In town, a shoe repairman who makes most of his income from dry cleaning, listens to the siren and looks at his watch, proud that it’s exactly right and that it’s been exactly right for ten years now. A watch he got at the corner pharmacy! Something like this, a cheap watch that works so well, well it gives him pause each day. There’s a sermon in this somewhere. He should suggest it to the preacher when he comes in for his shirt and collars.
A housewife, logged on to a chat room as Sexysue99, signs off. Her husband will be home in five minutes.
In his restaurant, Beck Patterson whisks eggs to add to the meatloaf mixture. Even though he knows it’s the noon siren, and expected, there’s a split second of an adrenalin rush that jostles the steady movement of his hand. He’s the chief of the volunteer fire department. Once a day he can ignore the siren. The rest of the time it means: Move!
Others don’t hear the noon siren. Janey Bruce is bent over her lunch tray, head turned toward Ray Jouriles, who’s looking back at her. Ray was about to start eating a hamburger but has just forgotten that he’s hungry. Janey’s holding her long, light-brown hair back so that Ray can see her face clearly. She has almost mouthed the quiet words she just spoke, and now the two of them look for clues in each other’s faces, afraid of what was said, what will be said. Ray hopes that what he has just learned is incorrect and all he has to do is check the box marked false and move on to a new question. He thinks about the commercials he’s seen for pregnancy tests and knows Janey has used one of those stick things with the plus and minus signs, and suddenly he hates math, school, the people who make those tests, himself, Janey, and the kids in the cafeteria who keep talking because they are not dying here–not that’s he’s dying, but it feels like he is. But he can’t hate Janey, not even for a moment, and with this realization, he loves her again, but he’s mad.
What he wants to say is, why did you have to tell me here, right before my English final? But he knows why. She’s telling him the first minute she can because it’s huge and she can’t sit here during lunch and pretend that she isn’t pregnant. To expect that would be to deny what they have: real, true love. And she’s waiting patiently for him to speak, with fear but not anger, and Ray wants to be eighteen, or twenty, or thirty, and say everything will be fine.
“I love you,” he says, and feels like an adult, then he’s sixteen and scared out of his mind. “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” she says, and wants to cry. One tear runs down her cheek and she wipes it away. What she wants is an abortion. She knows that, but she can’t say that word in the school cafeteria, even mouth it. And even if she wants one, her mom works at the hospital. She’d know.
“Okay,” he says. “We’ll figure it out after school.”
Janey nods and looks around to see if their conversation has been noticed. It hasn’t. Ray and Janey have spent many lunches hunched together, talking between themselves. To everyone else, nothing has changed.
Lois Waters hadn’t noticed the noon whistle either. She sits at her cluttered desk, in her cluttered office at the Whitehope Public Library, staring at a red pen lying across the order form for three hundred seventeen dollars and twenty-six cents worth of books. She’s not thinking about the pen, or the order, or the unopened cherry yogurt in front of her. Her whole body is in a state of stasis. She, too, is not hungry, and when, a moment ago, she looked away from the yogurt, thinking I can’t possibly eat that, her eyes wandered to this red pen but her mind wandered to another place: a place of wanting. She wants Amory back. You can come back now. Please, I want you back now. Like a child she thinks that if she just asks nicely enough, someone will help her. She knows that there’s no coming back from death, but emotionally, it’s a different story.
Amory died eight years after Lois started working at the library and he came in to ask about a book. He died a year and a half after his wife died. Four and a half months after he asked Lois out. Five weeks after he told her that he loved her and she said she loved him. Three weeks after he asked her to marry him. And two weeks before his daughter Stella was to fly in from D.C. with her adopted daughter, Lee, when he would have told Stella that he was in love with Lois, and introduced them. He hadn’t told his daughter about Lois, worried Stella might be upset by his loving someone else so soon after her mother death. But Stella should understand love, he told Lois, since she’d fallen in love with love over and over again. He shook his head in sadness over his daughter’s bouts with love and men.
