Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Priest Pond (Part 2)

Below is the second part of Lisa Gornick's story from our Fall 2013 Issue, "Priest Pond." Lisa Gornick is the author of two novels, A Private Sorcery (Algonquin) and Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux). ‘‘Priest Pond’’ is part of a forthcoming collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

priest_pond_lisa_gornick

Priest Pond by Lisa Gornick

Of course Charlotte dreams of Wen. She knows she will. She has dreamt of him nearly every night since he died. In the dream, he is as he’d been when she met him: jumpy, boyish, rakish—a big grin as he took her elbow and led her down to the stables at the edge of the racetrack where he knew the trainers who winked exaggeratedly at him for having a girl on his arm. Then, the dream changes and he is as he’d been when Eric was a boy: grim, dour, because they never saw him until dusk, always with a shadow on his lip and jaw. He is standing at the bow of his boat, his back toward her and naked from head to toe: his forearms a leathery brown, the rest mushroom white. On his back is an ugly red gash, and even in the dream, Charlotte, the dreamer, knows this is wrong, that Wen’s injury is two disks compressed together, not anything she could see. Wen turns, revealing in his hand a long gleaming fish knife like he might use to clean the hake in the silver pail by his feet, but then the scene shifts and Eric is crouched by the pail, his large ears pink and wiggling, his bony ankles flanking his hips. Charlotte rushes toward Wen, but the dream grinds to a stop, Char­lotte bolting out of sleep at the moment she reaches Wen, just a milli­second before the fish knife would have cut her palms.

Charlotte sits up. Outside, the street lights have been turned on, casting white globes on the blackened windowpanes. In the wake of the dream, the light is painful, leaving her with a hollow empty feeling. She pulls the mohair blanket over her lap and closes her eyes again, her thoughts drift­ing to the last day the three of them—Wen, Eric, and she—were together. Really together, since Eric made two more trips to the island, but they were more pantomimes of visits than visits.

It was Eric’s second year at Oberlin, winter break, a Saturday, a few days before Christmas. Everything was frozen and bare, the trees, the roads, the fields all mud brown, waiting for the January snows. During the fall, Eric had veered from his piano studies, overtaken by what Char­lotte had guiltily hoped (she’d always told herself that all that mattered was that Eric do what he found interesting) would be a passing infatua­tion with musical anthropology. For his final paper, he’d programmed an electronic keyboard to reproduce the seven-note system of an Indonesian gamelan. He’d borrowed a portable keyboard from the music department and brought it home in a bulky black case to show them, though later Charlotte would wonder who he’d had in mind: his father and her, or Fleitzig?

Charlotte had placed a book of Renaissance Christmas carols she’d bought mail-order on the piano music stand, but Eric had set the keyboard up in his room and was occupied with only it. All morning, while she was baking Christmas cookies, weird polyrhythmic music wafted down through the ceiling. After lunch, Wen fell asleep in the recliner, exhausted from the road work he’d signed on for in November with the hope of logging in his twelve weeks on the province payroll so he’d qualify for unemployment in February and March when it would be too blustery to either fish or repair roads. That year, the road work had taken its toll on Wen in a way Charlotte hadn’t seen before. She’d been frightened by his ashen pallor and by the way he had to soak his hands in a bowl of warm water before he could feel his teeth on his fingertips. Wen, angry, defensive—probably scared himself, Charlotte had thought—had insisted the gray cast to his skin was soot, the numbness in his fingers the consequence of gripping a shovel seven and a half hours a day.

Around three, Charlotte heard Wen stir and then get up to use the bathroom. The music stopped, and there was a loud thumping as Eric descended the stairs with the keyboard back in its case. He came into the kitchen, Wen following behind. Charlotte smiled at the two of them—Eric looking like the spindly, elongated, forward-cast shadow of his compact, muscular father. She would make cocoa, bring it into the living room on a tray with a plate of the cookies still soft and warm from the oven. Perhaps Eric would play the carols afterward.

