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Short Story

MRS. WALLER WAS seventy-one years old and she kept her invalid husband in cigarettes and beer by posing for the figure-drawing class at the academy. Her first name was Inez, but neither the instructor nor the students ever called her anything but Mrs. Waller.

Darrell Horn, honorably discharged from Uncle Sam’s navy, had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He only knew that he liked to draw. The academy didn’t accept just anybody. Darrell submitted sketches of trees, and waited. He was accepted—not on talent, they told him, but on promise of talent. The rest was up to him, his discipline and devotion.

Jerome Littlejohn always did what he could to keep first-year students from knowing what to expect in his figure-drawing class. His choice of a model he would discuss with them afterwards. Beyond flesh as it related to bone, he wanted them to see character in naked form, the torso as landscape, wrinkles as both mystery and revelation. He wanted them to see the human body both cursed and ennobled. They would not see all of this on the first day or during the first year or even the second year. But, if they were artists, they would someday.

On that first morning Darrell took an easel and busied himself with his pencils. Jerome Littlejohn stood at the window, looking out, cup of coffee in hand. The other students were younger than Darrell, two boys and three girls. A conversation was underway, and they sounded fresh from high school. Littlejohn finished his coffee and said, “Amen.” Whether to affirm his enjoyment of the coffee or to conclude a silent prayer, Darrell couldn’t be sure. The instructor introduced him to the others, then placed a stool in front of the floor-length black curtain the easels faced. Five easels remained unattended. Littlejohn expressed regret about the dropouts.

“Ready when you are,” he called toward the curtain.

The woman came forth and her age assaulted Darrell. With Mr. Littlejohn attending, she claimed her perch. She slipped out of the limp kimono and let it drape from the seat of the stool. Her shoulders settled and she leaned forward slightly, and she was in the pose desired of her.

Was this some kind of joke? The instructor didn’t strike Darrell as a man with a sense of humor. Those absent maybe had caught word of what went on in this class.

“Draw what you see,” Littlejohn was saying. “Draw what you feel, not what you think. Thoughts are not important at this point.”

The woman’s wrinkles put Darrell in mind of an elephant, though she was small in frame. He was determined not to echo the snicker that came from the far easel. He lifted his pencil, loving the feel of the wood. He brushed the side of his hand lightly against the sketch paper, loving the texture. The sensual pull of those touches helped to stimulate him despite a lack of personal attraction to the subject. It was as if he trusted his pencil and paper more than he trusted himself.

Littlejohn took to the back of the room.

Darrell appreciated the privacy allowed. He loosened his grip. Slants of rain came across the paper, first from one direction, then the other. It was in that conflict that he discovered the old woman. Though not given to fanciful musings, he could almost believe that her image had been there in the paper waiting for him.

Now to catch the likeness.

The instructor remained at a distance until time was running out. After dismissing the model respectfully—“Thank you, Mrs. Waller”—he reviewed the work of the younger students and sent them on their way.

He asked Darrell to hang around for a few minutes.

“I like your freedom of line,” he said.

“Thanks,” Darrell said.

“Freedom of line can’t be taught. That’s been my experience. Either you have it or you don’t.”

“I lost the likeness.”

“Forget it. That’s not important in this study. What did you think of Mrs. Waller?”

“I didn’t know what to think.”

“You expected nudity and had to deal with nakedness—right?”

“I guess you could put it that way.”

Littlejohn went into his theories about art and the human body. Darrell was more fascinated than he wanted to be. Littlejohn went so far as to propose that the human body is to art what the cross is to Christianity. “The real cross wasn’t pretty. Isn’t pretty. Neither is the human body when it tells the truth. But it can be a bridge between the transcendent and the material worlds. Does this make any sense to you at all?”

“A little,” Darrell said, wanting to be agreeable. “Maybe.”

“Mrs. Waller lives on my street. Takes care of her husband. He doesn’t get out of bed. It made sense that she could use a little extra. I figured she wouldn’t agree to model for us—I mean, after all—but she thought about it for a couple of days and said, ‘Why not?’ She’s been with us for almost five years now. A pro, wouldn’t you say?”

“I would,” Darrell said.

“A real pro.”

