|Excerpts > Summer 2004|
When her lover is in town, Louise tries not to let herself drive by his house. Why be reminded that when they are not together he exists somewhere else, sitting down to morning coffee with a woman who isn't her, a ratty flannel robe tied loose around his waist (Louise knows he sleeps naked and this drives her to despair). She is achingly obsessed but can control those impulses that might make him stop seeing her. His wife might be home. When Natalie isn't repairing computers in their attic she spends most of her time preparing kosher food, even kosher cosmetics, since she doesn't trust the few supposedly kosher products sold at Kroger's. Louise drives a red Voyager, as conspicuous in its color as the wig Natalie wears, a wig Louise would hate to see floating past the window as she drives by their house.
Her lover - his name is Ames - is a Unitarian minister. He could be home working on a sermon or walking his dog at any time. If he notices Louise's van circling his block he won't believe her promise that she can keep their affair in its place. Capable of driving by his house, she might also be capable of parking in his driveway and ringing the bell or standing up at services and announcing to his parishioners: Your minister and I make love to one another every other week at the Potawatomie Inn.
But Ames and his family have been away in New York. Natalie and the girls are seeing the museums while Ames takes part in a symposium on Christian-Jewish-Islamic relations, and Louise feels drawn to all reminders that he eventually will come back. The first few days he was gone she kept finding excuses to drive into town - Louise and her family live seven miles beyond the limits of Potawatomie, which itself is a city with little to distinguish it but the Michigan State Prison and factories that produce canned onion-rings and twine - so she could detour past Ames's house. She managed to stay away for the remainder of the week, but Ames is coming home today, and Louise is so excited that she already has driven in to Potawatomie twice. “I’m going in to by fish for dinner,” she told her husband, at which he made a face that expressed some concern or fear he couldn’t bear to put in words. It is only four o'clock, and Ames can't possibly get back from the airport until five. If she drives past his house much earlier than that he won't have yet arrived and she will need to try again.
Instead, she takes a tour of the landmarks of their affair. The first is Ames's church, a small, brown stucco structure with a billboard quoting Emerson to the effect that "Life consists of what a man is thinking of all day," a message Louise interprets as a love note left by Ames. She has spent hours at this church, helping Ames and his committee fight the city's Fundamentalists. She never loves Ames more than when he is guiding this committee to the resolutions they will draft, or, at meeting's end, when he exchanges a soul shake with Matt LeGrand - the blind, rotund minister of the A.M.E. Church - or heartfelt hugs and back pats with Loretta Paterson and Mary Walz, who represent the Quakers, or Jack Lovecraft, the gay-rights activist who heads the AIDS Coalition, for which Ames and Louise also volunteer. Afterwards, she and Ames retire to the shed behind the church where clothes and food are stored until they can be delivered to the poor. Overtaken with her memories of the hours that she and Ames have spent amid those bags and boxes, Louise gives herself over completely to her dream - hallucination is more accurate, that's how three-dimensional it is. She closes her eyes and leans back, moving her mouth and hands, wondering if she might be the only woman who gets off on imagining herself going down on a man the way men reputedly get off on going down on women.
Before she moved to Michigan and relinquished her idea of herself as a serious, trustworthy person, Louise was a therapist in Berkeley. She spent entire afternoons listening to young people discuss their love lives, and it occurs to her now that they wouldn't believe her unhappiness. In these enlightened late-nineties, what obstacle possibly could keep two lovers apart? Certainly not the detail of a Unitarian minister being married to someone else and not wanting to divorce her. Except that Ames doesn't. True, his wife is difficult. Born to a Jewish mother and an Episcopalian father, Natalie was raised Unitarian. She met and married Ames on a weekend march on Washington. Ames became a minister. They moved to Potawatomie, bought a house and had kids. Then Natalie decided that she was Jewish after all and began "exploring her faith," which meant, at least to Natalie, that she gave up caring about any politics except those that involved Israel, shaved her head, wore long skirts, kept an ultra-kosher kitchen and refused to eat out. She observes the Sabbath strictly, and the laws of ritual purity, refusing to share a bed with Ames two weeks of every month. She won't attend his church, which nettles his parishioners, although they admire their minister more for his willingness to suffer on his eccentric wife's behalf than they would excuse him for deserting her.
Natalie is tall and thin, with a ginger-ale complexion otherworldly in its paleness beneath the light-red wig she wears. She is striking, Louise thinks, which is as good as being beautiful and better than being attractive or appealing, as Louise considers herself to be. She imagines Ames kissing the bumpy ridge between Natalie's breasts, and Louise's eyes begin to tear. She jabs the Voyager's horn, which bleats weakly. Why does she make herself so available to a man who can so rarely be available to her? Natalie has the right idea, placing herself off-limits now and then.
Not that Louise and Ames ever discuss what he and Natalie do in bed. But something must be missing. Why else would a minister be having an affair? From the intensity of disbelief that radiates from Ames when Louise takes him in her mouth, the violence with which he enters her, the excitement that nearly levitates them off the bed when he fucks her from behind, his inability to stop seeing her, although he clearly wishes he could stop, she suspects that she loves his body in ways his wife can't. And there is the pleasure Ames gives her. He is the lover most women haven't the experience to imagine. You can't invent a man like this, the way he kisses you and touches you, the way he moves inside you, the words he says, at what times, the concentration on his face as he searches for the spot that will make you give yourself up and moan Jesus, Ames, Jesus, any more than you could invent a completely new beast; you would have to combine the best parts of other lovers, as the ancient Greeks combined an eagle's wings and horse's body to make a Pegasus.
