The baby was mad at his father. He crawled away from him and toward his father’s friend on the couch. His arms plodded down in front of him, his legs bowed, his big eyes looked up at the bachelor. He drooled on him. Then he went back to Trent who took him to his shoulder and rocked him.
Cathy had just offered iced tea again.
“Sure, if you’ve got enough,” the bachelor said. It was Saturday afternoon, the day after the party. Cathy had gone out that morning to help her sister with something. He stayed, even though he felt in the way. The magnetism of boredom is strong when young. The mystery leaves when you see it is plainly what it appears.
While the venetian-blind shadows came and went, they sat doing whatever the domestic life necessitates on the weekend. He sat trying to forge a tradition out of a party.
Cathy’s friend Rhonda and her baby had spent the night in the guest room. The bachelor had slept on the couch. Around noon, wanting to give the couple some privacy, the three had loaded themselves in his small car. He apologized about the bad shock absorbers as they headed to a diner on the southeast side of town where he and Trent had grown up.
At the diner they got the looks that people give young families, the somewhat disapproving curious looks he himself had given. She seemed to enjoy it, or was that his imagination? They were seated by the kitchen door, a hectic place he wouldn’t have picked, but the large booth curved around with plenty of room for the bassinet.
It was a gray coastal day. He felt good seeing it from this perspective. Another young couple came in and gave him a sharp look of recognition that wasn’t for him individually but for the situation. He was animated, she was not. Occasionally she would fool with the baby but without need for he was quiet and only groaned and burped once. She did that to have something to do with her hands.
She said something about wishing she had left the baby with her sister which he didn’t catch.
He was trying to act solicitous about infants, but she gave him tired looks and wasn’t impressed. Had he said something about how well her baby (he called him “he”) acted?
Nevertheless she complained. She expressed things better told to Cathy.
There was a lull and then again she got on the subject of what exactly did he do. Explain it again, please?
The Trent he had known had played bass in their old band. The Trent she knew sold fire extinguishers for his wife’s father. He looked at the couples eating, the babies, the waitresses….
“You really seemed to enjoy playing with that kid last night.” She changed the subject.
“Yeah, I did, there wasn’t anything else to do.”
He was approaching surliness and for the first time she got a twinkle in her eye.
“Well, I thought more people were going to show up.”
“I had a good time, I always have a good time—you know if you don’t go too often it’s exciting….So what have you been doing lately?”
“We had a party last week, more of a get-together.”
“I guess it’s tough when you have to take care of him, huh?”
“Yeah, sometimes my sister’ll watch him, but she’s been working a lot lately.”
“What would you do if you could leave him for a while?”
“I like sewing. I used to spend a lot of nights sewing.”
Another lull during which the guy who had given him the look of recognition set his baby on the counter, paid the check, and left.
They were down to refills. More people came in, waited, and eyed them reproachfully. So did the waitress. He told Rhonda how he used to come in there alone and sit for hours.
“Oh, I love to people-watch.” She glanced around. “I wish I had the time. It’s hard with him around.”
For a moment he imagined himself married to her. He had the desire and he really considered it. She wanted it. And when a woman wants something a man learns to want it.
They got up. He helped her put the bassinet on the narrow counter. He watched the waitress’ face, and felt a presence around him—almost as if surrounded by animals—paid the check, and she took the baby.
They rode through the old neighborhood. She had lived there, too. They shared it but the time periods were different and it was a different world. It was the only area he knew to come to. He had recently taken a work friend there who liked it for the wrong reason: because it was precious property, it was valuable. To the bachelor it meant adventure. It was the one place where you left the long industrial road for an oak-arched wonderland with cracked blacktop streets bordered by gully-deep ditches and acre-sized yards with crop gardens and chickens.
Rhonda, however, seemed glad when they exited and the baby seemed content simply to be jostled by the bad shocks. The day had a rhythm; if he couldn’t find it he would have to create it. He was sure trying!
