‘Honey!’ Bob sounded irritated.
‘Dear?’ questioned Mary, busy preparing food
in the kitchenette.
‘Aren’t you done yet?’
‘Oh relax. They won’t be here for hours.’
‘One hour,to be precise,’ he grumbled, and went back tohis article on political and economic turmoil in Africa.
Bob and Mary Hamilton, in their sixties, having raised a family and been around the world together, were finally settled and alone in Scottsdale, affluent suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. A saguarro cactus stood like a sentinel in the quadrangle of gravel outside their neat suburban home and they had a small swimming pool out back. Sitting there in the cool of the evening, after a barbecue perhaps, hummingbirds would flit down and hover over flowering shrubs like fat bumblebees. But the interior of their home was transplanted from northern Europe. The floor was covered with deep brown carpet and the furniture was of dark heavy wood. On the walls hung conservatively rendered scenes of European village life of a hundred years before. The largest painting was of a group of small boats in a harbour, awaiting a storm. The sea was slatey grey and the sky was heavy with cloud. Only the loud mechanical hum of the air conditioner reminded you that you were in the desert. Slatted blinds held back the harsh light outside.
‘Honey, they’ll be here any minute.’
Mary had just started preparing the chicken.
‘Sweet heart, I know that. It’ll be ready.’
Dick and Nancy were corning to dinner. They were new in town. Bob, who was in real estate, had sold them their house. Always after a sale you invited the couple to dinner. It was a matter of courtesy.
‘I don’t know why you have to leave everything to the last minute, dear. I-‘
She placed a bowl of guacamole in front of him and some tortilla chips and he began to eat. An exasperating man at the best of times, he had become worse recently as his medical appointment loomed. The previous weekend, driving in the desert up north in Navajo country, he had fainted.
Initially he was angry with her for having made the appointment.
‘Don’t know why you have to treat me like a damned baby, honey,’ he’d said. ‘If I wanted to make an appointment, I could have done it myself.’
‘I assumed you were going to, dear, otherwise I wouldn’t have tried to save you the trouble,’ she appeased. ‘I can cancel.’
‘Oh don’t bother. It’s too late now. The doctor would think I’ve gone nuts. What the hell, it’s onlya check-up.’
But his bad humour persisted through the week. If it was because he was scared they would find something wrong, he never said. He would never reveal something like that directly. He could never say, for instance: ‘Honey, I’m an old man, getting older, I feel unwell and it scares me.’ Instead, he said: ‘Too much salt in the dip, dear. You always go overboard on the salt.’
Dick and Nancy were from Texas. They were in their forties and their two children were in university in far corners of the country. Nancy had thick blonde hair and it was hard to know if her waxy skin shone from a layer of make-up or from long days in intense sunlight. Either way, she didn’t look quite real.
‘Lovely blouse,’ said Mary, and they chatted happily about what Nancy had in store for the new house. Bob admired her body. I’m not dead yet, he thought to himself. He observed that his own wife was dried out in comparison.
‘How are things at Circle K, Dick?’ Bob asked.
‘Rolling along. Competition is stiff. Always is. Nature of the market. Got to keep fighting to hold our share.’
Dick had come to Phoenix to manage a new supermarket. He’d been transferred from Houston by his company,the Circle K corporation. Scottsdale was a growing area,selected for attention by the company as an important new field of operations. Dick was serving on the frontline. Much was expected of him. Bob, chin in hand,issued a long ‘hmm,’ expressive of interest in the supermarket trade.
‘But it’s a challenge,’ concluded Dick. ‘And what’s life anyway without a challenge?’
‘Indeed, indeed,’ concurred the host. ‘Can’t get stuck in a rut. Once that happens in business, once you become a piece of the furniture, you’re more of a liability than an asset. And then you’re dead.’
‘I’m not ready to cash in my chips just yet,’ Dick announced, and the assembly chortled good humouredly at the absurd notion of the boyish Dick prematurely cashing in his chips. The hostess fetched refreshments.
They sat about the coffee table, a great irregular slab of varnished oak, drinking beers from the can and talking about the climate in Phoenix. Comparisons were made between Texas and Arizona, sunshine hours noted and relative humidity reflected upon. Bob, as usual, was a fund of fascinating statistical information and enlightened the party concerning seasonal variations in temperature and mean annual precipitation. Bob had found a very good listener in Dick. He had a handsome easy-going face and he frequently raised his eyebrows as if to say, ‘Really? I hadn’t heard that before.’
