Wyatt was even more a fitful sleeper, late in middle age, than he'd been when young. He listened, but the sound that had wakened him was gone. He opened his eyes and turned his head and looked over his shoulder; the leaves on the trees were barely visible, and their shadows on the wall the same: barely perceptible. He should get up. He was unlikely to fall asleep again.
The two-note call of a chickadee resumed. Aha; that was the sound. Another bird, more distant, answered the nearer. It's me, the first said. Me too, the other answered. The calls went on for a good ten minutes. This was the hour of low expectations. He could lie in bed and listen to birds. He could watch the shadows of leaves.
His wife lay separated from him by half the width of the great bed. She slept on her side, one arm stretched toward him. The covers were at her waist. She wore a flannel nightgown. He had given up asking her to sleep nude, because she wouldn't. Except sometimes when she fell asleep talking after sex, and didn't get back into the nightgown, she woke clothed, as she had gone to sleep. Her body still embarrassed her. The loose flannel looked little different on her than it would have hanging in the closet: almost empty. She was slender as a girl, except for the girth at her stomach the babies had added. Even that was little, and often didn't show.
Her face was in shadow. He pictured her wrinkles. She had three wavy lines in the center of her forehead. When she looked up at him, or showed surprise, the lines sharpened and took the shape of flattened letter w's. The outside corners of her eyes radiated more lines, which deepened when she smiled. She should have stayed out of the sun. Her skin was rough, and she'd been to the dermatologist several times to have growths removed, from an ear, and her neck, and her nose. He'd had to point out the growths to her. She seemed neither to notice nor to care.
Her head lay high on the pillow, her hair touching the carved headboard. When they made love in the missionary position, their commonest position, they tended to ride up until her crown bumped the wood. Many times they'd had to stop and move down toward the foot of the bed, to save her banging her skull against the headboard. How many times had they had sex in this bed? Difficult to estimate; the frequency had fluctuated through -- a quarter century, give or take. Many bouts of the flowery combat. Days that could be measured in lovemaking, in hours, in meals, in conversation, in passing by each other. Days that could be measured -- how many times had he looked at her, and she him? And had every glance left a little trace in his brain, his feelings? Had this uncountable myriad of moments drawn him nearer to her, and nearer? If he drew all this as a web, how would he start, and how end, and how long would it take to draw, and how would he find all the threads? His life seemed mostly a subterranean, unconscious affair. That little bit of consciousness was only the surface. What mattered took place below, way down there somewhere, in slow ocean currents, swimming near her. Sometimes she was near, sometimes far, but the sense of her was always present.
He wondered again about the children's sex lives. Only Gabriel when young had asked about the subject. Clover had appeared oblivious. Melody had absorbed the knowledge from the air quite early; she seemed to have been born knowing all about men and women, and how they were, or could be, together.
Wyatt himself had been tutored by an older girl, Emily. He was sixteen and she was twenty. Emily of the freckles, the hoarse voice, and the plucked eyebrows and fire-engine fingernails and chain smoking. The summer between his sophomore and junior years, there she was, older, a woman, really, who smoked and drank and cursed like a Hell's Angel, and doped and fucked. She had a summer job behind the counter at the drugstore where he bought comic books. One day she said, "You're dense. I've been trying to get your attention for two weeks." She spent the rest of her summer vacation "teaching him to sin," as she put it. When she went back to college at the end of the summer, he started taking out the bad girls at his school. After Emily, they were boring. They hadn't grown personalities yet. They gossiped about each other, and complained about their parents. He didn't want these bimbos, he wanted the good girls, the smart ones, the ones who could carry a conversation, the ones who knew what they wanted and what they planned to do with themselves, and were waiting for the right boy, the boy who had his own plan that matched theirs. He wanted those girls to fall in love with him. But they wouldn't have him, and he had to settle for the sluts. Except for the sex, they were always an excruciating waste of time.
Then, finally, Ada had come along. All these years later, there were times she acted as if the act of love were new and astonishing. Through all these years she had kept her eagerness. When they'd first got back together she had wearied him, he'd been oppressed by her intensity, which was almost a sort of greed, as if she were consuming him. He couldn't live up to her, only rarely could he keep up with the emotion she radiated. There had been times he'd dreaded sex, resenting that vampirism, feeling that she was feeding off him. Finally she'd developed a sense of play. Now he could never be sure which Ada he would encounter: whimsical, passionate, quiet and tender, even (like Emily) eating up the raw sex. The expectations had disappeared, she did not consume him the way she had in those early days. They were free to act according to their moods.
