The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 9, No. 1

Frost Line

by Frederick Busch

Frost Line

I didn’t drive upstate in a rented car because from the time I heard of his father’s death I saw myself in the back seat of a taxi. A stranger was coming to town, I thought, and she ought to be driven in whatever might pass, up there, for style. It was dark when I took a car-service Lincoln from my apartment on Carroll Street to Grand Central and then, five hours later, under the lead-colored morning sky, I found a cab outside the station. It smelled of cigarettes and hot metal, and I looked out through a window smeared by the damp muzzle of somebody’s dog at the abandoned-looking streets of Utica beneath several feet of dirty snow and twisted slush that had melted and frozen, melted and frozen again. We left the dark station that was constructed of shadows, echoes, chilly dampness, huge white marble stones, and long, dark, empty wooden benches, and we drove into the city with its bright onion-bulb Orthodox churches. I felt as though I’d arrived in Eastern Europe and was setting out toward the border of little, sunless nations nearly at war.
            My driver, whose cheeks were stippled with high, fleshy blackheads, told me to call him Sylvie. The certificate that was held by duct tape on the face of his glove compartment called him Sylvester Damschalk. The charge for the trip away from the station and onto the Kosciusko arterial highway and then to Route 12, which would lead me to the funeral, would cost more than twice the rental of a car. But I was where I had planned to be, sitting in the back of a long, dark car, not visible behind the wheel. I wanted to be delivered there. I wanted, then, to be driven away. I had wanted to see myself that way as it happened, and then when I thought of it a week afterward, and then months, and then years: an unrecognized woman is driven to the funeral rites of the man who prevented her marriage to his son. She arrives and departs. It is long enough since she has been here so that what her lover called her voluptuousness, and what she thinks of as her baby fat, has burned away.
             She arrives behind a mask of boniness about the eyes and mouth. Hidden by the quarter-panel windows of a big old Mercury cab, its blackness scoured by road salt, she enters her history unseen.
            "So you know the area," Sylvie said. "From the way you talked about the snow and how you know the way there."
            "Maybe I just looked at a map," I said.
            He studied me in his mirror, adjusted his thick, horn-rimmed glasses, raised and lowered his brow, and said, "You mind if I smoke?"
            "I’m sorry. Yes. Among the things I no longer do, one of my favorites is smoking."
            "I’d like not to be tempted into asking you for a cigarette."
            "How about if I promise not to give you one, ma’am?"
            "How about if you do," I said.
            "That’s a yes or a no, ma’am?"
            I didn’t answer, and he didn’t smoke.
            At the two-story motel, Sylvie took cash. He had a lighted cigarette in his mouth and it bobbed as he spoke, agreeing to return in the morning. "Back to the station," he said. He nodded for me before I answered. His skin was yellow-white and it creased into thick folds around his eyes. The blackheads were far apart and broad, each on a little island of skin. He held the cash between us and counted the bills from his right hand, also jaundiced looking, onto the reservation desk. Then he scooped up the pile, as if he thought I might take it back.
            "What’s the name of the station?" I asked him.
            "Well, Jesus, I don’t know," he said. "It’s the railroad station is what we call it. Don’t you worry. It’s the only one." He stared at me with his magnified eyes as he folded the money and stuffed it into a pocket of his khaki jacket. "I’ll get you there and then you’ll go home."
            "Maybe this is home," I said. "Maybe it was."
            He leaned his head to the left and studied me. He exhaled smoke through his nose and said, "However you like it, ma’am. Maybe yes. Maybe so."
            I turned from him to stare at the surface of the desk, and he left as I had hoped he would.
            I put my bag in the upstairs room, which offered a view of a municipal garage, and refused to work on myself in front of the mirror. I walked the few blocks to the church. I felt victorious as I walked because no one passing in a car or on the street seemed to notice me. And I had wanted to arrive invisibly, like a ghost coming home to observe his family’s supper. The town was heaped with snow, which was pitted by car exhausts and objects kicked up by the little plows that cleared the sidewalks and the giant orange plows that were shaping islands in the roadways for backhoes and dump trucks to remove. The house roofs had two or three feet collected on them, and I remembered how by the end of January the weight of the Upstate New York winter had worn people down. Part of that weight was the understanding that there would be cold and snow through March and into April, that every morning would be the start of another struggle to defrost slushy water lines and haul ice-crusted firewood and coax a car along unreliable surfaces.