§

The past caught up with Darrell that afternoon. Not in the sense that a long-ago sin found him out, but in his memory of Mrs. Bee, who had appeared to him in the form of Mrs. Waller. His mother, an unmarried waitress, had taken him to his father as a newborn, and his father in turn had delivered him to Mrs. Bee. His father was a planter who lived with his wife and seven children behind white columns on the one street that ran straight through town. Mrs. Bee was an aging widow who lived down two blocks and around the corner, on a street that petered out at the town dump. She took in ironing and had little to show for it. Even with the extra that Darrell’s father supplied monthly, Mrs. Bee had little. The highlight of her year, Darrell recalled, was the box of chocolates his father brought to her every Christmas. When he was old enough to think things through, Darrell figured that his father knew he didn’t pay her well and giving the chocolates helped him to feel less guilty about it. She placed the box on the table every evening after supper. One chocolate a night was the rule. She would slice it in two, dividing it carefully between them. By her example, he learned to chew his piece slowly, thoroughly, and finish off with a smack. Now and then she would close the ritual with, “Half can be better than whole.” She said it so often that when she didn’t say it the words hung there in the silence that followed the treat. It was always a large box, and the chocolates lasted through Valentine’s Day. Treats the rest of the year were few, but Mrs. Bee held that rich folks never had a treat: rich folks could have what they wanted whenever they wanted it, and so nothing was special.

Darrell didn’t put Mrs. Bee and Mrs. Waller together until he stopped for a six-pack on the way home. He found himself standing close behind Mrs. Waller in the checkout line. He noticed that she didn’t smell like Mrs. Bee. With that thought, he realized he had connected the two women unconsciously. Their eyes didn’t meet, his and the woman’s, and he was glad. Conversation would be awkward.

Mrs. Bee had smelled of broken winds. Not of one as separate from the others, but an accumulation. Whenever Darrell thought about Mrs. Bee, he was likely to think of beans. Dried beans were inexpensive, and the aftermath of beans clung to Mrs. Bee from day to day. It embarrassed Darrell to sit beside her in church. The time came when he was old enough to balk and get away with it, and from then on he didn’t go. He stayed at home and drew pictures and felt guilty about it. He told her he would listen to a sermon on the radio. He never did, though, and he felt guilty about that, too. Looking back as an adult, he realized he had loved Mrs. Bee and that the odor couldn’t have been that bad. He remembered also how he’d made a point of not telling her about parent-teacher meetings and other events to which parents were invited. It had embarrassed him, her being so much older than the mothers of his friends. In navy boot camp he decided he would go to church with Mrs. Bee on his first leave. He couldn’t make up for the missed activities, but at least he could go to church with her as a way of saying, “Thank you for being a mother to me.” She died before he got back. People said that she died as quietly and peacefully as she lived.

Spurred by these reflections, Darrell pulled over to the curb to offer Mrs. Waller a lift. She had stopped on the sidewalk to shift her load from one arm to the other. He figured that any woman her age who would pose nude for a figure-drawing class would be game to accept a ride home on the back of a motor scooter.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

“I was in the art class.”

“I never look at the students.”

Darrell told her he understood.

It would have been simpler, of course, had she been wearing Levis or khakis. Trousers of some kind. Before he could look away, he caught a glimpse of her knotted stocking as she hoisted her leg over the seat. He would have preferred to miss that. He’d already seen her in the most compromising state imaginable. She embraced her bag and it cradled nicely between her front and his back. Directions were simple. “Four blocks, take a left, third house on the right.” Darrell drove with extra care, in respect of his cargo.

The brick bungalow had settled into its past without visible aspirations for the future. The neighboring residences—they appeared to have been built in the same architectural period—expressed brighter outlooks. The comparison had to do with upkeep, of course, but Darrell, knowing of the graceless atmosphere in which Mrs. Waller existed, took the difference to be more than cosmetic.

Under the porte-cochère, he idled his machine and stomped the kickstand. He offered one hand to his passenger and received her bag with the other. Blown iron-gray hair crowned Mrs. Waller’s look of exhilaration as she disembarked. The iron gray be damned, and the wrinkles too, it was as though she had lost some of her years along the streets. Darrell noticed that the years returned in the few steps it took for them to reach the door. Mrs. Waller thanked him there and reclaimed her bag and Darrell made briskly for his scooter. Driving away, he didn’t glance back. He refused to be haunted by the front of a house where an old woman was tied down with an invalid husband.

§

One day—why was Darrell not surprised?—Jerome Littlejohn approached him in the hall with Mrs. Waller’s need for someone to help her with her husband. The time had come when she could no longer turn him over to bathe him or lift him to his bedpan.

