You’re too old,” she says, but I try to change her picture of me. I seek to be transformed before her sea-tinted eyes. Sixty-four is not old for a man who has been as carefully conditioned as I. Rare’s the day I don’t visit the company gym for a workout. During past years I won tennis trophies and once swam three miles across the Chesapeake Bay—from the Virginia shore near Stingray Point to a red buoy marking the Potomac channel. Sailors waved to me.
I don’t forget Helen. I see her daily in misty passages of my mind. I drive through the arched gateway to the cemetery west of Richmond and stand at the foot of her grave, it, like the one alongside, level now to the sod. The third plot is mine, yet I no longer think of dying. I remember Helen’s graceful fingers reaching across linens of the dinner table, the gloss of candlelight on her skin. I carry flowers of the season and set them by both tombstones, which themselves are like blooms in a field of frozen flowers.
I have my business, a manufacturing concern that produces controls for electrical appliances. Our first assembly line was little more than workbenches in a drafty shed, but now the buildings are sleekly modern, the interiors brightly painted and lighted. Employees wear laundered smocks and color-coded hard hats. We pipe music into offices.
My office is on the topmost floor, the window an expanse of thermopane providing a view over grass to the aluminum flagpole and sycamores along the James River. Each morning by 8:30 I arrive and look to the silverish green water flowing around chalky white rocks. Often gulls ride wind currents above the rapids.
I undertake the unpleasant chore of terminating a middle-aged employee caught carrying from the plant tools and parts hidden in his clothes. Spenser has been with the company 26 years, hired by me in our first expansion of the business following a public offering of stock. Personnel would do the firing quickly and coldly, but I have them send the man to my office, ask him to sit, and for a moment I chat of the old days when shirt-sleeved I often hurried along the line in an effort to expedite orders. Spenser will not meet my eye but looks at the bronze-colored carpet where his feet rest.
“Has anyone treated you unfairly?” I ask. He is whitely soft, the skin below his eye sockets spongy. I suspect he’s a drinker. He no longer wears the company smock and appears alien. “We helped finance your home and loaned you money interest free to send your son to college.”
“God I’m ashamed!” he says and weeps. Like a woman he drops his face to his palms and cries. Helen wept like that on learning of our son’s death—David who was flying fraternity brothers in the company plane to a Charlottesville football game. The Beechcraft struck the peak of a wooded mountain and pinwheeled burning into a gorge and river. I am sorry for Spenser; stand, and cross around my desk to lay fingers on his bowed back. I feel his pain.
“You won’t be released,” I say. “We’ll allow you to make restitution. I do insist you undergo counseling.”
My words cause new tears, and he wishes to embrace me. I lead him to the door where my secretary, Miss Baker, waits to escort him out.
“That’s a very nice thing you did,” she tells me.
I have watched Miss Baker. She is in her forties, a dark-eyed brunette with a girdled full figure. I have been attracted to her. She is clean, always lightly perfumed, and I feel the warmth of her body as she passes my desk. I’ve wanted to slide my hands over curves of her hips. I sense she would not object to a relationship properly pursued.
Each afternoon I return alone to my house. I think of selling it as I steer my car between dogwoods and magnolias lining the blacktop drive. Some trees are diseased now, near death, and I should have them replaced by the nursery, but it was Helen who directed the landscaping of our home, and to take them away is also to carry off a part of her.
The three-story brick house has symmetrical wings and four flared chimneys. It sits on a knoll, and when I arrive evenings the windows appear lit. The light is a deception, just the sun’s redness reflected in glass. The upstairs bedrooms go unused except for mine. Twice a week Lucinda, the cleaning woman, comes. The fountain has been shut off, the fish taken from the pool. Tendrils of creeper and honeysuckle snake through English boxwoods of the garden. Weeds grow from the tennis court.
I walk corridors and touch nothing, though I stand in my son David’s room and conjure his last days at Washington & Lee. Snapshots of him and his sporty friends still line the mantel. I taught him to play tennis, but both our trophies are now tarnished. In this room Lucinda is only to dust and vacuum.