            The church was named for a saint who was skinned alive. Mac, for MacNeilly, and I had argued about saints, flayed and otherwise, and the central tenets of most major faiths, as we had argued about national foreign policy, the state education budget, the singer formerly known as Prince, the defensive line of the Buffalo Bills. I remember his saying, as he poured wine at dinner with Norman and me, "It’s plain bad sense not to say the Rosary and pray to the Blessed Virgin if you can. It’s like not accepting the Host. Because what if it works? What if it’s true? You miss a terrific chance at something. I mean, you’re saving your own life!" He watched me with his almost-clear, pale blue eyes. They suggested no feeling. It was always his mouth, rarely still, that gave you a clue about his feelings. "What’s trivial about that?" he asked.
            "I never called it trivial, Mac," I said, looking at his son, my lover Norman, who later that night, to the surprise of no one, would insist that we marry.
            "No," he said, "but you thought it. I know your face, darling. I know those two lines you get above your nose and the way you chew your lip. I’ve always thought it’s to remind yourself not to tell me what an opinionated, dark old savage I am."
            I shook my head. "You’re not that old," I said.
            He laughed with a shout and drank his wine. I knew he’d want to pour more, and I held my glass close to myself, beyond his reach, as he leaned toward the bottle. It was sour and unresonant, something from Bulgaria he’d found for six dollars. He’d spend good money on excellent whiskies, but never on wine. His handsome, square Irish face was red. His thick, iron-colored hair fell onto his forehead and he shook it back into place, a small, continuous signal of his vanity. 
            "Not so old," he said. "Meaning I’m all of the rest, then. Dark, opinionated. Well, you’re a tough one."
            I said, "I’m not as tough as you, Mac."
            He drank and closed his eyes, like a child finishing his milk, and when he opened them, he set his glass down and leaned forward. "No," he said. "You’re not. Or do you think so, Norm?"
            Norman blinked. He looked handsome in his dark gray suit but a little wearied by us, I thought, a little bruised. His ginger-colored hair and his pallor could make him appear unwell in a dimly lighted room. By candlelight, as tonight, he looked afflicted. His father and I taxed him. I wondered whether we didn’t owe him better. Wouldn’t a man want more from the woman he slept with, even if the sex were all right? And it was. At least it was for me. Norman labored so earnestly for what he thought of as my happiness. And so, I’m afraid, did I. And I wished that Norman might have more from me than I gave.
            "Jean can take care of herself," Norman said, maybe with a little regret.
            "But it was in relation to my own cold heart," Mac told him. "I’ve been saying I don’t think she carries too much more than a splinter of the necessary ice in hers. Though it’s more than you’ve been blessed with, poor guy."
            "Who said it was necessary?" Norman asked his father.
            "Ah, then, we’d have to argue the premise of the need to survive."
            "Isn’t it a sadly short distance," I asked, "from the love of Christ, as transmitted by the Virgin in response to the worrying by the supplicant at his prayer beads, down to the brute survival of an organism that needs no more than to breathe and copulate? Isn’t that what your ‘survive’ implies?"
            "And surely to have a thought or two," Mac said, "and just possibly do something more than fuck."
            I said, "Possibly."
            "We’re off the topic," Norman said. "Let’s drink more alcohol."
            "Ah, Normie," Mac said, "rest your fears. She and I won’t leap over the table at each other’s throats. Will we, Jean?"
            I said, "I wondered, Norman, what you thought the topic was?"
            "And I never learned from either of you why a splinter of ice in the heart was necessary," Norman said.
            "Ask your father," I said. "To survive, he thinks. You know: to protect yourself."
            "And you?" Norman asked.
            I drank the wine. "Honey," I said, "I’m afraid that he’s right."
            His father’s face shone, and Norman looked inconsolable.
