Copyright 2002 by Marc Robinson

I was holding a chunk of ice to the back of my neck, standing in the shade of the carport in the middle of the afternoon. The meltwater running down my back felt good, and I wished I'd brought more ice for the front of my neck and my chest. After her funeral, we'd all driven back to Grandma's house and changed into work clothes. The air conditioner was broken, it was the tail end of July, and I was wondering why no one had squabbled yet over who would get what, or which things we should haul to the dump and which we should keep. We're a peaceful bunch, but the house was a brick firebox, and we were all tired from lifting and bending and carrying.

When the ice was gone I turned and saw a woman sitting on the porch watching me. She wore a baseball cap with a blond ponytail sticking out the back, a Jack Daniels tank top, khaki shorts, and old basketball shoes. One of the laces had broken and she'd knotted it back together. In my taxonomy of women, she was an unknown type.

"My name's Rick. Did you just get here?"

"No. I've been working in the barn," she said. "I'm Veronica."

The famous Veronica, my cousin, subject of gossip and speculation. I'd never met her; I'd always been gone, or just missed her at the family functions. Her mother was my uncle Norm's fourth wife. His women kept dying, and each time he would find a replacement, and marry her with a smaller ceremony than the preceding one. Veronica wasn't like us. In our family, after you finished your education you got an indoor job, preferably as a doctor or a lawyer, although there were a lot of teachers and psychologists and librarians and that sort of thing among us. You went to church on Sunday. You kept the house painted. When you scratched the car, you fixed it right away, on the pretext that it wouldn't rust, but really so it would look good. Veronica didn't operate on that formula; everyone agreed that she had given up on propriety long ago. She wasn't at all what I would have expected, though. Her face looked naked, like the first time you see a friend without her glasses on.

She said they'd just finished the barn, and I said we could use help with the attic. It was a single big room the same dimensions as the entire first floor, and it was full. Grandma never threw anything away. The bed and the floor were piled with an assortment of things that had nothing to do with each other: windowshades, a bird house, plastic bags full of plastic bags, electric blankets, a dead plant, old ledgers from my grandfather's blacksmithing business, and punctured garden hoses. The strangest thing was two long braids of brown hair wrapped in tissue paper. Veronica wondered aloud about that, but mostly we worked in silence, sorting things into different-colored bags, for keeping, giving to Goodwill, or tossing out. I lugged the discard bags down the stairs as we filled them, and threw them in the trailer behind Jay's truck, for the trip to the dump. Veronica worked like she had a deadline, with a penalty if she didn't make it. The sweat ran down her cheeks like tears.

The people not upstairs with us were downstairs, bagging and picking things over as they worked, their voices drifting up to us sometimes when they commented on their findings ("Who are these people?" in the ancient pictures, and "Do you remember this?" forgotten memento). Everyone had come: my brothers and sisters and all my cousins and the aunts and uncles and great-aunt Reva. Even the children were there. But I don't remember what anyone did, or how they dressed. I have a perfect movie of that day in my mind, and the only actors are Veronica and me.

When we finished, or decided to quit, because we were impossibly hot again, and there was too much left to do and people were starting to leave, she said, "I know a cool place."

She led me to the barn; there was a tornado shelter dug into the ground outside, at the base of the wall. "Help me." We pulled the iron door up, and she propped it open with a two-by-four. She said, "Careful at the bottom. Don't bump your head."

She descended into the dark and I followed. Ten feet down in the ground was a little room with two u-shaped cement benches, the narrower one above the wider. They might have seated a dozen people, all crowded together. The only light was from the open door above. The room smelled musty, but looked dry. No mold, but slugs had left dried-up white trails on the walls. A broom leaned against the wall. She used it to brush away a few spider webs.

"Missed those earlier," she said.

We sat looking up through the gap where the door was propped open. In the blue slice of sky a treetop occupied a lower corner, and appeared and disappeared with the wind's movement. Clouds scudded over. We sat in silence so long that I lost all awareness of time.

"Sometimes when I look around, everyone seems asleep," she said. "Like that little piece of sky, the way it looks from here, but it's really bigger than you can imagine. We're only half-awake, we're only getting a tiny part of the picture. I'd like to see more."

