Henri Bensussen

 

THE CONJUGATION OF WANT

Doris refilled her wine glass and sought out a corner where she could watch the crowd without, she hoped, looking like a pitiful wallflower, which is what her mother would have said. Staring at a display of a famous author’s latest detective novel as if vitally interested in their dust jackets, she was approached by a neatly dressed, nondescript man. Was he part of a security detail, she wondered; but why would one be needed at a press party?

“Hi, I’m Dick,” the man said, extending his hand, its fingernails neatly trimmed. “I bet you enjoy mysteries as much as I do.” 

“It depends.” Doris looked around as though checking out escape routes. “It depends on how much is much.”

“Probably too much. It’s because I do investigative work myself.”

“Is being named Dick a clue to your true nature? I’m a Doris, but not a Day.”

“Nice joke,” Dick said. “You’re certainly as pretty, but I won’t ask you to sing.”

Pretty? Doris felt her face redden, but Dick, scanning the lurid dust jackets, was at least no longer scanning her.

Our True Selves. Quite a title, and what we’re all supposed to be searching for, according to the shrinks.” Dick turned back to Doris. “Could we find a quieter place to talk? It’s noisy, with this crowd.”

“Not any worse than the trains that clang in my head.” Unsure why she’d jumped to that problem and unable to stop herself, she added, “My doctor told me I have a classic case of tinnitus. Don’t tell anyone.” Too much wine—again, that was it.

“You can count on me.” Dick smiled (or was it more of a smirk? thought Doris), and brushed invisible crumbs from his navy blue tie.

“Did you say you do detective work?” Doris peered at Dick over the rim of her glass.

 “Do you really have a freight train in your head?”

“It’s sort’ve like a migraine, but spooky. Like, I’ll be looking out the window, and suddenly—the clacking of wheels on tracks. It’s startling at first, and then it drives me crazy. This room could bring it on, too.” She tried to block out the large conference room with its red-draped walls and maroon mottled carpet. “I feel like I should be going on a trip somewhere.”

“Maybe on the Orient Express?”

“We know what happened on that train.” She paused. “No, it would be to a place that’s not so harsh.”

“Let’s find something to eat, and then we can talk about travel.” He offered his arm; Doris let him lead her toward the buffet table with its hors d’ouevres and drinks. He refilled her glass with the white wine she pointed out, but chose water for himself.

“You probably read a lot of mysteries,” Doris said, as they hovered over a dish of carrot sticks.

“I’m a fan of Lex Pelham’s, and read his books as soon as they come out. We once worked for the same company. What about you?”

“His editor. I work for J J & J, his publisher.”

“Then you must have the inside story on all his novels—know the solution before the rest of us.”

“Sometimes I know the ending better than he does; he’s been getting sloppy with his writing lately.” She shrugged her shoulders. “But he’s always a best-seller for us, one every year. He gives me signed copies, and I pass them on to my mother.” 

They ambled past the carrots and reached the far end of the table, next to the salsa and chips. A few more steps would take them to the doors marked “Exit.” 

 “Are you ready to leave?” said Dick. “We could take a walk along the river and have some dinner.”

Doris stared down at her shoes, a pair of satin heels. “I couldn’t possibly, but I do have to leave. I promised Mother I’d stop in for a short visit.” She glanced at her watch. “I’m already late.” She pushed some strands of brown hair behind her ear and set down her glass; her hand shook and wine spilled onto the tablecloth.

 Dick sopped up the liquid with a napkin. “I’d love to meet your mother.”

“But I hardly know you. Mother might get the wrong idea.” Doris heard herself whining, and swallowed a hiccup.

 Dick steered her toward the door. “Do I look untrustworthy? Save your taxi fare. I’m the most dependable guy you’ll ever meet.”

Moments later, Doris found herself in Dick’s drab gray sedan. She smoothed out her black knit dress (“a little black dress is never out of style,” her mother had repeated to her for the past ten years); her shoes were in a pristine state of cleanliness. If she brought a strange man to meet her mother, at least no detail would be out of order. She willed herself to relax into the leatherette seat, and tried not to consider that she felt pulled along like a sack of potatoes by charging horses over which potatoes had not one whit of control.

