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Chapter Thirty-four

 

The party was Frank's idea. He said he had it from the horse's mouth: Pilgrim had told him he wanted a party so a party there would be. He phoned Hank and Hank said he was up for it. What's more, he said, he had a houseful of bored cousins up from Helena and they were up for it too. By the time they'd called everyone they could think of, it had gone from being a small party to a midsize party to a big one and Diane was having fifty fits wondering how she was going to feed them all.

'Hell, Diane,' Frank said. 'We can't let Annie and Grace drive two thousand miles home with that old horse of theirs without giving them a good send-off.'

Diane shrugged and Tom could see her thinking why the hell not?

'And dancing,' Frank said. 'We gotta have dancing.'

'Dancing? Oh come on!'

Frank asked Tom what he thought and Tom said he thought dancing would be fine. So Frank called Hank again and Hank said he'd bring his sound system over and they could have the colored lights too if they wanted. He was there within the hour and the men and the kids rigged it all up outside the barn while Diane, shamed at last to better humor, drove Annie down to Great Falls to get the food.

By seven, everything was ready and they all went off to clean up and change.

As he came out of the shower, Tom caught sight of the blue robe by the door and felt a dull lurching inside him. He thought the robe might still smell of her but when he pressed it to his face it smelled of nothing.

He hadn't had a chance to be alone with Annie since Grace came back and he felt their separation like some cruel physical excision. The sight of her tears for Pilgrim had made him want to run to her and hold her. Not being able to touch her was almost more than he could bear.

He dressed slowly and lingered in his room, listening to the cars arriving and the laughter and the music starting up. When he looked out he saw there was already a crowd. It was a fine clear evening. The lights were finding a glow in the fading light. Clouds of smoke drifted slowly from the barbecue where he should be helping Frank. He searched the faces and found her. She was talking with Hank. She was wearing a dress he hadn't seen before, dark blue and sleeveless. As he watched, she threw her head back and laughed at something Hank said. Tom thought how beautiful she was. He'd never felt less like laughing in his life.

She saw him as soon as he stepped out onto the porch. Hank's wife was going in with a tray of glasses and he held the screen door for her and laughed at something she said as she passed. Then he looked out and found her eyes at once and smiled. She realized that Hank had just asked her a question. 'Sorry Hank, what was that?'

'I said, I hear you're headin' home?'

'Yes, afraid so. Packing up tomorrow.'

'Can't tempt you city gals to stay, huh?'

Annie laughed, a little too loudly, as she'd been doing all evening. She told herself again to calm down. Across the crowd, she saw Tom had been hijacked by Smoky who wanted to introduce him to some friends.



'Jeez, that food smells good,' Hank said. 'How 'bout it, Annie, shall we get us some? You jus' come along with me.'

She let herself be led, as if she had no will of her own. Hank got her a plate and piled it high with chunks of blackened meat, then flooded it with a dollop of chili beans. Annie felt sick but kept on smiling. She'd already decided what to do.

She would get Tom on his own - ask him to dance if that's what it took - and tell him she was going to leave Robert. She would go back to New York next week and break the news. First to Robert and then to Grace.

Oh God, Tom thought, it's going to be like last time. The dancing had been going on for over half an hour and every time he tried to get near her either she got waylaid or he did. Just when he thought he was clear, he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Diane.

'Don't sister-in-laws get to dance?'

'Diane, I thought you'd never ask.'

'I knew you never would.'

He took hold of her and his heart sank a little when the new number turned out to be a slow one. She had on the new red dress she'd bought in L.A. and had tried painting her lips to match but it didn't quite work. She smelled pungently of perfume with an undertow of booze that he could detect too in her eyes.

'You look terrific,' he said.

Thank you, kind sir.'

It had been a long time since he'd seen Diane drunk. He didn't know why, but it made him sad. She was pressing her hips into him and arching her back so much that if he were to let go of her she'd topple over. She was giving him a kind of knowing, teasing look he neither understood nor much liked.

'Smoky tells me you didn't go to Wyoming after all.'

'He did?'

'Uh-huh.'

'Well, that's right, I didn't. One of the guys down there got sick, so I'm going next week instead.'

'Uh-huh.'

'"Uh-huh". Diane, what is this?'

