Spring finally came. Blackbirds, spraddle-legged on the grass, poked it for grubs, and the high-school track team, their bare legs, some hairy, all pumping hard, began to run through the town. Below the great bridge across the Hudson River, the fishermen set their shad nets in the water. Early each morning, Moira Huckins would get up, wash, dress, run downstairs for milk and a doughnut, run up again, make her bed, straighten her room, then stand at the window and watch for Gustie Lauter, coming up the street on his way to the high school. She saw them walking together, holding hands. But only in her mind.
And Gustie, going past her house, would look at it sideways, a small Victorian with peeling paint and a narrow bay rising up the middle from the ground floor to above the roof and ending in a peak like a dunce cap. There were always gum and candy wrappers, cigarette butts, bottle tops, pieces of plastic, and crumpled tissues in the front yard. Once he’d seen Moira planting a small tree in the yard that had a sign on it saying Please Do Not Litter. But someone cut it down, leaving a five-inch stump. He could see her, half-hidden, behind the thin bedroom curtain, the slight mass of her body, the small head. What was the big idea? Most girls were three things. They were something or dogs or okay. She was different, like something hiding in the woods. A bird, a cat gone wild, a rabbit, a baby raccoon, half-hidden by leaves and twigs, still, silent, afraid, ready to vanish. When she came to his house to babysit for the baby his mother took care of, Moira would look at him, an eye dart, a small “Hi,” then rush to the baby, turning her back on him as if he were nothing. His mother liked her.
“She’s got no hot, broody eyes, no pouty mouth,” she said. “And she don’t wear tight pants to show her behind. She’s not one to get herself up like a you-know-what. She’s clean.”
After Gustie had gone by, Moira would hurry out to follow him, watching the long legs, the small, hard buttocks going up and down, the yellow curls sticking out from his engineer’s cap. The usual question came into her mind. “Would you make it with him?” and the answer “Yes” coming in a rush. Some girls she knew would go right up to him and tell him what they had in mind. She couldn’t do that. She wasn’t bold, she wasn’t sure of herself. And what if she did and he said, “No.” She’d die.
And there was another she’d do it with. Rodney Bigelow, a black. Her mother would throw her out of the house if she found out Moira even thought about him. Plenty of blacks and whites walked up and down Main Street with their arms around each other’s waist, and this drove her mother crazy.
“There ought to be a law against mixing,” Frieda Huckins said. A chunky, heavy-footed woman with a big lower lip, she always had something to say about everything.
“This is a democracy, Ma,” Moira would say, “We are all free and equal in the eye of the law and we can love whoever we like.”
“That is a lot of baloney,” her mother shouted. “And you better believe it.”
“For Pete’s sake, Frieda,” her father groaned up from the floor. “Leave the kid alone. Get me two fingers, baby girl.”
Her mother looked at him as if he was something that had shrunk the first time washed. He was a thin, small man, a plumber’s assistant, and lately had begun to suffer from a hernia in his right side. Some days he could work but bent over and complaining and driving the boss crazy. Bad days, he stayed home and lay on the floor and sipped Southern Comfort. Would he have an operation? No! He wouldn’t trust a doctor from here to there, much less let one cut him open, so Frieda, with Moira helping after school, cleaned house for other women and served at their cocktail and dinner parties.
Moira liked her father. A few days ago, he had brought home an old globe of the world he had bought at a garage sale. A section was missing, the area covering northern Australia, the Arafura Sea, and New Guinea.
“So what,” he said. “We get the rest of the world for only one-fifty.”
Her mother, out in the dark kitchen, washing the vegetables for their corned beef dinner, banged the colander on the sink.
“One-fifty,” Oh my God. I work my fingers to the bone so you can spend it on junk?”
Her father had winked at Moira and started trouble.
“I’m no cheap skate like someone I know. Who else would buy our baby girl a nice present?”
