|WHY HE DID IT
TWO HOURS AFTER he exposed himself to her, the girl made a scene at supper. It was just
what Wilder had hoped she'd do.
Why did they always have to have fish or chicken? she
groused. Why couldn't they just eat like other people? And if they had to have fish or
chicken, why couldn't they at least fry it? And why did she have to sit there and eat
every night no matter what when Justin could eat or not eat or just come in and make
himself a sandwich whenever he wanted to and nobody said anything about that?
She went on and on. Wilder pretended to ignore her.
She was his step-daughter, so he needed to be careful.
"Susan!" Jackie said each time the girl
paused for breath, but that was all.
They were having grilled chicken breasts and rice and
a mixed-green salad. A good meal. And this was a Monday evening. All their meals were good
now. Jackie had always been a fine cook, and now that she had started planning their
meals, they were eating better than ever. Jackie had been doing all this planning and
cooking because if you gave her a chance Susy would live off Cokes and Twinkies. Then her
face would break out and she'd gain weight and she'd start whining about that.
"I know. I know. You're doing it all for me.
Sure." Wilder laid his knife and fork across his plate, folded his hands in his lap,
leaned back in his chair and watched her calmly. She went on, imitating her mother's
cajoling, conciliatory, wheedling tone of voice. "Gavin and I are middle-aged now and
we have to watch our calories and cholesterol. But you're such a pretty girl. And you know
how mean kids can be about your complexion or if you're just a little bit overweight. You
just don't want to give them the chance."
"Stop it!" Jackie snapped. Wilder watched
her hands squeeze and twist the napkin. Susy kept on, her voice a consistent, mocking
whine. Her whole face was a sneer. "Susy," Wilder said, calmly and
authoritatively. "That's enough."
She gave Wilder a look that struck him as
conspiratorial. Tension seemed to drain out of her face, moving downward, muscle by
muscle, forehead to jaw. Wilder was sure that she was completely in control of herself.
This had all been an act. She knew what he knew. This would be the best way out for
everyone. The girl was smartno denying that.
"Enough?" she said. Her voice was perfectly
calm. "Who're you to tell me what's enough? Pig!" She threw her napkin onto her
plate. "You're sick. And I'm sick of you. I'm leaving. I'm not living here
anymore." She jerked herself away from the table and to her feet.
"Susan. Please. Don't."
"Go to your room," Wilder said.
"I'll be glad to," she said. "I need to
And that's just what she did. She went to her room and
packed. Jackie, of course, used everything from reason to tears to try to persuade her to
stay. Wilder stayed out of it.
He had cleaned off the table and done the dishes and
was sitting in his recliner reading the paper when Jackie came into the den and said he
needed to go back with her and talk to Susy. "She's saying some awful things."
That was Wilder's cue. He followed Jackie back to
When he entered the room, Susy turned to him and said,
"Do you know where the computer box is? It would be nice if I had that."
Everything in the room except the calm, hard girl
herself was a cliché, Wilder thought. The Macintosh SE with stickum butterflies all
around the monitor, the flowery wallpaper, the frilly white bedcover, the poster of
Michael Jackson. The goddamn little gewgaws on the shelves. From the middle of the top
shelf, a framed photograph of Justin overlooked everything.
"Tell him what you said," Jackie said.
"Tell him why you said you're leaving."
"He knows why I'm leaving." Susy went to the
closet, took an armload of hanging clothes off the rod. She carried them to the bed and
laid them there. "Look him in the eye and say what you said," Jackie demanded.
"All right. Sure. Why not?" She turned
around and looked Wilder square in the eyes. She did not flinch. "He showed me his
penis. This afternoon. Justin had just gone to work. You were at the IGA. I was watching
TV. He just came in and did it."
"My God!" Wilder said. He opened his hands,
displaying his empty palms. "Susy! Why are you saying this?"
Susy went right on as if he hadn't said anything.
"He just stood there in front of me and unzipped his pants and took it out and showed
it to me. It was hard. He said, Is this what you want? Is this what you're always
slinking around after?"' She turned to her mother. "That's why I'm
leaving," she said. "You should leave too. But you won't, will you?"
Jackie sat in the computer chair, put her face in her
hands, and sobbed. Susy walked back to the closet. She removed another armload of clothes.
