There the six of them stood, singed by the flames, as the sirens and klaxons approached. The fire trucks halted on the street near the burning hulk and two firemen in protective suits smothered the fire with foam. Only when Freddy came running across the field with Bertrand at his heels did their eyes turn away from the hulk, but they looked at him without seeing him. For all his eloquence, he could find nothing to say, so he threw his arms around them and they huddled together. They could hear each other sobbing, feel each other trembling and yet none heard or felt himself. Already the conviction was swelling within them that it hadn't happened, could not have happened, would never have happened. It had to be some other car, some other driver, how many big beige Fords circulated in Mapleton, how many drivers used the Chinski driveway to turn around or look at Five Sides? No, it couldn't have been Doz, couldn't have been Dad, couldn't possibly have been, he would come along soon, had to come along soon, late for having been held up at the office by something unexpected, nothing unusual about that, no nothing. Relaxing their hold and slipping away from each other, however, they saw Nelly and Janet crossing the field as if in dread of reaching them. Panic gripped them, threatening to crush their chests and squeeze the air from their lungs. Desperate for the slightest encouragement, they searched the familiar faces for reassurance and saw none; on the contrary, despair had drawn their traits and tears had streaked their cheeks. Doz had left the office to go home. Was it a scream or a whimper? Siss had collapsed in a tangled heap on the ground.
Reg immediately stooped and picked his mother up as if it were something he did all the time, as if her prostrate anatomy violated the dignity that defined her, and he carried her back to the house, followed by the others, except for David who ran ahead. His siblings knew he had to get to a bathroom fast. Sabby had an arm around Christy, holding her tight, and a hand on Jimmy's shoulder. Freddy, Nelly and Janet followed. Reg laid Mom on the sofa where, limp and pale, she looked like the corpse they were mourning. Janet was wiping her face with a cool wet towel brought by Sabby. Siss stirred, blinked and stared at Janet, surprized to find her there taking care of her. Her recovery inspired a mood of wanting to do something that would distract from the catastrophe and its consequences, yet no one knew what to do. Fuss and Maud entered with Allison who had come to pick them up even before they heard what had happened. They both looked ten years older than the last time any of the others had seen them, but they found something for everyone to do and saw that they did it. Maud took Siss, Sabby
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and Allison to the kitchen to rescue and supplement dinner. Fuss told Christy to show David the art she was doing on her computer and Reg to teach Jimmy how to putt on the living-room carpet. He put Freddy to work making all the necessary calls, while he discussed the interim continuation of the business with Janet and Nelly.
They were ready to sit down for dinner, when the doorbell rang. Answering it, Sabby recognized Johnson, but not the one she knew. His eyes resembled Fulbert's, they had never seen a spectacle like that, never encountered witnesses who intimidated them. The trainee at his side wondered why he hadn't come and questioned them immediately, why this unprofessional procrastination? When Keith offered to do it himself, Johnson scowled and shook his head, thus marking the boundary of his territory. Since Johnson and the Chinskis had never had much confidence in each other, they found him strangely timid and tactful. He apologized for intruding at supper time -- a whiff must have reached his nostrils -- and regretted that he had to ask them some questions right away. His eyes were shifting back and forth between them as if asking for sympathy without expecting to get it.
"Why don't you have supper with us?" asked Siss, whose voice had hoarsened. "You can ask all the questions you like and answers will come more easily. You and your assistant will be welcome."
Johnson glanced at Keith wondering whether he could trust him. "It's against regulations, Mrs. Chinski, but we know each other pretty well. If you could just give us a cup of coffee, I shouldn't think anybody would mind."
"All right, but there's a plenty if you change your mind."
Johnson drank his coffee black, Keith took a teaspoon of sugar with his; Johnson asked general questions, Keith followed up with questions of detail, some of which annoyed Johnson; experience guided Johnson, Keith followed his textbook. Keith felt excluded from a feeling of sympathy between Johnson and the Chinskis, who had been through a few crises together. Keith suspected Johnson's unprofessional admiration of Chinski, grief over his death and loathing of his murderers. Why didn't he at least consider the possibility of involvement in the crime by the family and the friends around the table? Johnson's failure to learn anything useful from them confirmed his incompetence in Keith's opinion. Hardly did Keith notice that he and Johnson were doing family and friends a favor. Their presence dried their tears, calmed their voices and drove the ache down into their chests, where even Christy and Jimmy could stand it. Mom was proud of them. She declined offers by Maud and Allison to take her and her
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children home with them. Everyone realized how cruel that night would be, everyone saw how much her courage was costing her. They saw it in the swollen liquidity of her eyes, which seemed to magnify her hazel irises. They heard it in the hoarseness of her whispery voice. Maud, Fuss and Freddy noticed the mournful evolution of her gentle determination. Once all of her guests had left, she gathered her children around her and told them in a voice so calm it surprized her and them:
"From now on, no matter how badly you feel, remember that Dad is alive in you. He will live in you the rest of your lives. He will be there whenever you need him." Looking at Christy: "Do you understand?"
Christy nodded, followed by the others. Then Mom kissed each of them and sent them to bed.
Now she faced the ordeal she had been dreading all evening. Entering the bedroom she had shared with Doz, she turned to shut the door behind her. Yet shutting it suddenly scared her, as if she would be sealing herself in a tomb. It took all of her pride to grasp the knob, turn it, close the door and release the knob. More formidable challenges awaited her. She and Doz had hugged each other on that bed just that morning, as they always had when the radio began to play. If she turned it on to hear music now, he wouldn't be there to turn it off when she climbed into bed beside him. He wouldn't be there to snuggle up to, as she always had, except when she was irritated with him and waited for him to come over to her. He wouldn't be there to tease her about taking so much more time than he did. Undress behind the screen he had given her? He wouldn't be there to look over it. Once again, she admired the bamboo, the lakes, the mountains, the birds in the sky, the pavilions with the wise men sitting on the floor and the women serving tea.
"Lake Arthur!" she and Doz had always joked.
He wasn't there to chuckle. Hang her clothes in the closet? The coats on his side reminded her of his broad shoulders, his robust chest, his muscular arms; his trousers, of his walking, standing, sitting. The rack underneath held his shoes: what a wonderful dancer he had been! She could feel the gentle pressure of his hand on her back, guiding her every step without any conscious effort by her. The clothes on his side resembled a line of soldiers standing at attention, ready for inspection by the sergeant. Hadn't he always teased her
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about the appearance of hers? No matter how carefully she hung them, they looked messy and especially when a breeze from an open window fluttered her summer dresses. Yet this very spectacle fascinated him and he would stop what he was doing to admire it. The contrast between the variety of color on her side and the subdued tones on his pleased them both. Siss closed the closet door trying to shut these memories out of her mind. Which one was going to shut the other out of the bathroom first? He wasn't there to argue about that either! Wasn't she really looking for excuses to put off going to bed, the bed in which they had conceived their five children and continued to make love up until last night? She shivered with delight and regret. The two pillows mocked her. She lay down on her back with her head on one, took the other and held it on top of her. Suddenly "Oh Doz!" slipped from her lips, she began to cry and the sobbing shook her more and more violently. Her attempts to throttle her voice only increased the violence of her outbursts. She lost her self-control and began to thrash around.