When they arrived, Dick impressed Doris’s mother by bowing as he was introduced. Over coffee and cake, she thanked him for taking care of her daughter, her only child, and became teary-eyed when he admitted that his own mother had died when he was still a teenager. He told her he was 35, when she guessed that he was 38. Doris, who had recently passed over the thirty-year divide, did not volunteer that bit of information, nor did her mother.

Later, after she’d been returned intact to her own apartment, Doris fell into a deep sleep. Now she lay awake, her throat dry. She looked at the clock. One-thirty. Dick was perfect with her mother, who made only one comment about Doris’s looks—“is that a blemish, dear?”—a new record, and had invited Dick to visit again. Her mother often complained of loneliness since her father’s death of a coronary three years back.

Doris pushed away the blankets and felt her way to the kitchen for a drink of water. Light from a full moon burned through her half-lidded eyes as she stood at the uncurtained window. Back in bed, she pulled the sheet over her face but couldn’t stop her mind from skittering through every disaster it might be possible for her to encounter. Mother would die of a fatal accident and she would not be there to save her. Doris’s car could break down on the highway and a serial killer stop and pretend to help her; she would flatten him with a tire iron. A garbled report at the weekly editorial meetings would get her fired, she’d be diagnosed with lupus, and her apartment erupt in flames. 

The clock read 2:15. Doris opened and closed her eyes. She didn’t want to think about the evening. A whirring noise filled her ears—those train wheels again. She felt pinned by the sheets and blankets. Dick seemed nice enough; he didn’t try anything stupid when he dropped her off at her apartment. She gave him her phone number (why had she done that?). She didn’t expect to hear from him again; did she hope he would call? It was 2:45. Doris willed her eyes to stay shut, forced the lines in her forehead to smooth out, and concentrated on the 23rd psalm. Over and over she repeated in her mind, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Want, wanting, wanted: she was hounded awake again by the conjugation of want. What did she want? Who did she want to want her? Wanting in ambition, wanting when it came to “personality”—her mother’s voice chimed in, threatening that she would become an Old Maid. All Doris wanted, right then, was to sleep.

The next morning, after two cups of coffee and aspirin (remembering too late her doctor’s advice to cut down on both), she slogged through her Saturday routine of cleaning the apartment, doing the laundry. As she pushed the shoebox of satin heels into her closet, she found an old pair of jeans on the floor. Leftovers from college, threadbare and patched; she stuffed them back into the depths of the closet. While scrubbing the bathroom she stopped to gaze at herself in the mirror. No blemishes, unless her own features were one big blemish: unplucked eyebrows, flushed cheeks, the nose a little too large, the chin not pronounced enough. Time for another haircut too. Sighing, she took out the trash and fixed some lunch from the past week’s leftovers.

Saturday afternoons were set aside for movies, or shopping, but today she wanted to curl up on the couch with a long novel. She could order take-out for dinner and have an early drink (her doctor had talked of the side-effects of alcohol; she always forgot that part). Tomorrow, after the Sunday papers and a walk in the park, she’d visit her mother and they would have dinner together. Her life was set into a routine of preservative steps, like a boat moored at dry dock but kept maintained against the day it would be needed.

Doris returned to her apartment Monday evening just as the phone rang. It was Dick. “I’ve been thinking about you all weekend,” he said. “How about dinner next Friday night?”

“Dinner?” Her pulse rate increased; her hands began to sweat.

“You do eat,” said Dick, “I hope? You’re not a vegetarian, are you?”

“Oh, of course, I mean, I eat, and no, I’m not a vegetarian, well I don’t like thick raw steaks . . .”

“Good. I’ll get reservations. Wear comfortable shoes; we’ll take a walk after.”

Doris gave a little laugh. “You won’t let me forget that.”

“Our little joke,” he said. “I’ll pick you up at six.”

He was rather sweet, she thought later. It had been ages since she dated anyone. It would make her mother, who had lately criticized her for becoming “eccentric,” happy, too.

