Wyatt and Fay Eklund sipped drinks on the veranda of a small resort hotel on the Cape. Fay, lustrous and conspicuous in an open shirt over a brief bathing suit, drew covert glances from other tables, but she was used to that and would've been mildly dismayed had she sat unnoticed. Wyatt's attention was on the beach, where the lone figure of a man was following the surf. Wyatt abruptly rose from his chair. In yachting cap, royal-blue jersey, and white ducks, he had the stance and swagger of a reserve naval officer on active duty. "I think I know that guy," he said, shading his eyes.
Fay said, "How can you tell from here?"
He strode to a table occupied by an elderly couple, the Boyds, regular summer guests at the hotel, and snatched up Mr. Boyd's binoculars, training them on the man he thought he had recognized. Mr. Boyd, whose jowls wobbled his face, said, "Is that someone you know?"
"Could be. Could very well be."
Mrs. Boyd, her face dense with makeup, said, "You have a lovely wife."
Wyatt returned the binoculars and, with a knowing smile, rejoined Fay. "God damn," he said. "If that's who I think it is, he was one of my professors at Dartmouth. That was about ten years before he killed his wife."
Fay shuddered. "Why isn't he in prison?"
Wyatt sipped his martini while his free hand grazed his wife's knee. "Two mistrials. They let him go."
The Boyds were on their feet. Mrs. Boyd's permed hair was the yellowish pink of a tea rose. Mr. Boyd, a retired marketing executive for Nabisco's cookie and biscuit division, had protruding eyes that cast an air of aggression. He smiled at Fay and said to Wyatt, "Would you two like to dine with us this evening?"
"Can't," Wyatt said. "A friend of mine has shown up out of the blue."
"The fellow on the beach?"
The beach was now deserted. The sail of a distant boat looked like a gull's feather stuck in the sea. "That's the one."
Mrs. Boyd said, "Then bring him along, by all means."
"Not a good idea," Wyatt said. "He's a murderer."
Late afternoon, Wyatt let himself into the room. Fay was stretched out on the bed, her sprawled legs of superb shape and length. Huskiness gave her more value to the pound. He enjoyed gazing at her, as if she were prime stock. She opened her eyes.
"Did you find him?" she asked.
"He's not staying at the hotel. He's probably at a bed-and-breakfast. I mean, if he's anywhere."
"Why is it important you see him?"
"I never said it was."
Fay used an elbow to prop herself, auburn hair falling across her brow. "Why did he kill his wife?"
"The papers said she had a lover. Or a bunch of lovers. Or maybe somebody told me that. You hear a lot of stories."
"People love stories. Adds spice to their lives. Was he a good teacher?"
"He was a hard marker. Unfair, most people said. Shoved Pound and Joyce down our throats."
"He made you work."
"He was too damn tough," Wyatt said distractedly, as if feeding on the memory. He plunked himself down on the bed's edge and vaguely caressed the solidness of her calf. "His wife had red hair. Redder than yours."
"Mine's not all that red."
"That's what I mean."
Fay was curious. "Did you know her?"
"I talked to her once at a student-faculty luncheon." Wyatt cupped his wife's knee. "Her name was Rita. She was a beauty, like you."
Fay hiked beyond the bend of the beach to partial privacy, where she spread a towel on sand and shed her bikini top. Arms tight at her sides and legs stretched to the full, she lay in the midday sun and let the shadows of gulls glide over her. She enjoyed breezes on her body and salt air in her hair. As a child she had relished rain on her face and had run barefoot in the summer. In adolescence she had welcomed the boldness of her body and the mystery of her looks. She'd been a by-blow: she knew her mother, not her father.
She lifted her head when faint voices wafted in from a point where beach plum decorated dunes. At the margin of her vision she discerned Mr. Boyd in a breach of manners with his binoculars, which annoyed only a little. Mrs. Boyd led him away.