He knew, of course. And he chided himself for now giving her the chance to say it. He should have just closed the conversation.

'I just hope you were a good boy, that's all.'

'Diane, come on. You've had too much to drink.'

It was a mistake. Her eyes flashed.

'Have I? Don't think we haven't all noticed.'

'Noticed what?' Another mistake.

'You know what I'm talking about. You can good as smell the steam rising off the pair of you.'

He just shook his head and looked away as if she was crazy, but she saw it hit home because she grinned in victory and wagged a finger at him.

'Good job she's going home, brother-in-law.'

They didn't exchange another word for the rest of the number. And when it was over she gave him that knowing look again and went off, swinging her hips like a hooker. He was still recovering when Annie came up behind him at the bar.

'Pity it's not raining,' she whispered.

'Come and dance with me,' he said. And he took hold of her before anyone else could and steered her off.

The music was quick and they danced apart, only uncoupling their eyes when the intensity threatened to overwhelm or betray them. To have her so close and yet so inaccessible was like some exquisite form of torture. After the second number, Frank tried to take her away but Tom made a joke of being the older brother and wouldn't yield.

The next number was a slow ballad in which a woman sang about her lover on death row. At last they could get their hands on each other. The touch of her skin and the light press of her body through their clothes almost made him reel and he had for a moment to close his eyes. Somewhere, he knew, Diane would be watching but he didn't care.

The dust dance-floor was crammed. Annie looked about her at the faces and said quietly, 'I need to talk to you. How can we get to talk?'

He felt like saying what is there to talk about? You're going. That's all there is to say. Instead he said, 'The exercise pool. In twenty minutes. I'll meet you.'

She only had time to nod, because the next moment Frank came up again and took her away from him.

Grace's head was spinning and it wasn't just from the two glasses of punch she'd had. She had danced with almost everyone - Tom, Frank, Hank, Smoky, even dear sweet Joe - and the image she'd had of herself was thrilling. She could whirl, she could shimmy, she could even jive. She didn't once lose her balance. She could do anything. She wished Terri Carlson was here to see it. For the first time in her new life, perhaps even her whole life, she felt beautiful.

She needed to pee. There was a toilet at the side of the barn but when she got there she found a line of people waiting to use it. She decided no one would mind if she used one of the bathrooms indoors - she was family enough and after all it was her party, kind of - so she headed for the porch.

She came through the screen door, instinctively keeping her hand on it so it didn't slam. As she walked through the narrow L-shaped boot-room that led to the kitchen, she heard voices. Frank and Diane were having a row.

'You've just had too much to drink,' he said.

'Fuck you.'

'It's none of our business, Diane.'

'She's had her sights on him ever since she got here. Just take a look out there, she's like a bitch in heat.'

'That's ridiculous.'

'God, you men are so dumb.'

There was an angry clatter of dishes. Grace had stopped in her tracks. Just as she decided she'd better go back to the barn and wait in line, she heard Frank's footsteps heading for the open door to the boot-room. She knew she wouldn't have time to leave before he saw her. And if he caught her sneaking out he'd know for sure she'd been eavesdropping. All she could do was head on in and bump into him as if she'd just come in.

As Frank appeared in front of her in the doorway, he stopped and turned back to Diane.

'Anyone'd think you were jealous or something.'

'Oh give me a break!'

'Well you give him a break. He's a grown man, for Christsakes.'

'And she's a married woman with a kid, for Christsakes!'

Frank turned and came into the boot-room, shaking his head. Grace stepped toward him.

'Hi,' she said brightly. He seemed a lot more than just startled but he recovered instantly and beamed.

'Hey, it's the belle of the ball! Howya doing sweetheart?' He put his hands on her shoulders.

'Oh I'm having a great time. Thanks, for doing it and everything.'

'Grace it's a real pleasure, believe me.' He gave her a little kiss on the forehead.

'Is it okay if I use the bathroom in here? Just that there's a whole line of—'

'Course you can! You go right on in.'

When she went through into the kitchen there was no one there. She heard footsteps going upstairs. Sitting on the toilet, she wondered who it was they'd been arguing about and got a first uneasy inkling that perhaps she knew.

