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Admirable Qualities

ISSUE:  Autumn 1999

Tone is giving her husband Curtis yet another detail to describe her latest obsession. “Kim says it’s better to eat a peach before a meal than to have it for dessert, something to do with the way your body absorbs the vitamins.”

Curtis hears, even as he sorts through the bills on his desk, and lets the words pass through his head for review. The pure advice in them is not worth storing, it being too late in the summer for peaches, but with the gist he can add another stroke on the portrait he’s been having to draw over the past few weeks of a woman he’s all but met.

Torie does this; she falls for women; not sexually, exactly, but girlishly. She absorbs their opinions, shops in their stores, follows their diets. It’s the habit of a moral craving, a need to quench a deficiency—call it ego anemia.

His wife is appealing, flirtatious, witty, petite, exotic, vivacious, stylish, clever, athletic, exciting . . .so Curtis likes to think. He does not like to think of her as deficient in any way. What could it possibly be that she thinks is missing? That she is not blonde? That her breasts are too small? That her house is not big enough? Her husband not rich enough?

These crushes of hers are not affairs, but they implicate Curtis nonetheless. He tries not to be hurt by them, knowing they pass, as crushes do, when cracks start to show in the idol. Having heard that Kim drives the speed limit, he can hope for some positive influence on Torie, who runs red lights taking the boys to baseball, and has caused their rates to go up more than once. After all, that last woman, the one who ran marathons, did get her to quit smoking.

Maybe there is something he doesn’t know about Kim that makes her admirable. Or at least addictive. He can’t know until he meets her.

The first thing he notices besides her thick silver hair, which he has already heard described as amazing, is the shape of her breasts. They are great, as in big and important.

He shakes hands with Preston, her husband, and says, “These must be the cryptomeria I’ve heard so much about.” He points to a row of trees lining the drive.

They are standing in front of Kim and Preston’s Atlanta home, waiting for two other couples. They are all going to the mountains, to a house party, and Preston will lead the way.

“Cost me a fortune,” Preston says of the trees, and Curtis understands this fortune is a small fraction of what it took to frame the house. “And now they make such a good screen I can’t watch the neighbor get her paper in her negligee anymore.”

Why bother watching your neighbor? Curtis thinks as he looks again at Kim. She and Torie are leafing through a hydrangea, talking about pruning.

The other couples arrive, greet each other with kisses. Curtis gets handshakes, how do you dos. . . .

“And what do you do?”

“I’m a dentist.”

“He has a new office in Buckhead,” says Kim, “in that blue building, right?”

Someone says, how convenient.

Kim has her three children brought out to say hello to the guests. It appears that their hair has just been brushed. Torie would never parade their boys like that, even if they are what keeps her in orbit. Once Kim has kissed and hugged each child, and handed a list to this year’s Austrian, the car doors slam and the caravan begins.

Preston, in his weekend car, speeds up for yellow lights. Curtis finds him again on the interstate, where it’s heavily patrolled. Then, on the two-lane, near the state line, Preston takes a sharp turn down a side road. Curtis makes the turn, then waits to be sure the others don’t miss it. Preston did not wait.

“They must be going to that restaurant on the hill, there,” says Torie. “Kim told me about it. She likes to stop here on the way.”

“I had a hankering for turnip greens,” Kim explains, when they are all stretching in the parking lot. Hankering sounds wrong from her mouth, like a long form of hankie, like a euphemism.

The restaurant serves family style. The eight of them banter and lick their fingers at a long table laden with fried chicken, corn sticks and limp vegetables. Tone says, “Aren’t these greens just the thing?” and reaches for a second packet of sugar for her iced tea. Curtis, watching the movement of her bare arm, realizes she’s wearing something new. A red tank top. A primary red.

“Since when do you like greens?” he says. “You never fix them at home.”

“The boys would gag,” she says, and gives her sugar packet a shake before pinching it open.

“That’s new,” he says, fingering the red strap.

“Like it? Thought I’d try a new color.”

It’s the absence of other colors that’s new. Torie rarely wears fewer than six at a time, woven together, or printed in minute patterns.

Kim, across the table, is wearing red and white, bold stripes stretching across those . . .knockers. A white smile, to match, stretches across her face. Torie, in her red, looks marked, as if with a scent.

Dessert is passed down the table. Curtis eats his cobbler a la mode like a child.

“Torie told me you never eat desserts, and look at you,” says Kim.