Evident from a half-mile away was a salt marsh's brackish smell, always tantalizing to her, and she wondered if it had winged the distance solely to intrigue her, to mark her as special. One of the few times she had not felt special was at a party with Wyatt and his friends. Listening to their reminiscences of boarding schools and European jaunts, she had felt doubly misbegotten. Another time was her first visit to Wyatt's family home south of Boston. His father, notably patrician, spoke in an easy voice that suggested the finer things in life, his mother was a preserved length of perfect manners and charm, and his sister had dazzling teeth that exaggerated an insincere smile.
Fay lay with the sun a lazy weight on her face. Eyes closed, she sensed a presence near the surf. Warily sitting up, she rapidly reattached her bikini top and made out the figure of the man glimpsed earlier, this time his face discernible, not at all what she had expected of a murderer.
"I didn't mean to intrude," he said from the short distance. His face was pleasant and agreeable, with distinct planes and a dry exactitude significant enough to be remembered.
"But here you are," she said. His graying hair seemed in the process of falling into place. Dressed in T-shirt and khaki shorts, he cut a reasonable figure. Suddenly he started to move on. "Please," she said, rising. "Wait up." With a leap and a skip, long legs flashing, she joined him and fell in step. Following the surf, they left tracks on a long wet carpet of sand. Waves rousting pebbles spoke a language she strained to comprehend. "My name's Fay. What's yours?"
His glance was oblique. "Manning."
"I understand you taught at Dartmouth. My husband was in one of your classes. Wyatt Eklund."
Manning shook his head. "Doesn't ring a bell."
"I'm sure you'd remember him if you saw him. Tall, exceedingly handsome. He wanted to be a writer, then a painter, but neither worked out."
"Some artists fail to defy gravity. Words, colors fall flat. Your husband could do what I did and teach." Manning shifted his eyes to the orderly arrival of waves, pebbles chattering, the wash ruffling the sand's edge. "So what does he do now?"
"He doesn't have to do anything. He comes from money."
They slowed their step and stopped. A whale-watching boat was plowing a path in from deep waters. Manning placed his face in a breeze while Fay wondered whether his murdered wife terrorized his dreams.
"He's been looking for you," Fay said. "He'd like you to dine with us at the hotel."
"I think not," Manning said, without explanation. His gaze trailed a gull shaving the surf.
"Wyatt will be disappointed."
"Then don't tell him you've seen me."
"That would be a sin of omission."
"Many sins are."
Fay found herself looking into calm eyes that divulged nothing. The only other killer she knew was Ray Hughson from her hometown in upstate New York. A month on the police force, Ray had responded to a call from the public library, where an eccentric old woman, Hattie Bragg, was causing a ruckus. When Hattie threatened Ray with her cane, he drew his service revolver and shot her dead. Ray was a clod. This fellow Manning was not.
Manning said, "Why are you staring?"
"Am I? I'm sorry," Fay said, and they resumed walking, sidestepping washed-up weed and wading through a hollow of warmish tidal water. The whale-watching boat, surrounded by swooping and squawking gulls, was curving away. In a careful voice, Fay said, "Wyatt read about you in the papers."
"So you know about that," he said without inflection. They were walking now where the sand was stiff, like asphalt.
"Should I be afraid of you?"
"That's up to you."
The afternoon was wearing down, accepting shadows in the dunes, which made Fay leery of walking much farther from the hotel with him. He was a sealed document, contents unknown. "I'd better turn back now." she said.
"I'll keep going." Turning away, he slowly glanced back. "What's your husband's name again?"
"Wyatt. Wyatt Ecklund."
"Wanted to be a writer, did he?"
"For a while."
"Couldn't have shown a great deal of promise. I'd have remembered."
The Eklunds dined with the Boyds after all. From a veranda table they could hear the tide swishing in. Fay wore a ribbon in her hair and a clinging dress, and Wyatt was spiffy in a blazer and a white shirt open at the neck. In Fay's eye the Boyds looked make-believe. She saw only the jowly dance of Mr. Boyd and the tea-rose hair of his wife, both babylike in lobster bibs.
"You were joking, of course," Mrs. Boyd said, and Wyatt, consuming baked stuffed sole, shook his head.