A window rattled from a gust of wind. The house needed work. He really ought to get up. That window was loose; the gutters were filling with leaves; some of the paint was flaking; doors needed the weatherstripping repaired; there was a creak in the bedroom floor. And there was that big branch between the house and the garage that threatened damage if the wind broke it. He'd take care of that today. The house, pasted together top and bottom, always needed something: the great ship of their marriage, reliable, often unnoticed, but always with small problems. This year, finally, he would caught up, so he could maintain the house by fixing things before they went wrong.
He woke later to the sound of splashing from the bathroom. Ada's showers tended to be short, so Wyatt threw back the covers and went to join her. The stall was steamed over. He flipped the light switch off and on, to let her know he was there. Behind the frosted glass, her shadow paused, and turned toward him.
He picked up a dry wash cloth and opened the door and stepped in. She liked him to wash her hair. He handed her the dry cloth.
"Thank you," she said. She turned her back to the water and covered her eyes with the cloth.
He detached the shower nozzle and wetted down her hair, then worked in the shampoo. He liked the little irregularities of her skull under his fingertips. "Why don't you grow your hair out?" he asked.
"Long hair is too much work."
"I'll wash it for you."
"You're gone too much. I'd have to wash it when you're not here. Long hair takes too much time."
"It would almost be worth it," he said, "to stay home. Just to see it long. The only time it ever was was when you were married to Owen. Why not me?"
"Only if you stop going away."
Going away. She still called his studio work and touring going away. She hated being alone. "Your hair's so fine," he said. "Soft. I could wash it for hours."
"At least I don't have any gray yet."
This was far from true, but he didn't say so. She'd notice soon enough. Then again, maybe not; she'd never paid much attention to her appearance.
She bowed her head, the cloth still held to her eyes, and he sprayed her hair with the nozzle, rubbing to get the foam out. The shampoo ran off as a white drizzle, then changed to clear water in sheets that split, and split again, to become cascades of drops.
He fixed the nozzle back in place. She held him, her cheek against his chest, and he rested his chin on top of her head. The water ran from him onto her. The skinny girl ribs under his fingers were like a xylophone.
"Did you notice how quiet the house was this morning?" she asked.
"How can you say that? It's lonely. I wish we had children. The sounds of playing. Even their arguments."
"I like the silence," he said.
"How we've changed. Remember when you used to play music in your apartment all the time, and I thought it was background noise, and I wouldn't let you do it for more than an hour a day?"
"That was horrible. I couldn't study without it, and you didn't like having it on."
"You say you like silence. I don't believe you. You'd love it if Melody was here again, making noise and confusion."
"It's about time she called Clover again."
"Not yet. It's only been a month. She calls every three months."
"Why won't she give us her phone and address?" She squeezed his buttocks hello.
He squeezed hers. They weren't as firm as they used to be. "She will. She's still enjoying her independence. When she's happy with it, she'll come back to the family."
"Do you think so?"
"I'm so glad she's all right. So glad. But I wish she'd call. Sometimes she was so strange to me, a creature... Why don't I understand my own children? Gabriel's the only one that makes sense to me. But Melody was so beautiful, so beautiful. I miss her. I miss her noise and her -- what's the word?"
"Joy," Ada said. "We need her joy. We need more life in this house. Two people getting old together. Why can't we adopt? So many babies need parents."
"I've done my part. I raised three. That's enough. I want a quiet old age, with nobody but you. I want to travel." He wished she'd stop harping on the subject of adoption. She should know by now he wasn't going to give in.
"Can't we try again? Maybe this time we'd get it right."
"Ha! Haven't you learned yet? You'll never get it right. You can't. What's right one time is wrong the next."
"But we can keep trying, can't we?"
"We did a good job. Now we can retire. Besides, Gabe and Julia will be making kids before too long."
"I'm not counting on that. She may never be ready. I want a baby. Children are a gift. You loved them all."
"Loved," he said. "Past tense. No more. Time to relax now."
She tipped her head.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
"I have water in my ear."
She couldn't get the fluid out, no matter how much she tipped her head and shook it.
"I have an idea," he said. "Wait here."
He brought a drinking straw from the kitchen, holding it behind his back. "Close your eyes and don't move."
She bridled when he put the straw to her ear, then settled. He sucked out the water.
"It's gone!" she said. "Thank you."
She wanted to go back to bed and read for an hour, though he wanted to work. He couldn't concentrate on his book, and gave up. He took Apache for a walk. When he returned, Ada was cooking breakfast.
