Coming up behind him on the terrace, Jo felt the urge to pounce. Never mind she was 20 pounds overweight and lacked the feline agility to execute such a feat. Had this been his beloved Serengeti, had she possessed fangs and claws, then Lester Thurlow, her best friend’s husband, might have seen his last safari.
What was he looking at anyway? His head was almost cocked, so intent was he on whatever out there had caught his interest. She was nearly on top of him before the inadvertent scuff of a crepe sole on the bricks warned him he was not alone. His shoulders gave a jerk and his head swiveled around, revealing the doughy complexion and alert brown eyes, as shiny and opaque as the raisins in a gingerbread man’s face. “Sorry,” she said, “I guess I’m used to moving quietly around here.”
He adopted his mournful expression—what passed for deference to his wife’s condition. Meanwhile Jo spied what she took to be the object of his attention: a girl in bicycle shorts and spandex halter top jogging by on the sidewalk. Of his manifold inconstancies, this, she supposed, was one of the more excusable. He was used to exploring—had been everywhere—but these days only his mind and eyes were free to wander. And the girl jogger was something remarkable. Her blonde hair—braided in a thick rope that bounced to and fro across her muscular shoulders—gave genuine meaning to the word ponytail; she seemed as healthy and vital as a horse cantering along, as if she belonged to another species entirely from the half-bald woman who lay wasting away inside the house.
Lester was perched on one of his portable camp stools. Jo passed up the one next to him as being too flimsy for her taste and settled on a shabby wicker sofa that had come with the rented house. “Miriam’s napping,” she told him. It was not yet mid-morning. “The children are watching television.”
“They’re taking advantage,” he said. She assumed he meant they were taking advantage of her. Lester disapproved of television. Jo shifted in her seat and crossed her legs; dew from the sofa’s mushy vinyl cushion clung to the backs of her thighs. Lester’s austere little chair and his low opinion of popular entertainment, she felt, gave him an air of moral superiority he didn’t deserve.
“Children need distractions,” she said, but without firm conviction. A veteran teacher, Jo found that appeals for leniency did not come naturally to her.
“I’ll do some conversational French with them in a bit,” he said, more to himself, it seemed, than to her. She and Lester had never cared for each other, and she guessed this studied inwardness of his was a way of reminding her of her place in his life, which was provisional.
The children, too, closed her out, though not on purpose. Little strangers was what they were. They’d been born here, in the town where their mother grew up, but had lived on three continents. Nothing about them savored of the local, including their names. The seven-year-old girl was called Siri, her five-year-old brother Kai. Neither child had ever attended a regular school, and Jo knew for a fact the girl could not even count to 20. In spite of that, whenever she overheard the two of them chattering away in French with their father, she despaired of having anything to teach them.
“I was thinking,” said Lester, in his preoccupied way. “It might do Miriam good to get out.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was thinking of a little jaunt around the neighborhood.”
“Oh, Lester, I—”
“It might do wonders.”
“But how? She can barely sit up in her wheelchair.” He’d dragged his wife all over the world, sometimes to the most primitive places; even after she’d become ill, he’d gone right on exhausting her health and her inheritance. Now that Miriam had come home, he meant to drag her literally from her deathbed, because seeing that jogger had no doubt awakened his restlessness.
Why can’t you leave her be? Jo thought, and it was all she could do to keep from saying the words out loud.
When Miriam woke up from her nap, Jo mentioned Lester’s idea of a walk, expecting her friend to demur. Instead the sick woman appeared to brighten at the prospect. She asked Jo to bring her several scarves from the bureau drawer and proceeded to try them on, one at a time, wrapping each turban-style around her patchy scalp.
“That one,” Jo said, when she came to the paisley scarf with the plumed heads of birds on it.
“You think?” Stealing a look at herself in the bureau mirror, she gave a dry laugh.
“You look lovely,” Jo said, her eyes filling with tears. Miriam was lovely, she thought—gaunt, hawk-like. Jo sometimes glimpsed in her face the unsurpassed fierceness of a woman holding out on behalf of everything precious to her. At such moments, Jo was in awe of her friend. Also afraid for her because she had so little to fall back on in the way of support. She’d been away from this place too long to have kept many ties. She had no family to speak of, except her husband and children. The husband couldn’t be counted on. And the children were too young to grasp the situation.