He seemed satisfied to be in the company of someone better informed and travelled than himself. They talked about the O.J. Simpson trial, agreeing that he was guilty and had only gotten off free because he had the money to get a first rate legal team. Disparaging comments were made from all quarters about the legal profession, and Bob related some pertinent anecdotes, from personal experience, attesting to the wickedness of lawyers. They discussed the deteriorating crime situation, real life acts of depravity seen and heard on TV and how impossible Houston had become. Dick and Nancy were enthusiastic supporters of the death penalty. Bob Hamilton, presiding, sat back, crossed his legs and demurred. On casting the dissenting vote he said: ‘In some ways I suppose I’m just an old-fashioned liberal.’
‘So Bob,’ said Dick, as Mary served the chicken cacciatore, ‘sounds like you’ve been a few places.’
‘A few moves. Of course I was raising a family then so I had to think in terms of business. Argentina. It was booming then. A great place if you were young. Hong Kong. South Africa – briefly. Beirut.’
Dick raised his eyebrows. He remembered when a crazed Arab fundamentalist suicide bomber drove a truck of explosives into a compound full of marines. Dick had been a marine himself twenty-something years before. He wanted to know what Beirut was like.
‘Oh that was back in the sixties, before it all went to hell. Then back to the States. San Francisco, where Mary’s from originally. Then here. I can’t see us going anywhere now.’
The air conditioner went off and the sudden silence struck Mary as blissful, even though she had not been consciously aware of the noise as something unpleasant.
Then Bob started talking again.
‘This is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. A decade ago this was a worthless piece of desert. Now it’s prime real estate. Values are going through the roof. Golf courses are springing up everywhere. That’s when you know a place is doing well, when they turn dry scrub into an 18-hole. Can’t be cheap, getting water to keep it all green. But obviously people are willing to pay. Are you a golfer, Dick?’
Dick admitted to being more of a tennis man.
‘There’s an Indian reservation just north of here,’ Bob continued, ‘couple of miles away. It was the usual thing, here’s a bit of land, stay quiet and we’ll give you a cheque each month to get drunk. Now the land is worth so much they’re set to be a tribe of millionaires. Some of them anyway. I’ll be interested to see how they develop it.’
‘I hear there’s quite a few Indians in Arizona,’ said Nancy.
‘Oh yes. Native Americans, that’s what we’re supposed to call them now. Half a dozen tribes. The biggest tribe in the country, the Navajo, are up north, past Flagstaff. There’s 250,000 of them last anybody counted. Probably a lot more than that by now. They have so many kids. It’s appalling really. They’re all on welfare.’
‘We were up there last week,’ said Mary. ‘Just for the day.’
‘Yes,’ said Bob. ‘Four Corners, Canyon du Chelly. There’s even a stretch of desert there where the land is red. It’s like driving across Mars.’
Dick raised his eyebrows.
‘Magnificent scenery. Horribly hot though. We had to come back early.’
‘What a shame!’ sympathised Nancy.
‘Yes,’ said Mary, ‘but the car was overheating and Bob wasn’t feeling too well. A bit of a bug or something.’
‘Honey, I was feeling fine,’ said Bob loudly and gruffly as his cutlery clacked to a standstill on his plate. A little too loudly,because Dickand Nan had to smile to reassure themselves and Mary that they understood perfectly that Bob was only joking, that his angry voice didn’t really mean he was angry. But Mary, despite her best attempt at dissimulating, looked distinctly embarrassed, and with the passing seconds the guests felt their grins turning stiff.
‘Sweetheart-‘ she began.
‘Honey, the problem was the car,’ he asserted sternly, as if the issue was of such importance that the conversation could not be permitted to proceed any further until the misunderstanding was cleared up. ‘You cannot go driving around in temperatures approaching 110 degrees with the air conditioningnot working.’
He looked from understanding face to understanding face to ensure that the point was well taken.
‘And I was feeling fine. A cold, or flu. Some bug.’
The road north of Flagstaff rose beyond the verdant piney hills onto an arid plateau. This dry land was the reservation. Souvenir stands stood at intervals along the road to tempt the occasional passing motorists with their trinketry. Most were empty and those that were manned seemed to be doing no business. Mary suggested stopping to take a look but Bob explained that if she was the only customer she would feel compelled to buy something she didn’t really want, and he drove on at speed past the sleepy stalls. The landscape was scattered with shacks and wooden hogans and trailers bristling with aerials, and some times a litter of these various habitations was clustered under the big empty sky. In places the land was covered with patches of yellow scrub, seasonal nourishment at best for cattle or sheep. In other places the land was baked clay and rock. They passed a sheltered crevice, the pitiful remnant of a winter stream, where rows of maize had been planted. Pick-up trucks crammed with families passed by in the opposite direction. Observing the broad Asiatic features of the tribe Mary observed that Indians weren’t as good looking as in the movies. She found their features rather severe. Bob noted that many were overweight.