“Where are we going?” she asked, when he arrived Friday, promptly at six.

“Pretend you’re the detective, and are following me,” he said, taking her arm to guide her into the car. 

Doris enjoyed games and it wasn’t long before they were laughing and she relaxed. She guessed the restaurant two blocks before it came into view. “My favorite Chinese place,” she said. “Did you know that?”

“Possible.” His face gyrated into what passed as a smile.

 Doris did not learn much more about him at dinner, or on the walk afterward along a lantern-lit path in the park, alive with bongo drummers and jugglers, except that he worked in insurance and had sound investments. She invited him up to her apartment for a nightcap when he lingered at her door. They sat on the couch, and discussed their favorite movies and books (he liked action, she preferred English drama). Before he left they made another date, and he hugged her before leaving. He’d been comfortable to be with, Doris thought, though he dressed rather somberly, and reminded her of the manager at her local bank. She liked being out on a summer night walking in the park.

The next date went well, a movie at an art house; Doris enjoyed discussing the plot with Dick afterward, though he had a different view of it than she did. He came up to her apartment and she made some drinks. They were on the couch again and it wasn’t long before he put his arms around her and moved in for a kiss. She closed her eyes, letting herself relax into being held. His face wasn’t scratchy as she expected, and he had no moustache to contend with. She remembered college, kissing her roommate, Kathryn, but she didn’t feel anything as passionate as that now. Anyway, they had been two young girls playing a game, was all.

That Sunday she mentioned her latest date with Dick to her mother, who responded with enthusiastic plans for the future. “Don’t let this one go, Doris,” she warned. “I feel in my bones he’s the right man for you.”

Dick arrived with a bouquet of roses on their next date, and took her to dinner in a dark den of a restaurant, barely lit with flickering candles. Sitting opposite, he seemed to disappear into the gloom, except for the reflection of candlelight in the lenses of his glasses. After a stop at a jazz club, they were again on the couch. She drank two martinis at the club, and made more when they reached her apartment. She was teasing Dick about feeling blind at dinner, making word plays around the concept of being blind-sided, when he said, “Do you like surprises?” 

“More surprises? The roses are so striking.” She glanced at the blood-red blooms hanging their heads over the one, small vase she owned.

“This one’s a bit different, but I thought, well you and I are getting along so well . . .” He pulled out three packages of Trojans, in different styles, and asked her to select the one she liked. Doris tried to suppress a nervous tic beginning in her left eyelid. Isn’t this what was supposed to happen by the third date, if not the first, according to the movies? Why not give it a chance; it had been a long time, after all. She could almost feel Mother giving her a little push.

They read over the descriptions together. Her editorial eye couldn’t help noticing an ungrammatical sentence. Together they thought up variations of the ad copy, laughing until they were hysterical

“Let’s try ‘Shared Sensation’,” she said, out of a sense of fairness.

In the morning, lying alone in the bed that had also held Dick hours before, Doris thought about the fun they’d made of their efforts to have serious sex. When he reached to turn off the light and smacked her chin with his elbow, she realized Dick was as much of a novice as she was. She couldn’t remember what she felt, except when it was over she had no trouble falling asleep. Her head hurt, and the bed was a mess. Papers on her desk looked slightly out of place, like a breeze had passed through and moved them a fraction off center. Her clothes were scattered on the floor. The scent of his cologne on the pillow worsened her headache.

Making her way to the kitchen, straightening as she went, she wondered how married women felt, going through this night after night, never able to sleep alone. Picking up the used glasses, she saw that Dick’s martini had barely been touched. She drank it down. Probably too much gin went into their drinks. The bathroom wastebasket held the remains of Shared Sensation. Dumping the half-dead roses on top, she took it downstairs to the trash bin.

Later, when she called her mother to confirm their usual weekend dinner, she told her about the date with Dick, though not about what happened afterward. 

“I’m so glad you two are hitting it off,” said her mother. “Why don’t you invite him over next Sunday? He’s such a thoughtful person. I know all his favorite dishes. I’ll make a special dinner.”

