Bright flows the river, p.33

Bright Flows the River, page 33


Bright Flows the River

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  She spent her time, which was heavy on her now, canning wild huckleberries and peaches and plums and vegetables from her own garden. Her small clean kitchen, once so comforting and attractive with its brick floor and copper pots and pans, would grow warm with heat, as her storage shelves became loaded with jars. She could no longer find solace in her books, or in her collection of classical records. Everything pained her, especially beauty and peace. Everything was pervaded with the silent anguish of love and desolation. Once, while gathering the last roses, she found herself crying, the tears running down her face. She brushed them away with her arm and cursed aloud. The collie licked her face, looking at her anxiously. “Oh, Joe,” she said, with half laughter and half despair, “it’s hell to be a woman.”

  The first frost came and the trees wore scarlet and gold and bronze, and the annuals in the garden died, turned black, withered. Beth raked and bedded down her gardens. Chestnuts dropped from trees and squirrels were busy. There was an accelerating hum in the air as nature prepared the land for sleep and the following resurrection of life. Beth could see the beginnings of houses across the fields, as the men hurried against the winter. Their voices came louder to her on the brisk air. The sky, each day, was a more intense blue. The breezes were keener. Beth found some consolation in the fire she lighted at night, but she could not give her full attention to her books and the music.

  She was sitting, one twilight, before the fire, listening to a nocturne of Debussy’s, when she heard a knock at her door. Then the door opened and Guy was standing on the threshold, his dark face in shadow. She had seen him so often in her fantasies that she thought him, at first, another fantasy. She could not believe it. She stood up slowly, and looked at him. He entered the room but did not approach her. He merely stood in the center of the room, his coat unbuttoned, and she felt his resistance, his sullenness, his open resentment at being here.

  Beth could feel the hard pounding of her heart. She wanted to speak but could not. The collie was happily sniffing at his knees and he absently bent and rubbed the dog’s ears. And he did not look directly at Beth.

  “I remembered,” he said, “that you told me that your birthday was around this time.” Beth found herself trembling; she wanted to run to him, weeping, holding out her arms. But she could not move. Her face had become pale and stark in the half-light; one cheek was red from the fire. He was fumbling in the pocket of his coat, and then he produced a small box, like a schoolboy, embarrassed and shy. He put the box on the table and said, “I brought you something.”

  She still could not speak. She went to the table and picked up the box, her heart roaring in her ears. She opened the box. There was a pretty yellow-gold bracelet in it, set with a row of winking diamonds.

  “Well?” he said, challengingly. “Don’t you like it? Women always like jewelry.” He spoke with a certain crude defiance.

  Oh, God, thought Beth. Why can’t I speak to him? Why do I have to stand like this, just staring at the bracelet? Then she could speak. “Please sit down,” she said. “Of course—I like it. But why—”

  But he did not sit down. She said, and her voice was quite husky, “It wasn’t necessary, you know. But thank you.”

  She placed the box on the table and gently closed it. “But—I’d like you to give it to me some other time. Later.”

  Then he said in a loud cold voice, “There won’t be another time.”

  He means, she thought with despair and shattering shame, that he’s paying me off, as he’d pay off a prostitute.

  “Then, I can’t take it,” she said, and shook her head.

  He looked at the box. He abruptly sat down, still in his heavy coat. “Why can’t you take it?”

  “You wouldn’t understand.” She stood away from him.

  “Perhaps not,” he replied. He rubbed the top of the box with his hand. Then he put it back in his pocket. He moved as if to rise and she wanted to cry out, “Don’t go! I’ll die if you go! Don’t leave me!” The terribleness of her agony made her feel numb and desperately sick.

  He sat back in the chair and now he looked at her. He had not removed his heavy coat. It was a rocking chair and he rocked idly, still staring at her. His face was closed and harsh. He considered her with that brute force of his which she had never forgotten.

  To her horror she found herself saying, “Why won’t there be another time?”

  Now he looked aside. He said nothing. Then she felt a deep anger, almost a scorn.