"Who'd he kill?" Mr. Boyd asked and, with authority, cracked a lobster claw.
"His wife," Wyatt replied. "And got away with it."
The Boyds were depositing broken shells on a platter, which glittered like a bed of live embers. Fay imagined the glowing coals of hell and said, "His poor soul."
Mr. Boyd wiped the melt of butter from his mouth. "Why'd he do it?"
"Story I heard is his wife humiliated him," Wyatt said nonchalantly. "Her tastes ran sideways."
The steward, a corkscrew curl gracing his brow, fished up bubbly from the bucket, ice scaling off the bottle, and refilled glasses. Mrs. Boyd, rousted that afternoon from a dream in which a naked man had played a part, was intrigued. "What does that mean, sideways?" she asked as the steward moved off smartly.
Mr. Boyd, who had an aptitude for trigonometry, envisioned threesomes. "Use your imagination, dear."
"Women," Wyatt explained. "She liked other women."
Mrs. Boyd was further intrigued. "How did he kill her?"
"Bang, bang," Wyatt said.
Fay, shuddering, deliberately shifted her gaze to another table, where young honeymooners clinked glasses in a toast. Fay saw traces of herself in the young woman and a bit of Wyatt in the man and wondered whether one would eventually kill the other for whatever the reason, be it selfish, silly, or senseless. Almost didn't matter.
The Boyds were scavenging the last of their lobsters. His teeth cracking a feeler, Mr. Boyd sucked out a thread of flesh. Mrs. Boyd said, "You don't often get away with murder. Or do you?"
Wyatt shook his head. "He was lucky."
"He must've been desperate," Mrs. Boyd mused over her champagne. "Maybe his wife taunted him with her misbehavior, drove him to violence, made him an animal."
"A crazy man needs no reasons for what he does." Wyatt said.
Fay came to attention. "Are you saying he's crazy?"
"He can't be right, can he?"
Mr. Boyd couldn't repress a belch. He had eaten too much, which didn't deter him from studying the dessert menu with his wife. Simultaneously they decided on peach shortcake. Fay and Wyatt ordered liqueurs, which arrived promptly.
"Pity you couldn't find him," Mrs. Boyd said. "It would have been exciting to meet him."
Wyatt laughed. "He was a professor of mine. You'd probably find him a crashing bore. Show me an academic who isn't."
"There's mystery in all of us," Fay said.
"What's your take on the fellow?" Mr. Boyd asked her.
Wyatt answered for her, a habit of his. "She's never met him."
The four of them rode the elevator to the third floor, where the Boyds vanished into their room and the Eklunds into theirs. Fay yanked the ribbon from her hair, and Wyatt lifted her dress, her underpants little more than a label to be peeled away. "It must be the salt air," he murmured.
"Or the champagne," Fay said.
He provided protection retrieved from his toilet kit. His idea. They had no children. His decision. Always he entered her with a sense of triumph, as if he were a warrior and she the spoils, their bed a field of battle. Invariably lust pulled his face out of shape, which had once mesmerized her and now merely disconcerted her. Eventually he rolled away and, as usual, fell into a thick sleep. She was wide awake.
The moon glazed the beach. Carrying her sandals in one hand, she tramped barefoot over wet sand and salted her face in the ocean air. Mist swirled over the surf, which had lost its force and was retreating like winter slush pushed back by a plow. "I knew you'd be here," she said to the figure at the surf's edge. Moonlight glanced off the planes of Manning's face, and shadows nuanced it. Her imagination fed on him. "Did you really kill your wife?"
He glanced sideways at her. "I've never denied it."
She wondered whether he had suffered a psychotic episode. A deed done in the high heat of the moment, for which he could not be held liable. They commenced walking together, the beach a river of pearly light. She dropped a sandal and didn't bother to pick it up. "Your wife had red hair. Like mine?"
"No. Real red."
"That's what Wyatt said."