Littlejohn kept his voice down. “You’re the first person I’ve spoken with about this.”

Darrell said, “Why am I the first?”

“I don’t know, but I thought of you immediately. Maybe because I think you’re the best—no, will be the best—artist around here.”

“I don’t get the connection.”

“I don’t either,” Littlejohn confided, “but believe me, it’s there.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” Darrell said.

In order not to think about it all night, he went to The Place. It was the dullest bar in town, but it was close, a short trek through the alley behind the boardinghouse where he had lived since his discharge. He tanked up on tequila. He had a high tolerance for alcohol and could still see straight when he left there and jaywalked to the theater across the street. It was an old neighborhood business that had fallen from grace a long time ago. A faded poster of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse remained in defiance of change but was helpless to signal a past glory. Darrell had never set foot inside. He had passed by on the sidewalk once, trying not to study the lostness in the face of an old salt coming out. The ticket seller’s booth was abandoned, and you could see trash reaching almost to the top. Tonight Darrell entered the lobby and paid the price of admission to the gnome who watched over a cigar box of cash. He ventured through heavy curtains the color of gloom—had the fabric once been gray?—and took a seat on the back row.

The action on the screen, body to body to body, riveted him and then, in cahoots with the alcohol, put him to sleep. Hours passed—how many hours?—and he awoke at a new level of consciousness. He rode his pleasure with abandon. When he noticed the large screen up ahead, his pleasure ebbed. A lone figure sat in a theater lighted only by a flickering beam from the projection room. Darrell willed his spirit through the screen and into the lone figure. Nothing happened. Perhaps a magic word was needed. Worse, perhaps he no longer possessed a spirit.

Insistent tapping at his shoulder brought him to himself. He was sitting in the theater and the gnome was telling him he would have to leave.

§

“You have a good heart,” Littlejohn said.

“Not really,” said Darrell. “The only reason I’m doing it is to keep from feeling guilty about not doing it.”

“Wait, now. Let me check around. My guess is that some of these students need the money, little though it be.”

“Forget it.”

“I’m sorry I got you into this,” Littlejohn said.

“I owe it to an old woman I used to know.”

“We all have to deal with the stuff inside of us, don’t we?”

Darrell chafed at the remark. It was too personal.

§

“I was hoping it would be you,” Inez Waller said. “Come on in, honey. Did Mr. Littlejohn explain my situation?”

“Yes, ma’am, he did.” Darrell entered.

“Come on back to the kitchen. I was just fixing me a cup of instant coffee. Do you drink instant?”

“I drink anything,” Darrell told her.

Over blue mugs, Mrs. Waller talked about her husband. She called him Ace. His father, who had survived the air battles in World War I, taught him to fly when he was a boy. He and his father barnstormed together in the thirties. “Ace took me up after an air show in 1939 and I haven’t come down since.”

“He’s a lucky man to have a wife say something like that.”

“The leather helmet and those goggles and that white scarf blowing in the wind, he did cut a romantic figure.”

“Sounds like it.”

“He was a daredevil, but I felt safe with him even when we flew upside down under the Harahan Bridge the day we got married. He taught me to fly and I learned to do some tricks myself.”

“Like what?” he asked.

“Oh—like hanging by my teeth at the end of a rope.”

Darrell couldn’t picture it. Mrs. Waller must have read his mind. She produced an old newspaper clipping and there she was, trailing through the air, wearing a helmet herself, her arms outstretched as though in imitation of the wings above.

“Enough of that,” she said, and reclaimed the photo. “The war came along. Ace joined the Air Corps and I joined the Ferry Command. You never heard of us girls? We ferried army aircraft across the country.”

“I’m learning things.”

“Ace had to bail out over Germany. Landed in a haystack and spent three months in a prison camp where the commandant was a human being. After the war, he crop-dusted, and that’s when his luck ran out. He hit power lines and ended up broken all over and burned to a crisp. But he’s still alive. Don’t tell me there’s not a God.”

Darrell wouldn’t have thought of telling her that. He didn’t know if God existed or not, but he wanted to believe it was true. It did seem, though, that death in the crop-dusting accident would have been preferable—kinder—than life as a complete invalid. Especially did he think so when Mrs. Waller went on to mention her husband’s loss of eyesight.

She asked Darrell, “Can you imagine total darkness year after year?”