            He was a little heavier now, a bit softer at the jowl, but he’d kept most of his hair and it was mostly still red. He wore metal-rimmed glasses, and they gave him a severity that I didn’t mind at all. He looked at the pews nearby as he passed me and took his seat at the front. A short woman with a beaky, passionate nose and a good figure that she dressed very well came behind him with two girls. I had always thought he’d be a generous father. Then the organ grew louder. Then the pallbearers marched in, six elderly men in business suits who seemed defeated by their not having lofted MacNeilly’s corpse and hauled him down the aisle themselves, instead of preceding a dark, shining coffin on a wheeled cart, propelled by men from the funeral home. Eventually, I knew, the reedy but round-faced priest would lay a shroud on the bier. I was grateful for the cover of the casket over Mac. I didn’t want to see his face.
            The congregation called responses to the priest. We stood and we sat, and there was the singing of psalms. The priest read the service, and all were assured that believers would be reunited, and death would be overthrown, while those of us who didn’t believe would die and rot and keep rotting.
            Fair enough, I thought. We’ve been warned.
            Then poor Norman had to read his eulogy. I watched him walk with care to the lectern. In spite of the weather, his black shoes were glossy. As a businessman he had obviously given talks, I thought, for he tapped at the microphone quite professionally before he unfolded his remarks. He said that his father had lived here in central Upstate New York, two hundred miles from his birthplace at Tenth Avenue and Nineteenth Street in Manhattan, all of his adult life. He talked about his mother and her early death. He talked about his father’s long widowerhood, and his real estate business, and his devotion to his faith. I smiled at him—though he only looked down at his eulogy or up, above his listeners’ heads—because he had made his father’s religiousness sound like a business practice and his marriage a well-constructed deal. I wondered if he’d meant to.
            I thought again of his father’s insistence on the splinter of ice in the heart. He had called the general office at the high school where I taught, before I went to Cooperstown to study curating and then New York City to practice it. His message said only that I ought to call at once. I did, concerned for Norman’s safety, and he told me that Norman was fine but that he was not. He asked me to meet him on the edge of a construction site, south of town, where a strip mall was being built. He had sold the land at an enormous profit, of course. So afterward I thought of the place as the scene of the crime. I parked behind his long, maroon Lincoln Town Car. I walked over to sit in the passenger seat while he, looking only forward as if the car were moving, as if he were in control, took up a large thermos with nested red plastic cups on top and poured us each a cup of hot coffee that smelled as if it had been sweetened with cognac.
            "A four in the afternoon pick-me-up, Mac?"
            "Dutch courage for me," he said, "and a kind of a toast to you. Join me, please."
            "This could look unhappily like an assignation, you know. If anybody looked."
            "It would be an honor," he said. Then he said, "You don’t think so."
            "Speaking only for myself," I said.
            "I can appreciate that. How’s your coffee?"
            "After seven hours of policing hormonal rage and searching for undone homework," I said, "I would drink transmission fluid."
            "You’re an agreeable toper," he said. "You can keep up with me. I always leave poor Norman panting. Do you leave him panting, Jean?"
            "You’re asking about me and your son and our sexual practices?"
            "You have some, of course."
            "Do I have to answer this to get to drink my drink?"
            Still looking ahead, at upended wheelbarrows and long, thick rusted wires for reinforcing concrete, he shook his head but didn’t smile. We weren’t going to be joking, then, after all. I was aware of the smell of his cologne, which I found too sweet, and of the lavender sachet he must have kept among his starched-stiff dress shirts. The smell of coffee and cognac struck me, then, as cleansing. I sat with my nose above my red plastic cup. I wondered if he was going to make the move on me that I had half expected for a long time. He liked women, and he didn’t mind if they saw, finally, how little he feared them. There were women who understood that in him. They responded nevertheless, or maybe because of his disdain, then he responded to them. Mac would enjoy sharing some time in bed with his son’s woman.
            "I need you to reconsider your romantic liaison with my son."
            "You should also tell this to your son."
            "He’d listen hard. Then he’d hate me. I’d be sacrificing not only what he might think of as his happiness, though I believe he’ll get over you sooner or later. Maybe later, Jean. You’re a considerable . . . person. But I’d also be sacrificing his feelings for me. I won’t do that if I don’t have to."
            "So you believe I’ll be more—"
            I said, "Is it because my parents are not only dead—are unable to dower me, as I’ve little doubt you would put it—but that they died poor? Or because I’m poor—an underpaid teacher in a no-place New York town?"
            "I think the world of our town," he said. "And Norman will have money."