Someone thumped on the door. It reminded Siss of her worst quarrel with Doz. "Christy?" Christy burst into the room, ran over to the bed and threw her arms around her mother:
"Please don't, Mom!"
No sooner had Mom pulled her up into the bed beside her than Sabby entered, came over and embraced her.
"Room for me too?"
Mom pointed at Doz's side. Sabby went around and climbed in.
"How about me?" asked Jimmy standing in the door, which the girls had left open.
Mom pointed at the couch: "Go get a blanket."
Reg and David appeared in the still open door.
Reg: "Do you mind if we get our sleeping bags?"
David: "We might as well be miserable together."
Once everyone was in his place, David got up and shut the door. All of them tried to sleep, none of them managed a wink. Then Christy's voice pierced the silence:
"He was always interested, he never pretended."
A minute later, Sabby spoke up: "He always tried to understand and I think he always did."
Jimmy: "He was fair."
Reg: "He wasn't afraid to tell you when he thought you were wrong."
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David: "I just thought he was a great guy. I didn't realize how much I liked him."
Mom: "You were his dream come true, the children he had always wanted."
Hardly a happy night, it passed a little more easily than it would have otherwise. None of them went to sleep before two or three in the morning and Mom hardly slept at all, yet the breathing of her children all around her and the warmth of Christy's body tended to console her. This was the last time she would have them all to herself.
Cooperation between local, state and federal police expedited the investigation, which soon explained the execution of the crime. Five feet across and five feet deep, the crater in the driveway where a culvert had connected the ditches beside the road indicated the location of the charge. Stains on fragments of the culvert revealed the use of dynamite protected from moisture by a plastic refuse bag. Tiny pieces of a cell phone and a detonator showed that the bomber had ignited the charge from a vantage point where he could see Doz's car turn off the road and pass over the culvert. The explosion of the dynamite under the car had ignited the vapor in the half empty gas tank as well as the gas, thus setting off a secondary explosion and starting a fire. Neighbors had noticed a rusty purple Chevrolet with a crumpled fender parked a hundred yards away in a place with an unobstructed view of the approach and entrance to the driveway. Already suspicious, they saw the car leave after the explosion and a state trooper discovered it a few hours later nineteen miles away at the end of a road on the bank of the Gotchtaloppee where a bridge had once crossed over it. The Earnest with the split eyebrow was leaning back in the driver's seat with his head hanging over on the side, his eyes and mouth wide open. A cell phone lay on the seat beside him and an empty hypodermic needle, on the floor between his feet. Who had rewarded a desperate addict with an overdose of cocaine? Who had engaged, instructed and equipped him? Who had brought the bomb to the site and hidden it in the culvert? Who had assembled it? Above all, who had ordered the murder and paid for it? Appropriately horrified, Horace Treble and Dennis Froosie had convincing alibis and the investigation yielded no evidence of involvement by them. Pervasive suspicion and resentment cost Treble some business and the IBLD some good will, but Horace and Dennis subtly advertised their innocence and waited patiently for the end of this adversity.
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Johnson, who both coveted and loathed the duty, told Mrs. Chinski that her husband had almost certainly died instantaneously, in other words without pain or anxiety. A light had gone out. The remains found in a meticulous search of the crater and the surrounding area amounted to a small portion of Doz's body: a few charred bone fragments, pieces of burnt flesh and skin, a big toe, an ear lobe, a tooth, a few strands of hair, blackened blood stains on cloth, plastic and metal debris. Johnson tried to satisfy her with a misshapen lump of gold which had been Doz's wedding band. She had it strung on a slender chain, which she would wear as a necklace every day for the rest of her life, removing it only to bathe and sleep. Since a DNA analysis had confirmed the victim's identity, Johnson hoped she wouldn't insist on viewing the remains, but she felt compelled to see them without knowing why. To her regret, her example inspired the same determination in all of her children. When the employee at the morgue pulled the bin out, Christy whimpered and trembled so violently that Mom grabbed her and buried her face in her belly. Jimmy recoiled on shaking legs and Reg threw an arm around him. Gasping, Sabby and David clutched each other's hands and arms. Johnson, who had felt obligated to accompany them, struggled against the temptation to run away. The employee wanted to shove the bin back in and didn't dare. Finally, the lady nodded to him, so he put an end to the ordeal.
Doz had always insisted that, when he died, he wanted to be cremated instead of cluttering the ground. Yet his smile showed that he enjoyed making Siss squirm. Urns containing a spouse's ashes, she objected, were far worse clutter than skeletons in the ground. She liked the idea of lying side by side in two graves with one headstone shaded by an old oak in a cemetery that didn't form a rectangular grid. Didn't her project have greater esthetic merit than his? Doz wouldn't have disagreed even if he could have. Yet the grave of her dreams would have been impossible without her determination and the infamy of Doz's murder. Two old maids, the unprosperous survivors of a Mapleton dynasty, decided they would prefer to be cremated and sold their corner of the family lot in Garfield Cemetery for more money than they wanted people to know. Although Siss had insisted on the simplest arrangements, the funeral in Kingdom Tabernacle attracted the biggest crowd that had ever assembled there. Thousands had to watch on large screens and listen to loudspeakers outside. Longer than anyone had expected, the cortege from the Tabernacle to the cemetery caused a traffic jam. So many attended the burial that the gardener and his employees needed weeks of hard work to restore the lawn. In both places, the seats reserved for family, friends, associates, employees and officials proved inadequate, but everyone cooperated, crowding together to
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accommodate fellow mourners. The black dress Mom had bought Christy endeared her to everyone. Jimmy wore the suit Mom had bought him for the competition and the tie Dad had taught him how to knot. Since the two black dresses Sabby already had exposed too much flesh, she bought the simplest one she could find to cover herself and riveted many a wandering male eye. Although Siss had always stood straight, everyone noticed that she bent a little bit as if burdened with a load on her shoulders. She was finding that exposure to curiosity challenged her self-control less than she had always feared. Emotional display by entertainers, politicians and athletes had strengthened her resolve. The agony of losing Doz tormented her least when she was surrounded by people. She had taken each child aside and, looking him in the eye, told him how his father expected him to behave. None of the Chinskis, the Fossezes and their close friends wept.
Once the Chinskis and the Fossezes had thrown their handful of dirt on the small wooden casket, they shook hands and exchanged a few words with an endless number of sympathizers. A tall, thin man with wild white hair and feverish eyes jostled his way through the crowd, fell on his knees in front of Siss, grabbed the hem of her skirt and held it to his lips. Everyone gasped.
"Reverend Wooding!" she exclaimed, more astonished than alarmed.
"Forgive me!" he wailed with tears streaming down his long wrinkles. The sound of his voice shocked even those too far away to see him. Those who could saw a large cross-shaped tear on the upper left side of his coat.
