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The Properties of Stainless Steel

ISSUE:  Winter 1999

We have this tree in the backyard, a spindly oak full of squirrel nests, which has split into two trunks and grown up in a big V shape. Sometimes I imagine attaching a long piece of innertube between the trunks halfway up, like a sling-shot, and firing different objects all the way into Chapel Hill. I think how it would make the local TV news, the skies raining down baseballs, apples, cans of tuna fish, charcoal briquettes, worn out golf shoes. A great, unsolved mystery, with me lurking at the bottom of it all. But my daydreams wither away after Rhonda begins her habit of gazing out through the kitchen screen door while she smokes, pondering that tree and its separate trunks. I know what she is up to in her mind. We used to talk about how nicely a treehouse would fit between those split branches, how I would build it for a birthday surprise. Now I think Rhonda sees the tree as us, sees it as everything that our first counseling session taught us was wrong with us. I thought of pointing out that, despite the split, the tree at its root is still connected, but she would have no interest in hearing me try to explain her private notions.

Before we left Family Services that first Wednesday, our assigned counselor, Dr. Goodwin, suggested that we find a common interest. This was the advice we bought with our 40-dollar co-payment. She looked at us with a sad, practiced smile. Spend unstructured time together, she said. Find something you both like, to keep you from healing in different directions. I tried to keep from rolling my eyes. Rhonda started the silent crying she did so well after the long months of practice. I watched her, tears marking her face and no sound from her. The way an actress on the screen will cry, I thought. Only this was no acting, it was me. It was the baby we didn’t have anymore. She turned away. We sat, the three of us, trapped in our silences, in the fourth silence which had brought us all together here. We said nothing, as if waiting for some unnamable thing. I thought of cutting down the damn tree.

The next afternoon Rhonda found—in the paper, like you’d find a missing dog—our common interest.

“Folk dancing,” she said. “The Lower Cape Fear Dance Society presents. Live band and all. This is the one, Curt.”

“What one?”

“Our together thing. Folk dancing.”

“So that’s how we save our marriage? We dance to fiddle music?” I shook my head. “Think we should ask Dr. Goodwin if that will heal us?”

She was quiet awhile. “It’s not a joke, Curt. If we mess up this marriage, it can’t be repaired. You don’t want that.”

I nodded, reminding myself how well I knew this woman, how I could recognize the sound of her footsteps in a crowded mall. “So we just find a common interest at random,” I said. “Just grab one from somewhere.”

“Planning has gotten us to here,” she said. She took my hand. “I’m willing to try a blind stab or two.”

The dance is Saturday night in an old building next to the junior high, where they once stored lawn mowers and weed eaters. The inside has a wide wooden floor, ceiling fans, and a string band of two men with beards and a woman wearing a top hat. The floor is the thing, apparently; all the fliers for the upcoming dances advertise, “Big Wooden Floor!” as if all that matters is what’s under your feet. We’ve come early, for the free lessons. Our instructor is this little troll of a guy with rainbow suspenders holding up his hiking shorts. He wears muddy boots and a ponytail; he has bad skin. I know I would not even hire this guy for my cleaning crew, but I don’t say anything. This is Rhonda’s night, and I intend to go along.

He shows us all the moves we have to know before the caller starts the first dance. We learn do-si-do and allemande and promenade. We stay in motion. I start to like it okay. The people there are not what I expected, not the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans types in neckerchiefs and puffy skirts, but all these aging hippies like you see at The Arts Fest in the park downtown, braless women with big silver earrings, and men with sideburns and Jesus sandals. I feel out of place in my striped golf shirt and blue jeans which Rhonda ironed for me with a crease down the front. But she thinks I look handsome and that is good enough.

She squeezes my hand while we try our balance and swing, the most basic step. The instructor makes us all keep practicing. He keeps hovering over us. My feet are clumsy, dumb.

“Please try to like this,” she says. She’s nervous about me.

“I like it fine,” I say, and she smiles at me, squeezes my hand again.

