short story    
Kevin Brockmeier


from Tin House

On the first day of their Maine vacation, they drove up to Harrisburg after work, flew to Philadelphia, then flew to Portland, where they rented a Ford Explorer at the airport, ate dinner at a Friendly's then drove up 95 as far as Freeport—it was long after dark—where they found a B & B directly across from L. L. Bean, which surprisingly was open all night.

Before getting into the rickety canopy bed and passing out from exhaustion, Nancy Marshall stood at the dark window naked and looked across the shadowy street at the big, lighted Bean's building, shining like a new opera house. At 1 a.m., customers were streaming in and out toting packages, pulling garden implements, pushing trail bikes, and disappearing into the dark in high spirits. Two large Conant tourist buses from Canada sat idling at the curb, their uniformed drivers sharing a quiet smoke on the sidewalk while their Japanese passengers were inside buying up things. The street was busy here, though farther down the block the other expensive franchise outlets were shut.

Tom Marshall turned off the light in the tiny bathroom and came and stood just behind her, wearing blue pajama bottoms. He touched her shoulders, stood closer to her until she could feel him aroused.

"I know why the store's open till one o'clock," Nancy said, "but I don't know why all the people come." Something about his conspicuous warm presence made her feel a chill. She covered her breasts, which were near the window glass. She imagined he was smiling.

"I guess they love it," Tom said. She could feel him properly—very stiff now. "This is what Maine means. A visit to Bean's after midnight. It's the global culture. They're probably on their way to Atlantic City."

"Okay," Nancy said. Because she was cold, she let herself be pulled to him. This was all right. She was exhausted. His cock fit between her legs— just there. She liked it. It felt familiar. "I asked the wrong question." There was no reflection in the glass of her or him behind her, inching into her.

She stood perfectly still.

"What would the right question be?" Tom pushed flush against her, bending his knees just a fraction to find her. He was smiling.

"I don't know," she said. "Maybe the question is, what do they know that we don't? What are we doing over here on this side of the street? Clearly the action's over there."

She heard him exhale, then he moved away. She had been about to open her legs, lean forward a little. "Not that." She looked around for him.

"I don't mean that." She put her hand between her legs just to touch, her fingers covering herself. She looked back at the street. The two bus drivers she believed could not see through the shadowy trees were both looking right at her. She didn't move. "I didn't mean that," she said to Tom faintly.

"Tomorrow we'll see some things we'll like," he said cheerfully. He was already in bed. That fast.

"Good." She didn't care if two creeps saw her naked; it was exactly the same as her seeing them clothed. She was forty-five. Not so slender, but tall, willowy. Let them look. "That's good," she said again. "I'm glad we came."

"I'm sorry?" Tom said sleepily. He was almost gone, the cop's blessed gift to be asleep the moment his head touched the pillow.

"Nothing," she said, at the window, being watched. "I didn't say any-thing."

He was silent, breathing. The two drivers began shaking their heads, looking down now. One flipped a cigarette into the street. They both looked up again, then stepped out of sight behind their idling buses.

Tom Marshall had been a policeman for twenty-two years. They had lived in Harlingen, Maryland, the entire time. He had worked robberies and made detective before anyone. Nancy was an attorney in the Potomac County public defender's office and did women's cases, family defense, disabled rights, children at risk. They had met in college at Macalaster in Minnesota. Tom had hoped to be a lawyer, expected to do environmental or civil rights, but had interviewed for the police job because they'd suddenly produced a child. He, however, found that he liked police work. Liked robberies. They were biblical (though he wasn't religious), but not a bad as murders. Nancy had started law school before their son, Anthony, graduated. She hadn't wanted to get trapped with too little to do when the house suddenly became empty. The reversal in their careers seemed ironic but insignificant.

In his twenty-first year, though, two and a half years ago, Tom Marshall had been involved in a shooting inside a Herman's sporting goods, where he'd gone to question a man. The officer he partnered with had been killed, and Tom had been shot in the leg. The thief was never caught.

When his medical leave was over, he went back to work with a medal for valor and a new assignment as an inspector of detectives, but that had proved unsatisfying. And over the course of six months he became first bored by his office routine, then alienated, then had experienced "emotional issues"—mostly moodiness—which engendered bad morale consequences for the men he was expected to lead. So that by Christmas he retired, took his pension at forty-three, and began a period of at-home retooling, which after a lot of reading led him to the idea of inventing children's toys and actually making them himself in a small work-space he rented in an old wire factory converted to an artists' co-op in the nearby town of Brunswick, on the Potomac.

Tom Marshall, as Nancy observed, had never been truly "cop-ish." He was not silent or cynical or unbending or self-justifying or given to explosive terrifying violence. He was instead, a tall, beanpoley, smilingly hand-some man with long arms, big bony hands and feet, a shock of coarse black hair, and a generally happy disposition. He was more like a high school science teacher, which Nancy thought he should've been, though he was happy to have been a cop once he was gone from the job. He liked to read Victorian novels, hike in the woods, watch birds, study the stars. And he could fix and build anything—food processors, lamps, locks—could fashion bird and boat replicas, invent ingenious furniture items. He had the disposition of a true artisan, and Nancy had never figured out why he'd stayed a cop so long except that he'd never thought his life was his own when he was young, but rather that he was a married man with responsibilities. Her most pleasing vision of her married self was standing someplace, anyplace, alongside some typical Saturday-morning project of Tom's—building a teak inlaid dictionary stand, fine-tuning a home-built go-cart for Anthony, rigging a timed sprinkling system for the yard—and simply watching him admiringly, raptly, almost mystically, as if to say "how marvelous and strange and lucky to be married to such a man." Marrying Tom Marshall, she believed, had allowed her to learn the ordinary acts of devotion, love, attentiveness, and the acceptance of another—acts she'd never practiced when she was younger because, she felt, she'd been too selfish. A daddy's girl.

Tom had gotten immediately and enthusiastically behind the prospect of Nancy's earning a law degree. He came home on flex time to be with Anthony during his last year of high school. He postponed vacations so she could study, and never talked about his own law school aspirations. He'd rented a hall, staged a graduation party, and driven her to her bar exam in the back of a police car, then staged another party when she passed. He applauded her decision to become a public defender, and didn't gripe about the low pay and long hours, which he said were the costs of important satisfactions and of making a contribution.

For a brief period then, after Tom took his retirement and began work at the co-op, and Anthony had been accepted at Goucher and was interning for the summer in D.C., and Nancy had gotten on her feet with the county, their life on earth seemed as perfect as ever could be imagined. Nancy began to win more cases than she lost. Anthony was offered a job for whenever he graduated. And Tom dreamed up and actually fabricated two toy sculptures for four-year-olds, which he surprisingly sold to France, Finland, and to Neiman Marcus.

One of these toys was a ludicrously simple dog shape that Tom cut out on a jigsaw, dyed yellow, red, and green, and drew on dog features. But he cut the shape in a way to effectively make six dogs that fitted together, one on the other, so that the sculpture could be taken apart and reassembled endlessly by its child owner. Tom called it Wagner-the-Dog, and made twenty thousand dollars off of it, and had French interest for any new ideas. The other sculpture was a lighthouse made of balsam, which also fitted together in a way you could dismantle but was, he felt, too intricate. It sold only in Finland and didn't make any money. Maine Lighthouse, he called it, and didn't think it was very original. He was planning a Web site.

The other thing Tom Marshall did once everything was wonderful was have an affair with a silk-screen artist who also rented space in the artists' co-op—a woman much younger than Nancy, named Crystal Blue, whose silk-screen operation was called "Crystal Blue's Creations," and who Nancy had been nice to on the occasions she visited Tom's space to view his new project.

Crystal was a pretty little airhead with no personality of any sort, who printed Maxfield Parrish-like female profiles in diaphanous dresses, using garish, metallic colors. These she peddled out of an electric-blue van with her likeness on the side, usually to bikers and amphetamine addicts at fourth-rate craft fairs in West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. Nancy realized Crystal would naturally be drawn to Tom, who was a stand-up, handsome, wide-eyed guy—the opposite of Crystal. And Tom might be naturally attracted to Crystal's cheapness, which posed as a lack of inhibition. Though only up to a point, she assumed—the point being when Tom stopped to notice there was nothing there to be interested in. Another encounter, of course. But along with that would quickly come boredom, the annoyance of managing small-change deceptions, and the silly look Crystal kept on her large, too-Italian mouth which would inevitably become irritating. Plus the more weighty issues of betrayal and the risk of doing irreparable damage to something valuable in his—and Nancy's—life.