Helen’s room I stay out of altogether. She’s been gone seven years, yet scents of her still lurk. After the funeral, I left the running of the business to Carl Borman while I fled to Florida, where I intended to stay till winter seeped from Virginia, but at the end of four days I hurried back. Florida was unreal to me. Its dazzling colors, the restless beat of the ocean, disturbed me. The land and people appeared as flat and garish as postcard vistas for sale in hotel lobbies.
When I returned, my house was frigid. The oil furnace required 36 hours to draw coldness out of walls and furniture. I drove to downtown Richmond to talk with a real estate agent named Gordon who had done work for the company in acquiring acreage. He was enthusiastic about the listing, yet at the last minute, when he had an interested party in hand, I reneged on our agreement and sent him a check for his trouble.
I do not feel old. I keep fit, eat balanced meals, and avoid liquor. My weight remains a constant 170. No fat hangs from me, and when I stand in the shower, water runs straight down my body to my legs. I close my eyes slightly, squint them and sight along those legs, and believe I am again young. I remember the shining eyes of girls.
I assume that for me love is dead. I live for the company, the increase of business, and I travel to romance design engineers and purchasing officers. I alone significantly widen our area of operations, though I never fly, not since David. I often feel more at peace in motels than at home. Motels provide warmth and light while my house has become a place of shadows no electricity will dispel.
When, therefore, I experience a surge of love, I am shocked. It is a spring day, the earth stirring. A veil of pollen falls from willows and yellow pines along the river and coats the water with a pale green film as fine as silk. Doves are calling. I leave work at 5:30 and stop by the supermarket in the shopping mall to buy a pittance of bread, meat, and milk. What I prepare I will eat standing.
The girl doesn’t look at all like Helen except for her body’s petiteness and a certain narrowness of face. Her skin is tanned and has the lovely sheen of youth. Her straight blondish hair is carelessly arranged. She has a casual way of moving as if nothing in the world would hurry her.
Hands gripping the shopping cart, I stop and stare an instant before I catch myself and move on. By the time I reach the end of the aisle and the checkout, the girl is gone, and I feel I have lost something precious.
I wake during the night thinking of her. Ridiculous but her face stays in my mind, a shimmering seen through darkness. She rises above my bed, and her smile brings a warming brightness to my house. “Forgive me,” I say to Helen.
Each afternoon at five I drive to the supermarket, sit in my car, and watch the entrance. So many people, all concerned and harried, most appearing unhappy. To believe unhappiness is the natural order is easy. Life, I think, is injurious to your health. I will not see her again. She was someone just passing through. I feel guilty and foolish, particularly when one of my company’s line foremen recognizes me and crosses the striped concrete to the car.
“Trouble?” he asks. His name is Mills, and he wears mechanic’s coveralls and a cap. I’ve heard he moonlights repairing automobiles in his garage.
“Waiting for a friend,” I say and thank him. As he walks away, I make a note to enter his act of courtesy in his personnel file. I worry that others are observing me. Distressed by my absurdity, I drive to the house where fire reddens windows—again the evening sun’s reflection.
An entire week I avoid the mall, but on Thursday I need groceries, and I see her. She wears a ruffled white blouse, tight jeans, and leather sandals. Around her brow is a red-white-and-blue hairband, on a wrist a jingling silver bracelet. The hair is gaited to the easy rhythm of her walk. She appears bored, even petulant. I release my breath, realizing I’ve been holding it since sight of her.
I wait outside to watch her leave. She does not return to a car but carries a sack of groceries through the parking lot to a sidewalk along a back street named Fern. I have never before shadowed anyone, tried to follow them in a car, and my slowness causes glares and honking horns. I consider driving past her and waiting but am afraid she might turn off and I’ll lose her. She moves with her pelvis slightly advanced.
She strides across mowed grass of a small white house with dark green trim at the windows. Behind it clothes hang from a line. She stoops, curves an arm under a cinnamon-colored cat on the porch, and lifts it to her face for a caress. The animal sways limply at her elbow. They go inside, the screen door slams, and I drive on.
A modest house, I am thinking, perhaps belonging to someone who works for me. Men’s clothes are on the line— shirts, khakis, jockey shorts. The only female garment is a dangling brassiere held by a clothespin.
At the end of the street I turn and come back to park in shade of a sugar maple. I am sweating but not from heat. My stomach flutters, my fingers shake. Are you crazy? I ask myself. Quickly I drive away and almost skid into the side of a Pepsi-Cola truck.