How did Mother know what Dick liked? Would he become a regular at their Sunday dinners? She could put off the call to Dick. Maybe he would have something else planned. That evening when she returned from a long walk whose only purpose seemed to be to determine how far she could go before having to turn back, he’d left a message for her. It had been “wonderful” for him. He hoped he hadn’t hurt her in any way. She was “lovely.” “Call me as soon as you get home.” She didn’t want to call. She felt more like throwing up. She punched in his number.

“Dick says he really likes you,” she said to her mother, when she called later to confirm he’d come.

“Such a nice boy. He’s the first young man you’ve introduced me to that I know is deserving. I want to have grandchildren before I’m too old to enjoy them, Doris. I’ll have a good wine for dinner, so don’t feel you have to drink something before you come.”

Doris was about to fill a glass with wine, when the sting of her mother’s comment settled into her heart. Her hand shook as she stared at it, as if it was a frightened animal trapped and waiting for its fate. She decided on a strong cup of tea instead. A murmuring of those strange noises had begun in her head. She knew where that could lead; she didn’t want to go there.

The idea of motherhood repulsed her. Sometime in the past she decided that life dedicated to correcting word usage was preferable to correcting and raising children, who were so much messier. A selfish reason to stay single. Grandchildren completed the ring of generations. She owed it to her mother. What was the point of little black dresses and cocktail parties if not to catch a husband? She put her hook in and now she had her fish, no matter that she didn’t much like fish. She’d dated other men for short periods, but none of them were as persistent as Dick. He’d make a good father (was she too old to have children?). She thought about their regular Friday night dates. He would bring her home, she’d make them drinks (a strong one for her), and then be prepared for bed. On Sunday, dinner with mother, and her fate would be sealed.

Doris arrived at her office early Monday. Hilda, the department secretary, was brewing a pot of coffee when she went into the lunchroom with her cup. 

“Doris, you look peaked,” Hilda said, making “peaked” a two-syllable word.

“Sleep is not as easy as it used to be,” Doris said. “Hilda, how long have you been married?”

“Twenty-four years next month. The children are almost out of the house.” She had progressed from file clerk to typist to housewife to mother to secretary, and doubted she would go much farther, unless her job title was modernized to administrative assistant.

“I bet it’s been a happy marriage for you; I never hear you complain.”

“We’ve had our problems, for sure,” said Hilda, “and I can tell you there have been times when I envied a single woman like you, so free, no one to answer to but yourself.” Hilda had wiped off the coffee counter and had moved on to the lunch table. Her office was always organized; she dusted it every Friday before leaving for the weekend.

“But what about your children?”

“A very mixed blessing. Can’t wait till they’re gone and I can have some peace and quiet. Of course, my husband still has his needs. Well, the coffee’s made, Doris, and you have the honor of the first cup.”

Doris returned to her office and looked at the projects piled up around the desk. She stared at the dark liquid in her cup and the reflection in it of the ceiling lights. Like a visual puzzle, background and foreground. She could be sucked in by the dark, or lifted up by the illumination. She pulled Pelham’s latest manuscript toward her as though it was a dish of some hated food she was forced to eat.

That evening, Doris tackled her mail. The annual alumni magazine from her university had arrived, and she flipped through the pages to the back. She liked to see if some of her classmates had written updates on their lives. Kathryn, she noticed, had opened her own veterinary clinic, in Whitefish, Montana. Kathryn must have returned to her hometown after graduation. Doris had never been west of Philadelphia. 

They had been roommates for a year. In and out of each other’s beds. Face it, Doris said to herself, you had a crush on her. That friend of hers, though, big as a football player, keys hanging off her belt, always barging in at odd times. Frightened by a woman who dared to be tough as a man. Made up an excuse for moving out, saying you wanted to be independent, on your own. And here you are, alone, with Mother and Dick. 