"Why are you asking me?"
"Because God has forsaken me."
"Forgiveness doesn't depend on me, it depends on you."
"Tell me what to do. I will do anything you say."
"Teach your congregation to love their fellow men."
"I always have."
"Teach them to love them all, no exceptions."
He tried to speak, but only managed to clear his throat. Then in a softer voice: "All of them, Mrs. Chinski. No exceptions."
Although Siss wanted him to leave, she didn't know how to tell him. Why on earth was she afraid to hurt his feelings? After staring at her with an intensity that some took for hypocrisy and others, for sincerity, he staggered to his feet and left lurching through the crowd, who parted in front of him. He had faced vacant seats and doubting faces in his church last Sunday. Revulsion had swept Dabney Orchard.
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Nearly all of the employees had attended the funeral and the burial. To everyone's surprise, Siss came to work the morning after the funeral and consulted Fuss, Janet and Nelly about replacing Doz.
"I didn't take him seriously when he told me I would have to do it. Now I will have to try and deserve his confidence in me."
Janet: "I think you can do it."
Nelly: "So do I."
Fuss: "If she weren't my own daughter... "
She learned the job more quickly than she or anyone else expected. Soon she was visiting the crews at their worksites, where they welcomed her with respect rather than the confidence inspired by Doz. They answered her questions eagerly, explained their problems patiently, followed her recommendations conscientiously. If she picked something up to carry it, one or two of them ran up to do it for her. Unconcerned by their size and strength, their loud voices and their sweat, she focused her hazel eyes on them and told them kindly but firmly what she wanted them to do. She seemed so frail, fragile and vulnerable, yet none of them hesitated to follow her orders. They missed her smile, her whispery voice, the colorful dresses she used to wear and they tried to ignore the silver strands in her hair. Unlike Doz, she always checked to see whether they did what she had said as she had said. It hurt their feelings, especially those who had earned his unlimited confidence. Aware of this hurt, however, she told them that he was looking over her shoulder too.
Soon she was telling Dad what she was going to do more often than asking him what she should do and without even realizing it.
"It's time for you to move in here," he told her. He had been in Doz's office.
She hesitated: was she ready to sit in Doz's chair, use his computer, his telephone, his drawers, work at his desk, receive guests and talk business in his office? She had to do it. At first, she found herself struggling to rid herself of the memories that haunted the place and get some work done. It took her over an hour the first day, but a little less every day after that. "I owe it to Doz!" she kept telling herself, Dad, Nelly and Freddy, but not Janet. Nelly found her as friendly as ever, though no longer capable of the fun they had had together, even at Doz's expense. Although Janet tried to demonstrate her loyalty, Siss treated her more courteously than cordially. When Janet made suggestions, Siss thanked her and ignored them. Hadn't Janet left Midwest Insurance for that very reason? Worried, Dad reminded her of all Janet had done for the company and especially in crises it might not have survived without her.
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"I haven't forgotten, Dad, but Doz told me that, if he died, either I or Janet would have to replace him."
"He told me that too, but he also said that the future of the company would depend on cooperation between you and her."
"I am cooperating with her."
"You aren't listening to her and she has a lot to say. If you continue to discourage her, she will leave and you won't be able to find anyone as competent and dedicated as she is."
"All right, Dad. I will try. I promise."
She did try, yet the tone of her voice betrayed a greater desire to reassure a valuable employee than follow her advice. Janet remembered the old men at Midwest Insurance who had hired her to be seen and not heard.
Doz's memory inspired both management and labor at Fossez that summer, while outrage over the murder and sympathy with the company attracted more customers than ever before. At a meeting with the employees, however, Fuss reminded them that this success depended on conditions that wouldn't last. The company would lose the advantages acquired during this warm season unless it exploited them to plan and invest for the long term. Fuss reaffirmed the principles that had guided him and Doz: skilled and dedicated movers committed to Fossez and Mapleton, generous compensation with raises and promotions for merit, mutual confidence between management and labor, teamwork and pride in a job well done. Although Siss endorsed these principles, everyone realized that she would interpret them differently from her two predecessors. When she asked if anyone had a question or a suggestion, an old black everyone knew raised his hand. He was one of the diminishing number of employees who had been working for Fossez when Doz replaced Fuss as the president. Siss recognized him.
"I got a crazy idea. I hope Fuss don't mind."
"Don't worry, Spider. If it's crazy, I will laugh. I promise."
"Well, we got 'Fossez' written on our trucks and buildings and stuff: right?"
"All we got to do is add 'and Chinski'."
Fuss: "That's the best crazy idea I ever heard."
Siss: "Give me a month: 'Fossez and Chinski' on every wall and truck. It will take a little longer to sew it on your uniforms, but I'm going to have that done too. OK?"
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Never admit even to herself, never let anyone think she had succumbed to despair! Playing her executive role exhausted her, so she came home, dejected, apathetic and oblivious. More than at any other time, she needed her children's company and yet she discouraged their affection by her inability to engage them. Incapable of humor, enthusiasm or encouragement, she saw that she was boring them. If she tried to entertain them, her contrived efforts embarrassed them. They were coming less often and leaving sooner than she wished. Reg, who was living at Five Sides, saw her there every morning at breakfast and every afternoon after work, while reserving dinner and the evening for Wren. The couple hesitated between the duty of keeping her company and the fear of tiring her. She had reassured Wren, Fossez's most skillful packer, that she would honor Mr. Chinski's promise to send her to college. Reg liked the job Blake had given him at Touchdown Sportswear that summer and Blake liked the work he was doing for him. A poor student compared with Wren, he would benefit from her help when they returned to high school that fall. Although Jimmy and Christy had been living at Five Sides, they soon left and a little too eagerly. He went to the ZU Music School to play the piano for the Concordia Youth Orchestra and she, to Camp Feu de Bois, which offered artistic instruction to talented children. Mom had to take weekend trips to see them, an hour's drive for Jimmy, two for Christy, and, while glad to see her, neither wanted to miss much of his scheduled activity. Mom had to settle for lunch and listening or watching from a discreet distance.
She couldn't help considering her older children's lovers an obstacle to the closer relations she craved with them. Although she had forgiven Wren, she hadn't forgotten her past. She tried to conceal her disapproval of David's subservience to Suzy and Sabby's dominance of Nathan. Indeed she exaggerated her hospitality, embarrassing them and discouraging the two older couples, who had their own apartments, from visiting her often. Preoccupied with her loss, she found it difficult to concentrate on what she had in common with them. She even refrained from teasing them, which had pleased them before Doz's death. She had teased Wren about her jeans which were as clean, neat and trim after a hot day of hard work as before, Suzy about her job at Sedgwick and Crompton selling clothes to women who didn't look nearly as nice in them as she did and Nathan about the flowers he was bringing her instead of Sabby from the Mapleton Nursery where he was working. The slightest hint of humor made her want to frown because it implied forgetting Doz. Conversation with her took discretion and effort.
