Nevertheless, he halted, reluctant to go closer. He studied her from a safe distance, squinting in the bright sunlight, alert for the slightest twitch. In the windless, bugless, lifeless silence, he listened, half expecting her to take Lip one of her favorite songs-” Some where over the Rainbow” or “What a Wonderful World”-but in a thin, crushed, tuneless voice choked with blood and rattling with broken cartilage.
He was working himself into a state, and for no good reason. She was almost certainly dead, but he had to be sure, and to be sure, he had to take a closer look. No way around it. A quick look and then away, away, into all eventful and interesting future.
As soon as he stepped closer, he knew why he had been reluctant to approach Naomi. He had been afraid that her beautiful face would be hideously disfigured, torn and crushed.
Junior was squeamish.
He didn't like war movies or mystery flicks in which people were shot or stabbed, or even discreetly poisoned, because they always had to show you the body, as if you couldn't take their word for it that someone had been killed and just get on with the plot. He preferred love stories and comedies.
He'd once picked up a Mickey Spillane thriller and been sickened by the relentless violence. He'd almost been unable to finish the book, but he considered it a character flaw not to complete a project that one had begun, even if the task was to read a repulsively bloody novel.
In war movies and thrillers, he immensely enjoyed the action. The action didn't trouble him. He was disturbed by the aftermath.
Too many moviemakers and novelists were intent on showing you the aftermath, as if that were as important as the story itself. The entertaining part, however, was the movement, the action, not the consequences. If you had a runaway train scene, and the train hit a busload of nuns at a crossing, smashing it the hell out of the way and roaring on, you wanted to follow that train, not go back and see what had happened to the luckless nuns; dead or alive, the nuns were history once the damn bus was slammed off the tracks, and what mattered was the train; not consequences, but momentum.
Now, here on this sunny ridge in Oregon, miles from any train and farther still from any nuns, Junior applied this artistic insight to his own situation, overcame his squeamishness, and regained some momentum of his own. He approached his fallen wife, stood over her, and stared down into her fixed eyes as he said, “Naomi'."
He didn't know why he'd spoken her name, because at first sight of her face, he was certain that she was dead. He detected a note of melancholy in his voice, and he supposed that already he was missing her.
If her eyes had shifted focus in response to his voice, if she had blinked to acknowledge him, Junior might not have been entirely displeased, depending on her condition. Paralyzed from the neck down and posing no physical threat, brain damaged to the extent that she couldn't speak or write, or in any other way convey to the police what had happened to her, yet with her beauty largely intact, she might still have been able to enrich his life in many ways. Under the right circumstances with sweet Naomi as gloriously attractive as ever but as pliable and unjudgmental as a doll, Junior might have been willing to give her a home-and care.
Talk about action without consequences.
She was, however, as dead as a toad in the wake of a Mack truck, and of no more interest to him now than would be a busload of train smacked nuns.
Remarkably, her face was nearly as stunning as ever. She had landed face up, so the damage was largely to her spine and the back of her head. Junior didn't want to think about what her posterior cranium might look like; happily, her cascading golden hair hid the truth. Her facial features were ever so slightly distorted, which suggested the greater ruin underneath, but the result was neither sad nor grotesque: Indeed, the distortion gave her the lopsided, perky, and altogether appealing grin of a mischievous gamine, lips parted as though she had just said something wonderfully witty.
He was puzzled that so few traces of gore stained her rocky bed, until he realized that she had died instantly upon impact. Stopped so abruptly, her heart hadn't pumped blood out of her wounds.
He knelt beside her and gently touched her face. Her skin was still warm.
Ever the sentimentalist, Junior kissed her good-bye. Only once. Lingeringly, but only once, and with no tongue involved.
Then he returned to the fire road and headed south along that serpentine dirt track at a fast walk. When he reached the first turn in the narrow road, he paused to look back toward the top of the ridge.
The high tower imprinted its ominous black geometry upon the sky. The surrounding forest seemed to shrink from it, as if nature chose no longer to embrace the structure.
