Ruth looked up at the clock on the wall. It was nearly five in the afternoon.
–Quitting time, she thought with a chuckle.
The thought was funny because it was Sunday. She was the only person in the Town Hall offices. She didn't get paid extra to come in on Sunday afternoons, she just did it from time to time to take care of some little things that she found it hard to get done during the week.
She'd filed everything from the To Be Filed box, and pulled from the files everything on the To Get list (which was sometimes more challenging, since not everybody was as scrupulous as she was about filing documents correctly).
She threw out the flower she'd brought for her desk, and emptied out the water in the sink. She looked things over one last time and left, being careful to turn off all the lights and lock the door behind her.
Outside, she took a moment to adjust her scarf against the chill breeze, then walked down the long, straight, sloping path from the Town Hall to the sidewalk. Directly across Main Street from the Town Hall was the General Store. She looked both ways for traffic and then darted across the street.
She opened the door of the store and went in, feeling the sudden warmth on her face.
Vinnie jerked his head up as she came in. There were no customers in the store.
–Sleeping on the job, I think. He must have been out late last night. I wonder sometimes when he does sleep.
"Hello, Vinnie. How's your Sunday been?"
He shrugged. "Heat was off when I opened up this morning. For once Mr. Martin fixed it himself, though, and it's actually worked all day."
He shook his head. "Snow kept everybody home, I guess. I may close up early."
"Does Mr. Martin let you do that?"
"Oh, he'll never know. Nothing interrupts their sacred Sunday dinner. He won't be back today." He was silent for a few moments, shifting his shoulders around as if they were stiff.
"You want some coffee?" he asked.
–He was expecting me to leave, she thought, but she nodded before she knew what she was doing.
He got to his feet and went into the tiny side room where there was always a pot of coffee on a hot plate.
"Sugar? Milk?" he asked as he came back in, the paper cup held gingerly in his hands.
"Black is fine," she said, and he put the cup down in front of her.
They were silent again as she thought frantically of something to say.
"I got a call from Nettie down at the Police Station," she said finally. "The Chief of Police from Clifton called today. There's a big motorcycle gang hanging around out by the old campgrounds. They've been causing a lot of trouble, and he's been alerting all the police departments in the area."
Vinnie barely reacted, and she was trying to think of something else when he said, "What were you doing there on Sunday?"
She sipped the coffee.
–God, how long has this been cooking back there?
"Just catching up on a few things," she said quickly. "Has Lenore heard anything about the bikers?"
Lenore was a student at Cliff College in Clifton.
"I've always wondered about something," Ruth said, then, when Vinnie didn't respond, she went ahead, "Why does Lenore live here in Ross? I mean, Clifton isn't that far away, but there were never any college students here in town until she moved here, and now there's quite a few."
Vinnie nodded. "She didn't have any choice. She transferred suddenly in the middle of the semester, and she couldn't find any place to stay in Clifton. You can never find anything there when school's in session.
"She thought she'd move to Clifton when the semester was over, but by then she'd discovered the difference in room rent between here and there. And she likes living in that big house with all those people coming and going."
"And she met you?" Ruth half-said, half-asked.
Vinnie laughed. "Yeah, she met me, but if you think she'd make her life less convenient for my sake . . . Well, I can only say that you've got a romantic way of looking at things." Ruth sipped her coffee and Vinnie continued. "But you want to know the real reason? And this is what she'll tell you if you ask her. There aren't any decent bars in Clifton. They're all student hang-outs, like the Rat and The Harbormaster. Or you can go to Tiny's, but that's a little too intense, even for her.
"Don't forget, she's from New York. She's been drinking in real bars since she was fifteen. After that, The Rat seems pretty tame."
"And expensive," Ruth ventured.
He laughed. "And expensive."
–I hope he doesn't wonder why I always ask so many questions about Lenore.
Vinnie said, "I'm gonna have a beer. You want one?"
Ruth looked surprised, turning to glance at the rear alcove of the store, where the lights were off and the refrigerators containing the beer and wine were covered.
"Should we?" she asked. "It's illegal, isn't it? On Sunday, I mean?"
Vinnie shrugged and vaulted over the counter. He went to the back and brought out two cold bottles of imported beer.
