It's Beginning to Hurt

Stories

James Lasdun

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

AN ANXIOUS MAN
Joseph Nagel slumped forward, head in hands.
“My God,” he groaned.
Elise snapped off the car radio.
“Calm down, Joseph.”
“That’s four straight days since we got here.”
“Joseph, please.”
“What do you think we’re down now? Sixty? Eighty thousand?”
“It’ll come back.”
“We should have sold everything after the first twenty. That would have been an acceptable loss. Given that we were too stupid to sell when we were actually ahead—”
Joseph felt the petulant note in his voice, told himself to shut up, and plunged on. “I did say we should get out, didn’t I? Frankly it was irresponsible committing all that money”—shut up, shut up—“not to mention the unseemliness of buying in when you did—” oh God …
His wife spoke icily. “I didn’t hear you complain when we were ahead.”
“All right, but that’s not the point. The point is …”
“What?”
Her face had tightened angrily on itself, all line and bone.
“The point is …” But he had lost his train of thought and sat blinking, walled in a thick grief that seemed for a moment unaccounted for by money or anything else he could put his finger on.
Elise got out of the car.
“Let’s go for a swim, shall we, Darcy?”
She opened the rear door for their daughter and led her away.
Glumly, Joseph watched them walk hand in hand down through the scrub oaks and pines to the sandy edge of the kettle pond.
He gathered the two bags from their shopping expedition into his lap but remained in the car, heavily immobile.
Money … For the first time in their lives they had some capital. It had come from the sale of an apartment Elise had inherited, and it had aroused volatile forces in their household. Though not a vast amount—under a quarter of a million dollars after estate taxes—it was large enough, if considered a stake rather than a nest egg, to form the basis for a dream of real riches, and Joseph had found himself unexpectedly susceptible to this dream. The money he made as a dealer in antique prints and furniture was enough, combined with Elise’s income from occasional Web design jobs, to keep them in modest comfort—two cars, an old brick house in Aurelia with lilac bushes and a grape arbor, the yearly trip up here to the Cape—but there wasn’t much left over for Darcy’s college fund, let alone their own retirement. In the past such matters hadn’t troubled him greatly, but with the advent of Elise’s inheritance he had felt suddenly awoken into new and urgent responsibilities. At their age they shouldn’t be worrying about how to pay for medical coverage every year, should they? Or debating whether they could afford the dental and eye care package too? And wasn’t it about time they built a studio so that Elise could concentrate on her painting?
The more he considered these things, the more necessary, as opposed to merely desirable, they had seemed, until he began to think that to go on much longer without them would be to accept failure, a marginal existence that would doubtless grow more pinched as time went by and end in squalor.
After probate had cleared and Elise had sold the apartment, they had gone to a man on Wall Street, a money manager who didn’t as a rule handle accounts of less than a million dollars but who, as a special favor to the mutual acquaintance who had recommended him, had agreed to consider allowing the Nagels to invest their capital in one of his funds.
Morton Dowell, the man’s name was. Gazing out at the pond glittering through the pines, Joseph recalled him vividly: a tanned, smiling, sapphire-eyed man in a striped shirt with white collar and cuffs and a pair of elasticized silver sleeve links circling his arms.
A young assistant, balding and grave, had shown them into Dowell’s cherry-paneled bower overlooking Governors Island. There, sunk in dimpled leather armchairs, Joseph and Elise had listened to Dowell muse in an English-accented drawl on his “extraordinary run of good luck” these past twenty years, inclining his head in modest disavowal when the assistant murmured that he could think of a better word for it than “luck,” while casually evoking image after image of the transformations he had wrought upon his clients’ lives and hinting casually at the special intimacies within the higher circles of finance that had enabled him to accomplish these transformations.
“I think it’s just so much fun to help people attain the things they want from life,” he had said, “be it a yacht or a house on St. Bart’s or a Steinway for their musical child …”
Joseph had listened, mesmerized, hardly daring to hope that this mighty personage would consent to sprinkle his magic upon their modest capital. He was almost overcome with gratitude when at the end of the meeting Dowell appeared to have decided they would make acceptable clients, sending his assistant to fetch his Sovereign Mutual Fund prospectus for them to take home.
“What a creep,” Elise had murmured as they waited for the elevator outside. “I wouldn’t leave him in a room with Darcy’s piggy bank.”