In the moonlight, gray touches at his temples looked powdered, endowing him with the air of a stage actor. Farther down the beach two couples were taking late-night strolls. Short-sighted, Fay glimpsed only their patterns. Manning spoke abruptly in a near toneless voice, surprising her. "Do you and your husband love each other? I mean, do you love each other very much?"
She liked to be truthful. About everything. "Just normal. Like most people."
"Then neither of you will do the unthinkable."
She didn't ask for an explanation. She didn't want one. Or need one. Was his wife, she wondered, the single rare moment in his life? She let the salt air ripple against her face. "Was she beautiful?"
"Rita was flamboyant. And a free spirit, which generated lots of stories about her, some half true, most maliciously false."
They slowed their pace. The only sound reaching Fay was the slushing of the retreating surf. "I have another question," she said. "Where do the gulls go at night?"
"Nowhere. They simply disappear and reappear in the morning." Looking off, Manning spoke from his chest, as if unloading it. "It's never easy to kill somebody, you know, even if that person is dying and suffering terribly. Rita wanted it to be fast. But my hand shook. God help me, I had to shoot twice."
Without warning, the faces of the strolling couples blossomed into view, their voices audible. Fay recognized the twosome, young and attractive, who had clinked glasses in a honeymoon toast. Neither, so far, had killed the other. Manning stepped away before anyone came face to face.
"It's late," he murmured.
Watching him move off in full stride, she called after him. "I'm not afraid of you."
Dangling a single sandal, Fay entered the lobby, nodded to the night clerk, and rode the elevator to the third floor, where she noticed that the door of the Boyds' room was open. Peering out, Mrs. Boyd drew her in with a frantic gesture. Without makeup, the elderly woman's face resembled fabric. Mr. Boyd lay silent and still in bed, eyes shuttered, covers drawn to his jowls.
"He's not well, but he won't let me call a doctor. It's his heart. Not good. Not good at all."
"I didn't know," Fay said contritely, as if she should've guessed. She had seen him put away food.
Mrs. Boyd seemed stuck in a spell. "I always do what he says, but I don't want to lose him."
Fay regularly deferred to Wyatt on all matters, overriding the fact that she had been president of her class at her community college, no grade lower than A-minus on her blue examination books, whereas Wyatt had finished at the bottom of his class and may not have even graduated, at least not properly. "Would you like me to call a doctor?"
"I don't know, dear. I've been so sheltered. My first husband pampered me and never told me anything, not even when he knew he was dying. He didn't want to upset me."
Staring absently at the weave of Mrs. Boyd's face, Fay chided herself for comparing her associate degree with whatever degree Wyatt did or did not receive, and for pitting her little college against a hallowed institution like Dartmouth. Marrying her, Wyatt had plucked her out of working-class obscurity and given her the prestige of the Eklund name. "Tell me what you want me to do, Mrs. Boyd."
"I don't know. I've never been good at these things. Did you lose a sandal?" Mr. Boyd's breathing turned crooked, and both women turned sharply. Mrs. Boyd shivered. "I was young when my first husband died. I wouldn't hold his hand because I was afraid he'd take me with him. Things like that you never forgive yourself for."
Eyes open, Mr. Boyd uttered a sound that startled both women. His Adam's apple looked like blockage trying to break free. His eyes sought Fay and subjected her to a thyroidal stare.
"He wants water!" Mrs. Boyd cried, and Fay, with a start, poured bottled water into a glass. As Mrs. Boyd lifted her husband's head, he opened his mouth like a baby bird. "You do it," Mrs. Boyd ordered, and Fay fitted the glass between Mr. Boyd's lips as something infant-like took over his face. As he gurgled, his hand crept out of the covers and patted the bed. "He wants you to sit there," Mrs. Boyd said. "Could you do that for him?" Fay paused for a tight moment and then made a place for herself beside him, where she felt more a priestess than a nurse. "Maybe you could stay a few minutes, dear. And could you hold his hand?"
"Absolutely not. You should hold his hand, not I."
"It's yours he wants, dear."