Tom, however, managed to look beyond these impediments, and to fuck Crystal in her silk-screen studio on an almost daily basis for months, until her boyfriend figured it out and called Nancy at her office and blew Tom's cover by saying in a nasal, West Virginia accent, "Well, what're we gonna do with our two artistic lovebirds?"

When Nancy confronted Tom—at dinner in an Asian restaurant down the street from the public defender's office—with a recounting of the boyfriend's phone conversation, he became very grave and fixed his gaze on the tablecloth and laced his large bony fingers around a salad fork.

It was true, he admitted, and he was sorry. He said he thought fucking Crystal was a "reaction" to suddenly being off the force after half his life, and being depressed about his line-of-duty injury, which still caused him discomfort when it rained. But it was also a result of pure exhilaration about his new life, something he needed to celebrate on his own and in his own way—a "universe feeling" he called it, wherein acts took place outside the boundaries of convention, obligation, the past, and even good sense (just as events occurred in the universe). This new life, he said, he wanted to spend entirely with Nancy, who'd sat composed and said little, though she wasn't thinking about Crystal, or Tom, or Crystal's boyfriend, or even about herself. While Tom was talking (he seemed to go on and on and on), she was actually experiencing a peculiar sense of weightlessness and near disembodiment, as though she could see herself listening to Tom from a comfortable but slightly dizzying position high up around the red, scrolly, Chinese-looking crown molding. The more Tom talked, the less present, the less substantial, the less anything she felt. If Tom could've gone on talking—recounting his problems, his anxieties, his age-related feelings of underachievement, his dwindling sense of self-esteem since he quit chasing robbers with a gun, Nancy realized she might just have disappeared entirely. So that the problem (if that's what all this was—a problem) might simply be solved: no more Crystal Blue; no more morbid, regretful Tom; no more humiliating, dismal disclosures implying your life was even more like every other life than you were prepared to concede—all of it gone in the breath of her own dematerialization.

She heard Tom say—his long, hairy-topped fingers turning the ugly, institutional salad fork over and over like a prayer totem, his solemn gaze fastened on it—that it was absolutely over with Crystal now. Her hillbilly boyfriend had apparently set the phone down from talking to Nancy, driven to Crystal's studio and kicked it to pieces, then knocked her around a little, after which the two of them got in his Corvette and drove to Myrtle Beach to patch things up. Tom said he would find another space for his work, that Crystal would be out of his life as of today (not that she'd ever really been in his life), and that he was sorry and ashamed. But if Nancy would forgive him and not leave him, he could promise her that things such as this would never happen again.

Tom brought his large blue cop's eyes up off the table and sought hers. His face—always to Nancy a craggy, handsome face, a face with large cheekbones, deep eye sockets, a thick chin, and overlarge white teeth— looked at that moment more like a skull, a death's-head. Not really, of course; she didn't see an actual death's-head like on a pirate flag. But it was the thought she experienced, and the words: "Tom's face is a death's-head." And though she was sure she wasn't obsessive or compulsive or a believer in omens or symbols as sources of illumination, she had thought the words—Tom's face is a death's-head—and pictured them as a motto on the lintel of a door to a mythical courtroom that was something out of Dante. One way or another, this, the idea of a death's-head, had to be somewhere in what she believed.

When Tom was finished apologizing, Nancy told him without anger that changing studios shouldn't be necessary if he could stay away from Crystal when she came back from Myrtle Beach. She said she had perhaps misjudged some things, and that trouble in a marriage, especially a long marriage, always came about at the instigation of both partners, and that trouble like this was just a symptom and not terribly important per se. And that while she didn't care for what he'd done, and had thought that very afternoon about divorcing him simply so she wouldn't have to think about it anymore, she actually didn't believe his acts were directed at her, for the obvious reason that she hadn't done anything to deserve them. She believed, she said, that what he'd done was related to the issues he'd just been talking about, and that her intention was to forgive him and try to see if the two of them couldn't weather adversity with a greater-than-ever intimacy.

"Why don't you just fuck me tonight?" she said to him, right at the table. The word fuck was provocative, but also, she realized, slightly pathetic as an address to your husband. "We haven't done that in a while." Though of course you've been doing it every day with your retarded girlfriend were the words she'd thought but didn't like thinking.

"Yes," Tom said, too gravely. Then, "No."

His large hands were clasped, forkless, on the white tablecloth not far from hers. Neither moved as though to effect a touch.

"I'm so sorry," Tom said for the third or fourth time, and she knew he was. Tom wasn't a man distanced from what he felt. He didn't say some-thing and then start thinking what it could mean now that he'd said it, finally concluding it didn't mean anything. He was a good, sincere man, qualities that had made him an exemplary robbery detective, a superb interrogator of felons. Tom meant things. "I hope I haven't ruined our life," he added sadly.

"I hope not, too," Nancy said. She didn't want to think about ruining her life, which seemed ridiculous. She wanted to concentrate on what an honest, decent man he was. Not a death's-head. "You probably haven't," she said.

"Then let's go home now," he said, folding his napkin after dabbing his mouth. "I'm ready."

Home meant he would fuck her, and no doubt do it with ardor and tenderness and take it all the way. He was very good at that. Crystal hadn't been crazy to want to fuck Tom instead of her nasal, crybaby boyfriend. Nancy wondered, though, why she herself expected that now; why fuck me? Probably it was fuck me instead of fuck you. Since she didn't much want that now, though it would surely happen. It made her regretful; because she was, she realized, the very sort of person she'd determined Tom was not, even though she was not an adulterer and he was: she was a person who said things, then looked around and wondered why she'd said them and what their consequences could be, and (often) how she could get out of doing the very things she said she desired. She'd never exactly recognized this about herself, and now considered the possibility that it had just become true, or been made true by Tom's betrayal. But what was it, she wondered, as they left the restaurant headed for home and bed? What was that thing she was? Surely it was a thing anyone should be able to say. There would be a word for it. She simply couldn't bring that word to mind.

The next morning, Friday—after the night in Freeport—they ate breakfast in Wiscasset, in a shiny little diner that sat beside a large greenish river, over which a low concrete bridge moved traffic briskly north and south. The gilt-edged sign outside Wiscasset said it was The Prettiest Village in Maine, which seemed to mean there were few houses, and those few were big and white and expensive looking, with manicured yards and plaques by the front doors telling everyone when the house was built. Across the river, which was called the Sheepscot, white summer cottages speckled out through forested riverbank. This was Maine—small in scale, profusely scenic, annoyingly remote, exclusive, and crowded. She knew they were close to the ocean, but she hadn't seen it yet, even from the plane last night. The Sheepscot was clearly an estuary; gulls were flying upriver in the clear morning air, crisp little lobster craft, a few sailboats sat at anchor.

When they'd parked and hiked down toward the diner, Tom had stopped to bend over, peering into several windows full of house-for-sale pictures, all in color, all small white structures with crisp green roofs situated "minutes" from some body of water imprecisely seen in the back-ground. All the locales had Maine-ish names. Pemaquid Point. Passama-quoddy something. Stickney Corner. The houses looked like the renter cabins across the river—places you'd get sick of after one season then have to put back on the market. She couldn't gauge if prices were high or low, though Tom thought they were too high. It didn't matter. She didn't live here.

When he'd looked in at two or three realty windows, Tom stood up and stared down at the river beyond the diner. Water glistened in the light September air. He seemed wistful, but also to be contemplating. The salt-smelling breeze blew his hair against the part, revealing where it was thinning.

"Are you considering something 'only steps from the ocean'?" she said, to be congenial. She put her arm in under his. Tom was an enthusiast, and when a subject he wanted to be enthusiastic about proved beyond him, it often turned him gloomy, as though the world were a hopeless place.

"I was just thinking that everything's been discovered in this town," he said. "You needed to be here twenty years ago."

"Would you like to live in Wiscasset, or Pissamaquoddy or whatever?" She looked down the sloping main street—a block of glass-fronted antique shops, a chic deli, a fancy furniture store above which were lawyers' and CPA offices. These buildings, too, had plaques telling their construction dates. 1880s. Not really so old. Harlingen had plenty of buildings that were older.

"I wish I'd considered it that long ago," Tom said. He was wearing tan shorts, wool socks, a red Bean's canvas shirt, and running shoes. They were dressed almost alike, though she had a blue anorak and khaki trousers. Tom looked like a tourist not an ex-cop, which, she guessed, was the idea. Tom liked the idea of transforming yourself.