She carried them to the bed.
When she started back to the closet a third time,
Wilder grabbed her by the arm and jerked her around to face him again. He held onto her
arm while he made a show of getting himself under control. "You know," he said.
"You can go live with your father anytime you want to. The judge told you that. When
you're fourteen, he said. And you're fourteen now. So, why are you doing this, Susy? You
don't have to ruin my life just so you can have an excuse to go to your father. And it's
wrong to ruin my life just because Justin has a girlfriend his own age and isn't having
anything to do with you." He nodded firmly. "Now," he said. "I want
you to apologize to your mother."
"Pig," she spat. "Pervert."
"And then I want you to apologize to me."
"Fuck you! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you!"
Perfect, thought Wilder. That would do just fine.
"Well," he said. "Your father does have his work cut out for him." He
looked at Jackie. She was just sitting there, wounded, helpless, her mouth open. He said,
"She's lying, Jackie. I can't prove it. How could I? It's her word against mine.
Everybody will believe her." He looked at Susy again. He shook his head.
"Why?" he said. "Why are you doing this to me?"
The next day she was gone. After school her father,
Roger, called to say that he was driving out to pick up Susy's stuff. Wilder agreed with
Jackie that he shouldn't be there when Roger showed up. When he got back home, he found
Jackie sitting at the kitchen table. She was drinking Maker's Mark. Her glass was in front
of her. The bottle stood just beyond that. Wilder sat beside her and placed his hand on
hers. "I love you," he said.
But Wilder had been in love only once in his life. That was with Anna, who became his
first wife. From the time he met her (she was thirteen and had just entered junior high)
until the time he married her (when she was sixteen and had just entered high school), he
had spent every moment he possibly could with her. They ate their lunches together. Noon
hours and recesses, they sat or walked together. He walked her home after school. They did
their homework together. He took her to the movies on the weekend. They went to church on
Sunday morning and again on Sunday night. Neither of them had other friends. They told
each other everything. To test their love, they vowed not to have sex until after they
married. The restraint this required made desire exquisite and spiritual without at all
decreasing its physical sharpness or power. Both her parents and his tried to persuade
them not to spend quite so much time together. They were so young, and it was so easy to
make a mistake. Wilder and Anna told their parents it didn't matter how young they were,
this was the one thing, the only thing, they knew for sure.
They married a week after Wilder graduated from high
school. Her parents, worn out from arguing and afraid they would lose their daughter if
they kept refusing, gave their approval. Almost immediately after the wedding, Wilder and
Anne began to have problems. The sex was never very good. She told him it often hurt her,
and even when it didn't she was afraid it would. She said it had nothing to do with love;
she loved him more now than she ever had. Love, real love like theirs, came from the heart
and soul, and sex was just a physical thing, something you did so that you could have a
She got pregnant the first month they were married. It
was a difficult pregnancy and a difficult delivery, and afterwards they decided that they
would have no more children. Why take the risk again? This one fine boy was more miracle
than anyone deserved.
For five years, Wilder worked the night desk at the
Best Western and attended the university during the day. For the next three years he
taught sixth grade and, in the summer, worked on his master's. After that, he became first
an assistant principal and, a year later, a principal. Anna stayed home with Justin until
he entered kindergarten. Then in less than a year, she got both her high school diploma
and her realtor's license. It took her a couple of years to establish herself as an agent,
but after that she always made far more money than Wilder.
They were a successful, practical couple. They had a
home in the Blue Mountain historical district. Wilder drove a Honda, Anna a Volvo. They
arranged for Justin to have private lessons in art, gymnastics, and piano. It was a
comfortable, reasonable life.
One night at dinner, Wilder looked across the table at
Anna and realized that there was nothing between them any more other than a mild mutual
respect and a shared love for Justin. He said nothing to herthere was nothing to
say. But over the next several months, he grew more and more depressed. Now and then he
thought about leaving Anna, but that would have meant leaving Justin too. So he stayed on,
made do, adjusted. For a while, he wore Italian shoes, linen slacks, silk shirts, let his
hair go long and slicked it straight back. But that wasn't him so he started wearing
motorcycle boots, black Levis, black leather jackets, reflector sunglasses, grew a goatee,
and shaved his head. He bought himself a limited-edition, racing green, leather
upholstered Triumph. He asked the new special-ed teacher, a sexy young blonde just out of
college, to spend a weekend with him in Hot Springs. She turned him down, but he could
tell she was interested. Thinking about it, he realized they were all interested in him.