Yet the next afternoon I’m back. I wait 90 minutes, and the girl doesn’t appear. No life around the house. Doors and windows are closed on a warm May afternoon. No clothes hang from the line. No cat curls on the porch with its glider and two metal chairs. I think of the girl being with someone else and am furious as if I have a right to her. A mother pushing her baby in a stroller peers at me. I drive away.
I work to forget. Work has always been my salvation. I chair a quarterly directors’ meeting and the spring sales conference. The company is opening another plant and introducing new products. We hold a convocation at the Hilton for the presentation of awards, then a banquet with speeches. The girl is almost absent from my mind.
Carl Borman, the organization’s executive vice-president, looks into my office. He is my creation. I have chosen him to advance, groomed him, taught him to stand on the mountain for the long view. He wants my job. He craves it as he should, yet I find myself resenting him. He could mask the fever of his ambition.
“You must be tired,” he says as if I’m already worn-out.
“Nothing’s wrong with me. Whose wind breaks first when we run laps?”
“Hold it, Dave,” he says, a meaty man of 52 with a touch of ruddy flamboyance. He laughs loudly and won’t be insulted unless it suits him. “All I meant is you should slow down a little, maybe take another trip.”
“Which of the two of us is overweight?” I ask.
“Okay, okay, I’m beating a retreat,” he says, holding up his hands like a person dodging rocks thrown at him.
In truth there are moments I feel dizzy and disoriented. I telephone Will Berry, my doctor, for a physical. He runs results of my electrocardiogram through his manicured fingers as if reading tape from a stock ticker.
“You have the heart of a much younger man,” he says. “Just watch your intake of salt.”
What about my intake of love? I don’t go back to Fern Street. I crowd the girl from my mind by occupying myself with hiring workmen to lime and fertilize my lawn, prune dead limbs, replace the sickly trees. Honeysuckle is dug up by the roots, the boxwoods are fed a mixture of nitrogen, cottonseed, and bone meal. I have the tennis court weeded, rolled, and relined. I twist the basement valve to the fountain, though I do not supply the pool around it with fish. Water sprays into sunlight and bends with breezes.
Yet nothing changes. I cannot escape the calendar and its reminders of past happiness. I stand before Helen’s portrait above the white marble mantel of the living room. She wears a simple dove gray dress, pearls, and earrings. Her aristocratic hands are folded over the fluted fabric on her crossed knees. Between relaxed fingers she holds a pink rose.
“I have missed you,” I say.
As I pace flagstones of the terrace and glance across the lawn toward the river, I am startled. I see Helen and David, he a child, both strolling through the last coral glow of evening, their shapes dusky in the fading light. They hold hands, circle, and sing. I want to shout. I clutch the stone railing and shake my head as if flinging off water. Of course it’s not Helen or David but a young mother and her son who have wandered onto my property from the public park downstream.
The park is mottled, less than 30 acres, with a boat ramp and brown wooden picnic tables arranged under willows. Children fly kites, and often I hear music and laughter. At nightfall globed walkway lights reflect off dark soughing water.
The problem is a break in the Cyclone fence along the boundary. Wind has blown limbs of a red oak across the fence and smashed it. I call the county administrator, and he promises to send his repairmen. I tack up a No Trespassing sign.
I am further angered by Carl Borman and the executive committee. Action has not been taken to raise the retirement age. I am the corporation’s largest stockholder, but I suspect plotting behind my back.
“We can buy their business for the inventory alone,” Carl says, speaking of my acquisition prospect. He has become a threat to me. His nature is to win over others at all cost, and I may have to find means to be rid of him, but will the board side with me any longer? “The real estate comes to us for nothing.”
He slides a buttock over the edge of my desk, a familiarity I have never liked. Once I thought him a second son, but there is an ungracious force about him, a rude will my David never possessed. Through Helen, David had breeding and grace. At times sensitive as a girl, he brought me a robin shot with his BB gun, holding the stroked bird in his uplifted palms like an offering, expecting me to make it well. We dug a loamy grave behind the flower garden, buried the robin in a linen napkin, and recited an awkward prayer.
“Books can be doctored,” I tell Carl Bowman. I want him off my desk.
