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Observers and Other Stories [MultiFormat]
eBook by Eleanor Lerman

eBook Category: Humor
eBook Description: Can you recognize the turning points in your life when they overtake you? The women and men who populate the short stories in ?Observers? find themselves in situations--some mundane, some extraordinary--that will probably change them forever, though they don't always realize that's what's happening. One character acquires a lonely dog, one begins to recognize the harbingers of an alien encounter, another watches an eclipse on a wild night in New Orleans, and still another unexpectedly finds that she has outgrown an old love; all experiences that probably have deeper consequences than even the stories' conclusions might suggest.

eBook Publisher: SRS Internet Publishing/Artemis Press, Published: 2002
Fictionwise Release Date: January 2005

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= The River House =

It was the crazy time, the dark transition between the decades. Everyone who thought they had a chance had already left for California; the rest of us were toughing it out on the East Coast. My little group--four women and a harpsichord maker--had retreated to a farm near Oneonta, in upstate New York. We put on a pot of brown rice, heated up some beans, and waited to see what happened next. I was twenty-four. I had very few useful ideas about what I should be doing with myself.

Ben was the harpsichord maker. He was probably twice as old as me and my friends, June and Fran, but not so much older than his friend, Mary Clare, who was a photographer. We were the group, two sets of friends. I was actually working for Ben. When I was seventeen and just out of high school, I looked in the Village Voice and in the back, in a little square--the most inexpensive ad you could buy--I found what was going to happen to me next. Wanted the ad said. Someone to assemble parts in a harpsichord kit factory. Those were the kinds of jobs you got in those days: eccentric employment that left your mind free to think about what you really wanted (to get high, become an artist, have a breakdown; the real directions you were supposed to be pursuing).

I took the train into the city and got the job, which mostly involved assembling and packing the plastic jacks that plucked the harpsichord strings once the instruments were put together. I met Ben not because he worked there, but because he came in to buy extra parts. He was a tall, wild-haired guy with a handlebar mustache who made harpsichords for the art market. They had big, girdled balls on the legs or carved griffins climbing out of the case. You could play these instruments, but that wasn't what they were for. They were to surprise people when they came into your house.

After I had been making jacks for about a year, Ben's father died and he inherited the farm in upstate New York. He decided to move there--because of the bad feelings in the city, because of the war, because everybody was nervous in those days; I never really asked why--and suggested I come with him, to work. June and Fran were living with me then, in two rooms on East 10th Street, and I asked them to come, too, since there was nothing special they were doing. (That wasn't the real reason I asked, and I knew it, but it was something I could say out loud.) Mary Clare, a thin, spare woman with a serious face, came because she drove one of the two rent-a-trucks it took to carry all Ben's tools and materials and his silent clavichord to Oneonta, and then never left. The farmland, the winter meadows and the witchy woods became the subjects of her pictures. And for a while, they were the landscape of my life.

We moved into the farmhouse in the fall, in pumpkin time. Ben set up shop in the basement, where I worked with him a couple of hours a day. At night, I slept in the attic; Mary Clare had a room on the second floor and so did Fran and June. Ben slept in a room behind the kitchen, and often nodded out without turning off the TV on his dresser. (Remember, there was no cable then, no satellite TV: you could still drift off watching a test pattern that often featured the face of an Indian chief and let the hum of the wires, of beaming signals and broadcasts bouncing off the stars vibrate through your sleep all night.)

Ben would have described himself as a retired homosexual and Mary Clare, who lived on small alimony payments from a never-mentioned ex-husband, said the idea of ever having sex with anyone again kind of made her ill. So there was only one pair of lovers in the house, and they were my friends. Sometimes, I could lie awake and listen to them making love in the room beneath my attic but then, I had been doing that for years. But don't get the wrong impression: this isn't going to be a story about my struggle with sexuality: I never struggled with it. Once, when I was about fifteen, June kissed me. She was just being playful, but though I had already dated lots of boys and had never thought about women in that way, I remember that the feeling I had when she kissed me was, Oh, well, that's OK too. Later, in the middle of dinner, which in my house meant my schizophrenic stepsister feeding cookies to Jesus and my stepmother weeping over frozen dinners she was about to burn, it suddenly occurred to me that No, I think that was actually better. So that question was never a problem for me. My problem turned out to be that question in relation to Fran.

The three of us had known each other since the first year of high school. They became a couple; I became their friend. We lived in a ruined beach community on the Jersey shore, a place between the better places where there were expensive summer homes, tended beaches, and roller coasters that won awards for being thrilling. Our homes were bungalows with gravel yards. Our parents worked in low, unheated buildings that processed direct mail offerings for religious medals and magazines. Our parents were irrelevant, rarely mentioned. My father spent his nights watching game shows; my friends' fathers tended to come and go.

The three of us, June, Fran and me, started going to bars in the city when we were still too young, when all of that was still pretty much illegal. Once, we were in a raid, but the police only got us as far as the booking desk at the women's house of detention on 10th Street before they let us go because only one of us was even seventeen, and because Fran pretended to cry. Otherwise, Fran and June danced in the dark back of bars--two pretty girls, both feminine, though June had started to walk with a boy's determination and Fran's unsettled edginess became the nature of every girl who spoke to me in my dreams--while I did my homework, because I still wasn't sure how far from the middle, the supposed norm, I was willing to go. They were already talking about dropping out of school, but not me. I sat at a table in Lou's on the corner of Mott and East Houston Street and asked dykes with crew cuts if they knew when the Treaty of Ghent had been signed. Someone always knew, or found out for me, even if it meant using the pay phone and calling around.

So they both left school, and I did not. They drank, and I did not. They took pills, and I took very few: tuinols, seconals--does anybody remember these? Little blue and red capsules fresh from the Eli Lilly plant on Long Island, where we had a friend who carried them out in her bra. I can't remember what they cost to buy, but apparently we could afford them by the handful. When June and Fran were too high, I got them home. When they fought, I put one to bed and sat up with the other, letting her curse and weep. Sometimes I tried to transfer my growing attraction to one of my best friends-Who was she? A blonde girl with poor clothes who had, of course, become to me some kind of lost angel, trashed, overlooked, dangerous and needy--to other girls. They picked me, we went somewhere and had perfectly reasonable sex until I finally gave it up. What was the point? I wasn't about to fall in love with anybody else and sex was something I could have with myself if I got desperate enough. So I decided to live like a priest with a secret. I decided to become the guardian, the provider. Remember, these were the times when everyone was talking about redefining relationships, making new kinds of families. So I made mine, and those were the roles I chose.

