and came out into the cold winter wind, insistent upon shaking hands. “Friend,” the elderly mandarin said. "You can't know what suffering this gift will relieve.“ Jack echoed the old man, ”Friend." In that single word, and in the warm grasp of the venerable Oriental's callused hand, Jack found something he thought he had lost forever: a sense of belonging, a feeling of community, fellowship.
In his car again, he drove up Bayard to Mott Street, turned right, and had to pull to the curb. A flood of tears blurred his vision.
He could not remember ever having been more confused than he was now. He wept in part because the stain of guilt, for the moment at least, seemed an ineradicable mark upon his soul. Yet some of the tears were tears of joy, for he was abruptly brimming over with brotherhood. For the better
part of a decade, he had been outside society, distanced...
spirit if not in body. But now, for the first time since Central America, Jack Twist had the need, desire, and ability to reach out to the society around him, to make friends.
Bitterness was a deadend. Hatred hurt no one more than he who harbored it. The wine of alienation was loneliness.
During the past eight years, he had often wept for Jenny, and he had sometimes wept in fits of selfpity. But these tears were different from all others he had let previously, for they were cleansing tears, purging tears, washing all the rage and resentment out of him.
He still did not understand the cause of these radical and rapid changes taking place in him. However, he sensed that his evolutionfrom outcast and criminal to lawabiding citizenwas not finished and would generate several more surprises before it reached a conclusion. He wondered where he was bound and by what route he would arrive there.
That night in Chinatown, hope swept back into his world like a summer breeze stirring music from a cluster of wind chimes.
Elko County, Nevada.
Ned and Sandy Sarver were able to run the diner by themselves because they were hard workers by nature, but also because their menu was simple and because Ned had learned efficient food service as a cook in the U S. Army. A hundred tricks were employed to make the Tranquility Grille function smoothly with as little effort as possible.
Nevertheless, at the end of work, Ned was always glad that Ernie and Faye provided the motel's guests with a free continental breakfast in their rooms, so it was not necessary to open the diner before noon.
Saturday evening, while he grilled hamburgers and made French fries and served chilidogs, Ned Sarver glanced frequently at Sandy as she worked. He still could not get used to the change in her, the sudden flowering. She had added ten pounds, and her figure had acquired an appealing female roundness it never possessed before. And she no longer shuffled slumpshouldered through the diner, but moved with a fluid grace and a jaunty good humor that Ned found enormously appealing.
He was not the only man who had eyes for the new Sandy. Some of the truckers watched the roll of her h*ps and the flex of her buttocks as she crossed the room with plates of food or bottles of cold beer.
Until recently, although Sandy had been unfailingly polite to the customers, she had not been chatty. That changed, too. She was still somewhat shy, but she responded to the truckers' teasing and even teased them in return, and came up with some damn good quips.
For the first time in eight years of marriage, Ned Sarver feared losing Sandy. He knew she loved him, and he told himself that these changes in her appearance and personality would not also change the nature of their relationship. But that was precisely what he feared.
This morning, when Sandy went to Elko to meet Ernie and Faye at the airport, Ned had worried that she would not come back. Maybe she would just keep going until she found a place she liked better than Nevada, until she met a man who was handsomer, richer, and smarter than Ned. He knew that he was being unfair to Sandy by harboring such suspicions, that she was incapable of infidelity or cruelty. Maybe his fear lay in the fact that he'd always thought Sandy deserved better than him.
At ninethirty, when the dinner crowd thinned to seven customers, Faye and Ernie came into the Grille with that dark, goodlooking guy who had caused a scene earlier in the evening when he had wandered through the door as if in a dream and then had turned and run out as though hell hounds were at his heels. Ned wondered who the guy was, how he knew Faye and Ernie, and whether they knew their friend was a little weird.
Ernie looked pale and shaky, and to Ned it seemed as if his boss was taking considerable care to keep his back to the windows. When he raised a hand in greeting to Ned, there was a visible tremor in it.
Faye and the stranger sat facing each other across the table, and from the looks they gave Ernie, you could see they were concerned about him. They didn't look so good themselves.
Something peculiar was going on. Intrigued by Ernie's condition, Ned was briefly distracted from thoughts of Sandy leaving him.
