"My family owns a house in Telluride" was his favorite, most useful line. And it was a particular kind of girl or woman he used it on, somebody with whom he could not foresee a future. She would one day perceive him truly, with X-ray eyes, and move on. In the meantime, he could take her for a long weekend to Telluride.
She would be impressed by the modesty of the place. "It really is a shack," he would insist during the drive from Arizona, the desert falling away mile by mile, shrubbery and rocks transforming subtly as he ascended, from prickly saguaro and desiccated scrub oak to piñon, then aspen and spruce, those more gracious, greener trees, an escalation of markers by which David had measured his own evolution, from nagging anticipation to delighted arrival, for over twenty-five years. Not much had changed, on that journey: neither for David, nor in the world around him. Yes, traffic in Tucson was worse; sure, Show Low had made a comeback; sadly, a piece of the Petrified Forest was on fire; and some gaudy casino had suddenly landed on the vast moonscape of the Navajo Nation. In Cortez, you detoured through the endless engineering endeavor to straighten out that highway, which used to be sexy 666, but now was newly, inoffensively numbered. Trout farming had become a going enterprise along the Dolores River, square plastic-lined pools in which writhing motion could be detected, as if someone were boiling rather than breeding a great roiling stew of fish. But: the most important things remained faithfully themselves, and David watched them pass as if they were winking at him, confirming their talisman-like confidence in his fortune.
"You're giddy," his current companion noted, in her peculiarly deep voice. When would this voice cease surprising David? "Very cute," it said. On the phone, you might mistake it for a man's voice. Its owner had not seen him this way before, unguardedly enthusiastic, and he knew joy made him appealing, as joy always did, like a child's smile, and also somehow vulnerable, for the same reason. She could hold his joy, that child's smile, in contempt. "You're like a little boy," she said, opening the two windows on her side of the car so that she could smoke. Meanwhile he held tight to the wheel and adhered to speed limits because he wanted nothing to interfere with his momentum, no rules to be broken, no winking signposts dissolved. Then they were at the penultimate turn, the box canyon just ahead, and the little town corralled within, its waterfall tumbling reliably at the precise backdrop center, a landscape painting by a sentimental artist.
"Telluride," he announced in a tone that said ta da! "The most beautiful place I've ever been."
"But"—she exhaled, teasing—"where have you been?" And he was too drunk with pleasure to do anything but laugh.
He narrated the noteworthy city sites as they rolled past, those milestones of adolescence and young adulthood: the former train station, where he'd watched, one night in the late seventies, as the firemen set flame to an outbuilding and then extinguished it, which was their tradition. Only later had they discovered that a member of their volunteers had suffered heart failure in the drunken hubbub. And this man was the father of one of the children watching, one of the boys rolling his eyes at the antics of his elders, which were not so different from the antics of the youngsters, who crowded a furtive campfire, smoking cigarettes on what had been, then, the rugged other side of the river.
"That's where we used to hang out on Friday and Saturday nights," he told his passenger, pointing at the marble steps of a former bank, its stately window now cluttered with sunglasses. "Waiting to see where the party was. And that's the bar that never carded, and up there is the historical museum, which we knew how to break into."
He left his wistful repertoire to study her. "Why?"
"Yeah. Why break into a museum? I mean, did you steal stuff?"
"No." Well, yes. But not important stuff. Danielle, he considered, was maybe different from the others he'd brought here. She was older, forty-two to his thirty-nine. Had she outgrown not only brattiness but the memory of its allure? Maybe. Once, in the middle of making love, he asked why she had closed her eyes. "I'm pretending you're someone else," she said. David had ceased motion, no idea what to say; that was what was wrong with him, he was often left in a lull, unsure of his rights to indignation or hurt feelings, of how a person was entitled to react. "Who?" he finally asked.
"My last boyfriend," she told him, slipping away, pulling a pillow into an embrace between them. "He was a married man, and a lot older than me. He died a couple of years ago, of a heart condition. I don't think of him the whole time, hardly ever, actually, I just was then, when you asked." She'd stared at David frankly, pillow still clutched in her arms. "I sometimes miss him," she added.
"And there's the house," David said now, making the turn that led up to the little home he loved more than any place in the world.
