Of course, he thought, it would have to rain at the funeral. Drab, expected rain, lashing umbrellas and overcoats and making the ground feel squishy, not hard like a prison or a resting place should be. What a misfortune, thought Donald, for his uncle to have to be buried in useless stuff like this. The word ’muck,’ kept ringing over and over in his head, and he found it hard to resist the urge to move his feet up and down and listen to the sucking sound they’d make. Surface tension, he thought.
Anyway the service was almost over. Donald had paid less attention than he thought he would. The priest, shielded from the rain by a teenage boy holding a big umbrella, finished saying whatever it is that priests say. Donald’s wife had the perfect funeral expression; head slightly inclined, lips buttoned, one loose wisp of hair tickling the mournful cheek. He tried to imitate it. But, with his jowls, it occurred to him that he probably gave the impression of a Saint Bernard, or possibly a beagle, and he stopped.
Donald had never known his parents. All his memories of his mother could be reduced to one stained, sepia print: a sad-looking woman in a loose skirt, looked up at through the plastic cage of a cozy coupe. It did not even have pedals. The wind blew (or had he made this up later?) and Donald, gaze running up along her tall white legs, wanted an ice cream sandwich. An ice-cream sandwich. Which, at the time, was one of the two or three best things in the world.
Donald’s uncle (now resident of sub-terra, pop. uncounted) had plenty of ice-cream sandwiches. And always breakfast food. Uncle Pete (how long had he kept calling him ’Uncle Pete?) made pigs-in-a-blanket or French toast every morning. Of his life, maybe. Aunt Rhoda (strangely tearless today, in black muslin dress and veil like a bride in a negative.) liked to wake up Donald by opening the window over his bed. Later, he developed hay-fever and she would bring him orange juice with dissolved zinc tablets. Neither adopted parent was capable of denying him anything, sweets or toys or whatever, or of demanding from him anything besides a mute exculpation. We didn’t do it, their meek faces said.
He later realized that they were consumed by guilt, on account of being sure they could not do as good a job of raising the boy as his heroic, natural parents would have. And the bizarre nature of the accident (mid air collision, South Pacific, Donald Sr. after all, being a guidance expert.) must have made it seem like a curse, a curse brought down upon their smug, new-agey, not-contributing-to-overpopulation household.
Perhaps they ruined me for good, Donald thought. The service was over. He hugged his Aunt Rhoda for a long time; then she hugged his wife. Everybody shuffled by and shook Donald’s hand, ’said a few words,’ sometimes a manly pat on the shoulder, sometimes weepy complements on his eulogy. Lots of people; he had not thought there’d be so many. The big cemetery oaks shook drops of water off their leaves, as if instructed to do so by a bad poet. Donald listened to the sound his galoshes made; suuuck. He liked that sound. He imagined that he was stepping on hundreds of tiny frogs.
On the ride home his wife, driving with one hand, rubbed Donald’s shoulder. She talked about This American Life and Indian Food and the Embargo Somewhere. Donald watched the telephone poles and trees. Then the railroad tracks. The only thing he loved more than trains were ocean steamships of the 1930’s. Of the 1930’s. And his wife, of course.
About halfway back they stopped at a gas station to fill up the Yaris (EPA est. 29 city/ 35 hwy.) Donald, without saying anything to his wife, wandered into the convenience store and bought a single ice-cream sandwich. He felt slightly shocked they still made them. A pimpled teenager rang him up, then went back to cleaning the clean counter, in a slow, sad motion.
His wife gave Donald a funny look as he ate his ice-cream sandwich in the car. Her cheeks rose up to push her eyes into narrow quarter circles, her mouth hung slightly open.
Donald said, “Seriously I had no idea they still made these. Isn’t that some kind of a modern miracle?”
“I guess,” she said. “Anyway Marsha said she could watch the house for a few days if we wanted to go next week.” She stopped, fixed her deep gaze on him as if waiting or a cue to go on.