‘What I can’t understand is how these people survive,’ said Mary. ‘I mean, look at this land.’
‘Welfare, honey. The government gives them money.’
They’d noticed for a while that the air conditioning wasn’t working as well as it should, and half an hour after passing through Tuba city (not a city at all) the car showed signs of overheating.
‘Damn it to hell! Well, we’ll make the next gas station. Where is the next gas station anyhow? Where’s the map, honey! You had it last. There it is.’
There was nothing for it but to continue driving towards Shiprock, the next town. There had to be a gas station somewhere along the route. The drops of perspiration clotting the red curve of Bob’s brow began to run down to the collar of his polo shirt, which was soon drenched and clinging.
‘Sweetheart, you’re sweating!’
He looked terrible; the blood was leaving his face and he was breathing in short gasps.
‘I know I’m sweating, honey,’ he snapped. ‘We’re in the blasted desert with no air conditioner.’
Though worried, she decided that fussing would make him worse. His lips were a ghastly colour. She hoped there was a station around the next curve.
Smoke, or perhaps only steam, issued from the engine.
‘Need water,’ he gasped.
An erratic jerk: of the steering wheel jolted them off the road and sent them careering down a dusty gravel track towards a group of low buildings. He braked the car to a noisy dusty halt in front of a trailer. Beside the trailer were six dismembered automobile corpses of varying antiquity.
‘Well take a look at that mess,’ he said as he angrily slammed his door behind hirn. ‘We seem to have come to the right place. It’s a graveyard for cars.’
He managed to open the hood of the car without burning his fingers, releasing clouds of steam. Then he put his hand to his head. ‘Honey, I-‘
His legs buckled and he fell towards her. She was able to take some of the weight of the limp heap for a moment by leaning against the hot metal of the car. Then she let him slide down into the dust.
He raised his head. He was lying in the shade on a low wooden bench set against a wall looking out across a dusty courtyard formed on one side by a long trailer home and on another by an L-shaped bungalow. A colonnade of rough wooden posts supported a shady porch the length of the building. It was at the intersection of the two wings of the bungalow that Bob lay. At the open end of the courtyard he could see the trailer with the rusted cars and his own paralysed machine. Nothing move
He removed the wet cloth from his head. His voice was a dry croak.
‘How did I get here?’
He didn’t try to get up.
‘The man who lives in this house carried you. You were out for a couple of minutes.’
He closed his eyes. The idea of being carried like a baby by another man was humiliating. Next he’d be wetting his pants. And now he’d probably have to talk to the man who had carried him. He didn’t want to do that.
‘Where is he now?’
A door opened a distance from them. A plump Navajo appeared, grey hair falling behind his cowboy hat, bearing a ceramic jug. Indians are the only ones who dress like cowboys any more, thought Bob. His belt had a big silver buckle and around his neck hung an amulet. Bob felt he should say something to the stranger, even a greeting of some kind, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. He wanted the Indian to speak first. He wondered how much English the Indian knew and if it would be necessary to speak slowly. His head spun as he sat up. The Indian’s face disappeared under the halo of the brim of the hat as he tilted his head to watch the water bubble and swirl until it filled the glass like a living thing. He handed the glass to Bob.
‘Honey, are you sure it’s sanitary?’
‘Shh, drink it.’ He did. It was cool as a mountain stream and he immediately felt better. The Indian poured another glass for Mary and set down the jug on the wooden bench and spoke:
‘Best you folks sit about for a while. I’ll take a look at your car, see if there’s something I can do. Hungry?’
‘No, really, thank you so much,’ said Mary. The Indian nodded.
‘Really,’ she continued, ‘it’s very kind of you.’
‘No, it’s no trouble.’
He loped away slowly towards the car. She thought about his accent. It wasn’t so different. She tried to isolate what it was that made it a little bit strange. The words seemed to come from deeper down in the throat, from the belly even.
The colour was returning to Bob’s face. He was sitting up now with his hands on his knees, gazing blearily at the retreating shape of the Navajo, now wavering in the haze as he approached the car.
‘I certainly hope we won’t be stuck here all day,’ he said testily.