The hair rises on his arms, but he grins. “Torie, what tales have you been telling on me?” He glances back at Kim and receives an erotic shock, sent straight from her eyes.

She knows him the way Torie sees him. She has to know him, for herself, not through Torie. He has to make sure that she does.

“Wow. Look. We really are in the mountains now.” Torie twists in her seat. They’ve crossed into North Carolina. Kudzu plunges down cliffs on either side of the road. “I can feel it in my ears. Want some gum?”


She cracks open her window and flicks out a ball of foil. “Never mind. Just yawn if your ears pop. You know, without sugar, you’d be out of a job. Did you ever wonder what you’d do if people stopped getting cavities?”

“Smile work.”

“Kim has never had a filling in her life. Ever. Oh, look.” She taps on her window. “Look out there. Look.”

“You look. I’m driving.”

“Well, then, stop the car and look. You can’t miss this view.”

“If I stop, we’ll get lost. Preston waits for no man.”

“What do you think you’re resisting here? It’s just scenery. No great temptation. But it’s too late. We’ve passed it now.”

They’re in forest. Curtis pulls out of one curve, Preston has already disappeared into the next.

“I told you I hated mountains.”

It starts to drizzle. Curtis turns on his headlights, and the wipers, which squeak.

“Typical. I could’ve told you it would rain.”

There was a time in his life when his parents brought him up to these same mountains. It rained. A lot. There were no other children in the house where they stayed, no toys, just an old cocker spaniel named Maxie. Curtis would pull ticks off the dog’s ears. The house and dog belonged to a couple. There was Bob, with a loud, wheezing laugh, and the woman, Curtis doesn’t remember well.

The hikes were too steep and too long. Bob would sing “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” Curtis remembers discovering the forest of black hair on the back of his father’s calves. Or was that Bob’s? He remembers his own legs aching so much at the end of the day he’d want to kick them off like boots. It seemed like his parents were always humoring him, promising, this will taste good, this will be fun, only to promote mistrust. The blackberries they picked turned out to be sour and gritty, the slick green rock slide that was supposed to be a “super blast” dropped him into water so cold it halted his breath. His mother seemed to turn on him. She called him a wet blanket. He was young enough to think that had to do with peeing in bed, and denied doing it, only to be laughed at.

“It won’t be like you remember,” says Tone. “You were just a kid, then, stuck with grown-ups. Now you’re a grown-up.” She pinches his thigh. “It’ll be different. It’ll be fun.”

“Maybe. This place can be uncomfortable, physically. And unsettling. Scary, even.”

“Come on. Bear in mind how selective memory can be. Try to be cheerful, please? Kirn loves this place. It was her father’s. Please don’t insult her.”

The guests are still stretching from the three-hour drive when Preston brings out the wine. “Red or white?” he asks, a bottle in each hand. They’re all in the room with the oak mantle. The women run their hands along the backs of the willow chairs and compliment the hostess with a polite tinge of envy.

“Don’t notice the dust balls under them,” Kim replies with requisite modesty. “I tried being virtuous about cleaning up here, but then I wasn’t much fun to be around.”

Preston, splashing Beaujolais to the rim of Curtis’s glass, says, “You know, my mother used to take me to a dentist named Dr. Payne, and to an orthodontist named Dr. Sharp. And they were both in the Hurt Building, no kidding.”

Curtis ducks his head to drink the excess wine off the top of his glass.

“Not that I have anything personal against dentists.”

“Some do.” Curtis wipes wine from his wrist.

“Kim tells me you’ve been up here before, some time ago. Guess you see a lot of changes.”

“Not really.”

“That’s not possible. You just don’t remember right.” Preston turns to pour wine for his other guests. Curtis stands alone.

He remembers right. He more than remembers. He is standing in a moment of the past. This could just as well be the house he was brought to as a child. What Preston calls change, the yogurt shoppes and condos in town, have a trivial effect on what has endured, the ticking rain, musty books, folded maps, and the possessive mist at the windows. The wildflower guide is on a low table by an armchair, as it should be. And Curtis is the boy saying no, I don’t want to.

He wants to go home. The place smells funny. And his parents are acting strange.

I’m a beach man, myself, he is ready to say to someone. He looks for company. The other two men are speaking to each other in what could be code. It’s obvious they’ve been friends for a long time.

Torie taps on his arm. “Do you like the wine? Kim gets it by the case.”