“No no no no no,” someone shouts. It’s our instructor, Phil, running up behind me. His name tag unsticks from his suspenders and flutters to the floor. “Not ring around the rosie,” he says to me. Everybody laughs and I feel my ears warm. “Keep your inside foot planted, like a pivot in basketball.”

“You want to go a little one-on-one?” I ask him. It’s my turn to get a laugh, though I hadn’t meant to. Rhonda laughs too, and this feels good to me, this getting along. It has been awhile, and the arguments have gotten progressively stupid, the last one because we’d thrown a Labor Day barbeque for my work crew and their girlfriends, and late that night we’d poured vodka into the dog’s dish (Bixby, Rhonda’s husky), then laughed as he teetered around and walked into the kitchen cabinets. Rhonda did not find this funny in the least, and neither did I the next morning when the memory of it sank through layers of my wounded skull, but it was too late for apology. The general theme of all our arguments has been my lack of sympathy, not just for her but for us, for myself. When the baby died late last year, I went looking for reasons: Rhonda had kept smoking the first month; she hadn’t always taken her vitamins; I hadn’t watched over her enough; my small floor cleaning business didn’t take in enough to let her quit her job. Any of these seemed likely, but they seemed to Rhonda only like blame. What I still want is somebody to explain to me the difference between cause and blame . . .where do those two part company?

Soon enough I get the hang of balance and swing, and when the music kicks in for our first practice dance, I fall right into motion. Dance feels good in my bones, like work except you’d never have cause to curse it. I’m glad enough not to be at work, to let my crew polish the floors themselves for one night. We get locked in every night at Walmart, to sweep and wax the floors, vacuum the carpeted areas. Once the manager throws home the front bolt, there is no way out of the building. Usually my crew finishes its job quickly, working like sled dogs, so as to have the bulk of the night off to raid the snack bar, turn on the TV’s in the appliance department, crank up the stereos, and ride bicycles through the aisles.

I stand off to one side while Phil borrows Rhonda to demonstrate for everybody the right way to execute a California Twirl. He spins her fast and effortlessly so that her blue cotton skirt swirls out and up past her knees, giving us all a glimpse of her pretty legs, sturdy in their low heels, and when she stops, the skirt swirls and wraps up around her thighs, then settles back. This is a thing I like to see, this glimpse of my wife’s legs as if they are someone else’s, legs I might have not noticed for a while because they are always right there. When the demo ends, everyone claps. She pushes a strand of hair behind her ear and blushes with the heat and attention, smiling.

“All right, now. We’re doing great, folks,” Phil says, drunk on his own false cheer. I feel like reminding him he’s getting paid for this, that “folks” is not a word anybody ever uses anymore.

While the band retunes their instruments, we get ourselves little paper cups of water out of the cooler. People file in the door, pulling the cold in behind them, snuffing off their coats, blowing into their hands. I imagine this place from the outside, how inviting it must look: a tiny building set off in the cold, giving off its light and heat and music. When we arrived, I hadn’t noticed this.

The band introduce themselves while the folding chairs along the walls fill up with people, many of them old ladies, all dressed up in dangling earrings and carrying beaded purses, wearing smudges of rouge, like this is their big night on the town.

“I feel sorry for them,” Rhonda says after I point them out to her. “Hoping to meet Mr. Right.” She smiles a little.

“At this point, most of their Mr. Rights are probably dead,” I say.

Rhonda’s smile vanishes. “You are just so cold sometimes, Curt,” she says. “Those women are lonely.”

But I know it is not my joke as much as it is my mention of the word: death. It is something we are supposed to have silently agreed to banish from our vocabularies, ignoring the black gash it has torn through our lives. I think sometimes it’s like a meteor has ripped through our house and left bed-size holes in the roof and floor, and we step around them, ignoring the rain that pours in, the cold, the weeds seeping into our living room. Just keep stepping around.