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Mom, Dad, Freddy and Allison, Nelly, Evy and Easy, Tom-Tom and Shelly, all of Siss's friends who had been Doz's too hesitated to visit or invite her for fear of inconveniencing her. Suspecting the temptation to follow Doz, they dared not hint. Despite their sympathy, she spent evenings and weekends alone in Five Sides. Every night tormented her with insomnia and nightmares. Chased by a monster, she screamed and reached for Doz, who wasn't there. Awake but drowsy, she languished between sleep and distraction. No matter what she tried to read, the words yielded ever fewer ideas until the print began to swirl. She tried television in hopes that voices would keep her company, but their conceit and deceit soon disgusted her whatever channel she chose. Doz's voice had always told her as much about what he thought and how he felt as anything he said. The music station on the radio soothed her until it played a piece that had stopped him from talking or reading, moistened his eyes, which he tried to conceal, or incited an objection. He had loved plucked cello strings, the honks and squeaks of the woodwinds, hated screeching violins and choirs. The music they had enjoyed together oppressed or distressed her now, driving her to distraction and tears. Sooner or later, she ran to the radio and cut it off. Another flutter of Schubert's little bird and she would go mad.
Reading came more easily during her wakeful leisure. At first, she tried thick volumes and obscure content, but her concentration and determination resulted in an obsession with what Doz would have thought, whether he would have agreed or disagreed. She could hear him speaking, she was listening to what he had to say and she forgot what she was reading, even the author and the title. Thus she resorted to mysteries, trying to involve herself in analysis of the clues that would reveal the implausible evident solution of the crime. With each variation on the theme, however, the game seemed more futile. Playing cat to the author's mouse bored her. Wouldn't it have bored Doz too? Perhaps recently published non-fiction would provide her with the recreation she needed. She tried browsing in bookstores, but the advertising on the jackets suggested ten-to-one odds that they would waste her money and clutter her shelves. She and Doz didn't keep unread books on their shelves. To the Mapleton Library she went, sought the bound edition of the Mammoth Mercury on Sunday, took a few of the volumes from the year before last and sat at the table where she and Doz had used to sit. Opening them to the book sections, she browsed
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the reviews, compiling a list of authors and titles which she discontinued at twenty. Bringing the books to the desk five at a time, she examined them one by one and discarded all but four. How fast public fascination evolves! On the way to the checkout desk, she passed a trolley loaded with returned books and, glancing at the bookends, saw Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers. Since Doz had read it before he came to the United States, she had always wanted to read it too. Picking it up, she checked it out with the other four. As soon as she entered her living room, she sat down in Doz's favorite armchair, dropped the other four books on the floor and started reading Trollope. Soon the text had absorbed her concentration to the point of dulling her senses to her environment. She felt as if she were reading with Doz's eyes and mind. At times, she surprized herself by chuckling, at others, by the tears on her cheeks, but never did she stop reading.
Hearing a car outside, she assumed it was Reg and continued. Then, suddenly, she lurched for the handkerchief in her purse and wiped her cheeks. No sooner had she dried them than Reg and Wren entered holding hands, but they let each other go when they saw her looking at them.
"Hi, Mom!" Reg leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.
"Hello, Mrs. Chinski!"
Wren reached for her hand, but Mom took it and pulled her down to kiss her on the cheek. It was the first time.
"Would you mind if we did supper?"
"We've been to the supermarket."
"This will be a learning experience."
"I hope we won't burn anything."
Overwhelmed, Mom managed a smile: "Thank you! I had forgotten all about supper."
Although she concentrated on her book again, chatter, cries and laughter reached her ears from the kitchen and she smiled to herself. Finally they came and got her, hoping they hadn't made any bad mistakes. The three of them found themselves playing the dinner guest game. Mom admired their successes, while the couple deplored their failures, which she mitigated, and they argued cordially. So what if the corn on the cob wasn't fresh, the squash, done, so what if the lamb chops were burnt, the white wine, sweet? They were enjoying the argument and Mom was laughing a little bit for the first time since... She didn't have the heart to tell them about the calories and the cholesterol in the butter pecan ice cream they served for desert since it was delicious after all. Insisting that they were going to do the dishes, they escorted her back to her book and left her in the armchair.
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More chatter, cries and laughter before they finished in the kitchen, cut the light out and appeared looking bashful and undecided. Mom raised her eyes and smiled:
"Thanks for supper! I really enjoyed it... Now get in your car, drive to Amos Fletcher Park, sit on a bench beside the lake and neck."
"Neck?" Reg was shocked and Wren, embarrassed.
Mom was teasing them with an ironical look: "Don't you think it's about time?"
Reg looked at Wren, who nodded.
Reg: "OK, Mom."
"And don't be afraid to hold hands in front of me!"
A few days before Doz's death, mysterious blue wildflowers had proliferated in the sunniest areas of the field between Five Sides and the road. He had urged Siss and Sabby to buy clothes that color and Christy to paint the flowers before they died out. The tint had eluded all three of them, although Christy had come close. Then they had forgotten it. Other flowers had replaced the blue ones in the field when Siss remembered Doz's predilection. She searched the books about wildflowers and the garden magazines at the Library, even ordered seed company catalogues, but found nothing. No one realized that Suzy had joined in the search until she produced a sample of curtain material obtained from a buyer at Sedgwick and Crompton. She and David found Mom at Five Sides after work one afternoon. As soon as Mom saw the color, she threw her arms around Suzy, who had finally won her favor. That Saturday, David drove Mom and Suzy up to Camp Feu de Bois to show Christy the sample.
"Dad's blue!" she exclaimed.
She mixed her paints until she had a blob on her palette that resembled the material closely enough to consult Cecil Hobson, her art instructor. He found that the only difference between them came from the medium. Woven tissues, paints and flower petals reflected light differently. He told Christy to review her previous attempts to draw and paint the flower, then try to recreate it as she had seen it. It took her twenty minutes to paint the flower in several positions at the end of a stem bending variously in the wind. Cecil asserted as a matter of fact that he didn't know any painter who could describe motion as well as Christy. Tears welled in her eyes:
"If only Dad could see it!"
David hugged her.
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Cecil suggested that they show the painting to Craig Pillich, the nature instructor at Camp Feu de Bois. Excruciatingly scientific, Craig examined you with sparkling eyeglasses, listened to you with intimidating attention, analyzed your inquiry with pitiless objectivity and urged an investigation that discouraged you. Yet the curiosity in eyes too close together; his large, thin, bony nose; the wrinkles skepticism had worn in his cheeks and a metallic tone of voice somehow conspired to win your sympathy. The campers worshipped him.
"It's a good job," he said inspecting Christy's painting. "The details are distinct and precise. You even rendered the flexibility of the stem in the wind. It's obviously a cornflower, but I have never seen one exactly like that... Did you invent the color?"
