– What did you say just before? asked Susan, the nurse, moving about the examination room again after a pause. Tim was coming out of the anesthesia.
– I think I said, What’s going on? Tim mumbled.
– Before that.
– I don’t remember saying anything before that.
– Your eyes were open. How are you feeling?
Susan said he would need to stay down for another half-hour, and listed several other realities attendant on dental surgery.
– What did it sound like I said?
– Something about being all you want to be. But there was more to it.
Tim considered this report amid pleasant vapors that moved with Olympian dignity, like slow, open-road clouds. He had hitched into town with a head full of sky and an aching jaw. Actually he had walked in after his ride pulled into a gas station with engine trouble some miles away.
– Well, Miss Nice Nurse. What’s your name?
– Nurse Susan. A force to be reckoned with.
Tim’s head lolled back and forth. He had unruly orange-red hair and a sunburn. She looked at him with a leveling blue gaze that scattered flimsy illusions before it. Now he moved with lazy confidence through faintly blue palace rooms, rooms he could occupy.
– Any pain?
Her long brown ponytail swayed slightly with her brisk, competent movements in snapping metal lids onto glass containers.
– Too early to tell.
– Dr. Pomfret will be in to check on you soon.
– I’d rather you checked on me soon.
– I’ll be back to tell you when you can go.
She closed the door. Tim studied the palace, which had now receded into an indeterminate distance on a broad plain. He tried to fix its features, but kept coming back to what he had reportedly said. To be all you want to be? Or all I want to be? Me, or people in general? The dentist came in.
Both lower wisdom teeth had been impacted and infected. Surgery went fine, though the left tooth was deeper so that side would be more sore. Prescriptions for antibiotics and pain. Liquid foods for a day or so.
– Where are you from, Tim?
– No place special.
– Come on, Dr. Pomfret said jocularly.
– You’re a long way from home.
– I like it that way.
– Well, when you get back home, check in with your dentist. The uppers are OK for now, but they’ll need to come out before too long.
When the door closed again, time slid along its broad plain. Things gradually regulated themselves. Such regulation was disappointing. The closely ordered world of the dental office contrasted sharply with footloose quest. The clothes in his pack needed washing. Susan returned.
– Do you think you’re ready to sit up? No hurry.
He thought he was. She helped him. Everything seemed steady and whole, except that his chin felt like putty.
– What about lunch? Tim asked, slow of speech.
– Soup is your best bet, not too hot. Pudding, a milkshake –
– I mean with you.
– Me? She laughed. – No.
– Please. We’re not supposed to socialize with patients.
– Once I’m out that door, I won’t be one. I need to hear more about whatever that was you heard me say. Sounds important. A message from my unconscious.
– Take your unconscious to lunch.
– Tell you what. Lunch tomorrow in that little park across the way. I’ll bring sandwiches. We must be all we want to be, after all.
Susan looked out the window, smiling.
– I’ll see.
The dental bill and prescriptions required most of Tim’s remaining cash. He’d earned it picking apples in central Washington. There had also been the token fees to sleep at the Y, three blocks away. Two store-bought sandwiches would just about end his financial independence. He would need a jacket, too – it was starting to get chilly. Would need to keep heading south. Tim dropped his pack and sat at one of the weather-bleached picnic tables under an oak tree in the windy little park. The oak leaves seethed. Tim’s jaw ached in a different way than before surgery, as if Dr. Pomfret had used a railroad spike to remove the wisdom teeth. More pain on the left, as forecast. Susan emerged in no hurry from the dentist’s office under a broken sky full of secrets, and crossed catty-corner to the park.
– Not this table, she said.
They moved to another table under another oak tree. Susan sat on one of the attached benches, facing outward.
– Seems just like the other one.
– I had a conversation at that one once that I’d rather not think about. Besides, Dr. Pomfret could see us there.
– Conversation with a boyfriend?
– No. Where are the sandwiches?
– I discovered I’m almost broke. Sorry.
– Where are you from? she asked.
– And you just travel around.
– I work when I have to. Fruit-picking, washing cars.
– Why did you leave Los Angeles?
– Because I didn’t know what I was doing there. I still don’t, here. I look for clues by the side of the road and in cloud formations.