But before she could heat the milk, Eric asked Wen to borrow the pickup; he wanted to show Fleitzig the electronic keyboard, to play him the gamelan simulation. Wen went outside with Eric to go over with him again where the safety brake release was on the floor and how to use the five gears, even though Eric had been home three days already and had driven this new (really used, but new to them) pickup. Through the open kitchen door, Charlotte could hear Wen’s litany: ‘‘Remember, there are five gears, not four. The old truck had four. Not that you should go higher than the fourth. Just the fifth is where reverse was on the old truck.’’ Eric listened patiently, his head tilted slightly, but whether he was listening to the words or to the cadences of his father’s voice, Charlotte wasn’t sure.

That evening, Charlotte and Wen ate in silence, a familiar silence, not hostile but rather the silence of people who’ve run out of things to say to one another, not because life doesn’t provide an endless source of conver­sation but rather because the peace between them wouldn’t accommo­date Charlotte’s ruminations: the memories set off by her mother’s Christ­mas cookie cutters (the fir tree, Santa, elf, reindeer, stocking, and wreath), would Eric go back to the piano, how would Fleitzig respond to the elec­tronic keyboard.

After dinner, Wen returned to his recliner to watch television. Slowly, staring out the window into the murky night, Charlotte washed the dishes. She lined two Christmas tins with waxed paper, packing each with an assortment of the cookies. Twice, she heard Wen get up from the recliner, once to use the bathroom, the other time to open the front door and step outside, listening, it seemed, for the pickup. Around ten, he called out that he was going to bed. Charlotte placed the filled tins on the kitchen table, one for each of Wen’s sisters whom she’d see in the morning at church. Then, she curled up in her armchair to read. But she, too, had been dis­tracted, listening for the pickup. At eleven, she checked the wood-burning stove, pushing the remaining charred log to the side, turning the knob for the flue so the air would dwindle, and went upstairs as well to bed.

It was after one when Charlotte heard the kitchen door open and Eric’s footsteps, loud and heedless of whether he was waking them, on the stairs. Then, Eric was knocking on their bedroom door.

‘‘Come in,’’ she called out. Eric stopped at the foot of the bed. She turned on the reading light. A small cut, covered with dried blood, crossed his chin. The piece of graphite in his forehead glowed blue.

Charlotte propped herself up on an elbow. ‘‘Eric, honey, what happened?’’

‘‘I had an accident.’’ His lip quivered. ‘‘A raccoon ran out into the road and I swerved not to hit it. There was a patch of ice and I skid—hit a tree.’’

Charlotte moved over so her hip was pushed against Wen, asleep on his side with his back to her. She smoothed the blanket and curled her fingers in and out toward her chest, motioning for Eric to come sit beside her. Eric’s hands were icy cold. She rubbed them between her own.

‘‘Are you hurt? Did you get hurt?’’

‘‘No.’’

Charlotte touched Eric’s chin. Wen rolled over so he was lying on his back.

‘‘That’s from a branch of the tree when I was trying to see what hap­pened to the pickup.’’

Wen opened his eyes. ‘‘What did you do?’’

Eric looked down at the blanket. Wen sat up. ‘‘It’s pretty bad,’’ Eric said.

Charlotte reached out for Wen’s arm. ‘‘He hit a patch of ice.’’

Wen jerked his arm away. He lowered his feet onto the floor, his torso slightly bent, his hand pressed over his lower spine.

‘‘Don’t be foolish. This can wait until the morning.’’

Wen reached for his pants. Eric covered his eyes.

‘‘It’s dark out. You won’t even be able to see.’’ Her voice sounded thin— weak.

Wen leaned against the bureau and stepped into his pants. Eric followed him downstairs. Charlotte heard the squeak of the kitchen door opening and then the bang as it shut. She drew back the edge of the curtain from the window over the bed. All she could make out were the bare branches of their pear tree. It was a pointless gesture, this peering out into the inky night; even if Wen had grabbed a flashlight or turned on the pickup head­lights, the driveway was on the other side of the house. A useless compro­mise between the old impulse to chase after them, to intercede, and the idea (where had it come from—magazines, radio talk shows?) that she should let them work it out alone.