Siss, David and Suzy assured him that their cornflower had been exactly that shade of blue. Craig took digital photos of the painting and Suzy's cloth sample, uploaded the file to his computer, asked them to check the color which they approved and promised to try and identify the cornflower. He would search his CDs and, if he couldn't find it on them, he would access the data banks on the web. If necessary, he would e-mail cornflower experts until he could find one who could either identify it or indicate its closest cousin. Although it was no longer blooming, he would appreciate the Chinskis sending him some of the plants if they could still find some. They promised to try. Since Craig knew that Christy had lost her father, he didn't say what all of them were thinking: science, art and death had each revealed the extraordinary significance of a trivial phenomenon.
The closest subspecies Craig could find was one growing in New Caledonia, where French settlers had imported it. Although the original cornflower had died out, a lavender mutation with larger blossoms, longer stems and yellow specks near the pistil was thriving. The smaller Chinski Cornflower, as Craig had named it, differed from it by its richer hue, which fascinated all viewers. The media exploited the news during the journalistic doldrums of August heat. The discovery enhanced Craig's reputation, which obliged the principal of his high school to raise his salary. Christy painted the flower alone and in groups, varying the number, the viewpoint and the background. Some of her nine paintings displayed the flowers in their field, others, against various skies and five of them, intended for her mother and her siblings, included Five Sides and the trees beside it in the background. These paintings attracted more visitors than usual to the annual Feu de Bois Art Exhibit at the end of the summer, among them a Mammoth art dealer who obtained Christy's consent to show them in his gallery.
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Mom, David and Suzy searched the field as soon as they returned to Five Sides and found enough cornflower plants to supply Craig and Mom herself, who had a project of her own in mind. She replanted some at the foot of Doz's grave with the help of Hank, the cemetery gardener, and dried the others to harvest the seeds. Ever since the day after the burial, she had made at least one trip a day to the grave. After a few weeks, she settled into a routine of getting up a half hour early and visiting it before breakfast with Reg. She picked a few flowers in the courtyard garden or the field to take with her and substituted them for the ones she had left the day before. When Reg hadn't stayed up too late with Wren the night before, he came with her, while David or Sabby met them there occasionally. All four of them gathered there the morning after a headstone of polished granite had been erected. Once Mom had replaced the flowers, they huddled together just as they had after the murder, then went their separate ways. David had a job at the Zenia State Archives and Sabby was a nurse's aide at the Mapleton Hospital. Bad weather never deterred Siss from visiting Doz's grave; on the contrary, she didn't mind being alone. Sometimes she encountered one of her children with his or her companion, Fuss and Maud, Freddy and Allison, Nelly, Evy and Easy, Janet or other friends. Once Nelly got her permission to let Spider Webb and Jeter Frenchkey join her. When Macrobius asked for this permission, however, she told him he would have to come some other time.
Alone one morning, she was inspecting the flowers she had just laid on the grave when she heard Doz's voice. What was he saying? Something about the flowers, he was thanking her for them, telling her how much he appreciated her visit every morning... Tears streamed down her face, a sob escaped her, she dabbed her eyes and glanced around behind her. Hank was pushing a wheelbarrow by, trying not to notice. From then on, she preferred to visit Doz's grave alone.
Once she had finished Barchester Towers, she began to borrow DVDs of old films from the Library. She chose the ones that Doz and her had wanted to see without ever finding the time. As she watched them, the reactions she guessed he would have had both consoled and tormented her. Would he have laughed when the stone god bit Gregory Peck's arm off and Audrey Hepburn screamed? Doz's laugh resonated in her mind, making her cry and lose track of the film. She remembered how it had startled her the first time she had heard it. They were lying on the beach of the lake at Amos Fletcher Park, where he was teasing her because she hadn't
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"rounded out." She would have to eat a stack of thick pancakes with lots of syrup and butter. Only when he roared with laughter did she realize that she had made a face. How long had she reminisced, forgetting the film despite her eyes and ears? Wearily she got up and turned the DVD off.
What then? This dilemma made her look around. The Danish furniture with which she and Doz had furnished Five Sides caught her eyes. Though already out of fashion and expensive, they had bought it piece by piece over a period of many years. They had never tired of light brown teak, the elegant simplicity of the design, the scruples of the craftsmanship. Doz had taken pleasure in sliding an articulated door back and forth across the front of a chest of drawers in their bedroom. The slender vertical strips fitted together so closely that they looked like a solid sheet of wood when they covered the drawers. Pushed to the side, however, they separated as they curved around it, disappearing into a recess. Siss had often warned Doz not to wear the door out. Who could they find to repair it? Even now, she could hardly pass in front of it without stopping to play with it herself. From room to room she wandered around the pentagon, up the tower, into the courtyard, out into the field... and back. Amenhotep, the Siamese, accompanied her inside and Bertrand, the Brittany, outside. Bertrand's frantic zigzag across the field beside the burning hulk of Doz's car appeared to have wearied him of running. Now he ran no further than she threw the tennis ball for him to retrieve. Sabby and Nathan were keeping his mother Guinevere, while Mom had had to put his aging father Fulbert out of his misery. In the courtyard, the bronze nude of Perseus holding Gorgon's head up with one hand and a sword in the other always seemed a little different to her. No matter where she went at Five Sides, no matter what she did, everything reminded her of Doz.
The piano dominated the living room. No one was touching it now except her when she dusted it. No sooner did she open the cover to dust the keys than Amenhotep jumped up on them and walked from one end to the other, sometimes from treble to bass, sometimes from bass to treble. He seemed to prefer the latter. Never had Siss witnessed greater intensity in Doz's affection for Jimmy than when he listened to him play. This emotion, which she shared with him, surpassed the ordinary pride of parents in their children's accomplishments.
"We haven't heard much from Jimmy," she told Amenhotep one day.
Amenhotep, who had just walked from bass to treble, turned, looked at her and flourished his tail.
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Calling Jimmy, she told him she wanted to see him and hear him play. Pleased, he invited her to a concert he was giving that Sunday afternoon at Pentecost Tabernacle, along with Marsha and a few other friends from the Youth Orchestra. Mom invited the couple to dinner at Bianchi's, where Giorgio, who remembered David, welcomed them. Unlike Reg and Wren, Jimmy and Marsha were always holding hands or indeed each other in front of Mom. Marsha, who still had her braces, was lavishing her affection on Jimmy, who tended more to accept it than reciprocate, although he took their intimacy for granted in everything he said. "Marsha and I... ", he began many a sentence. Aware that they were sleeping in the same bed, Mom teased them about having their great love affair a little early. Unembarrassed, they assured her that it was the only one they would ever have. Their big eyes made her laugh, but she reached across the table with both hands, squeezed the nearest hand of each and reminded them that she had been their age. At the concert, she sat with Tom-Tom and Shelly, who had invited all three of them to supper. Like most of the audience, Tom-Tom and Sherry were seeing and hearing the couple for the first time. While the quality of the music played by such youthful performers impressed them, the interaction between Marsha and Jimmy as they played enthralled them. They were irresistibly cute together. The audience also noticed, Mom, Shelly and Tom-Tom along with them, that Jimmy was leading the other musicians. Back in Mapleton, Siss got up even earlier than usual and drove to the cemetery to tell Doz. He was delighted.