"The house that caulk built," the family fondly claimed. It was dwarfed, these days, by mansions on either side. Forty years earlier, Jack Hart had purchased this property upon the birth of his first child, Priscilla. They'd been campers, the Harts, until Pris was born. Mrs. Hart then put down her foot; she said so whenever the story was retold. "No infants in tents! No diapers in the wilderness!" And so a small house was found, there in a glorious dying mining town, in the heart of that place, on a hill, with views shockingly symphonic from the crooked front porch. The Harts abided by the academic calendar; they fled the heat of Tucson and discovered Telluride,
a summer respite, and in it a tiny miners' den with walls made of something called beaverboard, sagging into the ground, there atop a fading community of similar structures, occupied or abandoned by drunken miners and eccentric bar owners, Masons, shopkeepers, future ghosts. "The salt of the earth," Professor Hart would extol. He taught American Studies; his interests were wider and perhaps more catholic than those of many of his ivory tower cohorts. He thought his summer town unpretentious, gritty, endearing. He became an Elk; he agreed to be deputized for the annual invasion of Hells Angels on the Fourth of July. He invited his friends to
visit; his offspring did the same. Their home was small and shabby but filled with impromptu dinner parties, bridge games, storytelling sessions over the sticky kitchen table on which always sat a large bottle of red wine.
At the house—like a house in a cartoon, wedged between big bullying structures on either side—David parked, smiling in greeting to his hemmed-in old friend. Whatever the loss of open space—the dog pen, the falling-down shed, the horseshoe pit, the clothesline—nothing for him had changed about the sacred spot that remained, porch slats raggedly grinning. The air was bracing; the lack of oxygen might mean that your breath was literally taken away. Around him the peaks rose in their familiar battleship formations, proximate and daunting. They seemed poised to move, shift on their haunches and shrug the tiny toy town aside. No man-made object could detract from them. It was May, and they were still snow-covered; the aspen wore their nascent green, and on the streets below a resonant silence. Off-season. The collective reverent rest between tourist onslaughts.
Up the crumbling concrete steps David led Danielle; the doors would be locked, their keys long ago lost, but the west living room window would be unlatched. It would squeal when he yanked it up, and then, to prop it open, he would require the use of a tubular cast-iron counterweight that sat, year after year, in a cluster of other rusty or glass objects found on hikes and scavenging adventures, as porch decor. Then, nudging aside the desk that sat before the window, he would crawl through. Inside, David took a moment to breathe in the peculiar scent of this house: coal dust, which still filled the inner walls and pooled at the base of the spongy paneling; stale sunlight as it had been captured through the wavering glass of the western windows; a very faint odor of natural gas from a leak that could never be located; and the simply unique smell of the Hart family itself. In the living room around him the four easy chairs situated near lamps ("The history of the recliner," Mrs. Hart would say, "before your very eyes." The wooden original, a less ancient brocade-patterned model, a fifties version, and the comfortable but ugly pleather La-Z-Boy. Each with its
own nearby lamp; the Harts were readers.) Home.
Then David went to the front door, on the other side of which waited Danielle, who was shivering, staring cross-eyed at the door handle rather than at the monstrous mountains all around her. The elevation was nearly 9,000 feet; from bake-blasted Tucson you had to bring sweaters and wool socks as an act of faith. It was cold up here. At night, the stars devastated the clear, clear sky.
David Chalmers was a liar by nature, and now by long habit. He lied when it wasn't necessary, when it wasn't even advantageous. He lied to amuse himself, to excuse himself, to camouflage himself. The Harts were not his family. He'd been an honorary member, once upon a time, and then he'd been banished, albeit gently.
He had found the family through Priscilla, the eldest daughter, who at age nine, when she was asked, insisted that he was the friend she wished to bring with her for the summer visit. Priscilla was a tomboy, and David was her partner in crime; in Tucson they were prohibited from being in the same classroom at Sam Hughes Elementary. It was they who'd broken into the Telluride museum, along with some local miscreants. At night, they'd occupied the front upstairs bedroom, with its
cracked window view of town, the bats that dipped all night long at the green streetlight outside. Late enough, they'd tiptoe through the back bedroom, where Priscilla's little sisters slept, and exit the window there, onto the hillside and into the night. For five summers she'd invited him. And then they were fourteen, and the invitation did not come.
"What happened to your girlfriend?" his father asked that fateful June first, smirking behind his beer and sunglasses. "Have yourself a lovers' spat?" David had no desire or even ability to explain; it was the exact opposite of what his father suggested, not a lovers' spat but the taint of loverly possibility. Pris had never been his girlfriend. Until this summer, she hadn't been a girl. And now suddenly she was, and she'd invited another girl to accompany her.
He spent the summer imagining himself there, daydreaming his way into adventure as well as ordinary boredom, lounging on the porch with a pile of comic books, waiting for Dr. Hart to announce a project.