"Philosophy 101. The allegory of the cave."

"I don't know," she said. "I've never heard of that. I'd like to see more, that's all."

The wind had diminished; the tree shook, but now without disappearing from sight. We sat looking up at the sky. She wasn't talking, so I didn't, either. When my neck got a crick in it, I lay down, but the bench was too hard and I sat back up.

"What's wrong?"

"The cement hurts my head."

"You can put your head in my lap," she offered. She smiled at me, and the wrinkles around her eyes deepened. Her tone was practical, as if offering me a pillow to settle against, on her sofa.

She smelled of sweat and dust and laundry soap. I fell asleep like her lap was where my head belonged. Moments later she was shaking me.

"Wake up," she said. "You slept for half an hour. My leg is numb."

I rubbed my eyes and sat up. "Sorry."

"It's okay. You looked so happy I wanted to let you sleep."

She rubbed her leg until the feeling came back. I went after her on the stairs, so I could watch her legs and ass. A little slack, but not bad; better than a lot of women twenty years younger. She'd aged well. Being skinny probably helped.

All our relatives had gone. The houses on either side had been torn down long ago -- Grandma lived in a small town that had been losing population for decades. No traffic on the street, no children in the yards, no one walking by. Only Veronica, and me, and the clouds gathering for rain.

We walked the three blocks to the square. The cafe stayed open late on Saturday nights. People gathered and drank beer and played the jukebox, or went upstairs to shoot pool and play air hockey. The kids played the video games. Through the front window, half covered with signs and notices and postcards mailed from neighboring states and Europe, I saw the courthouse across the street. The county had built it in the sixties, after they'd torn down the old brick one with the graceful antebellum bell tower. The new building was gray wavy cinder block and one story, with an enormous clock on the wall by the front door.

We ordered the dinner for two. The chicken was overcooked and greasy, but cheap. I listened while Veronica talked about things people had found that morning -- a photograph of a tow truck with a three-digit phone number painted on the side, beautiful silverware in an ornate pattern, and a handwritten card from my grandfather to my grandmother: My own dear Rose I wish to give you the ring with my true love and affection, and all my best wishes. My own dear Rose, yours forever, Patrick.

"How sweet," she sighed. "So simple. So much feeling. So gentle and humble."

"Yes. That was Granddad."

"Innocent. They're not even born that way now."

I liked this woman. The girls my age, everything is up for grabs. Nothing is permanent, everything is image and can be changed on a whim: tattoos, nose rings and tongue studs, enlarged breasts, pumped lips, multicolored hair. Veronica wore no makeup. Her ears weren't even pierced. She was as she seemed: unaffected.

They kicked us out at closing time. The rain was beginning, and we ran back in the sprinkles and showers. The sky opened a moment after we walked in the door. We sat in the window seat, leaning against cushions, our knees up and with just enough space, feet bare and toes occasionally bumping into each other. We opened the windows, to feel the breeze and the moisture and hear the rain pouring onto the ground and gurgling in the gutters. Above the street was an inch of spray where the water hit and bounced back up.

We talked the entire night, but I only remember the sound of her voice, and the open feeling of her tone, and her wonder and longing and nostalgia. This was not the woman my relatives gossiped about.

When the sun came up I was euphoric, and wanted to stay, but I had a flight to catch, so I made my excuses and left. Veronica went off to sleep in Grandma's bedroom so she wouldn't crash on her way home. I drove back to the city, uncontrolled one-second naps catching me on the drive. I packed and caught the express bus to the airport.

I was gone three days. I called her every evening, and we talked for hours. When I returned, she picked me up at the airport and we went to my apartment. It was the middle of the afternoon. We took off our clothes and got in bed, as if we'd arranged to, although neither of us had said anything about sex.

Afterward, she got out of bed and put on her panties and the gray Oxford cloth shirt I'd dropped on the floor. She left it unbuttoned. She sat in the rocking chair and took a joint from her wicker bag and lit it. "You don't want to get involved with me," she said. "It's not too late. We can pretend this didn't happen."

But it was too late. I wouldn't have backed out even if I could have, though I didn't say so.