Some day they would understand their mother’s sacrifice, her heroism. Jo would make it clear to them if their father didn’t: how Miriam, being pregnant with Kai when the cancer was first discovered, had refused treatment; how, as a consequence, the disease had taken root but the little boy was born healthy; how their mother had ransomed her life for one of theirs.
Jo caught her friend looking doubtfully at the wheelchair that had remained in the corner unused for more than a week now. For Jo, who’d nursed both parents through terminal illnesses, that empty chair signified the loss of mobility that inevitably accompanies the end. Dying, she’d concluded, was like being confined to a space that kept getting smaller. You were stuck in the space and couldn’t get out. And eventually you were stuck by yourself. She’d seen it with both parents, felt the pain of exclusion; it was true that you died alone because finally death left no room for anyone else.
“What do you think, Sweetie,” Jo said, “you up for a little walk?”
Miriam sighed audibly. That was another mark of the dying, Jo thought. The breath was literally going out of them.
“Maybe it’s not such a good idea,” Jo said.
“No, I want to.” Now that Lester had taken it into his head to escort her on a walk, Miriam would do her best not to disappoint him—even if they had to lash her to that wheelchair she’d all but forsaken.
Jo knew how this matter would be settled. Not in a moment, and not by a conscious act of will, but little by little, almost imperceptibly over the course of the day. It was the small but necessary things— administering medicines, collecting and disposing of bodily waste, adjusting the slant of light through the blinds, calibrating a tolerably comfortable angle of repose for the patient—which consumed the hours, draining everyone. Even Lester had begun to look haggard of late. Let the day take its toll, Jo thought. She doubted there would be time or energy left over for his little “jaunt.” “Why don’t we see how you feel after lunch?” she told Miriam.
Though illness had put an end to the Thurlows’ travels, running them aground in this quaint little town Miriam still called home, it seemed to Jo that, with the exception of her dying friend, the family went on, as they probably always had, like unfettered children— albeit children existing in the shadow of imminent disaster, with the dam about to burst or the mountain erupt. There was something unhealthy, almost feverish, she thought, in their pursuit of diversion. While Lester abominated TV, he permitted Siri and Kai to engage in other equally aimless and potentially more dangerous pastimes. They were allowed, for example, to wander the streets by themselves. Once Jo had happened upon them all the way across town, actually crouching in a gutter, side by side, with dirty knees and unwashed faces, examining, as if it were treasure, the mangled and half spokeless wheel of a bicycle. She’d tried coaxing them into the car with her, but they only stared as if she were the stranger here, and would not give up their scavenging.
She’d decided then they were their father’s children all right. Lester, the erstwhile archaeologist, went around in rope-soled shoes and loose-fitting clothes that resembled pajamas, looking like a denizen of the Third World; he seemed to exist in a haze but knew what he liked. He made the rounds of the local antique stores and second-hand shops, adding to his various collections of knickknacks and objets d’art. He would bring his purchases into the semi-darkened room of his wife and place them on her bed, like trophies of the hunt, whereupon Miriam would rouse herself to admire them. Meanwhile the family had not bothered to unpack most of the possessions they’d carted with them from overseas. They lived out of suitcases and boxes, the contents of which were strewn about the house like so much flotsam.
It was not an atmosphere conducive to the proper care of a sick person, Jo felt. Stopping one afternoon on her way home from school—this had been several weeks ago, not long after the Thurlows arrived—she found her friend alone in the house, bedfast. Miriam was vague about where her husband and children might be. She was having a bad day, she admitted. Would Jo mind helping her to the bathroom? Jo wet a washcloth and pressed it against her friend’s forehead and temples as she clutched the sides of the bathroom sink. “Would you heat up a can of soup?” Miriam asked. It came out she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. “Oh, Mir!” “It’s all right,” she assured Jo. “I kept meaning to get up and fix something but I fell asleep and lost track of the time. Then I told myself I might as well wait until Lester got back.”
Whenever that might be! Jo thought.