After they'd eaten she asked him to help her buy groceries, but he refused. She was always asking him that, and he never would. Her dawdling annoyed him. She was efficient at everything else, but at the grocery she was always unable to organize her purchases. She read her list from top to bottom, and walked back and forth. She tried to combine the purchases by aisle, but succeeded less than half the time. She didn't like him to point out the things she'd missed, either; she was defensive about this failing. He hated grocery stores, anyway. He hated the tile, and the lights, and the millions of products, and squeezing past other carts in the aisle, and the endless procession up and down, back and forth. He hated searching, acquiring, and searching again. His claustrophobia always bothered him in those places.
Instead, he scraped the paint from the flaking south side of the house, where it weathered faster. Ada went, and returned, while he was working on it. When his back began to hurt he returned the scraper to his toolbox and went inside to sit with her.
He lay on the sofa, listening to music while she graded papers on a lap board. The two of them were parallel and facing each other, Ada on the inside, against the back of the huge old brown sofa. It would need a third reupholstering soon: children, and the dog, had worn the fabric through, and it should have been reupholstered years ago.
Wyatt listened twice to a CD an L.A. friend had ripped for him, a collection of new music by old acquaintances. These guys were repeating themselves, or imitating themselves; there was nothing new in what he was hearing. He was bored. He wanted to work. He kissed his wife on the forehead and knelt beside the couch to embrace her. She was warm through her clothes, but her cheek against his felt cold. The room was suddenly void, as if all substance had been sucked out of it. He felt dizzy.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"It's the opposite of deja vu. Like my skin isn't the right size, or everything in the room is skewed. It's strange. You're the only thing that's real."
She said, "Has this ever happened before?"
He shook his head, like a dog shedding water.
"Are you all right?" she asked. "Seriously."
"Yes. It's gone."
"What was it?"
"I don't know." He kissed her forehead, and touched noses. "I was an alien in my own body for a minute." He shook himself again. "Forget it. I have to trim that branch."
"You'd better stay inside."
"No. That's the chore for the day. Cut it off, and cut it up. It's getting big enough to damage the house. Or the garage. Or even the power line."
"But -- "
He left before she could object further. Discussions of this sort with her tended to run much longer than he had patience for. She liked to talk a subject through until they'd examined every possible nuance. He didn't mind at the end of a day, but in the mornings, when he was energetic, he lacked the necessary patience.
He pulled the ladder off the side of the house and collapsed it and carried it around to the tree, where he unfurled it again. He lowered it, hauling back on a rung to slow the speed at which the ladder fell forward. The muscles in his back strained, then released. The top of the ladder rested on the branch with only inches to spare. He considered raising the ladder another rung, to leave more room, and rejected the idea. Why bother?
He hadn't used the chainsaw for nearly a year and he had to yank the cord a dozen times. When the engine caught, it released a cloud of blue smoke, the way it always did after such a long layoff. He goosed the trigger and the machine reacted fine. He pressed the kill switch. The bar oil was low, so he topped it off. The tension on the chain was just right.
He climbed the ladder carrying a triangular handsaw and trimmed the small branches where he planned to cut. They fell with sibilant hisses onto the lawn.
Done with the prep work, he descended and inspected the branch from several angles. There wasn't any risk of it hitting either the house or the garage, if it fell straight down. He'd have to make a clean cut, for a straight fall. If the branch spun or tilted, it might take out a gutter, or a window.
He carried the chainsaw up the ladder and braced a knee against the side rail. Set, he pulled the cord and the engine caught on the second yank.
He made the first cut vertically upward, starting at the bottom of the branch and pushing the saw straight up. Wood sprayed, some of it into his face. He squinted, thinking he should have worn goggles.
He stopped pushing a third of the way into the limb. He pulled the saw back down, keeping the chain going until it was out of the wood. He held the saw away from himself, away from the ladder, while he inspected the cut. Raw wood showed in the slot he'd made, and a strip of bark had torn away on one side, exposing more bare wood. The cut was perfectly vertical.
The limb there, about a third of the way along its length, was six inches in diameter. With a brief saw touch he made a mark on the side of the branch facing him, the mark running vertically up from the bottom cut, to locate the start of the downward stroke. He stepped up to the next rung of the ladder, third from the top.
He aimed carefully and cut straight down. The stub, he saw immediately, was flat, without the angle in the middle where the down and up cuts never matched. It was perfect. The cut section fell straight down.
The lopped wood had barely begun to drop when the part of the branch still attached to the tree, free of the weight of the lopped-off section, rose up. The ends of the ladder scraped against the bark as the branch lifted, leaving a pair of tracks. The ladder, with nothing but air under it now, fell forward toward the power line.
Wyatt threw the chainsaw to the side and grasped the edges of the
ladder with his hands, intending to slide down. There wasn't time.
He should have lengthened the ladder. He should have grabbed for the tree branch as it rose.
Too late for either of those now. Too late for anything but a last
thought, grinning at himself: Fool. Always hasty.