The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 7, No. 3

The Ironworkers' Hayride

by Robert Olen Butler

The Ironworkers Hayride

So this fellow at the new ironworks in Sunnyvale where I am a cost-sheet man and he is a furnace man, he comes over to me at the Ironman Saloon. I’m still in my blue- serge suit and collar, though the fellows in their overalls know me as an okay guy, even if they mostly treat me like a hapless little brother. But this one fellow, Zack, spots me as soon as he sets foot in the place. I’m sitting on a stool at the bar counting the smoked almonds I’m eating and sort of working the numbers out, how many I need to eat to cover the cost of the beer in front of me and wishing I could dare pull out a scrap of paper and do some downright figuring. But that would undercut my standing among these fellows around me, who I’m here trying to be part of, the sorts of fellows that used to daily snap my suspenders and tweak my nose when we were all boys. So this fellow Zack presses past his friends and makes straight for me and he claps me on the back, causing me to revise my almond count from twenty back to nineteen, most of the twentieth one attaching itself to the mirror behind the bar. “Milton, old man,” he says, and he proceeds for the fourth time in four days to urge me to take his sister-in-law on the ironworkers’ hayride, which is now a mere two days off, even though he has confessed about her having a cork leg.
          “I am awful tired nights,” I say, an excuse I have not yet tried on him, and he perches on the stool next to me with a face crumpled in skepticism. I don’t blame him. He shovels coal, I add numbers. He knows this. I know this. “My eyes,” I say. “Tired eyes.”
          “It’s dark,” he says. “You got nothing much to look at except Minnie, and she’s easy on the eyes, I’m telling you. And that other thing, you know, it wears a shoe and stocking like the good one.”
          I nod and begin gnawing the thin brown skin off a new almond. This is not my usual method. Minnie’s brother-in-law is making me nervous.
          He lowers his voice and leans near. “Look. Nobody but you knows about this leg thing. She walks real good. And she dresses up nice. The others will think you’re a regular fellow.”
          I shoot him a sideways glance and turn the almond over, like a squirrel, to gnaw at the other side. I tote up all the sums of his remark. The others don’t already think I’m a regular fellow. I’m not a regular fellow. If she can hide her cork leg, I can hide my irregular fellowness. Zack has let me in on a family secret with all the obligations and reciprocities attendant thereto. Though I have to point out that I never solicited this secret. It was Zack who took the stocking off the rubber foot, so to speak. No. Erase that. He let the cat out of the bag. There’s a reason for saying things the way everybody else says them.
          “How ’bout it?” Zack says.
          I calculate it all, and the almond is bare and white in my hand. It gives me the willies. I slip it into my mouth, out of sight. I chew fast, knowing I’m about to get popped on the back again. I swallow and then turn to Zack, and I say, “All right.”
          This much I take pains to learn from Zack: Minnie’s leg is missing from well above the knee. She is twenty-two. Her favorite flower is the poppy. And the leg isn’t really made of cork. It couldn’t be, if you think about it, cork being too soft a wood to bear the weight of a twenty-two-year-old girl, or even half her weight. The leg is of wood—willow, in fact—and years ago they made a swell wooden leg in the county of Cork in Ireland. Thus the name.
          As for the reason, Zack says she lost her leg as a child to a runaway horse and an overturned carriage. She was riding in it. This gives me an idea. “Zack,” I say. “Think. If she goes out in the night in a wagon being pulled by a horse, won’t she be caused to dwell on that terrible event?”
          He bends near, putting his great paw of a hand on my shoulder. It weighs quite a lot. I’m having trouble keeping from sliding off the bar stool under its pressure. “Look, Milton,” he says. “I haven’t been dogging you about this for your sake, much as I . . . like you. It’s Minnie who wants bad to go on this hayride. I’m not about to disappoint her.”
          He squeezes my shoulder like he’s trying to juice an orange and I know I better speak up quick. “Sure. Okay,” I say, and he lets me go.
          “That’s my blue-serge pal,” he says.