            "Then because my mother was Jewish?"
            "Oh, not your father, then?"
            "He was a frightened atheist, though he had the balls to stay one," I said. "But it’s the Jew thing, isn’t it? You and your Rotary friends just don’t do what you call intermarriage. Right?"
            He drank his coffee and sighed. His warm breath flared a momentary fog on the windshield in front of the steering wheel. "You’re a bright girl, Jean."
            "And you’re a bully, Mac, with the social intuition of a bear."
            "It’s no wonder to me that he’s drawn to you."
            "In marrying him, I’d be marrying you. With your ten-cent bigotries wrapped in your ten-dollar tea dance etiquette. But didn’t Norman tell you that I didn’t say yes when he asked me?"
            "He did. And I assured him that you finally would."
            "Because I wouldn’t be able to resist the lure of my father-in-law?"
            "Because it would raise you up, Jean, a little closer to what you ought to have been if you’d had any luck in your parentage. The Lord knows how you, of all, deserve better." His voice was strangled. He did sound as if it caused him pain to hurt me. I was learning then what I know now for certain. Suffering and apology aren’t more than custom to a man like Mac, who always operated in sequence: first he insulted you, then he felt pain, and then he gracefully apologized. I thought of tossing the coffee on his lap. I thought of taking in a mouthful and spitting it at his face. But I was glad that I simply set my cup on top of the dashboard and returned to my car and drove off.
            In the church named after the saint who was flayed, Norman told us that his father was probably in heaven with his mother now, berating her for not having gotten in a stock of Jameson 12 Year Old. The listeners laughed and the woman beside me sniffed and whispered, "That’s right. He liked his whiskey."
            I thought: Not heaven, Norman. Not that from you.
            "Death," Norman said, "is not him surrendering. He’d have given you odds that he’d beat it."
            And I thought: Not bad.
            He came from the microphone and surprised me when he did not pause to turn and kneel to the cross. Instead, he turned to his right and looked at the coffin, which was now beneath its cream-colored silken cloth. He slowly bent forward, stiffly, from the waist. His motion became a bow that he held before he walked to sit beside his wife.
            The priest led us into a good deal of smiling and embracing and shaking of hands in celebration of fellowship and salvation. As someone not on the road to heaven, I was reluctant to join in, but the very small woman to my right, wearing a fox coat and a pillbox hat with a lifted veil, insisted that we hug. There was more bulk to her long coat than to her body, I thought, and her smell was familiar. The lines of her grainy face were filled by rouge, and her little teeth seemed unnaturally white. As I asked her for a ride to the cemetery, I realized that the smell of her toilet water reminded me of the lavender sachet of Mac’s shirts. I wondered how well she had known him.
            The priest walked forward, up the aisle. My neighbor put her hand to her lips as the coffin passed our row. 
            "There he goes," I said.
            "How did you know him?" she asked.
            "From when I was young," I said.
            "Well, you’re still young. But there won’t be anything at the cemetery, dear. The frost line’s too deep. The ground’s frozen hard for six or seven feet, at least. They couldn’t get into the ground. And they wouldn’t be able to maneuver a backhoe in those tight spaces. Men will dig the hole with shovels when the earth is soft. He’ll have to wait until spring."
            "To be buried?"
            "Oh, yes. You had to have left here when you were very little, not to know that. It’s part of what winter here is made of—the departed in their coffins at the cemetery vault, waiting. They wait all winter. There’s a ceremony and they’re interred in the spring, you know, when they can dig down into the ground."
            "Is that strange?"
            "Well, yes, I suppose it is," she said, "but that’s life Upstate. Wouldn’t you say?"
            My mother had died in the local hospital during the summer of my nineteenth year. My father killed himself in Columbia, South Carolina, in the autumn of my senior year at Stony Brook. I’d traveled south to collect his ashes and had returned to throw them into the winds off Old Field Point, on Long Island.
            "I suppose it is, yes. Upstate."
            "Where are you from?"
            "Downstate," I said.
            "I’m May Grange."
            "Jean," I said.
            The priest chanted his blessing of MacNeilly, and a handbell rang. The priest called again, and then again, and each time he did, the bell sounded in the darkness behind the church.