"A vacation is not to regret things, or even to think about things permanently." She tugged his arm. She felt herself being herself on his behalf. The street through town—Route 1—was already getting crowded, the bridge traffic slowing to a creep. "The idea of a vacation is to let your spirits rise on the breeze and feel unmoored and free."

Tom looked at her as though she'd become the object of his longing. "Right," he said. "You'd make somebody a great wife." He looked startled for saying that and began walking away as if embarrassed.

"I am somebody's wife," she said, coming along, trying to make it a joke, since he'd meant something sweet, and nothing was harmed. It was just that whatever was wrong between them caused unexpected events to point it out but not identify it. They loved each other. They knew each other very well. They were married people of good will. Everything was finally forgivable—a slip of the tongue, a botched attempt at lovemaking, a conversation that led nowhere or to the wrong place. The question was: What did all these reserves of tender feeling and kind regard actually come to? And not come to? Walking down the hill behind her husband, she felt the peculiar force of having been through life only once. These three days were to determine, she understood, if anything more than just this mini-mum made sense. It was an important mystery.

Inside the Miss Wiscasset Diner, Nancy perused The Down East Penny-saver, which had a dating exchange on the back. Men seeking women. Women seeking men. Nothing else was apparently permissible. No Men seeking men. Tom studied the map they'd picked up in the B & B, and which contained a listing of useful "Maine Facts" in which everything occasioned an unfunny variation on the state name: Maine Events. Mainely Antiques. Mainiac Markdowns. Maine-line Drugs. Roof Mainetenance. No one seemed able to get over what a neat name the place had.

Out on the river, a black metal barge was shoving a floating dredger straight up the current. The dredger carried an immense bucket suspended on a cable at the end of an articulated boom. The whole enterprise was so large as to seem ridiculous.

"What do you suppose that's for?" Nancy said. The diner was noisy with morning customers and contained a teeming greasy-bacon and buttery-toast smell.

Tom looked up from his map out at the dredger. It would not get past the bridge where Highway 1 crossed the river. It was too tall. He looked at her and smiled as though she hadn't said anything, then went back to his "Maine Facts."

"If you're interested, all the women seeking men are either 'full-figure gals over fifty,' " she said, forgetting her question, "or else they're sixteen-year-olds seeking mature 'father figures.' The same men get all the women in Maine."

Tom took a sip of his coffee and knitted his brows. They had until Sunday, when they were flying out of Bangor. They knew nothing about Maine, but had discussed a drive to Bar Harbor and Mount Katahdin, which they'd heard were pretty. Nancy had proposed to visit the national park, a bracing hike, then maybe a swim in the late-lasting-summer ocean if it wasn't too frigid. They'd imagined leaves would be turning, but they weren't yet because of all the summer rain.

They were also not able to tell exactly how far anything was from any-thing else. The map was complicated by quirky peninsulas extending back south and the road having to go up and around and back down again. The morning's drive from Freeport had seemed long, but not much distance was covered. It made you feel foreign in your own country. Though they'd always found happiness inside an automobile—as far back as when Tom played drums in a college rock band and she'd gone along on the road trips, sleeping in the car and in ten-dollar motels. In the car, who they really were became available to the other. Guards went down. They felt free.

"There's a town called Belfast," Tom said, back to his map. "It's not far up. At least I don't think it is." He looked back at where the floating dredger was making its slow turn in the river, beginning to ease back toward the ocean. "Did you see that thing?"

"I don't get what 'down east' means," Nancy said. Everything in the Pennysaver that wasn't a play on "Maine" had "down east" somehow attached to it. The dating exchange was called "Down East in Search of." "Does it mean that if you follow one of the peninsulas as far as you can go south, you get east?"

This was a thing Tom should know. It was his idea to come here instead of the Eastern Shore place they liked. Maine had all of a sudden "made sense" to him—something hazy about the country having started here and the ocean being "primary" among experiences, and his having grown up near Lake Michigan and that never seeming remotely primary.

"That's what I thought it meant," Tom said.

"So what does Maine mean? Maine what?" she asked. Nothing was in the Pennysaver to explain anything.

"That I do know," Tom said, watching the barge turning and starting back downstream. "It means main land. As opposed to an island."

She looked around the crowded diner for their waitress. She was ready for greasy bacon and buttery toast and had wedged the Pennysaver behind the napkin dispenser. "They have a high opinion of themselves here," she said. "They seem to admire virtues you only understand by suffering difficulty and confusion. It's the New England spirit I guess." Tom's virtues, of course, were that kind. He was perfect if you were dying or being robbed or swindled—a policeman's character traits, and useful in many more ways than policing. "Isn't Maine the state where the woman was shot by a hunter while she was pinning up clothes on the line? Wearing white gloves or something, and the guy thought she was a deer? You don't have to defend that, of course."

He gave her his policeman's regulation blank stare across the tabletop. It was an expression his face could change into, leaving his real face—normally open and enthusiastic—back somewhere forgotten. He took injustice personally.

She blinked, expecting him to say something else.

"Places that aren't strange aren't usually interesting," he said solemnly.

"It's just my first morning here." She smiled at him.

"I want us to see this town Belfast." He re-consulted the map. "The write-up makes it seem interesting."

"Belfast. Like the one where they fight?"

"This one's in Maine, though."

"I'm sure it's wonderful."

"You know me," he said, and unexpectedly smiled back, "ever hopeful." He was an enthusiast again. He wanted to make their trip be worthwhile. And he was absolutely right: it was too soon to fall into disagreement. That could come later.

Early in the past winter Tom had moved out of their house and into his own apartment, a grim little scramble of white, drywalled rectangles which were part of a new complex situated across a wide boulevard from a factory-outlet mall and adjacent to the parking lot of a large veterinary clinic where dogs could be heard barking and crying day and night.

Tom's departure was calculatedly not dramatic. He himself had seemed reluctant, and once he was out, she was very sorry not to see him, not to sleep next to him, have him there to talk to. Some days she would come home from her office and Tom would be in the kitchen, drinking a beer or watching CNN while he heated something in the microwave—as though this was fine to live elsewhere and then turn up like a memory. Sometimes she would discover the bathroom door closed, or find him coming up from the basement or just standing in the backyard staring at the hydrangea beds as if he was considering weeding them.

"Oh, you're here," she'd say. "Yeah," he'd answer, sounding not entirely sure how he'd come to be present. "It's me." He would sometimes sit down in the kitchen and talk about what he was doing in his studio. Sometimes he'd bring her a new toy he'd made—a colorful shooting star on a pedestal, or a new Wagner in brighter colors. They talked about Anthony, at Goucher. Usually, when he came, Nancy asked if he'd like to stay for dinner. And Tom would suggest they go out, and that he "pop" for it. But that was never what she wanted to do. She wanted him to stay. She missed him in bed. They had never talked about being apart, really. He was doing things for his own reasons. His departure had seemed almost natural.

Each time he was there, though, she would look at Tom Marshall in what she tried to make be a new way, see him as a stranger; tried to decide anew if he was in fact so handsome, or if he looked different from how she'd gotten used to him looking in twenty years; tried to search to see if he was as goodwilled or even as large and rangy as she'd grown accustomed to thinking. If he truly had an artisan's temperament and a gentle manner, or if he was just a creep or a jerk she had unwisely married then gradually gotten used to. She considered the possibility of having an affair—a colleague or a delivery boy. But that seemed too mechanical, too much trouble, the outcome so predictable. Tom's punishment would have to be that she considered an affair and expressed her freedom of choice without telling him. In a magazine she picked up at the dentist's, she read that most women radically changed their opinions of their husbands once they spent time away from them. Except women were natural conciliators and forgivers and therefore preferred not to be apart. In fact, they found it easy, even desirable, to delude themselves about many things, but especially about men. According to the writer, a psychologist, women were hopeless.

Yet following each reassessment, she decided again that Tom Marshall was all the things she'd always thought him to be, and that the reasons she'd have given to explain why she loved him were each valid. Tom was good; and being apart from him was not good, even if he seemed able to adjust to being alone and even to thrive on it. She would simply have to make whatever she could of it. Because what Nancy knew was, and she supposed Tom understood this, too, they were in an odd place together; were standing upon uncertain emotional territory that might put to the test exactly who they were as humans, might require that new facets of the diamond be examined.

