In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs (7 page)

BOOK: In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs
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The next day I walked by the dean's office and almost went in and told him everything. The problem was, if I told the dean about Talbot he would find out about me, too. The rules didn't set forth different punishments according to the amount of smoke consumed. I even considered sending the dean an anonymous note, but I doubted if it would get much attention. They were big on doing the gentlemanly thing at Choate.

On Friday Talbot came up to me at basketball practice and asked if I wanted to room with him next year.

“I'll think about it,” I told him.

“The names have to be in by dinner time tonight.”

“I said I'll think about it.”

That evening Talbot submitted our names to the dean. There hadn't really been that much to think about. For all I know, Eugene
been smoking when Big John came into the room. If you wanted to get technical about it, he was guilty as charged a hundred times over. It wasn't as if some great injustice had been done.

he met him at a fireworks display. That part of it was funny when she thought about it later.

Virginia had been set up. Not that anyone really
to set her up—but it happened that way. The boy, for example. He'd stopped asking questions like “Where's Daddy?” “Why doesn't Daddy want to live with us any more?” Lately, he had taken to drawing pictures instead—immature pictures considering his age—with bug-bodied figures and fat suns with long yellow rays like spokes. All the pictures showed the same thing: a man and a woman with a little boy between them, holding hands and grinning off the page. “Ricky,” she said, “why don't you draw something else?” He wouldn't, though. For this and for other reasons his teacher had begun to send Virginia strange notes.

Virginia's neighbors, Ben and Alice, played their part too. Alice kept telling her that it was a blessing in disguise that her husband had taken off. “You're free now, hon,” said Alice. “You can find someone nice.” Virginia had to admit that her husband wasn't any great shakes. But when he left, not saying a word, it
took the life out of her, and she didn't think much about going out with men. Besides, she had her hands full with the boy.

Whenever Alice talked about her smart cousin from Everett, though, Virginia found herself listening. Alice always referred to him as “Poor Robert,” and Virginia gathered that he had suffered some great wrong. In late June Alice told her that her cousin would be coming with them to see the fireworks display at Green Lake, and she invited Virginia and her son to join them. Virginia suspected that she had something in mind, but Alice had already told Ricky about the fireworks and he was all set to go; so she agreed.

Why not, she thought. She could probably do more for the boy if she stopped feeling so bad all the time.

From what Alice had told her about Robert, Virginia expected a distinguished, confident man, full of opinions and unlikely to be interested in her. Actually, he was shy. And polite. Whenever he reached for his cigarettes, he offered one to her even after she told him she didn't smoke. He was full of questions about her, though he had a way of looking off when he asked them. Robert's eyelids drooped and he had dense brown curls. A faint, acrid odor clung to him, like the smell of a newly painted room. He called Ricky “Crazylegs” and by the time they got to Green Lake he had promised to take the boy fishing—“As long as it's okay with your mom. Maybe she'd even like to come along,” he added, looking out the window.

“We'll see,” Virginia said.

Just after the fireworks started she went back to the parking lot with Robert to get some potato salad. They walked along without speaking, side by side. Finally, Virginia broke the silence.

“Alice says you went to college.”

He nodded. “For a while, back in Michigan.”

“What did you study?”

“Math, mostly. I was going to be an engineer. I didn't finish.”

“That must be hard.”

“It was a long time ago. Grin and bear it.” He laughed.

“I mean the math must be hard.”

“It wasn't that bad. I got all B's, except for some C's.”

They got the potato salad from the car and started walking back. The only time they could really see was when a big flare or rocket went off. Robert took her arm gingerly when there were things they had to go around. Once they almost stepped on a couple lying under a blanket. Then a flare went off in descending stages with a big burst like an exclamation mark at the end, and they could see the couple moving together. Robert looked away quickly. Virginia thought that he did so because he didn't want to embarrass her by saying something about it. It did not occur to her until much later that he had looked away because he himself was embarrassed.

“So you live in Everett,” she said.

“Just outside.”

“What do you do there?”

Robert hesitated. “I'm a housepainter.” He turned and looked her in the face for the first time. He was swallowed in shadows, and Virginia saw only his teeth clearly, moving up and down as he talked. “Maybe I could come over for a visit sometime.”