Until lately, the guiding rule in Louise's life has been: Never hurt anyone. She doubts that she would be able to strike back at an attacker if he grabbed her in an alley. And yet she wishes Ames would leave the woman he has been married to for nearly twenty years and hurt his two girls, whom he loves with such a love that he would allow himself to be crucified rather than subject them to the smallest twinge of pain. Never mind that Louise feels the same way about her own daughter. She has caught herself imagining deaths for Ames's wife, and even though these deaths are brought about by agents other than Louise, it frightens her to think that she can understand those murders in which someone pays a hit man to get rid of a lover's spouse. Any enterprise that leads you to wish another person's death can't possibly be moral. She will never live with Ames, and she will never get over him.
She starts the van and drives past the ivied Odd Fellows nursing home that is the last authentic structure on the strip of fast-food restaurants leading out of town. Someday, she thinks, she will lean back against her rocker on some nursing home porch, wrinkled, bald, blind, dreaming of a minister lifting off his shirt and sliding the brassiere from her breasts.
She parks behind the McDonald's. The glass-enclosed playground is empty. Beneath the August sun it must be as steamy as a hot house. But three disheveled women push limousine-length strollers through the lot. They hold the doors open for one another and push the children in. They buy nothing at the counter but maneuver the enormous strollers to the playground. The toddlers scamper toward the tunnels and disappear inside like messages sucked up pneumatic pipes. The slides are as tall as houses, smooth orange-and-yellow tubes curving and intersecting in spirals so complex that Louise is jealous her daughter gets to play on such a structure and she never got the chance. Not that Rochelle appreciates her opportunities. Rochelle is the sort of child who likes to stay in view. Until recently, she was too wary of what might happen in those tunnels to do more than wriggle in. Then she would freeze and start screaming.
Which was how Louise and Ames met. It was a drab Saturday in March. The renovations on the farmhouse were dragging on and on (a boondoggle, Louise called it, amused that she had dredged up such a Midwestern word). She and Richard and Rochelle had been sleeping in the living room and eating out at restaurants, which, in Potawatomie, means eating at Bill Knapp's, Elias Big Boy or K.F.C. Richard had been called to a handle an attempted suicide at the prison. ("Sharpened spoon," he told her, and started to shuffle out in slippers until Louise prevailed on him to change.) Grumpily, she took their daughter to McDonald's. They found the playground, where Rochelle licked ketchup from a French fry and asked her mother to explain how plastic was manufactured.
"Plastic?" Louise said. What did she know about plastic, except that it was everywhere and had something to do with oil. How could a substance so colorful and solid be made from oil? "I'm sorry," she admitted. "Mommy doesn't know." Upset by her mother's uncharacteristic ignorance, Rochelle darted off and hid. Louise unwrapped her chicken sandwich, peeled back the bun and stared furiously at the patty of limp, whitish stuff. What was she doing at McDonald's, forcing herself to eat chicken that wasn't chicken, instead of sitting in some cozy diner eating a meal prepared by some motherly woman named Eloise or Bess? Before they moved to Michigan, Louise believed that Midwesterners lived on home-cooked food - real fried chicken, real mashed potatoes, real chocolate cake and cherry pie. But it turns out they eat in restaurants where the food is beige and pre-digested, with "breakfast bars" and "fixings bars" featuring foods that come frozen from the restaurants' headquarters in Kalamazoo or Des Moines.
It also turns out they don’t like people like Louise. The day she and Richard bought their house, they spent an hour talking to the owner while Rochelle played with the man's son. Then Rochelle ran up crying. All the boy wanted to do was hunt! And when Rochelle said she didn't want to kill animals, the boy called Rochelle a "bleeding-heart hippie" and told her to go back where she came from. The insult seemed too ludicrous to hold a sting, but the fact that it was ludicrous struck Louise as an insult, as if her daughter weren't good enough to be the target of a more up-to-date slur. When Richard declined to speak up on his daughter's behalf Louise got into a shouting match with the father, who said his son was right, they should move back to San Francisco, where the other queers and hippies lived.
Maybe it was only Louise's imagination, but she had started to notice that every time her neighbors held a barbecue, a few of the men turned up in camouflage fatigues, as did several of the women, except the ones who wore anti-abortion T-shirts (THIS IS A CHILD beneath a fetus poking its thumb in its mouth). Louise thought she heard explosions. She told herself that her neighbors were only taking pot shots at beer cans, or popping potato-chip bags, or tossing aerosols in the grill. But she didn't believe her own lies. The unsettling thing was how friendly these neighbors seemed. The woman displayed a colored flag for every holiday - bunnies and eggs on Easter, rockets on the Fourth, a shamrock on St. Pat's, although the family isn't Irish. Her soft, ruddy face seems incapable of hate, as does her husband's. He lends Richard home-repair manuals and offers him advice about how to prime the well and how to light the pilot beneath the water heater, activities that Richard no longer has the courage to attempt. Louise has heard the man blame Washington for the policies that made him lose his farm. Once, he asked Richard if it was possible for doctors to implant a chip in a person's brain that could monitor the person's thoughts. But Louise can't imagine either of her neighbors blowing up a building, the way that fanatic in Oklahoma did the other week, or associating with anyone who would. Then again, her neighbors probably don't see Louise as a woman who would be lying with her face against the rug in a mildewed motel room, being entered from behind by a Unitarian minister.