This was a very different situation from the ones she confronted at the public defender's every day, and that Tom had encountered with the police—the cut-and-dried, overdramatic, and beyond-repair problems, where things went out of control fast, and people found themselves in court or in the rough hands of the law as a last-ditch way of resolving life's difficulties. If people wouldn't overdramatize so much, Nancy believed, if they remained pliable, did their own thinking, restrained themselves, then things could work out for the better. Though for some people that must be hard.

She had been quite impressed by how she'd dealt with things after Tom had admitted fucking Crystal d'Amato (her real name). Once Tom made it clear he didn't intend to persist with Crystal, she'd begun to feel all right about it almost immediately. For instance, she noticed she hadn't experienced awful stress about envisioning Tom bare-assed on top of Crystal wherever it was they'd done it (she envisioned a big paint-stained sheet of white canvas). Neither did the idea of Tom's betrayal seem important. It wasn't really a betrayal—Tom was a good man; she was an adult; betrayal had to mean something worse that hadn't really happened. In a sense, when she looked at Tom now with her benign, inquiring gaze, fucking Crystal was one of the most explicable new things she knew about him.

And yet, she realized, as spring came on and Tom remained in the Larchmere Apartments—cooking his miserly meals, watching his tiny TV, doing his laundry in the basement, going to his studio in the co-op—the entire edifice of their life was beginning to take on clearer shape and to grow smaller. Like a valuable box lost overboard into the smooth wake of an ocean liner. Possibly it was a crisis. Possibly they loved each other well enough, perhaps completely. Yet the strongest force keeping them together wasn't that love, she thought, but a matching curiosity about what the character of their situation was, and the novelty that neither of them knew for sure.

But as Tom had stayed away longer, seemingly affable and well-adjusted, she indeed had begun to feel an ebbing, something going out of her, like water seeping from a cracked beaker, restoring it to its original vacant state. This, admittedly, did not seem altogether good. And yet it might be the natural course of life. She felt isolated, it was true, but isolated in a grand sort of way, as if by being alone and getting on with things, she was achieving something. Unassailable and strong was how she felt—not that anyone wanted to assail her, though the question remained: what was the character of this strength, and what in the world would you do with it alone?

"Where's Nova Scotia?" Nancy said, staring at the sea. Since leaving Rockland, an hour back on Route 1, they'd begun glimpsing ocean, its surface calm, dense, almost unpersuasively blue, encircling large, distinct, forested islands Tom declared were reachable only by ferries and were the strongholds of wealthy people who were only there in the summer and didn't have heat.

"It's a parallel universe out there," he said as his way of expressing that he didn't approve of life like that. Tom had an affinity for styles of living he considered authentic. It was his one conventional-cop attitude. He thought highly of the Mainers for renting their seaside houses for two months in the summer and collecting fantastic sums that paid their bills for the year. This was authentic to Tom.

Nova Scotia was in her head now, because she felt it would be truly exotic to go there, far beyond the green, clean-boundaried islands. Though she couldn't exactly tell what direction she faced out the car window. If you were on the east coast, looking at the ocean, you should be facing east. But her feeling was this rule didn't apply in Maine, which had something to do with distances being farther than they looked on the map, with how remote it felt here, and with whatever "down east" meant. Perhaps she was looking south.

"You can't see it. It's way out there," Tom said, referring to Nova Scotia, driving and taking quick glances at the water. They had driven through Camden, choked with tourists sauntering along sunny streets, wearing bright, expensive clothing, trooping in and out of the same expensive out-let stores they'd seen in Freeport. They had thought tourists would be gone after Labor Day, but then their own presence disproved that.

"I just have a feeling we'd be happier visiting there," she said. "Canada's less crowded."

A large block of forested land lay solidly beyond a wide channel of blue water Tom had pronounced to be the Penobscot Bay. The block of land was Islesboro, and it too, he said, was an island, and rich people also lived there in the summer and had no heat. John Travolta had his own airport there. She mused out at the long undifferentiated island coast. Odd to think John Travolta was there right now. Doing what? It was nice to think of it as Nova Scotia, like standing in a meadow watching cloud shapes imitate mountains until you feel you're in the mountains. Maine, a lawyer in her office said, possessed a beautiful coast, but the rest was like Michigan.

"Nova Scotia's 150 miles across the Bay of Fundy," Tom said, upbeat for some new reason.

"I once did a report about it in high school," Nancy said. "They still speak French, and a lot of it's backward, and they don't much care for Americans."

"Like the rest of Canada," Tom said.

Route 1 followed the coast along the curvature of high tree-covered hills that occasionally sponsored long, breathtaking views toward the bay below. A few white sails were visible on the pure blue surface, though the late morning seemed to have furnished little breeze.

"It wouldn't be bad to live up here," Tom said. He hadn't shaved, and rubbed his palm across his dark stubble. He seemed happier by the minute.

She looked at him curiously "Where?"


"Live in Maine? But it's mortifyingly cold except for today." She and Tom had grown up in the suburbs of Chicago—she in Glen Ellyn, Tom in a less expensive part of Evanston. Their very first agreement had been that they hated the cold. They'd chosen Maryland for Tom to be a policeman because it was unrelentingly mild. Her feelings hadn't changed. "Where would you go for the two months when you were renting the house to the Kennedy cousins just so you could afford to freeze here all winter?"

"I'd buy a boat. Sail it around." Tom extended his estimable arms and flexed his grip on the steering wheel. Tom was in dauntingly good health. He played playground basketball with black kids, mountain-biked to his studio, did push-ups in his apartment every night before climbing into bed alone. And since he'd been away, he seemed healthier, calmer, more hopeful, though the story was somehow that he'd moved a mile away to a shitty apartment to make her happier. Nancy looked down disapprovingly at the pure white pinpoint sails backed by blue water in front of the faultlessly green-bonneted island where summer people sat on long white porches and watched the impoverished world through expensive telescopes. It wasn't that attractive. In the public defender's office she had, in the last month, defended a murderer; two pretty adolescent sisters accused of sodomizing their brother; a nice secretary who, because she was obese, had become the object of taunts in her office full of gay men; and an elderly Japanese woman whose house contained ninety-six cats she was feeding, and who her neighbors considered, reasonably enough, deranged and a health hazard. Eventually the obese secretary, who was from the Philippines, had stabbed one of the gay men to death. How could you give all that up and move to Maine with a man who appeared not to want to live with you, then be trapped on a boat for the two months it wasn't snowing? These were odd times of interesting choices.

"Maybe you could talk Anthony into doing it with you," she said, thinking peacefully again that Islesboro was Nova Scotia and everyone there was talking French and speaking ill of Americans. She had almost said, "Maybe you can persuade Crystal to drive up and fuck you on your yacht." But that wasn't what she felt. Poisoning perfectly harmless conversation with something nasty you didn't even mean was what the people she defended did and made their lives impossible. She wasn't even sure he'd heard her mention Anthony. It was possible she was whispering.

"Keep an open mind," Tom said, and smiled an inspiriting smile.

"Can't," Nancy said. "I'm a lawyer. I'm forty-five. I believe the rich already stole the best things before I was born, not just twenty years ago in Wiscasset."

"You're tough," Tom said, "but you have to let me win you."

"I already told you, you already did that," she said. "I'm your wife. That's what that means. Or used to. You win."

This was Tom's standard view, of course, the lifelong robbery-detective slash enthusiast's view: someone was always needing to be won over so as to a better view of things; someone's spirit being critically lower or higher than someone else's; someone forever acting the part of the holdout. But she wasn't a holdout. He'd fucked Crystal. He'd picked up and moved out. That didn't make her not an enthusiast. Though none of it converted Tom Marshall into a bad person in need of punishment. They merely didn't share a point of view—his being to sentimentalize loss by feeling sorry for himself; hers being to not seek extremes even when it meant ignoring the obvious. She wondered if he'd even heard her say he'd ever won her. He was thinking about something else now, something that pleased him. You couldn't blame him.

When she looked at him Tom was just past looking at her, as if he'd spoken something and she hadn't responded. "What?" she said, and pulled a strand of hair past her eyes and to the side. She looked at him straight on. "Do you see something you don't like?"

"I was just thinking about that old line we used to say when I was first being a policeman. 'Interesting drama is when the villain says something that's true.' It was in some class you took. I don't remember."

"Did I just say something true?"

He smiled. "I was thinking that in all those years my villains never said much that was true or even interesting."

"Do you miss having new villains every day?" It was the marquee question, of course, the one she'd never actually thought to ask a year ago, during the Crystal difficulties. The question of the epic loss of vocation. A wife could only hope to fill in for the lost villains.

