The Whore''s Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo


  Perhaps his wife was thinking the same thing, because as he swam toward her, her smile in greeting contained not a single reservation, though its cause may have been merely the joy of water, the thrill of buoyancy. “Oh, this is grand,” she said, water beading in her hair and lashes. When they embraced, she whispered urgently into his ear, “I’m sorry I’ve been such a pill.”

  Such a pill. As Snow embraced his wife, it occurred to him that the last time she’d used this phrase, she’d been a young woman, and their love for each other had been so effortless that whatever had momentarily come between them could be effectively banished with this benign phrase. What it conveyed now was not just a sudden and powerful resurgence of affection and trust, but also promise that the difficulties of their marriage over the last decade might even now be swept aside by a mutual act of will. They could be their old, younger selves again. They would be in love.

  Later, as they stood in the warm sand toweling themselves dry, June looked down at herself and said, “Thank heavens it’s just us.” The bathing suit that when dry had caused her so much anxiety proved, now that it was wet, somewhat less than opaque, and her nipples showed through clearly, as did the dark triangle of her pubic hair. And to Snow’s surprise, she seemed less upset than she’d been when she emerged from their bathroom at the Captain Clement, insisting that the suit was too young, that she looked foolish.

  “Let’s move our chairs up under the bank,” she suggested with a mischievous glint in her eye, a thing he hadn’t witnessed in a long, long while.

  “Why?”

  But she was already carting a chair and the beach bag toward the bank. Tired, happy and suspicious, he folded up the remaining chair and followed. The tides had eroded the cliff irregularly, of course, and the spot where June set up her chair was semiprivate. Still, he was astonished when his wife peeled off her bathing suit and stood naked before him, this woman who for years had changed into her nightgown in the bathroom. “Well?” she said.

  “Well what?”

  “Let me know if we have company,” June said, settling into her chair and putting on sunglasses. “Unless you’re embarrassed, that is.”

  “Why should I be embarrassed?” he said, staring down at her.

  “Good,” she smiled, taking a book out of the bag.

  Snow set up his chair next to hers, realizing that a challenge had been issued and there was nothing to do but answer it. When he dropped his bathing trunks, she looked at him critically over the rim of her sunglasses. “I beg your pardon,” she said.

  The night before, having returned from dinner only to discover that he’d neglected to pack a book, Snow had slipped into a pair of Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt and padded downstairs in his bare feet to the library where tea had been served that afternoon. What he found was discouraging, if not surprising. Many of the volumes were Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and as he scanned the shelves for something vaguely worth reading, he realized that there could be only one plausible explanation for such a bizarre collection: that the books had been purchased in bulk to provide the Captain Clement’s “romantic ambience.” Some were water-damaged, their brown, brittle pages stuck together, and others were upside down.

  Perhaps because it was one of the latter, Snow did not immediately recognize his book on Emily Dickinson. He had to remove it from the shelf to be sure, but there he was, twenty years younger, staring up seriously from the dust jacket. How strange, he considered, to discover himself in such a place. How had he come to be here, inverted, next to the far likelier Thomas Costain? He examined the book curiously, including the endorsement on the inside flap: With steadfast scholarship, Paul Snow penetrates the deepest secrets of one of literature’s most private lives.

  This was precisely the sort of criticism, of course, that his young replacement had scoffed at. A twentieth-century male scholar “penetrating” the secrets of a nineteenth-century female poet? Such effrontery, according to the new thinking, would reveal only the prejudices and assumptions of the author’s own culture and gender. How ironically vindicated, Snow thought ruefully, this champion of culture and gender would feel to learn that Snow’s best work had been consigned to the “the gentler elegance of a bygone day,” at an inn on its last legs. Instead of replacing the book on the shelf, he laid it flat on a table where Mrs. Childress would notice it in a week or two, and perhaps recognize her guest from the dust jacket photo.