Shortly after this incident, Jo made up her mind. She would take a leave of absence from her job and look after Miriam. Lester resisted the idea at first. In abandoning his travels and coming here, he seemed to think he’d already made sufficient concessions to his wife’s illness. It was more than he could bear, he said, the prospect of “other people” coming into their lives, treating Miriam “like a patient.”
“But, Lester, that’s what she is!” Jo thought the man was refusing to face reality, but according to Miriam something else was involved. “He doesn’t trust people, and it makes him uncomfortable to accept their help. He’s never had many friends, Jo. From the time he was a child, he’s always been made to feel like the odd bird.”
According to Miriam, Lester possessed a brilliant mind. “It isolates him,” she said. “He’s not like other people. Not like people around here certainly.”
Jo bridled at the suggestion her life had been passed in the company of dull and unoriginal persons, even if she sometimes suspected it was true; also she doubted Lester’s genius. But seeing that Miriam clung to her husband’s intelligence as an absolute article of faith, she held her tongue.
“He’s very lonely,” Miriam said, and she must have been thinking he was about to become more so. “Lonely, lonely.” The forlornness with which she uttered the words seemed to imply that even she, his wife and constant traveling companion, had not succeeded in easing Lester’s burden of separateness.
Not that it would have occurred to Miriam to blame her husband for this state of affairs. More than likely she considered herself not exceptional enough to have unlocked the enigma of Lester Thurlow. Poor, sweet Mir! “I was hoping,” she said, “that you and Lester might become friends.”
If they had not become friends, at least they tolerated each other for Miriam’s sake. Jo assumed furthermore that whatever resentment Lester felt over the intrusion on his privacy must have been tempered by the realization that he could not possibly have coped with his wife’s illness by himself. Hadn’t he conceded as much by taking her advice and hiring an after-hours nurse to fill in when Jo wasn’t there?
Jo always returned to her own house in the evenings. She would fix a drink, eat dinner, then fix another drink and sit down in front of “The World Tonight,” regarding askance the antics of puffed-up politicians and correspondents. At the end of a half-hour, she would point the remote at the screen and dismiss them from her sight. Good riddance! After that she would read until it was time for bed.
She didn’t know exactly why she kept to this routine, and she even felt somewhat guilty doing so, recognizing that the Thurlows, in their own peculiar, unacknowledged way, depended on her. Nothing demanded her presence at home—no pressing chores, no dog or cat waiting to be fed. Perhaps it was the habit of aloneness itself that nightly drew her back under her own roof. Apparently she had a need to breathe her own stale air. “Such an old maid you’ve turned into,” she scolded herself. “So set in your ways.” She didn’t usually think in such terms, but lately, and perhaps inevitably, had come to view her life through the eyes of outsiders.
Her thoughts frequently reverted to the Thurlows during the hours she was away from them. She wondered how they were getting along without her. It bothered her that she didn’t have similar concerns about the students she’d taken leave of at school. She considered herself a dedicated teacher, but the truth was she didn’t miss her class. There would be a new group of students awaiting her next year; the town’s children all passed through her capable hands eventually, and passed out again, more accomplished than before, but otherwise unchanged. People, Jo thought, were what they were. Even the tender young possessed a hidden core they jealously guarded from the world. Who or what could lay it bare? As a teacher, she’d learned to do her best, to be conscientious but not expect miracles.
The Thurlows seemed to need her more than her students. In the mornings she would find the empty wine bottles in the trash; she would field the night nurse’s complaints about Lester. She learned of his verbal abuse of the children when he drank and also about his fumbling attempts, once or twice, to get “funny” with the nurse, who threatened to report him to her service. “My supervisor might terminate the care agreement,” she told Jo.
Jo urged the woman to keep Lester’s indiscretions to herself. “Think of Miriam,” she said. “She’s got enough to worry about.”
The nurse agreed: “My heart goes out to that lady. And the kids, too. Sad little things! You guess they’re okay? Sometimes I say things to them and they don’t seem to understand. Or maybe they just don’t hear me. It’s like they’re off somewhere on their own.”