"No way," he said. "It's great now."

"It's better living by yourself?"

"That's not really how I think about it."

"How do you really think about it?"

"That we're waiting," Tom said earnestly. "For a long moment to pass. Then we'll go on."

"What would we call that moment?" she asked.

"I don't know. A moment of readjustment, maybe."

"Readjustment to exactly what?"

"Each other?" Tom said, his voice going absurdly up at the end of his sentence.

They were nearing a town. Belfast, Maine. Black-and-white corporate-limits sign slid past. Established 1790. A Maine Enterprise Center. Settlement was commencing. The highway had gradually come nearer sea level. Traffic slowed as the roadside began to repopulate with motels, shoe out-lets, pottery barns, small boatyards selling posh wooden dinghies—the signs of enterprise.

"I wasn't conscious I needed readjustment," Nancy said. "I thought I was happy just to go along. I wasn't mad at you. I'm still not. Though your view makes me feel a little ridiculous."

"I thought you wanted one," Tom said.

One what? A chance to feel ridiculous? Or a period of readjustment?" She made the word sound idiotic. "Are you a complete stupe?"

"I thought you needed time to reconnoiter." Tom looked deviled at being called a stupe. It was old Chicago code to them. An ancient language of disgust.

"Jesus, why are you talking like this?" Nancy said. "Though I suppose I should know why, shouldn't l?"

"Why?" Tom said.

"Because it's bullshit, which is why it sounds so much like bullshit. What's true is that you wanted out of the house for your own reasons, and now you're trying to decide if you're tired of it. And me. But you want me to somehow take the blame." She smiled at him in feigned amazement. "Do you realize you're a grown man?"

He looked briefly down, then raised his eyes to hers with contempt. They were still moving, though Route 1 took the newly paved bypass to the left, and Tom angled off into Belfast proper, which in a split second turned into a nice, snug neighborhood of large Victorian, colonial, Federal, and Greek Revival residences established on large lots along an old bumpy street beneath tall surviving elms, with a couple of church steeples anchored starkly to the still-summery sky.

"I do realize that. I certainly do," Tom said, as if these words had more impact than she could feel.

Nancy shook her head and faced the tree-lined street, on the right side of which a new colonial-looking two-story brick hospital addition was under construction. New parking lot. New oncology wing. A helipad. Jobs all around. Beyond the hospital was a modern, many-windowed school named for Margaret Chase Smith, where the teams, the sign indicated, were called the Solons. Someone, to be amusing, had substituted "colons" in dripping blood-red paint. "There's a nice new school named for Margaret Chase Smith," Nancy said, to change the subject away from periods of readjustment and a general failure of candor. "She was one of my early heroes. She made a brave speech against McCarthyism and championed civic engagement and conscience. Unfortunately she was a Republican."

Tom spoke no more. He disliked arguing more than he hated being caught bullshitting. It was a rare quality. She admired him for it. Only, he was possibly now becoming a bullshitter. How had that happened?

They arrived to the inconspicuous middle of Belfast, where the brick streets sloped past handsome elderly red-brick commercial edifices. Most of the business fronts had not been modernized; some were shut, though the diagonal parking places were all taken. A small harbor with a town dock and a few dainty sailboats on their low-tide moorings lay at the bottom of the hill. A town in transition. From what to what, she wasn't sure.

"I'd like to eat something," Tom said stiffly, steering toward the water.

A chowder house, she already knew, would appear at the bottom of the street, offering pleasant but not spectacular water views through shuttered screens, terrible food served with white plasticware, and paper placemats depicting a lighthouse or a puffin. To know this was the literacy of one's very own culture. "Please don't stay mad," she said wearily. "I just had a moment. I'm sorry."

"I was trying to say the right things," he said irritably.

"I know you were," she said. She considered reaching for the steering wheel and taking his hand. But they were almost to the front of the restaurant she'd predicted—green beaverboard with screens and a big red-and- white MAINELY CHOWDAH sign facing the Penobscot, which was so picturesque and clear and pristine as to be painful.

They ate lunch at a long, smudged-oil-cloth picnic table overlooking little Belfast harbor. They each chose lobster stew. Nancy had a beer to make herself feel better. Warm, fishy ocean breezes shifted through the screens and blew their paper mats and napkins off the table. Few people were eating. Most of the place—which was like a large screened porch—had its tables and green plastic chairs stacked, and a hand-lettered sign by the register said that in a week the whole place would close for the winter.

Tom maintained a moodiness after their car argument, and only reluctantly came around to mentioning that Belfast was one of the last "undiscovered" towns up the coast. In Camden, and farther east toward Bar Harbor, the rich already had everything bought up. Any property that sold did so within families, using law firms in Philadelphia and Boston.

Realtors were never part of it. He mentioned the Rockefellers, the Harrimans, and the Fisks. Here in Belfast, though, he said, development had been held back by certain environmental problems—a poultry factory that had corrupted the bay for decades so that the expensive sailing set hadn't come around. Once, he said, the now attractive harbor had been polluted with chicken feathers. It all seemed improbable. Tom looked out through the dusty screen at a bare waterside park across the sloping street from the chowder house. An asphalt basketball court had been built, and a couple of chubby white kids were shooting two-hand jumpers and dribbling a ball clumsily. There was a new jungle gym at the far end where no one was playing.

"Over there," Tom said, his plastic spoon between his thumb and index finger, pointing at the empty grassy park that looked like something large had been present there once. "That's where the chicken plant was—smack against the harbor. The state shut it down finally." Tom furrowed his thick brow as if the events were grave.

An asphalt walking path circled the grassy sward. A man in a silver wheelchair was just entering the track from a van parked up the hill. He began patiently pushing himself around the track while a little girl began frolicking on the infield grass, and a young woman—no doubt her mother—stood watching beside the van.

"How do you know about all that?" Nancy said, watching the man foisting his wheelchair forward.

"A guy, Mick, at the co-op's from Bangor. He told me. He said now was the moment to snap up property here. In six months it'll be too pricey. It's sort of a last outpost."

For some reason the wheelchair rider she was watching seemed like a young man, though even at a distance he was clearly large and bulky. He was arming himself along in no particular hurry, just making the circle under his own power. She assumed the little girl and the woman were his family, making up something to do in the empty, unpretty park while he took his exercise. They were no doubt tourists, too.

"Does that seem awful to you? Things getting expensive?" She breathed in the strong fish aroma off the little harbor's muddy recesses. The sun had moved so that she put her hand up to shield her face. "You're not against progress, are you?"

"I like the idea of transition," Tom said confidently. "It creates a sense of possibility."

"I'm sure that's how the Rockefellers and the Fisks felt," she said, realizing this was argumentative, and wishing not to be. "Buy low, sell high, leave a beautiful corpse. That's not the way that goes, is it?" She smiled, she hoped infectiously.

"Why don't we take a walk?" Tom pushed his plastic chowder bowl away from in front of him the way a policeman would who was used to eating in greasy spoons. When they were college kids, he hadn't eaten that way. Years ago, he'd possessed lovely table manners, eaten unhurriedly and enjoyed everything. It had been his Irish mother's influence. Now he was itchy, interested elsewhere, and his mother was dead. Though this habit was as much his nature as the other. It wasn't that he didn't seem like him-self. He did.

"A walk would be good," she said, happy to leave, taking a long last look at the harbor and the park with the man in the wheelchair slowly making his journey around. "Trips are made in search of things, right?" She looked for Tom, who was already off to the cashier's, his back going away from her. "Right," she said, answering her own question and coming along.

They walked the early-September afternoon streets of Belfast—up the brick-paved hill from the chowder house, through the tidy business section past a hardware store, a closed movie theater, a credit union, a bank, a biker bar, a pair of older Realtors, several lawyers' offices, and a one-chair barbershop, its window cluttered with high school pictures of young-boy clients from years gone by. A slender young man with a ponytail and his hippie girlfriend were moving large cardboard boxes from a beater panel truck into one of the glass storefronts. Something new was happening there. Next door a shoe-store space had been turned into an organic bakery whose sign was a big loaf of bread that looked real. An art gallery was beside it. It wasn't an unpleasant-feeling town, waiting quietly for what would soon surely arrive. She could see why Tom would like it.

