Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris
Bibbi glances at Donald, busily scraping the last morsels of au jus-soaked gratiné before Stephen's return. She leans close. “Nora.”
“What? What is it, Bibbi? What do you want to say? I don't think this is quite the right place though for … for what? What would you call it, Bibbi? What? What game is this? What—”
“It's not a game,” Bibbi says in a low, urgent voice. “And I know how you feel.”
Nora bursts into deep liberating laughter. It is all very, very funny. She keeps wiping tears from her eyes. Not only funny but ridiculous. After all, what does tough-ass Nora Trimble expect? Nothing changes. No one changes. “We just get to be better liars!” She explodes with wheezy laughter. She looks around. Some remarkable observation has just been made, though in the next bewildering moment it is lost.
“Nora, come outside with me,” Bibbi whispers. “Please.”
Around them heads are turning. Hank rises to stand with his hands on the back of her chair. “Okay, okay, now. Just take it easy, dear heart,” he says.
“What? What did he call me?” More laughter. She tilts her head back and smiles up at him. “Dear heart! Dear heart!” Tears run from the corners of her eyes: this pride of lions guarding its kill.
“Nora,” Hank says sternly, face reddening. “Don't do this.”
She wants to pour her drink down her throat in one long gulp but, under their reproachful stares, allows herself only neat sips. This is how Oliver drinks, she is thinking. All day long, these little sips, how he gets through his life.
Oh, Oliver. Help me. Someone help me.
“I'll get Kenner.” Hank steps briskly away.
Kenner. Their ridiculous nicknames. Nor, they tried calling her, until she nipped that in the bud.
My name is Nora, plain and simple, Nora!
Did she just say that? Should have if she didn't.
“Get Evvie!” Jack Cox looks up and calls. “Get fucking Evvie,” he mutters.
“Poor Evvie,” Bibbi sighs, sitting back, as if by willing the burden of greater threat onto Jack, Nora may snap to.
“Is that what you said?” she asks, aware that her voice has thinned with the gin and is probably lost now in the hard beat of the song “Jump” that the band starts to play. Only a few couples dance. Most stand around clapping. Robin and Ken always danced the fast numbers
together, while she and Bob watched, laughing. “Is that what you've been saying, all this time? Poor Nora?” she says louder, so Bibbi can hear. Hands on her knees, she leans forward. “Poor Nora! Poor, poor Nora! The poor dear fucking heart!”
Roused from his feed, Donald lumbers to her side, napkin dangling from his enormous collar. It's all right, he tells her. Everything is going to be all right.
In the cold, shocked silence she wets her lips, smiles. She sits very, very still, smiling shyly up at Ken who makes his way toward her. Table by table, eyes drop as he passes. “Come on, Nora.” He slips the napkin from her lap, recoiling at the dots of blood from her torn cuticles. Bibbi passes him Nora's beaded purse.
“Thank you,” she says, before turning to go. “You're both so good at this.”
Bibbi and Hank smile wanly. Ken holds her close through the chandeliered sparkle of the lobby, then out to the parking lot where a fine snow sifts over the cars. Inside, he sits for a moment staring into the fan of darkness the wipers make on the white windshield.
“I'm so sorry, Nora.” He rubs his face. “I can't stand to see you hurt. You know that. I don't know why … I don't know what happened … I don't know why I told you,” he moans, his voice thick with anguish.
“You don't know why you told me!” She springs, slapping him, punching his head. “That's all you're sorry for, isn't it? That's all you care about, damn it! Isn't it? Admit it! Admit it! Admit it!” she cries, pummeling his hunched back as he sobs with his hands over his head. “Oh my God!” she gasps, shrinking back, as the two visions merge, him, that man sagging over the wheel. “Oh my God … oh my God,” she whispers, sinking against the door. “Take me home. Just take me home.”
n the murky
twilight Lisa almost looks pretty. Or is it the intimacy of these last few days together? Hardest to overlook at first was the wide neck and thin carroty hair exposing patches of pink scalp, but now it's her mouth he's most aware of, ropy and wet with constant babble. Her sisters are attractive enough. She showed him their pictures the first night of their trip. They favor their mother while she's cursed with her father's broad back and short legs, poor thing, Eddie thinks with more disgust than pity. Her exuberance reminds him of a neglected dog. Roused by his slightest attention, she's all over him. Worse, when she drinks. Her eyes bulge and spittle sprays the air with her startlingly deep laughter.
She loved Vegas. It was her third trip there, but this one was the most fun, she said. The other times all she and her mother did was play the slots and blackjack, which Eddie refused to do. “Come on, please!” she teased, trying to tug him back into the casino. His eyes burned with rage. It took every ounce of self-control not to slap her. She'd just lost $120. A hundred and twenty when he still had such a long way to go.
“No!” he growled, leaning close. “You'll just blow the rest of it.”
“So what? I don't care. Come on, I want to. Please,” she begged, pursing her red lips in a garish pout and pulling on him.
“Get your fucking hand off me.”
Her head snapped back, eyes so suddenly thick with tears, that for a second he thought he'd hit her. She turned, pushing through a crowd
of old ladies wearing name tags and red straw hats, getting off the elevator.
“Lisa! Wait! I'm sorry.”
To make it up to her, they took in a late show, Céline Dion. “I love you, Céline,” Lisa shrieked during the applause, whooping and stamping her feet at their table in the back row. They were both drunk, her a lot, him just enough to have made penitential love to her in their cheap motel room with its cigarette-stenchy light-and-air-stifling maroon drapes.