Mr. Boyd mumbled something through a distorted smile, as if his face were in some sort of death grip, but then, his smile straightening, he entertained himself with a fortissimo of farts. Mrs. Boyd shot him a homicidal look that left Fay with scant doubt that, given hammer and knife, Mrs. Boyd was capable of shattering her husband's skull and slashing his throat.
Fay was on her feet.
Mrs. Boyd said, "You did wonders for him, dear."
Fay slipped out of bed after Wyatt left for a day of golf. Room service was prompt. She relished her first cup of coffee. She enjoyed skinning a navel orange, the strong scent of the peels lingering in her nails. Before showering, she struck poses in the mirror. Wyatt's sister had had surgery to remove belly fat. Fay had an honest body, with a depilated private area that made her feel like a child. From the window, the ocean was rivetingly blue, drawing her to it.
Her face wrapped in sunglasses, she carried a nylon tote bag and a towel down to the beach. A bevy of women occupied a shelf of sand near the tideline while their squirrely children splashed in a tidal pool in view of a lifeguard, who was a prince on a perch, sun block on his nose. Fay hiked to the privacy around the bend, where she spread the towel, undid her top, and oiled herself against the onslaught of a sun edging toward its height. Legs crossed at the ankles, eyes closed under blue-black lenses, she waited. She gave Manning an hour, though fifteen minutes was enough. Without opening her eyes, she said, "I knew you'd come."
"You take chances."
She opened an eye as he dropped down beside her and stared at the surf. "Does a bare bosom embarrass you?" she asked.
Sitting up smartly, she hunched her shoulders, embraced her knees, and shielded herself.
"I put myself through NYU modeling at the Art Students League, eight dollars an hour. That's where I met Wyatt. Love at first sight, I guess. I was nude."
"Nudity has its own finery."
"Wyatt likes to show me off, picks out my clothes, my shoes. We've been married only a few years, though we lived together before that." She stopped herself. "Why am I telling you these things?"
"Some things don't need a reason."
Fay fished a snapshot from the tote bag and, while handing it over, felt she was almost near enough to the shell of his ear to hear the roar of his brain. "Now do you remember?"
Manning viewed the favorable features of Wyatt Eklund. Nothing seemed to click, and his teeth shone in a smile that didn't last. "Sorry. I've blanked out a lot of things."
Fay reclaimed the picture and deftly restored her top. The front of Manning's hair tended to flop, and she watched him shrug it back. "Do you have children?" she asked, and he shook his head. "Wyatt and I have none. His decision and, I suppose, mine." Sensing he wasn't listening, she scrutinized the lines in his brow but failed to get a reading.
"Last night on the beach," he said suddenly and softly, "I was thinking of ending it, but you came along and brightened things up."
His words were a gentle assault on her sensibilities, for it was possible he was lying. Wyatt told lies all the time, and back in high school Ray Hughson had told her stories to get his way. She said, "You wanted to end it? That would be giving up."
"Dying need not be giving up. It could simply be a cease-fire."
"Do you believe that?"
"I don't know what I believe. At the moment I'm just throwing out words." A breeze off the ocean washed over them. A few friendly clouds roamed the vivid sky. "I'm leaving tomorrow," he said. "It's doubtful we'll meet again. Probably best we don't."
Fay felt a twinge, a longing to know more about him. The little she did know was already locked into a memory any stray breath of salt air would stir. She knew that as surely as she knew that every hello carries the inevitability of a goodbye. A shadow fell across her. He was on his feet and poised to leave without a word. She sat up. "People shouldn't just walk off," she said. "They should part in a ceremonial way."
Without hesitation, he squatted in front of her. His face loomed. "The past is real. I'm not sure what I'm doing now is." He kissed her cheek, firmly, meaningfully, as if she were special, perhaps even a princess. As he rose, she gazed up with quiet eyes. Nothing to be said. Then he was gone, his absence more palpable than his presence.
Fay shared a table on the veranda with Mrs. Boyd. A waiter served them iced tea. "Goodness knows where my husband is," Mrs. Boyd said. "He wandered off with those binoculars of his and probably got lost. I sometimes think I should pin a tracking device on him."
