The Ironworkers Hayride
So this fellow at the new ironworks in Sunnyvale where I am
a cost-sheet man and he is a furnace man, he comes over to me at the Ironman
Saloon. I’m still in my blue- serge suit and collar, though the fellows in
their overalls know me as an okay guy, even if they mostly treat me like a
hapless little brother. But this one fellow, Zack, spots me as soon as he sets
foot in the place. I’m sitting on a stool at the bar counting the smoked
almonds I’m eating and sort of working the numbers out, how many I need to eat
to cover the cost of the beer in front of me and wishing I could dare pull out
a scrap of paper and do some downright figuring. But that would undercut my
standing among these fellows around me, who I’m here trying to be part of, the
sorts of fellows that used to daily snap my suspenders and tweak my nose when
we were all boys. So this fellow Zack presses past his friends and makes
straight for me and he claps me on the back, causing me to revise my almond
count from twenty back to nineteen, most of the twentieth one attaching itself
to the mirror behind the bar. “Milton, old man,” he says, and he proceeds for
the fourth time in four days to urge me to take his sister-in-law on the
ironworkers’ hayride, which is now a mere two days off, even though he has
confessed about her having a cork leg.
“I am awful tired nights,” I say, an excuse I
have not yet tried on him, and he perches on the stool next to me with a face
crumpled in skepticism. I don’t blame him. He shovels coal, I add numbers. He
knows this. I know this. “My eyes,” I say. “Tired eyes.”
“It’s dark,” he says. “You got nothing much to
look at except Minnie, and she’s easy on the eyes, I’m telling you. And that
other thing, you know, it wears a shoe and stocking like the good one.”
I nod and begin gnawing the thin brown skin off
a new almond. This is not my usual method. Minnie’s brother-in-law is making me
He lowers his voice and leans near. “Look.
Nobody but you knows about this leg thing. She walks real good. And she dresses
up nice. The others will think you’re a regular fellow.”
I shoot him a sideways glance and turn the
almond over, like a squirrel, to gnaw at the other side. I tote up all the sums
of his remark. The others don’t already think I’m a regular fellow. I’m not a
regular fellow. If she can hide her cork leg, I can hide my irregular
fellowness. Zack has let me in on a family secret with all the obligations and
reciprocities attendant thereto. Though I have to point out that I never
solicited this secret. It was Zack who took the stocking off the rubber foot,
so to speak. No. Erase that. He let the cat out of the bag. There’s a reason
for saying things the way everybody else says them.
“How ’bout it?” Zack says.
I calculate it all, and the almond is bare and
white in my hand. It gives me the willies. I slip it into my mouth, out of
sight. I chew fast, knowing I’m about to get popped on the back again. I
swallow and then turn to Zack, and I say, “All right.”
This much I take pains to learn from Zack:
Minnie’s leg is missing from well above the knee. She is twenty-two. Her
favorite flower is the poppy. And the leg isn’t really made of cork. It
couldn’t be, if you think about it, cork being too soft a wood to bear the
weight of a twenty-two-year-old girl, or even half her weight. The leg is of
wood—willow, in fact—and years ago they made a swell wooden leg in the county
of Cork in Ireland. Thus the name.
As for the reason, Zack says she lost her leg as
a child to a runaway horse and an overturned carriage. She was riding in it.
This gives me an idea. “Zack,” I say. “Think. If she goes out in the night in a
wagon being pulled by a horse, won’t she be caused to dwell on that terrible
He bends near, putting his great paw of a hand
on my shoulder. It weighs quite a lot. I’m having trouble keeping from sliding
off the bar stool under its pressure. “Look, Milton,” he says. “I haven’t been
dogging you about this for your sake, much as I . . . like you. It’s Minnie who
wants bad to go on this hayride. I’m not about to disappoint her.”
He squeezes my shoulder like he’s trying to
juice an orange and I know I better speak up quick. “Sure. Okay,” I say, and he
lets me go.
“That’s my blue-serge pal,” he says.