          I want to say to him, Why me? I heard you hesitate before the word “like” in your recent declaration. Pleasantly tolerate is more what it is. So why choose a fellow like that for your sister-in-law? But I dare not ask. And I think I know the answer. He wants to keep from informing his pals in overalls about his sister-in-law’s handicap. Not to mention he sees me as a safe choice, the last male in his acquaintance who’d ever play the masher with his wife’s kin.
          So this is how I come to be standing at the front gate of the ironworks in collar and straw hat holding a bunch of orange poppies. I am not alone. A few dozen couples—the guys from the various work gangs, mostly, and their girls in lacy shirtwaists and skirts—are all gabbling and promenading around me, trying to choose hay companions on the four large, sweet-smelling wagons that wait along the street. There is no sign of Zack and his sister-in-law. Then two piercing yellow eyes appear down the road—the headlamps of an automobile—and the horses start puffing and stirring, and up roars Zack in his father-in-law’s Model T, to the great interest of all the couples. The Ford is as black as the night sky. Zack’s father-in-law was one of the first to buy this wonder for a mere $845, and the prices have been coming down already in these past two years, the blue-serge boys in Detroit squeezing their production cost numbers as tightly as Zack squeezing my shoulder. I step forward from the crowd, which is already returning to the matter of choosing wagons. The driver’s side of the auto is before me and Zack gives me a nod and I nod back. Then, stepping into the blazing beams of the headlamps is Minnie of the cork leg.
          She pauses there, aflame from the lamps of the Ford, and I feel like the flowers are wilting in my hand. She is swell looking. She’s wearing a blue sailor dress with the big collar and the wide, knotted tie hanging down the center of her chest, and her head is bare, her hair all gathered up there with a wide, dark ribbon circling the crown, and there is a radiance all around her—thanks to the Ford, but radiance nonetheless—her whole head is surrounded with a bright glow, like a saint, a martyred saint who has lost her leg to an evil duke—a partially martyred saint—and her face is very pale and delicate of nose and brow and ear and so forth—my eyes are dancing around her, not taking her in very objectively, I realize—her mouth is a sweet painted butterfly. I’m squeezing the life out of the flowers in my hand, I realize, crushing their stems in my fist. I try to ease up, settle down. And now her face turns and she looks at me as if she knows who I am already. I flinch a bit inside, wondering how Zack described me, but it can’t be too bad, because he’s responsible for setting all this up. She steps from the light.
          I observe this first step carefully. I am a detail man. That’s my job. And I see with her first step which leg is descended from the land of Erin, so to speak. Her left. She has started from her right leg—she would surely start from her good side—and her left leg then follows a tiny bit slowly, perhaps dragging just a very little, almost imperceptibly, and it’s true if I weren’t looking for this and if I weren’t a detail man, I’d never know, but I am and I am and I do. Now under way, she seems quite natural. She has a blanket draped over one arm. Many of the girls have blankets. I noted that with envy when I first arrived. It is mid July, and though it can get a bit chilly in the valley even in July, I know these blankets are for spooning, and now Minnie is approaching me and she’s been moved to bring a blanket. This is too much on my mind as she arrives before me.
          “Milton?” she says.
          “Are you subject to chills?” I say. Inexplicably. I do have a good, thick, gum-rubber eraser in my head always at the ready to wipe away my mistakes of judgment before they issue forth from my mouth. I am a man who arrives at the appropriate sum total before giving an answer. But on this occasion I have simply blurted forth the next, uncalculated thought in my head.
          “I don’t have an illness,” she says.
          My remark had nothing to do with her leg and I have to squeeze my lips shut hard to keep that assertion from coming out of my mouth now and just making things worse.
          “Of course,” I say. “Of course,” I repeat instantly. And it only takes the briefest moment of silence following for me to add, “Of course.”
          “I’m Minnie,” she says.
          “Of course,” I say, and the hand with the flowers shoots out as if my arm was artificial and the spring lever in the elbow has just let go.
          But the flowers save the moment, I think.