And those were the roles I was still playing in pumpkin time, on the farm near Oneonta. It was actually late November when Fran got a job at a supermarket in a nearby town. June was working at a crafts collective down the highway in the other direction, and since we only had one car between the five of us, my job was to pick one or the other up from work if they couldn't get a ride home. On Wednesdays, the crafts place stayed open late and the supermarket closed early; this, now, was a Wednesday, and Fran had already called to ask me to drive her home. I was almost reluctant to go because I was so involved in what Ben and I were doing: for once, he was building a classical instrument, a double-manual Flemish harpsichord after the Ruckers style, with the keyboards unaligned. It was a commission, an expensive instrument that was going to be decorated with gold bands and moldings, and inset with Flemish papers in the keywell. Ben had been planning to buy pre-made plastic jacks from the Zuckermann company, but then one of us--I hope it was me--got the idea that I could make them myself. I had been working with jacks and tongues and bits of plectrum for a long time now; stringing the instruments, setting the jacks into the registers built to service harmoniously the 4' and 8' choirs, and I had developed a feel for how the jacks should be fashioned, for their weight and height and balance. We bought light, pale pearwood, and I was shaping the jacks on a small lathe. Amazingly, after a few false starts, each jack was turning out to be perfect, beautiful.

We worked through the afternoon with companionable diligence, me at the lathe, Ben stripped to the waist and humming Bach as he tinkered with the half-finished basswood cabinet. The space heater was on, so the basement was cozy and warm; the warmth brought out the fruity smell of the wood. We could have been anywhere in the world, we could have been any artist and his apprentice, any two people calmly going about good work. But late in the day, Ben looked up at the clock and said, "Jude, sweetie, you better hit the road. Time to go get your baby." Ben, who at least for now had chosen art over drama, placed some semblance of discipline over any hope of love was, I think, the only person who knew.

I found the keys, started the car, and headed down the farm road toward the highway. It was only a short drive to the outskirts of Oneonta where the market was, but four o'clock on a late November afternoon is a bad hour in upstate New York. You can smell winter in the air and the season of the harvest moons is past; from now on, night will come on fast and Orion will dominate the sky. This is the time of the hunter's moon, when you absolutely believe that headless horsemen are galloping down the back roads and monsters are stirring in the deep, cold lakes. This is beautiful country in the spring. In the winter, the landscape is depthless and uncrossable; even the Christmas tree farms look abandoned and strange.

I pulled up to the supermarket around twenty after four. Fran was standing outside, wearing a short skirt, low heels and some sort of chubby fake-fur jacket she had bought on St. Mark's Place in the city. She certainly didn't look like a local, more like she'd been stranded by a bus that had broken down as it traveled between two distant points.

"Where have you been?" she asked as she slid into the car.

I looked at my watch. "I don't think I'm late," I told her.

"No?" she said. "I guess I just couldn't wait to get away from there." She lit a cigarette and sighed. "Do you know what they talk about all day? All those women? Their kids. Their husbands. Recipes. Fucking recipes."

"Well, what do you want them to talk about?" I asked as I pulled away from the curb and headed back toward the highway.

Fran shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "But something else. There must be something else. And that manager, Dennis. He treats us all like his harem. Do you know he calls me dear?"

I smiled. "Maybe he likes you."

"Fuck him," Fran said. "And fuck him twice if he likes me." She rolled the window down so she could blow smoke at the lowering sky, and then seemed to suddenly notice where we were going. "Do we have to go home right away?" she asked me. "Can't we go somewhere else?"

"Where?" I responded. There really wasn't anyplace to go around here, unless you were a fan of candlepin bowling or VFW meetings. Hardly our thing.

"Let's go to the gorge."

"In the state park? It'll be closed this time of year."

She frowned at me. "Last summer, when we wanted to go swimming at night in the Carmine Street pool, I don't remember you being afraid of climbing the fence. They can't have a fence around a whole state park, can they? How hard can it be to get in?"

"Fine," I said. "We'll try it. But I have to stop first and call Ben so he doesn't think we drove off the road or something."

"Good," Fran said. "I'm thirsty, anyway. Get me a soda."

She wasn't thirsty, and she didn't need a soda; what she did need, I guessed, was something to swallow some downs with. I couldn't imagine where she was still getting drugs from, unless she and June had brought a suitcase full with them. Although there was a college nearby, and where there was a school, and kids, there were always contacts. Always a supply of something.

I pulled up to a roadside store and called Ben from the pay phone outside while Fran waited in the car. Ben reminded me that I didn't like to drive after it got dark so I promised we wouldn't stay too late. Then I went into the store, pulled a Coke from the cooler and brought it up to the counter to pay. Then there was that moment, that little ripple in the fabric of the day that often happened when I was in a strange place out here on the rural roads: that moment when the other people--the fat guy behind the counter, the woman in the other aisle examining cans of soup--realized that someone they probably wouldn't like was in their midst. I had short hair; I was wearing corduroy pants, a boy's tee shirt and an old blue satin Yankees jacket that belonged to Ben. Nope, like Fran, I clearly wasn't from around here. Which meant--let's make the list--that I was against the war, sexually permissive, a drug addict, a bad girl. Since some of that was true, I flashed a friendly smiled, paid for the soda, and left.

I handed Fran the Coke and steered the car back onto the highway. She pulled some capsules from her purse--pink and yellow ones I didn't recognize--and swallowed some. I didn't count how many she was taking and didn't ask what they were.

She lit another cigarette. We drove in silence for a while and after she tossed the cigarette out the window I thought she was actually beginning to nod off until, suddenly, she said, "Do you think you might ever marry Ben?"

"What?" I said. I may actually have come near to a shriek.

"You like him a lot."

"I work for him. Besides, he's queer, I'm queer. Why in God's name would we get married?"

"People do that."

"Not us. But I am going to tell him you said that. He'll think you're nuts."

She smiled. "No, he'll think it's sweet. He's sweet."

"He didn't used to be," I informed her. "He used to be a maniac. He's just mellowed with age."

"You should get married to someone," Fran said drowsily; whatever she had taken was beginning to kick in. "You need a wife."

She slept for the next twenty minutes or so. I woke her up when we got to John Higgins State Park, which is in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. The car tires crunched on the gravel of the deserted parking lot and then there was no sound at all except the west wind blowing through the pine trees. But you could tell there was a river near by, catch that cold, haunted smell of rushing water born in haunted mountains. The eastern sky was beginning to darken: night, stars, deeper cold was on the horizon. We walked across the gravel, our footsteps disturbing the starlings nesting in the trees.