“Next week,” Donald repeated. Oh, right. Spring break. Donald would not be working. The kids would not be at school. He had been looking forward to twelve identical days, beginning and ending with Black Belt Sudoku. His wife wanted to go, for some unknown reason, to Europe. To Italy. In the only book Donald had ever read about Venice, people got sick from breathing something called a ’Sirocco,’ which Volkswagen, I.G. later, inexplicably, named a small car after. Donald felt squeamish around things like lagoons and estuaries, and he loathed street vendors. He liked blueprints but ’great architecture’ usually bored him. The palace of sighs did not have a 26 knot cruising speed, or 11 separate watertight compartments. It was not later put into service as a collier during WWII.
They got home, and Donald’s wife lay next to him on their tall bed. She stroked his hair. Thinking, probably, that he’d be benumbed with grief. He tried to feel what he was supposed to feel but a great vast ocean of forgetfulness lapped up all around him. The man who’d raised him was gone, sunk under the earth. What did that mean? Very little, in one way. In another, it felt like a giant trusswork beneath him had suddenly turned intangible. He had a nightmare that his bed, the floor, the earth’s crust, would all liquefy at once and he would fall, deeper than anyone had ever fallen before, that there’d be nothing to hold him up ever again. Up ever again.
Next day (Tuesday, Mar. 27), despite the advice of people who seemed to care, Donald showed up at work. He had three periods, honors geometry, honors algebra II, and calculus BC, in the afternoon. And standing there, hands in his pants pockets, talking about angles to loud, uninterested teenagers, he almost forgot all about his falling dreams, the wet earth, his dead relatives.
At the break he snuck into the cafeteria and ate two ice cream sandwiches. How had he missed these all along? Suddenly he all-but trembled with excitement. His skin grew deliciously hot and then cool again, electric. Why?
Then, walking into room 34A, putting down his books with a fat thump on his nautical desk, gazing out across the roundish, young faces, he remembered. Villette, incandescent 11th grader, sitting in the front row, with a wisp of curly black hair tickling her cheek. Her body in a thin old t-shirt and tight jeans a perfect double integral sign: SS, and as he lectured all he had to do was glance at her every now and then and that tingle would come back, up and down his spine and make his cheeks flush like he’d had four gin and tonics. If he looked long enough he would get something of a conic section and have to cross his legs or put his hands in his pockets. . . .
Towards the end of class he handed back a test. He explained the curve, one of those teachers who could not resist the urge to do extra math. The kids chewed gum or nodded off, scratched gang signs into desks. Donald had never once sent a student to the dean’s, his upbringing having given him no aptitude for punishment.
He gave Villette her test. Their fingers briefly held the same paper at the same time. He worried his hand would get it wet. She threw her head back and made a motion of gathering her hair into a knot. Then with such a sublime gesture of resignation she stuffed the paper into her ratty backpack. . . . For the rest of the period sat with her cheek propped on her fist, her gaze, so he thought, going straight through the portly professor, penetrating the yellow walls and shooting out, like a meteor into the blue day. She had no aptitude for maths.
Like Donald’s wife. At home again, he sat at the dining room table while she diced a cucumber. The house smelled like feta cheese and olives. Donald listened to the staccato chopping and the bubbling water. 212 degrees Fahrenheit, give or take. He finished the last puzzle in his ’ultimate logic challenge,’ book, and inserted it neatly into the bookshelf under the window. The blinds were covered in dust; he should clean them. On the top shelf, his prize model: the S.S. Lusitania, glimmered.
Through the wide doorway he watched his wife. How sad, he thought, that women do not stay the same forever, like ships. She still looked younger than he did, of course, but now her tits, more pearlike, had fallen an inch or so toward the earth. Her tiny waist drooped. Little, hard lines had appeared (when had he noticed them?) around the corners of her eyes. Her still-manic and imperious dark eyes. In spite of them, one day she would join his uncle under the damp ground, or be sublimed in an oven, her soft parts turned to smoke and her bones to a fine dust. They kept them like books in a library after that, he’d heard. Then, shocked at his own irreverence, Donald forced himself to look at her again and think of how she loved him. An artist, she had painted the Lusitania for him, with tiny, tiny brushes.
“What’s up?” she said, as they ate. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “This salad is really excellent. Also, I overheard one of the incorrigible ignoramuses in my morning class explaining to another troglodyte how Iraq was full of ’Hindoos’.”