He began to chant the names of places on the globe. “Assiut, Karachi, Cawnpore, Gobi, Sinai.” Then, imitating the Chinese laundryman on lower Main Street, he whined in a piercing voice, “Changchow, Foochow, Hankow” and added “Poo-poo, Koo-koo, Whang-whang and Ding-Dong.”
Her mother rushed in from the kitchen, and Moira went quickly up to her room. She would not take sides in their arguments or fights. She could talk to her father alone because he saw funny things in everything and told jokes when he felt well and used to make up stones to tell her when she was little. But her mother? She wouldn’t tell her a thing. Never!
Once, a friend of hers said she had seen tears in the eyes of the wooden Mary of the Mountain Virgin. This Virgin stood in a little shrine leading up to the orphan girls’ summer camp, run by the nuns of St. Agnes, and had a face like a tulip petal with two slitty eyes, painted bright blue and a tiny mouth, painted bright pink. “I had a vision,” the girl told Moira. “A light came off the mountain and dwelt upon me and I saw tears in the eyes of the Virgin and fainted dead away.”
Nothing had come of this vision because Father Callahan at St. Agnes said the girl had a record of hysteria. Frieda Huckins said the girl was a nut for sure and Moira should steer clear of her. If you went around with a nut, people would say you were a nut.
But Moira longed to see such a light and wooden eyes that filled with tears. She wrote a poem about it which she put with some other poems in a manila envelope marked POEMS BY M.H. These poems would come from nowhere, it seemed, and it would be as if a light had been lit in her mind, and she could see things she had never known or felt before. Most of the time, her words were not right. But sometimes they were, and then she felt like a helicopter rising up from the ground.
Her English teacher, Mr. Hart, had made them write poems and she had to read hers out loud. Two of them. Gustie Lauter and Rodney Bigelow were both in that class, and she was embarrassed, her face red-hot, her voice about to squeak. The first one was so small. “Life is a bubble/Shining in the air. /But breaking, it falls, /A teardrop on the earth.” The second was small, too. “Gulls dip their rosy feet/Into the gray river, /Cut the thick air/With arched wings/And set white breasts/On dirty mud. /Their grace/Redeems the scene.”
Silence. She sat down, glanced at Gustie and Rodney, and pinched her knees under her desk. Mr. Hart told her she would have to work very hard, read a lot, and keep with it.
“I mean it,” he said. “Bring me. more poems.”
Gustie, sitting by the window, yawned. He was thinking of basketball practice that afternoon and a date with a sophomore he had that night. Red-hot Rosie, his friends called her. He hadn’t written a poem, because he didn’t like poetry. Most of it went on and on about nothing much and sometimes made no sense.
But Rodney Bigelow looked at Moira and nodded and smiled. The poem he had read aloud was about a lost man walking through empty country in a bad storm with an icy wind blowing and far, far off a small light that suddenly went off. Mr. Hart told him he had power and strong mood descriptions. His words were like blows. What did he want to do?
“Be a writer,” Rodney said in a low voice.
“You could be,” Mr. Hart said. “And a good one. I mean it.”
One afternoon, she saw Rodney cleaning out the backyard next to their backyard. So she went out with some dish towels to hang on the line and she and Rodney moved slowly to the fence between the two yards and said, “Hi.” Then he laughed.
“You know what? I was remembering the time in the fifth grade when we marched in the Halloween Parade to the YMCA for milk and cookies. I was like you. I was the other gorilla.”
She laughed too. “Both of us gorillas. And your friends kept kicking my behind because they thought I was you.”
“Both of us gorillas.”
He looked down at her small silky face and soft mouth. Her pale brown hair was cut in little points around her face. A gorilla!
Moira felt there was a bond between them because they had both been gorillas. Could two people know what the other was feeling and thinking without using words? Did he know she felt there was a kind of bond between them, that she could, she really could, think about making love with him? Could he know this without being told? With just a feeling between them?
A door banged in her house and her father shouted, “Hey baby girl, where you at? I feel like a cheese sandwich.”
“I got to go Rod. That was my dad.”
Then his hand touched her cheek gently, very gently.
