"Got to go. He's here."
His shiny gold Toyota Avalon stops in the middle of the curved street. He sticks his hand out the window and uses his whole arm to fan the air forward. Mavis Martin slips the cordless to her left ear.
"Three times he's come to pick me up and three times he's driven past the driveway. I mean, is that a sign of something?"
A FedEx truck creeps around the Avalon followed by a farting motorcycle.
"I think you're on edge," Eleanor says, "because you never clarified the plans. You should've just told him upfront you only reserved one room."
"It's not just a room. It's a suite. Three hundred a night. Convention rates and it isn't even the season. Not that money matters."
"Worst case scenario: you get the award. He's there to see it. He's standing next to you, this trophy TV guy. Then you get back to the room and he winds up sleeping on the couch."
Out the window the Avalon backs down the street but stops as a school bus grunts, screeches and lumbers past. With the way clear the car lurches across the road and humps into the driveway, barely missing the tall blooming lilac. In the breeze the violet cones jostle like pompoms.
"The whole thing could be embarrassing. I mean, what if he thinks I'm forward?"
"You're thinking like a nun. You've been married. He's been married. Just be straight. Pretend you're in a movie. You got the condoms and he has a choice."
Charles stops his car on the far side of the blacktop. The bright April sun dabs the hood, washes the windshield and skitters off the roof. The trunk lid pops. After closing the living room curtain Mavis retreats up the creaking hardwood steps. She plops on her bed and sinks into a mound of pillows. On the ceiling, little lines of light quiver, intersect and separate.
"He's only ever pecked me on the lips and that was only when he was leaving. He'll take my hand, but only if we're crossing a street. How do I read this? I knew how to read Allen. If he had five beers, he wanted sex. Six beers, he fell asleep. But it's different, too, because Charles isn't divorced. His wife's dead."
Eleanor isn't listening. She's screaming at her ten and twelve year old sons for wrestling in the living room, their turbines spinning out of control after three days of snowbound incarceration. With Dover, Delaware pulsing to the teasing niceties of spring, Mavis is trying to picture the frayed, blasted tundra of suburban Duluth. Eleanor's breath stabs Mavis' ear.
"They cracked one of the coffee table legs right in half." Waiting for the doorbell to ring Mavis squeezes her eyes shut: backyard fir trees bend and swish among whirling gusts and rippling snowdrifts. "They were rolling around like monkeys. Laughing and jabbering. I smacked both of them. I don't give an 'f' how big they are. Why couldn't I have had girls?"
Through the open upstairs window Mavis hears the car door slam. Leaping up and hustling to the window she sees Charles sauntering to his open trunk in shiny white slacks and crisp blue Oxford shirt. Under his arm he carries a matching white jacket. He lifts out a suitcase and a garment bag.
"I had girls," Mavis says, a picture flashing of Marci and Toni sunning on the University of South Carolina campus. "Girls aren't any better. If you can hear the boys, you at least have some idea what they're doing. When my girls were growing up they were sneaky. They're still sneaky. We were sneaky."
Charles leaves his bags in the driveway and walks up the winding flagstone path. He's early fifty-something, but even with the graying brownish hair he carries the trim look of Robert Redford youthfulness. At forty-two Mavis has been dyeing her hair for five years but otherwise keeping it together, only slightly losing out to the slumps of gravity: falling arches, sagging breasts, settling jowls.
Charles climbs the front porch steps. Mavis pulls away from the window.
"He's about to ring the bell. I'll let you know what happens. I'm just nervous as hell."
"Lighten up. He wouldn't be there if he didn't want to be. A power player in his position can get it any time he wants."
The doorbell burbles.
"It's not just about sex. I'm worried that he doesn't find me attractive, that he sees me as a one of those awful companions. I've only asked him places. He's never asked me anywhere."
The bell rings again.
"Eleanor, let me go. I'll call you Sunday."
After poking the kill switch Mavis cracks down the steps and drops the phone on the foyer settee. As the phone bounces on the maroon velvet cushion, the chimes burble a third time. It's the kind of perky sound you might hear at the beginning of a funny movie about everyday life in heaven.