It turned out that Fran was right about being able to get into the park: we just ducked under a barrier by the booth where you normally paid an entry fee and started down the path that led to the western branch of the Delaware River. We walked for about a quarter of a mile, Fran in her low heels picking her way over rocks and rock steps cut into a broken hill that paralleled a granite cliff face sheered off by a glacier some unimaginably long time ago. The path was narrow, so I went first, playing the guide, holding her thin, cold hand. Once, I considered what I was doing: walking along the edge of darkness, leading a half-conscious girl into an ancient gorge. It didn't seem as absurd as you would think.

Near the floor of the gorge, just a few feet above the river, which was shallow through this stretch, and unnavigable, we found a flat rock to sit down on. Fran leaned against me, shivering. I knew the water below would feel like ice; the leaves and twigs being carried along in the current already looked like frozen relics of the winter to come.

"Jude," Fran said suddenly, "did Ben's father used to have animals on that farm?"

"He had some cows," I told her.

"What happened to them?"

"When his father died, Ben gave them to that guy with the dairy farm. You know, down the road."

"He didn't sell them to a slaughterhouse?"

"There isn't a slaughterhouse around here. Besides, Ben wouldn't do that."

"You said he used to be a different person."

"I said he had problems. Which doesn't mean he didn't always like animals. Or that he would sell his father's cows to a slaughterhouse, if there even was one."

I actually remembered the cows from a visit Ben and I had made to his father several summers ago. Ben was doing a lot of amyl nitrate at the time, which he was getting from some waiter boyfriend of his, and he asked me to come along in case he had an anxiety attack and couldn't drive. Sometime during the afternoon we went out into a meadow to see the cows. They were big and quiet and had the kind of cow names you'd expect: Bessie, Helen, Sugar. One of them, though, who had odd little stumpy horns on her head, was called Miriam.

"And chickens?" Fran asked.

"You know the chickens are still there," I answered. "In the coop behind the house. Mary Clare feeds them all the time. She makes those cheese omelets you like, with their eggs."

"I forgot."

"Frances," I said, "Franny, what are we talking about?"

"Nothing," she told me, leaning her head on my shoulder. "I'm just tired."

I thought she was going to nod off again, but instead, she started on another subject. "Did you ever hear about the river house?"

"There's a house here?" I asked, because I thought that's what she meant. "On this part of the Delaware?"

"No, it's on some other river," she said with a vague wave of her hand. "Some river nearby." Which could mean anywhere: there were thousands of rivers, streams, creeks, tributaries running like cold veins through this dark heartland. "They were talking about it at the store today."

"I thought you said all they talked about were husbands and recipes."

"Well, they talked about this, too. It's a big wooden house right on a riverbank. It's a landmark, but all run down. The person who lived there moved away a long time ago, but he finally died, and now no one's sure what's going to happen to it. Before it was this man's house, it used to be a speakeasy. And before that, it was a tavern, in Revolutionary War times. They used to have dances, and people came from all over. Even the Indians would come in sometimes, and dance."

The Indians who lived in this part of the country were the Oneida and the Mohawk; they were fierce and brave and brutal, and while they may indeed have danced out war and vengeance on their own camping grounds, I doubted they cared very much about finding partners among the plump little revolutionary era maidens.

"That sounds like a Walt Disney movie," I told her.

"It's true," she insisted, but only half-heartedly. "That's what they told me at the store."

The last wisps of daylight were just about gone from the sky now, so I got Fran up and started pulling her back along the path. She was stumbling a lot and I knew that she was drifting. And she was still shivering; when we were about halfway back I took off my jacket and made her put it on under the chubby thing she was already wearing. Being warmer wasn't going to help her stay awake but it made me feel better: what I should have done was talked to her about all the drugs she was taking, but since I wasn't going to do that, or couldn't, the jacket, at least, made me feel that I was taking some sort of care with her life.

We made it back to the parking lot and I helped Fran into the car, where she immediately fell asleep. When I got behind the wheel and turned on the headlights, I realized that I could barely see a few feet in front of me. Ben was right; I didn't like driving at night, and now I had miles to go on unlit back roads. It'll be okay, I told myself as I started the car and began to inch forward. You'll just do this slowly.

As I drove, I watched the mileposts, though I wasn't sure what they were measuring: mile 33, mile 34. And mailboxes: Hempel, Schoonman, Kiley, the last one shaped like wagon, with little fake wheels. You won't get into an accident on mile 34 just past the Schoonman's, I was telling myself, when Fran suddenly woke up. She kept her eyes closed, but put her hand on my arm.

"You know," she said softly, "June is screwing some dyke from that crafts place where she works."

"What?" I said, really not quite taking in what she was saying because I was concentrating so hard on my driving. I think I finally processed the information around mile 38. "That's ridiculous," I told her, though I wasn't sure she was still awake.

She was. "She may be your good friend," Fran said, "but it's true."

This wasn't a subject I felt I could discuss when I was already so tense from driving, so I didn't respond. We finally got to the highway, and I felt a little better when we slipped into the stream of traffic heading towards Oneonta and points north. At least there were lights on the road. And real signs, with directions.

We were home about seven thirty. The house was warm, and Ben was sitting in the living room with a plate of spaghetti in his lap. He still wasn't wearing a shirt, and he was a little drunk, but not very. The news was on, broadcast from some local station: as usual, the images on the TV were about the war, about demonstrations in the city.

"Aren't you glad we're here and not there?" he said by way of greeting as Fran and I walked into the room, though I wasn't sure if he meant Viet Nam or New York. And then he said, "Hello, little baby," as Fran curled up on the sofa beside him, and put her head down on his lap. "Taken our medicine again, have we?"

"Umm," she said.

I pulled both jackets off her and hung them up in the hall. Then I went into the kitchen, took some spaghetti out of the pot on the stove, and sat down at the kitchen table to eat. Mary Clare had to have made the spaghetti--she was the only one in the house who cooked with any regularity--so I knew she was home. A little later, she emerged from the pantry, which she had fixed up as a dark room. She was wearing a turtleneck and overalls, and had her wispy hair piled up on her head and held with what looked like paperclips.

Mary Clare spent her days tramping around in the woods, taking pictures. No one else in the house liked the pictures much, but I did. She picked out odd things to photograph, bits and pieces of the forest: sometimes a fallen tree, sometimes deer tracks along the windbreak on ridge. They all looked like clues to me, though I wasn't sure what mystery they were meant to help solve.