We dance through the evening, the smell of perfumed sweat filling the little building, the windows steaming over. I watch the old ladies sitting in the folding chairs in their wilting dresses, trying to keep their gazes interested and curious, expectant. Like any moment, some good thing might happen to them. A couple times, I ask them to dance, trying to be some lowly approximation of that good thing. I smile at them, and dance gently; they smell of powder and ammonia. The bones of their hands and ribs feel under my palms as fragile as bird bones. I envy them, for how imminent their deaths are, how perfectly placed at the end of their long years. Just where it is supposed to be. All my life death has been cutting ahead in line: first my father, a heart attack at 42, my mother of ovarian cancer at 56, and now my daughter, at 11 months, snatched away by some untouchable thing, killed by a fucking acronym. They are lucky, these ladies, living out their days of sadness and loneliness, waiting for death to come, right on time, without crashing the party early. When we finish, they lass my cheek or squeeze my hand. Rhonda tells me I’m a sweetheart.

Friday night at Walmart the boys throw a party after the floors are all polished. I allow this, for certain occasions, and lately I’ve allowed it more and more. Party the rest of your lives, I feel like telling them. Tonight is Corliss’s birthday, plus Danny and Lisa’s first wedding anniversary. Everyone brings along wives and girlfriends. The assistant manager gives me a look before he locks me in, but he doesn’t say anything; as long as the place is shiny clean at eight a.m. he doesn’t really care what happens while it’s dark.

The boys work fast and by one o’clock the place is scrubbed and the supplies are back in the storeroom. Danny cranks up all the stereos in the appliances department to the same oldies station, and while Led Zepplin rattles the counters, we dig bags of stale popcorn out of the snack bar. On the returns shelf in the back are open packages of candy bars and red hots, and we pass these out as well. The boys have all brought small coolers loaded with sixpacks. Lisa and Danny start dancing in the aisle beside sporting goods, where a large empty space waits to be made into the garden center for spring. Lisa is eight months pregnant, and I stand there watching her, the high, clear glow of her skin, the sway of her back. I keep bugging her to quit smoking. I remember how happy we were after the first trimester with all its sickness and worry, how Rhonda invented cravings I knew she did not really have just so she could send me out in the middle of the night for bean burritos or peanut-butter Milky-Ways. This was my part in her pregnancy, helping her learn to breathe, feeding her, all the usual. We gave into it, feeling corny, loving the idea of it. It was a lad feeling, like playing house, though we’d gotten pregnant late and were not kids like Danny and Lisa . . .a kid feeling, hopeful, like you could take a good thing and make it last forever. A game of kickball, an ice cream cone, or what happiness two people can find together. We believed that for awhile. Stupid.

Carlos and his girlfriend Tammy borrow a couple of bikes from sporting goods and ride in circles around the store, disappearing for minutes at a time, their whoops and laughs echoing all around us. The rest of us sit in the snack bar drinking beer, watching the dancers, waiting for the bicyclers to show up again. Wilson shows us where the doctors put the pins in his arm after his motocross accident. From that we are drawn into the usual drinking habit of trading stories and scars. I show them mine from when the lawnmower sent a roofing nail into my leg.

“That hardly even counts, Curt,” Terry says. He has a healed foot-long gash across his chest from a car wreck when he was 16.

“My Uncle Don has a bullet in his jaw from Vietnam.” Wilson says. “You can see this little lump.”

“My roommate Jay has a polycarbon rod in his arm,” Terry says. “Broke it operating a jackhammer.”

“I went to grade school with this lad, had a metal plate in his head,” I tell them. “You could see this dent in his skull.” They all react to this, laughing, the girls making faces.

“No way,” Terry says. “What was his name?”

I smile at him and shake my head. “I don’t remember. Too long ago.”

This is a lie, but I don’t feel like talking about him. It is too far past, and not a funny story. Joseph Turlow had been in my class since third grade, and he did have a metal plate in his head following surgery to correct a benign tumor putting pressure on his brain. But we didn’t learn any of this about the plate, or the tumor, or the craniotomy until the fifth grade, when Mr. Levine was our teacher. Until then, everyone had pretty much ignored Joseph, afraid of this peculiar injury, of the mythology that surrounded the metal plate. He was a fat kid, with a constant, dewy sprinkling of sweat on the pink skin under his eyes. His teeth protruded at odd angles. His ears were overly small. All of this—what we might otherwise have thought of as the normal, awkward oddities of difference that we all had (in my case, freckles and ears that stuck out)—instead seemed tied to the metal plate, as if his ugliness had been created in him, attached to him, much like the plate itself. We stayed away, averted our eyes, stole looks at the depression on the crown of his head, the clipped hair there that seemed to grow in a different direction from the rest. He sat at the end of our lunchroom table, and at recess spent his half hour hurling rocks over the fence toward the creek. I felt bad for him, as I suspect everyone did, but our whispered knowledge of the plate in his head formed a barrier through which we were not able to approach him.