When they returned to his friend’s home, he knocked on the door, she walked past him and barged in. The living room was dark. Trent sat on the couch, Cathy in the armchair. As soon as they entered she went into the kitchen. Rhonda set the baby on the coffee table.
The bachelor looked at his friend. Trent’s eyes were narrowed and he supported his head on his crooked arm. The house seemed dark as night. The couple had had an argument. Cathy fetched the baby from the nursery and brought him into the living room. The two babies did not acknowledge each other. Trent made faces at his while Rhonda toyed with hers.
Cathy came out of the kitchen, sent her husband outside on an errand, asking her friend to watch her baby. When Trent returned to the couch, Rhonda made motions to leave and the bachelor paced.
She finally grabbed up her baby for good and made for the door. He followed her. They stood in the street in the awful silence. She had invited the couple to spend the night at the bay house, adding that her sister had volunteered to baby-sit. They’d agreed unenthusiastically, basking in the shade of their argument. The bachelor had demurred. Now she asked him again.
The bay house was cluttered with blankets and magazines but with that peculiar seaside feeling that everything could be washed out as quickly as waving: the lonely salt air was sweeping through the room this minute. Where the abstract fish skeletons hung above the couch was the main room from which the other three—bedroom, bath and kitchen—were stunted escapes. The couch was gray and grimy, burr-like and barnacle-like. The material on the couch felt both humid and cold. There was a filthy rug that looked like it had died of loneliness, and like an unkempt old person without any friends it seemed to be shriveling. The space by the sliding doors and flanking the mattress that served as a guest bed was cold as bone. There was a spot where the door didn’t fit the wall and the outside air poured in like a leaking tire.
Across the black bay could be seen nothing but refinery lights. These did not light up the sky; the country sky was filled with never-before-seen stars.
They looked a while and then Trent announced they were going to bed. The couple got under blankets on the mattress and Rhonda nudged in beside them. The bachelor crawled onto the wet cot in the bedroom. At least it seemed wet.
Some time went by. He listened for the settling-in of the sleepers, anxious about any noise his movements made. He couldn’t really avoid it, he told himself, shifting to stay snug. Each position lasted a few seconds. Success was one that lasted a few minutes.
His shoes were on when he rose and stepped toward the stove and lit it. He stood there a long time. All that time he was listening, trying not to look at them. It was certainly beautiful outside, but with the darkness that only insomniacs know. His love of beauty was dulled by the fact that the elements were against him.
He sidestepped them again. He rubbed the cot to warm it and then on second thought took his pillow and held it a few inches above the stove-flame and tramped back to bed.
Uncomfortable, if sleepy enough, one can sleep. But he was aware of being wide awake. First he thought. Maybe the first hour. Then the images. A white fat form was rolling over in his mind, smothering him but also keeping him warm. He couldn’t quite zero in on its effect because it was merely an image. He knew the slow revolutions of the image, slow like the rotation of the earth, would keep him awake like caffeine. He knew who it was and that if something wasn’t done about it it would get worse. He also knew it would pass. But the night was cold and miserable. He had the sensation of being lifted by the feet from the bed and carried by the figure (at times a figure—human—more clear than an abstract image) and it was almost like death. He couldn’t really stop to look at it because he was moving, dancing, seeing only sparkling prisms, no details, not analytical. He concentrated hard.
Then, as when you realize you’re not thinking and begin thinking, lose it forever, he was no longer still and squirmed again.
A rooster crowed in what seemed the middle of the night. “I’ll be going to sleep just as the natural world wakes up,” he whispered.
He caught himself singing aloud. He waited for a reaction. None came.
The rooster crowed.
It crowed and it was cold but light was coming.
The man next door was a friend of Rhonda’s father, who owned the place. He saw them sitting on their balcony and she waved to him but he was distracted and went about his business.