          “Poppies,” Minnie says, her eyes widening at their sight, which is wide indeed because her eyes are already quite large as it is, large and dark as the skin of a Ford Model T, one of which is roaring off into the night, a Ford Model T, that is, Zack’s, leaving me alone with this girl. “They’re my favorites. How did you know?” she says. “Did you know?”
          “The flowers?” I say. “Oh . . .” I pause. I could suggest a deep intuitive bond here. I’m capable of that. I can’t possibly expect strict, detailed honesty to be the best policy on a date with a girl with a wooden leg anyway, but in this circumstance I opt for it. “I asked Zack,” I say.
          Minnie laughs, lifting her face and not holding it back at all, not covering her mouth with her hand, like girls usually do. She says, “He had it drummed into his head by my sister around my last birthday.”
          A few moments pass, and I’m not aware of it exactly but I’m just sort of gawking at her. She looks at me and tilts her head just a little. “Are you trying to picture Zack’s head being drummed on by his wife?”
          I gawk some more.
          Minnie lowers her voice. “She’s a suffragette, you see.”
          I realize that if I don’t take myself in hand I’ll spend the rest of the evening two steps behind this girl without speaking a word. I manage to say, “I didn’t know.”
          “Oh yes. I want to vote, too. Does that surprise you?”
          “Or put you off?”
          “No,” I say, and I manage to sound emphatic.
          “I won’t harangue you in the hay,” she says. “Don’t worry.”
          I’m finally catching up, I think, certainly enough to realize that I’m still holding the flowers straight out. I lift them up at her and she’s been sort of in another place, too, it seems. “Oh. Sorry,” she says, though it looks like she’s talking to the flowers. She takes them and then fixes on me again. “You were swell to do this,” she says.
          So we get to the business of finding a place for the ride. Most of the other couples have already made their choices and are settling down in the hay. We drift down the row of wagons, Minnie moving along real natural next to me. We arrive at the last one, and I look inside and say to her low, so the others can’t hear, “Do you know any of these people?”
          “Not a one. And you?”
          “Seen a couple of them around, don’t know any of them.”
          “Any of Zack’s pals?” she says.
          “Not that I know of.”
          “Then this one’s for us,” she says, and she’s already trying to climb up into the wagon.
          I step up behind her and my hands come out and sort of hang in the air on either side. She’s not looking at me but she knows what I’m doing, even down to my hesitation. “You can just grab and shove if you like,” she says.
          So I put my hands, which I have to say are trembling more than a little, on each side of her waist and she is heavily corseted inside there and just thinking about her corset makes me go too weak to lift her. But I try. I help a little and somehow she’s up on the wagon and I’m scrambling in after her.
          She moves forward on her hands and knees pretty fast, heading for the far end of the wagon, and I try to keep up, crawling past the other couples settling in. One guy that I’ve nodded to a few times at the Ironman I nod to again and he gives me a big wink, finally understanding I’m a regular fellow, I presume, and I have the problem of what to do with my face in return. A similar wink, as from a fellow fellow? Another nod, which, I instantly realize, might give an impression like some European king or somebody passing in a carriage? Nothing, just stay blank-faced or turn away? But would that be interpreted as a gesture of rejection or overreaching uppitiness? All this goes through me like turning the crank on the arcade mutoscope real slow, but my arms and legs are still moving in normal time and the decision is made by my indecision. I pass on with my mug fixed in what I’m sure is a mask of buffoonery. Then I look ahead and Minnie is just turning around in the spot she’s found for us, and the whole batch of poppies is clenched in her teeth. She’s got the stems in her mouth and the cluster of flower heads are bunched up at her cheek and she sees me seeing this and she flutters her eyebrows at me, and once again it’s me and my face trying to figure out how to act in this world we’re not quite suited for.
          She has put the blanket on the straw to her right side and pats the straw to her left. I’m grateful for the instruction. I just set my face to the place where I’ve been told to go and I creep on. Meanwhile, Minnie takes the flowers from her mouth and lays them on the blanket. Happily, my mind catches up—she’d put the bouquet in her mouth to protect them as she crawled. This makes perfectly good sense. I have arrived safely, turning and falling into the hay beside Minnie, and we are side by side.