I want to say to him, Why me? I heard you
hesitate before the word “like” in your recent declaration. Pleasantly tolerate
is more what it is. So why choose a fellow like that for your sister-in-law?
But I dare not ask. And I think I know the answer. He wants to keep from
informing his pals in overalls about his sister-in-law’s handicap. Not to
mention he sees me as a safe choice, the last male in his acquaintance who’d
ever play the masher with his wife’s kin.
So this is how I come to be standing at the
front gate of the ironworks in collar and straw hat holding a bunch of orange
poppies. I am not alone. A few dozen couples—the guys from the various work
gangs, mostly, and their girls in lacy shirtwaists and skirts—are all gabbling
and promenading around me, trying to choose hay companions on the four large,
sweet-smelling wagons that wait along the street. There is no sign of Zack and
his sister-in-law. Then two piercing yellow eyes appear down the
road—the headlamps of an automobile—and the horses start puffing and stirring,
and up roars Zack in his father-in-law’s Model T, to the great interest of all
the couples. The Ford is as black as the night sky. Zack’s father-in-law was
one of the first to buy this wonder for a mere $845, and the prices have been
coming down already in these past two years, the blue-serge boys in Detroit
squeezing their production cost numbers as tightly as Zack squeezing my
shoulder. I step forward from the crowd, which is already returning to the
matter of choosing wagons. The driver’s side of the auto is before me and Zack
gives me a nod and I nod back. Then, stepping into the blazing beams of the
headlamps is Minnie of the cork leg.
She pauses there, aflame from the lamps of the
Ford, and I feel like the flowers are wilting in my hand. She is swell looking.
She’s wearing a blue sailor dress with the big collar and the wide, knotted tie
hanging down the center of her chest, and her head is bare, her hair all
gathered up there with a wide, dark ribbon circling the crown, and there is a
radiance all around her—thanks to the Ford, but radiance nonetheless—her whole
head is surrounded with a bright glow, like a saint, a martyred saint who has
lost her leg to an evil duke—a partially martyred saint—and her face is very
pale and delicate of nose and brow and ear and so forth—my eyes are dancing
around her, not taking her in very objectively, I realize—her mouth is a sweet
painted butterfly. I’m squeezing the life out of the flowers in my hand, I
realize, crushing their stems in my fist. I try to ease up, settle down. And
now her face turns and she looks at me as if she knows who I am already. I
flinch a bit inside, wondering how Zack described me, but it can’t be too bad,
because he’s responsible for setting all this up. She steps from the light.
I observe this first step carefully. I am a
detail man. That’s my job. And I see with her first step which leg is descended
from the land of Erin, so to speak. Her left. She has started from her right
leg—she would surely start from her good side—and her left leg then follows a
tiny bit slowly, perhaps dragging just a very little, almost imperceptibly, and
it’s true if I weren’t looking for this and if I weren’t a detail man, I’d
never know, but I am and I am and I do. Now under way, she seems quite natural.
She has a blanket draped over one arm. Many of the girls have blankets. I noted
that with envy when I first arrived. It is mid July, and though it can get a
bit chilly in the valley even in July, I know these blankets are for spooning,
and now Minnie is approaching me and she’s been moved to bring a blanket. This
is too much on my mind as she arrives before me.
“Milton?” she says.
“Are you subject to chills?” I say. Inexplicably.
I do have a good, thick, gum-rubber eraser in my head always at the ready to
wipe away my mistakes of judgment before they issue forth from my mouth. I am a
man who arrives at the appropriate sum total before giving an answer. But on
this occasion I have simply blurted forth the next, uncalculated thought in my
“I don’t have an illness,” she says.
My remark had nothing to do with her leg and I
have to squeeze my lips shut hard to keep that assertion from coming out of my
mouth now and just making things worse.
“Of course,” I say. “Of course,” I repeat
instantly. And it only takes the briefest moment of silence following for me to
add, “Of course.”
“I’m Minnie,” she says.
“Of course,” I say, and the hand with the
flowers shoots out as if my arm was artificial and the spring lever in the
elbow has just let go.
But the flowers save the moment, I think.
