"Sorry it took so long." Owen stood over her, his suit coat hooked in one finger and slung over a shoulder. "It was a very important appointment."
She hadn't heard him arrive, she'd been on hands and knees, pulling weeds. She brushed the hair from her forehead with the back of her wrist and sat on her heels and looked pensive. "I shouldn't have disrupted your day," she said. She'd dropped in at his office and told him that she'd "kidnaped" Sarah, because Sarah had been working too hard, and had taken her to the French restaurant on the Plaza, where they'd drunk too much wine, and laughed too loud, and stayed too long. Then Sarah had returned to the exhibit, to "check that nothing was broken yet", and Ada had driven to her husband's office. She'd told him about Sarah, and closed the door so the secretary couldn't see, and made a pass at him while he was on the phone, but he was so intent that he seemed scarcely to notice her playing with his hair, nibbling his ear, and unzipping his fly. She even started to strip. No doubt it was the wine; she'd surprised herself, the way she had after the picnic with Wyatt. "I don't know what got into me," she said.
"I hope it gets into you again."
"Not if you ignore me like you did this afternoon."
"I wasn't ignoring you," he said. "I was talking to Don Grady. He was calling from his jet -- some things he wanted me to do before he got here. He flew in, we had a drink and he made an offer for the company. It's a done deal. After we talked he flew back to Atlanta."
"An offer? Done deal? What do you mean?"
"He's buying me out."
"Your company? He's buying your company?"
"You're not going to sell, are you?"
"I said... Yes. It's a very generous offer."
"How much are they paying?"
He grinned. "Twice what the company's worth."
"But, Owen, that's not honest. How can you do that?"
"Are you serious? 'Not honest?' It's a free market. The company's worth what I get for it."
"I wish you wouldn't do this. You've worked so hard to build it up. I thought -- I thought you loved your business."
"With what I'm getting we could retire."
She shook her head.
"It's done. They know they're paying a premium. They're buying their way into this market, and if they didn't buy me, they'd have to start from scratch."
"What will you do after you sell?"
"I'd be an employee for a few years, train a replacement. You know, introduce him around to everyone, the contractors, the zoning laws, both sides of the state line. They want me to stay in the company, but I don't know. I might get out when the three years are up. I'm tired of this. I want do something else."
"I don't know." He waved vaguely. "There are a million things. It'll come to me."
She stood. "Don't touch. I'm filthy." She was dressed in torn jeans and a paint-splattered long-sleeved tee shirt, all muddy.
After her shower she wiped the steam from the mirror and examined herself. Too thin. Her body looked unripe as a young girl's, without breasts and hips and a rear end. Her ribs showed. If only she looked like a woman. If only her husband could sport with her, not bruise her when he got carried away in bed, rest himself on her, throw himself on her, grab her. If only she had a figure with enough cleavage for a low-cut evening gown, or a bikini. Bigger numbers for her measurements, including hips. Hips and breasts.
She wound a beach towel around herself and covered her hair turban-style in a small towel, and opened the door and stepped into the bedroom. Owen was in bed, leaning against the headboard, naked at least above the waist; the sheet concealed him below the navel. He pointed the remote. The television blanked and went silent. Ada blinked. This "remote" device was new; she had never heard of such a thing until he'd brought the television home the other day. He liked to be the first to have the newest inventions. But they disconcerted her. Pointing, and turning off a device across the room, was too much like science fiction. Television itself was weird enough, but to direct a piece of plastic toward it and turn the box on and off from across the room was like a mad scientist's imaginings, come to life. Even explaining the mechanism wouldn't take away her uneasiness, because the most disturbing aspect was that anyone would think of this, then invent it, and then actually manufacture and sell it, and that people would then actually buy it. What was wrong with using your feet to cross the room, and your hands to turn the knob? Human beings should use their feet and hands, as they had been for millions of years. Otherwise, eventually the human race would become nothing but a collection of brains with thumbs attached, detached from the tangible. Which was the problem with television in the first place: there was no tangibility in it --
Her husband interrupted her musings: "What are you waiting for?"