He was a man. He had what they wanted.
In addition to the special-ed blonde, there were four
other teachers in his school young and attractive enough to bother with. Three of them
were married, but Wilder knew how little marriage meant to young women. So, one at a time,
he called each of them into his office and propositioned them. They turned him down, each
in her own way. But again he knew. They'd be back. All of them. He could wait.
The next day, the assistant superintendent, Linda
Borders, a woman he had always respected, came to his office and told him that he would
have to take some sick days and that he wouldn't be allowed to return to work until he had
a letter from a psychiatrist saying he was fit. "Well," Wilder said. "This
is what I get, is it? After all these years?" He pushed away from his desk and stood.
"I'm a man. I won't take this shit."
He walked over to the coat rack in the corner, put on
his leather jacket, took the reflector glasses out of the coat pocket, turned, drew
himself to attention, snapped his boot heels together, and saluted her.
"Don't do this, Gavin," she said.
"You've been a good principal. We're doing this for your own good. Don't throw
everything away like this. Please."
"I'm tired of dying," Wilder told her.
"And I'm going to do something about it."
He spent the next week driving around in the green
Triumph. He followed no plan, just took whatever turn caught his fancy. Mostly he drove
the twisting, two-lane highways through the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains. Sometimes he
would test fate by taking curves at high speed on the wrong side of the road. Each time he
made it around the curve, he felt exhilarated. He was one of the chosen. He was sure of
A state trooper found him parked by the side of the
road, asleep in the driver's seat. Highway 7, just south of Y City. A bright October
afternoon. "Hard day, have you, Bub?" the cop said. Wilder nodded. The cop asked
a few questions, sniffed around until he seemed satisfied that Wilder hadn't been
drinking. Then he got Wilder's license, registration, and proof of insurance and went to
his patrol car. By the time the cop had checked things out and returned to the Triumph,
Wilder had fallen asleep again.
"Motel not five miles back," the cop said as
he handed back the documents. "Cheap, clean. You make it?"
Those seemed to Wilder to be the inevitable words he'd
been waiting to hear.
He called home from the motel, then went to sleep.
When he woke, Anna and her father were there. He was glad to see them. He told them he was
tired. Anna said he needed help. He said he needed sleep. She gave him two pills she took
from a bottle she found in her purse. When he woke again, he was in Harbor View. It was
where he was meant to be. It was where he would find out just who he was. He told the
doctor that and signed himself in.
After he'd been there a couple of weeks, he called
Linda Borders, apologized, and asked for another chance. She told him she'd already
discussed it with Anna and with the superintendent. Wilder would be allowed to return to
work, but he'd be closely watched. Any further erratic behavior would be grounds for
Two weeks later, Wilder returned to his life. Anna,
Justin, the school. The rational way of things. He never neglected to take his lithium.
Whenever he started feeling dangerously good, he made an appointment to see his therapist.
Two years went by.
In the spring of Justin's sophomore year, Anna picked
up a blue windbreaker their son had left on the living room sofa and found two joints in
the right-hand pocket. Anna convinced herself that they were losing Justin.
"Fourteen," she said. "Fourteen. And he's all I've got."
All she had. It hit Wilder hard. He, Wilder, was a
mere fixture in her life, something she'd grown used to, made allowances for. That was
So he left her. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment
in a complex a short walk from the school. And it surprised him how easily he settled into
the new apartment, the new life. He walked to work, he did his job, he went home. During
the week, he ate yogurt and toast for breakfast, soup and salad from the school cafeteria
for lunch, a sandwich and some fruit for supper. He watched ball games and old movies on
TV. He bought a good secondhand treadmill, and each evening while watching the game or an
old movie, he walked five miles on it. He took his lithium.
Justin spent the weekends with him. He'd come to the
apartment after school on Friday and return to Anna Sunday evenings. There was no problem
with any of this. Justin, sixteen by then, seemed happy with the relative freedom Wilder
allowed him on these weekends. Wilder set a midnight curfew; Justin never violated it and
was never drunk or stoned. He made A's in school. He was captain of the debate team. His
girlfriend was lovely and wholesome. The friends he spent his time with were intelligent,
polite, and college-bound. They met even Anna's approval.