In the glass Charles sees his bleached-out ghostly face. Perhaps she's bustling upstairs or in the back locking up, or maybe just making him wait like Meg used to do-a balance of power thing. He glances away from the door and eyes his escape route, the curving flagstone walk crowded by pink and white azaleas.
Locks clatter and the door swings wide. Mavis pushes open the full-glassed storm door, smiling.
"Sorry for the hold up. I was on the phone with my sister. They're having a blizzard and her kids are going crazy."
"She's in Minnesota, right? The one with two boys."
"That's Eleanor, freezing on the edge of beautiful Lake Hypothermia."
Charles crosses into the foyer and pats Mavis on the upper left arm. He's very happy to see her. He also wishes he hadn't come. He's looking forward to this weekend away, even as he longs to be hunched at his desk, preparing to launch his trustworthy face into homes, bars, limousines and conversion vans, taking his viewers on a packaged tour of the day's doings, a cavalcade of sound bytes, feel-good fluff and odd tragedies from near and far-like the baby boy from Franklin, Delaware who yesterday sank through the earth and drowned in a decayed septic tank or last week's shark attack in Pensacola, Florida. The shark bit off a boy's arm and his uncle wrestled the monster to the beach. A few bullets to the head and they got the arm back. But in two hours and ten minutes Sally Feeney, the weekend anchor, will sign on and announce, "Charles Conroy has the night off." Then Sally will get to tell about the latest mujahideen attack in Baghdad -a U. S. soldier shot in the head while waiting in line to buy a soft drink. These stories are always the same: everything is calm until everything explodes.
"I have to feed the cat, check the doors, grab my bags and we're off."
"Can I help you with anything?"
"No, I'm fine. I'll only be a minute."
She disappears through a set of bi-fold doors.
Meg's voice tickles inside his ears.
This foyer is super gauche. Green marble tile. Velvet couch. Fake stucco walls. All those knickknacks. You put this kind of junk in the house, it means you're trying to prove something. There's a good reason we always went austere.
I wouldn't worry about it, Meg. I couldn't live here. Cats make me itch. Her living room's like a funeral parlor. A lot of dark wood and leather furniture.
But what would she do to our house?
If don't think it'll get that far.
Then what are you even doing here?
It's a getaway weekend. It's Rehoboth Beach and cocktail parties. She's getting an award. I'll applaud on cue. Beyond that, I don't know. I'm allowed to look. You've been gone three years.
I'm never gone.
From the kitchen Charles hears the rattle of a cat food bag, a chorus of meows-three cats!-and the pinging rush of pebbly pellets filling large plastic bowls.
"Mavis! I just remembered. I'm supposed to remind you to leave the downstairs toilet seat up."
"Thanks. Poopie sometimes turns over the water."
Already his nose is getting stuffy.
The door is open. Just walk out.
I can't. I just got here.
Something light-a feather-seems to graze his ear. He grabs for it and looks into his open palm. There's nothing there.
Mavis bursts through the doors and clicks into the foyer, dragging a large suitcase on wheels. She lets a garment bag slip to the floor and dumps a leather briefcase on the settee.
"I wanted to make a quick start, but here I am, running late."
"There's no rush. Even if we take our time we'll be in Rehoboth before five."
You can be home in fifteen minutes.
"Good," Mavis says. "We can relax a little bit. Cocktails are at six and dinner's at seven. The speeches and stuff come later. I think I'm overdressed for the ride."
Mavis fingers the collar of her black linen jacket.
She'd be better off wearing light slacks and a dark shirt instead of this black pants suit and mauve shirt. She's been a doughty schoolmarm so long that when it's finally time to dress she doesn't know how.
"You're not overdressed at all. You look fine, stylish, in fact."
"Well, I'm nervous is what is it. What if I make a fool out of myself?"
She reaches for the garment bag, but Charles beats her to it. He tucks her briefcase under his arm.
"You can pull the suitcase." He hates wheeled luggage. "And stop worrying. You won't make a fool of yourself."
Fool. Fool. Fool. Fool. Fool.
Stop it, Meg. You'll make me laugh.
"All those people looking at me. What do I know about making a speech?"
"If you're nervous about it, I can drive."
"You can't drive. You said you'd read my speech and let me know how it is."
Fishing for compliments. Pathetic.
"Relax. I'm sure your speech'll be great. If you want, I can read and drive. No problem. Two eyes, two hands, two feet. I'm always doing two things at once."