“Sure, so I’ll sharpen my pencil, fly to Tennessee, and cast a beady eye on their figures. Take along Hicks from accounting.”
“Just like that, no?”
“Just like that. I built this company and am still running it!”
I have raised my voice, causing him to stand away and leave. I sit hot and confused. Carl has a marvelous feel for profit and dollars. What right do I have to fault his ambition? I am tempted to call him back and apologize, but doing so might only confirm his belief about my deterioration.
Sundays are worst. I have never been religious in the orthodox sense. I did drive Helen to St. John’s each week for morning services and myself took communion at the rail, but she was my religion. I saw God in the tender length of her fingers arranging a vase of flowers or in the swift smile lovingly shaping her face. When she left, God went too.
Sundays are the dismal emptiness of a cave where shapes dimly pass. I am surrounded by mists. The splash of the fountain is listlessly distant. I walk down to the river, only this time I step through the gap in the fence to follow winding paths of the park. Jays screech and flutter unseen among heavy foliage of trees. A black youth, fingers snapping, carries a radio, the speaker pressed against his ear. On shaded grass a girl drapes herself over a boy who raises a knee and lowers his hands to her back.
A pair of tennis courts are located near the park’s entrance, and, like my own till recently, they are not cared for properly. The nets are ragged, tufts of crab grass flourish through cracks in the asphalt topping despite stompings, and the lines have nearly faded, yet the courts are free to the public first come first served, and often in use. People play now, call to each other, groan and laugh. Yellow balls arch and flash in dappled sunlight.
I stop as if struck. Ahead of me the girl sits on a green bench. She holds a racket, the head of which rests on the ground, the handle clamped between her bare satiny legs. She wears a white tennis dress with a blue collar and hem. Her sweat socks are so short they rise just above her shoes. While she waits, she lifts her racket, backhands an imaginary ball, and frowns toward the park entrance.
I stand watching. My breathing is clipped, and I blot hands against my tan slacks. My guess is she’s not with any people on the courts but expecting somebody.
I move up silently and am able to approach closely before she realizes I am near. When she looks at me, I feel I have been shoved. Her aqua eyes are like the sea and so boldly direct I almost step back. Rather than paint or mascara, she presents the unfaked beauty of youth. She wears a red terrycloth brow band, and around her wrist is a silver bracelet. No rings on her fingers.
“The county ought to build more courts,” I say. “Got a game lined up?”
She is, I think, not going to answer. She turns her eyes away, and her face firms impatiently. She will stand and walk off. I wish I’d given in months ago to an impulse to dye my hair black.
“A certain dirty rat named Doug’s not going to show,” she says. She wishes to punish Doug. The racket head bumps the ground. “You can never count on him except never to count on him.”
“A shame when you’ve come all this distance,” I say and then fear she will wonder about my knowing how far she has come. Words spill from me. “Look, please don’t think me forward, but I have a court at my place all lined and waiting. Just beyond the fence. I’d be more than happy to hit some with you. I’ve been hoping all day for a game.”
Again she turns her solemn face up to me. I am smiling but feel exposed. Such a clumsy overture, and people on the courts are watching.
“You live in the big house with the fountain?” she asks.
“I do, and my court is very, very lonely. A terrible waste not to use it.”
Is it disgust that hardens her expression? To control my shaky hands I stick them into my pockets.
“You’re too old,” she says, no graciousness or mercy whatsoever.
“I am prematurely gray,” I say, stung and flushed. “But I know the game of tennis and once played an exhibition with Don Budge.”
“Who?” she asks, yet before I’m allowed to explain or sell myself further, she stands. “All right, I need work on my backhand.”
I can’t believe it’s this easy. We walk side by side under willows, which are like fountains stilled. I will try to change her picture of me. I seek to be transformed before her eyes. Calm down, I caution myself, and think her blondish hair could use a brushing. Yet its lack of care, its freedom, they attract. I feel light of foot and find myself chattering about the day, the river, the ducks at the water’s edge. An elderly couple are tossing torn bits of bread. They eye me, and I believe I know what they’re thinking. I stare them down.
I say my name is Dave. She, offhand and matter-of-fact, tells me hers is Gail. She is used to giving her name to people. I must slow to stay beside her, yet her stride is purposeful, no-nonsense, the way only females can be. Men never appear as busy no matter how important their labor.
