Naomi sullied. She used her paper napkin to daub at his damp forehead. “You're sweet. I love you, too."
He held her tightly. She felt so good in his arms. Precious.
“Let's go down,” he insisted.
Slipping free of his embrace, taking a bite of her sandwich, managing to be beautiful even while talking with her mouth full, she said, “Well, of course, we can't go down until we see how bad the problem is."
“The railing. Maybe that's the only dangerous section, but maybe the whole things rotten. We have to know the extent of the problem when we get back to civilization and call the forest service to report it."
“Why can't we 'just call and let them check out the rest of it?"
Grinning, she pinched his left earlobe and tugged it.
Ding dong. Anyone home? I'm taking a poll to see who knows the meaning of civic responsibility.
He frowned. “Making the phone call is responsible enough."
“The more Information we have, the more credible we'll sound, and the more credible we sound, the less likely they are to think we're just kids jerking their chain."
“This is nuts."
“Brazil or hazel?"
“If It's nuts, I don't recognize the variety.” Having finished her sandwich she licked her fingers. “Think about it, Eenie. What if some family comes up here with their kids?"
He could never deny her anything she wanted, in part because she rarely wanted anything for herself.
The platform encircling the enclosed observation post was about ten feet wide. It seemed solid and safe underfoot. Structural problems were restricted to the balustrade.
“All right,” he reluctantly agreed. “But I'll check the railing, and you stay back by the wall, where it's safe."
Lowering her voice and speaking in a Neanderthal grunt, she said, “Man fight fierce tiger. Woman watch."
“That's the natural order of things."
Still grunting: “Man say is natural order. To woman, is just entertainment.
“Always happy to amuse, ma'am."
As Junior followed the balustrade, gingerly testing it, Naomi stayed behind him. “Be careful, Eenie."
The weathered railing cap was rough under his band. He was more concerned about splinters than about falling. He remained at arm's length from the edge of the platform, moving slowly, repeatedly shaking the railing, searching for loose or rotten pickets.
In a couple minutes, they completed a full circuit of the platform, returning to the spot where Naomi had discovered the rotten wood. This was the only point of weakness in the railing.
“Satisfied?” he asked. “Lets go down."
“Sure, but lets finish lunch first.” She had taken a bag of-dried apricots from her backpack.
“We ought to go down,” he pressed.
Shaking two apricots from the bag into his band: “I'm not alone with this view. Don't be a killjoy, Eenie. We know it's safe now."
“Okay.” He surrendered. “But don't lean on the railing even where we know it's all right."
“You'd make someone a wonderful mother."
“Yeah, but I'd have trouble with the breast-feeding."
They circled the platform again, pausing every few steps to gaze at the spectacular panorama, and Junior's tension quickly ebbed. Naomi's company, as always, was tranquilizing.
She fed him an apricot. He was reminded of their wedding reception, when they had fed slivers of cake to each other. Life with Naomi was a perpetual honeymoon.
Eventually they returned yet again to the section of the railing that had almost collapsed under her hands.
Junior shoved Naomi so hard that she was almost lifted off her feet. Her eyes flared wide, and a half-chewed wad of apricot fell from her gaping month. She crashed backward into the weak section of railing.
For an instant, Junior thought the railing might hold, but the pickets splintered, the handrail cracked, and Naomi pitched backward off the view deck, in a clatter of rotting wood. She was so surprised that she didn't begin to scream until she must have been a third of the way through her long fall.
Junior didn't hear her hit bottom, but the abrupt cessation of the scream confirmed impact.
He had astonished himself. He hadn't realized that he was capable of cold-blooded murder, especially on the spur of the moment, with no time to analyze the risks and the potential benefits of such a drastic act, After catching his breath and coming to grips with his amazing audacity, Junior moved along the platform, past the broken-away railing. From a secure position, he leaned out and peered down.
She was so tiny, a pale spot on the dark grass and stone. On her back. One leg bent under her at an impossible angle. Right arm at her side, left arm flung out as if she were waving. A radiant rumbus of golden hair fanned around her head.
He loved her so much that he couldn't bear to look at her. He turned away from the railing, crossed the platform, and sat with his back against the wall of the lookout station.