Stunned, Joseph had opened his mouth to defend the man but at once found himself hesitating. Perhaps she was right … He knew himself to be a poor judge of people. He, who could detect the most skillfully faked Mission desk or Federal-era sleigh bed merely by standing in its presence for a moment, was less sure of himself when it came to human beings. He tended to like them on principle, but his sense of what they were, essentially, was vague, unstable, qualities he suspected might be linked to some corresponding instability in himself. Whereas Elise, who had little interest in material things (and who had been altogether less unsettled by her inheritance than he had), took a keen, if somewhat detached, interest in other people and was shrewd at assessing them.
Even as their elevator began descending from Dowell’s office, Joseph had found his sense of the man beginning to falter. And by the time they got home it had reversed itself entirely. Of course, he had thought, picturing the man’s tanned smile and sparkling armbands again, what an obvious phony! A reptile! He shuddered to think how easily he had been taken in.
“You know what? You should invest the money yourself,” he had told Elise.
“That had crossed my mind.”
“You should do it, Elise! It can’t be that hard.” He was brimming with sudden enthusiasm for the idea.
“Perhaps I will give it a try.”
“You should! You have good instincts. That’s all that matters. These money managers are just guessing like anyone else. You’d be as good as any of them.”
And this in fact had appeared to be the case. After biding her time for several weeks, Elise had made her move with an audacity that stunned him. It was right after the September 11 attacks, when the shell-shocked markets reopened. Over ten days, as the Dow reeled and staggered, she bought and bought and bought, icily resolute while Joseph flailed around her, wrenched between his fearful certainty that the entire capitalist system was about to collapse, his guilty terror of being punished by the gods for attempting to profit from disaster, and his rising excitement, as the tide turned and he could see, on the Schwab Web page over his wife’s shoulder, the figure in the Total Gain column swelling day after day in exuberant vindication of her instincts. An immense contentment had filled him. Thank God she had kept the money out of that fiend Dowell’s clutches!
But then the tide had turned again. The number that had been growing so rapidly in the Total Gain column, putting out a third, a fourth, then a fifth figure, like a ship unfurling sails in the great wind of prosperity that had seemed set to blow once again across America, had slowed to a halt, lowered its sails one by one, and then, terrifyingly, had begun to sink. And suddenly Elise’s shrewdness, the innate financial acumen he had attributed to her, had begun to look like nothing more than beginner’s luck, while in place of his contentment, a mass of anxieties began teeming inside him …
How exhausting it all was. How he hated it! It was as though, in investing the money, Elise had unwittingly attached him by invisible filaments to some vast, seething collective psyche that never rested. Having paid no attention to financial matters before, he now appeared to be enslaved by them. When the Dow or NASDAQ went down, he was dragged down with them, unable to enjoy a beautiful day, a good meal, or even his nightly game of checkers with his daughter. Almost worse, on the rare occasions when the indices went up, a weird stupor of happiness would seize him, no matter what awful things might be going on around him. And more than just his mood, the management of his entire sense of reality seemed to have been handed over to the markets. Glimpsing in the Times business section (pages that would formerly have gone straight into the recycling bin) an article on mutual funds bucking the downward trend, he had seen Morton Dowell’s Sovereign Fund among the lucky few and felt suddenly like a fool for having allowed what at once seemed an act of astoundingly poor judgment to steer him away from that sterling, agile man …
God! All that and the nightmarish discovery that you could never get out once you were in anyway, couldn’t sell when you were ahead because you might miss out on getting even farther ahead, couldn’t sell when you were down because the market might come surging back the next week, leaving you high and dry with your losses, though of course when it merely continued tanking, you wanted to tear your hair out for not having had the humility to acknowledge your mistake and salvage, sadder but wiser, what you could …
Whatever you did, it seemed you were bound to regret doing it, or not having done it sooner … It was as though some malicious higher power, having inspected the workings of the human mind, had calibrated a torment for it based on precisely the instincts of desire and caution that were supposed to enable it to survive. One could no more help oneself than the chickadee that nested in the lilacs outside their living room could stop attacking its own reflection in the window all day long every spring, however baffling and terrible every headlong slam against the glass must have felt.
Wearily, Joseph climbed out of the car.