She spread the latest set of pictures out on the table for me to look at. And there was something new here: in addition to more images of trees, of broken deer antlers in a muddy stream, she had taken some pictures of herself standing in a shadowy clearing. In most of the pictures she had her clothes on, but in two of them she was completely naked. She was looking directly at the camera in one of the images; in the other, her head was turned and she appeared to be gazing into the distance. In both pictures, her thin body looked like a white scarf somehow held upright and stiff against the backdrop of dark woods; the impression you got was of some severe old woodland spirit who had allowed her picture to be snapped because she couldn't be bothered to run away.

"What were you looking at?" I asked her. "In this one, where your head is turned."

"I don't know," she told me. "Maybe nothing. Or maybe I heard a noise. Would you like to have it?"

"Sure," I said, thinking, and this will be the one snapshot I end up with of my year on this farm.

She seemed genuinely pleased. "I think they might look better if I printed them in sepia," she told me. "I'll do that and give you a copy."

June finally came home around a quarter to nine. The sound of the door slamming behind her woke up Ben and Fran, who had both been dozing on the couch. June was wearing a short leather jacket and a brown scarf; her long brown hair looked sleek and wintry against the smooth, worn leather. And her eyes were blazing, true blue and wild. She was, I realized, extremely high, though on something very different than what Fran had taken. Was she doing something new now? Maybe some kind of speed?

Without even unzipping the jacket or taking off the scarf, she began to eat spaghetti straight out of the pot. Mary Clare was saying that June should wait, she'd gladly heat up the food for her, when we suddenly heard what sounded like screeching from somewhere behind the house.

"Hey," Ben called from the living room, "could somebody go see what's happening back there? Maybe a fox got into the coop."

Ben had grown up on this farm, but had lived so much, so differently for so many years, that he thought of the boy who had been raised here more as a story he had read some long time ago than as an early version of himself. He had told me that, so I knew that "fox" was just a word he was remembering, and that it didn't mean anything real: he could have just as easily said, gopher, wolf or weasel.

"I'll go," June said, "I've still got my jacket on."

"I'll go with you," I told her, turning toward the hall to get the Yankees jacket. When I went back into the kitchen I called out to Fran, who was still in the next room. "See? Chickens."

So June and I went out into the night. We crossed the hard ground of the farmyard and inspected the chicken coop, which seemed untouched. Inside, the hens were all on their nests, looking sleepy and a little suspicious about being disturbed at this late hour.

"Maybe," June said, "one of them just had a bad dream."

"Should we count them?" I asked. "Make sure they're all here?"

"Do you know how many there were to start with?" she responded. When I told her that I didn't, she said, "Then what would be the point?" She closed the door of the coop, fastened the catch and then took my hand. "It's a beautiful night," she said. "Let's sit outside for a while."

We walked across a dark meadow--the cows' old stomping grounds--to a low hill and lay down on the grass, side by side. Above us, the winter constellations were like cold stones scattered in the cold, black sky; the moon was a river rock, flat and white, dimmed by all the dark water.

"June," I said, "are you screwing around with some woman at your job?" It hadn't taken much thought or consideration to ask her that question; we were friends, we had always been able to talk to each other about anything.

She laughed. "Did Fran tell you that? She always thinks I'm getting it on with someone. If I was," she said, "it would be you."

This was just talk, just flirting, something she and Fran both did with me, though in very different ways. And sometimes it was hard for me to tell which one I loved more, though also very differently. June I loved because she was bright, luminous; though lately I had begun to think that this was changing from an asset into something else. She was burning up, into nothing. She was full of energy, but it was manic, it had no direction, no product. And she was always high. They were both always high. I couldn't keep up and didn't really want to.

"We tried that once," I reminded her. "It didn't work. We were like two boys."

"That's because you don't have any tits."

"That's not true," I protested.

"It is true," she told me. "But relax, you're just skinny. Someday, somebody will find that attractive."

"Gee, thanks."

June smiled, but at the night more than me. "Stop worrying. You have lots of qualities to recommend you."

"Like what?"

"Like you have talent."

This seemed like a genuinely surprising statement. "Talent?" I said. "For what?"

She turned over on her side, to face me, and said, quite seriously, "You're a craftsman. A real one. I see the shit people buy and sell at the crafts store all day: pottery and bracelets and stupid clay sculptures. Nobody's doing anything like what you're doing, nobody has your ability. Jude," she said, "you can make musical instruments. You can make a harpsichord with your own hands."

"I can make parts of a harpsichord," I told her.

"If you wanted to, you could probably make all the parts. I told someone at the store about you..."

I looked over at her.

"Someone I am not screwing," June continued, "and she said you ought to go to Pennsylvania, to the Martin guitar factory. Someone with your skills, they'd teach you to make guitars. Mandolins. You could have a real career."

I had never actually thought about anything like that before, that I was learning a trade. No, she had said a craft. To me, what I was doing was just working, and working meant making just enough money to get by. The idea that what I was doing might lead to some kind of career--we were against careers, weren't we? Not that we actually knew anybody who had one except, maybe Ben, and his was unusual--seemed both weird and interesting at the same time. It was like June had just handed me a letter, and when I opened it up, it said Bingo. I was really going to have to think about this.

But not right then. June couldn't stay still for very long, so we were soon back on our feet, headed for the house. For the rest of the evening, we did the normal things we usually did--watched TV, ate cookies--except that there seemed to be an edge to things. Fran only stayed awake long enough to smoke a joint, and June, who shared it with her, only seemed more stimulated afterwards, like whatever she was smoking had something else in it and she just couldn't calm down. She went out to check the chickens again around eleven o'clock, even though they hadn't made another sound.

We were all in bed by midnight. Then sometime later in the night--I was dreaming about stars, cows, moonlit fields--I heard banging on my door. The door wasn't locked, and I couldn't imagine who was banging, or why. I lurched across the room (my bed was on the floor and I kept forgetting that, trying to step down when I should have been standing up), and when I finally got the door open, I saw June standing there wearing nothing but a tee shirt that just about reached her thighs. Fran was standing beside her, wearing some sort of heartbreaking nightgown covered with little sprigs of blue flowers. She was crying. June grabbed her by the wrist and pretty much flung her into my room. For a moment, in my confusion, I thought June was giving her to me.

"She's pregnant," June barked.

"What?" I said. I felt like I had been stammering that one word all day. What, what, what?

I walked over to Fran, who was now kneeling on the floor, weeping with soundless heaves. I leaned down, into her yellow hair. "Honey?" I said. "Is that true?"

"Go ahead," June said. "Be nice to her. You're always nice to her."

"Shut up, June," I said. "Franny?"

Fran finally caught her breath. "She's fucking someone else," she said. "She doesn't pay any attention to me. And now she's doing heroin, too."

"Every one of those things," June said slowly, ominously, "is a lie."