All of this Mr. Levine attempted to change. He believed, and told us one day, that we all might learn from Joseph. He called Joseph up to the front of the class and made him tell us about the operation. Joseph stared at the pair of flags in their brass stands while he mumbled the details, his face darkening as he spoke, sweat dripping from the tip of his nose. Everyone was looking away, some with their faces soured, others trying not to laugh. Mr. Levine sat on the edge of his desk with his legs crossed, watching Joseph intently, thoughtfully stroking his chin. Joseph knew all the words associated with his illness, and talked about supracellabelular craniectomy, about his dura and brainstem, about the leskell ronguers and the other tools they had used on him. He said these words the way a parrot would, with no apparent understanding of them. When he finished, Mr. Levine asked if we had any questions, then produced and passed around a plate of iron he said was the approximate size and shape of Joseph’s. From this he segued into a discussion of magnetics and the properties of stainless steel. Joseph seemed unaffected by this, though after we left in the spring for Easter vacation he never came back again. I didn’t understand why I felt so bad for him. What I wanted all those years, I thought, was for people to stop ignoring Joseph for his steel plate, to accept it the way we accepted and joked about our own crossed eyes or glasses or out-of-style clothes. But when Mr. Levine had tried to do just that, it seemed the worst thing I’d ever watched, a slow torture on display. I thought then, and think now, that the worst of our anguish we carry in our bowels, part of the rhythm of daily life, but hidden, not discussed or shown—not to our classmates, our science teachers, our husbands or wives.

Saturday night we go back to the dance. Things during the week seemed better, and on Wednesday I did not fight with Dr. Goodwin. We were able to go shopping together at Food-4-Less, as we had always done before, making a game of our chores, but had not done since Sarah died. The special shopping cart with the bolted-on baby seat was now just another useless device. Rhonda pushed past it without looking, but once we were inside, I fell back into old jokes—sneaking grapes out of the bag, sacking up and weighing one peanut—and soon had her smiling. These were old roles we were playing; the memorized lines came easily.

We are late this time and miss most of the lessons. Phil is finishing up, wiping his face with a bandana while the band retunes their instruments. We start to practice our balance and swing.

“No, no, Rhonda,” I say. “Both at the same time: balance and swing, not balance or swing.” She covers her mouth with her hand.

“Let’s make a pact not to step on each other,” she says.

I shake her hand. “Deal.”

“Remember everything Phil taught us.”

“Phil who?” She laughs again, and I pull her close and kiss the side of her face.

There is a strong grip on my shoulder and I turn to face Robert Olander, who was manager of Walmart the year I started the cleaning contracting business. He’d been transferred only a month before Sarah died.

“Curt, good as hell to see you,” he says, pumping my hand. His voice is low, and I can barely hear him over the noise of the band, of people talking and laughing. “This is Rhonda, then. Good to see you out.”

I’m surprised to hear him call Rhonda by name, as they have never met. But worse is his tone of conciliation, of pity. My stomach clenches up.

“I was sorry to hear of. . . about your losing the baby,” he says. He looks at me. “Mr. Comensoli told me at a manager’s meeting.”

“Thank you for thinking of us,” Rhonda says. She is practiced at saying the right things.

“Yes, Robert,” I say, “but we didn’t lose her.” Rhonda squeezes my hand, her nails in my palm.

Robert snaps to attention. “I understood . . . I mean . . . I was given to believe—”

“She died,” I say. “God, if only we had just lost her, right? Then we could go out and find her. We could put an ad in the paper.”

“Curt,” Rhonda says.

“Misplaced,” I say. “There’s a diagnosis I could live with.”