A year after they separated, Wilder and Anna divorced,
an amicable, no-fault agreement. A few weeks after the divorce, Wilder began to date.
Three teachers in his school had made it clear to him that they were
availableJackie, who was just a few years younger than he and was divorced and had a
daughter but still had her figure and really liked sex, and two others, neither of whom
had ever been married and both of whom were in their mid-twenties. He went out with each
of them, slept with each of them. He enjoyed the guiltless freedom of it, sex for its own
sake, and so for some time he kept dating them all, having sex with them all, one after
the other in turn. He discovered that he liked the very idea of it, practical
irresponsibility. But soon the two younger women began to pressure him for commitment. He
realized that while he thought of them as young and free, each of them thought of herself
as nearing the end of youth, as ready for marriage and motherhood. Wilder stopped asking
them out, and at the end of the year, he saw to it that both of them were transferred to
Anyway, he had come to like Jackie best. She was
older, sure, but she was better in bed than the younger women. She was also a responsible
mother and fine teacher, the kind of woman who knew how the world worked. She could take
care of herself, and it was clear that she had, in her practical way, fallen in love with
him. Just over a year after the divorce, he married her.
Everything went well for over two years. They bought a
three-bedroom native stone house on six acres east of town and settled into a sensible,
satisfying life. Justin spent his weekends, much of his vacation time, and half his
holidays with them. They all got along well, no problems. He was polite and appropriately
open with Jackie, harbored no apparent resentment against her. He was considerate and
almost never condescending to Susy. Wilder saw that she was developing a crush on him, but
didn't worry about it at firstshe was just a kid, not quite fourteen, and Justin was
all but grown. He could take care of himself.
When Justin was a senior in high school, the state
university in Fayetteville offered him a scholarship. That summer, after he graduated,
Justin got a job as a lifeguard at Lake Fort Smith. Since Wilder's little farm was only a
few miles from the lake, Justin lived with Wilder and Jackie and Susy most of the summer.
As the weeks went by, Susy just got worse and worse.
It seemed to Wilder that she was clinging to Justin, pressing her body against him
whenever she could. Three times Wilder caught her talking to Justin in his room, sitting
on his bed, staring up at him with those big, wet, willing eyes. Wilder was sure that
she'd been in Justin's room many more times than that, that she went there every chance
she got. Wilder kept reminding himself that it was just for the summer. Come August,
Justin would be living in a dorm up at the university and that would be that. But he
couldn't let it go. He imagined all kinds of terrible consequences for Justin if he
yielded to the temptation Susy offered. Scandal, pregnancy, abortionor, worse, the
dull, dutiful marriage, the kind he, Wilder, had had.
Wilder talked to Jackie about it. She said she had
been worried too, but had told herself that she was just being overprotective of Susy.
Christ, Wilder thought, it's not Susy who needs protecting here. But he managed not to say
that, and they agreed that Jackie would talk to Susy and Wilder would talk to Justin.
Both talks were awkward, and so far as Wilder could
tell, neither did any good. It seemed to Wilder that every time he walked into a room,
Susy, squirming seductively, was there with Justin. If Justin got up and left the room,
Susy followed. If he went for a drive, she'd ask him for a ride to some place that just
happened to be on his way. Wilder put a stop to this whenever he could, telling Susy he,
Wilder, would take her anywhere she needed to go. It angered Wilder that Jackie wasn't
nearly so diligent. She didn't appreciate just how serious the problem was and she had far
too much trust in her daughter.
Late one afternoon in early Augustonly a couple
of weeks before Justin would go up to the university and move into the dormWilder
drove to Lake Fort Smith and parked in the lot overlooking the swimming area. On the way,
he told himself he'd be reassured by seeing Justin at work, competent, in control. But
when he got there he knew he'd been drawn by a premonition, an unease. Because what he saw
was Susy, in her almost non-existent bikini, twitching and grinning at the base of
Justin's lifeguard stand. Wilder couldn't see his son's face, but could see that he was
leaning forward, looking down. He seemed intent, all his attention on Susy.
Everything came clear to Wilder. It was time. The girl
was dangerous. He had to stop her.