Dr. Hart enjoyed having David around. David listened with unskeptical, uncritical attention to what Dr. Hart taught him. He'd memorized the names of the vegetation, the difference between flower and weed; he'd read whatever novel Dr. Hart handed him, reporting back on his confused progress, scandalized, mystified, ashamed; he learned to drive on those dirt roads, his own parents busy eviscerating each other, impatient with him, unable to fathom what it was the Harts liked about him, resenting his ability to escape Tucson for weeks at a time while they were forced to remain, their jobs not ones that permitted long holidays, their friends not likely to have
summer homes in the mountains, and the existence of their son a complicating factor in their shared wish to part ways. David only reluctantly introduced them to the Harts, hustling the conversation along as he retrieved his duffel bag on the morning of the first departure. He'd been highly aware of Dr. Hart's taking in his family living room, the giant television, the absence of books or art, and, mostly, his mother's china doll collection, its pantheon standing rigid on their perches, staring back with their ice-cold eyes. Meanwhile, his mother had studied Mrs. Hart, glaring at her tall thinness, her long hair falling in a braid down her back, the easy smile on her
tanned face. Mrs. Hart was a potter; her hands were tools, unbeautiful, clay beneath her nails, calluses on her palms. She set her own schedule and followed arts fairs around the Southwest. Her three daughters blinked unafraid beside her, Priscilla, Violet, Lydia. Their white hair was tangled, their knees dirty; the older two already read above grade level and sassed the teachers, and so would the youngest, when it was her turn. They were occasionally kept home "to play in the dirt," Mrs. Hart said. "Just in case they start getting infected by the catty crowd. You know how girls can be," she appealed to David's mother.
"No," she said. "I just have David." Just. And as if she'd never been a girl herself. As if she'd been born the hag she was now, lumpen and unhappy, suspicious concerning the lifestyle of her neighbors, those hippie Harts. She and her husband let David go because they had no better options for his summer freedom, and expected the worst of him: delinquency, slovenliness, eventual arrest. They didn't provide spending money: if the Harts wanted him, they could have him, but his parents would never regard it as a favor to them.
Mrs. Hart from then on treated David with a small degree of pity—the moist glance, the gentle pat—which he accepted like any rescued creature. He was not proud, he knew that. She kissed him good night as she did her girls, the four of them tucked in upstairs where the cabin's air was stuffy and warm, the pitched ceiling directly overhead, decorated with their own childish artwork, the very walls their canvas, naughtiness and eloquence, crisscrossed by webs and spiders, which the Harts never killed, the old records of folk songs spinning on the player set before the open doors of the two bedrooms, the girls singing along to all the shocking lyrics. David
learned those songs, too. His favorite starred a rube who returned nightly to his home, only to be told by his scheming wife that the evidence he found of infidelity was nothing more than his drunken imagination. Not a horse in the yard, but a cow; not a coat on the rack but a quilt; and not a head on the pillow, where his ought to be, but a cabbage. "But a cow with a saddle?" the befuddled fool would lament. "A quilt with pockets?" "A cabbage head with a mustache I never did see before," the four of them would gleefully conclude the tune at top volume. In the morning, Mrs. Hart would ask how they had slept and serve them pancakes. Every day, pancakes,
studded with berries; like the dope in the song, David hadn't known pancakes came from anything but a box, or that there was such a thing as butter instead of margarine, or that syrup from its maple source ran thin and tart, nothing like the gluey stuff he got at home.
Then they were set free, out the front door to rush wild in the empty town. Down to the river, out to the mine, up the hills, into the few businesses that lined Main and where all the shopkeepers knew their names. David pretended to be the brother. He wished it with all his heart. At night they played kick-the-can with the local children, hiding behind sheds and burn barrels. When the curfew siren sounded, they'd head home, spend the next hour or two all four riding the propane tank in the side yard, that warm echoing horse, or rocket, or motorcycle, while the air cooled around them.
For five years the weeks he would spend in Telluride stood for David as an annual pinnacle, time that he anticipated and then consumed, a blend of ritual as he absorbed it from the Harts, and anomaly: the year the visiting dog bit off a chunk of the Hart dog's ear; the summer the city dug a hole in the front yard to fix a water line and failed to fill it in, an oozing pond into which Dr. Hart and his visiting graduate students planted a pair of sticks, clothed in pants and shoes, as if someone had dived in and stuck. These summer weeks were when David felt most fully himself, trotting alongside Priscilla down the rocky streets, plunging their skinny arms into the mail slot at the museum in order to turn the lock, climbing at midnight up the slender path beside the stream to a large flat stone they considered their own, reclining there
shoulder to shoulder, talking without thinking while stars fell overhead. Priscilla encouraged in him a frankness; perhaps she encouraged it in everyone. He hadn't spoken without forethought since his long-ago beginnings as a liar. And he hadn't done it since.