“All the way from Everett? That would be a lot of trouble, wouldn't it?”

“I wouldn't mind,” he said. “I really wouldn't.”

When they got back Virginia sat down beside the boy. Ricky was lying on his back, watching the display—Alaska Candles, Starbursts, American Flags, each burst more dazzling than the one before. The boy's face changed colors with the rockets.


Robert called her often after that night. They usually went over to Alice and Ben's and drank and kidded around. When they didn't go there he took her and the boy out to the movies, once to a baseball game. He always behaved correctly: helped her with her coat, opened doors, and walked on the outside. When they
parted, he would stare into her eyes and squeeze her hand with furtive, almost illicit intensity. More than a month passed before they went anywhere alone.

He took her to dinner at a place called Enrique's, where the waiters were all foreign and there was a violinist. Robert read the menu and told her about wines. “I like good food,” he said. “It's my one weakness.”

Virginia had guessed. Not that Robert was fat, exactly. More like stocky.

After dinner he took a big cigar from a metal tube and roasted the tip over the candle, all the while explaining how a really good cigar should be smoked. “You've got to respect it,” he said, “almost like a person.” Then he called the violinist over and had him play “Hungarian Tears” and a couple of other numbers. The violinist closed his eyes and smiled to himself as he played. Virginia squirmed and fiddled with her napkin. She was unable to meet the eyes of the people from the other tables who looked in their direction. She stared at Robert, who stared at the tip of his cigar. He gave the violinist a twenty dollar bill. “Twenty bucks isn't that much when you think about it. Look at all the training those guys have to go through.”

Virginia nodded.

“Your husband—” Robert paused—waiting, Virginia thought, for her to supply a name. She said nothing. “How come the two of you split up?”

Virginia stared at him for a moment.

“We didn't split up. He left me.”

These were hard words. It would have been easier to say, “Oh, we decided to take a vacation from each other.” But when people said things like that to Virginia, she felt sorry for them, and she didn't want anyone feeling sorry for her. Nevertheless she felt ashamed.

“Left you?” Robert scowled at his cigar. “Why?”

“I don't know.”


“I don't know where he went. It's been almost a year now.”

“Maybe he didn't leave you. Maybe something happened to him.”

“He left me.”

“Tell me about him.”

She began haltingly. Then, seeing that the stories about her husband fascinated Robert, she went on, telling more and more. Though he laughed in a way she didn't like, at least he laughed. So did she. Between stories, she said, “You've been married before, haven't you?”

He nodded. “How did you know?”

“Alice told me. What was she like?”

“Who? Florence? I don't know.” Robert stood and fumbled for his wallet. “I'll get your coat. You want to go to the little girls' room or anything?”

They did not speak again, except politely, until he pulled up in front of her apartment building. He put his arm over the back of the seat. She tried to relax against it. He had left the engine running and the windshield wipers on.

Robert kissed her. He kissed her for a long time, and in the middle of it she opened her eyes and saw that his eyes were wide and startled. They held each other for a while. “I was wondering,” Robert said softly.

“What?” She leaned back to look at him. “What were you wondering?”

“You think Crazylegs likes me?”




“I'll bet sometimes he misses his dad.”

“Sometimes. A lot of the time.”

“A kid his age needs a father.” Robert moved abruptly, banging his elbow against the steering wheel. “You ever been up to Vancouver?”

“To Vancouver? No.”

“I was thinking maybe the two of us could go up there this weekend. Get to know each other.”

He bent toward Virginia until they were face to face. She looked at him and wondered what he saw when he looked at her, if he saw his life running out. He had stopped breathing, or so it seemed, he was so quiet. The windshield wipers went back and forth. “All right,” she said. “Sure. Why not?”


Their hotel was old and run down, but they had a big room with a fireplace. Virginia bounced on the bed and said how soft it was. She didn't mean anything by it, but Robert blushed. He adjusted the blinds. Then he took his clothes out of his suitcase and refolded them and put them in the bureau. He talked about how expensive the room was this time compared to three years ago when he had come up with the Everett Rifle Club.

At dinner Robert drank a lot of wine, and whatever it was that seemed to be troubling him passed off for a while. He told Virginia about a hiking trip he had gone on that the boy might like to take sometime. She reached out and touched his hand. “You're a good man,” she said.