          I lean on my elbows thrown back behind me and I cross my feet at the ankles. My mouth opens to say something and then snaps shut with no actual words coming to mind. Her wooden leg lies between us. The evening in hay lies before us. I figure I’m in trouble.
          Not that I shouldn’t be prepared simply to keep quiet. Especially considering I’ve been enlisted in this date by the girl’s relative who happens to mostly know me from a bar and he knows how out of place I generally am and I’ve agreed to it only after I’ve said no a few times and even written to my sister in San Francisco that I was saying no in spite of she’s the one who’s always worried about me never looking up from the column of numbers in front of me to find a life with somebody, but here’s a girl who’s got a cork leg, not to say there isn’t plenty of girl left in spite of that, but it’s just the idea of this whole arrangement, which is: Let’s choose Milton to take out this girl who other young men maybe would get uncomfortable around because Milton’s hard up and he’s also a safe choice because there’s not really a red-blooded young man inside of him, he’s just got ink in his blood and ledgers in his brain and numbers on his lips. So under these circumstances why should I care if I don’t say another word all night? I can just lie here in the hay and get through the whole thing and then everybody will get off my back and let me go back to my numbers. See? That’s the fate even I imagine for myself at the end of a hayride with a girl. Go back to my numbers. But in fact I do expect more from myself now. I want more. It was Minnie herself who brought this out in me. Minnie radiant in the Model T’s headlights. Minnie who says just grab me and shove. Minnie who wants to vote. Why shouldn’t she?
          “Why shouldn’t you vote?” I say, unexpectedly.
          She looks at me. “Well, dog my cats,” she says. “What a sweet thing to say, Milton.”
          And now, having been seized by one thing to say, the ink bottle in my head instantly spills all over the ledger—I’m not afraid to put it in these terms—I am who I am—and I figure I’m in an even worse predicament, since I’ve raised her expectations.
          But Minnie seems happy to pick things up. Of course she deserves a vote, she tells me, and she goes on for a time about how women would have busted the trusts even quicker than Roosevelt and Taft—it was only this year—what a great year, though, it was, she says—that Standard Oil was finally dissolved and the tobacco trust was broken up, but even at that, look what’s happening now, she says, the banks in New York are trying to monopolize the nation’s credit. And Minnie is talking like sixty and I sort of settle back and let her words just carry me along about oil and railroads and steel and big corporations, and this should be working up my feelings for numbers and business and all, but that’s not what’s happening, the wagons have started up and I’m giving myself over to the stars above and the flow of Minnie’s voice and her words are like music to me, like a fugue by Bach or something that you just take in and it shuts down all the unnecessary functions of your brain except the part that hears the music. I even feel like humming with her as she talks. Then Minnie finally has to nudge me a bit. I realize that her words have worked around to me. “You’re going to cast your ballot in October, right Milton? For the woman’s vote in California?”
          “Of course,” I say.
          “Grand,” she says. “Just grand.” She stops talking and looks at me closely. I look at her closely. The moon is full and Minnie is bright white, like she’s made of alabaster. “I’m sorry,” she says.
          “Why?” I say.
          “I’ve harangued you in the hay,” she says.
          She seems sincerely regretful. Even in the moonlight I can read that in her face. I want to reach out and touch her, perhaps take her hand, though my own hands go rigid in panic at the thought of it. But I find I have words. “No,” I say. “You’ve educated me.”
          Minnie sort of rolls her eyes. I think in pleasure.
          “You’ve exhorted me,” I say.
          Her eyes focus hard on me now. She leans a little in my direction and her voice pitches low. “Thank you for saying so, Milton.”
          Then a choir begins to sing.
          For a moment, strangely, it all seems to be happening just in my head. But the voices coarsen and the music is not Bach. In fact the sound is all around me in the wagons. The others on the hayride are singing. Shine on, shine on harvest moon up in the sky. I ain’t had no lovin’ since January, February, June, or July.