Or maybe they do.
She stares into the McDonald's, searching for the table where she was sitting the night she met Ames. Although she didn't yet know that he was Ames, just a tall, loose-jointed man with an earring hole but no earring and two pale, redheaded daughters in shiny shoes and flowered skirts. While Louise sucked her diet Coke, the girls pried the lids from their salads, squeezed out dressings from an assortment of foil packets and ate every bite of greenery, every cheese shred. They drank a carton each of milk - real milk, not the fake dairy shake Louise allowed Rochelle to slurp - and blotted their mouths with napkins before asking if they could play.
"What's this?" Their father held up the empty packets. "You promised you would eat everything I set in front of you, and there's still something here."
"Oh, Daddy, you're a crazy lunatic!" the younger girl shrieked.
"'Crazy lunatic'! Is that the respect you show your father?" He hooked one daughter in each elbow and let them blow raspberries against his cheeks. He had longish fair hair that Louise guessed would feel soft - unlike Richard's hair, which was wiry. A crooked nose, green eyes, a solemn, pocked face. He forked a translucent tomato through his lips. Then he turned to Louise, daring her to say something that wasn't banal.
"I'm stuck! Mommy! Help! Unstick me!"
Hiding her irritation - Louise could tell that this man had no patience for parents who couldn't put their children's needs above their own - she crawled up a crisscross of knotted ropes like something dangling from a pirate ship. She squeezed into a plastic tube too small for a grown woman. Static pricked her arms. She had trouble navigating the maze, her daughter's screams reverberating until she couldn't pinpoint their source, but on she crawled, sweating, short of breath, the tunnel narrowing - she felt like some optic instrument a vet would use to probe a beast's intestines- until she came upon Rochelle, crying hotly at the top of a slide that corkscrewed into nothingness. "It's okay, sweetie, we'll crawl back down." But Rochelle refused to retrace the trail that had gotten her where she was. Rather than keep arguing, Louise V-ed her legs around her daughter, leaning back so she wouldn't smack her head against the roof, then plummeted through the dark with Rochelle's screams vibrating against her chest until she and her daughter shot into a cage of colored balls, Rochelle laughing now, delighted, Louise looking up to see the father of those girls frowning down at her, fingers clutching the netted cage, although Ames said later that he was frowning because he knew he shouldn't be imagining how this woman might look naked, splayed among those balls.
Louise struggled to emerge gracefully from the cage. The man was waving at his daughters, who had conquered the structure's peak. "They're beautiful," she told him, "and very well-behaved," hating herself because she was saying this to please him. "I've never seen a child eat a salad at McDonald's."
He studied her as if deciding if he could trust her. "They keep kosher. We're not Jewish, but their mother is. I'm a minister." He stopped, and she could see that he wasn't happy with his answer. He might have sounded as if he feared being taken for a Jew. Or regretted sending out a signal of disloyalty. Well, he did sound disloyal. Louise used this opening to confide that she had majored in comparative religion at Santa Cruz. Her senior thesis had been on Buber. Really? Ames said. His masters dissertation also had been on Buber. When Louise slipped in the information that, in addition to her counseling, she had helped coordinate the activities of AIDS volunteers in Berkeley, Ames loosened up and told her something of himself - how he had grown up north of Boston, the descendant of a minister who had taken part in the witch trials but regretted it later; how the members of his family always seemed much given to excess and regret; how he had been kidnapped and abandoned in Las Vegas by his father, sent to boarding school, brought back, petted and ignored by an alcoholic mother. In the sixties, Ames became an avant-garde playwright. Then he felt a calling as a minister, long after it was fashionable to go in for such a thing. He got his degree from Harvard, received his ordination, helped set up a domestic-violence shelter in Detroit, then ended up here, in Potawatomie, Michigan, leading a congregation of well-meaning but unimpassioned liberals and doing what he could to keep the good fight alive.
As he related his biography Louise realized that she knew who this minister was. He was famous for speaking out against the city's right-wing Christians as they fought to ban the teaching of evolution in the schools. Women she barely knew giddily confessed crushes on the Reverend Ames Wye. This made it harder later to end their affair. How could you give up something other people longed for, even if you discovered that having that thing yourself didn't appease your longing?