Two days went by before he got his chance. Justin had
gone to the lake. Jackie was at the supermarket. Susy was in the den, in her tight shorts
and her skimpy little halter, stretched out on the sofa watching her Michael Jackson video
for the hundredth time. Wilder walked into the room, positioned himself between her and
the TV, spread his legs so that they were shoulder-width, unzipped his pants, and withdrew
his penis. "Is this what you want?" he said. "It's what you've been
slinking around after, isn't it?" His voice was cool, forthright, matter-of-fact. She
screamed. She tried to get up off the couch, but he shoved her back. "Look at
it!" He was yelling at her. He grabbed her chin and held it up so that she had to
look at his cock. It was just inches from her face. It was getting hard. "There it
is. The answer to your prayers."
He let go of her face, stepped back, and watched her.
She tried to get away again and he pushed her down again. She put her face in her hands
and sobbed. He waited. He wanted to make sure she understood. "You wouldn't
listen," he said. "You just kept on and on. You just had to have it, didn't you?
Well, here it is. See it? Have a good look. You want some of it, just say so." He
held it in his hand. It was straight-up hard now. That made him even angrier at her.
"Anything to make little Susy happy."
She said, "My mother ...She won't..." and
broke into tears again.
"Yeah. You just tell her," Wilder said.
"You just tell her and we'll see what happens to you. You'll be out of here just like
that." He snapped his fingers. "Gone."
This time he let her get up. She went to her room and
stayed there until supper. Then she came out and did just what Wilder had hoped she would
do. Everything had worked out fine.
After a while Jackie seemed to get used to the new custody arrangement. She spent
alternate weekends and holidays with Susy. Sometimes she and Susy would go out of town for
the weekend. Eureka Springs. Tulsa. Even, now and again, Dallas or Kansas City. Other
times Wilder would go off somewhere in the green Triumph and leave the house to them. Once
in a while, if he was home from college, Justin would go with him, but usually Wilder went
alone. He didn't mind that at all. He liked those weekends of not knowing where he'd stop
until he got there. It made him feel realtrue to himself in a way that wasn't
possible any other time. There were times, in the Triumph, when he considered going off
the medication. But he didn't. He was a father. He had to be responsible. And there was no
telling what he might confess to if he let himself run free again.
After four years, Justin graduated from the university
with a degree in psychology. He planned to go on to graduate school and his grades and
test scores were high. But first he wanted to take a year off, get a job, and save a
little money. Meanwhile, Susy had done well enough in high school that she had a
university scholarship. When Wilder thought about itwhich he tried not to dohe
was usually able to persuade himself that however crude his methods had been, they had led
to the best possible result for everyone.
Everyone except Jackie. Wilder had to admit that. That
was just something he'd have to live with.
They rarely talked about it. And the few times Jackie
brought it up, Wilder reassured her. He'd tell her that as a mother and a wife, she had
been in an impossible situation. He told her that they had to go on with their lives,
loving each other and trying to repair what had been damaged. He told her that he had
But as time went by, Wilder began to suspect that
Jackie knew, and had known all along, that he had been lying. Certainly Susy's persistence
over the years, the fact that she never changed her story, began to affect Jackie. Every
time Wilder came home after one of Jackie and Susy's weekends, he could see doubtand
sometimes resentmentin Jackie's eyes. Wilder made a point of being considerate,
tender, kind, but he became convinced that he was losing her. Sometimes he was frightened
of himself. Sometimes when he and Jackie were in bed, making love, and he stared down at
the contorted face beneath him, he saw Susy.
Finally, he couldn't take it anymore. It happened only
a few days after Susy graduated from high school. Wilder and Jackie were sitting at the
kitchen table, eating their breakfast bagels. All of a sudden, she seemed to just break
apart. Her sobbing was deep and almost silent. She didn't bother to cover her face. It was
as if this was who she was, and there was no longer any reason to try to hide it. Wilder
reached across the table, brushed his fingertips across her cheek, moved a strand of hair
out of her face. After a moment she looked at him and said, "Those yearswhen
she became a womanI lost them."
"I know," he said. "I'm sorry."
"Just gone," she said. "All of it. You
never get it back. When she needed me most."