“Poppies,” Minnie says, her eyes widening at
their sight, which is wide indeed because her eyes are already quite large as
it is, large and dark as the skin of a Ford Model T, one of which is roaring
off into the night, a Ford Model T, that is, Zack’s, leaving me alone with this
girl. “They’re my favorites. How did you know?” she says. “Did you
“The flowers?” I say. “Oh . . .” I pause. I
could suggest a deep intuitive bond here. I’m capable of that. I can’t possibly
expect strict, detailed honesty to be the best policy on a date with a girl
with a wooden leg anyway, but in this circumstance I opt for it. “I asked
Zack,” I say.
Minnie laughs, lifting her face and not holding
it back at all, not covering her mouth with her hand, like girls usually do.
She says, “He had it drummed into his head by my sister around my last
A few moments pass, and I’m not aware of it
exactly but I’m just sort of gawking at her. She looks at me and tilts her head
just a little. “Are you trying to picture Zack’s head being drummed on by his
I gawk some more.
Minnie lowers her voice. “She’s a suffragette,
I realize that if I don’t take myself in hand
I’ll spend the rest of the evening two steps behind this girl without speaking
a word. I manage to say, “I didn’t know.”
“Oh yes. I want to vote, too. Does that surprise
“Or put you off?”
“No,” I say, and I manage to sound emphatic.
“I won’t harangue you in the hay,” she says.
I’m finally catching up, I think, certainly
enough to realize that I’m still holding the flowers straight out. I lift them
up at her and she’s been sort of in another place, too, it seems. “Oh. Sorry,”
she says, though it looks like she’s talking to the flowers. She takes them and
then fixes on me again. “You were swell to do this,” she says.
So we get to the business of finding a place for
the ride. Most of the other couples have already made their choices and are
settling down in the hay. We drift down the row of wagons, Minnie moving along
real natural next to me. We arrive at the last one, and I look inside and say
to her low, so the others can’t hear, “Do you know any of these people?”
“Not a one. And you?”
“Seen a couple of them around, don’t know any of
“Any of Zack’s pals?” she says.
“Not that I know of.”
“Then this one’s for us,” she says, and she’s
already trying to climb up into the wagon.
I step up behind her and my hands come out and
sort of hang in the air on either side. She’s not looking at me but she knows
what I’m doing, even down to my hesitation. “You can just grab and shove if you
like,” she says.
So I put my hands, which I have to say are
trembling more than a little, on each side of her waist and she is heavily
corseted inside there and just thinking about her corset makes me go too weak
to lift her. But I try. I help a little and somehow she’s up on the wagon and
I’m scrambling in after her.
She moves forward on her hands and knees pretty
fast, heading for the far end of the wagon, and I try to keep up, crawling past
the other couples settling in. One guy that I’ve nodded to a few times at the
Ironman I nod to again and he gives me a big wink, finally understanding I’m a
regular fellow, I presume, and I have the problem of what to do with my face in
return. A similar wink, as from a fellow fellow? Another nod, which, I
instantly realize, might give an impression like some European king or somebody
passing in a carriage? Nothing, just stay blank-faced or turn away? But would
that be interpreted as a gesture of rejection or overreaching uppitiness? All
this goes through me like turning the crank on the arcade mutoscope real slow,
but my arms and legs are still moving in normal time and the decision is made
by my indecision. I pass on with my mug fixed in what I’m sure is a mask of buffoonery.
Then I look ahead and Minnie is just turning around in the spot she’s found for
us, and the whole batch of poppies is clenched in her teeth. She’s got the
stems in her mouth and the cluster of flower heads are bunched up at her cheek
and she sees me seeing this and she flutters her eyebrows at me, and once again
it’s me and my face trying to figure out how to act in this world we’re not
quite suited for.
She has put the blanket on the straw to her
right side and pats the straw to her left. I’m grateful for the instruction. I
just set my face to the place where I’ve been told to go and I creep on.