Susan frowned, leaned back with both elbows on the table, her eyes evading his. Then she fixed him full-on with a bright blue search.
– So I’m going to have to buy my own sandwich. And yours. Oh – can you chew all right today?
– I haven’t tried yet. I had milk for breakfast at the Y.
– You must be hungry.
She motioned with her head and got up. Jeff’s Chow Shack two blocks away, on the other side of the dentist’s office from the YMCA, featured cheap food and a screen door that constantly twanged open and banged shut. Susan and Tim went to the counter to order.
– You should get the tuna salad, she said. – Easier on your jaw.
She ordered his and one for herself and after they picked up their plates and filled plastic cups with root beer they sat at a none-too-clean table. Susan faced the door. Tim removed the straw Susan had put in his cup and drank two great gulps before having to stop and hold his jaw in both hands.
– You’d better take it easy.
– Listen, here’s fifty cents. I can at least contribute that much.
– Keep it.
They ate, the silence interrupted only by the screen door, Tim chewing very gingerly.
– So. Now that my head is clear I need to ask you about what I said. Tell me again.
Susan swallowed and took a sip, thinking.
– ‘To be all I want to be.’ As I told you, there was more but you were mumbling and I didn’t hear it.
– ‘To be all I want to be.’ Now that is one damned puzzle. Revelatory, though. Suggests some ambition I didn’t know I had. I’ve prided myself, in fact, on my lack of ambition. So this changes everything. You’re sure that’s what I said?
– As best I can remember.
– I’ll have to study that closely. In the meantime, there are always clichés. Do you come here often?
– Have you always wanted to be a dental nurse?
– I went to two-year college and took geography, literature, ceramics, some Spanish. I liked it fine, but there were circumstances in the family and no work in any of that around here. So I switched to dental-assistant courses.
– And you like doing that?
– It’s fine.
– I’m getting a low reading on the enthuse-o-meter.
– I like to be able to buy a sandwich for lunch … sorry, that was mean. I just need to work. And I like people.
– People you aren’t allowed to see.
– I made an exception.
– I’m going to push my luck and ask why.
– You seemed interesting.
– Past tense.
She was eating and drinking rather quickly, in contrast to Tim. The screen door had twanged with no ensuing bang, and Susan stopped chewing and blanched.
– He never comes in here. Of all the days –
Dr. Pomfret hesitated in the doorway, then closed the screen quietly behind him as Tim turned around.
– Hello, Susan.
– Hi, Doctor.
Dr. Pomfret’s smile was not unpleasant but seemed – what? Mischievous? Susan reddened but held his gaze.
– She gets a lunch break, doesn’t she? Tim said. – How do you know we didn’t meet here by accident?
The dentist glanced at Tim without replying.
– Did you meet here by accident? he asked Susan, pleasantly.
– No, said Tim, holding up his palm as Susan started to speak. – I’ll handle this. No harm done, sir. I’m just passing through. You see, coming out of the anesthesia I spoke of strange tidings and prophecies. I saw palatial visions. Your able assistant here was just about to divine my future.
– That often happens with anesthesia. By now it’s passed.
Dr. Pomfret’s encoded smile persisted.
– Besides, what if we fall in love, marry, invite you to the wedding, have many children and take them all to your office for checkups? This could be very good for you.
As Susan gaped at Tim, Dr. Pomfret shook his head and giggled alarmingly. Susan turned her surprise toward the dentist.
– How’s the jaw? Dr. Pomfret asked.
– Recovering nicely. You do high-quality work.
– And you’re a bullshit artist. But it’s high-quality bullshit.
Dr. Pomfret walked off, still smiling, to order a chicken sandwich and chili to go.
– I can’t believe you said that, Susan said when he had gone. She had placed her hand over her brow like a visor. – I just hope I don’t get fired.
– Why? You didn’t say it. And he didn’t seem to be in a firing mood.
Their plates soon littered with crumbs, their drinks sucked down to the ice, Tim lifted his finger to redirect their talk into its ordained channel.
– Now, about my oracular pronouncement –
– I have to get back. I don’t want to be late, especially after this scene.
– Drat blast. All right, we’ll resume at dinner.
– No, she said with finality.
– I’ll stop by at seven and we’ll go out. Where do you live?