–He remembered that I like dark beer.
He took his seat again and pulled an opener from his jeans. He used it, then slid it across the counter to her. She didn't really want a beer, but it was an excuse to stop drinking the coffee.
"Just slip the bottle behind those bags of chips if anybody comes in," he said after taking a healthy swallow.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Vinnie finished his beer and said, "Let's get out of here."
Ruth looked at her watch, but Vinnie was already in motion, shutting of lights and bagging up the trash. She picked up her beer, which was still half full, but before she could ask what to do with it, he took it from her hand and drained it in one long swallow.
Outside, as Vinnie locked the door, she said, "So, how's Alex?"
He shrugged, turning up the collar of his leather jacket against the chill breeze. "She's about the same." They started to walk down Main Street. "Her folks are getting on her again. School, career, stability. It used to be `School, career, marriage,' but then they got a good look at Rick. Now they don't push the marriage part so hard." He paused. "She's getting a double dose of it right now. Sunday dinner at their house is something the Nazis might have thought up."
"Have you ever been there? For Sunday dinner, I mean?"
"Once. When Alex and I were going together. It was a bitch. All the little hints and digs and bullshit."
"So, where are you headed now?"
He shrugged. "Home I guess. You know what pisses me off about Alex's folks? They want her to do this and that. `For her own good.' Okay, that's not so bad. But when she was with Rick, when they were engaged and married, they left her alone. No more school-career-etcetera.
"Now, they hated Rick–"
"That seems pretty common–"
"Don't get me started on that." They were stopped in front of the Post Office. "But her parents let her alone. Obviously, they thought that if she was married, to anybody, that took care of things. She was set. And then when the marriage broke up, they started busting her chops all over again. They should have been cheering."
Ruth looked around. "I'm getting a little chilly here, and you must be frozen in that jacket. Why are we standing here?"
Vinnie laughed quietly. "I occasionally get the urge to drop in on Lenore. You know, get a free meal. But then I remember what happened the one and only time I tried that. She threw my ass out. As she put it, `My house, my terms.'"
He turned to the left, away from the road to Lenore's house and the highway, towards the road to his parents' house.
"See you later," he called back to her.
There was a storm that Sunday night. It started suddenly, almost out of nowhere, with a wild, moaning wind. The sky got dark, with sudden strange explosions of very bright light. A dark, unstoppable wind blew in off the highway and right through the center of town, up Main Street and down Commercial Street. It blew out to the pier, around the parking lot, and down the shore road to the beaches.
It blew howling past the door of the BatCave and then off into the night, leaving a single figure standing in front of the door. She watched as the sky cleared, the oppressive pressure lifted, the explosions of light started to fade. The night became still, and it started to snow. The woman laughed out loud and walked into the bar.
Alex sat in a dark corner of the BatCave, putting off writing a letter to Rick, her ex-husband. She looked around the room, keeping her mind from the blank sheet of paper in front of her.
The huge, square room was still only about half full. Viewed from the outside, the BatCave could have been anything from a laundromat to a bunker. A big square poured concrete building in the corner of the Super-Mart parking lot. Its floor was several feet below ground level, so the flat roof was only about four feet above the pavement, and on hot summer nights people would frequently wander out and sit on the roof, legs dangling over the edge. Open drinking was illegal in the county, but no one had ever been bothered about it. The town's few cops hung out at the BatCave like everyone else, and they didn't want to stop getting free drinks.
Alex took a swallow of her beer and looked morosely at the blank paper in front of her. She pulled Rick's letter from her pocket and spread it flat in front of her. She read it over again, then she felt a sudden pressure in her head as a terrifying thought occurred to her. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears as she realized exactly what Rick might be talking about. If she didn't give him money, he was going to reveal a secret she'd confided in him when they'd been married.
