” he said, handing Bobby an auger. “We’re looking for freezing nights and warm days. That’s what makes the sap run.”
He showed Bobby how to tap a tree by drilling a hole at an angle so the sap would flow down into the bucket. They worked all morning, drilling, tapping, and hanging buckets. JB pointed out that a new tap hole had to be at least two inches away from an old one because wounds in trees were like wounds in people. He showed Bobby a tree with old tap holes grown over with healthy wood. “Now you take Rebecca,” he said. “She’s like one of these trees, wounded a bunch of times but healed over. She took some shots, believe me. That cancer wasn’t easy, and it isn’t over yet no matter what she says.”
Bobby said, “She told me about it,” but went no further. He leaned extra hard into his auger and turned the handle to make a tap hole. He turned counterclockwise and withdrew the drill with twists of maple wood tight around the bit then loose and dropping to the ground. His life uncurled from that brick and concrete schoolyard to this mountain and his opening up to JB and Rebecca who knew he was holding something back. Sooner or later she’d push him and he’d repeat the joke that Canada was a place to practice his French, a joke that wasn’t a joke at all.
They were walking on Thirty-Seventh Avenue, playfully bumping into each other at the hips and shoulders. As if making music, Bobby plucked the verticals on the wrought iron fence in front of the school. Chance stopped and trapped him against the fence with both hands over his shoulders. He moved in close and Bobby thought they would kiss in the open for the first time. He would have done it. They would have been public then.
Chance: There’s more freedom up there, they have free medical. It’s nothing like here.
Bobby: They speak French too.
Chance: French, English, whatever.
Bobby: I know some French! I took two years in high school!
Chance: There you go!
And there he went, the curl of hard maple twisting from the auger wrapped him around the French reader pulled from a bedroom drawer to review verbs and idioms and project a new life. And in painful fact, on the night when he planned to impress Chance by reciting the basic conjugations plus three irregulars, the night when he knelt on the Dungeons grate – and how insulting was that, to kneel, to service – on that night he felt the sting of a knife point at his ear and said, pulling away, yes, pulling away! What are you doing? To which Chance answered, Canada, you Asshole, you believed me!
JB hammered in a tap and said, “I see she’s been driving you into town and hanging out at your place.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, but I can see she’s interested.”
“Are you asking whether I’m interested?”
“That’s up to you. Rebecca’s old enough to do what she wants. I’m her brother so I feel a little protective, but I trust you not to hurt her and that’s all that matters.”
JB picked up two sap buckets ready to hang, then set them down so they wouldn’t fall over. “Just so you know, that’s all. Her ex- lost a leg in a non-combat situation but told people he stepped on a mine. He was addicted to pain meds and lived on disability at the same time she was working down at Subway. They were renting in Bethel and he used to chase her around on his gimpy leg with a baseball bat and she’d run out of the house and take refuge up here. They finally got evicted and moved up to the cabin. One day he smashed a bunch of windows and I came down with my piece, holstered, and just for emphasis. ‘Go on,’ he said, ‘Pull it!’ ‘I don’t need to pull it,’ I said. ‘Just tell me who’s gonna’ fix these windows.’ ‘You,’ he said. ‘You’re the lord of the manor, you fix everything else around here.” We got the restraining order the next day and he moved out. We bought her that pistol she pulled on you.” Here JB smiled and stroked his beard apologetically. “She fessed up to that one, and it looks like you lived through it. Anyway, so far so good, nobody’s come up here looking to bother. She’s my sister and she’s got as much legal right to this property as I have, but with staring that cancer down and a crazy ex-husband she’s more vulnerable than she acts.”
“She looks pretty tough to me,” Bobby said, fiddling with the auger. He didn’t have to tell JB that he was interested too.
“She likes you,” JB said. “She wants me to hold off on fixing that Camry so you’ll stick around.”
“There’s no rush.”
“That’s what I figured.”
Back at Pekin Federal Bobby was earning seventeen cents an hour in the furniture shop. After his release he transitioned to a feed mill job and left Illinois with enough money to buy the Camry and head east. His first stop was the city, and as he followed the bridge to the West Side Highway and then crossed town to the Queensboro Bridge – a route he thought he’d forgotten – his hands were sweating on the wheel. Nosing the Camry into the worm of traffic under the el to Queens Boulevard and then Roosevelt Avenue, the memories flooded. He turned up 77th Street, rode 37th Avenue one block, passing the school, then down the 78th Street side of the schoolyard. He couldn’t see the Dungeons where he and Chance had wrestled, where he’d stabbed him in the neck not knowing what he was doing and the muscle contraction pushed the knife out of his hand and down the window well. Chance had been found dead after he crawled out from The Dungeons. By then Bobby was waiting for the elevator in his lobby where the mirror that returned a lifetime of reflections displayed a smear of blood across his forehead where he’d wiped what he thought was sweat. Frozen before the image, he made out the broken line of Chance’s diagonal slash that scored his jeans below the waist. He remembered looking out the kitchen window the next morning – the view clear to the schoolyard – and how the bottom fell out of his stomach at the sight of yellow police tape stretched over the gate and two cruisers with their light bars flashing. A few people were already pinning flowers and cards to the chain link and soon the newspapers began writing about hate crimes against gay people.
Now, however, the scene of his life’s major event had been wiped clear. He could no longer imagine his body moving through these streets. The school building had grown into the schoolyard. There were no free walls for stickball, no basketball hoops, and the remaining open space was a wavy and continuous blacktop replacing the plate-like concrete of earlier days. The wrought iron fence whose verticals he’d plucked to make music for Chance was now a brick wall. The school resembled a fortress and in the darkening streets all sense of danger had been ironed flat.