In the kitchen, as he unpacked the grocery bags, he made a conscious effort to fight off his gloom. Four days into the vacation, and he had yet to relax. It was absurd. The weather was perfect, the rented house peaceful, the freshwater pond it stood by clear as glass, the ocean beaches beyond it magnificent. And at three hundred dollars a day for the house alone he couldn’t afford not to be enjoying himself …
His hand made contact with a soft, cold package inside one of the bags. Ah yes. Here was something one could contemplate with unequivocal relish: a pound and a half of fresh queen scallops for the grill tonight.
He had bought them at Taylor’s, while Elise and Darcy shopped at the produce store next door.
Taylor’s was one of the glories of the Cape, and as always, it had been packed that afternoon, vacationers crushed up against the zinc slope, anxiously eyeing the diminishing piles of snowy-white bass fillets or glistening pink tuna steaks, guarding their place in line with one foot while peering ahead to see what sandy gold treasures lay in the day’s salver of smoked seafood.
There had been an incident: two women had each laid claim to the last pair of lobsters in the tank. The woman who was first in line had been distracted, searching for something in her purse, when the teenage server came over. The other woman, tall and bronzed, in an outfit of some tissuey material slung weblike between thin chains of beaded gold, had silently held up two fingers and pointed to the lobsters, which the boy was already weighing for her when the first woman realized what was happening. She protested that she had been first in line, but the other woman simply ignored her, handing the boy several bills with an intense smile and telling him to keep the change, while the boy himself stood in a kind of paralysis that seemed as much to do with her immaculately constructed glamour training itself upon him at full beam as with the awkwardness of the situation. “We’ll be gettin’ more in later,” he had muttered lamely to the first woman. “Well, gosh …” she had said breathily as the other woman, still smiling, strode serenely out, the two live lobsters swinging from her hand in their bag of crushed ice.
Joseph, who had observed it all, had felt vaguely that he ought to stand up for the woman in front. But nobody else had stirred, and it didn’t after all seem a matter of great importance, so that in the end he had done nothing, a fact of which he had felt fractionally ashamed as he left the store.
At any rate he had his scallops—huge, succulent ones, with their delicate-tasting pink corals still attached. Lucky he’d bought them before hearing the day’s numbers, he thought, smiling a little. Otherwise he might have balked at the astronomical price Taylor’s charged per pound. He stowed them away with a feeling of minor triumph, as if he had snatched them from the very jaws of the NASDAQ.



There was no sign of his wife and daughter when he made his way down to the pond. He stood on the small private jetty that came with the house, wondering if he were being punished for his comment about the timing of Elise’s investments. Elise did have a punitive streak, and his comment had undoubtedly been offensive. Still, it was unlike her to vanish altogether without telling him.
A slight anxiety stirred in him. He fought it: he had noticed a growing tendency to worry recently, and he was aware that he needed to get a grip on it. They must have gone off to pick blackberries, he told himself, or maybe they had decided to walk over the dunes to the ocean. At any rate he would have his swim—across the pond and back—before he allowed himself to become concerned.
He stepped into the clear water, walked out up to his knees, then plunged on in, drawing himself forward with leisurely strokes. The top few inches of water were sun warmed; below that it was abruptly cold. There were no other people around. Thumbnailsize water skimmers teemed on the surface ahead of him: thousands of them, jetting twitchily in every direction.
The “pond” (he would have called it a lake) was a quarter mile wide. It took him twenty minutes to cross it, and by a determined effort of will he managed not to look back once to see whether Elise and Darcy had returned. At the far shore he climbed out to touch land, then turned around, half believing that he would be rewarded for his self-control by the sight of figures on the jetty below their house.
There were none.
Easy now, he instructed himself as he waded in again. There was still the journey back before he was officially allowed to worry. But knowing that in twenty minutes you were going to legitimately succumb to anxiety was not very different from succumbing to it right now. He could feel in advance how as he passed the halfway point on the pond, he would be seized by a mounting anger at Elise for not informing him of her plans and how as he swam on, the anger would change gradually to fear, which was worse because it indicated—did it not?—that one’s mind had reached some limit of reasonable hope and switched its bet from her and Darcy’s being perfectly, if irresponsibly, safe somewhere to their being caught up in some disaster …
How wearying, how humiliating it was to have so little faith in anything, to be so abjectly at the mercy of every tremor of fear in one’s mind … Unballasted by any definite convictions of his own (convictions, he liked to joke, were for convicts), he appeared to have gone adrift in a realm of pure superstition. If I avoid listening to Marketplace for three days, the Dow will miraculously recover: it did not. If I close my eyes and hold my breath for seventeen strokes, Elise and Darcy will be there on the jetty …
They were not.