Preston appears, and puts a hand on Torie’s shoulder. “You wanted the phone? It’s in the bedroom. Come with me.”

“I’m going to check with the sitter,” she explains as Preston guides her away.

Alone again, Curtis steps over to a table and busies himself by pouring more wine.

“I sort of know his wife,” he hears one of the women say. The two other women and Kim are clustered together, speaking in a serious, intriguing tone.

“I don’t know whether it’s better to write a sympathy note, or just call, or both.”

“Did you know him, Curtis?”


“The man who fell.”

They were talking about a hiker, a father, leading a group of children up the Cat’s Back trail to a view of the falls. He slipped. It was only last weekend.

“Was he killed right away?”

“I guess so. The drop was about thirty feet.”

Curtis’s wine tasted sharp in his dry mouth.

“They say the children didn’t budge. One of the older ones went for help.”

“This place is really dangerous,” Curtis says. “Once when I was up here with my parents I remember there was this little kid, maybe not even two, who wandered off from the family picnic and got lost.”

“I remember that story. It was a little girl.”

“Was it? I always thought it was a boy for some reason.”

As he says this, Curtis dislodges a kernel of his past that sprouts into an instant, vivid memory. His mother and Bob came in from their shift on the search party. He heard the door, and their voices in the kitchen. He was impatient for his mother to come into the room where he’d been waiting, bored and lonely. When she entered the room, he turned his back. I hate it here, he said. Take me home now.

She shook his shoulders and slapped him. Then she pulled him so close an earring jabbed his cheek. Her face got wet and he was horrified.

Much, much later he understood that he didn’t cause the tears, that his mother was clearly not being herself that day. She had always been an even-minded person. It was just the strangeness of the place. Once home, she was fine. Now they take her to lunch every Sunday. She always orders chicken and gossips like the blameless.

“Did they ever find her?” someone asks.

“No,” says Kim.

The women, all mothers of young children, fall silent. Curtis feels a rush of contentment in their company. He looks at Kirn’s wrists, her arms, her broad shoulders. Strong bones. Her hair is like an arctic mammal’s fur, not dry white, but glistening.

Someone asks if he has children.

“Two boys,” he answers. “Two and four. At home now with a jewel of a sitter.”

“Let’s toast to those jewels,” says a woman, raising her glass. “We won’t lose anybody here this weekend but ourselves.”

“That’s why I prefer the beach,” Curtis finally gets to say. “Everything’s out in the open. You can stick your kids in the sand and watch them dig. They’re right in plain view.”

“What about undertow?” says Kim. “Sharks? Washed-up syringes?”

“You’ve got a point,” he concedes, only because he has broken his promise not to insult the hostess. Otherwise, he would argue that those are dangers you can deal with. To each his own fears, he thinks. You can always find a reason to get irrational, if that’s what you’re looking for.

“Let our motto be “Don’t worry,”” he says.

“Be happy,” the women reply, as if in a litany.

“Hey, listen, gang,” Torie calls out from across the room. She’s holding the wildflower book. “Pale touch-me-not,” she reads, lasciviously, “if mature, capsule explodes at the touch, scattering seeds up to several feet.”

Kim tugs his sleeve. “Your wife is so funny, the way she puts sex into just about everything.”

“Let me see that book,” someone says.

“Still pissing that rain,” says Preston, coming back with two full bottles, “so we might as well drink some more wine. How about it, Curtis? More red?”

The sky has cleared. They haul bottles and cups, olives, cashews and a corkscrew up to a rocky outlook noted for its view of the sunset. It is a short hike up, but steep. Once past the last slippery stretch and onto the ledge, they are all panting.

“Breathtaking,” Preston exclaims with an exaggerated gasp and a gesture towards the horizon.

Curtis finds something to do low on the ground. He unpacks the spread, sets things in flat places, pours equitable cupfuls of wine and hands them up, one by one.

“Who didn’t get any?” he asks, when two are left.

“I didn’t, and you didn’t,” says Kirn. “Take that one and come look at the marvelous view.”

“I told him he was just throwing money out the window,” he hears one of the men say, and feels something like a green bill flutter in his gut as he nears the edge of the rock. He positions himself behind a scruffy, dry shrub, the land that prevents erosion.

“That’s when I quit nursing, all right,” he hears Tone tell the other women. “When the little boogers got teeth.”

“Can you believe that woman’s at 14 months?”

“Is she some kind of earth mother?”

“Kim did it for nine, all three times.”