There was no breakfast, not as the bachelor wished it. They liked coffee but didn’t linger over it for hours and refills were an imposition.
For one lucid moment he could see the grandeur and strangeness of the waves and the horizon, but it snapped back to the routine scenario where nature is a backdrop and the boredom and petty works of old friends, new families, are the drama—it was already having that effect of Sunday evening when the apprehension sets in. It was a sunny day but with a raw breeze from the cold front of the night before, which he seemed to feel more than the others.
Rhonda seemed glued to them. That was only natural as she was Cathy’s friend and after all they had been doing this for some time, he had walked onto their set. Even though he could reason this out, a look, a sarcasm, their closeness on the day after the party made him wonder.
At half past one, the couple decided to take a walk. They wanted to walk to the road, away from the bay. They asked them if they wanted to go.
“We might be gone a while,” Cathy said.
Off they went. The bachelor dawdled. “Let’s walk to the pier,” Rhonda suggested.
After she helped him disengage the caught lining from his coat zipper, they hit the beach.
The rocks in the hollows where the shore had eroded looked cold, just beyond the sun’s rays. But the trash—the tires and buckets in particular—looked even colder and something nonattributive to nature—could the word be “greasy”?
They skipped and lagged around them. Ahead by the oyster boats they saw a couple of cats.
“I wonder if they keep those to catch mice like on ships in the old days.” He tried to imagine such a life.
“My father used to have one of those.”
“No, we kept ours in home dock. That’s—well—in between here and where we used to live.”
“He take you out?”
“Well, then this is all probably boring to you, isn’t it?”
“No, not really, I mean if it was like all the other times before it would be, but I didn’t get a chance to meet somebody I could talk to.”
“With a boat you could go out with any guy you wanted to.”
“Well, not really. If I had a shrimp boat it could limit my choices.”
“But what would you do if you had one now?”
“Are you serious?”
They walked a ways in silence, he digging his shoes in, testing out places for her to walk because there was only a ribbon of muddy sand between the water and the impassable rocks.
“Are we going to go down to the pier or not?” he said with mock impatience.
Walking out on the pier was pleasant until they went up against a cold wind.
The shallows looked relatively clear. They didn’t seem polluted. The bachelor was surprised at that.
“You know that guy we saw—the one I waved at this morning?”
“He is a good friend of my father’s.”
“And you know why I act so dull around your friend and his wife? Well, it’s because when I got pregnant my mother made such a big deal over it that the only thing I could do was act more and more conservative—like I was going to turn out like my married friend. You don’t know what kind of pressure they can put on you—how they can make you feel so ashamed you’re willing to fake it.”
“I know I can’t understand it totally—but you don’t have to be that way with me.”
“I appreciate that.” She grabbed his hand. “Did you know that my family won’t even come here anymore because they think this is the place my child was conceived? In fact they’ve got the place up for sale but I got special permission from my dad to come up here one last time. That’s why that man was looking at me so funny.”
“I really appreciate that you invited me your last time. Maybe I’m in the way.”
“No, no. You’re not in the way at all. Everybody’s just bored. See, we get in a rut. My sister, my friends….”
“Can I tell you something strange? One time I was getting ready to go to Trent’s, when he was single. I stepped out of the bathtub, wrapped the towel around me, and felt a stinging—real bad. It was a wasp hiding in the towel. I didn’t put anything on the hole and went on but when I told him about it he said I should have. That night several crazy things happened. The car broke down. Some guy came walking up out of nowhere, bothering us. This was in a well-lit place in a safe part of town. The whole night went like that. Then I didn’t see him again for a long time….”
“I would really love to go swimming.”
“Can’t you pick an indoor sport like ping-pong in winter?”
“I just got the whim.”
He acted as if to push her in, then held her back.
“Oh yeah,” as if the movement jogged her memory, “you asked me if I had one of those boats now what would I do.”
“You don’t have to answer.”
“I’d give it to you.”