She drew in a deep breath, folding Rick's letter carefully and putting it away. She felt tears well up but forced herself under control, convincing herself that she was wrong. Even Rick had his limits. She looked up, wiping her eyes.
i see her and she thrills something in me. she's nearly as tall as i am, her hair blonde and straight to her shoulders, but these are mere details. she wears army surplus from top to toe, and looks like she's been in a war or two.
she looks around the room as if she can figure out everybody in it with just a glance, then she sees me, which is surprising. usually when i want to avoid people no one can see me, but her eyes go out across the crowded bar and lock onto mine, i look back for a minute, but it's too much for me. i give in.
i turn my attention back to the letter in front of me. It's from Rick, my ex-husband, a marriage that lasted exactly twenty-seven days. i read it again and i'm still not sure how to respond. i take my pen in hand and write, trusting to grace to take me beyond the first sentence.
This is a change. I remember all the different types of help I've offered you, usually whatever you were the surest you didn't need. I was usually right, you know, and I'm right now when I say that your asking me for money is way out of line. Not only don't I have it to spare, but I wouldn't send it even if I did, because it's the last thing you need (or have any right to expect) right now. In fact, it's way past time you learned to face up to all the different–
"Do you know who that is?" Kevin asked me as he sat down. i shook my head, not sure i wanted to hear what he had to say.
"I met her a couple of years ago, at a big party up on the hill. It was one of the fancy ones, like a ball, and my family made me go. I hung around for an hour or so, drinking quite a bit, and just when I figured I'd done my duty and I could leave, she came in. God, she was gorgeous, like Grace Kelly or something. She made the rest of the girls look tired and faded. All the guys were stunned, but somehow I found myself next to her, asking her to dance.
"We danced four dances in a row, then went to get something to drink. God, everything glowed by then. I guess I was really smashed. We went for a walk as the party died down, and we ended up down at the pier. The moon was so full on the water, and the air was so warm and sweet with salt smell you could wrap your fingers around it. I don't remember how we did it, but we managed to get rid of all our clothes in a second and dove into the water. She still glowed. God, even to remember it. We made love on the dock, on a pile of our fancy evening clothes. I never saw her again."
Alex looked up from her mug of beer. "She vanished?"
"Oh, no, anything but. I found out who she was, too. Her name was Samantha Jordan. Daughter of Rockwell Jordan."
"So, what happened to her? Why didn't you go after her?"
"Out of my class, frankly. And I was already engaged to Cyndy, and she was mad as a wet hen when her friends told her what had happened at the party. She hadn't gone because she was sick. She made me swear never to see Samantha again. And I never did, until she walked through that door."
Alex had never met Rockwell Jordan, but she knew well enough who he was. The man only owned about seventy-five percent of two neighboring towns. And she could imagine the sleek, confident princess his daughter would be. Playing with men like toys, none of them equal to her in any way. Ideally suited for the life she was born to.
But now she was this figure in camouflage, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, her eyes giving nothing away except for that electric moment when that had met Alex's own across the room. She looked like she'd been in bars, and with dangerous men and woman, all of her life. Alex was fascinated.
And, remembering the look that had sliced through her across the dark, smoky BatCave, she wondered if it was the same look that had sought Kevin out and mesmerized him across the society ball a couple of years before.
The blonde woman came over to Alex's table and looked down at her. "What're you looking at?" she demanded.
"Sit down," Alex said, determined to save face as much as possible. The woman looked at her for a moment, then complied. Alex held out her hand and said, "I'm Alex."
The woman hesitated again, then took the hand and shook it firmly. "I'm starling. You live here?"
"Well, not here in the BatCave. I live here in town, have my whole life."
"You don't look it, somehow."
"Everybody says that. That's why I always mention it when I meet somebody new. Which doesn't happen very often, of course. Where are you from?"
starling frowned. "Now, that is a good question, isn't it. I'm going to pass on it for now, if you don't mind."
Alex felt herself tense up. She got up and put on her black trenchcoat. As she turned to go up the stairs to the street, starling drained her beer and followed.
Outside, Alex turned and looked at her. Neither woman moved, starling's enigmatic smile almost made Alex angry, but she held it back and said, "You have a place to stay here in town?"
starling shook her head, still smiling.
Alex nodded. "Come on." They started the long walk to the center of town.
It was pretty late when Vinnie finally showed up at the BatCave. Ruth had talked to Lenore a couple of times, but Lenore hadn't really held up her end of the conversation. Ruth couldn't tell if it was because she found Ruth boring, or if she was just impatient waiting for Vinnie to show up.