For a while, he wept uncontrollably. Losing Naomi, he had lost more than a wife, more than a friend and lover, more than a soul mate. He had lost a part of his own physical being: He was hollow inside, as though the very meat and bone at the core of him had been torn out and replaced by a void, black and cold. Horror and despair racked him and he was tormented by thoughts of self-destruction.
But then he felt better.
Not good, but definitely better.
Naomi had dropped the bag of dried apricots before she plummeted from the tower. He crawled to it, extracted a piece of fruit, and chewed slowly, savoring the morsel. Sweet.
Eventually he squirmed on his belly to the gap in the railing, where he gazed straight down at his lost love far below. She was in precisely the same position as when he'd first looked.
Of Course, he hadn't expected her to he dancing. A fifteen-story fall all but certainly quashed the urge to boogie.
From this height, he could not see any blood. He was Sure that some blood must have been spilled.
The air was still, no breeze whatsoever. The sentinel firs and pines stood as motionless as those mysterious stone heads that faced the sea on Faster Island.
Naomi dead. So alive only moments ago, now gone. Unthinkable.
The sky was the delft-blue of a tea set that his mother had owned. Mounds of clouds to the cast, like clotted cream. Buttery, the sun.
Hungry, he ate another apricot.
No hawks above. No visible movement anywhere in this fastness.
Below, Naomi still dead.
How strange life is. How fragile. You never know what stunning development lies around the next corner.
Junior's shock had given way to a profound sense of wonder. For most of his young life, he had understood that the world was deeply mysterious, ruled by fate. Now, because of this tragedy, he realized that the human mind and heart were no less enigmatic than the rest of creation.
Who would have thought that Junior was capable of such a sudden, violent act as this?
Not Junior himself, in fact. How passionately he had loved this woman. How fiercely he had cherished her. He'd thought he couldn't live without her.
He'd been wrong. Naomi down there, still very dead, and him up here, alive. His brief suicidal impulse had passed, and now he knew that he would get through this tragedy somehow, that the pain Would eventually Subside, that the sharp sense Of loss Would be dulled by time, and that eventually he might even love someone again.
Indeed, in spite of his grief and anguish, he regarded the future with more optimism, interest, and excitement than he'd felt in a long time. If he was capable of this, then he was different from the mail he'd always imagined himself to be, more complex, more dynamic. Wow.
He sighed. Tempting, as it was to lie here, gazing down at dead Naomi, daydreaming about a holder and more colorful future than any that he'd previously imagined, he had much to accomplish before the afternoon was done. His life was going to be busy for a while.
THROUGH THE ROSE-PATTERNED glasswork in the front door, as the bell rang again, Joe saw Maria Gonzalez: tinted red here and green there, beveled in some places and crackled in others, her face a mosaic of petals and leaf shapes.
When Joey opened the door, Maria half bowed her head, kept her eyes lowered, and said, “I must be Maria Gonzalez."
“Yes, Maria, I know who you are.” He was, as ever, charmed by her shyness and by her brave struggle with English.
Although Joey stepped back and held the door open wide, Maria remained on the porch. I will to see Mrs. Agnes."
“Yes, that's right. Please come in."
She still hesitated. “For the English."
“She has plenty of that. More than I can usually cope with."
Maria frowned, not yet proficient enough in her new language to understand his joke.
Afraid that she would think he was teasing or even mocking her, Joe gathered considerable earnestness into his voice. “Maria, please, come in. Mi casa es su casa."
She glanced at him, then quickly looked away.
Her timidity was only partly due to shyness. Another part of it was cultural. She was of that class, in Mexico, that never made direct eye contact with anyone who might be considered a patron.
He wanted to tell her that this was America, where no one was required to bow to anyone else, where ones station at birth was not a prison, but an open door, a starting point. This was always the land of tomorrow.
Considering Joe's great size, his rough face, and his tendency to glower when he encountered injustice or its effects, anything he said to Maria about her excessive self-effacement might seem to be argumentative. He didn't want to have to return to the kitchen to inform Aggie that he had frightened away her student.