  “You’ve surely committed—what do you call it?—adultery before, haven’t you?”

  “Yes. Of course. Every married man does that, and thinks nothing of it.”

  “Then, what is the difference now?” She hated herself as well as hated him.

  “‘You wouldn’t understand,’” he quoted, and actually almost smiled. He moved again, preparing to go. She held out her hand to him.

  “Try me,” she said.

  He shook his head. “That time—it was different.”

  She did not know why something in her seemed to open like wings. She approached him nearer. “In what way?”

  But he did not answer. He looked at his watch, his damned watch! “Why the hell did you men invent time?” she exclaimed. “And watches?”

  Now he laughed, that short laugh, that very reluctant laugh, as if laughter was alien to him. “We have to have excuses,” he said.

  “For avoiding something? Or for fear of something?”

  He was gazing at her again, and he was actually smiling. “Perhaps that’s it,” he said. They looked at each other, long and deeply. Then Beth said, “Why don’t you take off that coat? You must be very warm in it.”

  “I have to go,” he replied. He stood up, and just when she was beginning to despair again he took off his coat and threw it into a distant chair.

  Beth said, “I’m roasting a chicken,” and wanted to cry and laugh. There was such joy in her.

  “My wife’s having a small dinner party tonight.”

  “With chestnut dressing,” Beth said. “And I’ve made an apple pie, with my own apples.”

  He looked at his coat. “And I have some chicken soup, too,” Beth said.

  “This is a hell of a dialogue,” he said. Then suddenly they were both laughing, and Beth ran into his arms and he held her tightly and kissed the top of her head. Then he reached for the box, opened it, and pushed the bracelet on her wrist. He took her hand and kissed the palm, and she closed her eyes with rapture.

  The house was not empty any longer. It was filled with joy and warmth.

  As before, he stayed for dinner, and he stayed the night.

  Before he could fall asleep Beth said, holding him to her with the extremity of her love and happiness, “Why was it—different—this time, as you said?”

  He did not answer for so long that she thought he had fallen asleep. Then, with his lips against her throat he said, “Because I love you, Beth.” Again he was silent, while she repeated what he had said over and over, marveling, thanking God, believing him.

  “Why did you stay away for so long, Guy?”

  He turned his head aside as if with his own pain.

  “I didn’t want to love you, Beth. The other women—they meant nothing to me. I didn’t even think of them when I left them. I didn’t feel I was really betraying my wife, with them.”

  “And you think loving is betrayal?”

  He was silent. “Oh, my darling,” she said. “The real betrayal is not loving.”

  “You talk too much,” he said, and kissed her again, and took her again, and she thought she would die of her ecstasy and fulfillment.


  November 1977

  Emil Grassner had gone to Philadelphia to see his other patients and his family, and the weekend was at hand and James Meyer had never been so lonely in all his life before, not even when his parents had died. His father had told him of an ancient Yiddish proverb, that a man should never go to live in a town where there was no physician. He mig
ht have added, thought James, and where he has no friends. Cranston was too small to be a great metropolis, and certainly too large to be called a town. James had discovered that the “cultural activities” here were almost entirely in the hands of women, who formed cliques and rivaled each other and undermined each other. They had an orchestra they called “The Cranston Philharmonic,” which James had recently not enjoyed. He thought of the old joke, “They played Brahms, and Brahms lost.” After a very mediocre couple of hours the hall became a place for dancing, with no one under the age of fifty. There was one “legitimate” theater (Wonder what an illegitimate one would be like? James asked himself), where fifth-rate ballets sometimes came and stock companies, and, on demand, a play or a moving picture allegedly for “adults only.” (This was very popular.) There were also three restaurants which were not at all bad, and about fifteen which were very bad indeed, and a number of moving-picture houses.