But when Sandy stopped at their table, she was so long taking their order that Ned's concern rose again. From his post behind the counter, with a hamburger and a pair of eggs sizzling noisily on the griddle, he could not hear what they were saying over there, but he had the crazy notion that the stranger was taking undue interest in Sandy and that she was responding to his slick patter. Jealous nonsense, of course. Yet the guy was handsome, and he was younger than Ned, closer Sandy's age, and apparently successful, just the kind of guy she ought to run off with because he would be better for her than Ned could ever be.
In his own view, Ned Sarver was not much to brag about. He was not ugly, but certainly not handsome. His brown hair had receded from his forehead in a deep widow's peak; unless you were Jack Nicholson, such a hairline was not sexy. He had palegray eyes that perhaps had been startling and magnetic when he was a young man, but with the passing years, they merely made him appear tired and washedout. He was neither rich nor destined to be rich. And at fortytwo, ten years older than Sandy, Ned Sarver was not likely to be gripped suddenly by the driving need to make something of himself.
All of this dismaying selfcriticism roiled through his mind as he watched Sandy finally leave the stranger's table and come to the counter. With an odd and troubled expression, she handed the order slip to him and said, “What time we closing? Ten or tenthirty?”
“Ten.” Indicating the few customers, Ned added: "Two profit hanging around tonight."
She nodded and went back to Faye, Ernieand the stranger.
Her brusqueness and her speedy return to the stranger aggravated Ned's worries. As far as he could see, he had only three qualities that gave Sandy any reason to stay with him. First, he could always make a decent living as a shortorder cook because he was good. Second, he had a talent for fixing things, both inanimate objects and living creatures. If a toaster, blender, or radio went on the blink, Ned set to work with a tool kit and soon had the appliance back in operation. Likewise, if he found a panicky bird with a broken wing he stroked it until it grew calm, took it home, nursed it back to health, then sent it on its way. Having the talent to fix things seemed important, and Ned was proud of it. Third, he loved Sandy with all his body, mind, and heart.
Preparing the order for Faye, Ernie, and the stranger, Ned glanced repeatedly at Sandy, and he was surprised when she and Faye started moving around the room, lowering the Leyolor blinds over the windows.
Something unusual was going on. Returning to Ernie's table, Sandy leaned forward in earnest conversation with the goodlooking stranger.
It was ironic that he was worried about losing Sandy, for it had been his talent for fixing things that contributed to her transformation from duckling to swan. When Ned first met her at a diner in Tucson, where they worked, Sandy was not just bashful and selfconscious but painfully shy, fearful. She was a hard worker, always willing to lend a hand to other waitresses when they got behind in their orders, but she was incapable of interacting with anyone on a personal level. A pale, scuttling girl (twentythree, but still more girl than woman), she was reluctant to open the door on friendship, for fear she would put her trust in someone who might hurt her. She had been drab, mousy, meek, beaten by lifeand the instant Ned had seen her, he had felt the need to fix things for her. With enormous patience, he began work on her, so subtly that, at first, she was not aware that he was interested in her.
They were married nine months later, although his repair work on her was far from finished. She was more badly broken than any creature he'd encountered before, and there were times when, in frustration, he felt that, even with his talent, he would be unable to fix her and would spend the rest of his life tinkering endlessly without much effect.
During their first six years of marriage, however, he had witnessed a slow healing in her, maddeningly gradual. Sandy had an indisputably bright mind, but she was retarded emotionally; she learned to take and give affection only with tremendous effort, much as a dimwitted child struggles mightily to learn to count to ten.
The first indication Ned had had that major changes were taking place in Sandy was the sudden marked improvement in her sexual appetite. The turnaround had come in late August, two summers ago.
She'd never been a hesitant lover. She exhibited extensive carnal knowledge, but she made love more like a machine than a woman, with a joyless expertise. He had never known a woman as silent in bed as Sandy had been. He suspected something in her childhood had stunted her, the same thing that had broken her spirit. He tried to get her to talk about it, but she was adamant about letting the past stay buried, and his persistence was the one thing that might have caused her to leave him; so he asked about it no more, though it was difficult to fix something when you could not get at the part of it that was broken.
Then, in August of the summer before last, she came to the conjugal bed with a noticeably different attitude. Nothing dramatic at first. No sudden release of longimprisoned passions. Initially, the change involved only a subtle new relaxation during the act of love. Sometimes she smiled or murmured his name as he made love to her.
Slowly, slowly, she blossomed. By that Christmas, four months after the change began, she no longer lay upon the bed as if she were made of metal. She strove to find and match his rhythm, searching for the fulfillment that still eluded her.