We step through the gap in the fence, walk under a fringe of red oaks, and cross the lawn sloping upward to the house. The grass, the shrubs, the fountain are alive now that Gail is here. Her pelvis pushes forward as she looks at things with open curiosity. She is impressed, and her mouth tightens as if she’s earnestly assessing the property’s value.
We walk east of the house and past the sundial to the tennis court. How glad I am I ordered it worked on. When I open the gate for her, she smiles the first time. Lovely even teeth wetted by her mouth.
“I need to change,” I say. “Why don’t you warm up on the backboard till I come back.”
I hurry into the house by the side entrance and climb steps. I haven’t played for so long I’m unsure where my shoes are. I find them at the back of my bedroom closet, but the fabric and rubber are dry to my fingers. I hope the shoes won’t fall apart on my feet. I open and shut drawers in search of pants. They aren’t in my room but at the bottom of a bureau on the gabled third floor along with dry linens and tarnished silver napkin rings. I hear the thump of balls against the backboard.
No shorts for me. These are white ducks slightly yellowed. My legs are strong but veined. I don’t want her to see them and again think of my age. I locate my Dunlop among pool cues in the game room. I still have dozens of balls, but they are so old that when I peel off tops of the cans an ancient air escapes as if from the tomb.
“Let’s use yours till I can lay in another supply,” I tell her. She is eyeing the shoes and pants I wear. I suck in my stomach and brace my shoulders. Keep smiling, I think. What do I appear in her eyes, a grinning old fool from another century?
I’m so nervous I have difficulty seeing the ball. She plays aggressively, and her form tells me she’s had good coaching. She moves with the certainty of youth, no hesitation, no change of mind, but steps into shots using the full leverage of her slender body. She runs me around the court. Gradually my eyes focus, and the old timing returns. Lovingly I stroke the ball to her.
We spin for serve. She tosses her hair out of her face and is intent on winning. She desires to hit each shot deep and reach command of the net. I rejoice in the sweep of her tan muscled arms and swivel of her lengthened body as she smashes an overhead. Her silver bracelet jingles.
More of my touch returns. I have always been judged an intelligent player, a placement artist. My stiff old Dunlop with its loose gut strings kisses the ball. I want her to look and feel good. I set her up for shots worthy of books.
“You going easy on me?” she asks after taking the set 6—2.
“Not me. I believe in winning.”
During the second set I feel I’m expanding backwards into my youth. Movement invigorates me, the flight of balls, sunlight on her dress. I am careful to keep these games closer so she won’t suspect I am painting a picture with her, using my racket as the brush. She wins the last point by stroking a backhand crosscourt, a maneuver which twirls her little skirt about her gathered thighs. I jog to the net to shake her small strong hand.
“Super playing for your age,” she says, wiping an arm over her mouth and across a cheek. She is panting.
I don’t wince but explain about Don Budge: “He visited my prep school and was kind to me during the exhibition, yet not too kind. A tall, skinny redhead who stressed taking the ball on the rise. Those balls hissed as if they had burning fuses attached.”
She nods, not really interested, herself her own world, yet I love her for it and watch her remove her brow band to squeeze sweat from it. Drops fall gleaming to the reddish clay. I’m tempted to reach out and catch them like gems.
As we leave the court, I ask whether she’s interested in a cooling drink.
“All the way with OJ,” she says and pushes damp hair away from her neck so air will flow against her skin.
I’m glad I have orange juice. We enter the house through the rear, and she is again assessing value. I sense she’s never seen a kitchen this size with its stainless-steel counters, hotel range hood, butcher’s block, and wall refrigerator large enough for men to walk into. She looks through the pantry past cabinets of crystal to the dining room where silver reflects in walnut of the hunt board.
“I’ll show you the rest of the house,” I say as I offer her the glass of OJ over ice cubes and am moved by the delicate femininity of the wrist, it covered by a blond down among which are tiny beads of sweat.
She sips while I lead her through the wainscoted dining room and under the hall chandelier to the living room where the portrait of Helen hangs. She looks at the painting but asks nothing. She is more interested in the Chickering and depresses a middle C. The sound chimes long as if drifting as slowly as smoke into other regions.