  But the majority of the elite belonged to three country clubs or entertained in their houses, where the cliques really became lively, and throats were cut with gusto. Cranston was a manufacturing city, heavy industry and sawmills, in which anonymous hordes worked. It also had some flourishing slums, and two libraries and one museum full of Indian artifacts. There were also three “youth centers,” where acned youth gathered to snigger, fight, and dance to their barbaric music, and, when the occasion was right, to copulate.

  Cranston was a very dull city, and on Sundays it was extremely dead, with not a bar open for the thirsty traveler, and only a few restaurants. But Cranston had many churches—and a number of brothels where hilarity reigned on Sundays and liquor was in plentiful supply.

  James had a chill, and so today, Sunday, he had not gone to Mountain Valleys for fear of infecting Guy Jerald, who daily seemed to lose some more of his dwindling vitality. Hugh Lippincott had promised James that in some way he would contrive to keep Guy’s family at bay, and had invited James to a Sunday dinner at his house. “Thank you, but I do have a chill,” said James, shuddering. “I suppose you mean a cold?” said Hugh. “Well, drink your head off and it will disappear.” Hugh paused. “I don’t like my house, either,” he said, and laughed, and replaced the telephone receiver.

  James had stayed in bed most of the day, listening to the competing pealing of church bells, and reading the Cranston Herald, which was as dull as the city. He was appallingly bored. The hotel appeared not to be tenanted, for he heard no voice or movement outside his door. It’s as bad as any English provincial town, he thought. Doggedly, at seven o’clock at night, the church bells were at it again. James got out of bed, thought languidly of room service, took several long draughts of good Bourbon, decided to dress and go downstairs for dinner. It was a beastly early hour to dine, but the dining room closed promptly at half past seven on Sundays. He took one or two more long draughts, armed himself with a number of handkerchiefs, and went down the old elevator to the dining room. There were three elderly couples there, evidently “natives,” for they looked at him curiously. By the time a heavy Teutonic soup was served him he was pleasantly befuddled and his nose was becoming ventilated to some extent. He saw the very quiet snowy street outside and the lonely streetlamps. The snow looked bright and inviting. He decided to take a walk after dinner. “Nothing like fresh air,” as Emma would say mockingly. “If it doesn’t kill you it will cure you.”

  He went upstairs for his overcoat and hat and gloves, descended again, and went outside, followed by the astonished glances of the desk clerk, who knew James did not possess a car. The air was colder than James had expected, and the wind was keener and very nimble. Cars were parked along the curbs but no one was walking on the shoveled pavement, no one but himself. Was crime rampant here, too, in this bleak small city? James considered the only safe cities he knew of: Lisbon, Madrid, Buenos Aires, West Berlin, and Valparaíso, Chile, and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—all, he reflected, with a very determined police force, paramilitary. He included Cairo in his reflections, and Cape Town and other cities in South Africa, where authorities harbored no nonsense about disadvantaged youth, and the police were not expected to be psychiatric social workers, or “understanding.” Reluctantly, James had long ago come to the conclusion that the vast majority of mankind understood only force and respected nothing but power. It was a nasty commentary on human nature—but there it was. Weak nations invariably collapsed, even while screaming “love” and “gentleness” and “peace.” They were prey for the strong. James sighed, thinking of his native country and, as he did so, he felt the return of his malaise. Civilization. There was no such thing.

  He looked through the windows of a few scattered shops; the goods on display did not appear very inviting. He turned down a quiet narrow street, where all sound was abated and not a car moved. Here the wind was not so strong and he walked more briskly. He stopped to blow his nose.

  He felt a sharp object being pushed into his side. He could feel the sharpness through his thick clothing. He stood very still. He had not had commando training for nothing. He felt very cold, cold with rage and disgust. He sensed a large shadowy shape almost behind him, and a hoarse voice said, “Gimme your money, mister, and you won’t get hurt.” The voice was young and brutal.