Louise drives from the McDonald's to the neighborhood where the Potawatomie chapter of the AIDS Coalition used to rent apartments for clients who couldn't afford them. After she met Ames, she followed through on a vow to use what she had learned from her years in San Francisco volunteering in the heartland. If she joined the chapter partly because she hoped to see the minister she had met at McDonald's, did that make her volunteering less commendable? She went through the training sessions - although she had led similar sessions in San Francisco - forcing herself to endure an extended period of role-playing, during which the more experienced volunteers pretended to be people living with AIDS, grumbling to their "buddies" about how hard it was to sit around dying all day while everyone else was out working or playing tennis. Louise had little trouble responding as she ought - "listening noncritically" and "setting limits." But when the time came to choose an area in which to help, she felt so wearied by the very notion of "buddying," so exhausted by the vocabulary of "suffering" and "sharing," she chose the team that cleaned houses. When the leader of the house-cleaning team turned out to be Ames, she couldn't help but think that God was playing matchmaker. Ames called and told her the address of the apartment they would be cleaning. He didn't realize that he was speaking to the woman from the ball cage, but her heart clamored with the knowledge that he would know her when he saw her.
And Ames did seem surprised. “Hello, yes, I remember you,” he said, fumbling with the key until she felt as if they were breaking and entering. Then they stood alone in the apartment of a dead man. The bareness of the rooms amplified whatever vibrations passed between them. She was so aware of Ames's presence - vacuuming, dusting, swabbing out the toilet - she came to think that any couple left alone to clean an apartment eventually would kiss.
She was scrubbing the kitchen counter. "Excuse me," Ames said, and filled a bucket at the sink. He rolled up one cuff to reveal his narrow wrist, haloed in a flexible gold watchband. She leaned close and stretched her arm to touch him. He jerked the bucket from the sink, sloshing water to the linoleum. "Shit," he said. "I don't usually--"
"Don't worry," Louise said. She shut the faucet and dried the floor, amazed at how close she had come to humiliating herself.
Nothing happened that day. But a few weeks later another client died. Louise and Ames were cleaning that man's living room. She popped open the chest of the ancient upright Hoover, intending to throw away its linty heart, all the sad accumulations of the previous tenant's life, but Ames was blocking the kitchen, reaching up to dust the lintel above the door. His shirt lifted to expose an inch of sweaty back.
"I can't get by," she said.
He turned to her, the furry rag pinched between his fingers. "May I kiss you?" he said. She nodded. And the kiss, when it came, was like nothing Louise had ever experienced, although it was exactly the kiss she had fantasized it might be, and how many kisses are like that? She and Ames stood breathing life into each other, and even before their tongues met and sent spasms rippling through Louise, she knew her life was ruined.
"I don't want to disappoint you," Ames said, and she wondered if he meant he didn't want his lovemaking to disappoint her, or he didn't want to raise her hopes that he would leave his wife.
"That kiss was the least disappointing thing that's ever happened to me." She felt the way she had felt seeing the Grand Canyon - it so surpassed the grandeur she had been hoping she might find, she regretted every compromise, every cynical comment she had ever made.
"I've never done this before," he said.
"So why are you doing it now?" He barely knew her, after all. Other women must have offered.
He studied her as if she were a bureau he was supposed to move. "I used to feel enthusiastic about everything. But the last ten or fifteen years ..." He tugged her blouse above her head, then lifted off his own shirt. When Louise saw the unexpected concavity of his chest, hollowed at the pit as if some Puritan judged had tried to get him to confess by laying boulders on his lungs, except that Ames's forefathers had been the judges, not the victims, which excited her even more, she thought: Stop now. Run away.
They made love on the carpet she had vacuumed, the nap still herringboned with lines. When they pulled away she felt so full of satisfaction that she didn't want to move. A miracle, she thought. The more satisfied you were, the more love you craved. She looked at Ames, so vulnerable and white, palms against the rug, and she thought of the cup that Jesus kept emptying so it could refill itself with wine.
They got dressed and finished cleaning. Louise looked forward to the next time, although there being a next time was predicated on the necessity that another man must die. When finally one did, and they met in his apartment, a floor above the apartment in which they had first made love, Louise vowed she wouldn't give in. Clearly it was wrong to make love in an apartment you were entering to clean. But it was amazing how little force the rules of decency exerted once you questioned why they should. The dead man would approve. She and Ames were trying to fill the rooms with enough life to sustain whoever moved in next.
Then the city's right-wingers learned the house existed. They couldn't discover where it was but Ames feared some kook might try to follow them. They would need to find another place to meet. Driving west on a minor highway, they passed a run-down motel on an algae-covered lake where no one would recognize them. At least, no one would recognize her. Louise was sure most people would remember where they had heard a voice as resonant as Ames's, where they had seen a face so raw, so unlike a mask, more like whatever was underneath when the mask was ripped off. They would be caught, Louise was sure, although she never confided this to Ames. Believing they wouldn't be caught was the only way he could keep loving her, while Louise carried on because she secretly hoped they would be found. Everything would blow up, and when the last tremors died and all the pieces fell, she and Ames would somehow find themselves together, their children safe nearby.