Ben had heard the commotion, and now he was at the foot of the stairs, calling up to us to see what was going on. "Everything's fine," June yelled down to him. "It's just that one of us is pregnant."

"Christ, I hope it isn't me," Ben said.

I couldn't help it, I laughed. June glared at me, so I went to the railing and called down to him to go back to bed, that I'd handle this. Mary Clare, at least, had the good sense not to even make an appearance.

I went back to Fran. "Is it true?" I asked again. "How could it have happened?

"Don't look at me," June said.

Now it was my turn to glare. "For Christ's sake, June." I spoke to Fran then, or tried to. "Who," I began, "who, uh, is the..."

"The daddy?"

"Shut up," I told June again.

But it was June who answered me. "Dennis," she said.

"The manager from the store?" I think I was actually kind of shocked. I turned, again, to Fran. "The one who calls you dear?"

"In the stockroom," June said, answering a question I hadn't even asked. "At lunchtime. On coffee breaks. Over and over again."

Fran's silent weeping had now turned into a low, hiccuping wail. I told June to go back to bed, that I'd talk to Fran and try to straighten things out. What I was saying was, of course, ridiculous--you could straighten out a misunderstanding, return something stolen, maybe even lift a curse with a few words of regret--but this, clearly, was going to require a lot more than my limited negotiation skills. Still, June did leave, but after she was only halfway down the hall, she came back to the door and pointed at Fran. "Don't come back to my room," she warned, and stalked off.

Fran was still crying. I sat down on the floor next to her and put my arm around her shoulder. "We'll fix it," I told her.


"You can have an abortion. It's legal now. At least, I think it is."

"I have to have an abortion," she agreed. "I can't have a baby. Not this baby. It'll be deformed. A pinhead. Jude," she said, almost in a whisper, "I've been getting high all the time."

"I know," I told her. I still wasn't sure, though, that she really was pregnant: part of me believed that she was making this up, maybe to get attention, maybe just out of some kind of craziness. Besides, if it was true, I was going to have to deal with some pretty horrible and probably inappropriate feelings of jealousy, something along the lines of, Well, if the great love affair is breaking up, why turn to some guy? Why not me? Since I was too tired right then to try and figure all this out, I decided to address a subject that, in the depths of the night, somehow seemed easier to approach.

"Fran," I said, "June can't be doing heroin. She's been running around like a lunatic. Like she's been doing speed."

"I didn't mean heroin," Fran told me. "I meant cocaine."

Cocaine? At that time, cocaine was like a wish, a rumor: no one knew much about it, or where to get it. I had never even seen any. And supposedly, it cost a ton of money for just a small amount.

"It's those women at the collective," Fran said. "They've been getting into all kinds of drugs. And she is sleeping with that dykey one. The one who makes the dragon rings."

I knew the woman she was talking about, and supposed that it could have been true. June with her long brown hair and feverish blue eyes ... June with her new drugs, Fran with her old ones. My sad, blonde baby, possibly pregnant. These, I told myself, these have always been my best friends.

I kept thinking these thoughts over and over again, in different kinds of variations. By the time I was through, Fran had crawled into my bed on the floor and fallen asleep. I decided that it wasn't a good idea for me to get in beside her, so I walked out to the landing and considered the beds that were available for me to share. Who should I sleep with, I wondered? There was my boss, there was the witch of the woods, and there was the angry lover. It may have sounded like a fairytale, but it sure wasn't. I decided to sleep by myself, on the couch.

In the morning, Fran and June both went to work, though they left in silence. Someone came by to pick June up (not the woman who made dragon rings), and Fran, in her short skirt and chubby jacket, just stepped through the front door and started down the farm road, as if she were going to walk all the way to the supermarket. I asked Ben to go after her and drive her, which he did. Then I stopped Mary Clare, who was about to go out the back door with her cameras, and asked if she could help me with what I figured had already become my problem.

Since the divorce from her husband, Mary Clare had become interested in feminism. There were a lot of books in her room published by some underground press whose logo was that cross and circle symbol for women, combined with an upraised fist. And in the city, I knew she had gone to meetings about how women could stop the war (she gravitated toward a group that had some unusual theories about combining political action with wiccan rituals), so I was hoping that maybe, with all this information behind her, she could give me some guidance.

She told me that yes, in New York state you could get an abortion on demand for about a year now, but she didn't know if there was a facility around here that was offering the procedure. She unstrapped the cameras from around her neck, put them down on the table in the kitchen and started to make phone calls; about twenty minutes later she was able to tell me that we could get Fran an appointment tomorrow, at a women's clinic in Buffalo.

"That's got to be a four-hour drive," I said to Mary Clare. "Each way."

"It's the closest place I could find," she told me.

By now Ben had returned; he sat down at the kitchen table with us and lit a twisted little brown cigar he couldn't possibly have bought around here. Apparently everybody had brought supplies with them from the city (drugs, books, phone numbers, tobacco), except me.

"I have an idea," he said, picking up on the conversation. "I have a friend, a plumber who lives in Stylersville; that's about halfway between here and Buffalo. There's a guy he's always trying to get away to see, a mechanic down in Watkins Glen. I bet he'd be glad to let you stay in his apartment overnight, if you feed his cat."

Stylersville, Watkins Glen. A gay plumber, a gay mechanic. An abortion for my girlfriend's girlfriend. A long drive into the wintry north. The details were piling up, so I guessed that I really was going to do this.

"What's the cat's name?" I asked Ben.

"Billy," he answered immediately.

"Great," I said. "Find out what Billy likes to eat."

In the afternoon, I went to the store to bring Fran home. When she got into the car, I told her what had been arranged. "Are you sure this is what you want?" I asked her.

"Yes," she said.

"Did you tell Dennis?" I, of course, didn't give a damn about Dennis or what he thought about all this, but it seemed like the kind of thing I was supposed to ask.

"Fuck Dennis," she responded, which was the same thing she had said about him, in just about the same spot, yesterday. "I don't care about him."

On the drive home, I told her about the plumber's apartment in Stylersville, about the mechanic and Billy the cat. I realized at some point that I was probably babbling and that she wasn't paying attention, so I stopped talking. As I turned the car onto the farm road, I looked over at her and saw that her eyes were closed though she wasn't sleeping, and there seemed to be tears on her cheeks. I didn't say anything to her: there were so many things she could have been crying about.