She held out the joint, but I refused it. She took a hit and held her breath, then said, "You're making a mistake -- "

"Me? You -- "

"Okay, we made a mistake. I'm your cousin -- "

"By marriage," I said.

"Quiet." She pointed the joint at me. "I'm your cousin. I'm older than you. And I'll ruin your reputation. Also, your mother hates me."

"So what?"

She was silent for a while. Then, "I'm going home." She kept my shirt on and pulled on her jeans, and was putting on her sandals.

"I'll follow you," I said. "You'll need a court order to get rid of me."

She stopped and looked at me with her head cocked sideways. She hadn't buttoned my shirt or tucked in the tail. Her own shirt lay on the floor.

"I mean it," I said. "I'll follow you."

She sat next to me on the bed and kissed me. "Never start something you know is doomed. I shouldn't have done this, but I couldn't stop myself. I really like you."

I tried to pull her down to me, but she resisted. "We can't take back what we did," I said. "If you leave, instead of a good memory, it's a bad one." I was talking at random, and the first speech I found was the guilt trip. "What about Grandma's house? What about the phone calls?"

"You remind me of my first boyfriend. He manipulated, too."

"All right then, fuck off! Why did you come here? To make something beautiful and then make it ugly?"

She smiled. The wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, the ones I'd liked in the shelter, deepened. "You feel so much," she said. "I wish I could." She held my hand in hers. "You're absolutely right, what you said about the memory, and I'm sorry. I know how this must seem. I don't want to ruin what we did. It was special and gentle and sweet, and I haven't felt anything like that in a long time, longer than you would believe. You made me feel cared for, and that's exactly why I want to go. This is very, very dangerous. I'm trying to protect myself, and I'm trying to protect you. Do you understand?"


"Do you believe me, that I'm trying to do what's best for us?"


She threw the joint in a drinking glass on the night table and stared out the window. "This is when it gets difficult," she muttered.


"When two people want opposite things from each other." She lay next to me, but she was still dressed and on top of the covers. "I want to tell you a story."

Her freshman year in college, she said, she and her boyfriend had no car and nowhere to go, so they would have sex in a mausoleum near the campus. When the weather turned cold, they continued to use the place, muffled in heavy clothes. "It was funny and clumsy and sweet," she said, "all dressed up, fucking and trying to stay warm. Seeing how little we could expose to the air. The Minnesota mausoleum." She laughed. "It was really bitter in January and February. Once I told him to hurry up before my pussy got frostbite." At the end of the year she had failed most of her classes -- "I've never been much of a student. I don't like going to class, I don't like doing things that are assigned, and I'm not school smart" -- and had to come home. The boyfriend made it plain that he would find someone else and so should she. "That hurt. I thought we would be together forever. It was my first time and I thought he loved me the way I loved him, but he didn't. I think he just wanted the sex. I still wonder what happened to him. Thirty years and not a word. I hope he's happy, the prick." She waited, then said, "Now do you understand?"

"No. I didn't do this for the sex."

"Thank you. I didn't think you did."

"So why the story?"

"Something simple. About, I don't know, being realistic? Come here." She held my face against her neck and stroked my hair.

She was mothering me, and I wanted to make her stop, but I didn't; at least it would keep her with me for a while. Then I started enjoying it. The stroking made me feel damn good, like a hypnotized hamster. Her skin was warm against my forehead, and my nose felt the slow pulse in the hollow of her neck. She smelled vaguely floral. I was peaceful and aroused at the same time.

Then she ruined the mood. "Sweetie," she said, "You need someone your own age. Sometimes people are drawn to each other, but that doesn't mean we should give in to our impulses. I've been around much longer. It wouldn't be fair, or equal, however much we want each other."

The shirt had fallen open, exposing one of her breasts. I reached for it.

She covered it with her arm. "No."

"Come on. Help me out."

She lifted the sheet and looked. "I see. Oh, to be young again." She slapped my penis and it subsided. "Down, boy."

We lay on our sides, facing each other, me naked under the sheet, her on top of the sheet and dressed except for the unbuttoned shirt. The directness of her look was making me self-conscious.

"Come on," I said. "Stay. What do you have to lose?" I waited. "We already did it once. What difference does it make if we do it again?"