What Louise can't believe is that any man can be as gentle as Ames and yet so seriously absorbed in sex. When he kneels before her on the green shag of that motel room - it reminds Louise of weeds dredged up from the lake and spread wetly across the floor - she thinks of him bowing not to worship her, which would have been embarrassing, but to worship life itself. "I know this will sound self-serving," he told her once, "but I feel, when we make love, as if I'm connecting with the Holy Spirit." Ames's ability to worship the absolute through her, the vocabulary of awe and divinity he has given her, allows Louise to feel the same way about him. She kisses his feet, licks them, bathes them with her hair, and all the while she thinks of Christ humbling himself by washing his disciples' feet. Once, after Ames moved a dead man's furniture to the attic, she found a bottle of olive oil in a cupboard, warmed it on the stove and gave him a massage. I'm anointing my lover, she kept thinking. I'm anointing him with oil.
Until recently, Christianity seemed silly to Louise, with its insistence that a man could be a god and a virgin could give birth. Now the religion strikes her as useful. Christians are more concerned than Jews with temptations such as lust, which suddenly, to Louise, seems a pressing concern. If adultery becomes a preoccupation in your life, you need Christianity. That she can imagine converting scares her. What is that adage, beware of enterprises that require new clothes? How much more wary one should be of an enterprise that requires a new religion? And yet her willingness to do anything for Ames makes Louise feel generous, instead of rigid and ungiving, as she has always felt with Richard. At times she loathes Ames for his sanctimonious refusal to claim the amazing prize they have been offered. At other times, she suspects that he might be right and unhappiness is the lot of most people. You work hard. You get by. You do your best for your kids. You're grateful for whatever moments of grace you are cunning enough to wrest from everyday life. She is sickened by the hours she has wasted thinking of Ames, dressing for Ames, plotting ways they can be together, crying when they can't be. Nothing in this world fascinates her as much as her fascination for Ames, and this fascination bores her. Ames is no handsomer than Richard. Sometimes, in public, his voice solidifies into something self-conscious and theatrical. His sermon voice, she calls it. He gets whiteheads on his back. His ears sprout stiff hairs. He poses with his fingers splayed around his hips, an effeminate stance that makes him seem spoiled.
And yet she can't bear to give him up. She never knew this about herself, that she cannot live without passion. She cannot go back to a life in which her day's routine is fixing up the house, buying food, driving Rochelle to Brownies, and listening to Richard fret about whether the chimney cleaner did a thorough job. She used to feel passion for her work, but she is tired of listening. She wants to live her own life. She wants to accomplish something new. Or maybe what she wants is to accomplish something old. Since when has romantic love gotten a bad name? When did passion become a joke? Go to any movie and obsessions are played for laughs. Those few times you saw a film in which romantic love seemed plausible, you couldn't believe it of yourself, only, just maybe, of Meryl Streep or Emma Thompson.
She would ask advice from her friends, but she doesn't trust anyone who hasn't felt the way she feels, and none of her friends have had affairs. She does know one woman who tears herself to pieces over the teenage girls she teaches, but this woman has never left her partner, nor, as far as Louise knows, laid a finger on those girls. Maybe the men engage in trysts, but they keep these to themselves, assuming simple-hearted Louise wouldn't approve of their duplicity. But her women friends couldn't hide such powerful emotions. It would be like sneaking off to throw bloody steaks to a tiger hiding in your closet. Unless her friends conceal their tigers as well as she does.
It's a little after five and Louise is dying to find out if Ames has gotten home, but she must delay her arrival another few minutes. She circles the state prison, a huge medieval fortress with blind, forbidding walls whose towers and eerie searchlights throw an atmosphere of surveillance across the town. A bare-chested boy with tufts of yellow hair sprouting from his head like the bristles of a vegetable scrubber is trimming weeds along the fence. Is he a prisoner? She doubts it, given the punked-out hair. Some ravenous machine devours the ragged grass, the invisible blade whirling furiously an inch from the boy's bare legs. It takes ignorance or youthful bravery to run a machine like that. When she and Richard bought their house, he went to town and came back with a mower and a trimmer, but Louise mows the lawn, and the trimmer remains unassembled in its box.
Once, Louise's husband was a placid, cheerful man. Then he inadvertently dropped a match on a roll of toilet tissue and destroyed several thousand acres of a national preserve in Montana. "It was an accident," he kept saying, like a boy who's smashed a vase. He faced criminal charges, but the judge allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a phenomenal sum of money for putting out the blaze, which Richard could cover only because his businessman father had insisted at the wedding that they buy something called an "umbrella liability policy with a million-dollar limit," which, at the time, Louise pictured as the enormous striped umbrella her father-in-law carried in his golf bag. Richard's patients were forgiving, but he couldn't bear to keep treating them. She and Richard and Rochelle packed and moved to Potawatomie, where Louise never imagined she might live. Who grew up thinking she might live in Michigan? Richard accepted a job managing the mental-health program for the prison in a town where no other psychiatrist of his stature would relocate. Maybe he took the job because he wanted to be punished. Or he figured that he couldn't do much harm because his clients would be criminals. Before the fire, he had walked with lackadaisical confidence in the rightness of his diagnoses, the treatments he undertook, the good will of strangers, friends and family. After the fire he couldn't trust anyone, least of all himself. Louise tried to get him help. She was a therapist. So was he. But nothing worked. She waited for his confidence to come back, but it was like waiting for your wallet to be returned. For better or worse, she thought, but the worse wouldn't seem to end. Then she met Ames, and his ease in the world made it harder to bear her husband's un-ease. She felt invincible. If she could empathize at all with Richard's fears of doing harm, of igniting a blaze that would lay everything around him a smoldering waste, it was only because she had seen in herself this same potential for destruction.