Charlotte sunk back under the sheets. She hated the women’s maga­zines with their awful catch phrases—empty nest syndrome, midlife crises —their assumptions, never questioned, that life rolls neatly through its stages, that difficulties can always be overcome, that feminine beauty, marital and maternal love can with sufficient effort be preserved, but she was unable to resist flipping through them when they arrived at the li­brary. Was she fostering Eric’s childishness? Yesterday, after she’d twice run out to the driveway, once to hand Eric a hastily arranged plate of the Christmas cookies for Fleitzig, the second to call out to remember to go slowly on the stretch of road near Cable Head, the fog nestling between the Gulf and St. Peter’s Bay can catch a driver unaware, Wen had looked up at her with an expression that wed hatred and disgust.

A door slammed. Charlotte pulled her knees up under her flannel nightgown and listened for voices, but all she could hear was the wind rounding the corner of the house.

In the morning, Eric was gone. He’d taken the electronic keyboard, leaving a suitcase of clothes with a note taped to the side: MAIL TO and then his address. Wen was in the driveway, rubbing a rust repellent into the smashed panel behind the passenger’s door of the truck.

Charlotte rushed out the kitchen door. ‘‘What?’’ Air wheezed through her nose making a hissing sound. ‘‘What did you say to him?’’

Wen didn’t answer. He lowered himself onto his back so he could see beneath the truck bed. Under his breath, she heard him muttering some­thing that sounded like raccoon, wouldn’t kill a fucking raccoon.

Charlotte felt herself coming to a boil, her muscles clenching—jaw, fists, gut—to hold back the rising steam. Only once, years before, when Eric was a toddler and he and Wen had come in from the beach with Eric dangling under Wen’s arm and screaming, loud piercing cries that had led Charlotte to jump out from the shower, certain that the child was hurt, had she raised her voice at Wen. Then, Wen had dumped Eric on the floor and grabbed her by the upper arms and shook her, shook her so hard the towel she’d wrapped around her had fallen to the floor so she stood naked before her husband and son. His words—‘‘Don’t you ever holler at me. You got some­thing to say, you say it’’—had echoed in her neck and spine for days.

For the three days after Eric left, Charlotte frantically called Eric’s aunts, Fleitzig, his two closest friends from high school, and then, every hour, his dorm room, knowing all along it didn’t make sense, the dorms were closed for the winter break. She and Wen tiptoed around each other, barely speak­ing. On Christmas Eve, she went alone to church. Head bowed, tears dropped onto the coat folded in her lap as she prayed: prayed that Eric was safe, prayed to be released from the anger at Wen. In the morning, she woke feeling calm. When Wen turned toward her in his sleep, she reached out a hand to run down his side and he stretched out an arm to pull her close. At noon, Eric called from the off-campus apartment of friends. Char­lotte picked up the phone, and although she’d grown accustomed over the prior year and a half to talking with Eric long distance, it was the first time he felt far away, the first time awkward gaps hung between their words. Cautiously, they wished each other Merry Christmas, the caution even more painful than Eric’s absence but now, after another five years, so famil­iar that her former ease with Eric—the way she’d scooped him into her lap as a baby, jostled him awake every school morning with her singsong Rise and shine, run out laughing to the driveway that last Saturday with the plate of cookies for Fleitzig, whispering Remember to take back the plate— seems now like the memory of a dream.

–––

Charlotte sits for several minutes with her eyes closed, fingering the mo­hair blanket, the images from the dream and memory mingling together: Wen’s bleeding back, the dented pickup, Eric crouched by the silver pail. Leaning over, she retrieves her shoes, two ugly frogs, from under the glass coffee table. Gently, she opens the French doors. She finds the powder room, runs warm water, and washes her face. Turning off the water, she hears piano music, the notes so clear and clean it sounds as if the speakers must be in the next room. She pats her face dry with a plush sea green towel, following the melody in her mind. It is Mozart’s Sonata in F, a piece she recognizes from Eric’s lessons with Fleitzig but played slower and with more feeling than Charlotte recalls.

When she returns to the living room, Margaret is seated at the piano bench, and it takes Charlotte a moment to comprehend that it is Margaret playing the sonata.

