“A small electric heater was on in one corner of the bathroom, which was good, because the room was tiled and cold as a crypt. Annie had set out a towel and a toothbrush, still in its plastic package, so I brushed my teeth, looking at the photos on the wall. San Pedro. Her cotton-picking brigade.
“Back in the living room, Annie and Chloe were sitting on the couch. The dog was chewing a rawhide bone the size of her head and Annie was drinking her tea. She got up immediately. I’ll show you the upstairs room, she said.
“I’m sure I can find it, I said. I couldn’t stand the thought of her butt, in her little black pants, leading me up the stairs.
“OK, she said. I turned on the electric heater up there. You can leave it on all night—it’s safe.
“Before she could move away, I kissed her. Three kisses—top of her head and each cheek, thanking her for the dance, and the driving, and the room upstairs. I held her for a moment, to feel all her various curves and muscles, before she said good night and pulled away.
“That was it, Warren. I stayed upstairs. The heater was on, but it was a very subtle heater, a sort of scat singer of a heater, and the room felt like it was outdoors. Really—there was ice along the bottom edge of the window. The only furnace heat had to come up from downstairs, through a grate in the floor. I wanted to look around, check out the books, but the ceiling was so low I couldn’t stand up straight, and my jacket was downstairs. I thought about getting it, but I didn’t want to make her nervous, so I just went to bed. I took off my pants and shoes and that was it. Then I decided I was being ridiculous, so I took off my sweater and spread it over the comforter as extra insulation.
“A spray of light from the living room came through the grate until Annie turned it off, and then the house went black. She closed the bedroom door. I listened, not breathing, and it seemed to me that she locked it. I lay there thinking about her feeling safer behind a locked door and that I wouldn’t argue with a locked door, but I especially wouldn’t if I froze to death, and I wondered if she kept the house so cold in order to shrivel me up, and I fell asleep.
“I dreamed we were at an aquarium. Something like the Miami Seaquarium, where I interviewed the source the day before I met Annie on the plane. The tanks were huge, as if we were walking at the bottom of the ocean, and we stopped at the reef fish, watching them sparkle in the aqua water. We were happy, walking around the tanks, which made a loud humming noise, and I woke up to hear a truck rumble by. A plow. I closed my eyes again, tried to get the dream back. I liked the feeling of traveling somewhere with her. The plow drove by from the other direction. I hoped it was still snowing, that they wouldn’t get the road cleared.
“Later, still dark, there was a lot of truck noise in the driveway and lights flashing, and I sat up, thinking Jesus, what now. A pickup truck, plowing her driveway. Damn. My ears and nose were freezing. I put the extra pillow around my head.
“Much later I smelled coffee. Nine o'clock, and the windows completely frozen over on the outside.
“Downstairs, the house was empty. She’d left a note by the coffeemaker: Walking Chloe. Back soon. Coffee mug, milk. Down here you could see out the windows. I drank some coffee looking out at the road, at a day that glittered—bright sun, glistening snow, the sky a deep marine blue, every particle visible in crystal-clear air. I stood at her desk, in the utter stillness, and I could feel what it was like to live there, the bay window, the road, the woods . . .
“Then Annie entered the view from the right, running down the hill. She wore a hat with earflaps, a furry hunter’s hat with a visor and a strap under her chin. She was trying to get the dog, Chloe, to pull her, with some success. They slid past the plowed driveway, both of them grinning, the hound grin, the girl grin . . . and I thought, this woman does not look bereaved.
“She wanted to know if I had slept OK.
“It was more like suspended animation, I said. I don’t think that heater works. I could feel the coffee raising my core temperature.
“It works, she said. And I didn’t turn the thermostat down as low as I usually do. I’m sorry—do you want some toast?
“Not right now.
“OK. I have to go to church soon. It’s in Schuyler. I’ll drop you at the hotel and after the service I’ll treat you to breakfast at the diner.
“Annie, there was a blizzard here last night. We’re lucky not to be lost in a snowdrift.
“If my road’s plowed, all the roads are plowed. And I’m reading the lessons. We rotate readers, it’s my turn.
“Later, in the hotel, I thought I would have liked to hear her read. She’s a tenor, with a gently definite way of speaking. January . . . she was probably reading something about Moses and something from Paul, and they probably sounded as good as they ever had. At breakfast, I asked her which lessons.
“Paul exhorted people, and the Old Testament was Exodus.”
“Rootless, wandering . . .
“—Yes. They’re camping in the desert and dying of thirst and they get pissed off at Moses and he goes to God, who gives them water from a rock.
“What’s the point?
“The Lord is among us.
“Despite all the evidence to the contrary.
“Andrew, I’m not going to argue theology with you. I don’t remember anything I learned in Sunday school and I just went back to church a couple of months ago. I said the Lord is among us. God is not a puppet master in the sky.
“Why did you go back to church a couple of months ago?
“. . . Mostly to keep every day of my life from being exactly the same, a combination of work and chores. To make myself sit still for an hour once a week. And the lessons sounded interesting. I’m what passes for a religion editor at the paper, since if someone calls in and says the lesson this Sunday is from Ephesians I don’t faint with confusion and I know how to spell Ephesians.
“The paper publishes which lesson will be read?
“And the sermon topic. In 6 point. If you call it in on time. We’re the community newspaper, Andrew. And up here, church is community.
"The waitress poured us more coffee, and Annie followed her thought. And evil is among us too. As you said, it would be easy for the United States to help Cuscutlan have clean water, everywhere. Then they’d be healthy, and they’d love us.
“And we’d have all those healthy little Cuscutlano babies to deal with.
“Exactly. It’s an evil spirit, not a guy with a tail and a pitchfork, that prevents that.
“So you pray against it.
“I pray for the Cuscutlanos. And I told you about our Amistad group raising money for Malpaisillo’s new water system. People here were very generous, even people who barely knew where Cuscutlan is. They knew it was the humane, human thing to do.
"She stopped, then went on. I know I’m ridiculous, Andrew.
“You’re not ridiculous.
“Especially to someone like you, who’s seen the evil up close, and I know I’m stupid and ineffectual.
“No, you’re neither.
“I can only do what I can do. I haven’t spent much time in Cuscutlan, but we’ve made some good educational headway here.
“I told you, Annie, Amistad’s sending a miniature coffin, inscribed with the name of a dead Cuscutlano civilian, to your Neanderthal congressman once a week for two years, was brilliant. That was an excellent educational effort.
“She smiled again, remembering. It was fun, too, she said.
“I would have liked to stay. I would have liked to wish a year away and find us both ahead of where we were. I couldn’t do either. So I took the train back to New York, and at the station I said, what are you doing next weekend?”
Copyright © Debby Mayer