            When the priest walked forward, up the aisle, followed by the body and its unburdened bearers, he’d trailed incense, and it all became powerful to me, mysterious, and I felt that for an instant I could sense the primitive astonishment behind the declarations he’d read to us without very much feeling in his thin voice. We walked out together and May took my arm as we navigated the slush at the foot of the stairs. I rode with her to the luncheon, and while she drove her small car very slowly, with great uncertainty, I talked about my job. May had never been to New York, she said, though she had heard of the Metropolitan Museum.
            "If you can get up to 1000 Fifth Avenue, I’ll give you a tour," I said.
            She was frightened by winter, pale, over-powdered, and buttressed by her faith. Her sodality group would soon travel to the veterans’ home in Oxford, New York, she told me. "By bus," she said. "It’s best, you know, not to drive long distances in this weather. Don’t you think?"
            "I try to take taxis," I said.
            She was warming up on MacNeilly and his devotion to the community, and how disappointed he was when his son went to work at the bank in Binghamton and bought a house there. She told me the name of his wife—Donna—and their daughters—Lana and Hannah—and I’m afraid that I giggled.
       After I’d helped May hang her coat near the bar of the banquet hall, I walked among the long tables, each with six places set on a side, and then I walked through the room with the steam trays. It was what you’d have to think of as country food: bright and glistening with gravies, sauces, and syrups. A small bar served wines and spirits, and because it was MacNeilly in the coffin stored in the vault, and because of the nights I had kept pace with him at his table, I asked for Irish whiskey with no ice.
            "It’s the only place you don’t need ice to ease the sting of human transactions," Mac said to us at one of the usual dinners for Norman and me and him, cooked by Norman and me in the kitchen built for Mac’s wife.
            That night, while Norman peeled the potatoes he was going to roast with rosemary and I trimmed the rack of lamb we would bake in a mustard-and-breadcrumb coating, he said, "This is the only haunted kitchen I’ve ever heard of." His shirtsleeves were rolled to the elbows and his glasses had slid down his nose. He couldn’t push them back up because his hands were wet. I pushed them up and kissed his nose. He said, "More, please."
            I kissed his mouth and he said, "Folk remedy for haunted kitchen: carnal relations among the potato peels."
            We got partway there, and then went back to cooking the meal. I often thought, as we cooked together, that the silence between us was a good deal of the pleasure of our relationship. Norman and I were good at silences, and that always entered into my calculations when I worked out reasons for our remaining a couple. It was after that meal, when Mac was pouring aged Irish for us, that he returned to his refrain about the need for an icy heart. It became the kind of conversation he appreciated most, with Mac declaring the rules for engagement with life while Norman sat back, buffaloed into silence, and I leaned forward, pitched into disputation, all of us more than a little drunk. Mac measured out the Jameson, reminding us that ice was essential to the human heart but extraneous to the consumption of spirits.
            "Maybe it’s just an argument for cruelty," I said.
            "No," he said, "it’s a recognition of cruelty."
            "You’re both so highfalutin," Norman said. "It’s simply begging for mercy." He held his finger in the air to emphasize the point.
            "From who?" Mac asked.
            I said, "Whom."
            "You see?" he said to his son. "That’s ice. It’s just what I mean."
            "No," I said, "but who from? What kind of mercy? What’s at risk?"
            "Oh," Norman said, his lips working hard to shape the words, "that’s the great secret that everybody knows. It’s yourself."
            "You great sot," his father said. "You’d better have more, because you’re so far gone tonight, there’s no going back."
            "But really," I remembered myself asking them, "what kind of mercy could you mean?"
            "I’m Donna MacNeilly," she said to me. I swallowed my whiskey and set the glass on the bar. "His daughter-in-law?"
            "Hello, Mrs. MacNeilly," I said. "I’m Jean."
            She was very attractive, I thought, sensual looking, and with makeup perfectly done. The blunt cut of her dark brown hair exposed her muscular neck and accented her good shoulders. Her smoke-gray suit was expensive. She had hazel eyes and a direct look, so I could watch her figure me out.
            She smiled unpleasantly when she finally said, "Oh, I know who you are."
            She nodded. Then she shrugged. "He was such a wearisome, pushy, mean old bore." She started to laugh, then stopped herself. "I’m sorry," she said, "but he really was."