  Returning to their room with a newsmagazine, Snow paused at the foot of the stairs, rooted there by the muffled, distant sound of a woman weeping. Although he had left June engrossed in a book, his first thought was that this grief, although sudden and unannounced, must be hers, and so he remained where he was, paralyzed in the dark, until he realized that the sound was coming not from above, but rather from behind the door marked PRIVATE. Indeed, June was safely asleep in their room, facing the window, its sheer curtains stirring in the warm autumn breeze. Still, though the grief he’d heard below was not his to share, it haunted him, and he awoke several times during the night to the sound of weeping carried upward along the ancient ducts and floor registers, and he lay in the dark for what seemed like hours, alert to the measured sound of June’s breathing and guarding against the possibility that some deep sympathy with another woman’s grief would reawaken her own. But she continued to sleep peacefully. Once she changed positions and murmured a word softly, and he noticed that she massaged her ring finger before rolling over again, but she did not wake and her sleep seemed untroubled. Since giving away her wedding ring, she’d refused to let him replace it, though he made up his mind to broach the subject again before they left the island.

  Perhaps because he’d slept so fitfully, he now fell dead asleep on the beach, drawn downward by the rhythm of the waves. When he woke, it was to the realization that he’d been sleeping for quite some time. He vaguely remembered that just before he’d drifted off June had touched his arm gently and suggested he put on sunscreen, but there had been a cool breeze off the water, and he was enjoying the feeling of his skin tightening as it dried in the sun. His skin felt warm now, but he still felt no urgency about waking completely. How pleasant it was just to lie there with his eyes closed, thinking of June’s warm embrace—her acceptance of him—in the waves, listening to the surf and the voices and laughter carrying all over the beach.

  He opened one eye. When he’d fallen sleep, he and June had been alone. But no longer. A few yards away a young woman had just released a Frisbee, and he followed its flight toward the water; a small dog leapt into the air, caught it in its mouth and trotted back. The girl was wearing a T-shirt and a tiny black bikini bottom, the smallest he’d ever seen. No, she was wearing no bikini bottom. At which point he remembered he’d fallen asleep naked himself, and sitting up straight, he saw that he still was. Also that June’s beach chair was empty.

  She’d gone for a walk, of course, or a swim. Except that he didn’t see her in the water, and when he looked for the beach bag, he saw it was no longer sitting beside her chair. Surely she wouldn’t have taken the bag if she’d just gone for a walk. And it was unlikely she would’ve taken a walk, now that their stretch of sand was populated, however sporadically, by naked people. The beach was still not crowded; the nudists, mostly young and in couples, had bivouacked at discreet distances. The only person who wasn’t young was a gray-haired man with an enormous belly, standing at the water’s edge and looking out to sea. Apparently he occupied a nearby blanket, and from this Snow was able to see in his mind’s eye what must have happened. As the man, clothed, had come up the beach toward them, June would’ve looked up from her book. She was certain to have put her own suit back on by the time the first stranger appeared around their spot. She’d probably flashed the man a noncommittal smile, an acknowledgment of their similarities in age and attitudes about public nudity. Perhaps the man even smiled back as he disrobed. Lord, Snow thought.

  Then an even worse scenario occurred to him. Perhaps June, too, had fallen asleep under th
e seductive sun, only to awaken suddenly, as he himself had done, naked and surrounded by beautiful young bodies. He imagined her on the verge of tears, feeling humiliated and old, struggling awkwardly into the bathing suit, losing her balance in the sand, convinced that everyone was staring at her. Hastily, she’d have pulled on the mesh cover-up as well. But why hadn’t she woken him up? Because she never did, not even when things were bleakest for her. She’d given him no sign the morning of her breakdown; she simply hadn’t been there when he returned home. And while their physician, an old friend, had claimed that a relapse was highly unlikely, Snow also knew that to battle depression, you must first spot its early warning signals. But what if there weren’t any?