All that Darrell could say was, “No, ma’am.”

Before taking him in to meet her daredevil, she mentioned something else. The smell. “I keep him as clean as possible. I change his diapers religiously. But there’s always the smell. It comes from his body. If you can’t take it, I’ll understand.”

He followed her into a room that he expected to be dark and uninviting. Not so. The walls were white. The curtains and lampshades were white. The iron bed was white, as well as the bedcovers. The lack of spectrum in the room intensified the strange color of Mr. Waller’s skin. Mentally Darrell came up with a mixture of salmon and gray, although he was barely into watercolor at the academy and didn’t consider himself proficient in mixing or deciphering colors as yet.

“Who is it?” the man said.

“Ace, this is the student I was telling you about.”

“I don’t need anybody else,” he said.

“I do,” she told him, and gently touched his brow. Her hand moved upward, and she might have been brushing her fingers through hair she remembered. “I need help turning you over. I’m not young anymore.”

“You couldn’t prove it by me,” he said.

“I guess not, you old fart. Maybe it’s a good thing you’re blind at this stage of the game.”

Mr. Waller lifted his hand in the general direction of Darrell. He said, “What’s your name, buster?”

Darrell took his hand. “Buster’s fine with me.”

Mrs. Waller and Darrell collaborated on the best method of turning the invalid. She had done it by herself for so many years that Darrell’s participation impeded the process. He was aware of this and after a few days persuaded her to let him have at it alone. He accomplished the feat with a minimum of effort, and Mrs. Waller praised his success, for not one wail sounded from her husband.

The difficult thing for Darrell was the sight of Mr. Waller’s back. Patches of bone were exposed from his shoulders to his hips. Down the spine, the vertebrae appeared to have been polished. The bone had the dull shine of old suit fabric worn almost to threads.

At first, Mrs. Waller continued to administer the sponge baths herself. In a week or so, that duty was passed on to Darrell. The changing of diapers and the washing of the genitals, what was left of them, she retained as her own responsibility. On one occasion when Mr. Waller needed a change while his wife was away, Darrell proceeded to take care of the matter on his own.

“Have you ever been up?” Mr. Waller asked, as though nothing was going on.

“Sure,” Darrell said. “It’s the only way to travel.”

“I’m not talking about commercial flights. I’m not talking about jets—of any kind. I’m talking about real airplanes.”

“I guess I never had the opportunity.”

“I still go up. Don’t miss a day. The pasture’s kind of bumpy, but once you’re in the air you know what it’s all about. You know what it means to be alive. Know what I mean?”

Darrell wasn’t sure that he did. “Sounds great, Ace. You don’t mind if I call you Ace, do you?”

“I think it’s about time.”

Ace lived on oatmeal, bananas, canned baby food, and beer. Propping him up for food and drink was not simple. It was perhaps in this maneuver that Darrell came in handiest for Mrs. Waller. Ace weighed hardly anything, but Mrs. Waller was losing ground herself and could no longer lift him to the right position. Ace was allowed three cigarettes a day. He enjoyed them so much that Darrell, holding the cigarette for him to suck on, keeping the saucer under it at all time, thought of each drag as a mercy. It made him feel good to take part in it.

§

But Darrell’s emotions got the best of him one day, and he had to talk with someone. He tried to arrange an afternoon drink with Jerome Littlejohn, but Jerome Littlejohn’s cousin was in town and they had plans. John went to The Place, alone. This was the first time he’d returned there since the night of the porn flick. He would not let that happen again. It hadn’t helped him then and it wouldn’t help him now.

The Place was running over. A girl smelling of Ivory Soap took the stool on his left. It didn’t appear that she was zeroing in on him but simply finding an empty space. She wasn’t a girl, really. He sipped his beer and guessed her to be about his own age. She wasn’t pretty, but she was almost pretty.

“I’ve never tasted beer,” she said to him. “Do you think I’d like it?”

“Have a swig of mine,” he offered.

“Oh, thanks, but I’ll take a chance and order my own.”

When hers arrived, she tried it and said it had a very interesting flavor. “It has a yeasty taste, doesn’t it? My mother said she used to eat yeast for her complexion when she was an adolescent. Did you ever hear of that? Eating yeast for pimples?”

“No,” Darrell said. “I don’t believe I ever did. Maybe if I’d known to do that, I wouldn’t have these pock marks on my face.”