– Go out? You couldn’t even pay for lunch!
– My plan is to land an afternoon of remunerated labor. Washing dishes, perhaps. Maybe here. I will then spruce up at the Y. Do you know if there’s a washing machine there? Must be. My clothes are filthy.
Susan poked the ice with her straw.
– Tell you what. Come over at six. Bring your laundry.
She gave him directions. Tim walked out with her through the twang-bang and then around back to where a man in a food-streaked apron lounged on a crate, smoking a cheap cigar. He happened to be the dishwasher, who could use the afternoon off. He paid Tim a bit less than he would have drawn. Tim borrowed his apron.
– Who are you? asked Jeff, the owner.
– Your dishwasher for the afternoon. Sir. I’m taking over for – uh, didn’t get his name.
– How do you know my name?
– That’s his name. Where are you from?
– You ever done this before?
– Oh, yes.
– You make your own arrangements with him. I’m not paying you.
– All taken care of.
– And you’ll need to put that hair up under a paper hat. They’re on that shelf. And get a clean apron.
– Do you know Susan, who works for Dr. Pomfret?
– I know who she is.
– Does she have a boyfriend?
– Why ask me that? Ask her.
– She seems full of secrets. She may unwittingly possess knowledge of my destiny. There had better not be a boyfriend.
As Tim took off the dirty apron and donned the clean one, Jeff regarded him doubtfully, wondering how well the dishes would be washed.
– Tell me, Tim said. – Are you all that you want to be?
Jeff stared for a moment.
– Son, I’ve got my hands full with this shop. If I ever find one second to sit down and gaze at my navel, I’ll put some thought into that.
He pointed twice. – Pile of dishes, pile of pots.
Tim was to rinse the dishes and utensils thoroughly, place them in a square, pale-green plastic tray, push them along a clattering metal roller belt into the washer, and press the button. Pots were to be cleaned in a deep metal sink with a heavy brush and liquid soap. The work went well. Then a wet bowl slid from his fingers across the stainless-steel counter and plopped hard on the rubber floor mat, where it remained motionless for an instant as if in reflection before splitting neatly in two.
– You’ll have to pay for that.
– How much?
– They cost me thirty-five cents each.
– Because of me, three customers came in here today. Susan, Dr. Pomfret and myself. Shouldn’t that count for something?
– The three of you came in here together?
– It’s complicated.
– Forget the bowl. Be careful. You people from Idaho sure are fast talkers.
At six Tim’s shift ended. He picked up his pack and approached Jeff with his right arm and shoulder raised, hand angled downward, the posture of an impending hearty handshake, as if he and Jeff had shared a momentous experience.
– Thanks, man.
Tim strode up Main Street, turned right on First Avenue, left on Maple Lane. The surrounding farms and grasslands could be seen from almost anywhere in town. Having a little money in his pocket and going to see a girl gave him a sense of well-being. Wind streamed hard through the trees, wild dapplings racing over lawns and pavements, seemingly bound somewhere. Tim’s hair waved back and forth. Thick white clouds surged happily along toward some inscrutable destination. The sun lay in preparatory longueurs before setting.
An older woman walking a spaniel approached.
– Not enough town to block the everlasting wind, Tim told her. She and the dog edged away from him onto a lawn. – Wind lends gravity to the place. And there’s a certain gravity in Susan at the dentist’s office. Something in there she won’t release. She takes in more than she’s looking at. Do you know her? I didn’t get her last name, but she lives at 28 Maple Lane.
As the spaniel began barking the woman regained the sidewalk and hurried away.
At 28 Maple Lane the note on the door said, ‘It’s open. Washer at back. Will return soon.’ Tim opened the door and entered confidently. The house looked well-worn inside, not quite shabby. In the utility room past the kitchen he unshouldered his pack and pulled out his few garments. A toothbrush, a condom and an anthology of short stories fell out and he repacked them. He studied the dials on the washer, turned one, shook in some detergent. The clothes he was wearing also needed washing but unless he wanted to greet Susan in the faded yellow towel hanging on a ranch dryer they would have to wait. Deciding, however, in favor of the towel, he stripped off his shirt, jeans, undershorts and socks, added these to the load and wound the towel around his waist, tucking it in as securely as possible. His aching jaw having become noticeable, he fished out a pain pill and went into the kitchen to swallow it with a handful of tap water.