          This is true, certainly. And you can tote up all my Januarys, Februarys, and so forth through the whole year. For all my years. Even just counting the ones since I hit adolescence, that’s better than a hundred months. I can work up an exact sum tomorrow if I want. Now things go a little sour in my head. I realize that, given my ineptness at the lovin’ and spoonin’ and all, I’ll be adding this present month of July to the tally in spite of this hayride.
          The voices roll into a verse. I can’t see why a boy should sigh, when by his side is the girl he loves so true.
          I look at Minnie. She’s not singing along, but she’s smiling into the wagon, and then she lays her head back on the hay. So do I. And of course I sigh. Shine on, shine on harvest moon.
          Minnie and I lie there and listen, side by side, the moon shining over us and the stars as well, no more talk being necessary, and it’s just grand, even as the singing ironmen and their girls move on to other songs, first to Whoop, whoop, whoop, make a noise like a hoop and roll away, and then Oh you spearmint kiddo with the Wrigley eyes, not really catching the mood I’m in, but that’s still okay, I’m beside Minnie lovely Minnie with the leg of willow, and they do go on to sing I’d love to live in loveland with a girl like you and there’s a lot about turtle doves and hearts beating in tune and babbling brooks and that’s more like it and I’m definitely thinking about Minnie though I’m not touching her and I’m not looking at her and she might as well be a distant memory, for all that. And so she soon will be, I realize. This is my only chance with her and we are sliding along in the night and the time is ticking by and I’m acting like she’s not even there and now they’re singing, Waltz me around again, Willie, around, around, around. The music is dreamy, it’s peaches and creamy, O don’t let my feet touch the ground.
          I sit up at once. It sounds like Minnie beseeching me. Waltz me, Milton, don’t let my feet touch the ground. That’s what I would need to do. I see myself sweeping her up and it makes no difference what her legs are made of, with me she need never touch the ground.
          “Are you all right?” Minnie’s voice slips in under the last chorus of the song. I look at her. She’s sitting up, too. I feel like a ship on an ocean of joy—I just want to holler out loud, “Ship ahoy!” And she turns her head to the wagon and she opens her mouth and sings with the others, Waltz me around again, Willie, around, around, around. I can’t take my eyes off her. There’s straw caught in her hair and I want very much to lift my hand and take it out, but I’m as paralyzed as ever. Then everyone is laughing and applauding themselves and the music is over and Minnie turns her face back to me.
          And she winks.
          I have, of course, no earthly idea what she means by this, exactly. But I dare now to think that I’m pretty much okay for the moment. With this very progressive girl. With this girl who would bust the trusts and still has it in her to wink. The madness of speech comes upon me again. “I’m going to vote in October,” I say, apropos of nothing but the chaos in my head. So I add, “Like I said before.” Which needs further explanation. “For women to vote,” I say and I try to lock my jaw shut.
          Miraculously, she seems to understand, even though I don’t. She leans close. “You’re right,” she says. “That’s just the way to waltz me around and around, Willie.”
          I’m glad my jaw is still locked because I’m about to impulsively correct her about my name. But I stay quiet long enough to get what she means. How clever she has made me out to be. Then, inspired, I wink.
          She smiles and turns away. “Aren’t you feeling a little bit chilled?” she says.
          “No,” I say. I am, in fact, feeling quite flushed.
          Probably from the rapid disintegration of my brain cells. I turn to see what Minnie is seeing, and several other couples are opening their blankets and disappearing under them.
          “Yes,” I say.
          Minnie looks at me and of course I’m driven to explanations. “The valley gets chilly,” I say. “It’s all the orchards,” I say. “I think they, somehow, the fruit trees, absorb the heat perhaps, to make it chilly. There’s no real statistics on that, however. It’s probably just Northern California. The climate, you know.” I stop myself at last. I’m breathless from this madness.
          “So you’re chilly?” she says.
          “Yes,” I say.