We inspect the solarium attached by a glass-covered walkway to the domed greenhouse. The latter is empty of plants and flowers. They were Helen’s as was the music, she who could play Debussy by candlelight while I sat in my wing chair and watched silhouettes of her fingers on the glinting keys.
“Once orchids grew here,” I say.
We climb the wine runner of the front steps to the game room with its pool table, punching bag, outsized TV, and locked rack of guns, some of which I’ve never fired. Luther, our former house man, comes twice a year to clean and oil them. Once in western Virginia I shot a buck but regretted the taking of such free bounding spirit. Men said I got my blood sport from kills not in the woods but the business arena.
I don’t intend to show her my room, yet of her own she opens the door. It is sand colored and on walls are pastels, Chesapeake Bay scenes collected and hung by Helen. Gail, however, is attracted to the bathroom, done in jade tile with a black sunken tub and a circular glass shower which shoots water at the bather from all angles. I reach inside to turn it on for her, and she laughs from the pink wetness of her mouth.
“If you’d like to try it, I’ll find a towel.”
“Well, no,” she says. She still carries her racket, balls, and the glass. Before I stop her, she pushes on past to Helen’s connecting room. Golden drapes are drawn so that only a jonquil twilight invades it. Gail reaches to the wall switch and stands staring. The pencil-post bed has a canary counterpane, and on the ivory dressing table with its triptych mirrors Helen’s exotic bottles sparkle. Before the fireplace is a peacock fan.
“Wait!” I say to Gail who opens louvered sliding doors to a closet where Helen’s dresses hang. Out wafts a ghostly fragrance, still alive all this time in folds of her garments. I feel choked.
“The shoes, the shoes!” Gail exclaims and points. “You could start a store!”
She bends forward to touch a pair of gray pumps and raises fingers to run them up and down a black chiffon evening gown last worn at the Christmas ball of the Richmond Cotillion.
I no longer try to stop Gail. I feel peculiar, as if I’m being hurled at a great speed and shedding years in the wind. I lift the gown out on its pink quilted hanger and hold it in front of Gail, along her body. She is much too slight for the dress, yet she partially shapes its cool fabric and laughs delightedly. I think of Helen that first time not in a house at all but her small apartment, where, after an evening swim, I stripped the white latex bathing suit from her warm body and we sank to the floor to become one fervid flesh.
“Let’s put it on you,” I tell Gail as I hear the roar of wind.
“I don’t want to. Say, let me go!”
I must live it one last time—the youth and Helen, the hope, the promise of glory, the soaring. Gail protests and struggles but finds I am indeed strong. She’ll no longer think of me as old. She strikes me with her racket, but I throw it aside. Bereft of her little tennis dress she appears frail, unblemished, almost childish.
I ride the wind. Her voice’s harshness is replaced by distant cries. We lie on the golden carpet, and I draw her as if I can envelop and absorb her. The rushing of the wind subsides, my head lolls, and my ear against her chest hears the wild beating of her heart. Her hands, fingers loosely curled, have dropped palms upward to the floor. They remind me of fallen birds and the robin my son David brought me to make well.
In the slowing whirl I begin to fear. I sit up and away but grip her wrist. I lift her torn tennis dress and try to cover her. It is not enough.
“I’ll find you something more,” I tell her. Her eyes, though wet, are no longer sea-tinted but a small driven animal’s peering from a hole. “Why don’t you use that shower, and then we’ll drive to your favorite store and buy you all the beautiful shoes and clothes you want.”
I make the mistake of slackening my fingers. She is up screaming and running. I stumble after her through the bedroom doorway and down the steps. I am promising I won’t hurt her. I will do anything if she will stop.
“Please, oh please!” I call.
But she is out the front and racing across the lawn, holding that bit of dress as if it will clothe her adolescent body. Aware of my own nakedness, I slow at the fountain and hear her cries as she flees to the fringe of red oaks and the gap in the fence.
I back toward the house. I need to clean myself. Blood is sticky on my face and elsewhere. I find her racket, brow band, the spilled balls and silver bracelet. Charms hang from it—a banjo, top hat, piano, cat, a ballet slipper. When I am washed and dressed, I twist shut the basement valve which feeds water to the fountain.
I wait near the door. The wind is gone, the house again silent. They will come for me, yet no matter how I explain, they’ll never believe or understand what I have done is out of love.