Kim does not seem to hear her name. She is pointing out peaks. “There’s Piney, beyond that, Blue Tops, and over there is Cat’s Back.” Curtis is staring at her breasts.

A door slams.

“Isn’t it amazing how sound carries up the valley?” Kim remarks. “It would drive me crazy to live down there. I’d feel like people were watching me all the time. Don’t you hate that feeling? Being watched?”

Curtis, now conscious of his staring, looks down. A mobile home sits by the road some three hundred feet below. A thin woman with long dark hair is walking to her car. A small child dawdles behind her. “Come own,” the woman urges in the local accent.

“Amazing,” says Curtis. He wishes he was near a mantle, something conventional to lean against.

Somebody tosses a stone into the valley. The pitch of voices rises.

“Look, y’all, I found a garnet,” Torie exclaims. “Look, Preston, isn’t this one?”

“Let’s see.” Preston pinches it from her fingers and rolls it over his thumb, hamming expertise. “This is no garnet.” He holds it up to his eyes and squints. “My God, I believe, yes it is. It’s a ruby.”

Torie punches him in the arm. “Give it back.” She laughs. “Curtis, look.”

He picks the crumb of rock out of her palm. It feels like milk tooth. “How about that,” he says when he finds a deep red glint in the gray. Reeling slightly, he focuses on his wife’s lips and kisses them possessively.

“Awright!” someone cheers. A woman shouts, “Who hasn’t had one of these olives? Everybody has to have at least one. They’re loaded with garlic.”

The light is going. Everyone’s nostrils seem bigger.

“Torie tells me you’re a great dentist, really devoted,” says Kim.

“Decay is easy to prevent,” he says, leaping to the prompt like a big, eager dog. “What I like is the smile work.” He reaches for another olive. “The technology gets better every year. I mean, I hate to see someone ashamed to smile.”

“Shame? You can fix that with dentistry?”

He shrugs. “I can fix anything.” He would like to retract that. “I mean, I just love teeth. Lemme see yours.”


“I hear they’re perfect.”

“They are.”

She opens her mouth. He puts his fingers on the rim of her jaw. He is surprised by the feel of her skin. In the office, of course, he would be wearing gloves. That professional reference sobers him slightly, but before he lets go he presses his thumb along the edge of her face, for the pure pleasure. “Nice jaws,” he says.

He knows he’s being watched, and decides it’s a good idea to look into everyone’s mouth, except of course Torie’s, the bridges of which he knows too well. He braves the garlic and peers into each yawn, finding on the whole enough flattering remarks to go around, before it gets entirely too dark.

“I’ve heard rumors you’ve got gold,” he says to Preston.

Preston is quite proud of his gold filling. “Got it in Morocco, while doing my stint in the Navy. Is this some kind of parlor trick of his?” he asks Torie before he opens wide.

“Beats me.” Her arms are crossed.

“What’s that limerick?” Preston asks himself. “There was a young dentist from . . . Dada, dadumdadeedumdadeedada. In a fit of depravity, he filled the wrong cavity, that dashing young dentist from . . .where was he from?”

They all break into hearty donkey spasms of laughter.

“We’d better start down before it gets any darker.”

“But look at the sunset.”

“Is everybody talking loud?” asks Curtis. “Is this the way people sound when they’re drunk? Or is this the way people sound to you when you’re drunk?”

“I don’t know,” says Kim. “But that’s pretty much the way you talk when you’re drunk.”

“Oh, shit.” Preston has slipped on some lichen and is sliding towards the drop-off. Torie grabs his elbow. “Spilled wine on my new shirt,” he complains, once he has his balance.

Curtis is glad.

“Did anyone bring water?” Kim asks. “Never mind, we’ll blot it at the restaurant.”

There’s less conversation on the way down as they all watch their steps. A bough snaps and crashes to the ground somewhere off the path. Does a tree fall in the woods, thinks Curtis, if a tree falls . . .how does that go? If he doesn’t get something to eat very soon he is going to vomit.

Great. The word goes off like an inner alarm, alerting him to dreams coming too close to the surface. He opens his eyes. He was a child. Something about getting mountains for his train set. They were made of green sand he could pat into mounds.