Fay was smoking a cigarette, the first she'd had in months. She said, "You used me."
Mrs. Boyd wore a sun visor over her eyes. "Whatever do you mean, dear."
"He wasn't dying."
Mrs. Boyd tasted her tea. "He was sick, you saw that."
"He's a pig. He overstuffed himself at dinner."
"He's an old man, dear. His joys are few."
Fay exhaled a great deal of smoke. "You shouldn't have asked me to sit on the bed, and you certainly shouldn't have asked me to hold his hand."
"It pleased him."
"And cheapened me."
Mrs. Boyd almost laughed. "You're overvaluing yourself, dear, but no matter. And no harm done. We're all silly at times, aren‘t we?"
Suddenly it became clear to Fay that in marriage Mrs. Boyd was meat and potatoes while naïve women like herself, surrendering their souls at the altar, were little treats, frosted cake, sips of punch.
Mrs. Boyd finished her iced tea. "I really should look for him. I never know where those binoculars are going to take him." Fay crushed out her cigarette, and Mrs. Boyd rose with effort from her chair. "I envy you, dear. My first husband was handsome in his day, but nowhere near as handsome as your husband. You're a lucky woman." Mrs. Boyd paused. "That's what I don't understand."
"What don't you understand?" Fay said coldly, and Mrs. Boyd applied a smoothing hand to her tea-rose hair.
"Your friend on the beach. My husband said you made a charming couple."
"Really." Fay lit her second cigarette. "Then maybe you should pass that on to Wyatt. I'm sure his ears would perk up."
A false look of alarm flashed across Mrs. Boyd's face. "I'd never do that, dear. We women have to stick together." She winked. "Otherwise where would we be?"
After dinner the Eklunds went to an ocean-front bar, quite crowded, quite noisy. From their little table, where they were sipping Pinot Noir, Fay spotted him first. He was by himself at the bar, wedged in, jostled by strangers, smiling now and then in an odd way, as if his face were sore. Then Wyatt saw him and, rising, said, "No doubt about it. It's him."
Fay watched Wyatt snake his way through the crowd and approach Manning. She craved a cigarette, but there was no ashtray, no smoking. Crossing her thighs, the left over the other, she watched the two men shake hands, Wyatt the aggressor, Wyatt in charge, his posture martial. Then, weeding this way and that, his smile broad, Wyatt ushered Manning toward her and appropriated a chair for him. Fay immediately unclenched her thighs to make room, but there was little to spare. Knees bumped.
"He remembered me right away," Wyatt said with satisfaction. "I knew he would. Professor, meet my wife. Fay."
She and Manning smiled politely at each other, as if their meetings on the beach had never taken place, as if he had never placed a poetic kiss on her sun-hot cheek.
Wyatt said, "I had the professor for Modern Lit. Joyce, Pound, Proust, those guys. The heavy hitters, he called them."
Her face an oval of feigned indifference, Fay would have bet her soul that his lectures were mind-stretching. With a violence of feeling, she would have soaked in every word, with no need to write any down. She'd have been Molly Bloom shouting Yes! Yes!
Wyatt's voice deepened. "You didn't give me a very good grade, Professor. In fact, you flunked me."
"Did I? I don't remember."
"You accused me of plagiarizing."
Manning had brought his tankard of beer from the bar, half gone, some in spillage on the way. "Yes, now I do remember. You nearly didn't graduate. A hearing was necessary. Your father came with a lawyer."
"I had my own heavy hitters."
Fay tried not to look at Manning, for their knees were unavoidably touching, steering her mind into places it shouldn't go. Swiftly she stole a look at him in the event his face was giving out secrets. It wasn't. Not a one.
Wyatt said, "I used to watch your wife crossing the Green. We all had eyes for her."
"That's understandable. My wife was beautiful."
"Red hair. You couldn't miss her. We all felt sorry for you. We knew what was going on."
Fay's knee pressed decisively against Manning's in the hope of conveying a feeling she was sure was valid, that a man and a woman need each other if only for balance. She wanted it known that her father, her uncles, the spear side of her family, were weaklings while the women were warriors. She was worthy, she wanted to tell him, but he was speaking to her husband.