Above the tower and to one side, three crows had appeared as though by spontaneous generation. They circled over the spot where Naomi lay like Sleeping Beauty, kissed but unawakened.
Crows are carrion eaters.
Reminding himself that action was what mattered, not aftermath, Junior Cain resumed his journey down the fire road. He moved at an easy jog now instead of a fast walk, chanting aloud in the way that Marines chanted when they ran in training groups, but because he did not know any Marine chants, he grunted the words to “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” without melody, roughly in time with his footfalls, on his way to neither the halls of Montezuma nor the shores of Tripoli, but to a future that now promised to be one of exceptional experience and unending surprises.
EXCEPT FOR THE EFFECTS of pregnancy, Agnes was petite, and Maria Elena Gonzalez was even smaller. Yet as they sat catercorner to each other at the kitchen table, young women from far different worlds but with remarkably similar personalities, their clash of wills over payment for the English lessons was nearly as monumental as two tectonic plates grinding together deep under the California coast. Maria was determined to pay with cash or services. Agnes insisted that the lessons were an act of friendship, with no compensation required.
“I won't steal the adjustments of a friend,” Maria proclaimed.
“You're not taking advantage of me, dear. I'm getting so much pleasure from teaching you, seeing you improve, that I ought to be paying you."
Maria closed her large ebony eyes and drew a deep breath, moving her lips without making a sound, reviewing something important that she wanted to say correctly. She opened her eyes: “I am thanking the Virgin and Jesus every night that you have been within my life."
“That's so sweet, Maria."
“But I am buying the English,” she said firmly, sliding three one dollar bills across the table.
Three dollars was six dozen eggs or twelve loaves of bread, and Agnes was never going to take food out of the mouth of a poor woman and her children. She pushed the currency across the table to Maria.
Jaws clenched, lips pressed tightly together, eyes narrowed, Maria shoved the money toward Agnes.
Ignoring the offered payment, Agnes opened a lesson book.
Maria swiveled sideways in her chair, turning away from the three bucks and the book.
Glaring at the back of her friend's head, Agnes said, “You're impossible."
“Wrong. Maria Elena Gonzalez is real."
“That's not what I meant, and you know it."
“Don't know nothing. I be stupid Mexican woman."
“Stupid is the last thing you are."
“Always to be stupid now, always with my evil English “Bad English. Your English isn't evil, it's just bad."
“Then you teach."
“Not for money."
“Not for free."
For a few minutes, they sat unmoving: Maria with her back to the table, Agnes staring in frustration at the nape of Maria's neck and trying to will her to come face-to-face again, to be reasonable.
At last Agnes got to her feet. A mild contraction tightened a cincture of pain around her back and belly, and she leaned against the table until the misery passed.
Without a word, she poured a cup of coffee and set it before Maria. She put a homemade raisin scone on a plate and placed it beside the coffee.
Maria sipped the coffee while sitting sideways in her chair, still turned away from the three worn dollar bills.
Agnes left the kitchen by way of the hall, through the swinging door, rather than through the dining room, and when she passed the living-room archway, Joey exploded out of his armchair, dropping the book he had been reading.
“It's not time,"
” she said, proceeding to the stairs.
“What if you're wrong?"
“Trust me, Joey, I'll be the first to know."
As Agnes ascended, Joey hurried into the foyer behind her and said, “Where are you going?"
“What're you going to do?"
“Destroy some clothes."
She fetched a pair of cuticle scissors front the master bathroom, plucked a red blouse from her closet, and sat on the edge of the bed. Carefully snipping threads with the tiny, pointed blades, she turned the blouse inside out and unraveled a lot of stitches just under the shoulder yoke, ruining the front shirring.
From Joey's closet, she extracted an old blue blazer that he seldom wore anymore. The lining was sagging, worn, and half rotten. She tore it. With the small scissors, she opened the shoulder seam from the inside.
To the growing pile of ruin, she added one of Joey's cardigan sweaters, after popping loose one bone button and almost completely detaching a sewn-on patch pocket. A pair of knockabout khaki pants: quickly clip open the seat seam; cut the corner of' the wallet pocket, then rip it with both hands; snip loose some stitching and half detach the cuff on the left leg.