            "He’d hate to hear a woman saying that."
            "Right," she said, "that’s the same MacNeilly senior I’m referring to. The Courtly Rapist, I used to call him. Not that he raped anybody that I know of. But I always thought he could have. He had that hard, heavy—I don’t know."
            "It sounds familiar."
            "You got married, I heard."
            "Ouch," she said.
            "It’s the way I relate to men," I said. "I leave them."
            "What a perfect reminder for me, of course, that you’ll want to say hello to Norman. Unless he knows you’re here?"
            "Why would he?"
            "No," she said. "Of course not. I was wondering, though, why you’d come back."
            "Well, I used to live here, Donna."
            "Did you ever come back before? I mean, after you moved down to the city. Isn’t that where you went?"
            I looked over her head as some of the hundred or so people in the hall arrived at Norman’s table and he greeted them with great seriousness. "The city is where I went. And I haven’come back until today. Do I really need to come up with a package of reasons for you? I knew the man a while. I lived here a while. I’m leaving tomorrow morning."
            She stared at me, then stuck her hand out, and we shook again. She had a strong grip. "Welcome home. The family thanks you for coming." She looked at me as if she wanted to remember my face. Then we dropped the handshake and she walked away. Norman looked up to see her, and then his glance passed her and he recognized me. His face turned still, then tight, then only still again. He stood, and Donna went to him to hold his elbows, to lean in against him, to kiss him on th mouth. So now we’ve all been reminded, I thought. He shot his cuffs and pulled his suit coat down as he approached. I saw Donna turn to her children, as if she wanted me to see how unconcerned she was.
            Norman came closer than I thought he would, and he kissed me on the cheek. He sniffed loudly and said, "Coco Chanel. Some things don’t change. Did you drive up? Is your husband here?"
            "Amtrak to Utica. Alone."
            "Utica," he said. "How did you get here from there? Where are you staying? I thought you got married. You did. I heard about it."
            "I took a cab to the Howard Johnson. I did get married. I’m getting un—. I’m sorry your father is dead. You are too, yes?"
            His face reddened. He said, "Are you?"
            "I didn’t exactly love him."
            "He was nuts about you," he said.
            I said, "You know that, do you?"
            "He always told me it was a permanent wound when you left. He went back over how long it would have taken you to apply to graduate school, plan where you’d live, make the arrangements for leaving. And he’d say, ‘All that time she knew she’d be off, and us not suspecting.’ "
            "The stealthy girlfriend steals away," I said. "I never imagined he approved of me so much."
            "You must have. He said he all but begged you to marry me."
            "All but," I said. "How are you, Norman? Are you all right? With all of this?"
            "The death?"
            "And Donna and the rhyming daughters."
            "Ouch," he said, with Donna’s inflection. "Would that be a bohemian verdict on the estate of a longtime but admittedly middle-class friend?"
            "You’re so much nicer than I am. You always were. I apologize for my—jumpiness? It took a little courage to come up here. And plenty to walk in here. Look, she’s a strong, terrific person, Donna. And your girls are beautiful. They adore you. This really worked out so well." Norman’s light blue eyes were the only part of him that could overpower me. They seemed at times to look directly past my pretense of the moment, and here, at the reception for the mourners of his father, when he ought to have been flabby and drained, he seemed to understand that I’d lied, and he seemed to find it unacceptable. "I didn’t come here to give you a rough time," I said.
            "Seeing you, though, isn’t easy."
            "I’m sorry."
            "Is it regret, Jean, would you say? Is there any regret to what you’re feeling?"
            "About you and me?"
            And of course they were his father’s eyes, looking out of the son, and understanding me.
            "I should be moving along to the other guests," he said.
            "Is there any regret?"
            I said, "I was in the church. Did you see me?"
            He shook his head.
            "I have to tell you this. It isn’t what I came seeking. I don’t know why I came, and I don’t really know if I was seeking anything at all. But when I heard—and it was just by accident, from a friend of a friend in New York who used to live here who still gets the rag they call a newspaper—when I heard it was your father, I reached for the phone and I reserved a ticket for the train. I don’t know if I came up here to see him off, or to watch you send him. But your beautiful bow, after the eulogy. The lovely, formal grace of it—more graceful than anything your father ever did in his entire life, Norman."