Old landmarks were gone, the Irish bars on Roosevelt Avenue, the German, Italian and Jewish delis had been replaced by gay bars and mini-marts, bodegas and Indian stores. Produce crowded the sidewalks, rafts of mangoes and eggplant, fields of onions and garlic, pyramids of oranges, bananas like stacked up bodies. There were jewelry stores brimming with gold and dark skinned people of every shade, Sikhs in suits and ties, holy men in bare feet, the old Europe based world swept from the table of history. In the darkening day he drove west on Roosevelt and picked up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at 69th Street, then the Major Deegan, he remembered that route too, then over the Triboro with the Hell Gate trestle on his right, it’s red light blinking, at least that hadn’t changed. North to New England, a Motel-6 in Connecticut and the next day he pushed the Camry well up into Vermont. And why not Canada, to erase the insult by flinging it back. Je voudrais un verre de . . .I would like a glass of. Yes he still remembered some French and he’d go to Canada if only to complete the circle. Two hours south of Quebec the radiator hose blew and until help came along he sat in the breakdown lane in a cold car smelling of antifreeze.
“Doesn’t it have to do with Chance?” she asked.
They were sitting in her living room sipping whiskey from tumblers. After her question she held up the bottle to pour another and Bobby pushed his glass forward to show he was finished. He couldn’t remember whether he had three drinks or four, and he didn’t want to say anything he’d later regret.
“Why are you so interested when you know everything else about what happened?”
“Maybe because I’m hoping you’ll ask the same question about me, about what I’m hiding. And maybe because you’re still holding onto something you might as well let go of.”
“And what are you hiding?”
“I’m not telling you, not yet anyway.”
So there it was, an exchange. All he had to do was surrender that last bit, unpack that stone and empty the bag.
She stood up and went around the room extinguishing most of the candles and the camping lamps. She stoked the stove with pieces that Bobby remembered splitting, this reinforcement of memory a benefit of his job. The room was warm to begin with and the heat output was almost immediate. Bobby took off his sweater. He felt her behind him. She lifted his cap and stroked the sides of his head where he had hair.
“Will you tell me now?” she asked.
“I’d rather hear your version.”
“You will in time, but why not tell me first? It shouldn’t be hard after all you went through, not afraid to describe how you walked the streets looking for sex, or that you fell in love with this guy, or at least thought you fell in love, but there’s this one little detail, this tiny thing, and you won’t tell me what it is.”
“Everybody has their secrets.”
“I agree, but suppose I told you I knew what Canada was? Suppose I told you I knew all about it.”
“How can you know that?”
“Stand up but don’t turn around.”
He stood up and she tied a scarf around his head for a blindfold. “Keep this on and don’t look!”
“Do I just stand here?”
“For now, yes. Turn back around but keep that blindfold on. Keep your eyes closed.”
She removed her sweater, then her mastectomy bra. She took his right hand and told him to relax his arm. She then guided his hand up to her neck then down, keeping the tips of his fingers on her skin.
“What do you feel?”
“Just skin, and why can’t I look?”
She ran his hand over her breast. “Do you know what that is?”
“What do you think?”
“The question is what do you think.”
“I think it’s good, I like it.”
She guided him over the lower roundness of her breast, letting him feel its weight. Then she she moved his hand to the middle of her chest. Separating his index finger, she ran it along the scar.
“Can you feel that? Does it feel like Canada?”
He thought for a second and said, “Alright, I get it!”
“Take off the blindfold!”
He saw her stripped to the waist but still wearing the cap and dark trousers. From neck to waist, all was decoration. At first he thought she was wearing something and that he’d felt some skin tight, synthetic garment full of colors. But then he saw that the colors were embedded in her skin. He stepped back to see the pattern. A tree trunk at her waist rose between her ribs. Branches and leafy tendrils circled and covered her full breast then followed the scar on both sides. In the center of her chest a blue and red butterfly spread its wings.
“Can you make out that the tree’s a maple? You can call it a lucky joke. Do you see the five-pointed leaves? That’s my Canada.” She guided his fingers along the scar once again. “You don’t think I’m crazy, do you? After my operation the Oncology nurse showed me some pictures. One woman with both breasts removed had so many birds and butterflies you’d think they were actually flying.”
Bobby wondered if she wanted him to kiss her, or if she just wanted to make a point. Her Canada, his Canada, okay he understood. When he first met Rebecca he’d considered himself more intelligent, more in touch with reality. Now it was the opposite.
She said, “Maybe something like this happened to you, the fear that you might die, that some essential part of your body failed you, that you had something bad and rotten inside, that somehow you screwed up. You felt that way with Chance, I knew that from the beginning. The more you told me that day the more I wanted to hear it. You were never comfortable despite all that talk about love. This little piece was still missing and maybe it’s the most important part, so just let go and tell me, from the center. I know it’s there, I know you have more to tell me. Look at what happened to me, then tell me what happened to you.”
Bobby placed his arms over her shoulders but didn’t pull her in. She did it to him instead, saying, “Come on, put your face right here.” And he did, right on the scar. She held him there. She was sweating from the heat and the scar against his cheek was wet and he kissed the warps of the stitching and she stroked him where he had no hair. Instead of feeling weak and vulnerable he suddenly wanted to laugh because he remembered something even more ridiculous than his conjugations of vouloir, savoir, and dire. This dream-wish was even more deeply hidden than his bragging to Chance about two years of French, and it was this: that once in Quebec City he would take Chance into a cafe like those in his French reader, and there he would demonstrate his sophistication by saying he’d like a glass of red wine if you please, which he’d worked out as, Je voudrais un verre de vin rouge, s’il vous plait. And the French-Canadians would applaud this outgoing American and Chance would exclaim, this time in truth, There you go!
“You’re laughing,” she said. “I can feel it.”