Quietly, she lowers herself onto the sofa where she dreamt of Wen. Margaret plays with her chin jutted forward, hearing, it seems, with her throat as much as her ears. The voile curtains have been drawn and a tall torchiere lit, throwing a halo onto the ceiling and trembling shadows over the ivory keys. Through the curtains, Charlotte can see the lights from the buildings across the park.

At the end of the piece, Margaret holds her hands for a moment sus­pended in the air. The spell broken, she sighs and with a clunk lowers the piano lid. When Margaret turns, Charlotte realizes that she’s changed her clothes: the houndstooth suit replaced by loose black pants and a long lavender silk blouse.

‘‘That was beautiful. I remember when Eric first learned that piece.’’

‘‘I’ve been working on it as a welcome-home gift for him.’’

Margaret cocks her ear toward Charlotte, as though listening to her unspoken question. ‘‘Early December. But you know Eric. He doesn’t be­lieve in timetables. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s two days before he’s due back at work.’’

Charlotte thinks about saying, no, she doesn’t know, but it seems too jarring an idea to introduce into this exquisite room.

‘‘Did you sleep?’’

‘‘Better than I have since my husband died.’’ She is surprised to hear herself, usually so reticent, offering this information. Perhaps it is the si­lence, that Margaret hasn’t said any of those inane platitudes like Char­lotte’s neighbors with their casseroles and wreaths and hushed comments, and Wen’s sisters with their pat-pat to Charlotte’s hand or shoulder and even once to her head as though her bereavement has reduced her to a pet, and even her own brother with his refrain about how God chooses his time.

‘‘It’s not from missing my husband that I’ve been sleeping badly.’’ Her fingers fly to her mouth, as if to stop the rebellious lips. She lowers her hand and holds it tightly in the other. ‘‘I know that must sound terrible— just he’d been gone so long I can hardly remember when he was here. Wen was like a turtle. He kept contracting further and further into his shell. These last couple of years, he’d come home so worn out from the road work, having to ask permission for bathroom breaks like a grade-school child, all he could do was take a shower, get his dinner down, and then sit in that recliner watching the stupid TV.’’

With stupid TV, Charlotte’s voice breaks, and her eyes fill again. Mar­garet reaches an arm toward a gilded tissue box. She hands it to Charlotte, who blows her nose twice and wipes her eyes, only then realizing that Margaret can’t see the tears, that she has responded to the break in Char­lotte’s voice.

‘‘Eric told me, about his father.’’

Charlotte looks up.

‘‘Wrecking the truck. How he didn’t come home for another year after that.’’

‘‘Seventeen months,’’ Charlotte says. When he finally came home, he seemed altered to her. Taller, more filled out. More aloof. During his visit, they had a string of perfect days: the sky a cloudless periwinkle, the water warm enough to swim in with comfort, the fields a riot of wildflowers, the bay so glutted with lobsters and mussels they feasted every night. But afterward, after Eric returned to school, she felt empty, as though she’d been entertaining a stranger. Except for the greeting and parting kisses, they’d never touched.

‘‘I remember the day Eric told me about his father. It was at the begin­ning, when I was still banging the keys, refusing to let Eric teach me or to let myself feel the music. We were here, in this room, before I had this piano,’’ Margaret says, running her fingers across the top of the music stand.

‘‘He was trying to explain to me about flats and sharps and how they relate to scale intervals but I was so filled with rage that I might as well have been deaf too for all I could take in of what he was saying. I’d hear the words but they’d bounce right off me. I’d sit there, on the bench, with my hands clenched like baseballs, and I must have been doing it then because Eric just stopped what he was saying, literally, mid-sentence.’’

Margaret turns her head slightly—except for the glasses, Charlotte thinks, a profile like a schoolbook Cleopatra.

‘‘He touched my fist, and Lordy, it was like a cloud burst. I cried so hard I soaked the front of my blouse. I don’t know how he got me off the bench and over to the couch.’’

She points to the couch where Charlotte is sitting. ‘‘I just sat there, sobbing and heaving and then sniveling with Eric holding my hand and not saying anything. After a while, a long while, he asked me if I wanted to tell him what had happened, how I’d lost my sight, and I realized I did.’’