He swam on, thrusting out violently from his shoulders, ropes of cooler water slipping around his ankles as he kicked back and down, as hard as he could, in an effort to annihilate the drone of his own thoughts.
The sun was low in the sky, banding every ripple he made with a creamy glaze. The light here! That was something else to relish. In the early morning it seemed to glow from inside the trees, spilling out from one leaf after another as the sun rose: a rich, gold-tinted green. In the afternoon it turned to this creamy silver. Then it was the light itself one became aware of, rather than the things it lit. Right now, in fact, as Joseph looked across the pond, the glare of direct and water-reflected light was so bright he could no longer see the far shore. This seemed propitious, and he deliberately refrained from trying to squint through the dazzle, surrendering to it. He had caught this moment once or twice before on the pond, and it did have some mysterious, elevating splendor about it that took you out of yourself. Everything seemed purely an occurrence of light: the water streaming glassily as he raised each arm for its stroke, bubbles sliding over the curving ripples ; the water skimmers registering no longer as frantic insect hordes but as careening saucers of light; the whole glittering mass of phenomena so absorbing it emptied your senses of anything but itself, and for a moment you had the impression you could not only see the light but taste it, smell it, feel it on your skin, and hear it ringing all around you like shaken bells.
Darcy was standing at the end of the jetty when he came through the glare. She was leaning over the water with a fishing net in her hand. Another girl was beside her, shorter and plumper, holding a yellow bucket. Behind them, a little farther off along the beach, sat Elise, drawing in her sketchpad.
For a moment Joseph tried to resist the joyful relief that the sight offered (relief being just the obverse of the irrational anxiety of which he was trying to cure himself and therefore equally undesirable), but it flooded into him. They were there! No harm had come to them! He swam on happily. How lithe and supple his daughter looked in her swimsuit, her legs growing long now, beautifully smooth, her brown hair already streaked gold from the sun.
A surge of love came into him, and with it a feeling of shame. How crazily out of perspective he had let things get, to have allowed money to loom larger in his mind than his own daughter! A few evenings ago she had been telling him in detail the plot of a film she had seen. He had pretended to be paying attention, but so preoccupied had he been with the day’s losses that even his pretense had been a failure. With a pang he remembered the look of dismay on Darcy’s face as she realized he wasn’t listening to a word she was saying. How could he have done that? It was unforgivable!
The girls darted off as he approached the jetty, running down a path that led around the pond. Elise remained on her deck chair. She greeted him with a friendly look.
“Did you make it all the way across?” she asked.
“All the way. I see Darcy found a friend.”
“Yes. She’s staying in the next house down. We’re invited over for cocktails later on.”
“Cocktails. My!”
“I said we’d go. Darcy’s so excited to have a playmate.”
“Is she bored here?”
“No, but you know how it is …”
“I thought we might rent bikes tomorrow and go whale watching.”
“Interesting concept.”
“What? Oh!”
She was smiling at him. He laughed. Another of life’s unequivocal pleasures: being reinstated in his wife’s good graces. He rubbed himself dry. He felt refreshed, light on his feet.



An hour later he and Elise walked over to join their daughter at her new friend’s house. A tall woman carrying a pitcher of purplish liquid greeted them on the deck.
“They call this a Cape Codder,” she said, holding her free hand out to Joseph. “Hi, I’m Veronica.”
She was the woman he had seen earlier on in Taylor’s.
She had changed out of the tissuey top into a sleeveless robe of flowing peach-colored linen, but Joseph had recognized her at once as the victor in the incident with the lobsters.
She poured the drinks and called into the house: “Sugar …”
An older man came out onto the deck, sunburned, with a strong, haggard face and vigorous silvery tufts sprouting at his open shirt. “Hal Kaplan,” he said, gripping Joseph’s hand and baring a row of shiny white teeth in a broad smile.