“She's my favorite singer. It's like she becomes transported. Did you notice that, how it's almost, like, religious,” she shouts over the air-conditioning and Céline's new CD that she'd bought for him. Paid cash, as she has for everything so far. No bills when she gets home, he reminds her whenever she takes out a credit card. To pass like vapor, leaving no trail, steers every decision, each unlikely route on the map. Out of her sight, he shreds every receipt. She admires his caution about money and is touched by his shame at not having any of his own right now. His concern for her well-being has eased her early fears. She can tell him anything, she confided last night.
She is talking, still talking. Louder, now, to be heard over the music. Please, he thinks, soon, needing, aching to close his eyes, but can't. Not yet.
“You know what I mean, like the way she's actually feeling it, becoming the music?”
Eyes fixed on the road, he nods.
“We should turn off soon, huh?” She sighs.
The brown, dusty landscape of rocks and wind-stunted trees depresses him. Like her talking, endless, unpunctuated by anything memorable. She's only got two more vacation days left. She could call in sick: in her inflection a suggestion, which he ignores. But then again, she hates doing that. Leaving them short-handed.
“When my father retired, he had two hundred and twenty-six sick days. Can you imagine? His whole time working, he only got sick once. A hernia, and four days after the operation he went in to work.”
“Yeah. He's quite a guy. I think you'd like him. Did I tell you about his trains?”
He nods, but she continues anyway. “The whole basement's set up with tracks and tunnels. Mountains even. You won't believe it when you see it.” Leaning, she rips the Velcro flap on the soft nylon cooler between her bare feet. Another irritation, always taking off her shoes. He hates the sight of her thick toes, the purple painted nails, grotesque the way the little toe curls over the one next to it. Her stubby fingers paw noisily through the ice then, hold up a dripping can. “There's another root beer. Last one, want it?”
“No, that's okay.” He squints, trying to read the sign in the distance. His eyes are terrible. Along with everything else, his glasses are lost in the locked room.
She pops open the can and he tries not to glance in the mirror. As she sips, her full upper lip curls over the rim. Suddenly, this enrages him. The indignities he must endure, watching, seeing his own sniveling self with this beast. They better start heading back, she says again. There's a staff meeting first thing Monday and her boss is counting on her to have the monthly report ready.
“Liam. He's the one I told you about, the folk singer. Just the nicest guy, but the shelter, his heart's not in it. Sad really when you think of it. I mean, forty-two years old and his wife, she just got sick of the whole hippie thing and left. And you can't really blame her. I mean, two little girls, just the cutest things …”
He tries to tune her out. Out of the blue, she'll start talking about Liam. “Hey,” he interrupts. “Sounds like your boss's got a thing for you.”
“Actually he did try and kiss me once. At a retirement party, but I told him, not with a married guy. No way.” She looks out the side window, grinning, reliving the pathetic moment.
“What if I said, you've just spent the last five days sleeping with a married man?”
“Are you serious?”
“Maybe.” The quiver of her lip fills him with fleeting exhilaration.
And then he's irritated again. Gullible people are weak. Weakness annoys him. Bile seeps into his mouth.
“Well, are you or aren't you?” she demands, though, he can tell, she doesn't believe him.
“Why?” He laughs. “What difference does it make? You had a good time, right?”
“Well, I wouldn't've come, for one thing.” Her large face flushes, mottled and red as the purse clutched to her belly.
Oh yes, you would've, he thinks. “Actually, my wife died. But that was a long time ago.”
“Oh, I'm so sorry. What happened?”
“She was murdered.”
“Oh my God! By who? Who did it?”
“Don't know. They never caught him.”
“That's so awful. It must be such a terrible feeling.”
“No. Actually, she wasn't a very nice person.”
“You're kidding, aren't you?” She scratches the dry bumpy skin on her freckled arm.
“She treated me like shit. But I put up with it. That's the way I am.” Helen. Not really his wife, but she let him stay with her. No guilt, remembering it now, just regret that he wasn't more patient. Stupid of him. He let his temper get the best of him. But then so did she. “She couldn't handle her liquor,” he sighs.
For the next few minutes neither one speaks. Lisa stares out the side window, still gripping her arm. He hasn't really thought much about Texas or Helen, and it is with increasing bitterness that he must now. Her first mistake was the lie, claiming to be a wealthy widow, when she was really divorced and on the dole. Half the time her alimony checks never came. Withered, bleached old bitch, her K-Y Jelly tube under the bed, holding out her arms through the camphored darkness one night, then shrieking the next for him to get the hell out, he was nothing but a leech, a loser. And what was she, no class, no taste, desperate not to be old. Edward, she announced at the condo pool to the lizard-skinned crones asleep on their frayed lounges, with
their mouths sagging open, anesthetized by their lunchtime gin, yes,
, who would be taking her to Mexico as soon as his boat was repainted.
Lisa reaches into her paper bag. “Want some?” Cheese and peanut butter crackers. Her way of breaking the ice. She peels open the crinkly red cellophane strip.
“No thanks.” Her uneasiness both amuses him and sets him on edge.
“You hardly ever eat.”
“I don't eat to eat, just when I'm hungry.”
The smell of peanut butter fills the car. He peers at the sign. EXIT TOLOPOS. One mile ahead. Cracker crumbs dot the wide black swath of her pant legs.
“Are you mad at me?” She touches his arm, and he can barely breathe.
“How come you're so quiet then? I mean, the whole trip, it's been great, we've had so much to talk about. Right from the start I had this feeling … like, we knew each other, you know what I mean? And now I feel … I don't know, kind of funny, like …”