She laughed, her clear, always-derisive laugh, reassured.
But Donald was far away, his mind tracing a path into a weird, hot, wet region, where the delta x and delta y of his life approached a terminal synthesis, the alchemical asymptote of human and human. Touch had always been strange to him. Maybe because he grew up alone, on an all-but-abandoned farm not thirty five miles from here (Now the Sternbridge estates.) With only the elderly and chickens around for acres. Other children, to him, had seemed like wild animals, or aliens. They knew nothing about watertight compartments or gross tonnage. They did not even know about diesel brakes or prime movers, although he’d offered to teach them.
And now here he was. He returned from lunch break across a rain soaked campus, said hi to a haglike dean and, shaking off his umbrella, went through the door of A building. Then on through the crowd of turgid cave-dwellers, dodging and scurrying, until he backed into room 34, somehow without a tugboat. Donald had felt depressed and out-of-sorts all day. He woke up to the neuralgic sunrise and wondered if he shouldn’t maybe, have done something completely different with his life. Wouldn’t Penny love me even more, he thought, if I had gone ahead and gotten my masters in mechanical engineering, and now wore a suit to work and my smile was a badge of secrecy? Weird doubts racked his brain. He wondered, besides, if he’d gotten married too young. . . . The first little fox that came along, as his uncle would have said.
Intense guilt had started the whole cascade, wet rocks tumbling down a hill, setting off one sodden neuron after another. In the blackness of the night, his arm around his wife, an image of Villette appeared. And, like those words and phrases that would sometimes repeat themselves in his head, the image got stuck, became more and more vivid the more he tried to get rid of it. His heart began to pound. Electric sweat trickled down his flank. A firm hardon poked his wife but, fast asleep, she didn’t notice. Before he finally lost consciousness he had glimpsed: Villette’s two giant white legs towering over him, as if she had grown to the size of a cathedral and he become a lone penitent staring up into the rose-colored vault.
With his usual love for right angles he positioned a transparency on the overhead; a slide showing the formula for, ha! exponential decay. He killed the lights. Pens and pencils scratched on notepads; someone shuffled their feet. As he talked, his eye kept moving, like a gentle hand, across Villette Juspezecyk’s sprawled figure, legs immaturely spread wide under her desk. Her face, in the bluish projector light, terrified and enchanted him. The tender pattern of its shadows, its widely spaced, dark eyes and slightly too-large nose, somehow like the prow of an icebreaker.
“So, say we take this sample of Polonium 210. . . . ” he said, all but unconsciously. In the rain-spattered quiet in between his words, in the dark between photons of the overhead, it finally came to Donald, the reason why, and he could almost believe she was his wife, his wife in the days when her love had still flattered him. Penelope, basically his first, at the time a strange girl who seemed to hate everyone, now an accomplished painter in the neo-romantic style. They met at New Waterloo U, she a freshman and he just graduated, in the first year of interning for his credential. And though he’d had ample time to prepare, it was she who finally seduced him.
Villette had not taken any notes, yet seemed to be looking right at him, a vacuous or rapturous look, mouth hanging slack, eyelids drooping. Not that it mattered to him whether or not she understood calculus.
After a while the bell rang, another school day ended. The kids all got up, almost at once. Sound rushed in, like water after a torpedo, a sudden tumult of zippers and books and backpacks and speech. What’s this? he thought. Instead of following the herd straight out the door Villette looked both ways and then, slowly, coltishly, came over to the front desk, where Donald gathered up papers and slides. She had her test in her hand.
“Um, like, Mr. Collingwood?”
For a bottomless instant, he pretended not to have heard her. A coquette, feigning annoyance at the interruption. His heart revved wildly.
“Yes, Miss. . . . . I could never wrap my tongue around your distinguished surname.”
“I like the way you talk,” she said. “You’re the only teacher who talks like a book.”
A sharp breath, trying not to sweat too much. The rain lashed at the windows, a false nighttime beyond the blinds.
“What can I do for you?” he said.
