Read The Dogs of Littlefield Online

Authors: Suzanne Berne

The Dogs of Littlefield (22 page)

“Yes?” George sat up.

The room hushed instantly.

“It seems to me,” continued Mrs. Beale, “that when Sybil here and I were girls, a lot of novels were about people giving up things for love. And
doing
things for love.”

“I'm not sure I understand the question,” said George.

“That
is
my question. Love does not seem to be in novels nowadays.”

“Are you talking about romance novels?”

“I am
talking
about the job of the novelist.
Your
job as a novelist.”

“Are you asking,” said Naomi, wearing a strained, hostessy expression, “if writers should love their characters?”

“No,” said Mrs. Beale scornfully. “I am saying that novelists are doing a bad job, in my opinion. It is lonely being a person, very lonely, as
that
young woman pointed out.”

She gazed at Emily, who had taken off her spectacles and was polishing them on her blouse. Emily made a throaty noise and put her spectacles back on.

“I don't see how this relates to my book,” said George, with surprising gentleness.

“What we need in this world”—Mrs. Beale gave him a severe look in return—“are bravery and honor. Models of decency. Not more zombies and monsters and
strange
behavior.”

She stood very straight in the doorway, her expression militant above the epaulets on her trench coat; beside her, Sybil hunched into her fur collar, smiling with chipmunk panic.

“Just so I understand,” Naomi tried again, “are you talking about—?”

“Husbands and wives who promised to love each other, for instance.” Mrs. Beale pointed a bony finger at George. “In sickness and in health.
That
is a good subject for a novel. Why don't you write a novel about a bad husband who apologizes to his wife and they get back together?”

A pause sheathed the room, like ice encasing a twig. Margaret closed her eyes. When she opened her eyes again, George was looking steadily at Mrs. Beale.

“How about you write that book,” he said, “and I write one about an old lady who puts up anonymous signs in the park, upsetting a lot of people?”

Two dull red patches appeared on Mrs. Beale's flat cheeks.


Mine
were polite.”

“That's your story.”


Naturally
that's my story.” Her voice was sepulchral. “Because it is the
true
story.”

Everyone had started to murmur. Beside Margaret on the sofa, Clarice Watkins was noting something on a steno pad.

“You want a true story?”

Once more the room hushed.

George had pushed himself out of the papasan chair and was on his feet by the fireplace.

“I'll tell you a true story.” His voice was dangerously subdued. “Listen to this one. A man spends his goddamn life sitting in a goddamn chair trying to figure out the exact words for how a blade of grass looks in the morning, while everyone else is
out
there,
doing
things, because he loves the goddamn world so much he'd claw his eyes out to understand five minutes of it.”

His face was terrible, Margaret thought, the face of Rabbi Pinchas howling at the ark. On the mantelpiece behind him, two Kokopelli figures appeared to be blowing panpipes into his ears.

“But guess what? It's not the world's job to explain itself.
Your
job is just to sit there until something finally hits you in the face.” His voice had dropped lower, so that everyone leaned forward to hear him. “And maybe what hits you smells like roses or maybe it smells like dead fish, or maybe”—his voice sank to a snarl—“it smells like a werewolf's asshole.”

Margaret sat back and pressed three fingers to her lips.

“And for your information”—George glared at Mrs. Beale—“telling people what to do isn't a very effective way of getting things to happen.”

Naomi was standing now, too. “George, this has been such a fascinating evening—”

But George was already shouldering his way past Sybil and Mrs. Beale, stiff as sentries in the doorway. A moment later the front door slammed.

How awful, thought Margaret. How crude and embarrassing.

And yet for the first time in weeks she felt a flicker of optimism. She wanted to remember exactly what George had said. It seemed crucial to remember, but already the words were drifting away and all she could recall was something about what hit you and that the world's job was not to explain itself.

Other women were beginning to stand up, tugging at their blouses, looking for where to set their wineglasses. Naomi was twisting her necklace.

“I suppose that's enough discussion for tonight. Anyone like more wine?”

“No need for him to get so huffy.” In the doorway, Mrs. Beale's long face looked drawn and very old above her Liberty scarf. “Sybil,” she said hoarsely, “where are you? Could we go home, please? I am feeling rather tired.”

“Enough,” sighed Hedy, from the depths of the sofa, “was tonight maybe too much.”

17.

I
t began in the grocery store with
buckets of unopened daffodils, stems bound together with rubber bands like bunches of asparagus. Carried home and placed in a vase of water, the daffodils opened within two days, filling one's house with a delicate, waxy scent.

Next snowdrops, here, there, so early, so tenuous, a clutch of sunny delirium.

Then came weeks of cold rain that washed away even the peak of snow in the library parking lot, followed by gray days that made students at Warren College yawn through afternoon classes and sleep through morning ones—sleeping, too, through Dr. Clarice Watkins's series of noontime seminars on theories of modern social structure and the influence of global destabilization—while at night they kept vampire hours, histrionic lyrics pulsing through earbuds connected to their iPods, eating cold pizza that tasted of cardboard and stalking each other on Facebook. Something in them was stirring. They wandered further into the Web, news passing before them on search engine pages: war criminals acquitted, movie stars arrested, rivers swelling, dams breaking, the polar ice cap melting faster and faster. Vaguely frightened, they began tracking down kindergarten classmates, former camp counselors, teachers from middle school. Photographs appeared, to be liked or not liked—people smiling, people wearing silly hats, people naked—also posted slogans, obscene song lyrics, snatches of quoted poetry:

When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces,

The mother of months in meadow or plain

Fills the shadows and windy places

With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain . . .

