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Dorothea Dreams (Heirloom Books), Page 2

Suzy McKee Charnas

  But what of it? The world was packed full with attractive women Ricky had never slept with and would never have the chance to if he lived to be two hundred.

  “ Where are you going said Milder to-oo Malder…” “Where” was not the question, he realized. The question was why are you going. One had alternatives. There was Bulton and his villa, an open invitation; or that little place in Iceland where one could be on one’s own in earnest; or even home, for Heaven’s sake — cousins and young strangers. It would be an adventure of sorts merely to light down among his own family at last.

  No. Go to Dorothea, commanded impulse, across this bright, painful landscape. Apart from the peculiar and obscure drive to make the journey in the first place, there was nothing to it, really: first Albuquerque tucked into the long seam of the Rio Grande Valley; sixty miles north along the river to Santa Fe; and another seventy miles should bring him to Taos, his destination, which he had already been told should be pronounced to rhyme with “house.”

  Go to Dorothea in Taos and see why.

  Thursdays were her days in town, where she donated her time to the bookstore, Old Possum’s. That was the name she and Nathan had playfully given the place when they’d started it, and though he was gone and Dorothea had sold the store, the new owners had not yet gotten around to changing the name.

  It was a good day: golden with quiet. No one was in the shop all morning except a girl in a peasant skirt and blouse mooning over the astrology shelves. Sally Raines came in, agitated about an up-coming show at her gallery. Dorothea, listening to her outline the difficulty, was amused; we should all have such problems.

  “Dorothea,” Sally groaned, “what in the world am I going to do about Helen Macleary? She wants in, for God’s sake, with those junky patio bells of hers, as if they were art! It’s embarrassing. But now Betty is making noises about pulling her best stuff out if we don’t hang Helen’s things. It’s some weird alliance they have from when they were both sleeping with that Volvo mechanic in Las Trampas or wherever it was.”

  There was more: old gossip laced with new spice. Dorothea liked having people come talk with her at the bookstore. Seeing friends here was preferable to having them come out to the house, from which they could be very difficult to dislodge. Meantime, she did her reading in the store, a good thing since there was no more room in the house for books unless she invaded the studio, which she could not bring herself to do.

  Dorothea said, “I think you could mount Helen’s stuff very handsomely if you use all the bells she has, arranged in sized groups and hung together against one wall. A sort of waterfall effect.”

  “Ha,” Sally accused, “you mean make her junk into art for her.”

  “Why not? It’s a nice thing for one woman to do for another, and it would get Helen out of your hair and sweeten Betty for you. And I’ll bet some Texan with too much money in his jeans comes in and buys the whole lot.”

  “It’s kitsch and you know it; those bells.”

  “Come on, Sally, anything goes these days, including kitsch.”

  Sally grumbled something about standards. She yanked a thread from her raveled gray sweater. “Well,” she said, “it might work out. Thank God there’s somebody around here who keeps enough distance to be able to give a decent, unslanted opinion!”

  Dorothea felt a faint stab of discomfort at this: did other people think that she kept her distance, think that she was arrogant perhaps?

  Sally invited her to a pot-luck dinner the next week, which Dorothea declined without thinking.

  “Hermit,” Sally said affectionately, and she left, bookless but cheerful again.

  And of course it was true, to an extent. Once you started keeping to yourself, any time you accepted a social invitation anywhere that acceptance became charged with more significance than you could possibly intend.

  The wise woman of the bookstore, she chided herself, driving home that afternoon. But of strictly a private wisdom, which was how she wanted it to be. She had not let herself get caught up in local cross-currents, social or political. She was not here to take up causes and crusades but to leave them behind — demonstrations against nuclear testing, against American-packaged Fascism in South and Central America, against power’s penchant for more power. All those struggles she had thrown herself into when she had first found herself free of her marriage and involved instead with Nathan and his passionately political friends — timidly involved, full of indistinct misgivings.