The clock on the dashboard flashes 5:33. In another few minutes she will have to take home the ridiculously overpriced swordfish steaks she bought at Potawatomie's only gourmet-food shop and fire the grill and cook them. She turns down Hoover, then Grand Oaks, then takes a left on Ames's street and throws the van into neutral, allowing it to coast along the serpentine curb. The plush lawns and sheltering trees and weathered brick facades give off the sort of peace that men and women in their fifties radiate if they have become content with themselves. Light drips like honey from the leaves. Three girls on fat-tired bikes wobble along the curb, the ribbons on their handlebars streaming. An elderly woman kneels in a creamy knit suit, combing her plants for insects, which she crushes between her fingers. The van slithers around a curve and Ames's house appears on the right, before the street dead-ends in a circular expanse like the bulb on a thermometer. (The cul de sac makes driving past the house riskier, since she has to turn around and drive by a second time.) Ames's lawn sprawls downhill, the garage tucked around the back like a stubby tail. Unlike the other houses on the street, Ames's house is made of stone. The roof is greenish slate. The house reminds Louise of a tortoise burrowed in the mud to protect its young. She wants to crack the shell and shake it. Except that if she destroys her lover's house, Ames won't be grateful. In cartoons, turtles unzip their shells and step out of them. But a turtle's shell is an extension of its skeleton. Pry a turtle from its shell and you won't get a naked turtle. You'll get a hunk of ripped flesh.
The house seems uninhabited. Ames usually parks his rusty orange Escort on the street and lets Natalie park in back, but the Escort isn't there. Louise wants to stop and look but a neighbor has turned to watch. The man wears khaki shorts and a short-sleeve white shirt. Air Force, she thinks, although only because the flat, close-cropped hair reminds her of a landing deck. Gazing at her van, the man keeps pushing one of those new high-tech manual mowers, ramming it at the grass with brusque thrusts, the blades revolving like a weapon. It has only been a week since that bastard in Oklahoma drove his truck full of fertilizer into that government building and blew up all those kids. Everyone is still edgy - this man across the street, Louise, Rochelle, the teachers at the elementary school, the clerks at city hall. The extremists who seem responsible for the bombing are distantly connected to the Militia in the town where Louise and Richard live. Ames has made himself a target not only by his work opposing the fundamentalists, but also by demanding that the city fire a custodian who works at a local school - a public building, after all, with a smattering of kids who are Jewish, black, and gay. The custodian spends his off-hours spewing hate across the airwaves as "Michigan Mike, the Voice of the Militia." Louise caught his broadcast once. She couldn't believe that her radio in her van was capable of emitting such ugly words; it was like hearing Rochelle whisper in her sleep nigger, kike, fag. Ames hasn't yet succeeded in getting this amateur Goebbels fired. The city is afraid the ACLU will come rushing to defend him, and several members of the council tacitly share the man's beliefs. But Ames has gotten threats.
The van passes Ames's house, and Louise is startled to observe that the kitchen blinds are down. They weren't down the last time. Does this mean he has gotten home? The sodden Dairy Queen cup that's been lying on his lawn all week is still there, as is the monthly advertiser.
The van hits the curb and bounces. Louise bites her tongue, tastes blood, tries to calm herself and think. She glances in the rearview mirror. Ames's neighbor is staring at the van, whose front tires are propped up on the curb at the cul de sac's end. She ought to drive away. But she can't help wondering who pulled down those blinds. A parishioner? A friend taking in the mail? She turns and looks again, and the van's skewed position allows her to glimpse Ames’s back yard. There is a playhouse and a swing. The playhouse, which is plastic, is lying on its side. Louise squints. The rear door of Ames's house - the real house, not the play one - seems to be open.
Go, she thinks. Don't go.
She leaves the van and crosses to Ames's back yard. The playhouse has been tipped over to expose a table with toy dishes and plates of plastic food - hamburgers, French fries, strips of bacon and fried eggs. And yes, the rear door of Ames's house is hanging open. The glass panel has been cracked. She needs to call the police.
On the other hand, if she does call the police, she might be required to explain why she has driven by the house, not once, but many times. She needn't admit that she is Ames's lover. But anyone might guess. And Ames himself will know that she has been driving by his house. Won't Natalie be suspicious? Louise might concoct some lie. But what if the lie unravels? It's one thing to lie to your husband, but lying to the cops?
Just as the solution occurs to her - she will drive to the nearest pay phone and call the police anonymously - she hears a muted clamor, and Ames's neighbor appears around the corner of the house, pushing that mower. He stops, the silence threatening. She has to declare who she is and reveal her good intentions. "I was looking after it." She motions toward the house. "For a friend. He's been away. And there have been threats, so I was watching."
"Threats?" The man lifts a watch so elaborate that Louise expects him to speak into it and launch an attack. "What sort of threats would anyone make against a minister?"
She points to the broken window. "Even if it was just a regular burglar, you would need to call the police. Could you go, please, and call them?"