Curtis hates dreams. His tongue is scorched. He stares at a coastline formed by a water stain on the ceiling. Rainwater twangs onto something metal just outside the window. Pulling Tone to his side, he presses his aching head between her shoulder blades. Her body is so limp she must be playing possum. That’s one of those things you know, but don’t know. Like last night, around the crowded table, when Kirn’s knee connected with his thigh. There was so much else going on, it could be she didn’t realize, or it could be she does that land of thing all the time. Maybe they all do, the members of the gang.

Gang, gang. His head. That’s the rain hitting the pail. Gang, gang, gang.

Maybe Torie does. Maybe he did it by accident. On purpose.

Curtis rolls off the bed, straightens his spine and awards himself some of the virtue of the early riser. The paneled bathroom smells like soap and mold. They ought to clean it up in here, he thinks. He rinses out his mouth. The sink enamel is cracked. He needs to brush the tannin off his teeth. He feels around the edges of the dop kit for a tube of toothpaste. Just like Torie, he thinks, to have forgotten—no, here it is, a little travel tube. More like her. Or is it, “Kim found where you can get these little travel tubes?” He stops brushing. You’re raving mad, he tells the man with the foaming mouth.

Soon the whole party is up, in fresh socks, pacing through the cottage, pouring mugs of coffee. Everyone is agitated by the sunlight which has broken through the windows. They have to make plans. Waller’s Lookout? That’s the long one. How about Blue Top? That was last year. What if Preston slips again and we can’t catch him? Good thing Torie was there. Wasn’t that food good last night? What was it you said to the women, Curtis, about how to eat their corn on the cob?

Curtis rubs the back of his head and yawns. “I don’t recall. But what kind of vegetable are we eating tonight?”

“To-ma-toes!” shouts Torie with half a shimmy.

“I can’t wait.”

She kisses his cheek. “I told you it would be fun.”

“Are we going to hang around here all day or what?” says Kim. Her frown forces them to make a decision. They will take the long trail, the one that does not double back. Before they can set out, one couple needs to follow another to the end of the trail to leave a car, then come back for the others.

Torie wants to stay at the house to help Kim make the picnic. Curtis follows them into the kitchen. Preston is there, staring into the fridge.

“Just pull that ham out for me,” Kim tells him, “there ought to be some of what you’re looking for in the back.”

“So there is,” says Preston after he sets the ham down on the counter. He pulls out a beer and twists off the cap. He draws the first swallow with relish. “Anyone else want one? No?” He takes another swig. “Well, looks like a perfect time to check my messages.”

Kim stops carving and holds the knife point down above the ham. “Don’t you ever give it a rest?” she says, staring flat at the cabinet in front of her. “You won’t die without a phone fix just this once.”

“Maybe, but it’s not worth the risk.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“Are you talking to me, or to that fat greasy thing on the counter?” Preston laughs and pats Curtis on the shoulder. “She’s trying to kill me, deprive me of my phone fixes and clog my veins. Be sure she packs some peanut butter or something I can eat with impunity.” Then he leaves the room.

Kim works on the ham. Curtis observes the deftness of her fingers as she carves close to the bone, as she subjects the thing to her anger. The elements of metal, pink flesh and bone remind him of his own work. What some would find unpleasant he enjoys, for the chance to be expert.

What’s she got to be angry about? Preston does damn well. Look at the size of their house. So if he wants to work hard, she shouldn’t criticize.

Probably more to it. Not my problem. And a good thing.

He feels free to dislike her. An animal weight alights from his shoulders.

Torie breaks in with an overbright voice. “Do you want me to slice the tomatoes?”

“Oh, no, don’t slice them. Quarter them. And take the seeds out.”

Torie shrugs. Today she is wearing a black polo shirt. Kim is wearing white. Curtis does not care to make something of this. He wasn’t flirting last night. Not any more than anyone else. So what’s this thing about how to cut tomatoes? Tone ought to tell her to stuff it.

“If you don’t need me in here,” he says, “I think I’ll go read up on wildflowers.”

He goes out to the porch. Later, Tone joins him. She flips through back issues of Gourmet. The phone rings two or three times. It makes a shrill, old-fashioned ring. Curtis thinks he’s picturing Preston on the phone, but Preston’s not freckled, like Bob was.

Who was Bob, anyway? He wasn’t a pall bearer at his father’s funeral, or a guest at his and Torie’s wedding. Curtis can’t remember seeing him, except up here. He tried to be nice with Curtis, ruffled his hair, said things like, hi, there, skipper. Why on earth don’t you like Bob? his mother asked, but children don’t keep reasons handy to defend their dislikes.