“You would, really?”
“And sometimes you could drive by and wave at us, he and I (making a diminutive height with her hand), sitting on the balcony.”
On a mutual impulse, the tall thin man and the medium-sized plump woman moved carefully over the pier boards and, guided by his hand, onto the rocks and up the yard.
“They’re back,” he said.
“So are we,” she said.
“I really worked up a sweat out there. You think we can get any hot water?” Trent’s voice was audible through the open metal slats of the bedroom window.
“I don’t know, honey.”
“Did we bring any towels?” he shouted.
The bachelor and Rhonda looked at each other and cracked up.
Cathy was later to promise that Trent wouldn’t fall asleep at any more parties. Throughout the night she hadn’t budged from the couch; that her husband ended up blinking and nodding seemed to make little difference to her. She continued, the bachelor continued.
Had she come in from the kitchen or the hall? Anyway she was there in shorts and a flimsy blouse, sitting on one leg watching the TV with insufficient volume. The ten o’clock news had gone off, well into another program; he didn’t dare suggest turning it off to talk.
“Pretty good party,” he said. She yawned and adjusted her blouse; bunching with the folds of her abdomen, it had opened under her breasts. She—fatigued, alone, last chance Sunday night—might hint why Rhonda, knowing the bachelor would attend, hadn’t showed. Everything was domesticity, maternity. Wasn’t that a reason?
She shook her head and stated, no, that wasn’t it, Rhonda could have left her baby with her mother, she just didn’t plan to come.
“She might have planned but she backed out. I called her and she told me she’d call back but she didn’t. I didn’t wait for her after the party started.”
“Maybe she didn’t want to see her mom…maybe they have some problems right now—”
“Oh, yeah, I’m sure.”
“You think she found out she went to the bay house?”
Her expression went annoyed. “She didn’t find out.”
“How do you know?”
“Why would she have to find out? She just told her. Even if she didn’t, that neighbor of theirs would have.”
“Well, the way she told me—she gave me the impression they connected that place with her problem.”
She raised her eyebrows and squinted. “You mean this?” She patted her white-bloused belly.
“What other news did she give you?”
“Well, I got the idea her parents were pretty conservative and she was sort of having a hard time…I mean, aside from the obvious.”
“You believed her?” She put the pillow she had been hugging down. “She gave you her bum act, huh? Did she remember about her father owning a dock and her mother’s perfume business?—oh, she’s just the vice president.”
The bachelor had expected complaints delivered in a weary voice, small talk in a conspiratorial tone, not flat-out contempt for lies.
“Your friend—that guy in there—he goes right to sleep when his head hits the pillow. I can’t sleep for nights in a row, sometimes a week, and you know, he wakes up when….”
Through the window over the couch he could sense the garage, the shade of the tall pines in the front yard, the unfrequented porch, the sprinkler….It had been in summer: the bathroom window was open and the screen was off. He stood in the tub after the shower, letting the breeze dry him, then put a towel around his waist but felt an inexplicable burning on his thigh and threw it off to find a wasp hanging there. The same story he told Rhonda but he had left out some details. Trent had broken up with Patrice—they were close, the three of them—and Patrice had turned to him. One night they were in her kitchen and Trent had barged in the unlocked side door and said “Oh,” but the look on his face said it all. But a lot of time passed, and that summer evening he had gone to see his friend in his new apartment, an efficiency that smelled of transitoriness. They drove to a disco where they stood around, deafened by alien noise they once would have sneered at. There they were, without girlfriends and free, and this was the best they could do? He remembered catching a glimpse of Trent’s white bass guitar case which he had put away for good in the closet, hiding behind his clothes like a giant ghost moth.
“But I don’t think she’s going to be back,” Cathy suddenly said.
The bachelor thought, why? but felt so empty he said nothing.
“After you didn’t even try.”
“What are we talking about?”
“After that weekend.”
“What did we do—what did I do?”