For an awkward moment, he thought that they might remain at this impasse-Maria staring at her feet, Joe gazing down at the top of her humbled head-until some angel blew the horn of judgment and the dead rose from their graves to glory.
Then an invisible dog, in the form of a sudden breeze, scampered across the porch, lashing Maria with its tall. It sniffed curiously at the threshold and, panting, entered the house, bringing the small brown woman after it, as though she held it oil a leash.
Closing the door, Joe said, “Aggie's in the kitchen."
Maria inspected the foyer carpet as intently as she had examined the floor of the porch. “You please to tell her I am Maria?"
“Just go oil back to the kitchen. She is waiting for you."
“The kitchen? On myself?"
“To the kitchen on myself?"
“By yourself,” he corrected, smiling as he got her meaning. “Yes, Of Course. You know where it is."
Maria nodded, crossed the foyer to the living-room archway turned, and dared to meet his eyes briefly. “Thank You."
As he watched her move through the living room and disappear into the dining room, Joe didn't at first grasp why she had thanked him.
Then he realized she was grateful that he trusted her not to steal while unaccompanied.
Evidently, she was accustomed to being an object Of Suspicion, not because she was unreliable, but simply because she was Maria Elena Gonzalez, who had traveled north from Hermosillo, Mexico, in search of a better life.
Although saddened by this reminder of the stupidity and meaness of the world, Joe refused] to dwell oil negative thoughts. Their firstborn was soon to arrive, and years from now, he wanted to be able to recall this day as a shining time, characterized entirely by sweet-if nervous anticipation and fly the joy of the birth.
In the living room, he sat in his favorite armchair and tried to read You Only Live Twice, the latest novel about James Bond. He couldn't relate to the story. Bond had survived ten thousand threats and vanquished villains by the hundred, but he didn't know anything about the complications that could transform ordinary labor into a mortal trial for mother and baby.
DOWN, DOWN, THROUGH the shadows and the shredded spider webs down through the astringent creosote stink and the underlying foulness of black mold, Junior descended the tower stairs with utmost caution. If he tripped on a loose tread and fell and broke a leg, he might lie here for days, dying of thirst or infection or of exposure if the weather turned cooler, tormented by whatever predators found him helpless in the night.
Hiking into the wilds alone was never wise. He always relied on the buddy system, sharing the risk, his buddy had been Naomi, and she wasn't here for him anymore.
When he was all the way down, when he was out from under the tower, he hurried toward the dirt lane. 'The car was hours away by the challenging overland route they had taken to get here, but maybe half In hour-at most forty-five minutes-away if he returned by the fire road.
After only a few steps, Junior halted. He dared not bring the authorities back to this ridge top only to discover that poor Naomi, though critically injured, was still clinging to life.
One hundred fifty feet, approximately fifteen stories, was not a fall that anyone could be expected to Survive. On the other hand, miracles do occasionally happen.
Not miracles in the sense of gods and angels and saints goofing around in human affairs. Junior didn't believe in any such nonsense.
“But amazing singularities do happen,” he muttered, because he had a relentlessly mathmatical-scientific view of existence, which allowed for in many astounding anomalies, for mysteries of astonishing the mechanical effect, but which provided no room for the supernatural.
With more trepidation than seemed reasonable, he circled the base of the tower. The grass and weeds tickled his bare calves. At this season, no insects were buzzing, no gnats trying to sip at the sweat oil his brow. Slowly, warily, he approached the crumpled form of his fallen wife.
III fourteen months of marriage, Naomi never raised her voice to him, was never cross with him. She never looked for a fault in a person if site could find a virtue, and she was the type who could find a virtue in everyone but child molesters and ...well, and Murderers.
He dreaded finding her still alive, because for the first time in their relationship, she would surely be filled with reproach. She would no doubt have harsh, perhaps bitter, words for him, and even if he could quickly silence her, his lovely memories of their marriage would be tarnished forever. Henceforth, every time he thought of his golden Naomi, he would hear her shrill accusations, see her beautiful face contorted and made ugly by anger.
How sad it would be to have so many cherished recollections spoiled forever.
He rounded the northwest corner of the tower and saw Naomi lying where he expected her to be, not sitting tip and brushing the pine needles out of her hair, just lying twisted and still.