Hilda mentioned freedom . . . what did it mean to be free? What did it mean to be an adult, for that matter? She picked up a pencil and began making a list: “traits of the perfect husband.” Scratching out husband she wrote in “lover.” She drew a line through that and wrote, “What I want to do in the next five years.” Her list filled the page. Nowhere did the word “marriage” appear. The next day she left a message for Dick that she was devoting every waking hour to Pelham, and wouldn’t be able to see him till their scheduled dinner.

“I’ve been trying to talk to you for days,” Dick said when he arrived on Sunday to pick up Doris, “but we never seem to connect.”

“Answering machines have been a great invention. Years ago we had to rely on the mailman. Mother said he used to deliver mail twice a day; can you imagine?” 

“Fourth-class mail twice a day? I’d have to have twice as many garbage cans.”

Doris smiled. “Mother said she’s making your favorite dishes. How did she know what they were?”

“That’s easy. I ran into her at the grocery store and we began talking about food, naturally.”

“Naturally,” said Doris, staring out the window. She didn’t ask how he’d come to shop in the same store as her mother.

When they arrived, Doris’s mother asked him to use her given name, Charlotte. Dick asked if he could call her Charlie, and she responded with “dear boy.” Dinner was Burgundy beef and roasted potatoes. For the past couple of years it had been chicken and salad. Her mother was so cheerful over dinner that Doris wondered if she had changed her tastes in food only to make sure Doris didn’t overeat and lose her figure. Doris refilled her wineglass twice by the time dessert was served. Afterward, Doris’s mother brought out the family photo album. 

Dick turned the pages slowly as Charlotte identified the pictures—Doris as an infant, chubby with a bright smile, held in the arms of a serious father. Doris in first grade, in a Brownie uniform, then in her Girl Scout green dress with a sash full of badges. 

“I loved Girl Scouts,” said Doris, twirling her glass; till then she’d been trying to get the pages turned faster. 

“You outgrew that, remember?” said her mother.

“When I was in seventh grade, you made me drop out. That’s what I remember.”

“You had so much school work, and piano lessons, and you began babysitting, too.”

“You’re sure it wasn’t that first sleep-over?” The memory came back, she and her best friend found fast asleep rolled into the same sleeping bag when her mother had stopped by early in the morning to check on the party. No one else’s mother came that early. She had wakened everyone in the house with her demands that Doris get dressed and leave right then.  

Doris hummed a song that suddenly came into her head. Dick and her mother stared at her. “Girl Scouts Forever,” she said. “I just remembered the tune.”

Her mother frowned, then turned another page, and exclaimed over Doris’s graduation picture. “Wasn’t she adorable?” she said to Dick. “And she won a scholarship to the university, too.”

“She’s still adorable,” said Dick. “And now that I’ve found you both, I never want to lose you.”

Her mother glanced over at Doris with a private smile, who responded by reaching for the wine bottle, but found it empty.

“I wasn’t able to have more children after Doris,” Charlotte said. “What about your family, Dick?”

“I’m number three out of four boys.” He chuckled. “I always feel ridiculously materialistic having all those brothers.” 

Doris had always wanted a brother, though she had never told her mother this. Dick would have been perfect in that role, she thought. She gave him a commiserating pat on the arm. He reached over and gently unhooked her fingers from her glass, then took it into the kitchen, returning with their wraps. As they prepared to leave, their reflections were caught in the hall mirror. They were both dressed like bankers, Doris thought, well groomed in beige and gray. Even her clothes did not reflect her real self, except for that pair of old jeans stashed in the closet. That evening she pulled them out, along with her suitcase. “Go on a trip” was the first item on her list, followed by “Escape from Pelham,” and “Dick??”

Here she was preparing to pack a suitcase without a clue as to a destination. Maybe Montana? She logged on to her computer, entered Kathryn’s email address, and composed a message. She scanned it for errors, took out a phrase that seemed to be a plea for rescue, added a final flip comment to fend off a hint of pity, and hit the “send” button.

Editorial meetings were every Monday morning. Pelham’s newest manuscript was on the agenda, and when it came up Doris spoke against it, the only voice to do so. Sales personnel reacted with astonishment. G.B., the editorial director, looked at Doris’s determined expression and said, “Doris, you’ve never said anything against him until now. What do you know that we don’t?”