Meanwhile, Minnie takes the flowers from her mouth and lays them on the
blanket. Happily, my mind catches up—she’d put the bouquet in her mouth to protect
them as she crawled. This makes perfectly good sense. I have arrived safely,
turning and falling into the hay beside Minnie, and we are side by side.
I lean on my elbows thrown back behind me and I
cross my feet at the ankles. My mouth opens to say something and then snaps
shut with no actual words coming to mind. Her wooden leg lies between us. The
evening in hay lies before us. I figure I’m in trouble.
Not that I shouldn’t be prepared simply to keep
quiet. Especially considering I’ve been enlisted in this date by the girl’s
relative who happens to mostly know me from a bar and he knows how out of place
I generally am and I’ve agreed to it only after I’ve said no a few times and
even written to my sister in San Francisco that I was saying no in spite of
she’s the one who’s always worried about me never looking up from the column of
numbers in front of me to find a life with somebody, but here’s a girl who’s
got a cork leg, not to say there isn’t plenty of girl left in spite of that,
but it’s just the idea of this whole arrangement, which is: Let’s choose Milton
to take out this girl who other young men maybe would get uncomfortable around
because Milton’s hard up and he’s also a safe choice because there’s not really
a red-blooded young man inside of him, he’s just got ink in his blood and
ledgers in his brain and numbers on his lips. So under these circumstances why
should I care if I don’t say another word all night? I can just lie here in the
hay and get through the whole thing and then everybody will get off my back and
let me go back to my numbers. See? That’s the fate even I imagine for myself at
the end of a hayride with a girl. Go back to my numbers. But in fact I do
expect more from myself now. I want more. It was Minnie herself who brought
this out in me. Minnie radiant in the Model T’s headlights. Minnie who says
just grab me and shove. Minnie who wants to vote. Why shouldn’t she?
“Why shouldn’t you vote?” I say, unexpectedly.
She looks at me. “Well, dog my cats,” she says.
“What a sweet thing to say, Milton.”
And now, having been seized by one thing to say,
the ink bottle in my head instantly spills all over the ledger—I’m not afraid
to put it in these terms—I am who I am—and I figure I’m in an even worse
predicament, since I’ve raised her expectations.
But Minnie seems happy to pick things up. Of
course she deserves a vote, she tells me, and she goes on for a time about how
women would have busted the trusts even quicker than Roosevelt and Taft—it was
only this year—what a great year, though, it was, she says—that Standard Oil
was finally dissolved and the tobacco trust was broken up, but even at that,
look what’s happening now, she says, the banks in New York are trying to
monopolize the nation’s credit. And Minnie is talking like sixty and I sort of
settle back and let her words just carry me along about oil and railroads and
steel and big corporations, and this should be working up my feelings for
numbers and business and all, but that’s not what’s happening, the wagons have
started up and I’m giving myself over to the stars above and the flow of
Minnie’s voice and her words are like music to me, like a fugue by Bach or
something that you just take in and it shuts down all the unnecessary functions
of your brain except the part that hears the music. I even feel like humming
with her as she talks. Then Minnie finally has to nudge me a bit. I realize
that her words have worked around to me. “You’re going to cast your ballot in
October, right Milton? For the woman’s vote in California?”
“Of course,” I say.
“Grand,” she says. “Just grand.” She stops
talking and looks at me closely. I look at her closely. The moon is full and
Minnie is bright white, like she’s made of alabaster. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“Why?” I say.
“I’ve harangued you in the hay,” she says.
She seems sincerely regretful. Even in the
moonlight I can read that in her face. I want to reach out and touch her,
perhaps take her hand, though my own hands go rigid in panic at the thought of
it. But I find I have words. “No,” I say. “You’ve educated me.”
Minnie sort of rolls her eyes. I think in
“You’ve exhorted me,” I say.
Her eyes focus hard on me now. She leans a
little in my direction and her voice pitches low. “Thank you for saying so,
Then a choir begins to sing.
For a moment, strangely, it all seems to be
happening just in my head. But the voices coarsen and the music is not Bach. In
fact the sound is all around me in the wagons. The others on the hayride are
singing. Shine on, shine on harvest moon up in the sky. I ain’t had no
lovin’ since January, February, June, or July.