A week later, she got a note in English class. It said, “I have to move to Detroit to live with my other auntie who is too old. I have to see she eats right and doesn’t hurt herself falling down. I guess I will never see you again. Sometimes I thought I could be strong enough to marry you. But I have hate and fear in my life and you should be safe and happy in yours. I will always remember you. I will always love you.” It was signed R.B.
After class, she went to the girls’ room to be alone, perhaps to cry. But she couldn’t be alone or cry. There were two girls there putting on their faces, and the doors of the toilet compartments had been taken off so you couldn’t sit privately because too many sat there to smoke pot or use drugs or drink. Why should she want to cry? Because it felt like something in her head had been ripped out and would never be there again and the space was empty and filling with dust slowly falling.
That night, Gustie’s mother called and wanted her to babysit while she went to the movies with her Aunt Angela. When she went down to the Lauter house, the baby, Pina Maria, was in her high chair, and Moira kissed the top of her head, and the baby laughed, grabbed Moira’s hair and tried to eat it. Amelia Lauter laughed too.
“What a monkey! How does she look, Moira?”
“You know what? Yesterday I got a letter from that jerk, her father. He’s someplace in New Mexico, and he said I could adopt her legal if I want. He can’t take care of a kid, and her Ma ran off to Old Mexico with some other guy. So she’s gonna be Pina Maria Lauter for sure. How’s life? You got a fellow?”
Moira shook her head.
“So why don’t you and Gustie get to know each other? He’s a good kid. Like his Daddy was, he gets bossy, but he’s fair and he’ll be a good man if he don’t screw himself up like a lot of others. Know what I mean? He needs a nice girl like you.”
“He’s got a lot of girls. He wouldn’t look at me.”
“You never know. I tell you what. He’s working at the bookstore on the Mall tonight, unloading books, and when he comes home, you have his, supper nice and hot. It’s all ready in the oven and there’s enough for you. So you fix up your face and hair nice and eat with him. I’ll be home around eleven so that’ll give you plenty of time to get acquainted. Just talk to him easy like he was human.”
When Gustie came in a little after nine, he found the table set for two in the kitchen. He was tired. A big shipment of books to unload and no time out for rest.
“So who’s eating?” he said.
“We are. Your mother said.”
Moira brought out the ham slices, lasagna, and cole slaw Amelia had fixed. There was a big chocolate pie for dessert.
Gustie had never been as close to her as he was then. And alone with her. He liked it. He liked short girls. She was also neat and quick and she smelled right. The kind of perfume girls used to turn men on made his head ache. And her lips were not shiny purple or dark brown, just natural. One tooth in her uppers was a little crooked. He liked that, too. He didn’t like even white choppers like TV ads’ teeth. They could be dentures and move around at the wrong time, even come loose and fall out.
To Moira, tired and messy as he was, he did not seem like somebody stuck on himself.
“Pardon me,” he said. “I got to wash up. I’ll be right back. How about getting us two beers so we can celebrate.”
“What are we celebrating?”
“Like it’s spring. Like we’re graduating in three weeks. Like it’s a nice day.”
“O. K.” She laughed. Easily, no giggle or tee-hee like some girls.
After supper, she did the dishes, then watched TV with him, and when his mother came home, he walked Moira back to her house and asked if she’d like to go for a walk the next evening. He was saving for a Sony Walkman, so movies and using gas riding around were out. She nodded, and he kissed her goodnight, a little kiss. But on the lips.
For a couple of weeks all they did was walk around in the evenings, which were warm and with light fading slowly over the river. Most often they went to the small state park at the north end of town where a high rock palisade jutted toward the river. From there, they could look back on the town which lay in a rising semicircle like the orchestra and balconies of a theater. Now and then he put his arm around her as they walked and he always kissed her goodnight. They found out they both liked a lot of the same things. O.J, and ginger ale mixed. B.L.T’s. Spaghetti Primavera. Walking in the woods. The Muppets, jazz, old Benny Goodman records. And she didn’t mind watching sports on TV on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Most of the time as she watched she thought of a book she was reading. But she always shouted at something a player had done because Gustie shouted.