"I should know better," she said, and reached under the sheet. I undressed her while she fondled me, both of us with the fumbling clumsiness of high school kids, but it didn't bother me, or her either. When she was naked, she sat on top of me and rode me, looking right in my eyes. Then we flipped over and I took the top position for a while, and she came like a freight train, twice, before I finished and rolled off. She pressed her palms against her eyelids.

"I'm sleepy," I said. "Can't stay awake."

She kissed me, and that's the last thing I remember.

She was gone when I woke in the middle of the night. I couldn't get back to sleep, so I dressed and went in to work early. I called her house during my lunch hour and her answering machine kicked in and said, "Hi, this is Veronica's voice. Leave your voice and our voices can play tag." I said, "It's me. Pick up... Pick up the phone." But she didn't, so I said, "Call me when you get home". I waited until 11:00 that night and called her again, but the machine had been turned off and the phone rang until a voice from the phone company said no one was answering. Then there was dead air.

The next day at work I sat through a four-hour meeting, staring out the window and not pretending to listen. When I got home I called her again, but the phone rang without answer. I watched ESPN all evening. The weekend, and Monday and Tuesday, were the same: calling her every evening, never any answer.

The days went by, and my concentration at work improved a little. The wound was bleeding less. I started visiting friends and jamming with them into the late hours, or the early hours, or the place where one changes into the other, then going to work early, without enough sleep. Sleep was on vacation. After two weeks of this, my phone rang one morning at work. I recognized her number on the LCD display. I almost didn't answer, but then she would have gone to voice mail and maybe hung up and never called back. I would have had to call her. It was smarter to answer.

"Do I know you?" I said into the phone. It was rude, and I was immediately sorry.



"You're never home," she said. "Do you have a new girlfriend?"

"I don't have any girlfriend. That's why I'm never home. I'd be there by myself."

"I've been calling every day for a week."

"You could have left a message on the machine."

"I was afraid to. I thought it would tip you off and you'd stop answering the phone."

"That's strange. I thought letting it ring was your trick."

"Yes, well, that's what I'd like to explain."

"What do you want?" I asked.

"I miss you. I want to see you."

"I'm at work."

"I know. Could you take a break?"

"You want to drive up here? It's a long way."

"Yes. I mean, no it's not far, yes I'll drive up." She read me an address.

"That's it," I said.

She called me from the front desk an hour later. I knew it would be difficult getting her into the building. I'm an engineer at a defense contractor, and security is tight.

"Sorry," the guard said. "No exceptions. She has to be an employee or an approved vendor, or on the list for the day."

"She can show you her driver's license. She's a relative."

But he wouldn't do it, the fat-assed, short-haired bastard. Sitting there in his blue uniform, looking like a doorman at a 19th-century Central European hotel, or a character in a second-rate operetta.

"It's okay," Veronica said. "We can talk in my car."

"Let's go to the zoo." I held my i.d. card in front of the badge reader. When the door clicked, I pushed the handle. She wasn't following. "Are you coming?"

"Yes. I -- I was surprised. The zoo is my favorite place. How did you know?"

"I didn't."

On the way over she talked about how human the chimps were: the looks in their eyes, the way they acted, their faces, their aggressiveness, their fondness for play, even as adults. More like us than any other animal. So we went to the ape house first.

"See that one?" She pointed at a chimp that was masturbating and looking right at us. "He does that every time I come here," she said. "He knows what he's doing. He doesn't have a crush on me, he's trying to embarrass me. But it's like a little child trying to annoy you. You know? It's funny and pathetic, how stupid they make themselves. He doesn't even know I'm laughing at him."

"Maybe he does. Maybe he's a comedian. He's entertaining you."

"Are you angry?" she asked.

"Yes." I wasn't, at that moment. She was peering into my eyes like she was trying to read what was inside, all concerned. The moment she looked away, my mad would probably come back, but as long as she was looking at me, I was ready to groom her fur or whatever else she wanted me to do. But I wanted her to know that I'd been angry, so I said, "You jerked me around. Did it feel good?"

"No. I didn't. It didn't. I always freak out at pressure. There was pressure coming off you. Need."


"Desire. That's a better word. You're in love with me."

"What? Are you serious?"