Annie got there before him and walked slowly around to the far side of the pool. The air smelled of chlorine. The strike of her shoes on the concrete floor echoed in the caverning darkness. She leaned against the whitewashed block wall and felt its soothing cool on her back. A sliver of light was spilling in from the barn and she watched its reflection on the dead calm water of the pool. In the other world outside, one country song ended and another, barely distinguishable, began.

It seemed impossible that it was only last night that they'd stood there in the creek house kitchen with no one to trouble them or keep them apart. She wished that she'd said then what she was going to tell him now. She hadn't trusted herself to find the right words. This morning when she'd woken in his arms, she had been no less sure, even in that same bed which only a week ago she'd shared with her husband. Her only shame was that she felt none. Still however, something had restrained her from telling him; and now she wondered if it was the fear of how he would react.

It wasn't that she doubted for one moment his love. How could she? There was just something about him, some sad foreshadowing that was almost fatalistic. She had seen it today, in his desperate intent that she should understand what he had done to Pilgrim.

There was a brief flooding of light now at the end of the passageway to the barn. He stopped and scanned for her in the darkness. She stepped toward him and at the sound he saw her and came to meet her. Annie ran the last few separating steps as if suddenly he might be snatched away. She felt in his embrace the same shuddering release of what all evening she had tried herself to contain. Their breathing was as one, their mouths, their blood as if pulsed through interlacing veins by the same heart.

When at last she could speak, she stood in the safety of his arms and told him that she was going to leave Robert. She spoke with such calm as she could muster, her cheek pressed to his chest, fearful perhaps of what she might see in his eyes were she to look. She said she knew how terrible the pain would be for all of them. Unlike the pain of losing Tom however, it was a pain she could at least imagine.

He listened in silence, holding her to him and stroking her face and hair. But when she had finished, still he didn't speak and Annie felt the first cold finger of dread steal upon her. She lifted her head, daring at last to look at him, and saw he was too filled with emotion yet to speak. He looked away across the pool. Outside the music thumped on. He looked back at her and gave a small shake of his head.

'Oh Annie.'

'What? Tell me.'

'You can't do that.'

'I can. I'll go back and tell him.'

'And Grace? You think you can tell Grace?'

She peered at him, searching his eyes. Why was he doing this? She'd hoped for validation and he'd proffered only doubt, thrusting at her immediately the one issue she'd dared not confront. And now Annie realized that in her deliberation she'd resorted to that old self-shielding habit of hers and rationalized it: of course children were upset by these things, she'd told herself, it was inevitable; but if it was done in a civilized, sensitive way there need be no lasting trauma; neither parent was lost, only some obsolete geography. In theory Annie knew this to be so; more than that, the divorces of several friends had proven it possible. Applied here and now, to them and Grace, it was of course nonsense.

He said, 'After what she's suffered—'

'You think I don't know!'

'Of course you do. What I was going to say is that because of that, because you know, you'll never let yourself do this, even if now you think you can.'

She felt tears coming and knew she couldn't stop them.

'I have no choice.' It was uttered in a small cry that echoed around the bare walls like a lament.

He said, 'That's what you said about Pilgrim, but you were wrong.'

'The only other choice is losing you!' He nodded. 'That's not a choice, can't you see? Could you choose to lose me?'

'No,' he said simply. 'But I don't have to.'

'Remember what you said about Pilgrim? You said he went to the brink and saw what was beyond and then chose to accept it.'

'But if what you see there is pain and suffering, then only a fool would choose to accept it.'

'But for us it wouldn't be pain and suffering.'

He shook his head. Annie felt a rush of anger now. At him for uttering what she knew in her heart to be right and at herself for the sobs now racking her body.

'You don't want me,' she said and hated herself at once for her maudlin self-pity, then even more for the triumph she felt as his eyes welled with tears.

'Oh Annie. You'll never know how much I want you.'

She cried in his arms and lost all sense of time and place. She told him she couldn't live without him and saw no portent when he told her this was true for him but not for her. He said that in time she would assess these days not with regret but as some gift of nature that had left all their lives the better.

When she could cry no more, she washed her face in the cool water of the pool and he found a towel and helped her mop the mascara that had swum from her eyes. They waited, saying little more, while the blotching faded from her cheeks. Then separately, when all seemed safe, they left.

 


Date: 2015-12-17; view: 877


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