Margaret gets up from the piano bench. Charlotte imagines Eric lead­ing her over to the couch, his thin arm around her waist. Margaret lowers herself into the leather chair where she sat earlier, slipping off her ballet flats and crossing her stockinged long-toed feet on the matching ottoman. ‘‘So I told him. Of course, I’d told people before, the police, my lawyers, the staff at the rehab center, but never because I wanted to.’’

The lower half of Margaret’s face loosens into a half-smile; the top is hidden behind the dark glasses—eerier, now, with the daylight gone. She reaches toward the table where the maid has brought clean glasses, a fresh carafe of wine, and another bottle of sparkling water. ‘‘Let me,’’ Charlotte says. Margaret nods.

‘‘The first thing you learn is how little people want to hear. It scares them, scares them that it could happen to them too.’’

Charlotte hands Margaret a glass of half wine, half sparkling water and then makes the same for herself.

So Eric sat on this couch.

‘‘Eric took me on. I still remember his words. Look Margaret, he said. That Look Margaret was a balm. I hadn’t heard anyone say that to me since I was a girl. Look Margaret, he said, there are two ways of living. One way you try to control everything. That’s how you’ve done it up to now. You studied hard in high school and got a scholarship to college and then you studied hard in college and got into a good medical school and then you worked hard in medical school and got a good residency and then you impressed everyone there and were able to start your own sur­gery practice and make a lot of money and move into this apartment. But then someone, a crazy, jealous, racist kook—I think that’s how Eric put it, a crazy, jealous, racist kook—someone whose life didn’t work that way and who’s decided that the reason he didn’t get into medical school and you did is because you’re black and a woman, throws acid in your eyes and it’s all over.’’

Charlotte gasps. Margaret turns toward her and for the first time Char­lotte notices the sliver of raw skin—thin, stretched, like the membrane between the shell and white of an egg—at the far edges of her glasses.

‘‘I forget,’’ Margaret says softly. ‘‘I forget how shocking it must sound.’’ She reaches for her glass and sips, the wine tipping golden toward her crimson lips. ‘‘That was when Eric told me about his father. How he hurt his back and had to give up playing hockey but was never able to accept it, to take it as an opportunity.’’

Charlotte’s head is throbbing and she doesn’t know if it is because of what Margaret is telling her or because it is as if Eric, but an Eric she’s never known, is here in the room, or because it is true, so starkly true about Wen that it amazes her that she hasn’t thought about it before. Never had she seen any signs that Wen felt any pleasure in the fishing, never had she seen any elation or contentment on his face, not on those cold March mornings when the sea would turn lapis lazulate, the sky whitewashed from winter, not when he’d come in on June afternoons and the sun, still high in the sky, would dart off the metal pails and glisten on the silvery fish skins, not at dusk when he’d sit on the patio cleaning the hake and mackerel and little herrings, the cliffs looming in the violet sky, the smell of onions barbecuing in tinfoil, his cuts so deft that the only blood would be a thin crimson line down the belly of the fish. No wonder Eric never wanted to go with him. No wonder Eric retreated into a world of sound, at first the Old World sounds Fleitzig had brought with his leather-bound music books from Bremen— Bach preludes, Strauss waltzes, Mozart sonatas—and then, later, after he went to Oberlin, sounds so unrecognizable to Charlotte, she didn’t know to what in the seemingly random jangle she should attend.

‘‘I remember Eric saying something about his father that astonished me. That really the ice hockey had been as much dictated by circum­stances as the fishing—only with the hockey his father had had the illu­sion of choice, the feeling that his life was under his control.’’

Margaret raises her hand to her breastbone. An opal ring, the stone fat and cloudy, rests on her middle finger. ‘‘It occurred to me that the same was true for me with medicine. I’d felt like I’d chosen to be a doctor, but it had been more reaction than anything else. Math and science had seemed less intimidating than the humanities, where my Wellesley classmates were leagues ahead of me. With differential equations, it’s irrelevant if you’ve ever seen the Joffrey or spent a summer in France.’’