Labor Day caught her unawares. Although travel seemed insane to her, Reg, Sabby and David each drove somewhere with his girl or her boy friend. Mom and Dad invited her to an annual picnic with friends their age, Freddy and Allison, to one with their legal friends, but she declined. People would try too hard to be nice! Besides, it was too hot to go anywhere. The books she had borrowed from the Library bored her. Likewise the DVDs. The TV section of The Vigilant announced baseball games, soap operas and Nixon in China. She started to look for some CDs, but, realizing they would remind her of Doz, she gave up. Drifting into the library, she remembered that she had intended to put the children's books in order. Each child had his shelf space where she expected him to store his books according to size and type. David had left his in perfect order, but they only included those he had acquired by graduation from high school. He had over twice as many now, which he kept on his own bookshelf. On this one, literature and geography predominated. Reg had left his in the worst disorder, although he had fewer than the others. He had not only mingled
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the tall and the short volumes, but also shoved books wherever convenient, damaging some of them. Nearly all of them were about sports. In his haste he had even thrown a few into Jimmy's and Sabby's adjacent spaces. Except for several misplaced volumes, Sabby had left hers in satisfactory order. Mom wondered why she had put seven of them behind the others when she had a plenty of extra room. Then she realized that she had hidden them behind her tallest books. She discovered that all seven of them, which varied from manuals to studies, were about sex. Five of them even contained illustrations. Mom's whole body tingled with consternation. What should she do? Ask Sabby about these hidden books? Move them to the front in her empty space? Leave them where they were? Doz would advise her to leave them where they were. Sabby's other books reminded her of the little girl's trend from curiosity about animals to curiosity about how they reproduced. Later books showed that she had begun to take an interest in the human animal. Jimmy and Christy required taller spaces at the bottom for music and art, but both had lower shelf space higher up. In them, both displayed children's books, many of them inherited from their older siblings and a few even from Mom herself. Jimmy had several books about or by pop musicians, while Christy had a surprizing number about birds, fish, insects, mushrooms, etc. Tempted especially by Reg's shelves, Mom wondered whether she should put all out-of-place books back where they belonged. Then she realized that they meant more to her as they were than they ever would if they were neatly aligned and sorted by size, shape and subject.
But there she was at the beginning of the shelves she had shared with Doz. She remembered when, several years ago, they had taken all of their books about the moving and storage industry to the office. Since then, however, they had nearly filled the empty space left behind, although each had usually read what the other had recommended after reading it himself. They had never tired of art, the passion that had brought them together. Otherwise, they had wandered from subject to subject, from theology to philosophy, from politics to ethics, from Julia Childs to Thurgood Marshall. Authors and titles greeted Siss's eyes like old friends: the complete works of Phoebe and Sampson Heath, Alexis de Tocqueville's Démocratie en Amérique and, wedged beside the bookend of a partially filled shelf, the last book she and Doz had read, Emma Goldman's Living My Life. Surprised by their own admiration for a woman opposed to much of what they believed in, they had discussed her autobiography the evening before Doz's death. Reading took more effort than listening and viewing, she thought, but oh how profoundly it enlightened you!
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She knew she couldn't manage that effort now. Moving on as if in a familiar dream, she climbed the tower. The courtyard and the field scintillated with green and yet the view reminded her of the snowy scene Phoebe had admired: "I will see it in my mind when I close my eyes for the last time." She had realized her wish a few weeks later. What had Doz been thinking as he turned into the driveway? Although Siss imagined something different every time, none of her guesses ever satisfied her. What might anyone be thinking during the unexpected last second of his life? 'Damn! I forgot to turn the air conditioning down?' Siss hoped she would be thinking of Doz. Maybe she would see him in her mind when she closed her eyes for the last time. It was hot in the tower. The children's rooms reminded her of Doz's particular affection for each child who slept in them. David's generosity, Sabby's intrepidity, Reg's tenacity, Jimmy's discipline, Christy's independence and, above all, their affection for each other used to light his eyes and soften his voice. Quickly she passed the door to the master bedroom. When she entered the utility room, Amenhotep, who had been following her, rushed ahead, turned and looked back at her flourishing his tale:
'Welcome to my room!'
She stooped to stroke him and, closing his eyes, he arched his back against her hand. It had become a routine. The kitchen confronted her with the memory of the lunch Phoebe had served her, Doz and Sampson. That lunch had started a friendship sorely missed by the sole survivor. Anxiety drove her to the dining room where she hesitated long enough only to run her hand across the top of the chair no one sat in any more.
Hence to the patio where she lay down on her chaise longue in the shade of a parasol. Bertrand trotted up and laid down beside her, his tongue working and his head within reach of her fingertips. Also a routine, the contact between her fingertips and his head soothed and consoled them both. The patter of the fountain put her to sleep, as she realized only when it woke her up again, at dusk. The silhouette of the tower against the sky recalled the night of the eclipse they couldn't see, but no one sat in the chair beside her. Displaying his trophy and holding his sword, Perseus gleamed faintly in his corner of the courtyard. A rumor she had always rejected came back to haunt her. Was the statue she and Doz had bought from Phoebe and Sampson along with Five Sides really a monument to her husband's sexuality rather than the ideal they had always claimed? Doz's nose didn't form a straight line with his forehead, she objected, his chest, biceps and thighs bulged like those of the satyrs running around the vases that Wren loved to pack and unpack. Yet the beauty of his living body
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impressed all who beheld it, hence the horror of that little heap of remains! For the first time since the burial, Siss admitted to herself that she missed that magnificent body. She wanted to explore it, wrap her arms and legs around it, hold it and wrestle with it, insert it in herself and massage herself around it. She shivered. Of course Doz had been her Perseus, of course she had worshipped her god of sex, why deny it? Oh she had never had any illusions about her skinny, bony body. She had none of the graceful contours, little of the soft flesh that attracted men. Why had Doz wanted her as soon as he saw her waiting on the tables at the Orchid Inn? His attention had transformed an awkward girl with braces on her teeth into a woman confident of her charm. What was she now that she had lost him? Her chest rose and fell with a sigh that raised Bertrand's head, tears burst from her eyes and sobs shook her body. Then the chair beside her grated on the slate and she reached by force of habit to see if Doz were there. Touching someone, she gasped and jumped.
"Don't cry, Mom. Please!"
"I'm sorry to leave you alone like this."
"You and Wren don't need a chaperone."
"I wanted to ask you something about her."
"... All right."
"You know how we feel about each other."
"Yes, I know."
"Well, I asked her if she would like to get married."
"That isn't in fashion any more."
"We couldn't care less. We have reached the point where... people used to get married."
"People like your mother and father."
"You were younger than Wren, Dad was older than I am. We can take care of ourselves."
"Why are you asking me?"
"I would have asked you anyway, but Wren said she couldn't unless you approved."
"Of course I approve!"