“Curt, I understand this is difficult. . . .” Robert says.

“It is, Robert,” I say. “It’s very difficult. I’m sorry. You should ignore me.” My voice is shaking, and I jam my hands into my pockets. Rhonda is crying. Robert blushes, his eyes cutting around the room as he solemnly nods at me. I suddenly feel sorry for him, which feels a hell of lot better than the other way around. This is something I wish I could have told Joseph: feel sorry for us, Joe, make us uncomfortable, make us question God because of your existence. Rub our goddamn faces in you.

“You’re in our prayers, Curt,” Robert says. He shrugs. I shake his hand and apologize again, let him make his escape from me.

“Let’s go,” I say to Rhonda.

For a few moments she doesn’t say anything. She wipes her eyes, squares her chin. “You go if you want, I’m dancing.”

I nod. “Okay. I’ll wait.” I go over and sit for a while by the door, in one of the folding chairs that a little while later the old ladies in their dresses will occupy. The dance lines begin to form as the caller steps up on a chair at the front of the room, a microphone in her hand. They begin a walk-through of the dance, and my eyes search out Rhonda, who is partnered with Phil, near the front of the line. He points to her feet, giving her further instruction in the fast twirling of the balance and swing, which still gives her problems. All week she has made us practice this basic step, in the kitchen while the pasta was boiling, on the den floor during commercials.

The caller makes jokes and everyone laughs while the band tunes up their instruments. The windows are already covered with moisture; against one flutters a large white moth, tangled in spiderweb. The music kicks in and the dance begins in full, a couple dozen pairs of feet shuffling and stomping in unison. It’s a good noise; I go outside to escape it.

Outside is frigid, a bright ring of ice around the moon. I sit on the cold steps and watch the cars zoom past on the dark road, some with headlights missing, some stereos thumping. From one car a cigarette is thrown, and it bounces behind in the dark, throwing up sparks like tiny fireworks. Dancers are still arriving, shrugging their shoulders against the cold as they move across the lot. A German Shepherd barks at them from the bed of a pick-up truck. The people nod hello as they arrive, step around me into the building. One moves across the parking lot with an exaggerated limp; a younger couple, who seem to be with him, walks slowly behind him, holding hands. His progress is slow; though he is hard to make out in the dark; each step involves a complex series of mechanized movements. Like the others, he nods hello as he makes his slow, incremental progress up the stairs. I smile at him, exaggerate my pretense of not noticing his difficulties. I feel relieved when finally he makes it past me. It is quiet now outside; I sit there until my butt feels numb, my hands stiff.

Inside, Rhonda is flush-faced and damp looking. The heat hits me all at once, like stepping into a greenhouse. When they finish drinking their water, the dancers take the floor again, the caller shuffling her note cards. I watch Rhonda smile at the man beside her; he leans next to her, pointing at the band, making some small-talk joke. She nods and takes his hand, and I know she has agreed to dance with him. I sit in a folding chair next to one of the old ladies, who has come in without my noticing. When Rhonda starts for the floor with the man, I see at once that he is the man from outside, the man with the limp. His left leg seems twisted beneath the long pants he wears, and he has a shoe on his left foot with a sole at least four inches thick. Even from here I can hear the creak of braces on his legs, something I hadn’t heard before, in the cold. With each step he has to lean far out to his left and bring his leg around in a circle, dragged by nothing more than his momentum. Again I think of Joseph, and it occurs to me that once you have decided to notice it, ruin is everywhere.

They make it okay through the walk-through, though the man (his nametag, I see as they move closer, reads “Tom”) is sweating heavily. Unlike everyone else here, he wears the long pants and long shirt sleeves, and his dancing must be twice the effort of anyone else’s. They slowly walk through the balance and swing, Rhonda looking at her feet as she always does, uncertain, while Tom pivots easily on his big shoe. Then the walk-through is finished and they head back to their original places in the line, Tom dragging his foot and smiling, holding her hand.