Veronica poured drinks, and the four adults sat at a steel table on the deck, while the girls played down by the pond. She spoke rapidly, her large eyes moving with an intent sociability between Elise and Joseph. Within minutes she had sped the conversation past the conventional pleasantries to more intimate questions and disclosures, in which she took an unashamedly flagrant delight. She and Hal were each other’s third spouse, she volunteered; they had met on a helicopter ride into the Grand Canyon. The girl, Karen, was Hal’s daughter by his second wife, who had died in a speedboat crash. He and Veronica had been trying for a year to have a child of their own. There wasn’t anything physically wrong with either of them, but because she was approaching forty and they didn’t want to risk missing out, they had decided to sign up at an expensive clinic for in vitro fertilization, a process she described in droll detail, down to her husband’s twenty-minute sojourns in the “masturbatorium.” Don’t mind me, her tone seemed to signal as she probed and confided. I’m not someone you have to take seriously … “How about you guys?” she asked. “How did you meet?” As he answered, Joseph found himself thinking that if he hadn’t seen her in Taylor’s earlier on, he would have taken her for precisely the charmingly frivolous and sweet-natured person she seemed intent on appearing. And in fact he so disliked holding a negative view of people that he rapidly allowed his present impression of her to eclipse the earlier one.
Hal, her husband, had been an eye surgeon in Miami for twenty-five years. Now he was living, as he put it, on his wits. To judge from the house they’d rented—bigger, sleeker, and glassier than Elise and Joseph’s—he was doing all right on them.
“Karen is in love with your daughter,” Veronica said to Elise, “she is in love with her.”
Elise murmured that Darcy was thrilled too.
Swallows were diving over the pond, picking off skimmers. As the sun went down behind the trees, the water turned a greenish black, with a scattering of fiery ripples. The girls came up, wrapped in towels, shivering a little. Elise looked at her watch.
“Why don’t you stay and eat dinner with us?” Veronica asked.
Elise smiled. “Oh no, we couldn’t possibly …”
“It’d be no trouble, really.”
“Say yes, Mommy!” Darcy cried.
“We’re just throwing some things on the grill. It seems a shame to break these two up …”
“Daddy could bring over our scallops …”
Elise turned to Joseph. Assuming her hesitancy to be nothing more than politeness, he made what he thought was the expected gesture of tentative acceptance.
“Well …”
And a few minutes later he was bringing the scallops over from their kitchen, along with a bottle of wine.
Hal had lit the grill. Joseph poured himself another Cape Codder and joined him.
“Lousy day on the markets,” he said, with a rueful chuckle.
The older man’s long, rectangular face, full of leathery corrugations, hoisted itself into a grin.
“You play them?”
“We have a few little investments here and there.”
“Time to buy more, is what I say.”
“Oh? You think it’ll go back up?”
“Like a rocket.”
“Really? Even the NASDAQ?”
“No question. The smart money’s all over it. I’m buying like crazy right now.”
“You are?” Joseph’s heart had given a little leap.
“You bet! Intel at twenty? Lucent under four dollars? These are bargain basement prices by any estimation. Nortel at two fifty? Not buy Nortel at two dollars and fifty cents a share?” He gave another grin, the centers of his lips staying together while the edges flew apart, showing his teeth.
“That’s extremely interesting,” Joseph said, enjoying the unexpected feeling of well-being that had come into him. “So you think a recovery’s imminent?”
“Right around the corner, my friend. Right around the corner.”
It was like drinking a draft of some fiery, potent liquor!
Hal jostled at the coals in the barbecue with a two-pronged fork. He called over to Veronica: “Bring ’em on, sweetheart!”
Veronica went into the kitchen and came out with the bag from Taylor’s. Setting it on the table, she reached into the crushed ice and pulled out the two lobsters, one in each hand, and brought them over to the grill.
“Joseph, do me a favor and take the bands off, would you?” She was holding the creatures out toward him.
Gingerly, he removed the yellow elastic bands from the flailing blue claws.
“Careful,” the woman said.
She caught his eye, giving him a sly, unexpected smile. Then she placed the living lobsters on the grill. Joseph had never seen this done before. The sight of them convulsing and hissing over the red hot coals sent a reflexive shudder of horror through him, though a few minutes later he was happily eating his share.



At three that morning he woke up with a dry mouth and a full bladder. He got out of bed and walked unsteadily toward the bathroom. Through the open door to the living room he glimpsed the sofa bed where Darcy slept and was momentarily stalled by the realization that it was empty. Then he remembered that she was sleeping over at her new friend’s house.