He was recovering.
She was reminded of years before, in Beirut-no, it must have been South Africa because she was pregnant with Andrew, the youngest. That’s right, becauseCharlotte was only a baby and she was sitting in the shade with Charlotte and Alexander. What had they been doing? Just sightseeing in the hills, miles from anywhere, enjoying the day, and the car had broken down. She remembered that Alexander, the eldest, was very quiet on account of the heat. Anyhow, they sat still and quiet under the tree while Bob puttered around the car cursing and fuming, in a rage with the inert hunk of metal.
She remembered how he was so absorbed in his fight with the car that he noticed nothing else around him. She sat watching him from beneath the tree and believed for certain that he had momentarily forgotten that he had a wife and that she was pregnant with his third child. Why did she remember that? She remembered above allbecause, in that moment she had a clear revelation as tohis character: petty, self-absorbed and tyrannical. And she realised that she loved him anyway and would continue to do so. She would love him irrespective of his faults and failures and even for his faults and failures. This was something that lay beyond his comprehension. In his imagination he was loved for his greatness and he could not conceive of it otherwise. For how else was a woman’s devotion inspired? He would never realise, she understood, that his own wife could see him as something comical and ultimately futile, as in that moment when he cursed and stamped about a machine that refused to move, or in any other moment. She felt pity for him; such men were vain and and useless creatures. He would carry his conceit to the grave.
And then, sitting pregnant beneath the tree, with her child and baby falling asleep in the heat, she remembered how she had met him first, on a jetty in San Francisco harbour. The wooden planks creaked on the swells and the boats swayed and bobbed, and she had to shield her eyes and squint because the sea sparkled so intensely behind him. There he appeared, tall and rangy and dressed in white with a sailor’s cap aslant on his head. Her older brother had been teaching him to sail a yacht. She was struck by his self-possession. She was very pretty and was used to men being instantly affected by her presence. But he was utterly indifferent, and this made him interesting. No matter what she tried to talk about, she couldn’t shake the sensation that his mind was somewhere else. His eyes seemed always focused on a point over her shoulder, in the distance, out to sea. He spoke Spanish and French fluently. He had a bright future ahead in the diplomatic corps, her brother said. He wasn’t as handsome as some of the men she knew, not at first glance anyway, but his solidity and assurance captivated her. She would have to reel him in slowly, while he was looking into the distance thinking of something else.
Yet the years had passed and still he had never quite seen her. Still his eyes were fixed past her shoulder and somewhere in the distance.
She was distracted from her memories by giggling and a pair of black eyes looking out the doorway at them from the dark cavity of the house. The door opened further and a girl of about eight marched out, leading a naked little boy of about three by the hand. She looked away from them but smiled self-consciously. A dog ran from the house barking and a boy of about twelve ran after it. The spell of the old people broken, the children reclaimed the courtyard. More children of various sizes appeared through the doorway, and as they came and went it was impossible to tell how many there were.
She thought about her own children, and her grandchildren, who she very rarely saw. They were scattered from one comer of the country to the other, in Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles. Alexander, in Chicago, had one child, as did Charlotte in Miami. Charlotte seemed happily married but Alexander was already separating. His son was three years old and she had seen him twice. The children were so busy with their careers it was hard to get time to visit. Occasionally she phoned them but they always seemed tired or ‘in the middle of something’. Once they had driven across the desert to visit Andrew in Los Angeles. The area to the sides of the highway sparkled with broken glass as though sprinkled with diamond dust all through the length of the desolation, the accumulation of the tossed broken bottles of decades of travellers.
She had come to admit to herself that she was lonely. It wasn’t enough simply to go to the office each day and return home, or to drive the sterile streets of Scottsdale, deserted in the heat. Hostages to the climate, people lived out their lives in private air-conditioned bubbles, getting into air-conditioned cars and driving to the shopping centre, where you would scarper like an insect across the searing parking lot into the air-conditioned supermarket. That was their home; street after street that no one walked in, golfcourses and supermarkets. And her family gone.
The eight-year-old girl, having collected tomatoes into the basket, returned the way she had come. Two of the boys were trying to corner a chicken. It ducked its headand shot between them. The girl shouted something at them. One boy laughed, the other examined his elbow, grazed where he had fallen. The girl smiled shyly at the old people and passed back into the building.
‘What beautiful children!’ exclaimed Mary. ‘That little girl, her eyes were so beautiful, so black and shiny.’
‘Indeed,’ grunted Bob. ‘Doesn’t look as if their skins see much soap and water. Thank God, here he comes. Hope he’s fixed it.’