Slowly, slowly, she freed the erotic power chained within her. Finally, on April 7, last year, a night Ned would never forget, Sandy had an orgasm for the first time. It was a cl**ax of such power that for a moment it frightened Ned. Afterward, she wept with happiness and clung to him with such gratitude, love, and trust that he wept as well.
He thought her orgasmic breakthrough would finally enable her to speak of the source of her longhidden pain. But when he cautiously inquired, she rebuffed him: "The past is past, Ned. Won't help to dwell on it. If I talk about it . . . that might just give it a new hold on me."
Through last spring, summer, and early autumn, Sandy gradually achieved satisfaction more often until, by September, their lovemaking nearly always brought her fulfillment. And by Christmas Day, less than three weeks ago, it was clear that her sexual maturation was not the only change in her but was accompanied by a new pride and selfrespect.
Concomitant with her sexual development, Sandy learned to enjoy driving, an activity she had once found even less pleasurable than sex. Initially, she expressed the modest intention of driving to work from their trailer out near Beowawe. Before long she was lighting out in the truck on solo spins. Sometimes Ned stood at a window and watched his uncaged bird soar off, and he viewed each flight with delight but also with an uneasiness he could not explain.
By New Year's Day, just past, the uneasiness became dread and was with him twentyfour hours a day, and by then he understood it. He was afraid Sandy would fly away from him.
Maybe with the stranger who'd come in with Ernie and Faye.
I'm probably overreacting, Ned thought as he put three hamburger patties on the griddle. Fact is, I know damn well I'm overreacting.
But he worried.
By the time Ned prepared cheeseburgers with all the fixings for the Blocks and their friend, the other customers were gone. As Sandy served the loaded plates, Faye locked the door and switched on the CLOSED sign that was visible from I-80, though it was shy of ten o'clock.
Ned joined them for a closer look at the stranger, and to insinuate himself between the guy and Sandy. When he got to their table, he was surprised to see that Sandy had a bottle of beer and had opened one for him, too. He did not drink much; Sandy drank less.
“You'll need it when you hear what they have to tell us,” Sandy said. “In fact, you might even need a couple more bottles.”
The guy's name was Dominick Corvaisis, and he had an amazing tale that drove all worries of infidelity from Ned's mind. When Corvaisis was finished, Ernie and Faye had an incredible story of their own, and that was when Ned first learned about the exMarine's fear of the dark.
“But I remember we were evacuated,” Ned said. "We couldn't have been here at the motel those three days, 'cause I remember we had a sort of minivacation at homewatching TV, reading Louis L'Amour."
“I believe that's what you were told to remember,” Corvaisis said. "Did anyone visit you at the trailer during that time? Any neighbors drop by? Anyone who could confirm that you were actually there?"
"We're outside Beowawe, where we don't really have neighbors. Far as I remember, we didn't see anybody who could swear we was there."
Sandy said, "Ned, they wondered if anything strange has been happening to either of us."
Ned met his wife's eyes. Without words, he let her know it was up to her whether she told them about the changes she had been undergoing.
Corvaisis said, "The two of you were here the night it happened. Whatever it was, it started while I was having dinner. So you must have been a part of it. But the memory was stolen from you."
The thought of strangers messing with his mind gave Ned the creeps. Uneasy, he studied the five Polaroid snapshots that Faye had fanned out on the table, especially the picture of Corvaisis staring emptyeyed.
To Sandy, Faye said, "Honey, Ernie and I would have to've been blind not to've noticed the changes in you recently. I don't mean to embarrass you, and I don't want to pry, but if those changes might be related to whatever happened to us, then we ought to know about it."
Sandy reached for Ned's hand, held it. Her love for him was so evident that he was ashamed of himself for the ridiculous thoughts of betrayal that had preoccupied him earlier.
Staring intently at her beer, she said, "Most all my life, I've had the lowest opinion of myself. I'll tell you why, because you've got to know how bad it was for me when I was a kid if you want to understand how miraculous it is that I ever found any selfrespect. It was Ned who first lifted me up, believed in me, gave me a chance to be somebody." Her hand tightened on his. "Almost nine years ago, he started courting me, and he was the first person ever treated me like a lady. He married me knowing that inside I was tied up in tangled knots, and he's spent eight years doing his best to untie and untangle them. He thinks I don't know how hard he's tried to help me, but I know all right."
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