As night faded toward morning and the pizza boxes lay empty, the students were filled with a restless desire for even greater knowledge. Would they ever experience sex as something other than sordid and incidental? Ever be able to buy a house, lift their own children into their arms? Did life hold fierce, secret joys they could not yet imagine?

They rubbed their eyes and readjusted their earbuds, then returned to Facebook. Only to find themselves glancing up every so often at their pale reflections in the dark, rain-streaked windows, wondering what else was out there.

Rain, rain, rain.

Then at three o'clock one Tuesday afternoon the sun appeared.

Suddenly all the splendors of late April were on display: yellow forsythia, pink azaleas, tight purple clusters of grape hyacinths. Green mist hung about tree branches as the first buds appeared, and everywhere the air was mild and smelled freshly of earth. “Such
weather,
” people all over Littlefield kept exclaiming. Even people who prided themselves on being realists were moved at the arrival of spring, believing against their better judgment that whatever sadness and worry they carried were at last beginning to lift.

In the community gardens of Baldwin Park, gardeners in fleece jackets pulled up pallid, soggy stalks from last year's planting, crumbled moist soil through gloved fingers. Deep in the woods, ferns were unfurling from tiny cocked fists under oak leaves so new they were salmon-colored. Everything sticky and furred and succulent, burgeoning, bursting, unrepentantly blooming.

— —

On a bright, cool, gusty
morning, as wind blew down the sidewalks and threatened tulip heads, knocking them first one way, then another, George Wechsler faced his computer, working on a scene between Moses Finkle and his former agent, Sam Gruber. Moses had just spent three pages convincing Gruber that he had been brought back to life by a kid praying over his baseball card. Now they were discussing Moses's brief season with Kansas City, particularly the high point of his career, when he'd saved a game against Cleveland by chasing down a line drive and diving, midair, to make a stunning bare-handed catch. The crowd had been on their feet! The next day Moses had dropped an easy pop fly; two days later he was sent back down to the minor leagues. Gruber had just said to Moses:
You had your chance at the brass ring, buddy, and you didn't grab it
. And Moses had replied:
The brass ring was brass, Sam. I'm ready for something in gold
. George was trying to decide whether he meant this conversation to be read ironically and wondering, in general, how to make his novel less about baseball and zombies and more about the dark laboratory of the soul, when the doorbell rang.

Looking down from his study window, he saw Margaret Downing in a beige raincoat standing on the front steps with her black dog, clutching the leash with both hands. Her face was turned toward the budding magnolia tree in his front yard.

She'd been walking the dog—

That was the first thing she said when he opened the door. She'd been walking the dog and realized—it must be—that she was by his house, and thought—his magnolia!—had just thought to stop by—not stay long—had just wanted to say—hoped she wasn't bothering him—his magnolia was so beautiful that she—

All while he was repeating “Please, please, come in.” Hoping that none of his neighbors had seen her standing on his front steps.

They were still talking over each other as he conducted her and her dog past the dank stew of boots, sneakers, and cleats piled in the front hall. He ushered Margaret into the living room, into the red velveteen armchair by the window, and then gathered up limp
New Yorke
r
s and old
Playboy
s from the coffee table—whisking away also a roll of duct tape and a plastic tube, which looked to be the beginnings of a bong—before hurrying into the kitchen to give himself a moment to think.

Why was she here? What did she want?

Should he offer her something? He found a canister of stale macaroons, left over from Passover. He put three or four macaroons on a clean plate and carried the plate out to the living room, where her black Lab was lying across her feet.

An uglier beast than George remembered, a big fat brute with a wet-looking coat like a seal's and a hoggish snout. Just then a sulfurous smell floated up. Flatulent, too.The dog growled as George laid the plate on the coffee table.

“Hush, Binx
,
” she said.

George hovered on the other side of the coffee table, offering Margaret coffee, then iced tea, and finally a beer, though it was not yet ten o'clock. She said no to everything and sat up straight in the armchair with the expression of someone who has seen a mouse but is determined not to mention it. Finally he sat down on the sofa opposite, keeping his distance from the dog.

He'd heard about her daughter falling through the ice. It had been in the paper, and even the boys had talked about it, an edge of awe in their voices he hadn't heard in years. She could have
died,
they kept saying. He'd wanted to send Margaret a note at the time, but he couldn't think of what to say, and in the end had done nothing. When he saw her at that book club meeting, he'd still said nothing, shocked at the sight of her, huddled on a sofa, looking like she'd nearly died herself. Even now her skin looked sallow against the musty red upholstery of the chair, especially compared to the creamy flesh of the magnolia blossoms just opening outside the windows. She had removed her raincoat to reveal a pale pink blouse with pink cloth-covered buttons, darker pink lace at the collar. A thin gold necklace glinted at her neck, and from her ears dangled jade beads set in gold filigree caps. George saw by the earrings and the lace on her blouse, her fair hair pulled back in a clip, that she had arrayed herself scrupulously this morning. He did not know from whence the words “arrayed” and “scrupulously” had come—they seemed to have blown in through the door when he opened it for Margaret, along with “whence” and a few yellow catkins that now lay like caterpillars on the braided rug in the hall. But there they were, like Margaret herself, mysteriously presenting themselves to him.

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