It feels like a guy’s house, he thought, suddenly uncomfortable. Sparse furniture, no sense of décor. He pulled out his book again and sat and read.
Clamor at the front door, children’s voices, sounds of running and jumping in the uncarpeted living room, some toy rolling across the floor on wooden wheels before crashing into something.
– Ethan, calm down, said Susan’s voice. – Hello?
– Back here.
Tim had retreated into the utility room.
– Good, I hear the washer going. Sorry I wasn’t here, I had to pick up these two rascals at the babysitter’s and get some groceries.
Susan set a sack on the counter. – Good lord, what – what are you –
– Well, damn it, all my clothes needed –
– Who’s that? yelled Ethan, who was eight. Penny, five, ran to see.
– He’s a guest. His name is Tim.
– Why is he wearing a towel?
– Kids, go play in the living room. Quietly!
Tim was grinning uncertainly. – So you’re a mom.
– They’re my brother’s kids. How could you take your clothes off and put on a towel in someone else’s house?
– Maybe I should have thought that through a little better.
– I’ll get you some of Ronny’s clothes.
– My brother.
– You live with your brother and his two kids.
– He’s in rehab at the VA hospital.
– Drug rehab?
– Injury. He was a quartermaster overseas. A box of supplies fell off a forklift onto his feet. When he can walk again he’ll come back home and take over. For now, I’m the mom.
– They don’t have one?
– She’s the candidate for drug rehab. When Ronny got back to the States she announced she was leaving. I have no idea where she is.
Susan went upstairs and brought down a large workshirt, khaki pants and undershorts.
– These should fit well enough to get us through dinner.
– I’ll skip the undershorts.
Tim dressed in the utility room, then shifted his clothes into the dryer.
– When do we eat dinner? Ethan shouted from the living room.
– As soon as I cook dinner.
– What are we having? Not fish sticks.
– I like fish sticks! objected Penny.
– Hamburgers and peas, said Susan.
– This isn’t what I expected.
– It’s what we have.
– I mean, this situation. Why did you invite me?
– You suggested dinner.
– Yeah, with you, alone, out.
– And you needed a washing machine. I’m sure they would have charged you at the Y. We save all around by eating here.
– Why not just tell me you had two kids to take care of?
She looked at him, blue gaze steady, without irony or mockery, a sort of sky, not unsympathetic, nor encouraging either, a blue not quite placid, faintly stirring with weather.
– I thought I should help you. So far you’re not too good at being a guest.
– Do you have any beer?
– The strongest drink in the house is milk.
Susan had the burgers beginning to fry and the peas on simmer.
– Well, you’ve gotten the better of me, I must say.
She clanked the cooking fork into the pan.
– The better of you? This isn’t some contest. I was trying to be nice. Frankly, you confuse me. I didn’t know what to do about you. All this business about what you said as you were coming out of the –
– Hey, you told me about that, remember? I never would have known. You started this.
Susan sighed. – It made me think. Let’s get dinner over with, shall we? Then we can talk.
– Let’s enjoy it, rather than just getting it over with.
Susan turned the burgers, keeping clear of the splatter.
– You should turn that burner down a little, Tim said. Susan closed her eyes.
– Sorry, Tim said. – What I meant to say was, Could I help with some of this?
– You could set the table, she said, stirring the peas. – Plates up there, cups in the next cupboard, utensils in this drawer.
– So after an inconclusive year at college I drifted up Highway 1, that’s the coastal road, from Los Angeles. In L.A. you can go into the ocean anytime you want, but I needed a new ocean. Then north of San Francisco I went inland, up through Northern California, across Oregon and into Washington, where monetary concerns necessitated a season of apple-picking.
– Buns and ketchup in the fridge.
– You shouldn’t keep buns in the fridge. Uneventful rides, mostly, usually with truckers wanting to unload about their wives or girlfriends, current or former, often in more detail than I would have wished. I always offered a few bucks for gas; most wouldn’t take it. The worst ride –
– Ethan, Penny, come to the table, please.