She sat on the edge of the bed. "I lost my momentum after the wine wore off. Whenever I drink that much wine I shock myself." She lay on her side on top of the sheets, next to him and facing him.
"My modest Quaker girl," he said. "Take that off and get in here."
"My hair is wet." She removed the towel from her head and showed him. "I'm not very sexy. My hair, my skin. I'm still damp."
"Damp is good. I like you damp. Wet is even better."
"Kidding," he said tenderly. "Get in here. We have to work on baby making. All those other times haven't taken effect yet."
"It's fun work, isn't it?" She unwrapped the towel and slid between the sheets. "Don't move," she said. "Lie on your back. Be lazy." Her husband, always ready to service her when asked, and even when not. She often like to return the favors.
Every time he signalled that he was getting close, she stopped and waited. She rode him slowly, off and then on again, for half an hour, kssing him between times. Whenever she felt an orgasm of her own coming, she stopped as well, because sometimes they made her lose interest and start pumping him to his finish. Her hips and thighs were sore from straddling him for so long; his body was wider than hers. In the end, he came without warning her, undramatically, calmly. She stopped moving and looked down at him. His eyes were closed, his face as empty as a dead man's.
She touched his nose, on the misshapen bump, where it seemed to have been broken. She'd always wanted to ask. "How did you get this?" she said.
His eyes opened. "A fight, at a party."
"A guy insulted me. I hit him. He hit me back. Cold-cocked me. When I woke up he was gone."
"This?" She touched the scar on his chin.
"You should recognize that one. Lawrence. Claude and his baseball bat."
"This?" She touched the jagged scar at the corner of his jaw, under the ear.
"A bar fight."
She dismounted and lay next to him. "How many fights have you had?"
"I don't know. I don't keep score."
"You won't do that any more, will you?"
He rolled to face her, his head propped on a hand. "That was my misspent youth. I'm a changed man since I met you."
"You didn't answer the question."
"Yes I did."
"I worry," she said. "There's something in you that frightens me."
"Like I said, I'm a changed man since I met you." He kissed her on the forehead, rolled away from her, and fell asleep. She lay, eyes open, slowing until she slept, too.
When she woke, she looked at the clock on the nightstand. 9:17.
"Oh, no! The opening!"
"Sarah's show." She threw on some clothes and hurried to the car. Owen stayed home, the lateness of the hour his excuse.
She tended to get lost when driving, even to places she'd visited once or twice, and the gallery was in a strange place, near the farmer's market, in a part of town she'd never been to. She ended up in an industrial district until she could make her way back. The area was a mix of parking lots and ancient brick buildings.
"What happened?" Sarah asked.
"I got lost. First at home, then on the way."
"Sometimes I wish you'd speak English." Sarah turned to shake an outstretched hand and say thank you, then turned back to Ada. "You just missed Wyatt. He was asking about you."
The gallery was a loft. Ada inspected the free-standing sections in the center of the room. Sarah's eclectic hodgepodge: children, families, street scenes, exterior and interior shots, everything but landscapes. The emphasis was always on people: their faces, their postures, their places in their surroundings. The photographs were grouped by subject. She went to the back of the room and followed the other viewers clockwise. One wall was devoted to a number of photographs of what looked like hoboes. When she had circled the room and returned to the back, she was in front of an open doorway. A sign with an arrow said "More" and pointed to the right. She followed the arrow to the other side of the building.
There were fewer people there, and the space had been broken up by dividers that didn't quite reach the ceiling. Sarah's photographs hung slightly above eye level, and slightly below, in a double row. Ada wandered into an alcove and was startled to see two dozen pictures of herself. Some of the photographs she detested were on display: the anachronistic pictures, and the only nude she had been brave enough to pose for. She glanced around, to make sure no one was near, and reached out, but couldn't bring herself to smash the pictures. She counted the red "sold" stickers. Half her photographs were spoken for. She went back to the other room. Sarah was talking to someone.
"May I speak to you?" Ada asked. "Privately?"
She led her back to the photographs. "What do you mean by this?"
"They're part of the exhibit." When Ada didn't reply, Sarah went on, "You signed a model release when you started posing."
"That was a formality."