This is true, certainly. And you can tote up all
my Januarys, Februarys, and so forth through the whole year. For all my years.
Even just counting the ones since I hit adolescence, that’s better than a hundred months. I can work up an exact sum
tomorrow if I want. Now things go a little sour in my head. I realize that,
given my ineptness at the lovin’ and spoonin’ and all, I’ll be adding this
present month of July to the tally in spite of this hayride.
The voices roll
into a verse. I can’t see why a boy should sigh, when by his side is the
girl he loves so true.
I look at Minnie.
She’s not singing along, but she’s smiling into the wagon, and then she lays
her head back on the hay. So do I. And of course I sigh. Shine on, shine
on harvest moon.
Minnie and I lie
there and listen, side by side, the moon shining over us and the stars as well,
no more talk being necessary, and it’s just grand, even as the singing ironmen
and their girls move on to other songs, first to Whoop, whoop, whoop, make
a noise like a hoop and roll away, and then Oh you spearmint kiddo with
the Wrigley eyes, not really catching the mood I’m in, but that’s still
okay, I’m beside Minnie lovely Minnie with the leg of willow, and they do go
on to sing I’d love to live in loveland with a girl like you and there’s
a lot about turtle doves and hearts beating in tune and babbling brooks and
that’s more like it and I’m definitely thinking about Minnie though I’m not
touching her and I’m not looking at her and she might as well be a distant memory,
for all that. And so she soon will be, I realize. This is my only chance with
her and we are sliding along in the night and the time is ticking by and I’m
acting like she’s not even there and now they’re singing, Waltz me around
again, Willie, around, around, around. The music is dreamy, it’s peaches and
creamy, O don’t let my feet touch the ground.
I sit up at once.
It sounds like Minnie beseeching me. Waltz me, Milton, don’t let my feet
touch the ground. That’s what I would need to do. I see myself sweeping
her up and it makes no difference what her legs are made of, with me she need
never touch the ground.
“Are you all right?”
Minnie’s voice slips in under the last chorus of the song. I look at her. She’s
sitting up, too. I feel like a ship on an ocean of joy—I just want to holler
out loud, “Ship ahoy!” And she turns her head to the wagon and she opens
her mouth and sings with the others, Waltz me around again, Willie, around,
around, around. I can’t take my eyes off her. There’s straw caught in her
hair and I want very much to lift my hand and take it out, but I’m as paralyzed
as ever. Then everyone is laughing and applauding themselves and the music is
over and Minnie turns her face back to me.
And she winks.
I have, of course,
no earthly idea what she means by this, exactly. But I dare now to think that
I’m pretty much okay for the moment. With this very progressive girl. With this
girl who would bust the trusts and still has it in her to wink. The madness
of speech comes upon me again. “I’m going to vote in October,” I say, apropos
of nothing but the chaos in my head. So I add, “Like I said before.” Which needs
further explanation. “For women to vote,” I say and I try to lock my jaw shut.
seems to understand, even though I don’t. She leans close. “You’re right,” she
says. “That’s just the way to waltz me around and around, Willie.”
I’m glad my jaw
is still locked because I’m about to impulsively correct her about my name.
But I stay quiet long enough to get what she means. How clever she has made
me out to be. Then, inspired, I wink.
She smiles and
turns away. “Aren’t you feeling a little bit chilled?” she says.
“No,” I say. I
am, in fact, feeling quite flushed.
Probably from the
rapid disintegration of my brain cells. I turn to see what Minnie is seeing,
and several other couples are opening their blankets and disappearing under
“Yes,” I say.
Minnie looks at
me and of course I’m driven to explanations. “The valley gets chilly,” I say.
“It’s all the orchards,” I say. “I think they, somehow, the fruit trees, absorb
the heat perhaps, to make it chilly. There’s no real statistics on that, however.
It’s probably just Northern California. The climate, you know.” I stop myself
at last. I’m breathless from this madness.
“So you’re chilly?”
“Yes,” I say.