He stood up, leaned over and hugged her. How fragile she felt! He was afraid he had squeezed too hard and broken something. "I was afraid you would say 'no'."
"If your father were still alive, I would have.. and he would have talked me into it."
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"He was pretty persuasive. This world needs more like him."
"... No! Come on, Mom! We aren't going to have any babies until we have graduated from college."
"You already discussed that?"
"Of course!... We haven't decided how many yet."
"We have to get up tomorrow morning."
"I promised to call Wren. She's waiting beside the telephone."
"Tell her you and she are going to have dinner with me right here on this patio tomorrow evening and her Mom's invited too. We have a lot to talk about."
They scheduled the wedding on a Saturday afternoon in October. Only family and close friends received invitations. Wren and her mother saw no point in inviting her older brother Warren, who was in Korea with the army. Mom and Reg guessed that they preferred not to involve him. David and Suzy, Sabby and Nathan, Tom-Tom and Sherry came over from Concordia. Jimmy played the organ at Kingdom Tabernacle, where Berny Kimittis, a minister Freddy's age, performed the marriage. Instead of a white wedding gown, Wren had bought, with Suzy's help, a cherry red evening dress off the shoulders and down to the knees. Fuss had volunteered to give the bride away, which he accomplished with an awkward dignity everyone admired. Reg wore a beige suit with a light blue tie. No sooner had he slipped the ring on Wren's finger than a wail reverberated throughout the Tabernacle. After this outburst, however, the bride's mother played her role with poise. She surprized herself and everyone else by her cordial appreciation of Nelly's compliments on Wren's qualities as an employee. Neither she nor anyone else made the slightest allusion to the young woman's past, but everyone realized that the couple wanted to marry in order to render it irrelevant. The lithe bride and the robust groom made a charming couple, especially when they danced together at Zhu's, where the reception was held. Just as saucy but not as cute, Christy had grown an inch and gained two pounds as she told everyone who would listen. Everyone noticed and no one mentioned that Sabby's bosom had also grown. They drank Fossez Champagne, supplied by Fuss, who, dancing with Wren, suddenly felt tired, excused himself and sat down. Siss tired more gradually, resisting the wish to see the guests begin to leave. Wren tossed her bouquet to Suzy before the doors of the elevator she and Reg were taking closed. A new yellow Golf awaited them in the parking lot below. Off they drove for a few days in the mountains. They had high-school classes to attend next week and Wren was working part time.
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Two children at ZU with his or her companion; another one in a Mapleton apartment with his wife and two still at home, but one busy with music and his girl friend, the other, with art and both with school. Five Sides seemed vast and deserted despite Amenhotep and Bertrand. Fearful of boring her mother and father, her brother and his wife, the friends she had shared with Doz, Siss limited her contact with them to a reasonable routine.
"Widow Chinski!" she ridiculed herself.
She was spending most of her time at the office, striving to run the business as well as Doz would have expected, stressing efficiency, economy, quality of service and financial conservatism. Aware that she lacked Doz's imagination and his ability to recognize and exploit opportunities, she tried to compensate by vigilance and caution. Yet she had learned the job and accustomed herself to the responsibility, so Fuss stayed at home where she could reach him if she needed him. After moving out of his office, he had stopped by to remind her that she had to consolidate her advantage over Treble. Hearing him breathe, she jumped up, ran around her desk and helped him sit down. He gave her a suspicious look before yielding to her: was her concern an excuse to ignore his advice?
"Please, Dad. I heard what you said, I haven't forgotten it, I have been thinking about it... I just haven't decided what Doz would have done."
"What Doz would have done? You can't run a company that way. You have to decide yourself. You are the boss now!"
Shocked at first, she hesitated, then leaned over and kissed him on his bald pate. "OK., Dad. I just decided to ask your advice. I promise not to follow it unless I am absolutely desperate."
"We go to all this trouble to bring them up right and what do they do? They wait until we are old and decrepit, then they make fun of us!"
"We go to all this trouble to live up to their expectations and what do they do? They wait until we ask for their advice and then they tell us where the buck stops!"
"All right, here's what I would do... 1. Give your employees a raise. You have the cash and they deserve it. 2. Hire another crew and buy another truck. Treble will get customers you keep waiting. 3. Schedule a meeting with Janet and Nelly every week. I know you listen to Nelly. Listen to Janet too. The future of the company depends on you three broads."
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"I'm not a broad!"
"Give or take a few inches... Number 4."
"All right: Number 4."
"Find yourself somebody young, intelligent, eager and conscientious. Put him in my office, keep him busy, give him problems to solve. If he finds good solutions, increase your reliance on him; if he makes mistakes, explain them to him. In other words, start training the next generation of management now."
"You said 'he'."
"Most of your workforce are men, some of them won't feel at ease with an all-female management team... The only trouble is that your best candidate for junior management is Wren."
"After she graduates from college."
"Yes. You need a young man now. Five years from now, you will probably need more than one. Appoint Wren then. But she will be working for you every summer, so you can let her have some on-the-job training."
"What if she and the young man... ?"
"Keep their duties and responsibilities separate, encourage them to collaborate rather than compete."
Accepting advice is one thing, following it is another. Siss raised the employee's' wages, but less than they expected, thus disappointing them as Nelly had warned. Doz wouldn't have overpaid them, she had replied. She told Nelly to hire a fourth crew, but she kept her from offering wages high enough to attract the outstanding applicants Fossez had always preferred. Instead of promoting an employee recommended by Nelly to foreman of the new crew, she hired a young applicant because he couldn't expect as high a salary. Offended, the employee applied for the same position at Treble and D. P. Score, the personnel manager, accepted his application. This minor but significant victory delighted Horace after the company's worst summer since he had taken over from his uncle. The incident angered the employee's friends at Fossez and Chinski and the departure from the policy followed by Fuss and Doz upset the whole workforce. When Nelly informed Siss of the discontent, Siss replied that she had to honor the trust that Doz had conferred on her. Reminded that Doz and Fuss had always followed the opposite policy, Siss rebuked Nelly politely but firmly.
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She had never used that tone of voice with her before, but she had a few times with Janet and did so again as they discussed the purchase of another truck. Siss set a limit to the amount Janet could pay for it, likewise a departure from Doz's policy, and it suggested that she didn't trust her to do what she had always done to everyone's satisfaction. Aware that Siss considered her a subordinate rather than an associate, Janet made no objection. Siss saw hurt feelings in her eyes and took satisfaction in them, but then she felt ashamed:
"I'm sorry, Janet. I haven't forgotten how well you do purchasing... I'm just terribly anxious to keep our expenses under control as business declines in the fall."
Immediately, however, both realized that this remark intended to reassure Janet implied that she hadn't been solving that very problem for years. Swallowing her pride, Janet inquired and found that the sum allowed her would buy a no better truck than one that had already been a hundred thousand miles. Upkeep and loss of use during repairs would cost the company almost as much as the additional cost of a new one, as she humbly warned Siss. It was then that Siss resorted to the exaggerated politeness that women use to put each other down. Although she realized her mistake immediately, she saw that any attempt to correct it would only make it worse.