“His mysteries are too predictable. They’re not interesting anymore. Frankly, they bore me.” She gripped her coffee cup and kept her gaze averted from the sales group at the far end of the table, acting out their displeasure at this unexpected turn. 

“I’ll think it over,” said G.B., “and Doris, come to my office later, please.”

Doris followed him meekly when the meeting ended. “Doris, what’s going on here?”

“Too much happening. I’m feeling tired out.” Doris dropped into the chair in front of his desk. “These mysteries I have to edit are not helping. I realized the other day that I haven’t taken a vacation in two years.”

“Maybe this would be a good time for one.” He smiled as if channeling Santa Claus. 

“I’m glad you said it first, because I’ve already made a reservation.”

The smile disappeared. “A short trip, I hope. Where will you go?”

“Montana—an old girlfriend from college; I thought I’d look her up. I’ll take the train; I can edit Pelham’s manuscript during the trip.”

 “Good idea. I was afraid you’d refuse to do it.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “He depends on you, you know.” 

“I’m willing to do this one in exchange for a month off.”

He stared at her for a few seconds. “Only if you promise you’ll come back.”

“I can’t promise,” said Doris, “until I get there.” G.B frowned and leaned back in his chair. “Leave a number where we can reach you.”

After lunch, Doris stopped in at Hilda’s office.

“You’re looking better,” Hilda said. “Did the meeting go well?”

“I’ve got to get away, Hilda,” and she outlined her tale of woe, knowing Hilda’s reputation as the keeper of confidences.

 “It sounds like you’re planning a jail break. Can’t you just tell this fellow you want to break it off?”

“Mother would have a fit.”

“So, a two-pronged break. How soon are you going?”

“Wednesday. Speaking of Mother, after I leave if she, or anyone, calls for me, tell them I was sent for by an author who needed last-minute help to meet a deadline. Keep it confidential. I’ll contact you in a week and pick up messages.”

Hilda winked. “You can trust me,” she said. 

Wednesday morning, during the hour Doris knew her mother would be at a club meeting, she left a message that she’d be gone on an unexpected assignment “up north” and would write more soon. “Dick will help you with anything you need,” she said. “I won’t worry about you, now that he’s in your life.” 

When Dick called Doris that night he heard the usual answering machine script, and after another try on Thursday, he called Doris’s mother, who relayed Doris’s message. “I can’t get anything out of that horrible secretary at work,” she said. But Dick did not get any further than Doris’s mother, and was not happy when advised to be patient.

At the office, Hilda firmly kept Doris’s whereabouts a mystery. Sympathetic and reassuring, she refused to divulge anything. She knew G.B. would back her up. The company was like family to its own. She thought about Doris going off to Montana; it wasn’t fair that she had to do that. What if she herself were to go away, be on her own, even if only for a week? The life of a bachelorette: did it compensate for lack of children? She brought herself back to earth with effort, answering the phone, computing expense accounts, feeling a bit dizzy from all the options suddenly opening up in her imagination.

Doris, meanwhile, tried to focus on Pelham’s manuscript, though her eyes kept glancing out the train window. Backyards of all sorts rushed by: some had elaborate gardens or vegetable plots, some mere places to park old cars and rusty lawnmowers; others neat or given over to children’s playthings. Each one told of a collection of people living together, how they used their place of habitation. As an apartment dweller she hadn’t thought much about land that one could mold into a dream or, alternatively, a trash pit. 

That night she climbed into the trim bed of her compartment. A tiny reading lamp built into the wall beamed a light onto her book. The train bumped and swayed as it sped through the dark, taking her with it. There would be a break of four hours in Chicago, for a transfer to the train heading west. She could change her plans. A short break from routine, maybe that’s all she needed. Continue as she had been, turn Dick into a family friend instead of a husband. Living alone and celibate, many women chose that path.

At breakfast the next morning, she was seated with three single men. The one across from her was thin, his clothes as worn as his face. She asked him where he was from.

“Nawlens,” he said, his voice raspy.

“Where’s that?” To Doris, it sounded like the name of a foreign city.