She reaches beside
her and gently sets the flowers on the hay. She flashes open the blanket and
lifts it and it settles over the two of us up to our shoulders and she says,
“How’s that?” and I say, “Fine.”
We lie back to
watch the night sky. We do that for a while, not saying anything, and we’re
still not touching at all, except maybe just barely along the upper arms, though
that might just be my imagination.
It is true that
the Santa Clara Valley is like one big orchard. After the earthquake, Sunnyvale
started wooing San Francisco companies to reestablish themselves down here,
offering free orchard land to build on. That’s how the ironworks got started.
But mostly it’s fruit trees up and down and all around. Which is where the wagons
end up, now that the singing is done and the giggling and low talk and spooning
have begun. We head out into one of the big apricot orchards.
There is still
a smell of sulfur smoke lingering in the air from the curing houses. “You remember
last year?” Minnie says.
I know at once
what she’s thinking and I know it’s because of the night sky and the acrid smell.
She says, “When
we were all waiting to pass through the tail of Halley’s Comet? Did you think
that life on Earth would come to an end?”
This happens to
be a topic I know something about. When the astronomers decided that the tail
was made up of deadly cyanogen gas I knew the numbers had to be in our favor,
which was soon confirmed in news reports that plenty of people decided to overlook.
“Not for a moment,”
“Not for a moment?”
Minnie asks, real soft.
I blunder ahead.
“The tail looked pretty substantial across the sky,” I say. “We passed through
forty-eight trillion cubic miles of it, and of course it was highly reflective
of the sunlight. But you have to understand there was only about one molecule
of poison per cubic yard, and since it takes ten thousand sextillion cyanogen
molecules to weigh one pound—these were all known numbers well in advance of
the encounter—then a little figuring would have told us that the sum total of
poison gas the planet Earth was about to pass through weighed barely half an
Minnie’s arms emerge
from beneath the blanket and she cradles the back of her head in the palms of
her hands. She studies the sky and then says, “I was frightened for a while.”
And I understand at once how it is that even correctly gathered and accurately
calculated numbers can sometimes be irrelevant. I also understand how much I
adore this Minnie of the willow leg. I turn a bit onto my side, gently, without
disturbing her gaze at the sky, so that I can look at her. And there is a comet
of desire streaking through me, its tail thick with something much denser than
Halley’s poison. I am suddenly desperate to touch this girl, just lay a hand
on her arm or brush at her hair with my fingertips—something—but I have
neither the courage nor the confidence. And I am seized by a plan.
Even as Minnie
goes on about her fear of the comet. “No matter what the scientists announced,”
she says. “Scientists are constantly saying things and taking them back.”
I think of her
artificial leg lying between us, hidden beneath the blanket.
“It’s not a rational
thing,” she says.
The leg is part
of Minnie, but it really isn’t.
“We’re not always
rational creatures,” she says.
So it stands to
reason that a touch there would not constitute an actual offense, that is to
say the flagrant act of a masher. Though it’s a leg, after all, which is a powerful
part of a girl indeed, it’s not really a leg, it’s a piece of wood, it’s really
as if you were with a girl who walked with a cane and you touched the cane,
which is no offense at all, and yet, from my own private comet’s point of view,
it is her own personal sweet willow leg and it is attached to her and so it
would still be a thrillingly tender connection to her while at the same time
being a connection that no one in the world would know about, not even her,
especially under a blanket, and even if they did know about it, it’s not like
touching the actual girl.
have to face a difficult thing,” she says.
I turn my attention
to my left hand, but the hand is only too willing to dash ahead and I glance
down the length of the blanket, gauging the contours, and my hand slithers along
humpbacked under the cloth, like a mole making for the roses, which in this
case is a place just below her artificial knee.
“You think you
might die,” Minnie says, “and even if that never was so, just the thinking of
it is more or less the same.”
I am drawing near
and I fix on her profile, edged in moonlight, though as beautiful as she is,
my attention is elsewhere.