He kept trying to comfort her. He told her again that
he was sorry it had happened. He told her again that he hadn't done what Susy had accused
him of doing. "But I know you don't believe me anymore. And I can't bear to look at
you and see that in your eyes. It hurts too much." And then he let her go. He stood
and said, "I'll get out of your life now."
He lived for six months in an apartment complex, but
this time, living surrounded by that many people, most of them young, made him feel
crowded and unclean. When the divorce was final and he knew just how much money he had, he
bought an old hunting cabin and ten acres on Frog Creek, paid a carpenter to insulate the
cabin and fix it up a little and moved in. It was nearly twenty miles to work, but, since
most of it was on the new highway, it was an easy enough drive, just over half-an-hour
each way. Wilder used the half-hour to make the transition back and forth between what he
had come to see as the life of service and penance he led at work and what he thought of
as the cloistered, concentrated life he led at home. On the drive in, he'd listen to Morning
Edition on the car radio and follow those polite, correct NPR voices into the
regulated day. On the drive home, he'd listen to religious music, anything from
"Amazing Grace" to Bach.
He bought himself a Nissan pickup truck and drove it
back and forth to the school, but he held on to the green Triumph, keeping it covered and
tuned and driving it just enough to keep it charged and ready.
He had no phone, no television. He never listened to
the radio except on the drive to work. He lived off a stark, vegetarian diet. He worked in
his garden, tended his small orchard of apple and peach trees, cut and split wood for his
fireplace, and, on weekend afternoons, took long walks through the woods. After he'd eaten
his ration of brown rice on Saturday and Sunday evenings, he'd put a CDElvis or
Emmylou, usually, singing hymnson his Wal-Mart boom box and, sitting on the old
cane-bottomed rocker on his screened-in back porch, listen to it while the sun went down.
Otherwise, when he was home he lived in silence.
No one ever came to visit Wilder except Justin, who by
then was in graduate school at the University of Texas. Twice a yearonce around
Christmas and once in the summerJustin spent the weekend with him. Wilder found
these weekends both disturbing and reassuring. Disturbing because it upset his routine,
and because it caused him to remember and reconsider what had happened with Susy and
Jackie. Reassuring because it made him aware of how deeply he still loved Justin and
because Justin was doing well in the world, would get his Ph.D. and become a therapist,
which might well not have been possible if Wilder hadn't protected him from Susy.
Wilder believed his life would be simpler, cleaner, if
he could just allow himself to confess everything to everybody. The urge to do this always
manifested itself most strongly during Justin's visits. He would find himself thinking
that first he'd tell Justin, then he'd drive to Jackie's place and tell her, then he'd
find Susy, wherever she was, sink to his knees before her, and tell her she could do
whatever she wanted to himhe'd confess publicly if she demanded it. Then it would
all be over. He could retire from his job, retreat permanently to the house on Frog Creek
and live out his life in solitude and simplicity and honest shame. This way, the way it
was now, well, there could never be real truth between him and his son. But, even as he
felt the need, he knew that he would never do it. If he confessed, he might lose his son
Three years went by. Wilder became a gaunt, gentle,
saintly looking man. He kept going to the clinic for regular evaluations and blood-level
checks. Gradually, his doctor reduced his medication until, finally, she told him that, at
least for the time being, he didn't need the lithium anymore. His supervisors, Linda
Borders and the others, were pleased that he ran his school in such an orderly, efficient
fashion. Each year, they gave him the highest possible evaluations. He seemed so much at
peace with himself at school that he could calm teachers or students with a word, a smile,
a touch. Newer teachers at his school found it hard to believe that Wilder had ever been
in any way out of control. Older teachers assumed either that his therapist or, if they
were religious, his God had done wonders for him.
After taking his doctorate at Texas, Justin worked for
a year at the Guadeloupe Guidance Center. Wilder got a letter from him every month or so.
The letters always began with a couple of things-are-going-fine-here paragraphs that told
Wilder in very general terms about Justin's life and work in Austin. Then there'd be a
more specific middle section in which Justin related some anecdote, usually humorous,
about either a client or colleague. Then he'd ask a series of questions about Wilder.