“Um.” She leaned far towards him, placing the paper on his desk; her white arm fragrant with something mysterious, probably cheap; it put him in mind of hanging gardens and souvenirs. He sat down to look at it, a problem, circled. (They were nearly all festooned with red.) As she leaned, the point of his desk pressed into the bottom of her stomach; a thin sliver of bare skin between pants-top and shirt. Which, as he babbled something about natural logs, he could not peel his eyes from. So close! Their hands brushed, as she laid out her calculator and he showed her (thinking, absurdly, of piano lessons in some Romance novel. Chopin’s ghost.) how to use the e and ln keys.
“Okay,” her throaty, almost a 9 year old boy’s, voice, “So that’s how you find the natural log. . . . ” And then she stepped back, suddenly, swept her hair up to fix a failing ponytail. Her head was turned toward the back of the room. Out in the hallway, the noise of footsteps started to die out. She bit her lip.
He thought of his wife, and of the ed. code and the wicked old dean. He made a big deal of putting all his books and papers away. Trying to think the phrase at her: what are you still doing here? And will you please leave now? But to no avail. The wall clock read three fifteen.
Villette turned back to him, her chest going up and down, more slowly now.
Very matter of fact, she said, “Hey, can you give me a ride home?” Taking a step forward. “It’s kind of—” lower, “kind of an emergency.”
For the first time he stumbled, besieged. He had no resources, nothing left to defend himself with. He quivered, struck amidships. Struck amidships.
“Please?” Nothing in his life had, or could have, prepared him for this. Uncle Peter, he thought to himself, would be cheerfully halfway to where-ever with her by now, windows down, radio blasting, and let-it-be their little secret. But the code of conduct, like the load threshold of a bulkhead, seared him and he felt paralyzed. He had perhaps been given so little discipline that he’d been forced to make his own.
But that look, the knotted eyebrow, the rose-button mouth, the agonized nostril (he’d sputtered, “I can’t. Rules,” or something to that effect.) had once been Penelope’s and when he finally locked up his classroom, he looked both ways down the hall and went for the back door, where Villette’d be waiting, like a petite Admiral Togo, unseen in the stairwell.
The left windshield wiper pursued the right, then they changed roles and kept going at it, like cartoon animals, sheets of gray water falling in the spaces between them. The heater fan whirred. Donald’s hands trembled on the wheel. He felt self-conscious about the clump of wet hair on his head. Next to him, Villette moved her soggy legs and her shoes made a squishing sound. ’Suuuk,’ it sounded like. Or ’spwort.’ She wore only a thin hooded sweater, her t-shirt, and soggy jeans.
“This is fun,” she said, through chattering teeth. “It’s like we’re spies or something, sneaking around. I wonder who else at our school has a secret life.”
“I mean, Mr. Preveza is obsessed with World of Warcraft,” he said. Taillights blurred and shimmered in front of them, the waters swept the road.
She laughed, a real, loud, biting laugh. Spots of red bloomed in her cheeks. “Oh my god that’s great. What a tool. Who else? Who smokes weed? I know I’ve smelled it in the teacher’s lounge.”
And now Donald, his head spinning, no longer felt quite sure if he was more afraid of boring her or of being fired. His words spurted out like whipped cream.
“Are you sure it wasn’t just your breath?”
More laughter. “I hate weed,” she said. “Not that I haven’t tried it; all kids have. But I think it makes you stupid. I want to be an investigative reporter.” She pronounced it carefully, like a phrase she was proud of, something she would not let her friends use.
Gloomy parking lots gave way at last to houses, then houses and trees. She’d told him she lived off route 9; making her and Donald almost neighbors. She talked and talked, stuff about her parents and her dreams and her college applications; he stared at the gages, in his head a boiler room, steam valves shuddering, engines to full. Engines to full.
“Are you friends with that girl Barbra Rossa?” he said, half to forestall her from telling anything he’d be responsible to report. It was the first name from the roster that had popped into his head.
“Oh dear God no,” her voice, clear and nasal as a choirboy’s. “That girl’s a monster. She stole my haircut and told everyone I was in a porn. Oh, oh, apparently she takes laxatives to try to lose weight.”