The music starts up, full of banjo and fiddle. The caller sends out directions through the PA system, staying just ahead of the next move the dancers make. This must be the hard part of it, this constant staving ahead; I can’t see how she does that. Tom and Rhonda work their way through the parts of the dance, walking down past the line around the outside, then back up through the middle, spinning into their allemandes and cast-offs; it is all pretty easy after a while. While they move through the paces, I silently count off the beats of the music, hoping they don’t fall behind. Several times when they advance up or down the line, the next couple they are to dance with is there, waiting for Tom and Rhonda to catch up. Tom is huffing now, smiling all the time with his big teeth, the back of his shirt damp. His limp becomes more pronounced—he is tiring, I guess— and he has to bob and weave his way through a single step. A couple times I find myself silently urging him, hurrying him along from within me, like when you are a passenger in someone’s car, pressing an imaginary gas or brake pedal. Rhonda seems not to notice, or else she covers well; I can’t decide which. She smiles at him, laughs when they twirl. She must be the highlight of his night, I decide.

I feel glad that Rhonda has found the dancing. She was right, and so was Dr. Goodwin in her own abstract way. This has given us something else to look at together besides the ghost-scratches along the wall where the crib sat for nearly a year, besides the big Sears Christmas photo in the pewter frame on the bookshelf. We are learning these simple things together . . .steps, literally, like learning to walk together all over again. One easy thing at a time.

Tom and Rhonda have advanced in the line and are now near me, standing under one of the ceiling fans. I give a little wave to Rhonda and smile, and she arches her eyebrows at me and smiles back. Just then Tom grabs her up for a balance and swing, all those feet stomping in unison, and she looks once back at me as Tom begins to pivot on his big shoe. She looks down at her own feet, still unsure of this, as Tom holds her waist and lifts her arm, and her pivot foot, as if trying to find its place by itself, slides fully in between Tom’s legs. I watch this, and it seems like a magic trick waiting to happen, that in the next half-second as his leg swings back around, it will meet her shin and somehow pass right through it, like a scarf through a ring. Instead their feet tangle, I hear Rhonda cry out, and Tom pitches forward chest-first onto the floor. He lands with all his weight on his chin and sternum, and there is a sound like a bowling ball hitting the floor as the joists shake. Rhonda’s hands come up to her mouth and Tom’s face is frozen into its wide smile, and already he is protesting that he’s fine, he’s okay, while this chorus of noise rises up over the string sounds. Tom’s feet drum against the wooden floor, trying to find footing, his hands trapped under him. The line stops, people bumping into one another, craning their necks to see the trouble. Rhonda looks over at me, and when she does I realize I’m doing nothing but sitting here, not jumping up to help. I shake my head and look at her, feeling once again this helplessness which seems to have taken root in me. I start to get up, then two of the men from the line are there picking Tom up by his arms, patting his back. He smiles, shaking his head, and I hear him say that he thought it was part of the dance. Everyone laughs big over this, let off the hook, relieved. Rhonda finishes out the dance with him, but even from here I can tell how shaken she is, her lips a thin white line.

When they finish she smiles as he thanks her, bowing to her a little. She rushes over to me, her eyes already starting to rim up.

“Let’s please go,” she says.

“It wasn’t your fault,” I tell her.

“No, it never is. Everything just crashes down around me.”

In the dark of the parking lot I hear the next song starting up, the sound of it muffled, made brittle by the cold.

The next few days we don’t say much. There is no more talk of upcoming dances. Rhonda spends more time looking through the back window, past the tree with the split trunk, out into nothing. She doesn’t even seem to see the tree anymore, as if any imagination is flimsy and can no longer support what she’s feeling. She cancels our next appointment with Dr. Goodwin, and silence settles over our house the way it did just after Sarah died. Wednesday would have been her second birthday, so, as planned, we head out to Greenview to visit her gravesite. We have stopped bringing flowers, saying it is because they are always stolen. What we don’t say is that it just seems so useless, the emptiest of gestures.

At Greenview, a Wendy’s softdrink cup sits beside Sarah’s brass marker. Nearby are the leftovers from a campfire some lads have lit, sections of charred logs, blackened Coke cans and beer bottles. Down the hill below us, two boys are bundled up in denim jackets, fishing out of the small pond. We stand there awhile, reading the words that seem so old by now.