David pulled the cord for the kitchen light, a foreign familiar coin cool in his palm, beneath which sat the house's modest hub, the table. Here was where he'd learned the rules of bridge, Mrs. Hart always recognizing his anxiety just before he made a fatal error in play. Here was where, after a morning of painting or plumbing or weeding or roofing, he joined Dr. Hart for lunch. Sandwiches on bread made by Mrs. Hart, soggy combinations David's mother would never have dreamed up, and his father wouldn't have tolerated. Hummus. Shredded carrot. Basil leaves. What the Hart family called stinky-feet cheese. Beer. And afterward the afternoon, a warm haze, a certain kind of clicking bug hopping drunkenly through the air ...So strong was the sense of the past, so deep was his desire to have it restored, David for a moment forgot with whom he'd come today. Danielle. She was asking in her hoarse voice about the bathroom, about making a fire, about what they might do for dinner, which she
called, like a man, "chow." David immediately set to work with the necessary homecoming moves: plugging in the refrigerator, pulling bedsheets from the upper cupboards, running the water long enough to clear rust from the lines.
"This is a cozy room," Danielle said, after she'd emerged from the bathroom, toilet gurgling behind her. She stood at the door to Dr. and Mrs. Hart's bedroom.
"My room's upstairs," David said. He had never yet spent a night on the adult Harts' bed. He was willing to break into their home, but he was superstitious about sleeping where they had slept, having sex where they had had sex. "The view is better up there," he said, which certainly must be true, now that the mansion next door had blocked any kind of view or light from the elder Harts' bedroom window.
He and Danielle went up together, single file on the steep, noisy treads. In the front bedroom, where he'd spent five summers with Priscilla, and then one, in secret, with teenage Lydia, when he'd been her brief lover, he sat on the edge of the bed and creaked open the window, which, like the one downstairs, had its own distinct complaint. Cool air poured in like water. The moon was rising over the mountains, a glow there opposite the lingering glow of the setting sun.
"Once I found a bat hanging in here," David said, "before we put up screens." This story wasn't his but Priscilla's. She'd screamed, the black thing attached to her wall like a leather glove.
"It's incredible," Danielle said, blinking cross-eyed as her face encountered a web. "Smart investment, buying this back when."
"It wasn't an investment," David said, bristling as he always did when this dull observation was made. "They didn't buy it to make a profit."
"Yeah, okay, but most people wouldn't have hung on to it. Most people would have cashed in." And then, backing up, she asked, "They?"
"Before I was around," he said.
Dr. Hart had allowed David the use of the house one winter when David had tried to move to Telluride. He'd failed at college, been refused at both his mother's and his father's now-separate homes with their newly constituted second families, the fleet of stepsiblings he scorned. He found a job with the Telluride transit company, driving away three days a week in a truck he could barely control, returning the next day with the goods he had accumulated down in the larger towns. Film reels, liquor, coal, hardware, groceries. Without him, Telluride might fail to function. He had felt like a legitimate local for the three months that this idyllic situation stuttered along, like Santa when he arrived and threw open the truck's back doors to reveal its bounty. Then in November he crashed, rolled off the hillside on black ice, a delivery of beer cans and lumber spilled four hundred feet, and that was the end of his time as town hero. The men who worked at the gravel quarry at the bottom of the hill made off with the spoils; David could only crawl from the cab and shout ineffectually, clutching his broken arm, gasping around bruised lungs: Stop thief! Although his rent was free, he had no money for utilities or food or fun. He'd had to return abjectly to Tucson, gas for his own vehicle siphoned with a section of garden hose from somebody parked in the street. He'd not known how to leave a house in the winter; the pipes froze and burst, and a brood of skunks moved in under the floor. When the Harts returned,
as they always did, on June first, they'd had to stay in a hotel for a few days while the plumbing was replaced and vermin evicted. David also came to understand that he hadn't been particularly tidy as a tenant, either. "I don't blame you," Dr. Hart assured him. "But I wouldn't bring any of this up when you see Judy or the girls." With horror, David remembered the pornography he must surely have left under the upstairs bed. Who had discovered that?