  “Yes,” said James. He reached for his wallet and the weapon bored deeper into his side and he knew it for a long knife. “I’ll get it,” said the voice, and a bare hand flickered towards his pocket. It was then that all his commando training returned to him. He pretended to shrink; he made a whining sound as the hand captured his leather purse, then he swung around, caught the knife-holding hand in his own, hurled it upwards and outwards, twisted it savagely, brought his other hand about, palm straight as a board, and slashed edgewise at the neck suddenly exposed to him.

  His assailant was a very young man. He made a gulping noise, flailed his arms, and again James slashed at him. The knife dropped to the cleared walk with a ringing sound. In an instant James possessed it. The youth was staggering wildly, and this time James lunged at him with fingers extended and hard as iron, and he aimed directly at the solar plexus. He felt the soft pulp of an overfed body, and the youth fell into a snowbank. James, holding the knife, was on him at once. The face below his was gray-white and contorted and very still. James kicked the young man furiously in the side, feeling the wild joy of hatred and loathing.

  He said, “I’m going to mark you up a little, you bugger.” The youth attempted, terrified now, to wriggle away in the snow. He had caught his breath. He began to scream, covering his face with his hands and writhing like an injured worm. He had a slack full face, an infant’s face, though he was probably eighteen or so.

  “Yes,” said James the next day to Emil Grassner, “I think I would have disfigured him, or perhaps”—he smiled—“gelded him. That would have been the best of all. But the police came.”

  Two young policemen came tumbling from an unmarked car and James, who was slightly out of breath, said, “Take him away and throw him into the dustbin. He had a knife. Here it is. He tried to rob me.”

  The younger of the policemen looked at James uncertainly, and with respect. James was obviously a stout, middle-aged man, and the criminal was young. One drew a notebook out of his pocket while his companion looked down at the whimpering thief and clearly yearned to kick him soundly. The policeman with the notebook took James’s name and his address. They caught his English accent. He said, settling his hat on his head, “I see you gentlemen are armed. Good. Our police in England are not. Unfortunately. The police should be permitted to kill on provocation. What are you going to do with this bastard?”

  “Mister,” said one of the policemen, “you shouldn’t be out walking alone at night.”

  “I’m not decrepit yet,” said James, blowing his nose heartily. “And I was once a soldier. It’s a fine thing that a man can’t take a stroll of a pleasant evening without some frigging young sod attacking him. Take him away, please, or I’ll give him a bit more.”

  They saw Jam
es’s face and believed him. They dragged the thief to his feet. They saluted James, threw the thief into their car, and drove off with considerable noise. Nice lads, thought James. A little confused, but sound. I wonder what will happen to that wretch. Some sweetheart of a judge will probably fall on his neck, weeping and kissing him, and sympathizing with him. What a state this world has fallen into, to be sure.

  It was all the fault of the brotherly-lovers, the pure-in-hearts. The dreamers, who believed, with Rousseau, that man was instinctively noble and good but was corrupted by his environment—or something. But who created “environment”? Man himself, as he created all evil. Now James was vexed. He had been informed that he should appear at the police station tomorrow morning. He had been urged to go with the police then and there, but he pleaded illness—which did not deceive them—and gave them his card. “Yes,” he had said, when they stared at it, “I am really Sir James Meyer, as well as a doctor, but only a baronet, not a baron.” This had confused them even more. He had wanted to pat them in a fatherly way on their shoulders. He was sorry for the police in America and England. A thankless job.

  But James felt quite invigorated as he returned to his hotel, and his chill seemed to have evaporated. He was almost cheerful. He congratulated himself. He might be in his fifties but, by George, he still had the stuff to fight off an armed hooligan. He took a very hot bath, drank more of the Bourbon, and went to bed, more pleased with events than he had been for a long time. In the morning his cold had completely disappeared.

  However, at breakfast the next day, Emil was not amused. “You might have been killed,” he said. “In these days thugs often kill first, then rob afterwards.” They went to the police station together, where James was received with a flattering awe, which he suspected came more from his ability to protect himself than from his title. He almost preened and assured the sergeant that it was “nothing, nothing at all, really.” He learned that his assailant had been arrested a number of times and had “a record.”

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