"No. I can sell them... You should get over that obsession with privacy."
"You tell me that now, without talking to me first?"
"Excuse me. I thought you understood." She waited. "People love the way you look. That's why they bought these."
"I'd have to look up the names. Wyatt bought two."
"Wyatt," she said. "Poor man." She pressed her palms together. "Well, I know one thing. I'm never posing for you again." She took down the picture she hated most, of herself curled up nude in an armchair, and turned to leave.
Sarah took it out of her hands. "That's sold," she said. "You can't have it."
"I don't want anyone else to see it. I'll buy it."
"It's sold. Besides, I'd only have to print another one." Sarah hung the picture back in place. "You can have a copy."
Ada had never felt so ineffectual, and rarely so naive. She walked down the stairs and out the building and turned left, but she couldn't remember where she'd parked. She'd never seen this street, though she knew it should be familiar, she had to have walked it to the loft. She made her way to the end of the block and saw the Missouri glinting through the trees, the water flowing past, the moon shining on the ripples. She had seen the river only from the bridges and hills of the city, never close up, and it looked enormous and quick. From here, it made no sound. A band of trees partly concealed it from her. She stepped into the narrow forest and the light dimmed, she waited for her eyes to adjust, and then walked slowly, feeling with her feet so she wouldn't fall into a hole. A spiderweb broke against her face, and she plucked it from her skin. She picked up a long stick and held it in front of her face, to break any webs she might encounter. She stepped slowly, feeling with her feet.
She stood just inside the far edge of the trees, watching the river. In the dim light, she couldn't tell the color; brown in the day, at night it was indeterminate. The water made a liquid sound, quieter than a mountain stream. It rushed without babbling. Underneath that sound was another she couldn't place for a moment. She turned her head, and saw a fire a hundred feet to her right. Three men sat around it, plastic bags and debris strewn about, a large wooden crate appearing and disappearing in the background with the flickering of the fire. One of the men sat on a huge tire, the others on rocks. All three had beards. The man sitting on the tire, partly facing away from her, had long dark hair and was talking. Ada couldn't hear the words, only a tone of mild, resigned complaint. The other two men stared into the fire without seeming to listen and the talker fell silent. One of them, the man with a hat and ponytail, smoked a cigarette. Ada recognized the wooden crate and the tire from the hobo photographs in Sarah's exhibit. She knew she was being a voyeur; these men had no idea she was watching. She should leave, but they interested her. They might be some of the homeless ones who came to the City Union Mission, especially in bitter weather. She wanted to know whether she had ever seen them, but the light was too dim and she couldn't see their features. She turned and started to raise her right foot, to narrow the distance, then changed her mind.
The dark-haired man walked to the river and urinated. Ada saw the end of the stream of urine, falling into a patch of weeds on the bank. She saw him hunch, tuck himself back in, turn around and zip up his pants and walk back, to sit on the tire again. When he had settled, the tableau was as it had been before he got up.
She stood and watched them for so long that her legs
grew tired, and then she turned and felt her way quietly back,
again holding the stick up and in front of her face.
When she was on pavement again, she walked to the other end of the block
and recognized the cross street as the one she had parked on.
She started her car and drove the Trafficway and went in Nichol's Lunch
and ordered coffee. Some new notion was trying to make itself known, but barely noticeable.
Not her gratitude at having what those men lacked -- a home, and food, a mate,
and more comforts than she could justify -- but something else,
something about the timelessness of the way those men
had looked, a scene that could have been from prehistory
if you subtracted the plastic bags and other modern trappings.
She stared at the surface of the coffee, and the thin layer of vapor on it,
which flowed and shifted from one place to another on the black liquid.
Those men had nothing, and in the end, neither would she.
All the things she owned merely hid the void
that yawned behind her life, and she remembered a verse
she had seen somewhere: Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed, that is human.
Nothing would remain; everything would be lost. She wanted to tell her loved ones
that they were her breath, her being. There was nothing worth hurting anyone for.
In the morning she would mend fences with Sarah.
In the meantime, there was something more important.
She threw two dollars on the counter, left her coffee untouched, and hurried
home, to wake her husband and make love again.