“I know what you mean.” Jo had watched the children’s odd, almost impenetrable air of detachment affect even their relationship with their mother. Though increasingly there were periods when Miriam felt too ill to have Siri and Kai around her, she remained hungry for their presence; wanted to touch them and hold them and hear their voices; her need for them at times was so visceral that Jo could feel the tug of it in her own childless womb. “Where are my little ones?” Miriam would ask plaintively, emerging from a fog of sleep and drugs. “What have they been doing all day?”
Meanwhile the children appeared insensible to their mother’s desire for them. Jo had to encourage them to visit her and sometimes even resorted to ushering them into her room, whereupon Siri and Kai would endure her caresses with barely concealed impatience. It was probably just their way of responding to an impossible situation, Jo reasoned, a means of protecting themselves from the fear and sadness that no doubt threatened to engulf them.
“Nature’s way of preserving itself,” Lester said when she mentioned the children’s behavior to him. “We can’t very well chain the little wretches to her bed.”
“Of course not,” Jo said coldly. “But nature’s way seems pretty heartless. Maybe we have an obligation to rise above nature.”
“Try explaining that to a five-year-old,” Lester said. But Jo had been thinking less of the children at that moment than of him. And maybe herself. As it happened, Lester had tried to get funny with her once, too. It wasn’t blatant—a lingering touch on the arm accompanied by a persistent, needful gaze as she was leaving for home one evening. Still the man’s intentions had been unmistakable, and Jo was appalled. Not only by his attempt to start something with his wife’s best friend but by her own realization that the overture was not entirely unwelcome. God help her, she’d even felt a bit flattered by it: to think the world traveler was not above taking an interest in the local flora, that he’d fixed his notice, however fleetingly, on her.
Jo shuddered to admit it, but yes, she’d been grateful for that awful man’s attention, without being in the least tempted to reciprocate it. Were her feelings simply part of nature’s way, too? If so, she had a bone to pick with nature. For surely one of the consolations of middle age should be that you no longer had to suffer the gnawing indignity of being “hard up for a man.”
The memory of past indignities, not to mention the dearth of eligible partners in town, had all but reconciled her to a life of celibacy. “Is there a man, Jo?” Miriam had asked recently, during one long, quiet afternoon when Lester and the children were off indulging their wanderlust.
“There’s that bald weatherman on TV,” Jo said. “I think it’s sweet the way he wishes all the old ladies happy birthday.”
“Really, Jo, is there anyone?”
“No, there’s no one.” The words, she noted with satisfaction, cost her barely a twinge.
“Well,” Miriam said dreamily—she rarely seemed fully awake these days, “you know what they say about romance finding you when you least expect it.”
“That’s true. Old Mr. Steadman asked me to the Scots Society Ball last May. We danced the Highland fling.”
“Nooo!” Miriam sounded like a child having its leg pulled.
“He wore a kilt. That was unexpected, all right.”
“Mr. Steadman, Jo?”
“Your current next-door neighbor, the very same.”
“Lester can’t stand him. He’s been pestering us about where we leave the trash cans.”
“He doesn’t have enough to think about since his wife died. Last May he must have thought of me. I’m available, right? “Just a friendship thing,” he told me right off. Didn’t want to raise my hopes, I guess.”
“And you went out with him?”
“Uh huh, to this thing like a square dance, only with bagpipes. Later I dumped him—but gently. Some of us have to live in this town.” Under the circumstances, Jo counted it good fortune that she and Mr. Steadman remained on a cordial footing, which is to say, it was possible for her to encounter the man in public without feeling an urge to flee. Come to think of it, how much, beyond such genial forbearance, could be expected among neighbors?
On the day her husband proposed his walk, Miriam napped on and off through the morning. Lester stuck his head in around noon to announce he’d be fixing lunch. Sometime later he appeared balancing three trays—one on his left forearm—like a waiter.
Showoff, Jo thought. She had to admit though, he was a good cook—spontaneous and resourceful, if unreliable. No three-squares-a-day man, he played the chef when he felt like it, inclining toward unconventional fare. Jo, who liked food more than she considered good for her, had several times enjoyed the benefits of Lester’s culinary improvisations. The menu today featured slices of eggplant dipped in a light batter, then fried and drizzled with olive oil. Almost against her will, she found that each bite she took temporarily dissolved a little of the ill feeling she harbored toward her friend’s husband. Nature’s way again, she supposed, dabbing a last morsel of eggplant in oil so as not to waste any.