Donald thought this was funny. He thought it would be inappropriate to laugh so he set his jaw and nodded instead. Villette had folded herself prettily, a sigma in the passenger seat. One hand resting on the console. Chipped black nail polish. What sum could he draw out of this, what sequence could he derive?
“You know when she was trying to get me to change her grade,” Could he say this? “She gave me a forged doctor’s note on which she had misspelled ’glandular’.”
“Ha ha ha,” Ringing against the sides of the car, swaying on the narrow road. She reached over and turned up the heater. Donald was afraid, if this kept up, he would cause his car to shake itself apart, by the transitive property. Why? he thought. He would have been content to teach her maths.
“Do you like ice-cream sandwiches?” he said.
“Huh? It’s so cold out,” she twined a finger through damp hair. “I want hot-chocolate. Can we stop for hot chocolate?”
He knew of a convenience store, ahead up the road. It had awnings, a freezer and a hot water machine.
“I suppose so,” he said.
They forded the roadside dip, then pulled into the parking lot. The fans buzzed.
“You ready?” hands on her thighs. Her teeth still chattered.
“Yes,” he said. He felt suddenly very sad that he could not hold an umbrella for her. But he did not have one.
He opened his door and she said, “run for it.” They ducked under the water curtain pouring off the awnings. The store was brightly-lit and smelled like clorox. Villette scurried over to the coffee-and-hot water, her feet going ’squish, squish, squish.’ At first Donald thought they were the only ones in there. A fog filled up his brain and he almost crashed into a stack of magazines. Cosmo.
He went over to the freezer, pulled out an ice-cream sandwich. The silver wrapping crinkled. Behind the counter, a teenage boy stooped over a newspaper or magazine. Donald turned around. Villette, stirring her hot chocolate, smiling, came up to him at the register (so close! He had not thought she would come so close.)
He was about to pay, when the bells jingled at the door. He turned his head but by the time he had made visual contact it was too late. A collision: unavoidable. Marsha smiled at first, on seeing him, naturally, but her smile changed abruptly to a curious mute look. Donald froze, flooded with terror. The ice-cream sandwich hung limply from two fingers.
“Don,” she said. She had noticed the girl, of course, but seemed to try and pretend she didn’t. “Fhwew. It’s really coming down, isn’t it?”
He held the ice-cream sandwich up, feebly, like a flag. Not a Jolly Roger or a Maltese cross but the craven banner of a landlocked country. The flag of a child’s heart. He thought of loam and weathervanes, rust and places you go into but never come out of. Like his uncle’s hospital.
Villette’s smaller voice shook him out of it.
“Hey. . . . ” She had a soggy dollar bill.
“Don’t worry about it,” Donald said. And to the clerk: “The hot-chocolate, too, please.” The hollow ring of the cash register. Marsha, her blonde hair tied in a bun, was buying an eye-glasses cleaning kit, some mentos and a bottle of water.
“Uh sure is. Sure is . . . coming down,” Donald said. He took his sixty-seven cents change.
“Sure is. Are you excited?” With a meaningful glance. He almost jumped. “About your trip?” she had to continue. Dragging it out. Listing, listing. “Your wife told me you were planning a trip.”
“Yeah, Venice,” he said, “Well, I’ve got—got an emergency drop off to make, but it was nice running into you.” she nodded, with a buttery, Real-Estate smile, the kind that Donald found usually had no intention of fooling anybody but was meant, like so much in adulthood, to signify its opposite. As the door jangled again he said, over his shoulder, “we may need lifeboats to get to the car,” and the rain drowned out her laugh.
White plumes of spray shot up from either fender as they left the parking lot and pulled out onto the road. Villette slurped her hot chocolate through the travel-lid, both little hands on the styrafoam cup.
“I’m so wet,” she said. He showed her the twin cupholders, took a bite out of the Klondike, then laid it down next to the hot-chocolate cup. Her left hand, once again, invaded the center of the car, this time resting, provocatively, on the gear selector knob.
“Where do I go from here?” Donald said. Bits of Chocolate and he did not want to start crying. In his mind, Marsha already at his house, she and his wife already phoning lawyers, the school, the police.