The Indian came loping up the dirt track, wiping his hands on a rag. He moved at the same tranquil pace until he was in front of them.
‘How you feel now, pretty good?’
‘Just fine. What’s up with the car?’
‘Ah. I think it’s losing oil. Not too fast though. So I topped it up. Put some more coolant in too. It’ll get you to Shiprock at least. Pity my brother-in-law ain’t here, he could fix it for you. All that’s his junk down there. He gets wrecks and strips them for parts. I don’t know much about that stuff, prob’ly break it if I try and fix it.’
Bob took out his wallet. ‘Well we certainly appreciate your assistance today. What do we owe you for the oil?’ The Indian put up his hand.
‘Ah, it don’t matter really, it was just some oil. My brother-in-law won’t even notice.’
‘We’d better get going then.’ Bob stood up, shook the Indian’s hand and thanked him. Mary did the same. The Indian repeated his offer of food and Bob declined. Mary was feeling hungry but said nothing; they had imposed enough. The Indian went with them to the car. Mary offered to drive but Bob insisted that really, honey, he was quite alright. They waved to the Navajo as they drove off.
‘What a nice man!’
‘Yes. Very helpful fellow.’
They proceeded again across the barren plateau.
Crossing into New Mexico, the land became greener as the road followed the San Juan river into Shiprock. The San Juan River flowed into the Colorado River. The Colorado river fed a chain of reservoirs which were headed by hydroelectric power stations. There were still old people in the reservations who could recall when the Colorado was a chain of stagnant pools, when it was a fertile vein cutting through the arid plateau from the Rockies to the ocean. The moon would paint out the line of the sandbars where the game came to drink, where the deer lowered their graceful necks to sip the rippling water. Birds nested in the reeds where the river curved. Those days were gone.
The imposition of the newcomers was unjustifiable, said the old people. They had contributed nothing which could excuse their defilation of the land. The power stations produced power for the lights of Las Vegas, to the north, which burned all through the night, and for the air-conditioning unit in the home of Bob and Mary Hamilton, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The air conditioner reactivated itself, adding its noise to the sound of Bob’s voice. He was talking about the United Nations.
‘They can’t come up with a sensible programme for birth control or the Catholics object. It’s impossible to do anything now without some group getting offended. If it’s not the Catholics it’s the Negroes or some other group.’
Dick raised his eyebrows. Nancy attended carefully between spoons of ice-cream with Kahlua. Their attention hadn’t faltered throughout the meal. Bob Hamilton’s learning was boundless, his experience global, and on every issue of contemporary importance to the world he had an irrefutable argument to offer.
‘There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re heading for disaster. Look at the Chinese. Even they can’t control their population growth, and they make it a national priority. Can you imagine what a strain on the land that must be? And with a middle class with a growing appetite for meat they’ll begin to use the land less productively. There’s more than a billion of them already. What will happen when a country the size of China becomes destabilised?’ Dick and Nancy shook their heads at the prospect of a billion unstable Chinese.
‘Sure is scary to even think about,’ said Dick. ‘That many people!’
Mary had stopped contributing to the conversation. Each time she had, Bob had continued with even greater force, contradicting her outright or picking at some aspect of what she said and not letting go until she was forced to concede her error. She tired of his hectoring tone and she tired of having to tiptoe around him, but most of all she was afraid of increasing his ill-humour in front of the guests.
‘And that’s not to mention the rest of the world. Africa – chronic misuse of the land caused by overpopulation. The deserts are expanding. I forget how many miles a year. And even if the UN came up with a decent birth control programme you’d have a devil of a time selling it to those people. They believe in having lots of children. Swarms of them. The most humane thing would be to sterilise them, save them dying of famine, but then of course you’d be called a fascist.’
Bob took his final spoon of ice-cream. Mary rose and asked who wanted coffee.
‘De-caf. Two de-caf. Everybody? Well, that makes it very simple.’
‘And the really crazy thing,’ continued Bob, ‘is all these people come knocking on our door. Every war, famine, natural disaster, they come expecting a green card. What I’m saying is, how many immigrants can the US keep taking in before we’re paying the price for overpopulation in other countries? We can’t let it go on forever. It has to stop sometime and it may as well be now.e’
As the coffee arrived the sky cracked with thunder and the lights went out. In the darkened room their attention was drawn for the first time to the window, through which could be seen a second fork of lightning dancing its electric fingers across the jagged saw of the mountains to the north.