“I don’t know what to say anymore,” Rhonda says.

I shrug. “I don’t think there is anything. There is no thing to say.”

She slips her fingers into mine. “It stops seeming real after a time, I think. I keep telling myself I shouldn’t let that happen, let it become unreal. It’s the easy way out.”

“Well, but it’s not real,” I say. I lack over the Wendy’s cup, and the leavings of a milkshake pour out. “That’s more real. A milkshake. A fast-food restaurant. A campfire. We can get those, have a response even.”

She nods. “When that man fell, I thought for a moment I’d killed him.”

“He fell because his legs are screwed up. They always have been, I bet. At least he knew what it meant when he fell, why it has to happen. At least he’s inside it.”

“You don’t know that Curt. He might cry every night of his life. He might put his fist through walls.”

“He might. I’d even say he should. But we’ve learned at least from this that it does no damn good. There is no proper response. Hell, there is no response, proper or not. I don’t have one, do you?”

She shakes her head.

“How about you?” I shout across the lawn. “You have one?” The kids look up from their fishing and then away from us. The wind picks up, our breath coming in white mists.

“Why don’t you come with me to work tonight,” I say. I take her hand. “It’s a party. Come be with me.”

She nods. “Okay.”

We stand for a while longer before we go. I leave the Wendy’s cup there where it is.

Friday night at Wal-Mart, and right away Rhonda starts in talking with Debbie, feeling her distended stomach, asking her about breastfeeding and epidurals. It’s like she wants to meet this head on, these moments I only want to avoid. With everyone pitching in we finish the floors by midnight, and then the boys and their wives and girlfriends, so practiced by now, start the music and the beer and the snacks all flowing through the store. We sit in the snack bar and drink the beer, careful not to spill on our clean floors. Rhonda sits up close to me, the way all the girlfriends do, as if they can’t get enough of being close. This is something we’ve forgotten about, I think. A couple times I notice Rhonda staring at the bulge in the front of Debbie’s dress, and I know she is thinking about wanting to try again. The thought of it seems impossible to me, and for a minute I’m afraid that Rhonda is moving on, getting past this without me.

After everyone is nicely buzzed, Wilson suggests a game of hide and seek. I have found a public radio station playing Irish music, and I try to pull Rhonda out onto the floor, to show-off all the moves we’ve learned.

“C’mon, Curt,” everyone shouts. “Hide and seek.”

I smile at Rhonda and shrug, then go to the breaker panel in the stockroom and snap off all the lights. I leave the power on to the appliance department, so that out in the store the only light is the faint blue glow of the TV sets. The Irish music echoes across the store while all of them run off to hide.

“You’re it, Curt,” Carlos shouts back at me. Rhonda puts her arm around me.

“I’ll be it with you.”

“I’m no good at this,” I say. “Give me a hint,” I shout out across the store.

All is quiet, except for the fiddles and flutes of the music playing. Here and there I hear the suppressed laughs of Debbie or Katy, one of them out there in the dark. Soon, a bike horn honks, echoing across from the sporting goods department.

“There’s your hint,” Wilson shouts, and everyone laughs. Soon, I hear the electronic beep of a talking book from the toy department, a rubber-duck squeak from infants, the bike horn again, louder and faster this time. Rattles shake, pop guns pop, a toy bell rings. . .all these noises all at once, like, I think, the ghosts of children. Then I am holding Rhonda as if to crush her. I’m trembling.

“We don’t have to look,” she says. She turns me a little, in time with the music, pushing my hands into place.

“Come on, dance with me,” she says. “Balance and swing. We need the practice.” The music is a fast reel, and I pick up the pace of it, twirling her faster and faster in the dark, pivoting on my foot. I think of all that Phil told us, all his empty cheer. I try to put my weight into the spinning of it, as he showed us, closing my eyes and leaning back, feeling Rhonda do the same. The sounds of the bike horns and bells and rattles and toys grow louder; they are shouting to us, impatient for us to come find them.

“Keep going,” Rhonda says. “Give me your weight. Give it.”


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