“Have some of mine,” Miriam told her. “Lester, you gave me too much.”
“No, I’m full,” Jo said. It was embarrassing to have one’s appetite on display, especially in the near presence of death.
“Your mouth says no, but your eyes say yes,” Lester noted.
“I’m afraid it’s my hips that get to decide. The answer is no.”
Lester said that, in certain cultures, the larger the person the more he or she was desired and revered by the opposite sex. “The Masai consider what we call “middle-age spread” as a mark of distinction. It’s a sign that one has achieved a position in life—a place. The person expands, as it were, to occupy that place, proving his “at-homeness” in the world.”
Miriam said, “You don’t mean Jo’s fat.”
“Not at all,” he laughed, and winked at Jo, as if Miriam had missed the point, though in fact Jo had drawn the same inference as her friend. “I wasn’t speaking personally,” Lester said. “Otherwise, I should have noted that Jo deserves to be an object of desire and reverence in whatever culture she finds herself.” He beamed at them, apparently taken with the gallantry of his disclaimer, if not its sincerity.
After lunch Lester read to Miriam, as he sometimes did, from Out of Africa. He was justly proud of his deep, resonant voice, and Miriam seemed to take comfort in listening to him.
In the harbour of Mombasa lay a rusty German cargo-steamer, homeward bound. . . . Upon the deck there stood a tall wooden case, and above the edge of the case rose the heads of two Giraffes. They were going to Hamburg, to a travelling Menagerie.
They could not know or imagine the degradation to which they were sailing. For they were proud and innocent creatures, gentle amblers of the great plains; they had not the least knowledge of captivity, cold, stench, smoke, and mange, nor of the terrible boredom in a world in which nothing is ever happening.
The feeling with which Lester read the passage suggested it held more than casual significance for him and had not been selected at random. Jo presumed that he counted her as part of the world that tormented him, the one in which he was temporarily detained, in which nothing ever happened. She thought it might surprise him to learn that, as a child, she too had often wished herself in faraway places, had boasted to anyone who would listen of her intention to live someday abroad—the more exotic the locale the better. Back then she’d taken pleasure in just pronouncing the names of certain cities and countries (Mombasa, say); the words possessed a music that stirred something in her. Among other things, she supposed, they had flattered her sense of self-importance. To think such destinations might await her!
Young people now were different, she thought, More jaded. Or at least they gave a good impression of it, looking at the world through hooded eyes. Her own eyes at that age, Jo seemed to recall, had been wide-open and full of wonder, perpetually focused on the horizon. Perhaps that had been her mistake. She had traveled too intensely first in her imagination, then later on vicariously through Miriam. Now it seemed to Jo she’d lost the knack of travel, imaginative or otherwise, so that merely remembering that part of herself was like peering across the border into foreign territory.
“You get some rest,” Lester told his wife, closing the book after a while, “then, my dear, you and I are going out to “take the air.”“
Not likely, Jo thought, reading in Miriam’s wan smile that this was one trip Lester would have to cancel.
He must have suspected as much himself. Normally after one of his creative turns in the kitchen, he was content to rest on his laurels and let Jo clean up, but today he insisted on pitching in. He paced between the sink and the cupboard, vigorously drying and putting away the things she washed. It was as if, in anticipation of his plans being thwarted, all his usual restlessness had come to a head and needed an outlet. Convinced he’d drop something, Jo handed over each slippery breakable reluctantly. Between her hesitation and his impatience, it seemed to her they were engaged in a fitful tug of war over plates and glasses.
“I can’t see what possible harm it could do for her to get out,” he finally broke loose, as if Jo were the one holding them back. “How much worse can things be? My god, she’s dying.” The final word he uttered with a pulsing sob, as if the truth of his wife’s condition had only now come home to him.
“Shh! Lester! She’ll hear you.”
“I know what you think of me,” he hissed.
“What I think is neither here nor there.”
“You got that right!” She almost liked him for this childish petulance; it evoked the man Miriam loved and fretted over—Lester the outcast. Perhaps he was lonely, Jo thought, but he would never be cowed by loneliness, like some.
