Nicole’s hand was warm and damp. Three-thirty had come, the Governor hadn’t called—nor had anyone else—and Walter Selby had gone home lively to his wife, happy to have some time to spare before dinner. He was still thinking about work, running phrases for a speech through his head, but he wasn’t thinking hard. It was an afternoon toward the end of May, and he was enjoying the last hours of sunlight, along the street, under the shade of the pin oaks. To see his own house in the late sunlight of a spring weekday was a rare pleasure, and not one he wanted to squander.
To see his own wife. He parked in the driveway and emerged into a noiseless world; some money had bought that quiet, that still and green street. He could hear his steps on the walk, the hiss of the spring on the hinge of the outer door. He had his key in the lock and he paused to prolong the homecoming moment. These were instants he liked to savor: the border, and just across the border, where he would call Nicole’s name and then wait for her to answer, wait and wonder where her voice would come from, where she would appear. In the years since they’d married the process had taken on a formal quality, and the closer it came to ritual the more it delighted him; the smell of his own house delighted him, the weather dampening, the day-late hour, the light lengthening across the lawn, his anticipation lengthening along the front hall.
It was a Wednesday, and the Governor was back in Nashville, appearing at a hearing in the State Senate about advisory appointments; he would be strolling amiably down the aisle right about now, dressed in his thin grey penitent suit, a half smile on his face while he shook alike the hands of men he enjoyed and men he despised. Then he would take to his table, sit down slowly, and drop a tablet of bicarb into his water glass to distract his interlocutors while he composed himself. The water would remain fizzing at his elbow until his remarks were done, at which point he would stand up, take the glass and down its contents quickly, and then stroll out of the room again, smiling again, shaking hands, whispering.
The Selby house was quiet. Frank and the baby would be in the park with Josephine, the nanny they’d hired soon after Gail was born. This was Nicole’s own time, the part of the day when she could do what she liked, and Walter seldom interrupted her with so much as a phone call. There was some mystery in every marriage, or else there was no material left for later intimacies—for the hours after the children had been put to bed, to save and to spend, repairing the ragged forward edge of their affairs. Away from others, away from work, toward the night.
He stepped inside and called her name. There was a long silence, and he began to wonder if she was in the backyard, so he headed through the house. Along the way the light stepped down into the darkness of the living room where the blinds were drawn, up a notch in the rear hallway, and then up again into the illumination of the kitchen, which, with its south-facing windows, its Formica and its reflecting metal, was as bright as a room could be. He stood there, blinking, then he turned and started back into the living room and saw her standing in the doorway, with a look on her face that he couldn’t quite describe: surprise, the satisfactions of a day, and worry or a question. She smiled a little. You’re home early, she said.
Short day, he said. She was wearing black slacks and a simple blue sweater; her hair was down, and once again he was struck. The man who first burned clay to make china: Wasn’t this what he was after? This face, in age? He put his briefcase down on the kitchen table and crossed the room to her, taking her shoulders in his hands. How beautiful, even on a bright, unglamorous afternoon; her cheeks were slightly flushed, her pupils were dilated, her lower lip hung slightly on the flesh. He hugged her; her nipples, half hard, pressed against the upper edge of his abdomen. He stepped back and looked at her from arm’s distance.
What is it? she asked.
I was just about to ask you the same thing, he said. What is it?
Nothing. What do you mean?
He shrugged. Nothing, he said. He drew her toward him again, leaned down and kissed her cheek. Neither of them smiled. He reached for her hand, a gesture he had made a thousand times before: he loved the feel of her palm against his—soft, cool, and dry—how her fingers would begin to tremble when the contact, plain at first, quickly grew awkward and unnatural, and then settled again into something comfortable, as each of them abandoned the tiny flickers of will that made their fingers clench, and peace was achieved for two. It was very much like marriage itself, he thought, where some small part of one’s self was deliberately, happily, allowed to die. But that afternoon her palm was damp—slightly hot, and slightly damp—and small and subtle though the difference was, it bothered him. He felt a clinging sensation, moist and cloying; it was like putting on a still-wet bathing suit, and he disengaged his hand from hers and rubbed his palm, slowly and almost unconsciously, against the hip of his trousers, and then bade her good-bye for a time so he could shake off the office day.
He was upstairs changing into home clothes when the children came back from the park; he could hear them burst through the door, hear Frank boasting loudly about a game. I hid in the sandbox! he said. All the way down and in, and they couldn’t find me, no matter how hard they tried. Not even Josephine could find me, could you?