"If you don't mind, Mr. Eklund, I won't respond to that."
She wanted to tell him that her husband had wanted to be a great painter like Matisse, who was not much of a man. Matisse turned his back on his wife and children and sought safety in the unoccupied zone during the Nazi occupation. His wife worked for the Resistance, and so did one of his daughters. They were warriors.
"I may have cheated on an exam," Wyatt said, "but I never killed my wife. As you can see, she's sitting here alive and well."
"You're absolutely right, on all counts." Manning raised his tankard, drained what little remained, and sighed profoundly, as if his thoughts were from another life. Fay felt his knee slip away. "Well, I must be going." She wanted to reach for his hand and hold him in place, but he was already on his feet and glancing down at Wyatt and then shifting his eyes to her. Her heart sank. He was viewing her as if she were a curiosity, nothing more.
"Not driving you away, are we?" Wyatt said.
Fay gazed up at Manning hauntingly. He said, "A pleasure meeting you, Mrs. Eklund."
They watched him leave. With a smile of satisfaction, Wyatt said, "I've waited a long time to get back at that son of a bitch."
Wyatt was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. Fay, who knew he would be, went down to the beach, stood on a moonlit spit of sand, and let the ocean encroach on her. Waves broke nearer and nearer. Seawater rushed over her bare feet, chilling them. She hiked her dress when it splashed her knees, and when it threatened her thighs she stiffened, as if a cold claw were reaching up there, unkind, unloving. She retreated to dry land. Had there been any hope of Manning's showing up, she'd have sat on the sand, till dawn if necessary.
The night clerk noted her return with a nod and her bare feet with a smile, her pumps left behind, perhaps washed away like her abandoned sandal. A growing fatigue weighted her legs as she rode the elevator, and hampered her stride when she stepped out. The door to the Boyds' room was half open, which didn't surprise her. Mrs. Boyd was in a chair by the bed.
Fay spoke softly, with only a modicum of irony. "Another bad night for him, Mrs. Boyd?"
"This time I may lose him."
Curiosity carried Fay into the room. Mr. Boyd lay with his mouth open as if to draw a last breath, his eyes near-zeroes. His face seemed to lack not only meaning but identity as well. Frozen in her chair, Mrs. Boyd spoke mechanically.
"I'm afraid to move. I want the chance to say goodbye."
Fay gradually became aware of unmistakable sounds seeping through the wall. The honeymooners were exerting themselves. She and Wyatt had gone to Florence on their honeymoon. That was when he still wanted to be a painter, a noted one, and was sure he would be. She kept her doubts to herself.
"We've had a good life," Mrs. Boyd said. "I don't know what I'll do without him."
Wyatt took her to the Uffizi to see Titian's Venus of Urbino, Venus lying languidly in the altogether, roses in one hand, her groin in the other. In their hotel room, at his urging, she reconstructed the pose so that he could sketch her for a painting he had in mind, one that would exalt and immortalize them both. Instead he hovered over her with a look in his eye, and the sketch was never done. It was a game he liked to play.
With vacant eyes, Mrs. Boyd said, "I have no children, none whatsoever. When I was young, a hysterectomy left me with an empty dish."
The honeymooners were at the height of their entertainment. Fay could almost feel the heat in their voices aswirl in her ear. The man's voice was pitched high like a boy's while the young woman's had gravel. Mrs. Boyd was oblivious of everything except the chill of impending loss and aloneness.
"Did he make a pig of himself again?" Fay asked.
"A little." Mrs. Boyd gripped her husband's hand as if to anchor him, as if he had a tentative foot in the spiritual world and might drift away. "I regret he and I have never really talked to each other. You know, back and forth, real close, like a couple should."
You don't know how to oink.
"Were you about to say something, dear?"
Fay shook her head. Mrs. Boyd squeezed her husband's hand, and surprising everyone, perhaps himself the most, Mr. Boyd squeezed back.
Copyright © Andrew Coburn 2006.