Beside him Danielle sneezed, five loud times in a row. "I may be allergic to your house," she said. "And don't you ever bless anybody when they sneeze?" As she stepped cautiously, duck-footed, down the steps ahead of him, David had an ugly temptation to plant his foot squarely between her shoulders, deliver a powerful kick.
"Why's your room painted purple?" she was asking. "You some kinda gaylord?"
He'd known the Harts' schedule so well as to have engineered a pity pickup, one season. They always arrived on the first of June; he'd positioned himself, as hitchhiker, on the highway just east of Rico. This would permit neither too much nor too little time with the family.
He envisioned their drive as he made his own journey. He hitched from Tucson days earlier, accepting a long, lucky ride on a band bus with a bluegrass group booked at a bar in Telluride. Although that was his ultimate destination, he begged off at Rico, spending two nights camping on Scotch Creek. It snowed both nights; his small holey bivouac sack was frozen every morning as he hatched himself from it. By the time the Harts' white van appeared, David had been offered a half dozen rides; had the Harts driven by without stopping, he might have later sought them out for revenge, torched their little piece of paradise.
But they pulled over, as he had trusted they would, and he managed to hide his exhausted lingering and near hypothermia long enough to pretend utter astonishment at this incredible coincidence. This was two years after his stint as Telluride transit driver; he claimed he had a job waiting him, a place to crash, friends looking forward to his arrival.
Lydia and her best friend were along with the parents, that year. The other Hart girls were coming later; they had jobs, boyfriends, summer school. Only Lydia was still fixed in the family routine. She would be a high school senior in the fall; her best friend was a dark beauty who greeted David with an automatic seductive move of her knees as she made room for him and his damp belongings. Swinging himself into the vehicle, he witnessed an exchanged glance between the Hart parents; he wished he could convince them he was someone worth admitting back into the warm circle of their family. Prodigal? Wasn't that a role he might claim?
"Pris is getting married," Lydia informed him over her friend's presence. "At the house. Me and Violet are maids of honor."
"Violet and I," said Mrs. Hart.
"Wow," David said, trying to hide his hurt feelings. Nobody had notified him. And now nobody was inviting him. A pregnant pause filled more than a few miles.The teenage beauty allowed her bare thigh to rest against David's, although all he could think of was Priscilla, his old best friend. When they left him at the bakery—No, he wouldn't take money, although he might stop by for a drink, later on—he began immediately devising some way to become integral to the wedding. Lawn boy? Caterer? He had until the summer solstice to figure it out.
And the friend, because girls were cutthroat, would be the key, leading Lydia to sneak him into the house, through that same back window and into her bedroom, that purple place, and into her bed, which had once been Pris's, in order to claim victory in having seduced him. Twenty-four to her seventeen years, he closed his eyes during sex, an apology running in his mind like a prayer. For a couple of weeks, he lived upstairs without the Hart parents' knowledge, like a stray cat, padding softly across the floors, climbing in and out the back window, eating the food Lydia and her friend brought for him, crawling into bed beside her and lying when he said he'd always liked her best.
In the morning, David's eyes flew open. He'd heard the west window screech downstairs. He looked to the pillow next to him, where he expected to find Danielle, snoring mannishly away, but she was gone. Maybe she was climbing out of the house, finished with him.
Before he could pull on pants he heard the women meet, the vague scream of surprise on either side, the confrontation. This was backdrop to his swift calculations—through the upstairs window he would go, down to the car, out of town. But wait: no key! Then another flashing plan, the one story that would convince two people of his innocence. Palms flattening his hair, he wondered which sister it was, hoping for Lydia, who was the naughtiest Hart, the spoiled baby with whom he'd had shaming sex. He arrived at the bottom of the stairs just as its door was thrown open. Violet.
"David! What the hell ? I wondered whose car that was, with the Arizona plates."
He moved to embrace her, which would have been acceptable to placid Violet, except that she seemed somehow armored, wearing a backpack and carrying a shoe box.
"You're early," David chose to say, hoping that bluster might cover his trespass long enough to hustle Danielle out of earshot. "It's usually not until June first. This is Danielle, but I guess you met, I heard the yelling." Meanwhile, he made a whirl of himself, filling the kettle, lighting the gas. "I told your dad I was coming, but maybe he forgot to mention it?"
Violet didn't respond for a moment. She wasn't as fast on her feet as her sisters. Finally she said, "When did you tell Dad?"
"Maybe a month ago?"
Violet turned to Danielle. "What's your name, again?"
"Danielle," said Danielle. "Danielle Graham."