He seems uncertain what to do - not about the cops, but about the mower. Finally, he lays the handle on Ames's lawn and disappears around the house.
Louise remains and waits. Someone is dribbling a basketball and the thud thud thud of the ball echoes Louise's heart. When the player takes a shot, the beat stops, then rebounds in a frenzied patter. She walks toward Ames's door. The shrubs rattle. A rabbit tiptoes out, halts, then stands on its hind legs, sniffing the air and wringing its paws.
The neighbor rejoins her. "I called them. They asked what the problem is and I wasn't sure what to say. Intruders, I said. What sort of intruders? I couldn't tell them that. But they said they would come."
He takes the mower around the front. Louise would prefer to stay here, but she knows she has to follow. Ames's neighbor seems unused to standing idle. The lawn is unkempt; Ames must have mowed it before he left but there has been a lot of rain this week. The neighbor trims a swatch, releasing a scent so sweet it seems an affront, like piney freshener at a morgue.
That's when the police car sidles up and parks the wrong way in front of Ames's house. Two officers climb out heavily. Both are women, which strikes Louise as odd; she assumed a female cop must be partnered with a man. Then again, these women look as if they can take care of themselves. They are squat and bulky in the way of most female officers, unless it's only the uniform and all that dangling equipment. Even Natalie would look dumpy in that get-up. One of the cops has short brown hair, the other has short blonde hair. They will guess she is Ames's lover, although whether they will guess this faster than a team of male cops Louise doesn't know.
The officer with brown hair asks Louise her name and phone number while her partner ambles around the back. Louise panics. She could make up a name, but the neighbor will describe her and Ames will know who it was. Besides, she is fantastically curious to see inside his house. "Louise Shapiro," she volunteers. "I live in Stickney Springs." The officer records the data, and Louise's heart goes arrhythmic again. Now she will be asked her relation to the owner and what made her suspect a break-in. But the cop jams the stubby pencil through the binding on her notebook and slides it in her pocket.
"Wait here," she tells Louise. "Don't go in. And don't go home." She climbs the porch, fingertips caressing her gun. She steps over the advertiser and tries the door - it's locked - then follows her partner around the back.
The blades of the neighbor's mower shred the Dairy Queen cup and scatter it across the lawn. The officer has forbidden Louise to go inside, but her desire to see the house is as strong as her desire to see Ames.
"Mrs. Shapiro? Would you come?" The cop with brown hair motions Louise to follow. The neighbor watches as if Louise has been revealed to be the criminal he thought she was. The cop leads her around the back, past the playhouse and through the door. Louise pauses at the threshold, then takes a step inside and stands beside the two pink umbrellas that Ames's daughters must have left here to dry before they went to New York. The room is neat, for a playroom - a few board games, a trunk of dress-up clothes, a puppet theater cut from a refrigerator box and painted like a castle. Paper and paints lie scattered across a table. One drawing shows a stick-figure man surrounded by black squiggles. "DADDY AND THE PENGWINS" is printed across the top. A more sophisticated drawing - the older girl, Rebecca, takes private lessons from the art teacher at the elementary school, a woman who has admitted within Louise's hearing that she "wouldn't mind giving a few lessons to the father" - shows a mother lighting candles. Rays of glued-on glitter emanate not only from the candles but also the woman's head. Louise crumples the drawing. Horrified, she jams the wadded paper in her shorts and follows the cop upstairs.
The living room is commanded by a stone fireplace, the mantle bare except for an elegant black-and-white striped vase. There are no family photos, which spares Louise the sight of Natalie. Still, she feels ill, seeing where her lover leads his other life. If the furnishings were in bad taste she could dismiss the house as something his wife constructed for him. But the furnishings are wood. Shaker, Louise thinks. She has always loved Shaker furniture, always dreamed of a house with braided rugs, although it turns out that braided rugs cost hundreds of dollars now, unless they are synthetic, which these clearly are not. Ames and Natalie bought these rugs before braided rugs were chic. Or maybe the rugs came down through Ames's family.
"Nice place," the cop comments. "Didn't think ministers got paid so well."
Louise knows that she shouldn't touch anything but she can't resist trailing her fingers along the walls. She feels the way she felt crawling through those plastic tunnels at McDonald's - like some fiber-optic probe invading places she shouldn't be going. As they pass the master bedroom she warns herself not to look inside, but she can't help it. The room is spare and light, with another braided rug and a spindled wood headboard she tries not to imagine Natalie's fingers gripping. She wants to find a bathroom and give herself over to grief - for the life she will never have with Ames, the shattered consolation of thinking herself a decent, honest person, the peace she lost with Richard. Her husband is an intelligent, well-meaning man. She used to be content with the life they built, and she will never be content again. She used to love being alone - reading, playing the oboe, biking - but now being alone isn't being by herself, it's being without Ames.
She steals a Kleenex from the nightstand, wipes her nose, stuffs the tissue in her pocket along with the drawing, then follows the cops' voices toward a room she assumes must be the kitchen. She imagines throwing open the cupboards and calling the cops' attention to the two sets of dishes, the two sets of silver, the two sets of everything, one for dairy, one for meat. Evidence, she thinks. The dishes are evidence. But when she enters and sees the mess - the dishes scattered across the floor, the ferns uprooted among the shards, the shattered jars of sauerkraut and pickles that Natalie canned herself - Louise nearly passes out. She is revolted by the knowledge that this violence could have been done to her, and, even more, the realization that she could have been the one to do the violence.