After their graduation in June, summer came down on the town. In the humid air, plants, vines, grass, and flowers grew fleshy, sprawled out and tangled with each other. Like painted Easter eggs with beaks and skinny legs. Cedar waxwings hung in the branches of the mulberry tree in the Huckins’ backyard. In the black hickory, gray squirrels flew from branch to branch like puffs of smoke. Hydrangeas were too blue.
In the mornings, Moira worked with her mother, but in the afternoons she went to the public library and read in the poetry section, Mr. Hart had told her to try the American poets. Emily Dickinson. Walt Whitman. Sometimes she sat stunned by the power of a poem she had read. The stacks of books around her, the town, everything vanished. But she was learning to see more. Everything in the world seemed related as if made on a vast design. Water in a puddle, ruffled up, looked like the feathers of a bird. The veins in a leaf were like the veins in her body. A grape seed was shaped like a man’s testicles. When she tried to write something of her own, it seemed so meager, so awkward. Would her poems ever touch and stun someone else? But when she worked over them, poor as they were, she was happier than she had ever been.
In the evenings there was Gustie. He did more than kiss her, but he did not make love to her. He didn’t know why he hadn’t. He wanted to, but if he did, would he have to keep on with her? She was no temporary. She was something else. Was he ready to get tied down? Maybe he should stop seeing her. But he couldn’t. His mother would look at him and say, “So how are things going?” And he’d say, “Fine.”
And Frieda Huckins would say to Moira, “What’s with you two?” Moira would shrug and say nothing. She was happy as things were. If things got more—all right. All right with her. But Gustie was the one to start. She wasn’t.
One Friday night they went to a movie called Little Girls in Bloom which turned out to be an R movie. She did not like R movies, but if she didn’t like what she was seeing she would close her eyes. But she could not close them. She kept seeing herself and Gustie in what the actors were doing and longed to touch Gustie, to press against him. She knew he was watching her and the movie. Now and then he jerked suddenly or cleared his throat.
He felt like telling her not to watch some of the parts. She was kind of innocent or gentle. She reminded him of a baby chipmunk he’d trained to sit on his chest and nibble at a cracker he held in his lips. Other girls he’d taken to movies like this had moved up against him and pinched and stroked him. But she sat shrunk into herself, almost not breathing.
After the movie, they drove around to cool off and went up to the long ridge south of the town. From this ridge you could see up and down the river from Sing Sing to Dobbs Ferry. He parked the car and hit the wheel with his hand and said, “How’s that for a view?” Too restless to sit, he got out of the car and she followed him.
He would not touch her. He would not touch her. He did. Suddenly turning toward her and pulling her against him so hard she cried out with surprise. A car coming up the road behind them made him pull her off into the woods. You never knew who it could be. There had been several muggings and knifings up here, and most people stayed locked in their cars. But no one would find them in the woods. Stumbling, they ran between the trees until he stopped and took her in his arms, then gently pulled her down to the ground and lay beside her.
“Don’t close your eyes,” he said. “Look at me, Moira. Do you want to?”
She nodded. Afterward she cried a little, and he was upset, afraid he had hurt her or she hadn’t liked it. When he asked her, she said she was all right.
“I wanted it.” She touched his mouth. “Now I am another person. I am sort of a part of everyone else and of everything in the world. I have been introduced.”
She didn’t make sense to him. Sometimes she came out with the darndest stuff he couldn’t understand, and he didn’t know what to say back. But she put her arms around him and said “Again?”
Later, she lay in her bed, proud of herself and began a poem. “A man lies on you and within you for the first time. /And you are changed forever, never again alone. /Two persons fitting each other as ordered. /A man, a woman, a memory for life—
The poem wavered and stopped because she was remembering everything that had happened and wondering if he would call her and what he would feel about her now.
He did call. The next evening.
“Are you all right?” He felt anxious and responsible. Other girls knew how to protect themselves. He did not know whether Moira knew or not. He hadn’t thought of it last night until too late. If she did not, she would have to do something about it.