            "No," he said. "Wait." His hand was up with the palm toward me, and I reached for it as I used to do, putting my fingers between his, which felt cold. Of course, I let go right away. His face grew grim. He said, "But my father—"
            "I know who he was. Believe me."
            "That so-called bow, though."
            "Do me the vastest of courtesies," I said, "and don’t tell me what you meant by it. What I saw was, I don’t know, it was old-fashioned, it was elegant. Now, maybe it was just
another act of obedience, though I intend to think of it as a great deal more. I felt something, then, that I hadn’t felt for a long time. I ended up mourning that. And I’m grateful for the opportunity."
            "‘Another act of obedience,’ you said?"
            "Did I say that?"
            "Didn’t you, though."
            "I’m sorry, Norman."
            "We both are."
            "Yes, we are."
            He said, "I have to move along to the others."
            I said, "Goodbye, honey."
            The smaller daughter watched me from behind a suspicious expression. May was talking to the older sister with what seemed to be great pleasure, and I envied her for offering comfort from within such a worried, small life. I walked among waiters and waitresses and guests, most of them drinking and quite a few working on plates of little meatballs or lasagna, and none of them knew who I was or, anyway, cared to brace the ghost. A waiter phoned for a cab that took me back to the motel.
            I watched parts of two movies. One was full of exploding trucks and burning cars and gunfire. I fell asleep and, when I woke, changed over to a film about a man who was a croupier in London and lost everything. I watched several programs featuring smug hosts and dysfunctional guests who were starring in the fifteen-minute movies of their lives. I cried when a mother and daughter were reunited long after the mother had sold the child for crack cocaine, then gone on to find a prison term, rehabilitation, faith, and finally her child. The daughter seemed to forgive her mother, but I didn’t. I washed my face and put on jeans and sneakers and a cotton pullover and went downstairs to The Trolley Car, which was what they called their restaurant. The waiter simpered when I ordered a bottle of wine with a salad chaser. It was an alleged merlot from New York State, and it tasted no better, I thought, than the Eastern European wines that Mac used to buy. For dessert, I asked for an Irish whiskey, any brand, straight up. Instead of offering a sentimental toast—and, really, to what?—I sipped it and imagined Norman at home with Donna and their daughters. He probably had a den, I thought. She probably starred in civic little theater, reveling in the sexy costumes she could wear.
            Upstairs, I lay on the bed to read. I was making my way through The Good Soldier because a woman who worked with me had said it was the great modernist novel. I remembered thinking about modernism as part of fascism when I was in college. I wondered if I was waiting for Norman. If I had the thought, then maybe I was. I tried to figure out the meaning of such considerations, but I fell asleep.
            I woke a little after midnight because there were sounds at my door. I saw him, distorted by the spy hole and looking queasy in the hallway light. I opened the door and stepped back, but he stayed where he was so I went closer to the threshold. We did our hesitation in whispers.
            "Are you all right?" I asked him.
            "As all right as this can be. Yes, thank you, I am. Are you?"
            "I’m okay," I said. "I’m okay." Then I said, "I ought to be saying, ‘But Norman, what about your wife?’"
            In the bad light, and in what I’d have to call our excitement, those clear, pale eyes were on my forehead, on my own eyes, on my mouth. He looked distressed, but he was smiling when he said, "‘And what about your kids?’ you ought to say."
            "Yes, of course. But here it is, Norman," I whispered. "Here’s what your father and I knew about each other: the virtue of the icy heart. If you have it, you can do what isn’t fair, you can do what isn’t anything in the neighborhood of right. And you can survive the pain of causing so much pain."
            Norman made a wincing sound, though he kept his face expressionless.
            The cab driver Sylvie, with his magnified eyes, his corroded skin, his odor of stale cigarettes, took my bag and we walked out of the motel lobby in the bleak, gray day to his taxi. He opened the back door for me.
            "So how did it go?" he asked.
            I saw Norman’s clear blue stare as he drew himself up in the corridor.
            "For a High Mass featuring a dead man," I said, sitting in the back of the dark cab as I had intended from the start, "it went all right."
            But I was seeing how Norman, as I stepped back, came forward into my room, and shut the door behind him, then faced me, then bowed.

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