We got through the evening, though not easily. When June came home, I tried to tell her about the clinic in Buffalo, but she didn't want to listen. "Why," she asked me, "do you think I want to know anything about this?" She didn't eat with the rest of us, and around seven o'clock someone came to pick her up again, though still not the woman who made dragon rings. She came home late, after the news, and went directly to her room, slamming the door behind her. So the sleeping arrangements were the same as the night before. When I woke up on the couch, early in the morning, I could tell it was going to snow.

I got Fran up without too much trouble, and we were on the road before anyone else in the house was even out of bed. Our appointment in Buffalo was in the afternoon, so we had plenty of time, but I didn't want to rush. Ben and Mary Clare had both equipped me with road maps and directions, including a hand-lettered map of Stylersville that included an elongated, stylized drawing of a cat pointing a whisker at little square box on a line with the legend, Ellen Street, which is where we were headed on our way back.

Fran smoked a joint before we even got past Oneonta, and she'd had time in the bathroom to take a whole bottle of pills, if that was her choice, but she seemed remarkably clear-eyed as she sat quietly beside me. We didn't say much to each other, just looked out at the scenery, which was all the same: low hills, barren winter fields, farm stands selling cold root vegetables. Sometimes there were sheep in distant meadows, sometimes black horses ran along the fencelines by the road. The sky was gray and low and endless.

I think we were almost an hour into the trip when Fran turned to me, looking like she had something important to say. I glanced over at her; her eyes were as gray and lonely as the sky.

"Jude," she said, making my name sound almost formal. "Thank you. I mean, for doing this."

"It's okay," I told her.

"No, it's not," she said. "But thank you anyway."

That was it, that was all the conversation for a while. Finally, though, Fran noticed a sign by the highway that announced we were nearing the Onondaga Indian Reservation where there were souvenir shops, a museum and a restaurant.

"Let's stop for a little while," she said. "We've been making good time. We can get something at the restaurant."

"You're not supposed to eat anything," I told her, wondering if grass and downs made any difference.

"But you must be hungry," she said. "And I can probably have a cup of coffee."

It was a good suggestion, because I did want to take a rest. I was beginning to realize that I actually hated driving, not just at night but anytime, anywhere. True, I had been brought up at the Jersey Shore, which was deep into the car culture, and I had listened to all the songs on the radio about driving too fast along midnight highways, around dead man's curve, but somehow, none of it had rubbed off on me. I wished we could just get on a bus. I could buy a newspaper and read for the rest of the way.

In the restaurant, which was really just a diner decorated with prints of Indian scenes, I ate rhubarb pie. It was delicious, but I couldn't finish it. I was usually ravenous and could eat anything; I was ravenous now, but food wasn't having any effect on how I felt. Fran drank half a cup of black coffee and stared at a picture of a teepee in the snow.

We paid for our meal and were about to leave when I noticed that a door near the cashier's counter led right through to the souvenir shop. I steered Fran into the shop, where we looked around for a few minutes. I wanted to buy something, and finally settled on a silver-colored arrowhead necklace, which I placed around Fran's neck.

"For luck," I told her as I paid for the jewelry.

We walked back to the car, but she stopped me before I could get the door open. She raised her hand to her neck and touched the necklace. "You're always giving me things," she said.

"I don't know about that," I said.

"Sure," she told me. "There was that Bob Dylan record. And once you made me that cherrywood box. And when we were still in school, you gave me a black tee shirt with a red rose."

I reached around her and opened the door, because it was cold and we were both badly dressed for the weather. "If I ever get any money," I said, "I'll buy you better things."

"Those were good things," she said. "You just don't realize it."

It was another two hours before we finally saw Buffalo, looking small and bleak, hunched down against the horizon. I followed the highway into the city, and then took local streets, consulting Mary Clare's directions to an old, industrial neighborhood a few blocks from Lake Erie, where I finally found the clinic. There was a lopsided, rainbow-patterned banner across the door that said "Women's Health Collective," but the colors had been dimmed by factory smoke and pollution, and the banner's remaining cheerfulness seemed forced. When we got out of the car, we could smell the lake. It smelled like coal and weeds.

Inside, the woman at the desk was young and grim faced; the patients sitting around on straight-backed chairs were equally sullen looking and none appeared to be older than sixteen. There were no children here and, logically, I supposed, no men. I wondered if there were any real doctors in the place. Was Fran going to be--Operated on? Was that what was going to happen?--by a physician (that is, if she was really pregnant; I still wasn't sure), or was one of these unhappy teenagers going to come at her with a speculum and a spoon? I filled out some forms, handed over three hundred dollars (some of it mine, some of it Fran's, some of it borrowed from Ben) and we sat down on a pair of chairs against the wall. There was one tiny window across from us; outside, I could see that it had finally started to snow.

"You know," I said to Fran, "just in case, it's okay if you tell me that we should get up right now and leave." I knew that she knew what I meant.

"I understand that you don't want to believe it," she said, "but it's true. I fucked Dennis." She put her hands up to her eyes and rubbed them, hard. When she took them away, she blinked like she was blind. "Who do I have to apologize to?" she whisper-ed to the snow, the air. "To June or to you?"

After a while, another young woman, this one wearing something that resembled a nurse's uniform, appeared from behind a door and called Fran's name. She got up and walked away without saying a word to me, though I think that was only because she was nervous. A few minutes later, a different woman appeared beside me, this one older, with frazzled looking gray hair. (At last, an adult. I actually felt relieved.)

"Are you the partner?" she asked. I said yes, I was, since that was as good a description as any I could think of myself. She told me that the procedure wouldn't take too long, but then Fran had to rest there, in a recovery room, for about an hour. "I'll write her a prescription in case there's any pain," the woman told me, "and then you can take her home." Then she went away too, and I was alone.

There was a paper on a stool nearby. I picked it up and started reading the news about Buffalo: it was a bad season for football, a bad year for local hockey. New emergency procedures were going to be tried to keep the roads to Canada open during the worst winter storms, but no promises were being made. Someone had gone fishing at night on that huge goddamn lake a few blocks away and had drowned. The Great Lakes really should be called inland seas, I remembered my social studies teacher telling the class during my last year of school. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814.

The next time I saw Fran she was sitting on a bed in a dim room, wearing a paper hospital gown and vomiting into a washbasin. The woman with the frazzled hair was helping her hold the basin and patting her on the back. I wondered if I had somehow missed an earlier summons to the recovery room and this, normally, was the partner's job.

"It happens sometimes," the woman told me as Fran continued to heave. "It's the anaesthetic."

"Will she be alright?" I asked.

"Oh sure," the woman answered, a little too lightly, I thought. "Everything went fine. Why don't you help her get dressed and then come to the desk. We'll give you some prescriptions."