He frowned.

“Is there anything the matter?” she asked.

“I suppose you want to go upstairs,” he said. He looked at Virginia.

“Not especially. Whatever you want.”

“I thought I'd have a drink at the bar. You don't have to. You're probably tired.”

“A little. A drink sounds nice, though.” Virginia thought that he wanted a nightcap, to settle him after the long drive. When he ordered his fourth whisky, she understood that he planned to make a night of it. She had the feeling that he wanted either to get rid of her or drink her under the table. Probably he had something on his mind. “I think I'll run along to bed,” she said finally.

“Go on. I'll be up in a minute.”

Virginia went upstairs and bathed and waited for Robert in bed. She had a travel alarm clock with luminous hands. She watched the hour change twice before she heard Robert's key tumbling in the lock. He tiptoed over, carrying his shoes in his hand, and stood beside the bed, looking down at her. “Virginia?” he whispered.

She lay still. She did not reply, because she sensed he did not want her to.

Robert put his shoes under the bed and undressed quietly. He slipped between the sheets and curled up on the far side of the bed. Virginia wondered what she ought to do. Finally she decided to do nothing. He might get mad if he found out she was awake. Maybe he'd feel better in the morning. She wondered what she had done wrong.


Just after sunrise, Virginia started awake and felt Robert's hand on her breast. He was squeezing her softly. It surprised her and she looked over at him. He lay on his side, facing her, eyes closed. He moved his hand to her other breast. He squeezed there for awhile, then he threw his arm around her and pulled her close.


He didn't answer. Still with his eyes closed, he began to kiss her on her shoulders and neck. She hoped he wouldn't kiss her on the mouth. He rolled over on top of her and wedged his legs between hers. “Robert,” she said again, but he seemed not to hear her. He forced her legs apart.

It didn't last long, and it hurt.

Robert rolled off and turned away. A few moments later he was sighing in sleep. At first Virginia wanted to kill him. After a while she decided she would settle for understanding him. She took a long bath. When she came out of the bathroom Robert was sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed, studying a map
of Vancouver. He smiled at Virginia and stood up. “Good morning.”

She dipped her head in his direction and waited. After what had happened she expected him to say something.

Instead he dropped the map and pointed toward the bathroom. “You all through in there?”


“You women.” He shook his head. “I didn't know whether you were taking a bath or going for a swim.”

“If you wanted to get in you should have knocked.”

“Don't worry about it.” He pecked her on the cheek as he went past her.

Robert didn't come out until after she was dressed. “Boy, you look nice,” he said, rubbing his hands together.

Virginia could not look at him. “Just for you,” she said.

They walked around Vancouver all morning. Robert read things to her from a tourist booklet. “It's better exercise than going on one of those busses,” he explained, “and we won't have to put up with a bunch of people from God knows where.” They ate lunch in a cafeteria he had noticed earlier in the day, and then they went to a movie. Virginia had never been to a movie in the daytime, not since she was a little kid anyway, and it made her uneasy. Most of the people in the theater were older men.

After he'd finished his popcorn Robert reached over and pressed Virginia's hand. Then he started to stroke the inside of her thigh.

“Please, Robert,” she whispered. “Not here.”

He pulled away from her. “What?”

Virginia had the idea that Robert was prepared to deny that he'd touched her. She shook her head. “Nothing,” she said.

“Too bad old Crazylegs isn't with us.” Robert took a sip of his Pepsi. “He'd get a kick out of this movie.”

“Let's go, Robert.”

“What's wrong?”

“I want to go.” She stood and walked up the aisle. She waited for him in the lobby. Robert bought another popcorn on the way out and offered some to her. She shook her head. Outside they walked up the street in the direction of a logging museum.


At dinner that night Virginia asked Robert about his marriage. She had told him more about her husband on the drive up, and he had laughed about her husband's idea of style, the high life, his own possibilities. Virginia had discovered what it was she didn't like about Robert's laughter. It was superior. Her husband had been ridiculous, but not much more ridiculous than most people. Anyway, Robert had enjoyed a certain freedom with her past and she wanted something back.

BOOK: In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs
4.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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