– … was in a rainstorm in Idaho when the trucker I was riding with stopped to help a guy in a pickup that was stuck in mud. I got covered with muck putting the chain on the pickup hitch and the trucker wouldn’t let me back in the cab. The pickup driver let me ride in his truck bed. I ended up bathing in –
Ethan and Penny were both demanding to sit next to Tim.
– You both can. I’ll sit across from him. There.
– bathing in a farm pond in –
– Let’s say grace.
After the amen, Susan said:
– How did you end up coming through here?
– I was in North Dakota when it started turning colder. I needed to start moving south. Then my wisdom teeth asserted their rights and when I saw the dentist’s office here I went straight in. That landed me in an unconscious state with you as my guide, guardian, interpreter and prophetess. Why do they call them ‘wisdom teeth,’ anyway?
– Because they come in during the years when maturity and judgment are reached.
– Obviously mine are ahead of schedule. There – it’s nice to see you smile. You don’t smile much.
– Aunt Susan, how come you don’t smile much? Penny said, wiggling her fork between her fingers and scattering peas.
– Don’t do that. I smile with you guys every day. We have fun. Don’t we?
– Yeah, said Ethan. – When do we go see Dad again?
– Good. I need him to teach me to throw a curve.
– You’re too young to throw a curve, Tim said.
– No I’m not.
– You need to learn to throw accurately first and let your arm grow and get strong before you start messing around with curves and sinkers and all that stuff.
– You don’t know, Ethan muttered.
– I do know.
– All right, enough, Susan said. – Do you have a destination in mind?
– New Orleans.
– What are New Orleans, Aunt Susan?
– It’s a city, dummy, said Ethan.
– Ethan, that’s not nice.
– I’ve never been there, said Tim. – I liked the architecture in some pictures I saw. Streets with shuttered windows and verandahs and balconies. A place for secrets. For the revelation of secrets. Maybe I can figure things out there.
Ethan and Penny stared dully at Tim.
– May we be excused?
As they cleared the dishes and washed them in the sink, Tim said, – I sure have done a lot of this today. All for you.
He put his soapy hand on hers, which she withdrew.
– There isn’t going to be anything between us, OK?
– There already is. Of some kind. There wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t said anything at the dentist’s office.
– God, you just never let go of anything.
Ethan and Penny started a loud argument in the living room.
– Meanwhile, in another part of the palace …
– Ethan, Penny, cool it.
They finished the dishes. Susan and Tim wiped their hands on towels, hung them on a bar suction-cupped to the refrigerator, and sat down.
– About what I said waking up –
– We’ve been over and over this.
– Not really. We keep getting interrupted. I don’t usually blurt out things about being all I want to be. I want to get to the bottom of it.
– Only you can do that.
– My unconscious chose you to tell.
– It was telling you. I reported it, that’s all I can do.
– So I can’t apply for the position of boyfriend?
– The last one quit and I’m not hiring yet. I’m just trying to get through this period of my life.
– So that’s what happened at that picnic table.
– No, that was where I last spoke with a friend who killed herself a few weeks later.
– Oh, God. I’m sorry.
– She wanted to get pregnant but her husband decided against kids after they got married. She started drinking. He divorced her, remarried, and behold, started having kids. She was distraught. Of course there were other things. She was overfilled with something. We talked a lot, but … one night about three months ago she gunned the engine out on Route 38 a few miles west of here and rammed full speed into the abandoned Presbyterian church.
– So that’s the sorrow in the shadows of your hair. You think life holds nothing, it’s all an illusion, something just to be gotten through.
– I’m sad now, but actually I believe a deep happiness lies somewhere.
– I wish I believed that.
– I think you do.
– See, two people together, they can help each other. What if we could fall in love?
Somehow Ethan had made his way into the kitchen unnoticed.
– Are you two going to get married? he said, curling his upper lip.
– No, honey.
– Are you in love with Aunt Susan? Ethan asked in a tone of challenge. Tim listened to a gust outside in the darkness.
– This is a private conversation, Tim said.
Penny appeared behind Susan. – What’s ‘private’ mean?
– Will you come to New Orleans with me?
– Of course not.
– All of you.
– Yeah! Let’s go!
Ethan and Penny began jumping deliriously around, making the floor shake and the stove rattle.
– Stop it! That’s enough. Back into the living room. Now!