“New Orleans,” he repeated, “if any of it is still standing.” Hurricanes had drowned much of the city. “I tried driving out but got a flat tire, no place to get a new one, so I left it and hitched a ride out.”

The waiter came with the man’s breakfast tucked into a plastic container. A coach passenger, he wanted to eat at his seat. As far as he knew, Doris thought, there would be nothing—no job, no home—for him to return to. Leaving her job, her apartment, wouldn’t be the disaster it had been for him. As she passed through the coach car to her compartment, she saw him hunched in his seat with the remains of his breakfast. When she said hello, he looked up, surprised that anyone had noticed him.

The train arrived in Chicago hours late. She saw the Nawlens man clutching a bag and pulling a small, new, light blue suitcase. He was going south, dragging his suitcase of hope behind him. Those continuing on were herded to the station, and within fifteen minutes were lined up and led back along the tracks to the westward bound “Empire Builder.” The loud and dirty underground area where they boarded smelled of diesel fuel, urine, and cigarettes. As Doris marched along with her luggage, she felt torn between her own hopes and her mother’s expectations.

The new train pulled out of Chicago, speeding past a series of suburban stations into farmland. Doris found her way to the lounge car and ordered a gin and tonic. When she thought about Kathryn, nervous twinges stabbed her gut. She couldn’t discern any difference between the sound of the train wheels clacking underneath and the train noises in her head. Kathryn had sent a fast reply to her email, was happy to hear from her, and wrote a simple “See ya soon.”         

Returning to her compartment, she forced herself to tackle the manuscript. As usual, there was a gruesome, bloody crime scene. The victim was blonde, female, young, and naked, her anatomy lovingly described in full detail. She noticed for the first time that the lead investigator, a stock character of Pelham’s, dressed in clothes similar to Dick’s—her Dick, her ex-Dick, she reminded herself.

She looked out the window at the fresh green of the fields. This would be the last Pelham story she would ever edit. What she wanted now was to return to a time of adventure that didn’t leave one bloodied and unconscious, and as much of a victim as the one in the manuscript. She wanted to start over, to be the person—to be a person—who could walk in a field of young corn and touch the fine silk as it pushed through the husk, with the sun shining on everything. 

Kathryn met her at the Whitefish station when the train pulled in the following evening. Doris had changed into her old college jeans and a sweater. Kathryn, tall and muscular, stashed Doris’s suitcase in the back of her pickup, after giving Doris a crushing hug.

“I wasn’t surprised to get your message,” she said.

“After all these years?”

“We were friends. Still are,” she said, as she turned on the motor and pulled out of the lot. “I see you still have that old pair of jeans you used to wear.”

“I’m hoping they’ll bring me luck.”

“Is that what this visit’s all about? Resetting the clock?” Kathryn laughed and pinched Doris’s leg, like she used to do.

“Just feeling lost. Trying to figure out who I am.” Doris giggled, moving to escape more pinches. “You haven’t changed. What happened with that big woman with the keys you used to go with?”

“Annie: we split up two years ago.” Kathryn shifted gears, making a series of turns. “Said Whitefish was too small. No women’s bars. No one to play with but me.”

“I was scared of her.”

“I remember. It’s why you left.” Cresting a short hill, Kathryn drove onto a gravel driveway and turned the engine off. “Annie was tough on the outside, emotional basket case on the inside. She did me a favor by leaving. What about you? Any man–or woman–in your life?”

Doris shivered as cold air penetrated the truck. “Two men. I’m running from both. One doesn’t really count, he’s an author I edit.”

“And the other?”

“My mother fell for him and wants me married.”

Kathryn patted her shoulder. “Let’s get you settled, then we’ll talk.”

A solid front door led into a large room with a stone fireplace at one end and a kitchen at the other. Two barking dachshunds bounded off a leather sofa torn on the back and repaired with duct tape. A gray striped cat unwound from a perch on a bookcase.