Margaret spins the ring around on her finger and then presses it to her lips. ‘‘I was so agitated by the thought, I got up and started pacing. Back and forth across the room. Eric paced with me, holding my elbow to keep me from bumping into things. Talking all the while: that he didn’t mean to sound like a Pollyanna, that he wasn’t telling me to look for the silver lining, but that it had happened, my losing my sight, and I could rail and scream and make life miserable for myself and everyone around me and still I wouldn’t be able to see.’’

Charlotte can feel herself straining forward—as though she might miss one of Eric’s words. As though she has never heard her son speak before. And really, when she thinks about it, what she’s always listened for in Eric is the sound from his fingers. There had been very few words, very few words from any of them so that it seems all the more wondrous to learn that Eric has grown to be a man of so many.

‘‘I’m not saying I was out of the woods after that day. There was plenty of hell still to come. I’m talking hatred. A hatred at white people like I’d never felt before.’’ Margaret pauses. ‘‘I don’t know why I didn’t take that out on Eric. Maybe because he’s so young. He felt to me like the Buddha in a child’s body.’’

Margaret leans back in her chair. She runs a hand over her hair. ‘‘I felt something, that day, pacing back and forth with Eric holding my elbow, an instant of calm, a sense of possibility, of going with what had happened the way they teach you in tai chi, that you move with the aggressor’s energy, not against it. And it came back, at first, so fleetingly it would be gone before I’d even recognize it had been there, but then, later, for longer stretches, even a few minutes. The agitation would subside and I could breathe.’’

The maid comes in with a new bowl of cashews. She wipes the damp spots on the tray with a cloth. Reaching behind the curtains, she pulls down the shades. Sealed from the street lights, the room intensifies, each object gaining the gravitas of things late in the day. She waits by the windows, her red hair electric in the artificial light.

‘‘That’s fine, Janie. We won’t need anything else.’’

After the girl leaves the room, Margaret continues. ‘‘Of course, it got worse before it got better since once I stopped ranting and raving, I had to face how frightened I was of the darkness, that it was dark all the time.’’

Charlotte closes her eyes. On the inside of her lids are patterns of light: shades of black, a shimmering red aureole.

‘‘And then there was the trial. Having to listen to that sorry excuse for a human being and his sleazy lawyer arguing temporary insanity. That set me back. It was then that I’d think about Eric’s father. Your husband.’’

In the dark, Margaret’s voice seems to Charlotte both lower and more distinct, the words silky and abundant with meaning. ‘‘That Eric had told me about him as a warning.’’

Opening her eyes, Charlotte studies Margaret’s face above and below the glasses: the smooth brow, the tranquil mouth.

‘‘Eric never talked about him again. Later, I’d wonder if I’d imagined the conversation. But then I’d be struggling with some new piece I’d spent all week memorizing from the Braille, practicing it phrase by phrase, and I’d go blank and do something stupid like start to kick the back of the console and Eric would hold my shoulders and exhale deeply and I’d know that he was instructing me to let go, let the music enter me, let myself understand what he was teaching me. Then I’d wonder if he’d told me about his father because he truly believed I was going to be able to play the piano if I let myself or if he just took a risk.’’

Margaret laughs. ‘‘That would have been something—if after all that, it turned out I had a tin ear.’’ The pleasure in the thought sweeps across her cheeks. She runs her thumb over what Charlotte realizes must be a Braille watch. ‘‘Good Lord, is that right? Is it nearly seven thirty?’’

Charlotte looks at her own watch. ‘‘Yes.’’

‘‘I wish I could invite you to stay for dinner, but I have a date.’’

‘‘I’m so sorry, lingering on like this.’’ A date. Charlotte has never known a grown woman to have a date.

‘‘We’re meeting at the Museum of Natural History. They’re open late tonight. Will you walk with me? It’s only a few blocks south.’’

Charlotte nods and then—flustered because of course Margaret can’t see the gesture and anxious, too, about the evening and finding her way to her brother’s apartment, figuring out how to park the pickup overnight— blurts, ‘‘Sure, I mean yes, of course.’’

Margaret rings the silver bell. A moment later, Janie arrives with their two coats: Charlotte’s stiff green parka next to Margaret’s soft camel hair.