First, I had to get the paper gown off, and Fran wasn't helping. I didn't think she was actually completely awake. "Franny?" I said. "Can you lift your arm? Can you pull this over your head?" She didn't answer me, and only seemed to open her eyes when she had to retch.

I finally did manage to get her dressed and into her jacket. I helped her out to the car where she crawled into the back seat and lay down, making whimpering sounds. I went back into the clinic, signed some more papers, got the prescriptions, and went back to the car.

Because Stylersville was not near the highway, I was going to have to drive on secondary roads all the way, and by now it was snowing pretty heavily. Before I left the city, I stopped at a drugstore to get the prescriptions filled. While I was there, I went outside twice to check on Fran, who was sleeping fitfully in the back seat. When I walked back into the store for the second time, I stopped at the pay phone to call Ben.

When he picked up, I said, "It's me. Are there snow tires on the car?"

"You know what snow tires look like, Jude."

"I don't know if I remember," I told him. "They're fat, right? With big grooves? The radio said you have to have snow tires tonight to drive on these roads."

"Honey," Ben said, "I heard the weather report. Would I let you drive all that way without snow tires?" He had to pause for a moment because the twisted cigar I could tell that he was puffing on was making him cough.

"I'm sorry," I told him. "It's been a long day."

"You'll be fine," he said to me. "You're in Buffalo, just Buffalo. Not Timbuktu." Then he asked, "How's Fran?"

"They told me at the clinic that she's okay, but I'm not sure."

"Just get her to my friend's apartment," he told me, "and put her to bed. Alone," he added.

"She's sick," I reminded him. "I don't think there's any question of that."

Back on the road, it was well past dark when I finally arrived in Stylersville, a collection of old, wood-frame houses on narrow streets that climbed along the sides of a low valley. The downtown area--a hardware store, a Chinese take-out, another drugstore, a market--was already shut down for the night.

I found Ellen Street without too much trouble, found the converted boarding house where the plumber lived and got the keys from a downstairs neighbor. Then I went back to the car, which I'd parked at the curb, and woke up Fran. She told me that she had to throw up again, which she did, in the street, with snow falling on both of us. Then I helped her upstairs.

The plumber's apartment consisted of two small, neat rooms with a Pullman kitchen set in a recessed alcove. I led Fran into the back room and pulled off the clothes I had put her into, in what already seemed like a million years ago in another world, another life. Then I gave her the pills the clinic had prescribed, and took away the ones she had in her purse. "I'm sick," she murmured. And then, "I'm tired."

"You'll feel better in the morning," I told her.

"You always say that," she responded, but I don't, so she must have been thinking of June. Or else she was already dreaming, drifting further back somewhere, thinking of her mother. There was a satiny blue quilt on the bed; I pulled it up over her shoulders and went out to the other room.

There was no door between the two rooms, so I didn't turn on the light. Even so, I could see that the old tabby cat I was supposed to feed had jumped up on a table near the alcove and was sitting expectantly beside a stack of cat food cans. I said, "Hello, Billy," opened one of the cans and emptied it into his dish. Then I settled myself into a window seat that looked out towards the front, towards Ellen Street. Eventually, the cat came to sit with me, and we both watched out the window at the dark wooden houses, the dirt yards and the wet snow. I was exhausted, but too keyed-up to sleep.

So I thought about the plumber, who was down at the NASCAR track in Watkins Glen. They wouldn't be racing at this time of year, so I hoped he and the mechanic were in some nice bar somewhere, having a drink. And then I thought about what I could be doing, if I were further down the highway, in New York. Maybe I could get a bike--I'd had one last year--and ride all the way up Seventh Avenue, to Central Park and back. (Just because it had snowed in this northern valley didn't mean that it was anything but cold and clear in the city; good riding weather.) It was always surprising how quiet Manhattan could be late at night, and free of traffic: you could sail up the river of the avenues with only cruising taxis and the occasional mysterious limousine passing you by. I could get some small room near Astor Place and live there with anyone I wanted; maybe even by myself. I could walk over to Bleecker Street, where there was a store that sold and repaired musical instruments and maybe get a job. True, the summer of love was over, the season of riots had begun. But so what? I had no politics, no affiliations. And whatever my private thoughts were, I knew how to be basically agreeable. When I had to, I could still walk the middle ground. I could get by.

Those were the thoughts that I fell asleep thinking. Sometime in the night I moved from the window seat to the couch, and the cat came with me, but when I woke up in the morning, he was sleeping with Fran. I fed him again and then tried to get her up, and while she stirred enough to tell me that she was feeling better, she also said that she wanted to sleep some more. That seemed okay; the plumber wasn't due back until that evening, so I told her that I was going to go out and get some breakfast, and that I'd bring back something for her.

I thought I'd walk, which turned out to be a mistake, since I had no idea of where I was going. I had to trudge a long way down snowy streets until I found an IHOP sitting at a crossroads. Signs pointed one way to Pennsylvania, another to Niagara Falls. I went inside and had some eggs at the counter, then bought some donuts and a cheese sandwich for Fran, since I guessed that it was going to be lunchtime before she finally got out of bed.

It turned out, actually, to be later. She sat up in bed when I returned, and ate the donuts, but said that she still wanted to sleep. So I spent the afternoon listening to Judy Collins records (the plumber apparently owned them all) and playing fetch with the cat, who kept bringing me bottle caps from a stash he must have had hidden somewhere, carrying them in his mouth like tiny pans. He went about the game with ferocious determination, batting them around the floor before bringing them back to be tossed again. Eventually we both got tired and took a nap together on the couch. Woke up, Judy sang in that beautiful clear voice, it was a Chelsea morning. In Stylersville, on Ellen Street, it was afternoon. Time passed.

Around three o'clock, Fran finally decided to get out of bed and take a shower. While she was in the bathroom, I walked around the apartment, straightening up, though there really wasn't much to do. As I filled the cat's dish one more time, I found myself feeling as if Fran and I had been on some odd kind of vacation, our first trip alone by ourselves. Never mind the real purpose of the journey we'd taken: we had still taken time off work, visited an Indian reservation, bought souvenirs, stayed in a borrowed apartment and done some hard driving with more ahead for the ride home. It had all the elements of an impromptu weekend get-away, even if feeling that way about it didn't make any sense.

We were finally out of the apartment and back on the road by four, but I knew that meant that we'd be driving after dark again, and I even though I had looked at the road maps before we left, I still wasn't all that sure of the route home. Blue lines through the foothills, red lines across the fields, rivers, bridges, crossroads, truckstops, diners, gas stations, rutted farm roads, race tracks in the snow. I gave Fran the map and asked her to navigate, even though I didn't think she was really going to be much help.