“You didn’t do nothing,” she grinned, ugly. A meaning glance. “Playing the clown….”
“I made a fool of myself.”
“You just lost the dance contest.”
The direct hit stunned him. He almost chuckled. “That was a joke.”
“Wrong girl. She loves to dance. I love to go out—just to go out. She takes her dance partners very seriously.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
Ignoring his smile, which was insincere and nervous, she said, “A lady’s got to keep some mystery.”
“Yeah, well, you both did that, all right.”
Her expression, smug, meant to wilt. “Anyway,” she pursed her lips, with eyes about to yawn, “she’s very fickle, so…you’re probably better off.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m sorry.”
“No, you’ve got a right.”
“Next time he’ll stay up. He was already taking a nap before you got here.”
“He works hard. You do, too.”
“It seems like I just sit around….He was so tired.”
Two weeks later, an awake voice invited him over. Cathy was going out dancing—with a different friend, not Rhonda. Like to come over and baby-sit with me?
As soon as his friend opened the door, she came out of the hall to be zipped up. The duality of the going-out hurry and the stay-home drag surprised the guest; he had expected, by the tone on the phone, to enter immediately into a laid-back reunion.
After a quarter of an hour, a car pulled into the driveway and honked. Cathy hustled as for a date. Relieved by the slammed front door, the husband turned first to the baby on the living room floor, then to the bachelor.
“Fill this up.”
He filled the milk bottle.
“Let’s go in the backyard. Are you hot?”
They poured themselves a Coke and carried two kitchen chairs outside. Trent went back into the house and brought the baby and stroller outside and sat and rocked him while sipping the drink. Sitting there, the bachelor wanted to find out if what Cathy had said about Rhonda was true.
“Will you push him around for a while?”
The grass, the ground resisted the wheels, but Trent casually implored him not to stop; the passenger would cry. Mere minutes earlier, the father had taken a break, then paid for it in extra effort.
Riding the infant around the lawn along the plank fence, the bachelor used his host’s disappearing into the house to give the neighbors a once-over. He gazed at the pines towering from the front yard he wouldn’t see again.
“Watch out for the hose. I just bought it.”
They looked at each other.
“You thirsty again? I was.”
“You want me to go round again?”
“I’ll take him.”
He regained the vehicle and with a father’s economy pushed and rocked it subtly.
“It’s almost bedtime….If he doesn’t wake up before I get him in his playpen.”
“You want me to prepare another bottle, just in case?”
“No, get yourself a drink. Go on in the kitchen.”
When Trent emerged from the hall, loud crying erupted. He cursed, in his socks and household demeanor, backtracked, and came out five minutes later. He suggested they phone a mutual friend.
“Have you really been hanging around together?” the bachelor asked, sincerely curious.
“Yeah. I went over to his house twice. Anyway, a while.”
“Let’s call him together. We’ll take turns.”
“We won’t wake up—”
“He won’t wake up till tomorrow morning—at six o’clock.”
“How do you think I wake up?”
They phoned and talked to their friend. Then they waited in the living room. Just after midnight they heard Cathy being let off, and the bachelor held the door for her. She was properly incoherent for a clubbing night.
“Why didn’t she come in?” the bachelor asked her.
“She never does,” the husband said.
“She has to work tomorrow,” Cathy said, smiled triumphantly. “I’ve got to get out of these clothes.”
She returned in faded jeans and a peasant blouse. “Your namesake is snoring away,” she slurred to the figure on the couch, whose chin stubble was more alive than his eyes. Her responsible face was going by an intoxicated route to the same destination. Suddenly she collapsed, slumped onto him, and was out cold.
The bachelor hesitated near the door, unsure if he should wake them to say goodbye.
For a long moment he thought about Rhonda and her baby. Trent murmured, looked at him with something both accusing and accepting in his eyes, and went back to sleep.
He turned off the lamp and left them in the darkness.