She damaged more of Joey's things than her own solely because he was such a big, dear giant, which made it easier to believe that he was constantly bursting out of his clothes.
Downstairs again, as Agnes reached the foot of the stairs, she began to worry that she had done too thorough a job on the khakis and that the extent of the damage would raise suspicions.
Seeing her, Joey leaped up front his armchair again. He managed to hold on to his book this time, but he stumbled into the footstool and nearly lost his balance.
“When did you have that run-in with the dog?” she asked.
Bewildered, he said, “What dog?"
“Was it yesterday or the day before?"
“Dog? There was no dog."
Shaking the ravaged khakis at him, she said, “Then what made such a mess of these?
He stared glumly at the khakis. Although they were old pants, they were a favorite pair when he was puttering around the house on weekends. “Oh,” he said, “that dog."
“It's a miracle you weren't bitten."
“Thank God,” he said, “I had a shovel."
“You didn't hit the poor dog with a shovel',” she asked with mock dismay.
Well, wasn't it attacking me?"
“But it was only a miniature collie."
He frowned. “I thought it was a big dog."
“No, no, dear. It was little Muffin, from next door. A big dog certainly would have torn up both you and the pants. We've got to have a credible story."
“Muffin seems like such a nice little dog."
“But the breed is nervous, dear. With a nervous breed, you just never know, do you?
“I guess not."
“Nevertheless, even if Muffin assaulted you, she's otherwise such a sweet little thing. What would Maria think of you if you told her you'd smashed poor Muffin with a shovel?"
“I was fighting for my life, wasn't I?"
“She'll think you're cruel."
“I didn't say I hit the dog."
Smiling, cocking her head, Agnes regarded him with amused expectation.
Scowling, Joey stared at the floor in puzzlement, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, sighed, turned his attention to the ceiling, and shifted his weight again, for all the world like a trained bear that couldn't quite remember how to perform its next trick.
Finally, he said, “What I did was grab the shovel, dig a hole really fast, and bury Muffin in it up to her neck-just until she calmed down."
“That's your story, huh?"
“And I'm sticking to it."
“Well, then, you're lucky that Maria's English is so evil."
He said, “Couldn't you just take her money?"
“Sure. Or why don't I pull a Rumpelstiltskin and demand one of her children for payment' “
“I liked those pants."
As she turned away from him and continued along the hall toward the kitchen, Agnes said, “They'll be as good as new when she's mended them.''
Behind her, he said, “And is that my gray cardigan? What did you do to my cardigan?"
“If you don't hush, I'll set it on fire."
In the kitchen, Maria was nibbling at the raisin scone.
Agnes dropped the damaged apparel on one of the breakfast-table chairs.
After carefully wiping her fingers on a paper napkin, Maria examined the garments with interest. She carried her living as the seamstress at Bright Beach Dry Cleaners. At the sight of each rent, popped button, and split seam she clucked her tongue.
Agnes said, “Joey is so hard on his clothes."
“Men,” Maria commiserated.
Rico, her own husband-a drunkard and a gambler-had run off with another woman, abandoning Maria and their two small daughters. No doubt, he had departed in a spotlessly clean, sharply pressed, perfectly mended ensemble.
The seamstress held up the khakis and raised her eyebrows.
Settling into a chair at the table, Agnes said, “He was attacked by a dog."
Maria's eyes widened. “Pit bull' German sheep',"
“What is like such a dog?"
“Muffin. You know, next door."
“Little Muffin do this?''
“It's a nervous breed."
“Muffin was in a mood."
Agnes winced. Already, another contraction. Mild but so soon after the last. She clasped her hands around her immense belly and took slow, deep breaths until the pain passed.
“Well, anyway,” she said, as though Muffins uncharacteristic viciousness had been adequately explained, “this mending ought to cover ten more lessons."
Maria's face gathered into a frown, like a piece of brown cloth cinched by a series of whipstitches. “Six lessons."
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