–––

Once inside the museum, Margaret switches her hand from atop Char­lotte’s arm to beneath so that she is now leading them. They’re in a rotunda surrounded by murals of scenes from primitive cultures: loin-clothed men, women with sleek hair that falls to their waists. Two enormous dinosaurs fill the middle of the room, one with an elongated neck, arched like a great giraffe, the other thick and compact with an immense pointy-toothed jaw, its left leg bent in preparation for attack.

‘‘Oh my,’’ Charlotte says.

‘‘It’s called Barosaurus Defends Her Young. They’ve redone the models so the tails arch up like a bird’s. Before, when I was a kid, the tail of the barosaurus—that’s the taller one—dragged on the floor like a lizard’s.’’

Her young? Charlotte looks more closely. Crouched behind the baro­saurus is a smaller dinosaur, its legs astride the mother’s tail, its head no larger than the mother’s ankle bone.

Margaret squeezes Charlotte’s arm. ‘‘Come, I’m meeting my friend on the fourth floor in the old dino room.’’

Margaret leads them to the left of the admission booth toward a wide staircase. The rotunda was bright and cheerful, but the stairwell has the musty smell of old buildings where even new paint every two years never kills the mold feeding on the plaster underneath. She releases Charlotte’s arm, grips the banister and marches up the stairs with Charlotte following two steps behind.

At the top of the stairs, Margaret takes Charlotte’s arm again. They walk down a corridor with no doorways, no exhibits. Could Margaret be lost?

‘‘Here, to the right,’’ Margaret says and suddenly they are in a room as sprawling as a high school gym. Glass cases line the walls and in the center stands another grouping of dinosaur skeletons—even larger than the ones below. No other people, save for an elderly guard with broken blood vessels on his cheeks, are present. He sticks his thumb in the book he’d been reading. ‘‘Evening, Doc,’’ he calls out.

‘‘Jim, how are you? Your wife?’’

‘‘Fine, fine. The Mrs. is doing better. Up and about like her old self.’’ He taps the book against his thigh. ‘‘You just tell me when, okay, Doc?’’

Margaret steers Charlotte toward the center of the room. ‘‘You have to walk all the way around to really see them.’’

When they reach the railing surrounding the dinosaurs, Margaret lets go of Charlotte’s arm and moves ahead. Late Cretaceous, Charlotte reads on the placard, from North America. Looking more carefully, she can distinguish the three different specimens: the sad, cow-faced anatosau­rus, a water-loving beast, it says, who feasted on the plants along the river and lakeshores; the three-horned triceratops, also a vegetarian but able with its armored back to fight off attackers; and, the largest—the bullying snake-clawed tyrannosaurus, with carving knives for teeth and an appe­tite for meat.

Margaret stops by the skull of the tyrannosaurus. The yard-long jaw gapes, the hind legs thick as tree trunks, the tail a magnificent cord, stretching back the length of five men.

‘‘That jaw!’’ Charlotte says.

‘‘When I was a kid, my father took us here the first Sunday of every month. We’d travel in by train from Newark. Always, he’d say the same thing: Now children, don’t get the old daddy mad.’’

Margaret waves a hand toward the guard.

‘‘Okay, Doc.’’ He walks to the entranceway where he stands with his back to the room.

‘‘Now, I come here nearly every week, to this room. I don’t know if it’s because this guy’s so big or because it’s something I’d seen before so many times, but when I take off my glasses it feels as if I can see him.’’

Margaret touches the arm of her glasses. ‘‘If you’d close your eyes,’’ she says.

Charlotte turns away from Margaret so she is facing the duck-billed anatosaurus. She squeezes her eyes shut. In the dark, she sees spots of color, flickering circles and diamonds, and she wonders if this is true for Margaret too. She opens her lids a tiny fraction. The anatosaurus looms toward her, the spaces between the bones occluded by the haze of her lashes. Viewed this way, the dinosaur seems almost full-bodied, as though flesh has found its way back onto the skeleton.