How's the school year going? Are the new teachers doing all right? And you? Are you
getting out a little more? Seeing anyone? The questions would progressively narrow in
focus until, finally, they would cease to be questions and Justin would make the point
Wilder knew he'd been wanting to make all along. It would be worded a little differently
each time, but always went about like this: Be careful, Dad. Don't withdraw too far from
the world. I know how seductive it must seem to you sometimes, what with all the clamor of
kids and parents and teachers you've endured five days a week for all these years. But it
would be wrong for you to turn your back on all that, it would be selfish. People need
you, Dad. After that there'd be a final paragraph. Always Justin promised that he'd be
coming to visit Wilder soon. And always he invited Wilder to come down to Austin and spend
some time with him.
Wilder never did. He answered the letters promptly,
and thoroughly, responding in detail to all the questions, general and personal,
expressing his pleasure that Justin was doing so well, relaying whatever local news he
thought might interest Justin, and reminding Justin that anyone who spent most of his days
administering an elementary school had not withdrawn from the world. His Frog Creek cabin
was a place where, evenings and weekends, he could rest and think, that's all. At the end
of his letter, Wilder would respond to the invitation to visit by saying, sure, he'd like
to drive down to Austin sometime and let Justin show him around. And sometimes as he was
writing that, he'd tell himself it might be good to have a look at his son's life. But he
knew he'd never do it. He couldn't let himself. He feared that the trip itself, the long
drive to Austin, would be a slow, luxurious yielding to the urge to confess. He had to be
careful. He had to keep things in their place. If he did that, maybe his world would hold
Neither in his letters nor during his visits did
Justin ever mention women or love or sex. Wilder wonderedJustin was handsome,
successful, and twenty-sixbut never asked. Then Justin came for a visit and told him
he was engaged.
It was late afternoon on Christmas Day. Justin had
been there an hour or so. It was cold out, spitting snow, but Wilder kept a good fire
going in the fireplace and the cabin was warm. "Engaged?" Wilder said. Then he
nodded. "Well, that's good. It's time:"
Wilder didn't know what to say. He told himself that
there were many Susies in the world. He got up and stirred the fire. He sat down again.
"Susy?" he said.
"Susy," Justin said. "It's Susy. Our
"I know what you're thinking," Justin said.
"But it's not like it was then." His eyes were those of the earnest son.
"We've grown up. We've been through a lot. Both of us. We know what we're doing
Wilder could feel his head shaking. "Susy,"
"She came to the center. About three months ago
now, late September. We were just closing up. I came out of my office and into the waiting
room and there she was. Nobody there except her and the receptionist. Everyone else had
gone home. I'd only seen her a few times since all that happened here. Once in a while
when I was home from college I'd just happen to see her somewherea restaurant or
somethingand we'd say hello and talk for a few minutes. It was always someplace
public, and by accident, and neither of us ever knew what to say. And then I never saw her
at all after I went to Texas. Not until that day."
Wilder, trying not to let his expression give anything
away, studied Justin's face, looking for evidence of knowledge. "She came down
thereTexas, I mean, to Austin because of you? I mean, she was looking for
Justin nodded and smiled. "Isn't it something? I
mean, after all those years, what we felt for each other was still there."
"What you felt."
"Oh, you were right, Dad. We know that. We
wouldn't've been able to stop ourselves back then and she was just fourteen. She didn't
know what she was doing, and I don't think I could've stopped myself if you hadn't made
her leave when you did. We were so young. We didn't know. It would've ruined
everything." Justin stopped. He seemed to Wilder to be all earnestness and gratitude.
"You saved us from that. Now I know how hard it must've been. But it was the right
thing. We couldn't be together back then. Not the way we were. Living together in the same
house." He shook his head. "But now it's been almost ten years. We're adults.
But what we felt for each other is still there. Stronger and better."
Wilder realized that Justin was waiting for a
response. "I don't know," he said. No other words came and he kept looking at
Justin and then he said, "She said terrible things about me. She said I..."
Justin reached out and touched his forearm.
"Dad," he said. "I know. She told me all that a long time ago, back when it
all happened. And we've talked about it a lot since we've got to know each other again.
And she's told me why she said what she did. She was young. She was mad. She wanted to get
even. She wanted to hurt you. And she's sorry for that now. She wanted to come here with
me and tell you that herself, ask you to forgive her. But I asked her to let me go alone
this time. I thought it would be better this way."
They talked on. Wilder, at once confused and relieved,
managed to find things to saythat he forgave Susy, that he looked forward to seeing
her so that he could say that in person, that he wished Justin and Susy all the best, a
good marriage, a lifetime of love.