Moles are blind,
but they have other highly refined senses and so it is with my hand, which expertly
arrives on the scene and lifts and curls and descends, slowly, delicately, and
Minnie sighs and says, “I didn’t have it too bad, though.”
Then I touch her.
Or it. Or more precisely her skirt, the cloth is rippled beneath my palm, and
her wooden leg is further within, a distant thing still, which is all right,
I am very happy.
“Did you know that
people actually took one look at the comet and died?” Minnie says. “Heart attacks,
My hand settles
in. I surround Minnie’s leg. I even squeeze it, ever so faintly.
“There was a woman
named Ruth Jordan in Taladega, Alabama,” Minnie says. “I read all this in the
newspapers. She stepped onto the porch of her home and she looked and fell over
dead. And there was another woman, in St. Louis, who was fine looking at the
comet thinking it a cloud, but when they told her what she was seeing, she died.”
I squeeze Minnie’s
leg again. And I realize I was actually thinking too much both those times,
thinking about squeezing and thinking about having squeezed, and all the while
I didn’t actually experience the act, so I squeeze her leg again, trying
to concentrate just on feeling it. Then I move my way up to the knee and even
across it—Zack said the wooden part goes far up—and I feel my way back down
again, squeezing all along.
“Some were simply
driven insane,” Minnie says. “Especially in Chicago, for some reason.”
move along, squeeze some more. I’m a bit breathless now. I’m growing dizzy.
I love her willow leg.
just where the reporter was who wrote the story. But there were people on Chicago
streetcars praying and weeping about the end of the world.”
Now I slow down
for a moment. I make the squeezes long and lingering. Here, sweet knee, take this
“That’s not necessarily
insane, I suppose,” Minnie says. “Something more like religious ecstasy, I guess.
But there were suicides. One woman, afraid of the gas of the comet, inhaled
the gas from her lamp.”
Here, sweet thigh,
just above the knee a long caress for you. And then another quick one further
up, and then further down.
says, “we are compelled to embrace the thing we fear the most, don’t you think?”
But her face doesn’t
turn to me with this question. It’s just as well. I wouldn’t be able to say
much at the moment. It’s all I can do to keep my eyes from rolling back in my
head in something like religious ecstasy.
“I can understand
that, I suppose,” Minnie says.
I am vaguely aware
of a stir, and I look down the length of the blanket and I nearly gasp. Mr.
Mole is racing furiously up and down there, absolutely crazed. I watch for a
moment in awe. Up and down the leg. Up and down. It’s my hand, I know. Frenzied
with love. It’s my own hand. I can stop it, if I choose. And so I do. I concentrate
on my hand and I have this bad news for it and I send out the message, and it
stops, my hand. Though it’s still lying on her leg. Okay. I let myself have
this one last touch.
Minnie turns her
face to me. “Weren’t you a little afraid, even for a moment?” she says.
“Yes,” I manage
I gently move my
hand off her leg and back to my side. I focus on catching my breath.
“Shall we find
all the constellations?” Minnie says suddenly, lifting her face to the night.
“Yes,” I say. “I
know something about that.”
And so we trace
them out together, these patterns in the sky, and I count the stars that make
them up while she talks about bears and archers and hunters with swords. And
we go on to talk about this and that and we all sing some more songs after the
others emerge from their blankets, and when the wagons have returned to the
gates of the ironworks, I help Minnie down, grabbing her firmly at her waist,
and for a moment it feels as if I am ready to waltz her around and around with
her feet never touching the ground.
Though I don’t.
The Model T is idling nearby and Minnie and I stand before each other, about
to part. She says, “Thank you, Milton. This has been grand.”
“Yes,” I say. And
at this moment it does not occur to me whatsoever that Minnie would want to
see me again. But what do I know? My judgment is trustworthy only to the bottom
of a column of figures. For Minnie takes a step nearer to me, and she dips her
face just a little without letting her eyes leave mine, and she says, “You come
call on me, all right, Milton?”
I am once again
without words, but I manage to nod my head so as to say yes yes I will I will.
And then she smiles a sweet, slow smile and says, “Just for future reference,
Milton. It’s the other leg.”
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