There are always reasons, though, and the adult mind knows it. They can sit like lumps under a tarp, unspecified, but there. Curtis could never admit to Tone how much he disliked Preston. Because the response would be, “Why?” and the real answer too easy to guess.

He looks through the porch screen to a hedge of rhododendron, then beyond to the jagged horizon. Clouds have begun to hang on the peaks like tufts of furry mold. Shade dissolves the contrasts on the lawn. This is not a view he would choose. It is unhygienic.

“Goddammit, Kim,” they hear. “Stop being such a—” Preston lowers his voice to a hiss.

Torie starts chewing her Lifesaver.

A door slams. “Come on, not this trick again. Christ.” They hear Preston knocking. “Open up.”

Torie concentrates on a Gourmet centerfold. She sucks on a fingertip as if it were a dove bone.

“Can’t you just let me brush my hair?” Kim shouts through the wood.

Curtis and Torie pass a smile between them. To imagine Kim at a mirror stroking her lunar hair, and Preston locked out, entertains Curtis like a clip from an old comedy. Then they hear Preston in the kitchen, yanking a bottle across the lower rack of the fridge. What does Kim do, Curtis wonders, after she puts down the brush?

What he imagines superimposes itself on the face of his wife. He watches her read. Her real presence breaks through his imaginings. It is like looking at his own hand, something that is part of him, steady and familiar and essential to what he does and how he leads his life. She has brought him to this place he did not want to come to. She assumes he will have a good time because she expects to have a good time herself, being part of the gang. She has no idea how dangerous this place seems to him. She trusts him. She doesn’t know him straight through.

In a dream, you might see a bloodless, detached hand and recognize it as your own and realize this was odd without feeling any pain of severance. When Tone looks up and begins talking about a Portuguese dish of clams and pork, Curtis feels nauseated.

Kim steps out on the porch. Curtis recognizes the perfume. It’s the one Tone wears. She sits down. The two women are side by side on the couch. Torie takes Kim’s wrist and lifts it to her nose. “Mm,” she says. “My favorite.” She lets go. Kim’s hand falls to a page in Torie’s lap. She points. “That’s a good recipe.” Torie turns the pages back. “I’ll show you what I want to try. Did you see this?” Kim leans. Their arms touch. “That torte you brought is sinful.”

There is a pain Curtis feels which is rare, but not new. Now he knows the name. Jealousy. Now he knows the cure.

Preston is whistling. He comes out to the porch with his beer and stares through the screen. “Gonna rain,” he says.

“Then let’s just not go on a big hike,” says Kim.

“It always rains. We can’t let that stop us.”

A horn honks. The others are back.

“Well, let’s go.”

“I’m not going,” says Kim. “I want to stay by the phone.”

“You have guests.”

“Friends. Not clients. I’m sure they’ll understand.” She looks at Curtis and Torie. “Bettina just called to tell us Alex fell down the stairs.”

“Is he all right?”

“He just bumped his head,” says Preston. “It’ll make him smarter,”

“You have to watch these things,” says Kim. “He might seem fine and go into a coma at naptime. And I want to stay near a phone. You understand.”

“Poor baby,” says Tone. “Did you talk to him?”

“He was screaming,” says Preston.

“That’s a good sign,” says Curtis.

“You can never tell,” says Kim.

“I’m going to load the car.” Preston belches and leaves the porch.

Kim doesn’t move. “I don’t know,” she says. Tone takes her hand and pulls her up.

“Bettina knows what to do. Come on. It’ll be all right.”

They hear Preston going through the packs. “We may have to put more wine in this one; no, blast it, this one’s full already. Wait a minute,” he calls from the living room. “Are you coming or not? I mean, you’ve got a point. Bettina may call any minute now to tell us the house is on fire, so we can drive home with buckets of water.”

“The house? Who cares about the house? I care about the children.”

Curtis and Torie slip through the room and go outside to wait with the others. Preston comes out and Kim follows. She locks the back door and rides in the car that Preston is not driving. They’re all packed in close enough for Curtis to discover the entirely unfamiliar odor of her hair.

The hike begins gently, up, then down across a valley along a stream. The women talk about the plants at their feet, about expensive shoes on sale at Saks, about local divorces. The men laugh over stories they’ve made out of the countless times they’ve been together in these woods before. Curtis wonders if this trail should not be familiar even to him. They begin to climb. In places there are sheer rocks; they pull and boost. They come to a small, flat place, and a fork. They disagree over the fork, and someone says, “Let’s eat.” They sit on rocks and pull out lunch. Preston and his friends jab their fingers at the map. Someone produces a compass.