  Shading his eyes with his hands, Snow stood and gazed up the beach in the direction they’d come, half expecting to see his wife’s fleeing form. In the glare, the sand stretched on forever.

  Hastily drawing his bathing trunks back on, he told himself that the most important thing to do was to find her as quickly as possible. She was probably weeping quietly in their car up by the lighthouse. It had been June he’d heard weeping last night in the Captain Clement, he was suddenly, irrationally, certain.

  The top of the lighthouse was just visible from where he stood, an impossibly long way off, it seemed to him, since he’d have to retrace his steps up the beach and locate the boardwalk that snaked leisurely up the cliffs. Again he noticed that at their rocky base, maybe a hundred yards down the beach, there was that other concentration of bathers, and he resolved that there had to be another trail to the summit. A shortcut. Steep, perhaps, but more direct. Depending on how much of a head start June had, he might be able to intercept her.

  Regardless of which route he took, he would have to leave the chairs. He hadn’t managed to carry them all the way here, so he certainly couldn’t pack them up the side of the cliff on the path those other bathers must have used. Leave the chairs, he decided. He didn’t want the chairs. He wanted June. He thought about how, just a short time ago, they had embraced in the waves, and about his sudden optimism. Had he been foolish to think that all could be made right between them? To imagine their marriage was buoyant as water, their mistakes weightless and inconsequential in the sudden swell of affection?

  And so he started down the beach, the hot sand giving beneath his feet with every step. The rocky promontory was farther away than it looked. Much. By the time he’d gone fifty yards, the top of the lighthouse had disappeared, and the cliffs themselves loomed up above him, high and jagged and steep. In some stretches the clay was bright red, in others gray. From a distance these alternating striations appeared to be narrow ribbons, but in actuality they were thirty yards wide. He kept an eye out for a path, but every place that looked promising had a sign forbidding climbing on the fragile cliffs.

  What had appeared to be a concentration of bathers at the foot of the cliff turned out to be isolated groups of privacy-seeking nudists. Despite this, Snow continued down the narrowing beach, the bright blue ocean on his left, the cliffs looming ever higher on his right, the hot sun at his back. He’d forgotten what it was like to hurry through sand, and when his calf muscles began to throb, he slowed, fearing he wouldn’t have enough strength left to climb the cliff when he finally found the path.

  But within three hundred yards or so—his lower back pulsating, his breathing labored—he saw the error of his reasoning. At the promontory the beach turned north, and before him lay another stretch of sand as long as the one he’d just traversed, this one entirely devoid of people. Staring up at the cliffs, he realized there was no shortcut. The top of the lighthouse had come back into view, behind him now, and his heart plunged at the sight of it. How far he’d come! He’d be lucky to make it back to the beach chairs, much less to the boardwalk that led toward whatever remained of his marriage.

  And what did remain? Even in his exhaustion Snow could clearly recall the litany of anguish and accusation that June had laid before him years ago in the hospital. By marrying her, he had stolen her own bright career, made her a dinner-party hostess to people who would’ve been her colleagues. Had he any idea how badly she’d wanted children? And did he realize that she knew, had known for years, about the long affair he’d had with one of his graduate students? When he told her that no words could express how ashamed he was, how bitterly he regretted this infidelity, June had said, with genuine ran-cor, that she was sorry to hear it, because she’d had an affair of her own that she didn’t regret in the least. Snow had not believed this, concluding that she simply wanted to wound him; and later, when she asked him to forget everything she’d said, to write it off as menopause, he found to his surprise that he was able—no, eager—to.

  It was almost out of reach now, he thought, staring up the beach and into the immediate future. There would be the drive back to the ridiculous Captain Clement and, a day later, the complicated journey to Manhattan, which seemed more confusing each time he visited, where he sometimes got lost and no longer possessed the knack of knowing where he and June would be safe. Then the return to Ithaca, a place far too familiar and claustrophobic ever to get lost in, no matter how much one might wish to.