"I'm Violet, and this is my family's house. Welcome," she added, looking down Danielle's long bare legs under her nightshirt.
"Coffee?" David asked, having the absurd thought that this might not end badly, that Violet might allow him to escape utter humiliation. She had asthma, and sometimes disappeared from social exchanges in order to attend to her own respiration.
"Sure," Violet said, collecting breath, returning to them. "I don't know why I decided to drive all night."
"Lotta wildlife on the road?" David asked, fussing with filters, cups, potholders, avoiding Danielle's curious expression. Unlike other women, she had a patient observing personality, the same one that had been bemused by his childishness yesterday, the one that today studied him for clues as to what was going on. She was a nurse, and she didn't panic, not at the fact of bodily fluids, not at the arrival of an emergency, not at the sight of any human facial expression. She had seen them all. Would
that get him off this hook today? Or more fully snag him?
"I almost hit a dozen deer," said Violet. "I was starting to think it was the same one, following me, throwing itself out in the road like a joke. And its sidekick, the same dumb skunk." She set her box on the table, shrugged out of the pack, then pulled her knitted duster around her and fell, sighing, into a chair. As a middle child, she'd been accustomed to being left out. She was neither oldest nor youngest, and neither was she a boy, which would have been a Hart novelty. Perhaps she felt redundant. And as for David, he'd first been Pris's friend, leaving Violet with little tagalong Lydia, and then it was Lydia with whom David was close. Violet read books; she sometimes grew bored and tattled. David had always thought her the dud Hart, the least necessary of the bunch. Along with the asthma, she had a wandering eye, her
left, that nudged toward her skull. Because of imperfections, she had always seemed approachable, to be a nice person even if she wasn't, actually, a nice person. You might be misled by the wandering eye, as if her attention or intelligence or humanity also wandered, as if she had only to be half attended to.
Violet let him serve her coffee. Via chitchat, she and Danielle had discovered they were members of the same twenty-fourhour gym in Tucson, although Violet, lazy, rarely used the place, and Danielle's routine there was odd, given her shifts at the hospital.
"I'm here to plan Lydia's wedding," Violet addressed David. He forced himself to focus on the eye that reliably strayed. "Mom and Pris and Lyd are coming tomorrow, and then Pris's husband and kids the day after, with the fiancée."
David had seated himself at the head of the table, aware suddenly that his feet were bare and frozen, that he ought to have started a fire, that Violet hadn't mentioned her father's arrival time, that he was looking away from her face to the box she had set on the table, and that the label on it was that of a mortuary. There would be the wedding in a week, Violet was saying, but before then, before the men and children arrived, the women were going to spread Dr. Hart's ashes.
"Dad died," Violet said, adding, apologetically, "last December. Pancreatic cancer. It was very unexpected." She was studying her coffee cup, which was one her mother had thrown, years ago; all of the cups and plates and bowls and trivets were of her making, mismatched seconds that she'd not been able to sell. There was a mug in the cupboard that had been David's, once upon a time.
He blinked at the white box. The box could have held shoes, or a pastry, perhaps letterhead. He felt specifically as if his body was repulsing the news of its true contents, like the wrong end of a magnet. The box on the table, the table in the house, the house in the town, the town in the canyon. And the man, in the box. David was dizzy. "Christmas was awful," Violet was saying, "but I think we're all getting used to it. We thought we'd take him up to Blue Lake. He always said that was his favorite spot. Although I'm not sure Mom can make it up there, anymore. Arthritis. She's a potter," she explained to Danielle, "so it's really especially cruel to have arthritis."
"I didn't know," David finally uttered. Cruel, he noted; maybe Violet had found religion, believed now in some figure who'd cruelly afflicted her mother with arthritis, Violet's own peculiar brand of rebellion against passionate atheist parents. "Why didn't you tell me?" he finally said, interrupting an exchange the women were having. Danielle, he'd overheard, learning it for the first time, was an orphan.
This time Violet performed her unique blink, one eye closing just before the other. "His obituary ran in the paper," she said at last. They should have notified him, he thought, he should have been personally told. How was it they could not understand his affection for them all, his need especially of Dr. Hart?
Violet said, gently, "I think you probably ought to get out of here today. I don't really care that you're here, but it's not going to be cool with Mom or Pris."
He never got away with anything, David thought. If it wasn't an officer of the law actually pulling him over, it was a ticket in the mail, the indisputable evidence of his vehicle, flying by a camera, traveling many miles over the limit. What a person might eventually ask himself was, Why did he feel a need to break rules, tell lies, have things to get away with? Why couldn't he, in some definitive way, exhaust or outgrow childish defiance?