For supper they ate the black bean soup Wilder had
prepared. Justin had brought a good California cabernet and after the soup they sat before
the fire and talked and drank the wine. It had been years since Wilder had taken any
alcohol and he could feel the wine going to his head. It was a good feeling. It was
Christmas, and he was sitting before a bright fire drinking wine with the son he loved
above all things. A terrible part of his life had been brought to an end and the very air
he breathed seemed blessed with grace and mercy.
But the next morning, as he stood in front of his
cabin and watched Justin drive away, Wilder understood everything. That terrible part of
his life, that shame, had not been brought to an end. Far from it. Susy had gone to Austin
to find Justin, and she hadn't been motivated by love. No. She knew Justin was everything
to Wilder, knew that the one sure way to hurt Wilder was to use Justin. And she knew just
how to use him, she'd learned that when she was fourteen. She had bided her time, waiting
for the perfect moment. Then she had gone to Austin and seduced Justin. Then she had sent
him here, ignorant and openhearted, so Wilder would know that she had taken both his and
Justin's lives hostage.
Wilder went back into the house and stoked his fire
and sat and stared into it and thought about how she might use her knowledge. She wasn't
likely to tell Justin the truth any time soon. She might wait until sometime shortly after
the wedding in June. But probably she wouldn't tell even then. She had already
demonstrated an unnatural patience. She had waited eight years, through puberty and
adolescence and early womanhood. Wilder decided she was the kind who might never tell, who
might torture him until he died. And even death wouldn't release him from her power. She
could wait until he died and then tell Justin, poisoning the son's memory of the father.
She would know that and would know that Wilder knew it too.
There was, then, no way out.
Wilder rose, walked away from the fire, got his
sunglasses and car keys off the hearth, walked to the door, opened it, stopped, turned
around, and stood there a moment, looking into the cabin. A life, he thought. A little
span of time.
He closed the door and walked to the green Triumph and
took the plastic cover off it and got in and started the engine and drove away. He took
the new highway into Blue Mountain, then followed Main Street until he was on the bridge
that crossed the river. Just over on the Fort Smith side, he turned off Midland and pulled
into the drive-in window of Boog's Liquors. He bought a corkscrew, some plastic cups, and
another bottle of the cabernet he and Justin had shared the evening before.
He drove back across the river and into Blue Mountain.
He went to his school and parked on the street in front of it. He opened the wine and
poured some into one of the plastic cups. He held the cup out toward the school, toasting
it. He drank the wine at one gulp and then he looked at the school again and laughed.
People take it all so seriously, he thought. But vanity and pain, that's what it came to,
that's all there was. Even loveeven the simplest, most natural love, the love of a
father for his son, his love for Justinwas just a special vanity. Nothing meant
He laughed again. He poured himself another cup of
wine. He drank that, poured another cup, and set it in the holder. He started the car,
pulled away from the school, and turned toward home. And, suddenly, he understood that
everything he'd been thinking just moments ago was crazy. The truth was just the opposite
of what he'd had in his head. Everything was charged with meaning. Every act was fated,
every outcome foreordained. You had to come to the end of reason to understand that. But
when you got there, there it was.
He took the old road home. U.S. 71. So few people
drove it now, it seemed almost a ghost road. That would make it better, a surer way.
The Triumph ran perfectly, leaning into and zipping
around the banked Ozark curves. All those years, Wilder had kept it tended and tuned. It
pleased him to think of that now, to think that something in him had known all along that
this was what it would come to.
Wilder took off his sunglasses. He wanted to see
everything clearly. The unfiltered truth. It was a bright, sharp morning. The cold,
day-after-Christmas air felt good against his face. The sharp smell of woodsmoke made him
think of home and rest. On either side of the road, the woods were stark, naked, almost
white in the winter sun. Above that, the sky was hard and blue.
The highway began its winding descent into
Mountainburg. Wilder eased the Triumph over into the uphill lane. He rounded the first
curve and then the second. He entered the third, accelerating, in control, sure that this
would be it, a car, a truck, an end to everything. But there was nothing, no one. The road
ahead descended into the silent, empty town, crossed it, and, bending westward, vanished
into the long valley beyond.