"Yes." She was still looking in my eyes. I was watching the chimp play with himself, so I wouldn't have to look at her. "You were," she said. "Maybe you're not in love with me now, but you were then."

I looked at my watch. "I have a meeting at 11:00." It was almost 10:00. That left half an hour before I had to head back to work. "Can we get this over with?"

"I didn't come to let you down easy."

"Then what?"

"I don't know how to say it yet. Give me a little time."

We wandered out of the ape house and past the polar bears flopped on their big flat rocks, then past the veldt where they put the zebras and antelope and all those sorts of prey animals. She bought cotton candy at a stand that was just opening up, and offered me some. I've never liked cotton candy. I bought caramel popcorn.

"Come here," she said. "I want to show you something."

We sat on a bench at the top of a cliff. In a large fenced area below us was a big elephant. His eyes looked too small for his head.

"I love the elephants," she said. "I started liking them when I lived in Tanzania."

"Tanzania?" What was up with this? All I did was ask questions. This had to stop. I sounded like a parrot.

"I was in the Peace Corps there," she said, "for two years."

I vaguely remembered hearing something about that at a family dinner once.

"Elephants," she said. "Did you know that a young female has to have a midwife, an experienced female, help her when she gives birth the first time? She has to learn what to do, like us. They're very smart. They take care of each other. They love their children. They like to get drunk on fermented fruit. They're very, very interesting. Whenever I got time off I'd go somewhere and look at them. I collect elephant stuff -- china elephants, dolls, pictures. I have a beautiful antique elephant music box. Maybe you can see it sometime."

"I thought you had something to tell me."

"I'm getting to that." She pointed at the elephant. "That old guy knows what life is about. Food, and sleep, and companionship. See, I don't have any companionship. I'm lonely. Right here is where Gary proposed to me. We came here a lot. No one knows I was married. I made my mother promise not to tell anyone. My father and stepmother and brother died in a car wreck and I came back here for the funeral. Then I got stuck. I spent every day in bed watching soap operas, living off my real mom. I was depressed, from my family all dying. Then I met Gary, and he was funny. We clicked. We didn't wait, we got married the next month, and I got pregnant right away. We were ecstatic." She watched the elephant for a while. "Gary was a roughneck, he worked on oil rigs, so he was gone a lot. I miscarried in my sixth month. Gary was on one of those platforms out in the Gulf of Mexico and he flew back to New Orleans on a helicopter to come see me and it crashed." She smiled. "This is why I don't buy lottery tickets. The original bad luck girl. My only living relative is my real mom," she said. "And Norm, I guess, since she married him." She took a bite of the cotton candy. "Gary had a big insurance policy, and the house and the farm were paid off. He left it all to me. I bought an annuity and I rent out the farmland. I don't have to work, but sometimes when I'm bored I take a job for a year or two."

"So you're set," I said. "You're not the bad luck girl after all."

"Oh? I'd rather have my husband and my son." She took a bite of her cotton candy and watched the elephant. I watched him, too -- the way his skin hung in big wrinkly folds, the way his ears flapped, his trunk. I saw what she meant about elephants.

"You'd better get back to work," she said. "You'll be late for your meeting."

"I'm not going back. Not today."

"What will you say?"

"I'll make something up. Claim a family emergency. It's sort of true."

"I know what I wanted to say." She took a breath and let it out. "I hope you'll be patient with me. I'm afraid I'm jinxed. Besides, I worry what this will do to you." She was talking to the dandelions between us and the edge of the cliff. "I've always had a good life, I just can't get together with anybody. I thought I was past needing that." She finally looked at me. "I'm sorry. See, the age difference matters. I'm forty-six and you look -- "

"Twenty-seven," I lied, giving myself an extra year.

"What if you're invited to a company awards banquet, and you're supposed to bring a date? Would you take me?"

"Sure. Why not?"

"You'll look like you're dating your Mom's old roommate, that's why not. What if someone recognizes me? How will we explain it?"

I didn't answer.

"Think about this, then," she said. "When you're my age, my hair will be gray and my skin will be wrinkly, like that old guy there," she said, nodding toward the elephant, "and I'll be past menopause and dry when you want to have sex and I may not even want it. A lot of women don't. I won't be able to keep up with you physically. I'll be old."