          She reaches beside her and gently sets the flowers on the hay. She flashes open the blanket and lifts it and it settles over the two of us up to our shoulders and she says, “How’s that?” and I say, “Fine.”
          We lie back to watch the night sky. We do that for a while, not saying anything, and we’re still not touching at all, except maybe just barely along the upper arms, though that might just be my imagination.
          It is true that the Santa Clara Valley is like one big orchard. After the earthquake, Sunnyvale started wooing San Francisco companies to reestablish themselves down here, offering free orchard land to build on. That’s how the ironworks got started. But mostly it’s fruit trees up and down and all around. Which is where the wagons end up, now that the singing is done and the giggling and low talk and spooning have begun. We head out into one of the big apricot orchards.
          There is still a smell of sulfur smoke lingering in the air from the curing houses. “You remember last year?” Minnie says.
          I know at once what she’s thinking and I know it’s because of the night sky and the acrid smell.
          She says, “When we were all waiting to pass through the tail of Halley’s Comet? Did you think that life on Earth would come to an end?”
          This happens to be a topic I know something about. When the astronomers decided that the tail was made up of deadly cyanogen gas I knew the numbers had to be in our favor, which was soon confirmed in news reports that plenty of people decided to overlook.
          “Not for a moment,” I say.
          “Not for a moment?” Minnie asks, real soft.
          I blunder ahead. “The tail looked pretty substantial across the sky,” I say. “We passed through forty-eight trillion cubic miles of it, and of course it was highly reflective of the sunlight. But you have to understand there was only about one molecule of poison per cubic yard, and since it takes ten thousand sextillion cyanogen molecules to weigh one pound—these were all known numbers well in advance of the encounter—then a little figuring would have told us that the sum total of poison gas the planet Earth was about to pass through weighed barely half an ounce.”
          Minnie’s arms emerge from beneath the blanket and she cradles the back of her head in the palms of her hands. She studies the sky and then says, “I was frightened for a while.” And I understand at once how it is that even correctly gathered and accurately calculated numbers can sometimes be irrelevant. I also understand how much I adore this Minnie of the willow leg. I turn a bit onto my side, gently, without disturbing her gaze at the sky, so that I can look at her. And there is a comet of desire streaking through me, its tail thick with something much denser than Halley’s poison. I am suddenly desperate to touch this girl, just lay a hand on her arm or brush at her hair with my fingertips—something—but I have neither the courage nor the confidence. And I am seized by a plan.
          Even as Minnie goes on about her fear of the comet. “No matter what the scientists announced,” she says. “Scientists are constantly saying things and taking them back.”
          I think of her artificial leg lying between us, hidden beneath the blanket.
          “It’s not a rational thing,” she says.
          The leg is part of Minnie, but it really isn’t.
          “We’re not always rational creatures,” she says.
          So it stands to reason that a touch there would not constitute an actual offense, that is to say the flagrant act of a masher. Though it’s a leg, after all, which is a powerful part of a girl indeed, it’s not really a leg, it’s a piece of wood, it’s really as if you were with a girl who walked with a cane and you touched the cane, which is no offense at all, and yet, from my own private comet’s point of view, it is her own personal sweet willow leg and it is attached to her and so it would still be a thrillingly tender connection to her while at the same time being a connection that no one in the world would know about, not even her, especially under a blanket, and even if they did know about it, it’s not like touching the actual girl.
          “Sometimes you have to face a difficult thing,” she says.
          I turn my attention to my left hand, but the hand is only too willing to dash ahead and I glance down the length of the blanket, gauging the contours, and my hand slithers along humpbacked under the cloth, like a mole making for the roses, which in this case is a place just below her artificial knee.
          “You think you might die,” Minnie says, “and even if that never was so, just the thinking of it is more or less the same.”
          I am drawing near and I fix on her profile, edged in moonlight, though as beautiful as she is, my attention is elsewhere.
          Moles are blind, but they have other highly refined senses and so it is with my hand, which expertly arrives on the scene and lifts and curls and descends, slowly, delicately, and Minnie sighs and says, “I didn’t have it too bad, though.”