“You clowns,” Torie laughs.

“I’m going back.” Kim stands up. She brushes crumbs off her thighs. “There’s no telling where we’ll end up.”

Torie stands up, too, slowly, as if deciding whether to keep her friend company. She takes another bite of ham sandwich. Curtis swallows down his last mouthful and says, “Here. If you really mean it, I’ll go back with you.”

He looks quickly around at the men. “I could take the other car back. Wouldn’t that help?” He hopes this seems plausible.

“Well, now, you don’t want to have to do that,” Preston says. “You don’t want to miss the view at Waller’s Lookout. We may look like we’re lost, but we’re not, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“He just loves this kind of thing, Preston,” says Tone. “Don’t take it personally. Curtis just likes to be helpful. It makes him feel irreproachable.”

“Is that a reproach?” Curtis is stuffing rubbish and empty containers into his knapsack. His face burns. He is sure everyone is watching him.

Kim is already leaving. Preston aims a finger at her back.

“Don’t ever razz me again about how I “work on the weekends.”” He speaks these last words in a nasty falsetto.

“It’s not the same, and you know it, Preston.”

She disappears through a hole in the foliage.

“Hey, Dr. Sharp-Pain,” Preston calls out as Curtis starts to follow. “Give her the car keys, or you’ll both have to hitch a ride.” He tosses them, and Curtis, to his great relief, catches them in one hand.

Because of the dense growth and the twists in the trail, Kim is already out of sight as he starts down. Alone, he has the out-of-synch, outer space feeling of a truant, risking suspension or even expulsion, for a little irresistible fun. Let them all think he was a Boy Scout, or afraid of heights; neither was so far from the truth. Or let them figure out the exact truth.

It can only dissolve instantly into mere suspicion, and then they’ll go on and enjoy their hike.

The woods smell of an old, early dankness, full of the flat mineral odors of soil, mushroom, rain-soaked mulch. The earth under his feet is mostly spongy with moss and pine needles. In steep places, he bounds from rock to rock. This is wild, he thinks. He is reliving a child’s sensation of play. He’s the hunter; he is halted by the sight of Kirn’s white head, once he has caught up enough to see her. He calls her name. She stops.

“I’m sorry,” she says when they are side by side.

“Don’t be. What for?”

“I don’t know. I shouldn’t have run off. I didn’t realize you were really coming, too. Or I would have waited. Anyway, that was rude of me, making a scene.”

“It didn’t ruin anything.”

“I don’t think my motives were pure.”

“I don’t think mine are either.” He huffs a laugh.

She is scowling at a nearby tree trunk. He slips off his pack.

“What I mean is,” she says, “I don’t know anymore if I’m really worried about my little boy, or if it’s just that I don’t want to be accused . . . I mean, I wonder if I’m not just terrified of guilt?”

Curtis does not know what to say, but she is turned to address the tree, and does not seem to expect an answer.

“I mean, I know I am. It’s exactly just that. It makes me a coward. I’m terrified of guilt.”

“Don’t be,” he says. “We shouldn’t be.”

“Are you?”

“Not right now.”

“No?” She looks at him and gives a limp salute as she pushes strands of hair off her forehead with the back of her hand. The hair falls again and this time Curtis brushes it back.

She stands very still. He combs her hair with his fingers, until he is sure.

They kiss, and all of their confident manners become confused with their deepest apprehensions. His hand goes to her breast. Pleasure flows over his tongue like a flavor and into every nerve. It is nourishment.

They stop, and kiss again. This time he pulls her closer but he has scarcely absorbed a sense of merging when he feels her drawing back. He lets go.

“I’m sorry, I can’t, I shouldn’t,” she puts her hands to her face, “I mean, if anything happened while—anyway, it’s not right.”

“All right,” he says, and stoops to pick up his pack. Embarrassment is the least of his feelings. She’s a lot like me, he thinks. His lips tingle. He is still happy.

They share the silence of the long walk down. He admits to the beauty of the forest floor, crumbling with rot as it flourishes, and to the strength of the trees. It becomes clear as light boring through a web of leaves why his wife stays with him. It’s his need to be good, and now that he knows this, he decides he will not touch her friend again when they’re alone in the house, and the rain surrounds them with its drums.


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