“Left. Left up here,” Villette said. Greenish lawns, muddy now, rose on either side of the road. Big Sycamores swayed in the wind. A tiny one-lane, or maybe driveway, curled up between thickets on their left, to vanish soon, in a blind turn and the haze.
He slowed, turn signal on. Instinctively (the Yaris was his first automatic) his hand fell on the shift knob, and he felt her soft warm skin; fingertip on laquered nail.
She laughed like someone being tickled; he looked down sharply. The fans went, the engine whined. He looked up again but, as had happened before, it was already too late. A small Sweedish car (these were his thoughts) emerged from the rain, bearing 00000. Donald spun the wheel left-wards, each driver, they would learn, steering towards where the other car wasn’t but would be, instead of where it was but would not be, each chasing a mythical empty space near the west shoulder of the road.
Donald felt the sensation of being taken up, adopted, even blessed, by an incredible force; huge, vectorial wings, black wings, beating through Minkowskian space. That same emphatic falling, from his dreams, but shifted ninety degrees. For an instant the two cars moved as one, one body acted-upon, at one with nature.
Full stop, the engine dead but the heater fans still whirring. Donald noticed the bizarre angle of his and Villlette’s seats relative to the horizontal. He now sat about two feet higher than she did. His hands were still frozen in the 9 o clock, 3 o clock they had rushed to in the second before impact. His right hand still felt Villette’s touch, as it had a second before that. The airbag had singed his arm, without reaching his chest.
Off to their immediate right, a drab silver Saab, its front fascia gone, rested, a little low in the bow.
“Huh,” Don said. “Are you okay?” The rain tapped dully, trickled in through the ruined rear window.
Villette, gingerly, explored her body with her hands, as if checking for extra holes. She shrugged, finding none. Then, both suddenly aware of the acrid fumes, the airbags slowly deflating, both reached for their door handles. Donald lifted the driver’s door high into the air. Villette’s door would not open. He reached out a hand; she grabbed his arm and he helped her clamber free of the wreck. They were on a hillside, sodden with dead leaves, and mud up to the shins. They each stumbled. Villette laughed. He helped her get down around the back of the car, a hand on her waist when she almost fell. All his clothes were soaked through but he felt warm; his heart was going so fast.
Amazing, how part of the car so little resembled what it had once been. A Saab grille and radiator support had found its way into the Yaris’ backseat.
The other driver, a kid with pimples, emerged from his car. Donald and Villette went up to him. Donald felt it strange that he should have the most composure of the three. He asked the boy if he was okay.
He nodded. Villette blushed fiercely and was silent.
“I’m sixteen,” the kid said. His voice shook. He admitted to the fault of the accident, and handed Donald some crumpled, wet papers; insurance, registration.
After calling a tow truck (45 minutes, the man said,) Donald went back to the Yaris to retrieve Villette’s backpack. He also found the ice-cream sandwich and hot chocolate, which had spilled only a little.
“How far is it?” he said to her. His mind, curiously clear.
“Um, half a mile maybe.” The rain had let up some, but still.
“I live about a mile up the road. You probably don’t want to walk.” He looked over at the kid. Ron, who wore an Iron Maiden patch on a much-too-big leather jacket.
“I’ll see if I can get my car to start,” Ron said. Villette, curiously, would not seem to acknowledge either of them. She held her hot chocolate by her face like a shield. The metal-lover got in and cranked the Saab. Somehow, she started.
“Okay,” Donald said.
“If you guys live close. . . .” the kid offered.
But Villette suddenly strode forward, splashing water with her shoes. She now stood between her teacher and Ron.
“We can’t just leave your car there,” she said.
“I’ll come back for it,” Donald said.
She pointed at Ron. “You should stay here and watch his car.” Her hair clung to her head in wet, glorious, serpentine ropes. She looked, Donald thought, like the mermaid on a Renaissance bowsprit.
But her idea was ridiculous. Ron stuttered. He would say yes to anything at this point. . . .