“If it matters to you,” she said, “I do understand that you feel cooped up here.”
“It was a mistake ever to come,” he said bitterly.
“It’s Miriam’s home, Lester. She wanted to be here. Because it’s familiar.”
“Because she was scared.”
“Of course. Aren’t you scared? The children, poor things, are beside themselves with fright. You must know that.” She saw by his pained expression that he did know. Perhaps that was why he periodically played the stern disciplinarian with Siri and Kai, and why he turned on them at night after he’d been drinking and death must have seemed to be leering at him from every curtainless window and musty corner of the house; because the children’s abject terror must have helped to unleash his own demons. He sought relief in distractions, but most of all, she thought, he desperately wanted to run away. And who could say that Lester’s reaction to dire constraint was not more comprehensible than her own? He rattled the bars of his cell, while for years she had turned the key in the lock and retreated to the shadows, hoarding solitude like a miser.
“Oh, do what you have to do, Lester!” she said.
He eyed her suspiciously.
“I mean, take your walk together,” she said. “By all means. You and Miriam should get out.”
“Do you think she’s strong enough?” He seemed less keen to go now that her opposition had been withdrawn. Perhaps he was finally facing the practical difficulties in mobilizing his frail wife, even for such a short journey.
“I think if anyone can do it, Mir can.” Besides, Jo thought, when has she ever denied you anything?
“Hi,” Miriam said drowsily to the two of them standing at the foot of her bed.
“Are you ready to go?” Lester said.
“Mmmm.” Her eyes fluttered in the sunlight that was pouring in from the window.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Jo said, though she hadn’t been aware of it before. She glanced out the window to confirm her impression. Yes, it was beautiful—one of those lustrous fall afternoons when the very air seemed to blush like a ripened peach.
Lester turned down the covers from his wife, and the stale odor of decay wafted up from the bed. He swung her feet around and put them on the floor. Then, holding her shoulders to steady her, he looked over at Jo. “I may need your help.”
“Of course.” She got the wheelchair and rolled it to the bedside.
Miriam appeared flustered by the sudden activity. “Oh, my,” she said, smiling shyly as they busied themselves with putting on her robe and slippers. She winced and almost fainted as they shifted her into the chair, but once settled, remembered herself enough to pull the flaps of her robe around her bare calves. Her legs were so skinny now, her friend noted with a pang, that the bones of her ankles jutted out like doorknobs above her white terry-cloth slippers. My god, what if this kills her, Jo thought, suddenly alarmed by the recklessness of what they were undertaking. “Lester,” she said, “maybe we should put the walk off for another day.”
“Nonsense. You said yourself, it’s beautiful out.”
Jo followed as he wheeled Miriam through the house and onto the patio. “I’m coming along,” she said.
“That’s the spirit.”
“I mean, you might need help.”
Outside, the sun was almost hot. Miriam appeared so small and feeble in the light that Jo could imagine her melting. “I’m going back for an umbrella,” she said.
“Get the one leaning by the door in the hall,” he said.
She knew the one—a straw and bamboo affair, handwoven and quite large. A Moroccan umbrella. Ideal, according to Lester, for climates where sunlight and rain beat down with equal intensity.
“You look like the Queen of the Nile,” Lester told his wife, when Jo opened the umbrella—as big as a tent—over Miriam. He reached down and adjusted the turban she’d donned that morning; it had begun to droop over one eye.
Jo walked beside her friend, holding the umbrella, as Lester pushed the wheelchair down the gently sloping terrace and out onto the sidewalk. They passed Mr. Steadman clipping his hedges, only his head visible above the dense, flat-cropped shrubbery. In this disembodied state, and with his heavy jowls and large, gappy teeth, the man looked like a jack-o’-lantern, Jo thought. It really had shocked her, his asking her out. Then seeing him in that kilt! His knees had been like moons, as chubby and hairless as a baby’s. She’d felt sorry for him. And for herself, too, under the circumstances.