          Then I touch her. Or it. Or more precisely her skirt, the cloth is rippled beneath my palm, and her wooden leg is further within, a distant thing still, which is all right, I am very happy.
          “Did you know that people actually took one look at the comet and died?” Minnie says. “Heart attacks, mostly.”
          My hand settles in. I surround Minnie’s leg. I even squeeze it, ever so faintly.
          “There was a woman named Ruth Jordan in Taladega, Alabama,” Minnie says. “I read all this in the newspapers. She stepped onto the porch of her home and she looked and fell over dead. And there was another woman, in St. Louis, who was fine looking at the comet thinking it a cloud, but when they told her what she was seeing, she died.”
          I squeeze Minnie’s leg again. And I realize I was actually thinking too much both those times, thinking about squeezing and thinking about having squeezed, and all the while I didn’t actually experience the act, so I squeeze her leg again, trying to concentrate just on feeling it. Then I move my way up to the knee and even across it—Zack said the wooden part goes far up—and I feel my way back down again, squeezing all along.
          “Some were simply driven insane,” Minnie says. “Especially in Chicago, for some reason.”
          Squeeze, squeeze, move along, squeeze some more. I’m a bit breathless now. I’m growing dizzy. I love her willow leg.
          “Perhaps that’s just where the reporter was who wrote the story. But there were people on Chicago streetcars praying and weeping about the end of the world.”
          Now I slow down for a moment. I make the squeezes long and lingering. Here, sweet knee, take this long caress.
          “That’s not necessarily insane, I suppose,” Minnie says. “Something more like religious ecstasy, I guess. But there were suicides. One woman, afraid of the gas of the comet, inhaled the gas from her lamp.”
          Here, sweet thigh, just above the knee a long caress for you. And then another quick one further up, and then further down.
          “Sometimes,” Minnie says, “we are compelled to embrace the thing we fear the most, don’t you think?”
          But her face doesn’t turn to me with this question. It’s just as well. I wouldn’t be able to say much at the moment. It’s all I can do to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head in something like religious ecstasy.
          “I can understand that, I suppose,” Minnie says.
          I am vaguely aware of a stir, and I look down the length of the blanket and I nearly gasp. Mr. Mole is racing furiously up and down there, absolutely crazed. I watch for a moment in awe. Up and down the leg. Up and down. It’s my hand, I know. Frenzied with love. It’s my own hand. I can stop it, if I choose. And so I do. I concentrate on my hand and I have this bad news for it and I send out the message, and it stops, my hand. Though it’s still lying on her leg. Okay. I let myself have this one last touch.
          Minnie turns her face to me. “Weren’t you a little afraid, even for a moment?” she says.
          “Yes,” I manage to say.
          “That’s natural,” she says.
          I gently move my hand off her leg and back to my side. I focus on catching my breath.
          “Shall we find all the constellations?” Minnie says suddenly, lifting her face to the night.
          “Yes,” I say. “I know something about that.”
          And so we trace them out together, these patterns in the sky, and I count the stars that make them up while she talks about bears and archers and hunters with swords. And we go on to talk about this and that and we all sing some more songs after the others emerge from their blankets, and when the wagons have returned to the gates of the ironworks, I help Minnie down, grabbing her firmly at her waist, and for a moment it feels as if I am ready to waltz her around and around with her feet never touching the ground.
          Though I don’t. The Model T is idling nearby and Minnie and I stand before each other, about to part. She says, “Thank you, Milton. This has been grand.”
          “Yes,” I say. And at this moment it does not occur to me whatsoever that Minnie would want to see me again. But what do I know? My judgment is trustworthy only to the bottom of a column of figures. For Minnie takes a step nearer to me, and she dips her face just a little without letting her eyes leave mine, and she says, “You come call on me, all right, Milton?”
          I am once again without words, but I manage to nod my head so as to say yes yes I will I will. And then she smiles a sweet, slow smile and says, “Just for future reference, Milton. It’s the other leg.”


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