A murky sensation, compounded of guilt and dim apprehension, stirred in him at the recollection of how this had come about.
He stumbled on into the bathroom, relieved himself, then stood in darkness, looking out at the pond. The moon had risen, and the surface of the water, dimpled here and there by rising fish, shone brightly in its ring of black trees.
He had drunk too much, that was for sure, and overeaten.
He recalled the weirdly euphoric mood that had mounted in him over the course of the evening, an unaccustomed exuberance. Partly it was Hal’s amazingly confident predictions for the market. Several times Joseph had found himself steering the conversation back to the subject, raising various objections to the optimistic view, but purely for the joy of hearing this weather-beaten old oracle shrug them off. And partly too it was Veronica. With a few glances and touches she had deftly set a little subterranean current flowing between the two of them over dinner. He was a faithful husband, not even seriously tempted by actual bodily infidelity, but it gave him a tremendous lift to be flirted with by an attractive woman. Actually she wasn’t, inherently, as attractive as he had first thought. Her chin was long, and her nose looked as though it had been broken. But her evident conviction that she was desirable appeared to be more than enough to make her so. By the end of the evening he had been in an exhilarated state, drunk, aroused, glutted, his vanity flattered, his head spinning with the thought of the markets shooting back up “like a rocket.”
As they had stood up to leave, Elise had called Darcy, only to be informed by the girls that Karen had invited her for a sleepover and that she had accepted.
“Not tonight,” Elise had said, with more firmness than Joseph had thought altogether polite to their hosts.
The girls began appealing at once to the other adults. Veronica took up their case, assuring Elise that Darcy would be more than welcome.
“We love having kids stay over. Anyway, we’re only a hundred yards away …”
Elise had looked to Joseph for support. Simultaneously Veronica had turned to him. “It’ll be so much fun for them, don’t you think … ?” She had laid her hand on his arm, and in the flush of his dilated spirits, he had announced imperiously that since they were on vacation, he saw no reason why Darcy should not sleep over.
Elise had said nothing; it wasn’t her style to argue in public. But as soon as they were out of earshot, leaving their daughter behind with her new friend, she had turned on Joseph with a cold fury. “First you force us to have dinner with those people, then you walk right over me with this sleepover. You are unbelievable.”
More than the fierceness of her tone, more than the aggrieved wish to remind her that it was she, not himself, who had accepted the original invitation to go over for cocktails, more than the bewilderment at her objecting so strongly to Darcy’s sleeping over with her new friend, it was her phrase “those people” that had startled him. All this time, he realized, while he had been blithely enjoying himself, she had been assessing this couple, sitting in judgment on them, and quietly forming a verdict against them. On what grounds? He had wanted to know. But as he opened his mouth to demand an explanation, he had felt once again the familiar sense of uncertainty about his own instincts.
And now, as he listened to the insomniac bullfrogs croaking down at the pond, the image of Veronica walking calmly out of Taylor’s with the lobsters came back to him, and with a guilty wonder at his wife’s powers of intuition, he went uneasily back to bed.



The day was overcast when he awoke later. He was alone. As he opened the curtains, he saw Elise striding up the steps from the pond. She burst in through the kitchen door.
“I am beyond angry.”
“What happened?”
“They’ve gone.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’ve gone. The car’s not there.”
“With Darcy?”
“Yes, with Darcy.”
“No.”
“Yes.”
He felt a loosening sensation inside him.
“You checked inside the house?”
“The doors are locked. I yelled. There’s no one there.”
Joseph threw on his bathrobe and ran outside, racing down the steps to the path. Rain had begun pattering onto the bushes. Reaching the other house, he blundered about the deck, beating on doors and windows and calling Darcy’s name. The place was empty. The windows had screens on the inside, making it hard to see into the unlit interior, but what he couldn’t see with his eyes his imagination supplied vividly: empty rooms, everything packed swiftly and surreptitiously in the dead of night, Darcy bundled into the car with the rest of them, then off out into the vastness of the country.
A feeling of terror swelled up inside him. He staggered back along the path and up the steps, legs shaking, heart pounding in his chest. Elise was on the phone.
“Are you calling the police?”
She frowned, shaking her head.