No, I couldn’t, said Josephine. And I looked and I looked.
And then finally I had to come out and show them where I was, or they never would have found me, ever. —Daddy!
Walter was coming down the stairs, watching the tableau below him: Nicole had taken the baby from Josephine; Frank was strug- gling to get out of his muddy clothes. In the hallway? said his father. We don’t get undressed in the hallway. Frank. Come on, now. Son. Frank.
The boy said, No one could find me!
I heard, said Walter. Now go around back to the porch and take your clothes off there. And then you can tell me all about it.
Later, Walter drove Josephine home to South Memphis, his big brand-new blue Impala gliding down the streets, passing into the colored part of town, with its neat little houses set a short way back from broken sidewalks. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Someday, he thought. And when Someday comes, what happens? He knew very little about the woman on the seat beside him, now holding her glossy black purse tight against her middle. She was good to his children; she had several of her own, all of them now grown. She had a husband at home who worked hard for a paycheck that always seemed to fall a little bit short of the week’s expenses. How big was their bed? And how well did they sleep? No better, no worse, this year or a hundred years ago; because bed was where the world reached its level, the one place where all the efforts of the State—his efforts, his State—came to nothing. This Negro woman beside him, the room she was traveling toward, the man she would meet there: When the blinds were drawn and the lights turned off, and she lay down beside her husband, the lying-down would exist in its long kindness, no matter what was done to help them or to cause them to die. Then was all work futile? He pulled up to the curb before her house and turned in his seat to face her. How are you doing? he asked.
Well, Frankie’s reading better . . .
No, I mean you. How are you and your husband doing? He couldn’t remember the man’s name.
Josephine shrugged. We’re getting by, she said . . . And she hesitated, waiting for him to say something else, then looked over and found him gazing at her, his expression split between the half smile on his lips and the darkness in his eyes. She didn’t want to know what he was thinking, so she made her good-bye and stepped out of the car, leaving Walter to nod and say, See you tomorrow, and pull away from the curb.
Promptly at seven, the family Selby sat down to dinner, but Walter was distracted, hardly listening to Frank as he recounted his boy’s day. Throughout the hour he could feel the sensation of Nicole’s nipples against his chest. Well, she wasn’t feeding Gail anymore, was she? Was it a thought, then, that had gotten into her and then started out again? He could feel her hand on his; the sensation had somehow stuck to his palm and wouldn’t dissipate. He felt it, beneath the skin and below the veins, behind the bones, between the nerves.
Little Frank didn’t want his food, he said something about the food, he complained about the food. I don’t like this. Mommy? he said, his gaze wandering off to one side. He really needed to learn to look people in the eye, thought Walter, if he was ever going to get the things he wanted. —Can I have something else? said Frank. Please? Can I? Please, please, please? He pushed his rice around his plate a little bit with his fork and then slumped down in his chair, his mouth set against any obstacle to his appetite.
Nicole was talking to the boy, but Walter wasn’t listening; he was trying to follow a rustling in the rearmost hollow of his mind. She looked at him with wide eyes. Could you help me? she said. Could you help me with this?
Frank, do what your mother says, said Walter gently, looking at her rather than the boy. She returned his gaze with a questioning and concerned expression, and the boy was looking at both of them. Gail began to cry and Nicole reached for her, so suddenly and swiftly that the baby screamed. Oh, now . . . I’m sorry, she said softly, almost singing. I’m sorry, don’t cry. —And just like that the baby stopped. Outside, it had begun to rain, the drops picking up where the baby’s tears had left off. Everybody could hear it, each of them in the room, everyone in the city. There was no thunder, no sound of wind, only the piano splash of the rain and the smell of wet leaves. Can I have a hot dog? said Frank.
Shhh, said Walter. And then pointlessly: It’s raining.
Nicole was still for a moment, and then she spoke to the boy in a whisper. Only if you promise to eat it all. All of it, she said. Frank promised, so she rose from the table and went to the kitchen. Walter watched her go.
After the meal he helped her with the washing up while the boy sat with his little sister; they stood side by side before the sink, but aside from an occasional accidental brush against her hip, or a mutual grazing of fingertips as he handed her a plate, he didn’t touch her. He didn’t watch her undress that night before bed, or cup her shoulder and smell her neck as she fell asleep beside him, slowly passing him into dreams. He lay awake for a long time, his arms stretched behind his head, while he pondered the prodigal inching of her blood, and the damp heat of her hand.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The King Is Dead by Jim Lewis. Copyright © 2003 by Jim Lewis. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.