She turned to look at him straight on. “I don’t see any pock marks. Maybe you look at yourself too closely in the mirror.”

Darrell wondered how in the world he had got into this conversation. It had become awfully personal awfully quick, but he found that he didn’t mind.

“My guess,” he said, “is that you never had any problems with your skin. And what I see is you, not makeup. I like that.”

“Why, thank you,” she said. “I started out to be a missionary, and makeup was against the rules. I found out I wasn’t missionary material, but I decided I didn’t like all that stuff on my face anyway.”

Darrell finished his beer and ordered another. He was aware that she had not touched hers after the first taste.

“May I buy you a cup of coffee?” he asked. “They make good coffee here.”

“Maybe later,” she said. “First, I do want to drink something alcoholic. You might not believe this, but I’ve never drunk anything with alcohol in it. My parents were very strict and there was no drinking. By the time I was eighteen, I knew I wanted to be a missionary and that meant that drinking would still be out of the question.”

“A glass of white wine for the lady,” Darrell said to the passing waitress.

“That’s very nice of you,” the former missionary said. “I feel kind of awkward about all this.”

“Don’t. It isn’t worth it.”

“Thanks for saying that. You’re a nice person.”

“I try,” Darrell offered.

“I mean you really are,” she said. “I can tell.”

“I mean I really try,” he said.

“And you succeed. I’d say that you succeed in everything. Which leads to the question: what do you?”

Darrell hesitated.

“I mean,” she said, “what business are you in? Or, as my senior English teacher would have corrected me, in what profession are you?”

“I’m an art student. First year. I also do—I guess you’d call it nursing. Then, for the record, I served four years in the navy.”

She touched the white wine to her lips. “Were you a nurse in the navy?”

“No. I just sort of got into it on the side.”

“This isn’t half bad,” she said of the white wine, as though persuading herself. “A male nurse. I think that’s interesting.”

“Not really a male nurse. Not officially.”

“This gets more interesting all the time.”

“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Darrell said.

But he found himself trying to do that. He told her about Jerome Littlejohn’s figure-drawing class, about Mrs. Waller and how he had agreed to help with her husband. “He’s flat on his back and some of the stuff is too unpleasant to talk about, but I feel committed. Don’t ask me why.”

“You must be a Christian,” she said matter-of-factly.

“I’m afraid not,” he said.

“Maybe you are and you don’t know it yet.” She sounded perky and yet deeply serious. “Sometimes it happens that way, I think. Now in my case, it was the other way round. The exact opposite. I grew up going to Sunday school every Sunday and I learned more verses than anybody else at Bible camp every summer. I loved Jesus because he died for my sins and I wanted to grow up and be a missionary. I wanted to follow wherever he led me—”

“And where did he lead you?”

“That’s not important,” she said. “I think what happened would have happened anywhere, sooner or later.”

She downed about half the wine before pushing the glass away. Darrell ordered another beer.

The story continued, piece by piece, the wine having slowed the telling. She had been assigned to work with a middle-aged woman, a veteran missionary she admired. One day they went to the plaza and walked around the capitol square seven times praying for the city, praying aloud, eyes open. When they retreated to the shade of the covered sidewalk, they crossed an alley where an ancient man called to them from his cardboard dwelling.

“I followed my coworker as she approached him. I couldn’t go all the way because the stink was so bad. My coworker asked what she could do to help him. He just stared at her and said nothing. She asked if he would like some fruit. She’d be happy to buy him some fruit, she said. Fruit didn’t seem to interest the man right then. He asked her to cut his fingernails. She said, ‘I just happen to have clippers and scissors with me.’ His nails required what amounted to surgery. When she finished with his fingernails, he asked if she would cut his toenails. She didn’t bat an eye. She got down on her knees and went to work. Yes, down on her knees. Some of his toenails curved under his toes. Others curled off in other directions. Some of them were thick like hooves. They all were the color of Gouda cheese. I held a tissue to my nose and walked away.”

Darrell said, “I understand. I remember the first time I saw the bare bones in Mr. Waller’s back. I thought I was going to throw up.”

“I did throw up,” she said.

“So—? You’re human.”

“But not a Christian. I know what a Christian is now. I saw a woman become Christ. All those Bible verses I learned didn’t help me one bit.”

“Maybe that’s not the point,” Darrell suggested. “The old lady who raised me dragged me to Sunday school every Sunday as long as she could. If what I remember about the Good Samaritan is true, the man who stopped to help the victim wasn’t Jesus. It was the victim who was Jesus.”