If she wasn’t calling the police, that must mean she didn’t think things were as serious as he did. This calmed Joseph, though the calm had an artificial sheen to it that was familiar to him from the rare positive days on the Dow, as though some essential fact had been temporarily left out of the reckoning. Then he remembered again that Elise hadn’t witnessed the scene in Taylor’s, and it seemed to him suddenly that his wife had no idea what kind of people they were dealing with.
She hung up the phone and dialed another number. He realized she was calling nearby restaurants to see if their daughter’s abductors had perhaps just gone out for breakfast. The idea seemed unbearably naive to him. He stood there, helpless, immobilized, looking out through the thickening rain.
She hung up again. “So much for that.”
“What are we going to do?”
“What do you propose, Joseph?”
“I think we should call the police. What kind of car did they have?”
“For God’s sake! I don’t even remember their surname.”
“Call the police.”
“And say what? You call them.”
He picked up the receiver but found himself reluctant to dial, as though to do so would be to confer more reality on the situation than he was ready to bear.
“Maybe just one of them went out and the other’s still around here somewhere with the girls.”
“Doing what?”
“I don’t know. Picking blackberries … or maybe they went to the ocean …”
“In this?”
“It wasn’t raining earlier. Why don’t I go check? You wait here …”
He ran out of the house again. The sandy path wound around the pond to a series of dunes, the trees giving way to wild roses, then to sea grass with sharp edges that cut against his ankles. The sand crumbled under his feet as he climbed, half a step down for every step up. He was panting heavily as he reached the high point. Wind whipped rain and salt spray into his face. He looked down at the shore. On sunny mornings the narrow margin between the dunes and the waves would already be covered with towels and fluttering beach umbrellas and little human figures in bright swimsuits—a touching image, it always seemed to Joseph: life blossoming frailly between two inhospitable elements. It was empty now, not a figure visible on the mile-long stretch of wet sand. Black waves came racing in with the wind, exploding onto the shore. Gulls flew screeching over the surf.
Was this it? Was this the catastrophe he had felt preparing itself inside him? His obscure, abiding sense of himself as a flawed and fallen human being seemed suddenly clarified: he was guilty, and he was being punished. A feeling of dread gripped him. Childlike thoughts arose in his mind: propitiation, sacrifice … There was a clock, a valuable Crystal Regulator clock, that he had bought for a bargain in Asheville earlier that year. If their daughter was at the house by the time he got back, he would sacrifice the clock. He would destroy it, smash it to pieces in the back room of his store. Or no, better, he would return it to the dealer who had sold it to him, ask his forgiveness for taking advantage of him … And meanwhile, to show he wasn’t only prepared to make a sacrifice in return for a guaranteed reward (the primitive religious state he had fallen into appeared to come complete with its own finer points of dogma), he vowed, right there and then, to change his entire life. Yes, he would devote himself to the poor and needy, give up drinking, overeating, flirting, obsessing about the markets; in fact he would tell Elise to sell off the shares, and they would swallow the losses … The thought of this filled him with a sharp, almost painful elation; he seemed to glimpse in it the possibility of a new existence, one of immense and joyous calm. And even though he was aware in another part of himself that there was no prospect of his keeping a single one of these vows (that clock was earmarked to pay for this vacation), he turned back along the path full of faith and hope.
Veronica was at the house with the two girls when he arrived back. She was talking to Elise on the deck outside the kitchen. Seeing Joseph, she waved, laughing.
“We were playing in a treehouse in the woods,” she called out. “Hal drove into town to buy pastries.”
“Ah!”
“We always lock the door. Hal likes to keep a lot of cash around.”
“I see. I see.”
“We headed back as soon as we heard you guys yelling …”
She grinned at Joseph as he stepped onto the deck. She was wearing a white T-shirt and gold sneakers, her bare legs golden against the gray rain. A mischievous look appeared on her face:
“What were you thinking?”
He had had a moment of relief on seeing his daughter, but now he felt embarrassed.
“Nothing … We were just, you know, wondering where you were.”
She touched his arm. “We freaked you out, huh?”
“No, no …”
He turned away, as though from an uncomfortably bright glare. Mumbling an excuse, he went on into the kitchen. Already his panic on the beach seemed absurd, shameful almost. What a state to get into! He turned on the radio. Marketplace Morning Report was about to come on. He lifted a watermelon from the fridge, set it on the counter, and cut himself a thick slice. He ate it nervously while he listened.
Copyright © 2009 by James Lasdun