"You know," she said to me, after we'd had an animated discussion about whether to go east or west at some confusing jug handle, "I'm going to have to get another job. I don't think I want to be around that idiot anymore."

"Couldn't you just decide not to fuck him anymore?"

She looked over at me with narrowed eyes. "Hey," she said, "that wasn't very nice."

She was right, it wasn't. "I'm sorry," I told her. "I take it back." Then, to get away from that subject, I asked, "Where do you think you want to work?'

"I don't know," she told me. "I can probably get a job in another store somewhere around. They're all the same--all you need to know how to do is work a cash register."

"Tomorrow's Sunday. You can look in the paper."

She sighed. "I was planning to do that, Jude." She looked over at me again, and when I turned for a moment to meet her glance, I saw that she had a kind of sad, thoughtful look on her face. "Are you angry at me?" she asked.

"No," I told her truthfully. "Not at all." How could I be? I knew her, I knew everything about her, everything good and everything bad. I knew what her life had been, I knew her parents, I thought I knew what had made her who she was. And with all that, I had no capacity for being angry at her, for anything. That was what understanding too much had done.

The moon was in the sky again and night had come down from the mountains when I realized that we were lost. Not badly, but definitely on the wrong road, maybe in the wrong county. I took the map back from Fran, who handed it over without complaint, and pulled over to the shoulder to try to figure out where we were. But before I even turned on the overhead light, Fran grabbed my arm and then pointed out the window. "Look," she said, "I think this is the place I was telling you about." She was gesturing at a bronze plaque set atop a pole sticking out of the snowy ground at the side of the road. In the headlights, I could see that it said, Site of the Goblin River House, but we were going to have to get out of the car to read the rest.

I decided that I wanted to see what it said, so I turned off the motor and told Fran to grab the flashlight that Ben kept in the glove compartment. A moment later, we were both standing beside the car, at the edge of a road that ran between frozen fields and a dark woods. It was a cold night, and so quiet out on the countryside that you could imagine hearing the sound of the earth rotating slowly beneath the great, starry wheel of the sky. Fran turned on the flashlight and pointed it at the plaque so we could see what it said.

To begin with, there was, indeed, a river here, somewhere deeper into the woods, at the end of a path currently buried under the snow. It was the Goblin River, though named, not for imps or malicious spirits, but after a tribal word for "dancing place." (Iroquois? Onandoga? The legend on the plaque didn't explain.) And there had been a structure of some sort on this spot since the time when Washington's troops were galloping the roads between New York and Boston; a tavern, a revival house, and, as Fran had said, a Prohibition-era watering hole. Its last incarnation, before passing into private ownership, had been as a summer dance pavilion. The structure now belonged to the New York State Parks Department.

I took the flashlight from Fran and pointed it towards the line of pine trees. "Let's go have a look," I said to her.

"No," she told me. "Its too cold."

"Oh come on," I said. "It'll be an adventure."

"You don't like adventures," she informed me with the authority of someone who knew. And, normally, what she said would have been true. Normally, she has as much right to believe that she could predict what I would think and do as I believed I did about her. But not at that particular moment. Right then, I was still experiencing that same sense of being disconnected from the usual that I was feeling back at the apartment, like I was passing through some space between one thing and another and I couldn't quite come to earth. But I still wanted to see the river house, wanted it with the same longing as someone determined to wrest every last minute of hope from an imperfect holiday. Besides, I was realizing that I wasn't exactly anxious to get home. June would be in some wild state, Ben would be overly solicitous, Mary Clare would be polite and remote. I didn't feel like I had the energy to deal with them all right now, or maybe the opposite was true: maybe I had too much? Another night on the farmland. Another night watching the moon fly like a white witch above the pumpkin fields. Deeper days of winter, colder days of gray northern despair.

I took Fran's hand and started pulling her towards the wood. "We won't stay long," I promised her. "Let's go."

We walked through the tall pines, on hard packed snow. Then, suddenly, not even a quarter of a mile into the woods, we were at the river. Before us was something quite different than the shallow, rocky branch of the Delaware trapped in a gorge--instead, we saw free water roaring between deep banks, heard the crack of a cold current strong enough to split the wind. And the water was like the wind, tearing through the pine forest. Wings of water spread themselves over the riverbank and then, in a spray of icy rivulets, just flew away.

The house was to our right, standing on ground that had been cleared along a natural bend in the river. It was two stories high, made of wide, rough planks, and looked like a structure that had been built and rebuilt over and over again. A short staircase made of split logs led up to the front door, which faced away from the river, into the trees.

"Let's take a look inside," I said to Fran.

"It'll be locked," she told me.

But it wasn't. Nor was it vandalized, as I had expected when I walked up the stairs and was able to easily swing the door open wide. Maybe because it was in such an out-of-the-way spot, or because the kids and hunters around here, looking for haven for the night had found some more convenient haunts, but inside, the house was empty, untouched. Even the interior walls were gone--Maybe the Parks Department was trying to restore it to some semblance of its dance hall past?--and all that remained was a long, vast space with surprisingly high ceilings. At the end of the long room were four windows that rose from the floor almost to the ceiling, and through them came moonlight, river light, maybe even ghost light from Japanese lanterns that had once been strung in trees outside. And beyond the windows you could see the bright river, the blue water that looked like it was falling through the pines. I thought it was wonderful.

Fran's reaction was a bit more lackadaisical. "Well," she said, "at least it's warm here. If we had a fire, it might actually be nice."

I turned to smile at her and saw a glint of silver at her neck: it was the arrowhead necklace I had given her. I had meant it as a talisman and it had worked. She was fine.

She sat down on the floor to take off her wet shoes while I walked down the length of the long room, toward the windows. I felt like I was walking into radiance: the river was taking the moonlight and making it dance. Everything danced here, the water, the light. It was as if in the midst of all this dark, heartless landscape, in these deep woods at the edge of winter, I had found a site of celebration, a place where people came because once in a while they needed a chance to feel good. And like them, I had left home, I had traveled through the night, I had followed maybe nothing but my own steady heartbeat and I had found the river, found it even in a crazy season, in a cold and dangerous year. And if I had found it, then I could follow it away.

Fran came up behind me then and put her arms around me, lay her cheek against my neck. She was saying something, maybe my name, but I wasn't really listening. I didn't have to. I had waited a long time for this, for her to realize that I was the right person, the good one ... for her to choose me. But what had always seemed inevitable, suddenly, at this bright bend in the river, did not. Somehow I found myself deciding to make another choice. And unexpectedly, like someone who had just decided to go dancing, I was choosing joy.

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