From up the town hill, more of the harbor was visible below, as was the mouth of another estuary that trickled along an embankment of deep green woods into the Penobscot. A high, thirties-vintage steel bridge crossed the river the way the bridge had in Wiscasset, though everything was smaller here, less going on, less up-and-coming—the great bay blue and wide and inert, just another park, sterile, fishless, ready for profitable alternative uses. It was, Nancy felt, the way all things became. The presence of an awful-smelling factory or a poisonous tannery or a cement factory could almost seem like something to wish for, remember fondly. Tom was not thinking that way.

"It's nice here, isn't it?" she said to make good company of herself. She'd taken off her anorak and tied it around her waist vacationer-style. The beer made her feel loose-limbed, satisfied. "Are we down east yet?"

They were stopped in front of another Realtor's window. Tom was again bent over studying the rows of snapshots. The walk had also made her warm, but with her sweater off, the bay breeze produced a nice sunny chill.

Another Conant tour bus arrived at the stoplight in the tiny central intersection, red and white like the ones that had let off Japanese consumers last night at Bean's. All the bus windows were tinted, and as it turned and began heaving up the hill back toward Route 1, she couldn't tell if the passengers were Asians, though she assumed so. She remembered thinking these people knew something she didn't. What had it been? "Do you ever think about what the people in buses think when they look out their window and see you?" she said, watching the bus shudder through its gears up the hill toward a blue Ford agency sign.

"No," Tom said, still peering in at the pictures of houses for sale.

"I just always want to say, 'Hey, whatever you're thinking about me, you're wrong. I'm just as out of place as you are.' " She set her hands on her hips, enjoying the sensation of talking with no one listening. She felt isolated again, unapprehended—as if for this tiny second she had achieved yet another moment of getting on with things. It was a grand feeling insofar as it arose from no apparent stimulus, and no doubt would not last long. Though here it was. This beleaguered little town had provided one pleasant occasion. The great mistake would be to try to seize such a feeling and keep it forever. It was good just to know it was available at all. "Isn't it odd," she said, facing back toward the Penobscot, "to be seen, but to understand you're being seen wrong. Does that mean . . ." She looked around at her husband.

"Does it mean what?" Tom had stood up and was watching her, as if she'd come under a spell. He put his hand on her shoulder and gently sought her.

"Does it mean you're not inhabiting your real life?" She was just embroidering a mute sensation, doing what married people do.

"Not you," Tom said. "Nobody would say that about you."

Too bad, she thought, the tourist bus couldn't come by when his arm was around her, a true married couple out for a summery walk on a sunny street. Most of that would be accurate.

"I'd like to inhabit mine more," Tom said as though the thought made him sad.

"Well, you're trying." She patted his hand on her shoulder and smelled him warm and slightly sweaty. Familiar. Welcome.

"Let's view the housing stock," he said, looking over her head up the hill, where the residential streets led away under an old canopy of elms and maples, and the house fronts were white and substantial in the afternoon sun.

On the walk along the narrow, slant, leaf-shaded streets, Tom suddenly seemed to have things on his mind. He took long surveyor's strides over the broken sidewalk slabs, as though organizing principles he'd formulated before today. His calves, which she admired, were hard and tanned, but the limp from being shot was more noticeable with his hands clasped behind him.

She liked the houses, most of them prettier and better appointed than she'd expected—prettier than her and Tom's nice blue cape, the one she still lived in. Most were pleasant variations on standard Greek Revival concepts, but with green shutters and dressy, curved, two-step porches, an occasional widow's walk, and sloping lawns featuring shagbark hickories, older maples, thick rhododendrons and manicured pachysandra beds. Not very different from the nice neighborhoods of eastern Maryland. She felt happy being on foot where normally you'd be in the car, preferred it now to arriving and leaving, which now seemed to promote misunderstandings and fractiousness of the sort they'd already experienced. She could appreciate these parts of a trip when you were there, and everything stopped moving and changing. She'd continued to feel flickers of the pleasing isolation she'd felt downtown. Though it wasn't pure lonely isolation, since Tom was here; instead it was being alone with someone you knew and loved. That was ideal. That's what marriage was.

Tom had now begun talking about "life-by-forecast," the manner of leading life, he was saying, that made you pay attention to mistakes you'd made that hadn't seemed like they were going to be mistakes before you made them, but that clearly were mistakes when viewed later. Sometimes very bad mistakes. "Life-by-forecast" meant that you tried very hard to feel in advance how you'd feel afterward. "You avoid the big calamities," Tom said soberly. "It's what you're supposed to learn. It's adulthood, I guess."

He was talking, she understood, indirectly but not very subtly about Crystal-whatever-her-name-had-been. Too bad, she thought, that he worried about all that so much.

"But wouldn't you miss some things you might like, doing it that way?" She was, of course, arguing in behalf of Tom fucking Crystal, in behalf of big calamities. Except it didn't matter so much. She was at that moment more interested in imagining what this street, Noyes Street, would look like full in the teeth of winter. Everything white, a gale howling in off the bay, a deep freeze paralyzing all activity. Unthinkable in the late summer's idyll. Now, though, was the time when people bought houses. Then was the time they regretted it.

"But when you think about other peoples' lives," Tom said as they walked, "don't you always assume they're making fewer mistakes than you are? Other people always seem to have a firmer grasp of things."

"That's an odd thing for a policeman to think. Aren't you supposed to have a good grasp on rectitude?" This was quite a silly conversation, she thought, peering down Noyes Street in the direction of where she calculated she herself lived, hundreds of miles to the south, where she represented the law, defended the poor and friendless.

"I was never a very good policeman," Tom said, stopping to stare up at a small, pristine Federalist mansion with Greek ornamental urns on both sides of its high white front door. The lawn, mowed that morning, smelled sweet. Lawnmower tracks still dented its carpet. A lone male homeowner was standing inside watching them through a mullioned front window. Somewhere, on another street, a chain saw started then stopped, and then there was the sound of more than one metal hammer striking nails, and men's voices in laughing conversation at rooftop level. Preparations were in full swing for a long winter.

"You just weren't like all the other policemen," Nancy said. "You were kinder. But I do not assume other people make fewer mistakes. The back of everybody's sampler is always messier than the front. I accept both sides."

The air smelled warm and rich, as if wood and grass and slate walls exuded a sweet, lazy-hours ether-mist. She wondered if Tom was getting around in his laborious way to some new divulgence, a new Crystal, or some unique unpleasantness that required the ruin of an almost perfect afternoon to perform its dire duty. She hoped for better. Though once you'd experienced such a divulgence, you didn't fail to expect it again. But thinking about something was not the same as caring about it. That was one useful lesson she'd learned from practicing the law, one that allowed you to go home at night and sleep.

Tom suddenly started up walking again, having apparently decided not to continue the subject of other people's better grip on the alternate sides of the sampler, which was fine.

"I was just thinking about Pat La Blonde while we were down at the chowder house," he said, staying his course ahead of her in long studious strides as though she was beside him.

Pat La Blonde was Tom's partner who'd been killed when Tom had been wounded. Tom had never seemed very interested in talking about Pat before. She lengthened her steps to be beside him, give evidence of a visible listener. "I'm here," she said, and pinched a fold of his sweaty shirt.

"I just realized," Tom went on, "all the life that Pat missed out on. I think about it all the time. And when I do, everything seems so damned congested. When Pat got killed, everything started getting in everything else's way for me. Like I couldn't have a life because there was so much confusion. I know you don't think that's crazy."

"No, I don't," Nancy said. She thought she remembered Tom saying these very things once. Though it was also possible she had thought these things about him. Marriage was that way. Possibly they had both felt the same thing as a form of mourning. "It's why you quit the force, isn't it?"

"Probably." Tom stopped, put his hands on his hips and took in an estimable yellow Dutch colonial sitting far back among ginkgos and sugar maples, and reachable by a curving flagstone path from a stone front wall to its bright red, perfectly centered, boxwood-banked front door. "That's a nice house," he said. A large black Labrador had been lying in the front yard, but when Tom spoke it struggled up and trotted out of sight around the house's corner.

"It's lovely." Nancy touched the back of his shirt again, down low where it was damp and warm. The muscles were ropy here. She was sorry not to have touched his back recently. In Freeport, last night.

"I think," Tom said and seemed reluctant, "since that time when Pat was killed, I've been disappointed about life. You know it?" He was still looking at the yellow house, as if that was all he could stand. "Or I've been afraid of being disappointed. Life was just fine, then all at once I couldn't ofigure out a way to keep anything simple. So I just made it more complicated." He shook his head and looked at her.