"It must be nice, having a crystal ball."

"No. What must be nice is still -- you know, you think things matter, things like you and me getting together," she said. "Sometimes I look in the mirror and I wonder, who is that woman? The girl inside me asks that, but she's starting to disappear. I thought maybe you could save her, because I'm forgetting what it was like to be young, and I hate that, I hate it, and I want to live, Goddammit, before it's too late." She drew an arc in the air with her palm. "Everybody's life goes up and then down, see. You're over here, on this side, and I'm there on the other side, and I'd pull you over there, and you'd miss what's in between. You'd be giving up things everyone needs and wants and should have, and you'll see that one of these days, and you'll leave. And if you don't, I'll make you go."

"I'm not asking for anything permanent."

"Yes you are. You fell in love with me. Why do you think I was so skittish? You weren't fucking me, you were making love. There was love in it. I hadn't felt that in so long, I didn't know what to do. And then I went away and thought it over, and decided I was right in the first place and it was better if I hid."

"Then why did you call me today?"

She lifted her hands in front of her, palms up, the cotton candy turning horizontal. "I couldn't stick to my decision. I know better, but sometimes -- I know it's wrong," she said. "I know I'm being stupid, but I don't care. I want to be loved, I want to be needed one more time."

Something was missing. "But?"

"This won't last. You -- you're young and you'll get married and have a family. You deserve that. You deserve to be happy with a sweet girl and a couple of kids and a house in the 'burbs, and taking the kids to their music lessons and coaching their soccer teams."

"We could do that together."

"I wish. But it's not going to happen. This isn't going to last." I started to interrupt, but she said, "Don't!" in a fierce voice. "I know what I'm talking about. In a couple of years you'll look at me and you'll wonder what you saw, and you'll meet some pretty girl, and you'll leave me. Don't talk about it. I don't want to be reminded. It will happen soon enough."

It seemed there was nothing left to say. I just had to make up my mind: did I want her, or not? When I asked myself the question, I already knew the answer. All the weeks of lost sleep settled on me. This was going to be difficult.

She stood and put two fingers under my chin so I was looking up at her. "You look exhausted," she said. "You should go home and sleep."

"Are you coming with me?" I asked.

"Do you want me to?"

"Do you have to ask?"

"Yes I have to ask. Do you want me to stay?"

"Yes," I said. "I want you to stay forever."

I moved to her place that weekend. The commute to work was a killer, but I didn't care. I didn't have any interests except her and my guitar, and I could practice at her house anyway. She gave me the big room on the second floor, and I moved my things in, including my bed, which was king-sized. But she'd been living there a long time, and she couldn't get used to the change. After a few days she went back to sleeping in her ancient iron bed that was too small for two, and I slept there with her.

Her house was old, and tall, and built on a basement that was above grade, and her room on the third floor seemed almost in the sky. The light filtered in through the leaves and limbs of the enormous oak that hid the yard and street. She'd hung a hammock from the window to a big branch on the oak. Getting in was a precarious operation I wouldn't watch. She liked to lie there when the wind was strong, so she would swing in broken changing rhythms from the mismatch between the movements of the air and the branch.

She liked to wear my shirt -- her shirt, the gray button-down she'd stolen from me the first time we'd had sex, which she refused to return and which after a while I wouldn't have accepted anyway -- she liked to wear that shirt and nothing else. Sometimes she slept all night that way. We would make love, she would put on the shirt and climb out the window, lie down and not come back in until morning. I always worried that the hammock would flip or an old rotten piece of rope would snap and she would fall and break her neck. After a while, I'd find myself looking at the part in her hair. She always lay with her head facing the house and her feet the tree. At the place where the part in her hair ended, where a cowlick might have been, in the blond hair a dime-sized patch of dark brown radiated in a semicircle. Her hair was blond, except that one spot. If I leaned far out the window, I could kiss her there, and when she felt my kiss on the top of her head she would scoot back toward me and raise her arms and press my cheeks with her hands and we could barely touch lips. I was always right on the point of plunging to the ground. Then I would pull myself back in and sit in the chair and watch the chaos of the hammock in the breeze, knowing I couldn't save her if she fell.