The blonde officer is dangling a paperback from a latex-gloved hand. The cover is black and white, nothing a commercial publisher would produce. Louise has never heard of The Turner Diaries, but several days from now, while she is wandering around the lake to avoid returning to the room she has rented at the Inn, the only place she could think to go after the terrible scene with Richard and the more terrible scene with Ames, she will find copies of the book at a store that sells bait, guns and quilted flags for all occasions. She will buy the book and read it to convince herself that Ames truly was in danger. And yes, she will see, he was. These are evil men and women so perverted by passion for their cause that they might destroy anything or anyone they take to be a threat. Every few minutes she will need to stop reading and pace around the lake to dispel the nausea in her gut. She will look back across the algae-covered water at the ammo store and think: This is the place to which extremists are banished. What she has done is inexcusable. But Ames is guilty too. Of aiding and abetting. That's the name for what he has done. Oh, she doesn't mean adultery. Romantic love is fine. But obsession isn't love. It isn't even passion.
But now, in Ames's kitchen, she still regards herself as an innocent witness to a crime. She is baffled by the cops' insistence that she read the passages in the book highlighted in yellow marker:
The Jewish takeover of the Christian churches and corruption of the ministry are now virtually complete. The pulpit prostitutes preach the System's party line to their flocks every Sunday, and they collect their 30 pieces of silver in the form of government 'study' grants, 'brotherhood' awards, fees for speaking engagements, and a good press....
And, near the end:
Today has been the Day of the Rope - a grim and bloody day, but an unavoidable one. Tonight, for the first time in weeks, it is quiet and totally peaceful ... But the night is filled with silent horrors; from tens of thousands of lampposts, power poles, and trees throughout this vast metropolitan area the grisly forms hang.
The book, the cops reveal, was propped against the sugar bowl. They show Louise the flyleaf, on which someone has inscribed WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE. Is this the sort of book the minister would read? Does Louise know anyone who might have broken in and left it? She stares at the inscription. With the writer's crazy loops, the "I" might be an "O." The cops ask Louise what caused her to drive by, what aroused her suspicion, and even as she is trying to gather the words to justify her surveillance of Ames's house, she thinks what might have happened if she hadn't called the cops.
Nothing. Not a thing. Ames would have gotten home and discovered the ravished kitchen and the book against the bowl. He would have been furious at the violation and frightened for his girls. But that couldn't have been worse than his driving up with Natalie and finding a police car parked backward by his curb, and his neighbor mowing his lawn, and two police officers in his kitchen interrogating his lover as to why she had driven by his house so many times in one week.
What breaks Louise's heart is seeing Ames reach instinctively for Natalie, and Natalie shrink against his arm. “Why me, Ames?” Natalie demands to know. “Why me?” And that is what sinks Louise completely. Hearing a person's voice, more than any form of contact, makes that person real. For all Louise knows, the brute who broadcasts propaganda for the Michigan Militia visits her neighbor's house each day. Louise might even have seen him. But nothing could be more terrifying than hearing that spiteful voice spew its vicious lies. A person could be anyone until he spoke. And now, hearing Natalie say in her nasal voice, "How could they hate me this much?" Louise is forced to grant Ames’s wife a reality that she would not have been forced to grant merely from seeing Natalie's photo on the mantel or her pantyhose or her wig at the foot of Ames’s bed.
Granting that reality, Louise can't help but judge Natalie to be one of the most unpleasant women she has ever met. Natalie won't stop berating Ames. “It’s all your fault,” she keeps saying. “No matter what I tell you, you keep pursuing activities that put the girls and me at risk.” She upbraids the two policewomen for not having kept surveillance on the house while she and Ames were out of town. Worse, she manages to scare her daughters, who, when they came in, regarded the break-in as exciting. "They did this because they hate us," she tells the girls, waving a shard of china. "They did this because we're Jews."
And Ames. Ames pretends that he has never even met Louise. He doesn’t wink, doesn’t shrug, doesn’t make the slightest sign to indicate that she was acting in his interest, that she hasn’t suffered a shock, that he is in the least bit responsible for the time they have spent together or the things they have said and done or what she has invested in their love.
“Honey,” he says to Natalie, “I’m sorry, you were right, it isn’t fair that I expose you all to this.” With his arm around her back, he leads her from the room, motioning the girls to follow. Louise watches them go out, still hoping Ames will give her some sign of recognition, or pity. But no, it never comes. She is left in the kitchen with the officers, too shaken and distraught to cry. Ames’s decision to remain with Natalie is as incomprehensible as the decision of the town's Christian fundamentalists to continue their belief that God created the universe in six days, their opposition to treating people with AIDS, or their preparations for the time when the government will send black helicopters to round them up. But none of this matters. People believe what they want to believe and there is surprisingly little you can do to dissuade them. No matter how right you think you are, you never are allowed to invade another person's house and make the sort of mess Louise is standing in right now.