Charlotte leans against the rail. A warm heaviness seeps down her limbs. How had these tremendous creatures been vanquished? What could have extinguished them? And then, as if set loose from the bottom of an old deep well, an image, static like a photograph, comes toward her: Wen in a racing stride, his weight on his right skate, the left held tautly behind, her first sight of him moving over the ice, she and Rachel Bigsby, huddled together in the stands. Unable to see Wen’s face under the helmet, she’d studied his body: the tremendous compression, an economy of concentra­tion and action, eyes locked on the puck. A determination, Charlotte had thought, not simply to win that game—which they had—but to triumph over his own muscles, over that sweet, soporific sluggishness beckoning, always, release, release, and die.

‘‘Done, Jim,’’ Margaret calls out.

Jim turns toward them, ushering in a short man, clad in a belted black raincoat, too crisp, Charlotte thinks, to have ever seen water. Bald but with a plump babyishness in his face, he beams as he moves toward them.

‘‘Looking at the old tyrant, Margaret?’’

‘‘Yes, poor Charlotte’s had to stand here with her eyes closed.’’ The man tilts his face upward to kiss Margaret on the cheek. Margaret grazes Char­lotte’s back. ‘‘This is Eric’s mother.’’

The man’s eyebrows dart up but his look of surprise quickly disappears behind another of his beaming smiles. ‘‘Well, well,’’ he says to Charlotte, ‘‘when will our peripatetic musicologist be back?’’

Charlotte’s neck stiffens. ‘‘December,’’ Margaret answers for her. ‘‘Or January or February,’’ she adds, her voice bouncing over the words. The man glances at a large gold watch. ‘‘My dear,’’ he says, tapping Margaret’s nose with a pink fingertip, ‘‘I’m afraid we better scoot along. Our reserva­tion is for eight-thirty and they’re Nazis about the time.’’

Margaret takes Charlotte’s hands between her own. ‘‘Cold hands, warm heart.’’ She bows her head and kisses Charlotte’s fingers. ‘‘Thank you for coming to see me.’’

The baby-faced man encircles Margaret’s waist. ‘‘Good to meet you,’’ he says, and then they are off and Charlotte is so taken aback by the sight of the two of them from the rear, Margaret towering above, her dark hair glossy next to his pale scalp, his black raincoated arm, swept around her camel hair coat, that it isn’t until they are already at the door, their good-byes to Jim echoing behind, that Charlotte realizes she and Margaret did not talk about what Margaret will tell Eric.

Fleetingly, she feels an impulse to chase after Margaret, to catch her and her date halfway down the stairs, but it no longer seems to matter. Wen died, Eric will be told.

Facing the grouping of dinosaurs is a well-worn mahogany bench. Charlotte lowers herself onto the seat. From here, the tyrannosaurus looks even larger, perhaps how it appeared to smaller animals creeping through the grasses. Larger, though, in an absurd and vulnerable way, like the story she recalls from high school about Xerxes’s ships defeated when they couldn’t turn around in the channel. Was this how Wen had seemed to Eric, not simply bullying but also pitiable? Helpless. Blinded. Doomed. Always, when she’s thought about them, about their threesome, she’s seen Wen coiled to pounce, Eric and she hidden in retreat. Her remorse has always been about Eric, that she didn’t intervene, that she let him be driven out. Now, though, this seems wrong. What she sees is Eric, his face easy and relaxed, a hand resting on the piano, his torso curled over Margaret.

In the distance, an electronic bell sounds, a long ring followed by two short blasts. Charlotte tries to envisage Eric and Wen as they are at this instant. Eric, his skin golden from the Indonesian sun, a batik shirt, palm trees—are there palm trees? Wen, shrunken in the brown suit she buried him in (the undertaker pinned the jacket in back), the white cords of his neck delicate over the unfamiliar tie, his face—hadn’t she read that the hair keeps growing underground?—covered with whiskers.

Behind her, Charlotte hears the guard’s voice, ‘‘Closing in fifteen min­utes,’’ and then softly or is it shyly, ‘‘Ma’am.’’ They seem faraway, her husband and son, apparitions that require conjuring. Her mind drifts to the awareness of her own heart beating and the feeling brewing inside her: fear—trepidation about moving from this bench, from this room of bones, about venturing out, alone onto the darkened city streets—but underneath, swimming low, tremulous, quivering, excitement too.