“You’re implying that the man who lived in that cardboard hovel created the universe?”

“It could be—but, hey, I don’t claim to be a Christian myself, remember.”

Gwendolyn moved in with Darrell that very night. The next day, while her parents were at work, she went home and collected the small amount of stuff she wanted to keep. She left the VW at the curb in front of their house. It was theirs anyway. She left no note. Anything she might have said would hurt them and she had hurt them enough already. They couldn’t understand why she left the mission field, and she had despaired of trying to explain.

She began to look for employment. Offered a job in a church kindergarten, she decided to turn it down because she knew she would feel like a fake. The manager of one fast-food restaurant said he liked her personality, but, having heard of her missionary background, was afraid she would preach to the customers. The owner of the art supply store hired her on her looks alone, for he was an artist himself.

When Darrell’s landlady caught on that Gwendolyn was installed in his room, she informed him that things would have to change. Gwendolyn would have to rent a separate room. They were not married and rules were rules. If they continued their goings on, that was their business. She told them she was old-fashioned but she would look the other way as long as both rents came in.

The only available room was on the top floor, under an eave. The bed was a daybed stacked with a random assortment of pillows. A round stained-glass window cast its colors into the room when the sun was low in the west. It was on this daybed they made their best love, one Sunday morning, hard rain strumming above them. They lay naked, entwined, until they showered and went down to the dining room.

Churchgoers straggled in, drenched, congregating at the long table, discussing the fare displayed home-style up and down the crocheted center runner. Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, and carrot salad. More than the menu, for discussion, were the pertaining factors. Some preferred meatloaf with more seasoning, some with less. Hardly ever were lumps found in the mashed potatoes, but they were not to be overlooked on those rare occasions. Seldom were the green beans strung thoroughly. Carrot salad was better with raisins. Carrot salad was better without raisins.

Sermon topics of the morning were touched upon, but gingerly, for the assemblage included Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and what-all. A smaller table accommodated the bunch with whom Darrell and Gwendolyn identified. Conversation here was likely to range from sports to Mozart, American Indian lore to politics, old movies to the latest advance in electronics. On this particular Sunday, Darrell and Gwendolyn heard little of it, directing most of their attention to each other.

Mrs. Waller and another veteran of the Women’s Ferry Command were going to a movie that afternoon, and Darrell had offered to sit with Ace. He persuaded Gwendolyn to come along. He thought it was about time she meet the couple he’d been telling her about.

When they drove up, the friend sat in her Cadillac at the curb. Mrs. Waller was coming out the door. Introducing Gwendolyn was awkward in passing. Darrell had not spoken of her before. Mrs. Waller’s face shadowed in the moment and then found a smile before she hurried on.

“She looked confused,” Gwendolyn said. “Maybe she thought you were gay.”

“I don’t think so,” Darrell said, with confidence.

“From what I hear about artists, even the straight ones have a streak of gay in them.”

“I can only speak for myself. I’m intensely interested in my own sex life, but not a bit in anybody else’s.”

They finished the conversation as quietly as it had begun.

Darrell guided Gwendolyn toward the bedroom.

“I’m not sure I’m ready for this,” she said.

§

Ace was asleep, and they sat beside his bed until he woke up.

“I’ve brought a friend along,” Darrell said. “A young lady.”

“You couldn’t prove it by me,” Ace came back.

Darrell saw Gwendolyn take a deep breath and then let it out.

She stood up and, gazing at the wall, felt for his hand. She held it and continued to gaze at the wall and did not faint.

“That’s more like it,” the old pilot said. “Are you a blonde?”

“Not hardly,” she confessed. “I’m sort of dirty blonde in the summer, but in the winter I’m genuine mouse.”

“Would you place a kiss right here?” he said, touching his lips with his free hand.”

Gwendolyn turned toward Darrell. His eyes offered no advice.

She leaned over to apply the kiss, but her eyes closed again on the way down, and the kiss went off to the side.

Ace didn’t complain. He told her she smelled good.

She rushed toward the bathroom, and Darrell filled in with conversation about nothing in particular.

Ace wanted to know if the young lady would scratch his back.

Darrell told him that he would scratch his back. He had learned how to turn Ace over with a few simple but determined movements. Ace was on his stomach when Gwendolyn returned. She pulled a stool to the corner of the room and sat there, ashen. Darrell ran his fingers lightly over the wasted landscape of skin and naked bonework. Side to side and up and down. After a while, he looked over at Gwendolyn. She was rising.