As Charles flips page after page of her triple-spaced script, Mavis tries to keep her white-knuckled grip from splitting the wheel into pieces. The traffic cluster of Dover's capitol district has twisted her stomach into knots. She can't wait to get beyond the last few strip malls of south Dover, a seemingly endless spew of dry cleaners, body shops, dollar stores, fast food joints and pizza parlors. She runs a yellow light and gets to the cyclone fence enclosing Dover Air Force base. Two hundred yards away a cargo plane with a belly the size of a football field creeps along a runway. Mavis's chest tightens. She imagines a terrorist's bomb transforming the C-130 into a radiating fireball that hurdles their way and turns the blacktop, the fence, her Chevy Blazer, WXDR's popular newscaster, the state of Delaware's Principal of the Year, her speech and the whole weekend into a billowing cloud of noxious black smoke.
"That's interesting," Charles mutters.
"What?" Mavis chirps. If the steering wheel were alive, it would be yelping.
"Oh, sorry. I was thinking out loud. I do that sometimes."
"Are you finished? What do you think?"
He rustles the pages.
"I have a page and a half to go. Let me finish and we'll talk."
Mavis feels rebuked. She's sure he finds her speech laughable. She finds it laughable. What does she know about the Social Good or Youth's Empowerment of the Future? Mavis wants to rip the speech from his hands and stuff it under the seat. Instead, she skirts to the left and passes a wheezing dump truck. But there is no open space. A single row of vehicles heaves forward and slows down.
"Well, I'm done," Charles declares, smiling. He taps the pages on his knees, evens their edges and slides the script into a new beige folder. Outside a rusting white mobile home seems to wobble in front of a squat graying chicken house. A rooster flaps its wings atop a dirt mound. A large black and white cat sleeps in the shade of a willow tree. Only two miles ahead waits the interchange for the Route 1 toll road that will express them to the beach.
"What do you think? I still have time to revise it." Or throw the damn thing out the window.
"Not everybody will know how to take it," Charles says, smiling, "and that's because it's probably too interesting."
Mavis' knuckles stretch her skin.
"Well, I'm not surprised. I knew it was bad. If I'm going to make a fool of myself, let me know. I mean, really. I want the truth. No soft soap."
"You won't be making a fool of yourself. In fact-hey, watch out!"
The decayed Plymouth Voyager in front of them has veered left, crossing the double yellow line to avoid a bouncing, jagged machine part that must have fallen from the back of the jalopy truck piled high with scrap metal. The Voyager zips behind the jalopy and narrowly misses a horn-honking tractor trailer carrying doomed Perdue chickens in piled mesh crates. The truck driver is soundlessly screaming and waving a fist as Mavis slams the brakes, wanting to angle right, but there is no shoulder, just a drop-off into a drainage ditch. The hopping slab has nowhere to go but underneath the Blazer, where it bangs like a spastic sledge hammer.
"My God!" Mavis exclaims.
"Just slow down," Charles yells. "Stay in the lane and slow down." He turns and looks out the back window. "There's nobody behind us. That thing's still jumping around, but it's twisting off the road. It looks like some kind of engine part."
Up ahead the Voyager is passing the jalopy. As Mavis slows, the heap atop the jalopy gets smaller and smaller.
"Are we alright?" Mavis shouts. "I should've turned somewhere."
"Letting that thing hit you was the only thing to do."
"I'm still shaking. Do you think there's damage?"
"We're still driving. That's a good sign. There's a shoulder up ahead. You should pull over and I'll have a look."
As Mavis steps out of the car she smells gasoline. Charles is already behind the car looking at the trail of clear smelly liquid. He lays a white handkerchief on the stubbly shoulder, puts one knee on it and cranes his head under the bumper.
"The damn thing ruptured your gas tank. But on the other hand, we're lucky: if it sparked we might've blown up. We'd be on the evening news."
"I don't believe it!" she shouts. The fuel engulfs a pothole and flows into a gully. "Are we just stuck here? I mean, I can't drive it. I can't be driving with a hole in the tank. I mean, we're still more than fifty miles from Rehoboth. It's almost 4:20 and cocktails start at six."
| 1 OF 2 | NEXT PAGE