They began to make love whenever they could. In the woods or in his room when his mother went to Bingo or in her room when Moira’s mother dragged her father to the movies. The full days drifted by, the working, the studying, the writing, and the lovemaking.
One night they were in her bed, resting against each other. She was beginning to doze when he shook her gently.
“I been thinking,” he said. “Ma keeps saying what’s with us. I think she knows—or suspects—what’s going on. All her friends have been asking if we’re getting married. You know how nosey women are. And she says your Ma says it’s a sure thing, she thinks, and she’s spreading it around. Do you talk to her about us.”
“Oh, no.” She sat up.
“So anyway, I been thinking. First off, I never thought about getting married until I was maybe 25 or so, kind of settled down. But we can’t go sneaking around like this for seven years, Moira. And if we broke up, I’d feel terrible. Like scared or something or weird. I guess that’s what love can do to you. Well, anyhow, I think I’m getting the job with that trucking and excavating company next fall, so do you think we should get married?”
She was silent.
“Hey,” He shook her gently.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? What’s that mean. Why don’t you know?”
“We’re young, Gustie. We’re only 18 and a half.”
“So what. Ma got married at 18, and it worked out good until Dad died. We could ask her would she move downstairs with Pina Maria so we could have the second floor. You could help her with the house and Pina Maria. And she’s crazy about you. You’d get on fine. Or if you want, you keep cleaning with your mother or maybe get a job in that new supermarket opening up.”
“No,” she said.
“No?” He couldn’t believe it. She should be hugging him, kissing him. What was the matter with her. My God, he’d never talked about marrying to any other girl.
She switched on the light and saw anger coming into his eyes.
“What it is—” she hesitated. What could she say about her poems? She had tried to read some and he had been polite and listened, then told her he guessed they were all right, but that stuff left him cold.
“I always thought,” she went on. “I always thought I wanted to go on with my schooling. You know, learn more. Take courses at Community College”
“So take courses. A lot of marrieds take courses.”
“I want more.” She felt herself growing nervous and jumped out of bed and put on her wrapper. You couldn’t have a serious talk when you were naked.
“I could get a degree maybe. And,” she whispered, “write poems. A whole book. Poems by M.H.”
He snorted. He got up too and pulled on his pants.
“Now come on, Moira. You can write poems even if you’re married. Plenty do. What the hell are you trying to tell me? You’re supposed to love me. Remember?”
“I do, I do love you. But I want, you know, to make something of myself. When you’re married, you have to always think about the other person. Work with them. Do things with them. Have kids. The works. I’m not strong enough or bright enough to do all that and study and write poems like Mr. Hart said I should.”
“Nuts to him. You think more about him than about me?”
“Oh, Gustie, no. But—”
“You know what. I think you’re tired of me. You got some other guy coming on. You just been fooling around with me. Right? Right!”
“That’s not so. You shouldn’t say things like that to me.”
“I’ll say what I want like I want. We keep on and we get married this fall or we split for good. That’s the bottom line.”
His father had talked to his mother like this because women got off the track and screwed things up and had to be told what to do. He remembered his mother yelling back to his father, then doing what his father wanted. He waited for Moira to come to him and put her arms around him.
She didn’t. She only looked at him.
“I need time, Gustie. Maybe a couple of years, maybe more. I have to try to do what I want to do.”
“Okay, okay that’s it. We’re through.”
He picked up his engineer’s cap and tried to put it on. But his thick hair stuck out and wouldn’t fit into the cap.
“I can’t get my damn hair into this damn thing,” he cried.
She saw his hands were trembling and his face working, growing shrunk like an old man’s face. She went to him, took off the cap, and smoothed his hair down. Then she put the cap back on his head, pulling out a few curls at the side and tilting it the way he liked it. Standing so close to him, she could not stop from pressing against him.
“All right, all right,” she said. “This fall.”
She pulled him down on to her bed and lay beside him, feeling the soft and hard warmth of his body, the satisfied searching of his mouth.