“Listen,” Donald said, back to his teacher voice now (where did it come from?) Behind the sopping trees, a little sun came out, wan and white. “Listen, it’s only half a mile. My wife will drive me back here.” He figured it out right away, of course: she knew Ron, from school maybe, they did teenage things together, maybe they had even “made out,” and she wasn’t looking forward to the rumors.
She pouted, her nostrils growing wide . . . she threw her hot chocolate into the wreckage and said, “Okay.”
Donald offered to drive, and Villette shuffled into the front with him. They limped the stricken Saab past Sycamores and Aspens now dappled, a meandering fence, their own long shadow. Donald had the heater blasting, to help cool the engine. His ice-cream sandwich had been left behind.
Villette’s teeth chattered; she pushed herself as far back in her seat as she could, glaring out over folded arms, not even warming herself at the vents.
Donald’s wife came out to meet him, her cell phone still in her hand. His clothes stuck to him; his hair a plaster mop. The Saab had already disappeared round the curve of their street. On Penelope’s face one dark streak under each eye. They went in together.
He changed in the bedroom. Her voice came at him from the doorway, her words slow and deliberate.
“I got the tickets,” she said. “We’re going on Saturday.” Putting on new thermals, he turned to look; she leaned on the door frame in a perfect pose, one arm up, the other folded across her middle. The smudged eyeliner: on purpose? If she is that clever I will only love her more, he thought. Amazing, this flood of gratitude. As if he’d been passed over for some particular reason. The giddy madness of a sole survivor, thrown clear, watching the ruptured hull in sodium light.
And when he’d dressed, and when they went back down the road in her car, he thought about ices and palazzos, the inconstancy of this earth’s vectors, and why should he be afraid of a Sirocco, when a Saab had failed to kill him? Penny herself was like that colossal nave, into whose vault he had wandered. . .
By the time the tow truck came, the rain had stopped. Big gaps appeared in the clouds, filled with dark-indigo sky. The wind sent leaves and bits of car down the hill, and Penelope hugged herself in her overcoat. Through the whole business of removing valuables, briefcase, luggage, ice-cream sandwich wrappers, and loading the wreck onto the flatbed, they kept up a steady stream of talk, talk over the wind. You know, these young drivers. I say, they ought’a hafta be eighteen. Just be glad he had insurance.
“Well the main thing, we’re all in one piece, right?” Donald said.
Penelope laughed, for some reason, covering her mouth like a little girl, and blushed.
But the teacher did not get away without a memento: With a gruff “this yours?” the AAA man handed him a piece of typed paper with a second sheet stapled to it. Soggy red ink and pencil. It was Villette’s test. Donald held it with two fingers, as if it were covered in germs.
On the short ride back, Penelope pressed his hand, the way she had on the day of the funeral. She puffed out her cheeks and smiled, as if to say ’yep, I know. . . . ’
And, when they were back home, shutters banging in the wind, she turned on the radio and lit a match under the tea-kettle.
“That Marsha,” she said, like it had just come up. “Sometimes she can be a complete cunt.”
“I ran into her,” Donald said. A chuckle. “Not, you know, like that . . . in the liquor store.”
“I know. She told me all this stuff about how I should yell at you and how irresponsible it is to have a student in the car with you. I told her, it’s pouring out, for Christ’s sake, and Don’s been teaching for almost ten years. I told her, ’Don’s the captain of his own ship.’ I mean, I was pissed.”
The kettle sang. She turned off the heat and poured two cups of herbal tea.
“But she’s still going to watch the house, yeah?”
“Oh, of course. She still totally owes me for the time I rescued her Spaniel.”
They drank their tea. The rain had been replaced by wind and thunder. Loud peals, like distant cannonade, thrown across the bone-bare sky and moving through the house. Of course, she would still grow old, and he would grow old, and Villette, and die, into mud or dust, or the infinite, but now his mind was on fire with new thoughts, new terms for integration. Like a fourth axis had sprung from the grid, his delicate steamships grown wings. So much of the world left to be explored, he thought, and was no longer worried he’d married too young. One could do anything and still be true. A bright light flashed in all the windows, and a few seconds later they heard the crash.
Penelope shivered, and smiled.
“You want to order pizza?” she said.