This incident discouraged Janet from contributing to the weekly meetings, which Siss was holding with her and Nelly according to her father's recommendations. At the next one, Siss realized that she was doing most of the talking while they limited their participation to questions about what she wanted them to do and how she wanted them to do it. Although she had taken all of the first three steps her father had recommended, she had bungled them, she realized, making things worse instead of better. Her caution in taking Step 2 had also caused a delay in organizing and equipping the new crew, so that it began to do its share of the workload only when business was declining in the fall. Janet calculated that the customers who turned to Treble because they had to wait too long for Fossez and Chinski had cost them more than they had saved by restrictions on spending. She hesitated to tell Siss until, finally, she confided in Fuss, who, pretending to have wondered about it himself, informed his daughter as if he had asked Janet to find out for him. Siss guessed what had happened and this subterfuge hurt almost as badly as the news itself. In her very determination to live up to Doz's confidence in her, hadn't she actually betrayed it?
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She stayed in the office even later than usual that evening, although she had rather little to do and couldn't concentrate anyway. Fuss and Maud had agreed to have Jimmy and Christy for supper and put them up for the night. Why drag them down with her? She found it even harder than usual to leave the office and go home. The silhouette of Five Sides loomed ominously in the dark. Cooking herself some supper, eating it, retiring to the bedroom, hanging her clothes in the closet with Doz's, looking at herself in the mirror, getting in bed where insomnia and nightmares awaited her: every step in her routine seemed more formidable than the preceding one. Checking the refrigerator, the freezer, the vegetable and fruit bins, the cabinets, she hesitated back and forth before choosing some leftover zucchini, a frozen lamb chop, minute rice and skim milk. How many years had she been preparing good meals for seven people? She burned the chop, had to add water to the rice to avoid burning the pan and spilled some milk on the floor, which Amenhotep promptly lapped up. Although his zeal in keeping the kitchen floor clean had always made Doz laugh, tears were stinging her eyes. She sat down at the kitchen table, as Amenhotep stroked himself against her leg, and she discovered that the zucchini was still cold on the inside. Put it back on the stove? She didn't have the courage. Recalling that she had lost weight, she began to eat with more determination than hunger, but more and more slowly until chewing a piece of lamb seemed like hard work. Once she had swallowed it, she drank another sip of milk, stopped and sighed. Recognizing this symptom, Amenhotep stood looking up at her expectantly.
"I'm going to lose too much weight and you," she touched his nose, "you are going to gain too much."
After they had eyed each other a moment, she added:
"You are going to be a fat cat!"
Amenhotep flourished his tail to show what a damn he gave. She was having more and longer conversations with Amenhotep, she noticed. She poured the rest of her milk in his bowl, put the rest of the chop in Bertrand's dish outside, threw the remaining rice and all of the zucchini in the garbage, washed the dishes and checked the clock: only eight-thirty!
How was she going to while away another hour and a half? She tried all of the usual diversions: television, DVDs, CDs, the radio, books, wandering around the house. She went out front and threw the ball for Bertrand a few times, but she noticed that he was retrieving it less enthusiastically than usual.
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The way he looked up at her, she could have sworn that he agreed. They retired to the patio where each laid down in his place and she touched his head with her fingertips.
"I guess this is a habit we have now, hunh Bertrand?"
Bertrand rolled his eyes up at her as if to agree.
Stars and the milky way crowded the sky.
"Do you think Doz is up there somewhere... ? Maybe in that one." She pointed at a bright one. "Or that one?" She pointed at a reddish one near the horizon. "It looks like Mars... Remember when Doz kidded Reg about taking Wren to Mars?"
Bertrand's eyes showed that he did.
After a long meditation, she leaned over, took him by his long ears and looked him in his eyes: "Naw, he ain't nowhere."
It was something Nelly had told Doz and Doz had told her, years and years ago.
"Nowhere!" she yelped at the sky. "And you aren't up there either, are you? Who do you think you are fooling?" A few minutes later, she whimpered: "not me!" Ten minutes later: "Maybe there's room for me nowhere too, right next to Doz, just as there is beside him in his grave... What's left of him." She began to cry.
Exhausted and yet unsleepy, she told Bertrand "Goodnight!", locked up and went to her and Doz's bedroom. The nightly routine tormented her as badly as she had expected, especially when she sat in front of her mirror. Her hair was turning white so fast she couldn't get it dyed in time any more. Was that really me? Jerked from youth to age, she had skipped the in-between happiness inaccessible to the two extremes. To the bathtub she retreated hoping that the liquid warmth would numb her anxiety. Doz always teased her finding that she didn't look any rounder under water.
"There's room for both of us!" she always replied.
Not really, but what difference did that make when he climbed in on top of her? They had made epic love in that bathtub. Who cared if it messed her hair up? Now she was aching for his body, his muscles, his skin, his legs, his arms, his lips, his breath on her cheek, his voice whispering in her ear so Christy wouldn't hear, his penis slipping back and forth in her vagina, the thrill pervading her body, the climax of delight, the cries they uttered, the caresses they lavished on each other afterwards. No one could make love like Doz, she was sure of it, she didn't need another lover to compare. How happily she could have died!
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How happily in warm water! Doz's razors were still in the medicine chest. The thought of slitting her wrists revolted her, but the sting would pass and she would lose consciousness as her blood flowed into the water, depriving her mind of oxygen, easing her from life to death... No! That would betray Doz, not the rotting remains in his grave, not some spirit haunting earth or heaven wherever that was, but the one whose voice she heard in the cemetery, reminding her that she had to do what he could no longer do, what they could no longer do together. She had to father their children as well as mother them, she had to lead the family to a third generation. She had to ensure the prosperity of Fossez and Chinski. She unplugged the bathtub, stood up, dried herself vigorously, threw her bathrobe on, stepped into her slippers and rushed to the telephone beside the bed.
"Siss!... Is something wrong, Honey?"
"Yes, there sure is and I'm going to do something about it. Tell the employees I'm going to double their raise."
"What do you mean, 'Yes'M'?"
"I mean you cooking with gas! You want me to call'em up right now?"
"Spend the rest of the night on the phone? No. Tell them tommorrow and tell them something else: Fossez and Chinski is going to return to the traditional policy of hiring."
"Kiss my foot!"
"I thought you was a nice lady, didn't say nothing nasty like that."
"I'm gonna take you crosst my knee... I can't fire the new crew and foreman... unless they screw up."
"Now you talking!"
"Doz just gave me a talking to."
"Where did he do that?"
"In the bathtub."
"He ought to a been ashamed of hisself."
They were laughing. They hadn't had a good laugh since... Afterwards, Siss called Janet and asked her if it was too late to buy a new truck instead of an old one. Since it wasn't, she told her to go ahead and told her to handle the purchase as she saw fit. From now on, she wanted her to advise her just as she had advised Doz and she promised to follow her advice. Janet confessed that she really liked her job and was looking forward to collaborating with Siss. She admired her courage.