“I’ll take over,” she said.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

She answered by gently lifting his hands and replacing them with hers.

Ace began to moan with pleasure. The sounds were infectious. Darrell was drawn to stand behind Gwendolyn and massage her shoulders and back. He moved closer during the process. Her bottom, though protected, received him cordially and his hands then became cups and inched around her to be filled. Their mission proved successful. He found himself echoing the sounds that Ace made, but he kept the sounds deep in his throat—or he tried to.

§

When Inez Waller returned, Ace was sleeping soundly and Darrell and Gwendolyn were perusing old magazines from the stack under the bed.

“What was the movie about?” Darrell asked.

“I suddenly forget,” Inez Waller said.

It was as if she sensed that something had been going on. She went to the closet and brought out the old leather helmet she had worn barnstorming. She put the helmet on, fastened the chin strap, lowered the goggles into place, communed with herself in the mirror on the closet door. She turned toward Darrell and Gwendolyn and the sleeping Ace.

For Darrell, who had seen Inez Waller posing undraped at the academy, her clothes disappeared now and she stood there, straight on, a work of art, a work of sorrow. The helmet remained on her head and she was all the more naked.

“Please go,” she said.

Despite the gentleness of her words, it was clear that Inez Waller wasn’t asking them to leave; she was commanding them. The helmet backed up her authority. A whip in her hand would have fit the moment.

“I don’t understand,” Darrell said.

“I’ll get in touch if I need you again,” she said, and was finished.

He offered a hand to Gwendolyn, who had been sitting cross-legged on the floor. She bounded up and they left without further words.

§

“I can’t have sex with you anymore,” Gwendolyn told Darrell that night.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“I’m going back to the mission field.”

“So—it’s just like that? I’m not ready for this.”

“Just like that,” she said. “I’m not ready either, but I’m readier than I was.”

“What about—us?”

“I’m praying for the gift of repentance.”

“That sounds kind of holier-than-thou.”

“I don’t mean it that way. I have a lot more to repent of than just you.”

Darrell expected Gwendolyn to go back to her parents’ house before the evening was over, but she wanted to stay with him one more night. She wanted to lie at his side and not make love. “It’ll be difficult,” she said, “but repentance ought to be difficult, don’t you think? Can I trust you to cooperate?”

“This is your thing,” he said, “not mine.”

“Does that mean you want me to go now and not stay over this last night?”

“I don’t want you to go—period.”

“That’s very sweet of you. I know that men don’t like to be called sweet. That’s what you are though, deep down.”

“Why should I be involved in your repentance? It’s like I’m being used.”

“You could make it your repentance, too,” Gwendolyn offered. “Don’t you ever feel the need to repent?”

“I don’t give it much thought, whether I do or not.”

“Don’t you ever feel guilty?”

“Not much.”

“The little guilt, what do you do with it to keep it from getting bigger? How do you get rid of it?”

“I guess I don’t,” Darrell said, remembering his lies to Mrs. Bee, about listening to the sermon while she was in church. She was the only mother he had ever known. She had wanted him to come to Jesus, but the smell of her farts got in the way. He figured that his hands-on nursing of Ace Waller had been in honor of Mrs. Bee. Although it might have brought moments of relief to the old barnstormer, Darrell was stuck knowing it hadn’t done anything for Mrs. Bee.

§

He and Gwendolyn lay all night in a chaste embrace. In the morning, with his financial assistance, Gwendolyn settled up with the landlady. She wouldn’t let him take her home on the motor scooter. Her parents’ house was at least two miles away. He supposed that the journey on foot, too, was part of her repentance. He watched her start down the sidewalk, her belongings in two shopping bags, a bag in each hand. She had gone less than one block when he took off behind her, on foot himself. He trailed at a short distance for a while. Then he came alongside and took one of the bags and would not listen to her protest. He walked with her until the final block was coming up. She wanted to proceed alone, and he understood. They did not kiss and she did not look back and he did not call after her.

Darrell got back to serious work at the academy. He ran into Mrs. Waller now and then. It was as if nothing had happened, but it was clear to Darrell that she would not be needing him in the future. He steered clear of Jerome Littlejohn. The man was some kind of religious nut and Darrell was trying very hard not to become a religious nut himself.


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