Nancy carefully removed her hand from the warm small of his back and put both her hands behind her in a protective way. Something about Tom's declaration had just then begun to feel like a prologue to something that might, in fact, spoil a lovely day, and refashion everything. Possibly he had planned it this way.

"Can you see a way now to make it less complicated?" she said, looking down at her leather shoe toes on the grainy concrete sidewalk. A square had been stamped into the soft mortar, and into the middle of it was incised PENOBSCOT CONCRETE—1938. She was purposefully not making eye contact.

"I do," Tom said. He breathed in and then out importantly.

"So can I hear about it?" It annoyed her to be here now, to have something sprung on her.

"Well," Tom said, "I think I could find some space in a town like this to put my workshop. If I concentrated, I could probably dream up some new toy shapes, maybe hire somebody. Expand my output. Go ahead with the Web site idea. I think I could make a go of it with things changing here. And if I didn't, I'd still be in Maine, and I could find something else. I could be a cop if it came to that." He had his blue, black-flecked eyes trained on her, though Nancy had chosen to listen with her head lowered, hands behind her. She looked up at him now and created a smile for her lips. The sun was in her face. Her temples felt wonderfully warm. A man in khaki shorts was just exiting the yellow house, carrying a golf bag, headed around to where the black Labrador had disappeared. He noticed the two of them and waved as if they were neighbors. Nancy waved back and redirected her smile out at him.

"Where do I go?" she said, still smiling. A brown-and-white Belfast police cruiser idled past, its uniformed driver paying them no mind.

"My thought is, you come with me," Tom said. "It can be our big adventure." His solemn expression, the one he'd had when he was talking about Pat La Blonde, stayed on his handsome face. Not a death's face at all, but one that wanted to signify something different. An invitation.

"You want me to move to Maine?"

"I do." Tom achieved a small, hopeful smile and nodded.

What a very peculiar thing, she thought. Here they were on a street in a town they'd been in fewer than two hours, and her estranged husband was suggesting they leave their life, where they were both reasonably if not impossibly happy, and move here.

"And why again?" she said, realizing she'd begun shaking her head though she was also still smiling. The roof workers were once more laughing at something in the clear, serene afternoon. The chain saw was still silent. Hammering commenced again. The man with the golf bag came backing down his driveway in a Volvo stationwagon the same bright red color as his front door. He was talking on a cell phone. The Labrador was trotting along behind, but stopped as the car swung into the street.

"Because it's still not ruined up here," Tom said. "And because I know too much about myself where I am, and I'd like to find out something new before I get too old. And because I think if I—or if we—do it now, we won't live long enough to see everything get all fucked up around here. And because I think we'll be happy." Tom suddenly glanced upward as if something had flashed past his eyes. He looked puzzled for an instant, then looked at her again as if he wasn't sure she would be there.

"It isn't exactly life-by-forecast, is it?"

"No," Tom said, still looking befuddled. "I guess not." He could be like an extremely earnest, extremely attractive boy. It made her feel old to notice it.

"So, am I supposed to agree or not agree while we're standing here on the sidewalk?" She thought of the woman pinning clothes to a line, wearing white gloves. No need to reintroduce that, or the withering cold that would arrive in a month.

"No, no," Tom said haltingly. He seemed almost ready to take it all back, upset now that he'd said what he wanted to say. "No. You don't. It's important, I realize."

"Did you plan all this?" she asked, "This week? This whole town? This moment? Is this a scheme?" She was ready to laugh about it and ignore it.

"No." Tom ran his hand through his hair, where there were scatterings of assorted grays. "It just happened."

"And if I said I didn't believe you, what then?" She realized her lips were ever-so-slightly disapprovingly everted. It had become a habit in the year since Crystal.

"You'd be wrong." Tom nodded.

"Well." Nancy smiled and looked around her at the pretty, serious houses, the demure, scenically shaded street, the sloped lawns that set it all off just right for everybody. If you seek a well-tended ambience, look around you. It was not the Michigan-of-the-East. Why wouldn't one move here? she thought. It was a certain kind of boy's fabulous dream. In a way, the whole world dreamed it, waited for it to materialize. Odd that she never had.

"I'm getting tired now." She gave Tom a light finger pat on his chest. She felt in fact heavy-bodied, older even than she'd felt before. Done in. "Let's find someplace to stay here." She smiled more winningly and turned back the way they'd come, back down the hill toward the middle of Belfast.

In the motel—a crisp, new Maineliner Inn beyond the bridge they'd seen at lunch, where the room offered a long, unimpeded back-window view of the wide and sparkling bay—Tom seemed the more bushed of the two of them. In the car he'd exhibited an unearned but beleaguered stoicism which had no words to accompany its vulnerable-seeming moodiness. And once they were checked in, had their suitcases opened, and the curtains on the small cool spiritless room, he'd turned on the TV with no sound, stretched out on the bed in his shoes and clothes, and gone to sleep without saying more than that he'd like to have a lobster for dinner. Sleep, for Tom, was always profound, congestion or no congestion.

For a while Nancy sat in the stiff Naugahyde chair beside a table lamp and leafed through the magazines previous guests had left in the night-stand drawer: a Sailing with an article on the London-to-Cape Town race; a Marie Claire with several bar graphs about ovarian cancer's relation to alcohol use; a Hustler in which an amateur artist-guest had drawn inky mustaches on the girls and little arrows toward their crotches with bubble messages that said Evil lurks here, and Members Only, and Stay with your unit. Naughty nautical types with fibroids, she thought, pushing the magazines back in the drawer.

There was another copy of the same Pennysaver they'd read at breakfast. She looked at more of the Down East In Search Ofs. Come North to meet mature Presque Isle, cuddly n/s, sjf, cutie pie. Likes contradancing and midnight boat rides, skinny dipping in the cold, clean ocean. Possibilities unlimited for the right sjm, n/s between 45 and 55 with clean med record. Only serious responses desired. No flip-flops or Canucks plz. English only. Touching, she thought, this generalized sense of the possible, of what lay out there waiting. What, though, was a lonely sjf doing in Maine? And what could a flip-flop be that made them so unlikable? Cuddly, she assumed, meant fat.

She wished to think about very few things for a while now. On the drive across from Belfast she'd become angry and acted angry. Said little. Then, when Tom was in the office paying for the room while she waited in the car, she'd suddenly become completely unangry, though Tom hadn't noticed when he came back with the key. Which was why he'd gone to sleep—as if his sleep were her sleep, and when he woke up everything would be fixed. Peaceful moments, of course, were never unwelcome. And it was good not to complicate life before you absolutely had to. All Tom's questing may simply have to do with a post facto fear of retirement— another "reaction"—and in a while, if she didn't exacerbate matters, he'd forget it. Life was full of serious but meaningless conversations.

On the silent TV a golf match was underway; elsewhere a movie featuring a young, smooth-cheeked Clark Gable; elsewhere an African documentary with tawny, emaciated lions sprawled in long brown grass, dozing after an off-stage kill. The television cast pleasant watery light on Tom. Soon oceans of wildebeests began vigorously drowning in a muddy, swollen river. It was peaceful in the silence—even with all the drownings—as if what one heard rather than what one saw caused all the problems.

Just outside the window she could hear a child's laughing voice and a man's patient, deeper one attempting to speak some form of encouragement. She inched back the heavy plastic curtain and against the sharp rays of daylight looked out at the motel lawn, where a large, thick-bodied young man in a silver wheelchair, wearing a red athletic singlet and white cotton shorts—his legs thick, strong, tanned and hairy as his back—was attempting to hoist into flight a festive orange-paper kite using a small fishing rod and line, while a laughing little blond girl held the kite above her head. Breeze gently rattled the kite's paper, on which had been painted a smiling oriental face. The man in the wheelchair kept saying, "Okay, run now, run," so that the little girl, who seemed perfectly seven, jumped suddenly, playfully one way and then another, the kite held high, until she had leaped and boosted it up and off her fingers, while the man jerked the rod and tried to winch the smiling face into the wind. Each time, though, the kite drooped, and lightly settled back onto the grass that grew all the way down to the shore. And each time the man said, his voice rising at the end of his phrases, "Okay now. Up she goes again. We can do this. Pick it up and try it again." The little girl kept laughing. She wore tiny pink shorts and a bright-green top, and was barefoot and brown-legged. She seemed ecstatic.