Amory died in that momentous time while Lois was feeling intense, overwhelming passion, something she knew even then would not stay, would ebb imperceptibly into companionship. There was nothing wrong with companionship and all the things that came with it, but passion, well that was different. It made her young again. Now she will never be young again. Never again will she lie in his four-poster bed while he looks at her with eyes that dismiss her aging skin, seeing beauty that she herself has not seen in years. The number of never agains is tremendous, and she has the urge to catalog them, but there is no order to the list; they are all equal in her wanting: relaxing at his kitchen table drinking coffee while Amory makes scrambled eggs with ham; dancing to Sinatra in the large room in his enormous and strange house; sitting on the porch swing in the dusk, waiting for deer to appear; walking through the woods as Amory tells tales of long ago when the Indians lived here. So much in four months, and nowhere near enough.
When he told her that he loved her, she had not returned his words, not for days and days. Why did she wait? Oh, she knows, really. She was so afraid of the memory of his dead wife, afraid he couldn’t mean what he was saying. Elizabeth was so vibrant, notorious in town for her dramatic entrances and her showy embraces. Lois once saw Elizabeth hug the clerk at Fred’s Market when the girl mentioned she was getting married. The clerk would never have told Lois something like that, nor would Lois have hugged her if she had. What a strange thing to do! But still, Lois respected Elizabeth for the way she lived her life publicly. And she respected Elizabeth for another reason: she was married to Amory whom Lois had admired since the day he walked into the library eight years before.
It wasn’t Lois who found his body. She hadn’t slept there that night. A woman who came once a month to clean had found Amory lifeless in bed. Lois should have slept over. She might have saved him, heard him moan in his sleep, seen his face go grey. He might have called out to her. Why hadn’t she stayed? Because the cleaning woman was coming and Lois would have to leave before she came; it was embarrassing to be a woman in the house with another woman cleaning it. “When we’re married,” she’d told Amory that night before she left, “I’ll clean the house myself.” She looked forward to that. Making it her own, moving some of the heavy antiques into the basement. To move into another woman’s house–it was hard to imagine. But Amory loved it, and it was a wonderful house.
She had to hear about his death from Ivy Gates, who worked part-time at the library, a notorious gossip, who hissed stories as if they were hot air escaping from an overblown balloon. “That man in the white house, the one who comes in all the time for books on Indians, did you hear about him?” Lois shook her head, hardly breathing, suddenly afraid. She hadn’t spoken to Amory yet that day, but would be going there after work, although Ivy certainly didn’t know that. Ivy didn’t wait for a reply anyway. “He died. Cornelia Hunt found him dead in his bed this morning! Dan Latts got the phone call at the firehouse and drove up there. Dead. Probably a heart attack.”
Lois had flinched, then began trembling so badly she’d gone to sit down in the nearest chair, a child-sized chair in the children’s section. Ivy had leaned over her, saying stupid things like she was sorry to surprise Lois this way, and she that knew Lois was fond of the man. Lois waved her away, and when she finally could stand, said she had to leave for a while. She’d gone to Amory’s house. No one was there, but when she entered with her key, she could hardly think straight. She did her best to remove her things, because Stella would certainly be coming soon, and finding Lois’s bathrobe and slippers might upset her. But she’d been frightened someone would show up at any minute, and she left as quickly as she could–as if she was a criminal, breaking and entering! She had nothing to be ashamed about, and yet. . . why had they been so secretive? It wasn’t so much on purpose; more just who they were. It had been a cold, wet spring; they had stayed inside the white house on the hill, and in those rare moments of sunshine had walked in the woods. She was completely professional when Amory came to the library. And neither one of them was at all social, or liked to eat out. They had spent their time together alone.
At the funeral last week, Lois introduced herself to Stella as a friend of her father’s. How could she say, “Hi, I’m the woman your father loved, but never told you about.” How could you tell someone who has suddenly lost her father something like that?
“Damn it, come back,” she says, no longer nice about it, no longer kind about it. Then she forces herself to stand up, go back to work. She’ll shelve books. Keep herself moving. But, in a back, narrow aisle, she stops, a thick book on gardening held out like an offering someone should take from her. He’s really dead.
She can’t possibly go on now, and yet she has two children, and three grandchildren, and she can’t just jump off a bridge. That she can’t do this, a simple thing, really, makes her bitter. She will grow bitter as she ages. She can feel it in her bones: bitterness and arthritis.
She places the book on the shelf. There is, as always, the slight pleasure of a thing put in its place.