She liked Mr. Steadman better behind his hedges. “Beautiful day,” she said, smiling and raising her hand in greeting. A curt nod was all she got in return. Well, she thought, relations between the neighbors must be even worse than Miriam knew or had let on. Apparently Jo’s former date meant to snub her on account of the company she kept. “Anyway,” she said, loud enough for him to hear, “it is a glorious day.”
They had gone only a block before Siri and Kai appeared out of nowhere and joined them, so that now the five of them made up a procession, going along the sidewalk, with the boy and girl sometimes running ahead of the adults, sometimes lagging behind. Cars slowed down to look at them. Lester said Siri and Kai reminded him of the African sparrows that accompany larger animals on their rambles. Jo noticed that Miriam’s eye avidly followed the children whenever they flitted into sight, and she began to think Lester’s plan to get out had not been such a bad idea.
They went past the Methodist church and the volunteer fire house and the farmers’ co-op that was now a health-food store. “I know you recognize this old place,” Jo said, as they approached the grade school where they had first met as children, almost 40 years ago, and where Jo was now a teacher. Looking at her friend in her turban and robe, seated in the shade of that exotic umbrella, Jo could not help thinking how far from this small, yellow-brick building Miriam had traveled, and how far she had yet to go. An air of foreignness clung to her and yet she seemed as familiar as ever to Jo and perfectly at home in this place, at least as far as pain and discomfort would allow her to be. She was like those people Lester had described at lunch, the ones who achieve a position in life and who—never mind her currently shrunken state—expand to fill that position.
Lester, on the other hand, only came fully into his own when he was on the move. He’d been expounding on points of historical and architectural interest as they walked. He knows more about this town than I do, Jo thought, feeling like a tourist. It was clear what pleasure he took in his knowledge, too. She could see how well-suited he was for the role of interested observer. It allowed him the illusion of being involved in the world even as he held himself aloof, avoiding the complications and consequences that come with staying put. Jo wondered, was it possible Lester believed, deep in his vagabond heart, they might elude death itself if they could only get going again, shake off the dust of this locality? Was this little outing of his perhaps an attempt at such an evasive maneuver? One thing for sure, Jo had not seen him in such jovial spirits, so voluble and animated, in weeks.
“Maybe you two chums,” he said, “would like to revisit the old haunt.” He meant the school building.
“Heavens, no,” Jo said. “The inside of that place is so notched in my brain I wander its halls in my dreams.”
“They’re not bad dreams, are they, Jo?” Miriam asked.
“The usual kind. I’m late, everybody else is already in class, all the doors are locked.”
“Forgot your knickers, too, I suppose,” Lester said.
She stared at him. “No, Lester, I’m fully clothed, thank you for asking.”
“I dreamed I was back in Mrs. McNulty’s homeroom only last night,” Miriam said. “I think it was last night.”
“Was I there?” Jo asked.
“Was I?” Lester said.
Miriam appeared to consider. “No, I don’t think you were. I’m sorry.”
“Maybe you were playing hooky,” Jo said.
“Off god-knows-where, huh, Jo?” he said. “But, guess what, we’re all playing hooky today.” He turned to the children, who had fallen in step with them for the moment. “Isn’t that right, you little truants?”
Jo doubted Siri and Kai, having never attended a proper school, knew what truancy entailed. Their father’s words, nevertheless, appeared to incite them. “Ooo-wheeee!” the little boy said and took off running, followed closely by his sister.
Jo did feel like a truant; it was a heady sensation, being in front of the school—a place as familiar to her as her own house, a place where she normally belonged at this hour of the day—but choosing not to go in, simply walking past, which she had never done before, in quite this way at least. The idea came to her for the first time since she’d taken her leave of absence that she might not return to teaching.
“And what would you do instead, Jo?” The internal voice that posed this question sounded like Miriam’s; its tone was not alarmed or mocking or inquisitorial, as it might have been had Jo asked the question in her own voice—rather it was simply curious, interested, and for that reason she did not feel compelled to answer right away. It was a good question, it had been posed, and that was enough. Jo drew a long breath. What might she do?
Feeling sudden joy, she bent quickly over the wheelchair that was moving again and whispered in her friend’s ear, “I love you.” Lester said, “We all do.” Miriam smiled; she was watching up ahead, where the children had just darted around a corner and out of sight.