He was the man from the park in town, Nancy thought, letting the curtain close. A coincidence of no importance. She looked at Tom asleep in his clothes, breathing noiselessly, hands clasped on his chest like a dead man's, his bare, brown legs crossed at the ankles in an absurdly casual attitude, his blue running shoes resting one against the other. In peaceful sleep his handsome, unshaved features seemed ordinary.

She changed the channel and watched a ball game. The Cubs versus a team whose aqua uniforms she didn't recognize. Her father had been a Cubs fan. They considered themselves northsiders. They'd traveled to Wrigley on warm autumn afternoons like this one. He would remove her from school on a trumped-up excuse, buy seats on the first baseline and let her keep score with a stubby blue pencil. The sixties, those were. She made an effort to remember the players' names, using their blue-and-white uniforms and the viny outfield wall as fillips to memory thirty years on. She could think of smiling Ernie Banks, and a white man named Ron some-thing, and a tall sad-faced high-waisted black man from Canada who pitched well but later got into some kind of police trouble and cried about it on TV. It was too little to remember.

Though the attempt at memory made her feel better—more settled in the same singular, getting-on-with-it way that standing on the sunny street corner being misidentified by a busload of Japanese tourists had made her feel: as if she was especially credible when seen without the benefit of circumstance and the encumbrances of love, residues of decisions made long, long ago. More credible, certainly, than she was here now, trapped in East Whatever, Maine, with a wayward husband on his way down the road, and suffering spiritual congestion no amount of life-by-forecast or authentic marriage could cure.

This whole trip—in which Tom championed some preposterous idea for the sole purpose of having her reject it so he could then do what he wanted to anyway—made her feel unkind toward her husband. Made him seem stupid and childish. Made him seem inauthentic. Not a grownup. It was a bad sign, she thought, to find yourself the adult, whereas your life-long love interest was suddenly an overexuberant child passing himself off as an enthusiast whose great enthusiasm you just can't share. Since what it meant was that in all probability life with Tom Marshall was over. And not in the way her clients at the public defender's saw things to their conclusions— using as their messenger-agents whiskey bottles, broom handles, car bumpers, firearms, sharp instruments, flammables, the meaty portion of a fist. There, news broke vividly, suddenly, the lights always harsh and grainy, the volume turned up, doors flung open for all to see. (Her job was to bring their affairs back into quieter, more sensible orbits so all could be understood, felt, suffered more exquisitely.)

For her and for Tom, basically decent people, the course would be different. Her impulse was to help. His was to try and then try harder. His perfidy was enthusiasm. Her indifference was patience. But eventually all the enthusiasm would be used up, all the patience. Possibilities would diminish. Life would cease to be an open, flat plain upon which you walked with a chosen other, and become instead cluttered, impassable.

Tom had said it: life became a confinement in which everything got in everything else's way. And what you finally sought became not a new, clearer path, but a way out. Their own son no doubt foresaw life that way, as something that should be easy. Though it seemed peculiar—now that he was away—to think they even had a son. She and Tom seemed more like each other's parents.

But, best just to advance now toward what she wanted, even if it didn't include Tom, even if she didn't know how to want what didn't include Tom. And even if it meant she was the kind of person who did things, said things, then rethought, even regretted their consequences later. Tom wasn't, after all, trying to improve life for her, no matter what he thought. Only his. And there was no use talking people out of things that improved their lives. He had wishes. He had fears. He was a good enough man. Life shouldn't be always trying, trying, trying. You should live most of it without trying so hard. He would agree that was authentic.

Inside the enclosed room a strange, otherworldly golden glow seemed to fall on everything now. On Tom. On her own hands and arms. On the bed. All through the static air, like a fog. It was beautiful, and for a moment she wanted to speak to Tom, to wake him, to tell him that some-thing or other would be all right, just as he'd hoped; to be enthusiastic in some hopeful and time-proven way. But she didn't, and then the golden fog disappeared, and for an instant she seemed to understand slightly better the person she was—though she lacked a proper word for it, and knew only that the time for saying so many things was over.

Outside, the child's voice was shouting. "Oh, I love it. I love it so much." When Nancy pulled back the curtain, the softer light fell across the chair back, and she could see that the wheelchair man had his kite up and flying, the fiberglass fishing rod upward in one hand while he urged his chair down the sloping lawn. The bare-legged child was hopping from one bare foot to the other, a smashing smile on her long, adult's face, which was turned up toward the sky.

Nancy stood and snapped on the desk lamp beside Tom's open suitcase. One bright, intact, shrink-wrapped Wagner dog and one white Maine Lighthouse were tucked among his shirts and shaving kit and socks. Here was also his medal for valor in a blue cloth case, and the small automatic pistol he habitually carried in case of attack. She plucked up only the Wagner dog, returned the room to its shadows, and stepped out the back door onto the lawn.

Here, on the outside, the air was fresh and cool and only slightly breezy, the sky now full of quilty clouds as though rain were expected. A miniature concrete patio with blue plastic-strand chairs was attached to each room. The kite, its slant-eyed face smiling down, was dancing and tricking and had gained altitude as the wheelchair man rolled farther away down the lawn toward the bay.

"Look at our kite," the little girl shouted, shading her eyes toward Nancy and pointing delightedly at the diminishing kite face.

"It's sensational," Nancy said shading her own eyes to gaze upward. The kite made her smile.

The wheelchair man turned his head to view her. He was large, with thick shoulders and smooth rounded arms she could see under his red singlet. His head was round, his thick hair buzzed short, his eyes small and dark and fierce and unfriendly. She smiled at him and for no reason shook her head as though the kite amazed her. An ex-jock, she thought. A shallow-end diving accident, or some football collision that left him flying his kite from a metal chair. A pity.

The man said nothing, just looked at her without gesture, his expression so intent he seemed unwilling to be bothered. She, though, felt the pleasure to be had from only watching, of having to make no comment. The cool breeze, the nice expansive water view to Islesboro, a kite standing aloft were quite enough.

Then her mind flooded with predictable things. The crippled man's shoes. You always thought of them. His were black and sockless, like bowling shoes, shoes that would never wear out. He would merely grow weary of seeing them, give them away to someone more unfortunate than him-self. Was this infuriating to him? Did he speak about it? Was the wife, wherever she might be, terribly tired all the time? Did she get up at night and stand at the window staring out, wishing some quite specific things, then return to bed unmissed? Was pain involved? Did phantom pains even exist? Did he have dreams of painlessness? Of rising out of his chair and walking around laughing, of never knowing a chair? She thought about a dog with its hind parts attached to a little wheeled coaster, trotting along as if all was well. Did anything work down below, she wondered? Were there understandings, allowances? Did he think his predicament "interesting"? Had being crippled opened up new and important realms of aware-ness? What did he know that she didn't?

Maybe being married to him, she thought, would be better than many other lives. Though you'd fast get to the bottom of things, begin to notice too much, start to regret it all. Perhaps while he was here flying a kite, the wife was in the hotel bar having a drink and a long talk with the bartender, speaking about her past, her father, her hometown, how she'd thought about things earlier in life, what had once made her laugh, who she'd voted for, what music she'd preferred, how she liked Maine, how authentic it seemed, when they thought they might head home again. How they wished they could stay and stay and stay. The thing she—Nancy—would not do.

"Do you want to fly our kite?" the man was saying to her, his voice trailing up at the end, almost like Tom's. He was, for some reason, smiling now, his eyes bright, looking back over his hairy round shoulder with a new attitude. She noticed he was wearing glasses—surprising to miss that. The kite, its silky monofilament bellying upward in a long sweep, danced on the wind almost out of sight, a fleck upon the eye.

"Oh do, do," the little girl called out. "It'll be so good." She had her arms spread wide and up over her head, as if measuring some huge and inconceivable wish. She was permanently smiling.

"Yes," Nancy said, walking toward them. "Of course."

You can feel it pulling you," the girl said. "It's like you're going to fly up to the stars." She began to spin around and around in the grass then like a little dervish. The wheelchair man looked to his daughter, smiling.

Nancy felt embarrassed. Seen. It was shocking. The spacious blue bay spread away from her down the hill, and off of it arose a freshened breeze. It was far from clear that she could hold the kite. It could take her up, pull her away, far and out of sight. It was unnerving. She held the toy Wagner to give to the child. That would have its fine effect. And then, she thought, coming to the two of them, smiling out of flattery, that she would take the kite—the rod, the string—yes, of course, and fly it, take the chance, be strong, unassailable, do everything she could to hold on.

o henry awards
Bold Type
    Copyright © 2002 by Richard Ford.
Photo credit: J. Foley/Opale