Susan turned to Tim. – What is the matter with you?
– I don’t know. I truly don’t. I wish you hadn’t said anything in the dentist’s office.
– So do I.
– Now you’re being cruel.
– By agreeing with you?
– As hostess, you’re supposed to counter any uneasiness on the part of your guest.
– Look, I like you, but you’re being ridiculous. I’d be glad to have a serious conversation with you, but you’re constantly pushing it into weird places.
– Let’s go back to Ethan’s question about whether I love you.
– Not a chance. We’ve known each other two days.
– You don’t think love at first or first-and-a-half sight is possible?
– Not for me.
– Does the dentist have a crush on you?
– Of course not.
– He behaved strangely at Jeff’s Chow Shack.
– If he does, he’s never shown the slightest sign of it.
– Do you have a crush on him?
– Certainly not. He’s married.
– I assume so.
– What if he isn’t?
– Stop it!
– Did he say anything to you back at the office?
– He tittered like a loon, finding us together.
– What do you want to be, Tim?
– I have not the remotest notion. I didn’t know it was an issue until yesterday. Last night I tried to get into my mind to find out, but it was opaque. I could not get in there.
– You must have had some idea when you left home.
– I hadn’t put words to it. Whatever I said that you heard was a bolt of lightning from the clear, unconscious skies of my head. It strikes, I awaken to your blue eyes, which are alive with strange inklings, your tresses shadowy with … I don’t know what, if it’s not sadness. I’m dead, dead to the world. I am not a nice person, I should tell you. That’s why I left home. I want to become a better person. To do so, I need an apartment in New Orleans, where I can learn Latin, oil painting and bassoon, and read eighteenth-century novels. I need to spend two years at sea. I’m looking for a particular kind of light, and particular water as illuminated by that light. Your eyes come the closest I’ve seen to that. There are painfully bright forms in me, a woman weeping far within, a shore of dark surf. I know what none of these things means, where any of it leads. I’m in hell. Oh, and excited, too.
Susan had been listening with her fingers locked around one knee. She unclasped them, leaned an elbow on the table and shaded her brow.
– What’s wrong?
– Nothing. I’m tired.
– You’re very beautiful.
The shading hand came down and slapped the table hard.
– I wish you would stop.
– I thought you would help me.
– I did. I can’t.
– I’m sorry. I’m not myself. Or I’m becoming too much myself. Giddy and monstrous. I want to sleep with you.
– Forget it, you’re not even staying here tonight.
From the unnatural quiet in the living room they understood that the children were listening.
– I see.
– You’ll go back to the Y.
– I think not. Time to head out.
– In the dark?
– Darkness is a common occurrence.
– I think your clothes are dry.
Tim went into the utility room to see to his laundry. His clothes were indeed dry, crackly. He went into the bathroom to change, and came out wearing a green shirt and the same jeans. He had washed his face, smoothed back his disordered hair with water, and already looked a thousand miles away.
– My traveling attire smells ready for pleasant and wholesome adventures.
Susan took her brother’s clothes off the hook on the bathroom door and took them into the utility room. Ethan and Penny had resumed their chatter interspersed with low-grade squabbling.
– Well, I guess I’d better – wait, let me first say, in proper guest fashion, thank you for dinner and the use of your washing instrumentalities.
– You’re very welcome.
She was not looking at him.
– And let me pay you something for the food.
– Don’t be silly.
– I’ll be off, then.
– Let us walk you to the edge of town.
– Here you’re always fifty feet from the edge of town. I know my way.
– They could use the exercise.
– I wish I’d met your friend before she killed herself.
– Could have talked her out of it, maybe.
– Why you?
– Maybe she would have gone to New Orleans with me.
– That’s … that’s sick.
He picked up his pack, hitting the wall with it as he swung it over his shoulder.
– Bye, Ethan, bye, Penny. Nice meeting you.
– Bye, said Penny.
– Are you coming back? Ethan asked, worried and hopeful.
– I don’t think so.
Ethan watched Tim reaching for the door.
– It’s your turn, Penny said over a game board populated with colorful pieces. Susan had followed Tim into the living room. The door opened to darkness and wind.
– Goodbye, she said softly.
– I’ll send you a postcard from New Orleans, Tim said without looking back.