Power returned. ‘I think I hear the four horsemen,’ quipped Bob as he stirred his sugar. Dick and Nancy laughed at that.
‘That certainly was loud,’ said Dick.
‘There’s plenty of electrical activity in this area. If you get any rain whatsoever you get lightning.’
They went to the window and watched for a while the shapes of lightning splitting the sky. Shortly after eleven Dick and Nancy made to leave.
‘Thank you so much, the meal was delicious.’
‘Quick, don’t get wet! See you again!’
‘Of course we will.’
Bob and Mary would be invited once for dinner, and that would be it. That was how it went.
They scraped the plates and loaded the dishwasher. All through dinner he had never stopped talking. Now, alone with her, he had no words. It was suddenly so quiet that Mary felt sad and tired, even though she’d frequently felt uncomfortable during the meal. Just to say something, she asked:
‘Sweetie, can I get anything ready for your breakfast?’
He scraped the final plate, handed it to her.
‘Honey, you oughta know you can’t eat before a medical. Not before blood tests anyway.’
‘Oh, I forgot.’
It was the wrong thing to say. She hadn’t forgotten about the hospital, only that he couldn’t eat breakfast.
He retreated back into silence with added satisfaction.
The storm was subsiding as they lay down to sleep in their parallel single beds. The thunder became a dull rumble in the distance, no more disturbing than the air conditioner, and they slept until one great bolt of lightning, sometime deep in the night, wrenched Bob from his slumber. He found himself awake, standing by his bed, terrified, as if he had been electrocuted.
‘That was very close,’ he managed to say to Mary. She was watching him. ‘I’d say that struck only a few yards from the house.’
The lightning and instant thunder repeated like a bomb going off in their back yard and in the white merciless light Bob caught his own frightened reflection in the mirror; his eyes wide, his mouth agape, a black tunnel, and his face a skull with the skin stretched across the ridges of his eyebrows, his pointed cheekbones and the bare dome of his head. After the light had disappeared the image stayed momentarily frozen before him like a negative burned into his retina and then faded. He thought with horror that the the alien picture thrown up before him was his own reflection. He was disgusted by how old he looked, and how vulnerable.
‘Go back to bed,’ whispered Mary.
For a moment he wanted to go to her and lie close to her warm familiar body, but he feared seeming foolish and resisted. He returned to his bed and lay for several hours without sleeping. He lay tense and staring at the ceiling, his mind scorched by the light.
As his appointment wasn’t until ten, she let him sleep and drove to the supermarket. All along the side of the road groups of Mexican workers in identical green uniforms and caps worked in the dawn to restore the pristine facades of the housing developments before the heat of the day took hold. They raked the gravel around the shrubs and cacti and gathered up the dried reeds and branches which had blown loose in the storm. When she arrived back Bob was already up and wrestling with a step ladder in the back yard. She hurried out; the last time he had used the ladder, some six months before, he had slipped and ended up breaking two ribs. She had made him promise not to use the ladder any more.
‘Sweetie! What are you doing?’
He pulled the ladder into position.
‘Well take a look honey. I’m checking out the damage.’
The wind had whipped several sheets of weatherproofing off the roof and into the pool. He shook the ladder to ascertain its stability.
‘But what about last time, dear?’
‘I’m sorry, remind me,’ he said sarcastically, and began to ascend.
‘I thought we agreed you wouldn’t-‘
‘No, honey, you agreed!’
‘Ah, dammit to hell. Would you look at that, what’s in the pool is nothing.’
He was standing on the apex of the ladder surveying the shallow wind-savaged roof.
‘Shit! Well it’s in another state now-‘
She couldn’t relax while he was on the ladder.
‘Honey, come on down now!’
He did, and much faster than she expected. He seemed to step into the air and then, realising his error, grabbed at the roof. This manoeuvre failed and his flailing legs kicked the ladder from under him, so that he fell on top of it when he reached the ground. There was a sharp pain in his chest and his breathing caught. He was experienced enough to know that this was no heart attack. It was his right side. He had broken his ribs again. When he opened his eyes there was an old woman standing over him.
Her stricken face, upside down, open mouthed with violent red lipstick, black rimmed glasses, reminded him more of some grotesque insect than of his wife. She was gathering up her scattered wits to say something. He waited. It was coming. ‘Honey! Are! You! Alright?’ How much must a man endure? He would not be responsible for what he said next. Rage swept through his pain racked body and he felt the searing words rise up through his throat like caustic bile towards its vent.
But his agony was so great he could only gasp one word.