Upstairs, bundling their belongings back into their bags, David preempted what he believed would be Danielle's outrage by saying, "Don't say anything, okay? Just don't say a fucking word." She was his responsibility, witness to his humiliation, a woman with a horsey face—big square teeth, oversize jaw, hair she tossed like a mane—five hundred miles from Tucson, where she belonged. When he first saw her, he'd wondered if she was a former man. And now she was stripping the bed, methodically
removing what they'd just last night spread out together.
"We have to wash these," she said. "It's the least." Downstairs, she assured Violet she would return the sheets by noon, leave them on the front porch. David glanced at the broken-handled mug atop the refrigerator, where the quarters were kept for the washeteria, and then his gaze crashed into Violet's, whose eyes had also gone automatically to the money.
While the sheets churned, David took Danielle to his favorite bar. The bartender was the same as previous years; she said hello without true recognition of him, the generic hospitality of a tourist town. He began to tell Danielle about the local character who rode his horse through these very doors, reliably, every year, when she stopped him.
"You already told me about that."
"I did?" He wondered if he'd also told her about being beat up behind this bar, if he'd trotted out that particular tall tale, the explanation for the divot in his forehead, from the time he'd taken a header in the alley and then blamed his scabs on two mythical men, his false beating. He touched his scar and raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah, I heard all about that, too. You know, I'm beginning to feel like I could diagnose you."
"I don't want a diagnosis." But then he discovered he'd rather know it than not. "All right, what?" He was ready to deny being a compulsive liar.
"I don't even know what that means."
"Not knowing doesn't exempt you. You live in the past, you revisit the same things over and over. This place is nothing but a big nostalgia trip for you. I don't know what the story is with you and that family, but—"
He inserted himself here, "Messy breakup with Violet," he lied. "The others—"
"I. Don't. Care," Danielle said. He could tell from her expression that she didn't. The details bored her. Neon beer lights turned her face green, then yellow. She was as mechanically unmoved as one of the machines she manned at the hospital, merely charting a human condition. "Just for a change, how about you ask me something," she proposed. "How about that?"
"Okay." David thought a moment. "How old was that other boyfriend?"
"Seventy," she said.
"My parents were spinning in their graves, a man as old as them. But I loved him with all my heart."
"Why?" Danielle leaned back, focusing on David's face. "Two questions in a row. It's a record. But whatever. I'd rather visit my weird situation than hear about yours. So I loved Franklin because, when I talked with him, I always imagined that we were wandering around in a big house, a big house with endless rooms, and every time I thought we might encounter some closed door, in one of those rooms, instead we would find an open one. Open doors, open doors, one after another. That's why I loved him."
David imagined the house, the wind circulating through those rooms, doors swinging on hinges.
"You can't smoke in here," the bartender came over to tell her, as soon as Danielle had lit up. "New law."
She suddenly laughed. "I love drinking before noon," she declared.
"It's a great high," David agreed. "The altitude really helps." He was tempted to tell her about the BIOTA club—blame it on the altitude—but was afraid he'd already done so.
Back at the washeteria, they couldn't locate their load of sheets and underwear. Every machine was empty, the row of washers with their open mouths, the row of dryers hollow bellies. "What the fuck?" David said. The floor was damp, a smell of chlorine, a cool breeze through a broken window. There was nobody to appeal to, the business a self-service one; upstairs were apartments, blameless tenants. "You tell her," he said to Danielle. She shrugged, willing. Her record was still relatively clean. He watched from the street as Danielle banged on the front door. When Violet answered it, she sneezed into the sunlight.
"Bless you," David heard. Then the two women went inside, the door banging behind them. David waited. He studied the garbage can, latched the clip so that bears wouldn't overturn it, swept with his foot the accumulation of concrete rubble at the bottom of the steps, swiped his hand on the creosote treated light pole just to have the odor on his fingers. Finally Danielle emerged.
"What took so long?"
"None of your beeswax. I wrote her a check, she can buy six hundred thread count. And then we exchanged numbers. We might share a trainer this fall."
"I don't actually know what you're talking about."
"You're in shock," Danielle said. "I've seen it before."
"The dead dad?" Duh, her tone said.