“I’ll make tea and warm up some soup,” Kathryn said. She was taller than Doris, and tanned by the sun. The flannel shirt she wore over a turtleneck was a deep green, the color of her eyes. “Stay here for awhile,” she said, as they ate. “Whitefish needs more women. You can sit by the lake and find yourself, or come with me when I make house calls.”

 “What’s the town like?” Doris bent to pet the bouncy dogs demanding attention.

“Rains a lot, except when it snows, but that’s winter. You’ll see in the morning the great mountain above the lake. Skier’s paradise.”

“It sounds beautiful, and so different from the East Coast.”

Kathryn came around the table and kissed the top of Doris’s head. “Let’s move to the sofa. I’ve got the perfect wine to toast a fire, even a fire that’s threatening to go out.”

With her feet on Kathryn’s lap and the dogs inserted in whatever space they could find, Doris told her news. The cat jumped up onto the back of the couch, and she stroked its ears when she came to the part about the photograph album. “Were you a Girl Scout?”

“Nope. I couldn’t see myself dressed in those awful uniforms.”

“I earned seventeen merit badges. That should show I’m capable of making my own decisions, like other adults.” She took a sip of wine, losing herself in the glints sparking off the crystal.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Remember when we roomed together?” Doris didn’t want to remember, but Kathryn kept on. “You were so young—naïve, in a way—yet also the responsible one.”

“That was so long ago. And I don’t want to think about my responsibilities, because if I did I’d take the next train back.”

“Here there won’t be anything you have to do except play with the dogs.” Kathryn refilled her own glass, but Doris refused more.

“Mother says I drink too much. And my doctor thinks it’s one of the reasons I have tinnitus; clacking train wheels that won’t stop.”

“So, you’re trying homeopathy—building up your immunity by riding the train, listening to those wheels all the way across the country. Very prescient. You’ll make a great addition to my veterinary practice.” Kathryn put down her glass and began massaging Doris’s feet. “You’ve done the same thing with your mother, you know.”

“In what way?”

“Listened to her advice so long that you built up enough immunity to break away.”

“Speaking of breakups, why did you stay with Annie all those years, if she had those emotional problems?”

“You get so bound up in someone else’s life that you think they can’t manage without you. It turned out she could, and she left.” She stopped her ministrations to Doris’s feet. “It was hard at first, but then I began to appreciate being free of worry.” She turned and embraced Doris, who put up no resistance. Kisses were returned with more and more passion, but when Kathryn’s hand slid beneath her sweater, Doris pulled away.

“I didn’t come here just because I was lonely, or looking for sex.”

“Why not?”

Doris laughed. “It’s too soon. Anyhow, I need to find out who, or what, I am. Then I can know what it is I want.”

“Will it take long? It’s not like you’re a breed of dog, with a pedigree.” Kathryn rose from the couch and stretched. “Let yourself be a human being.” She picked up the cat. “I’ll be upstairs if you change your mind.”

It wasn’t until Doris crawled into the guest bed in the room off the kitchen that she realized how tired she was. She fell asleep thinking about the way Kathryn’s eyes gazed into hers, hypnotic, but also warm and caring. When she awoke and opened the drapes of her room, a silvery, vast sheet of water edged with thick pines lay before her. She wanted to meet it, touch it, discover what it would tell her. The dogs were scratching at the back door, and when she opened it they raced out on a path that led toward the lake. She followed, and that’s where Kathryn found her a while later.

Doris took Kathryn’s hand. “I’m wondering if there’s a place for me in this landscape.”

 “Montana is big enough for everyone, including us.”

“The lake is like a mirror,” Doris said, as if she was in a dream. “Full of echoes and fractured images.”

“What do the echoes say?”

“Right now, nothing sensible.” She turned into Kathryn’s arms. “The sky is so deeply blue out here. I think blue might be my favorite color.”

“A special sky. Big sky, they call it. Gives you space to grow.”

Doris nodded. She felt her life opening up, like a tunnel that went on for miles and finally the walls lighten. Soon, she knew, the darkness would end, and color come back to her world. The cat was at her feet. She bent down and ran her fingers over its back. It gazed up at her with unblinking yellow eyes, its tail curling around her ankles.