  As he started back, knees jellied and back throbbing, Snow discovered that even now he felt lost, despite knowing that all he had to do was retrace his steps. With the cliffs on one side and the sea on the other, there was no possibility of a wrong turn, but the sun was in his eyes now—doubly, it seemed, because of the glare off the water—and if he wasn’t careful he’d walk right past the beach chairs in their secluded alcove. And how would he know when he’d arrived at the place where the boardwalk joined that beach? The huge beach was impossible to miss from the boardwalk, but the boardwalk might be virtually imperceptible among the dunes. He imagined himself marching doggedly, stupidly, up this beach forever.

  Still, there was nothing to do but keep moving. Because of the blinding glare and the sting of sweat in his eyes, he sometimes didn’t see the sunbathers until he was almost on top of them, and one startled young woman quickly rolled onto her stomach and glared at him angrily over her shoulder. When she nudged the sleeping boy next to her, Snow mumbled an apology and hurried on, staggering in the sand. How could he have been so foolish as to assume the existence of a second path? He plunged forward, blindly now, on the verge of panic. His sunburn—he suddenly was aware of it—was making him lightheaded. He was inhabiting a nightmare where everything was inverted: instead of discovering himself naked in a crowd of friendly, well-dressed strangers—wasn’t this how such dreams usually worked?—here he was, an old man in baggy swimming trunks, adrift in a sea of angry, naked strangers. And what phantasm, dear God, was this, coming languidly but directly toward him down the beach?

  He stopped, transfixed, certain he had lost his mind. Was it a young woman or a hag? Incredibly, she was both. Her skin, from head to toe, was a dry, cracking, lifeless gray. The figure resembled, frighteningly, a photographic negative. Its naked breasts were large and full, the dry seaweed between her legs the color of pale ash. Only her eyes were white until her smile—lewd, he thought— revealed rows of sharp, perfect white teeth.

  “Dear God,” he said, dropping heavily to his knees, far too exhausted even to try to flee.

  Perhaps because the dry hand on his shoulder was both warm and gentle, he found the courage to look up at the gray skull, which was fearful still, though no longer grinning. Its expression seemed almost apprehensive, the last thing he would have expected, now that he’d recognized the figure.

  Not now, he thought, pleading. He could feel his heart thudding dangerously in his chest. Please, dear God, not now.

  The trip back down-island took almost an hour—an eternity, it seemed. If the world had finally righted itself, it was at his expense. Snow felt like a man with very little time left.

  June, at the wheel, looked less old than shattered. She’d been able to explain her part in what had transpired in a few terrible, clipped sentences. When he’d awakened, she’d b
een swimming. The current had borne her down the beach, from where she’d seen him stand to look around for her. She’d waved, unsure whether he’d seen her or not when he pulled on his bathing trunks and set off walking, she’d assumed, to look at all the pretty naked girls. She’d felt self-conscious about her own nakedness at first, but the sensation had quickly vanished, replaced by an odd, pleasant sense of liberation. Before going into the water, she’d stuffed the beach bag under the chair he was sleeping in. He’d have seen it there if he’d looked.

  Their arrival back at the Captain Clement had been the final humiliation. June had to lead him like a blind man under the trellised arch, and halfway to the French doors he’d slumped onto a wrought-iron bench, the garden path swimming before him. It was several minutes before he was able to stand. June had remained there with him, though she refused to sit or speak, the two of them in a dense cloud of bees, in full view of the library where Mrs. Childress had gathered the Newport people for tea.

  Shortly afterward, June went out in search of first aid cream, leaving him in their room at the top of the inn. For the second time, they would be cutting short their stay on the island, and Snow was certain his wife would call David Loudener and cancel their visit to the city. What excuse she would offer, he neither knew nor cared. June had been gone only a few minutes when there was a knock at the door, and Snow, who at the moment couldn’t think of a single person he wanted to see, was rewarded for his misanthropy by the sight of the one person who in all the world he wanted to see least.

 
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