Dr. Hart. David saw him suddenly at the kitchen table, a few of his university cronies alongside, bearded and complaining around the glowing wine bottle—bastard politicians, pretentious films, popular potboilers, historical rogues, critical tirades turned into a competitive sport—while Mrs. Hart floated around humming, serving food, salving childish wounds, changing records, locating pajamas and lighters and answers to all manner of esoteric inquiry, Who the hell was that poet? Where oh where was the blankie? Even then, when David was a young boy allowed to sit beside Dr. Hart, to sip at the wine if he wanted, to occasionally receive a fond pat on the back, he had recognized the difference between Dr. Hart and those others. Concerning a certain slim confounding novel that Dr. Hart had just the day before handed to David, one particular colleague had sneered, "Is that any good?" A gauntlet, made of contempt.
"Well," Dr. Hart had said, tipping his head thoughtfully— humble, shy, sagacious—"I liked it."
"I liked it, too!" David had declared, heart swollen with pride, confoundedness forgotten, pledging loyalty to his king. The table laughed, and he felt himself shrink back to proportion: skinny boy on a quaking stool, parrot or ventriloquist's doll, squawking sidekick to the great man.
Still, he was a great man. "Keys?" Danielle said, out of nowhere. Apparently she had been waiting, palm out, fingers wiggling. "I should drive."
It snowed that night. They stayed at a lodge on the edge of town, down by the river, by the former train station where an outhouse had once burned. David opened his mouth to tell the tale, then couldn't remember whether he'd already told it, and didn't want to be scolded for perseverating. Diagnosis indeed. He did appreciate Danielle's accepting the change in plans. She did not seem shocked by his deceit, and she had a functioning credit card to offer at the front desk. David himself was consigned to cash, which he readily provided—what he had of it—promising to make up later what he owed.
"No reason to ruin the weekend," Danielle had said. ER nurse: David had to admire her unflinching willingness to roll with the punches. This, too, reminded him of a man. When she undressed, he watched from the back, mentally sheering off her long hair so as to see only the wide swimmer's shoulders and narrow hips, calves overmuscled, feet perhaps flat, certainly large. Then she dropped her hair and swung around, her breasts dispelling any lingering sense of manliness.
"I think it's only fair to tell you that I'm not using protection," she said, in the middle of sex.
David laughed, relieved to be in the throes of someone else's story, whatever weave of fabrication that allowed her to think her admission, at this late date, honorable. "Duly noted," he said.
"I was pregnant before, with the married man, and I aborted. I really wish I hadn't. It's my big regret. Franklin," she added.
The image of that man had been taking shape in David's mind, a dead man like Dr. Hart, and that's who he was thinking about as they finished having unprotected sex.
Danielle wore one of David's jackets when they went out walking on their third and last evening in Telluride. He was glad to do something for her, clutching at any small favor. They stopped by the trash cans outside the Hart house, snow falling once again around the warm glow of the window. The tentative green of spring would not be killed by this storm. It was a harmless piece of winter, an errant cold cloud making a pit stop here, committing no permanent damage. Inside were the women, the mother and three daughters; Judy Hart still wore her braid down her back, silver now against her bronze face. She smiled, sitting at the head of the table, facing the window, where she would see only her own reflection. Others crossed the small space, moving from stove to sink to refrigerator, a tight choreography with which David was intimately familiar. But now strangers filled the space, two men, and two little boys, Pris's children, who would no doubt be put to sleep in the back bedroom upstairs, under the drawings made by their mother and aunts. And by David. His scrawlings were up there, too.
"Looking in like this reminds me of a snow globe," Danielle said, quiet and low. "Except we're in the snow, and they're in the globe." There'd been drinks with dinner; David held her hand happily, quietly. He wished Priscilla would step onto the porch and discover his happiness; he needed to display it, to prove it. At least the sons-in-law hadn't taken Dr. Hart's place at the head of the table. At least that hadn't happened.
He saw Lydia embrace one of the men, from the back, lean over him and put her face beside his. Her hair was the same bleached straggle from childhood. It was her mother who had discovered David and Lydia in bed, one morning long ago, only days before Pris was to be married, when David was officially an adult and Lydia officially not. Judy Hart opened the door after rapping briefly. "Lyd?" Then closed her eyes at the sight of David's bare chest. She hadn't been angry; she was a kind, kind woman, whose disappointment was far harder to bear than her anger. "Let's not tell your father," she suggested to her daughter, still standing there at the door, eyes averted. "I'm afraid he won't understand."
Danielle asked him, "Do you wish you were in there, instead of out here?"
"No," David said. And then he was reviewing his response. It was a lie—or else it wasn't.
Reprinted from NOTHING RIGHT: Short Stories by Antonya Nelson. Copyright © 2009 by Antonya Nelson. Reprinted by Permission of Bloomsbury.