Then he did come in. He stood in the doorway, checking out the scene. The place was already starting to empty out. A couple of people said hello as he moved slowly towards the bar joking with a couple of guys from the lumber yard, saying something to his youngest sister that made her try to step on his foot.
He got to the bar and ordered a beer. As he drank, Lenore got up, stubbed out her cigarette and lurched in the direction of the ladies room.
Ruth moved towards the bar. If Vinnie and Lenore followed their usual routine, they would leave separately within the next few minutes, and she wanted to at least say hello. Vinnie was joking with the bartender.
Then Lenore appeared beside Vinnie, leaning against him.
–Like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Ruth watched Lenore lean against Vinnie as he whispered something to the bartender. It was the most physical Ruth had ever seen her. She seemed really drunk. Usually she and Vinnie didn't touch in public. Vinnie was lean and broad-shouldered in his jeans and leather jacket. Lenore was full-bodied, in her heels she was almost as tall as Vinnie. She was heavy, but carried herself so well you didn't notice it. Lauren, in a particular mood, had once nick-named her "Baby Fat," but it hadn't really caught on.
Even in jeans and an old T-shirt, there were always what Ruth thought of as the Lenore Touches. A little make-up, or a little perfume. High heels, or maybe chandelier earrings. Fancy painted fingernails.
She had once tried to talk to Vinnie about it (did he really appreciate Lenore? did he even notice?), but she'd got all twisted up and blushed and stammered and walked off. Vinnie must have thought she was a lunatic.
Ruth sidled up and said hello, and they moved to a table while she and Lenore told him about Alex and starling.
"I wonder if this will take Alex's mind off things," Vinnie said when they were done.
"Are you kidding?" Lenore said with a snort. "Within a week they'll be knee-deep in pet names and in-jokes, and they'll probably be wearing each other's clothes."
Lenore mussed Vinnie's hair and he pulled his comb from his back jeans pocket.
She bumped him playfully with her hip. "Come on, you. Stop primping and preening, you dago charmer. Go get me another drink."
"More?" he asked.
"You want me to slow down so you can catch up?"
"I don't think I could." She laughed and pulled out a cigarette. Vinnie pulled a lighter from his jacket pocket and lit the cigarette for her. They said good night and left.
Suddenly feeling a little light-headed herself, Ruth put down her drink, still half-full, and followed them.
Lenore kissed Vinnie suddenly in the parking lot. They were the only two people around. She smiled at how uneasy he looked. He borrowed a puff on her cigarette.
–Like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Ruth had once drawn a pencil sketch of Lenore in the nude, from imagination. When she'd finished it she'd ripped it up, and didn't draw anything else for months afterwards.
She left quickly, her throat tight.
–Lucky bastard, she thought.
Alex turned on starling, angry. "Look, I've heard it all before! There's nothing you can tell me that I haven't known for years. So what."
starling stood up and went to the refrigerator. She opened it and took out a beer. Alex hesitated, then stuck out her hand.
starling handed the bottle to her, and got another for herself. Alex half-sat on the window-sill as starling sat on the one chair. They opened their beers and drank.
"All it takes is imagination and will," starling said quietly. "Not even that much imagination if the will is strong enough. Like anything else, it's mostly practice. You ever do something complicated all the way through without thinking about it?" Alex nodded. "You just find yourself at the end, with the memory of doing it, but it happened automatically? Well, there's a lot of things that can work that way."
Alex was silent as they finished their beers. starling took off her olive drab jacket and dropped it on the floor next to her chair. It thudded on the rug.
Alex pulled out her flask and drank deeply. starling held out her hand. After the drink she said, "You're designed more for mystique than for efficiency. But where you take things from here is up to you."
Alex didn't respond immediately.
Alex looked at her and starling smiled. Then Alex smiled, her eyes lighting up, and starling ran her finger around the mouth of the flask she was holding.
Alex was at Lenore's door first thing in the morning. She looked eager and healthy as she invited Vinnie out for breakfast. He combed his hair, got his jacket and went with her.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Oh, don't take me so seriously," she said with a smile.
At the diner, after they'd ordered, they sat in silence for a moment. He was trying to remember if she'd ever worn a fatigue shirt before. It looked really good on her.