  She had come here to be an artist, not an activist — especially after Nathan, with his tendency to fly off into action instead of completing a difficult piece of work, had left, and the stimulus of his simmering anger was withdrawn.

  She had deliberately turned away from the local problems, too — mainly the problems of Hispanic people and Indian people trapped in the familiar maze of few jobs, poverty, drugs and alcohol, poor education, no expectation. Politicians’ promises on the one hand, exploitation on the other — the old, old story. What a relief to drop all that after Nathan’s departure!

  Better to play the wise woman, since people seemed to wish that, and ignore the greater world and its upsets and its rages. Her work was huge, and more worthy, more significant, than any number of petitions and marches; that she knew. The work left no room for all that seething and planning, all that excitement that left no mark but only drained her energy.

  Not everyone, she thought against a vague doubt, is a political animal, whatever Nathan and his friends said. I am happy as I am.

  She had a sudden flash that made her swerve off the road. A dark wing had swept through her mind leaving her lurching with terror. But what — ?

  A dream. She had dreamed last night and woken from some kind of nightmare. She’d forgotten until this moment, and even now all she could recall was the image of someone standing at a window in a sort of black nightgown and looking out; that and the pale remnant of her fear.

  A pick-up truck rattled by with goats in the back. She waved in return when the driver honked. That was Tomasso Vigil, who lived further down her road. If she stayed here, pulled over on the verge, he would stop and back up to see what was wrong. Nothing, Tomasso, just a bad dream. She got moving again.

  By the time she stopped inside her front door the black moment had faded. She made herself some coffee and took it into the living room, where she settled down to look over the latest crop of mail-order catalogs. Loads and loads of magically upscaled polyester clothing and Rube-Goldberg electronics — who in the world bought that stuff?

  The dogs, loafing on the front porch in the shade, began to bark. A gray car that she did not recognize (you knew people out here by their cars, as they had once been known by the horses they rode) had drawn up out in the yard. As she looked out the window, a man slowly uncoiled himself from the driver’s seat.

  She headed for the door, smiling: for God’s sake, of all people! She knew that figure, the stick-man climbing awkwardly out, all slack curves and clumsy angles and longer in the tooth than an old race-horse, which he rather resembled. Ricky Maulders, friend of how many years now?

  “Ricky, I’m not dreaming, am I? That is you,” she called, going to meet him.

  The two dogs lolloped ahead. She watched him rumple their ears and give each of them, the Doberman and the big gray poodle, a good sniff of his hands.

  “Oh, it’s me, all right,” he answered, smiling that half-averted smile that seemed always to be apologizing for itself. “Who else could track you down in this appalling wasteland?”

  She embraced him lightly, inhaling the mixed scents of dust, sweat, and soap from his bush-shirt. His arms like bony tree-branches closed across her back; his throat emitted a soft sound almost like a groan as his cheek pressed against hers. She stood surprised for an instant by the warmth of his greeting, and gratified.

  One of the dogs nosed her leg and she laughed and stepped back to smile up at Ricky. “They get jealous,” she said. “I have three visitors a year, and the dogs are jealo

  “You look fit,” he remarked.

  “It’s the appalling wasteland. It agrees with me.” She put her arm through his and walked him to the house. “I can’t offer you Nathan for a chat and a game of chess,” she added, getting this part over with right away. “He moved out three years ago. Nothing messy, we just came apart, that’s all. I hope you weren’t set on seeing him.”

  “Nathan?” Ricky said. “No, not at all. I’m sorry to hear…and after he dragged you out here into the hinterlands!”

  “That move was a joint project, Ricky, and I really do like it here. Otherwise I’d have gone back to New York when Nathan left.”

  Which was not strictly true. She could no longer afford New York. She was not painting, let alone selling her work, and the investment income that provided simple comfort here in Taos could only buy a life of flophouse nights and dog-food dinners back east.

  He stopped at the front door and faced her. “I ought to have phoned first. I have no business barging in like this —”

  “Oh, nonsense, Ricky. Come in and have a drink.”

  He held the door open for her on the relative dimness of the big front room. His knuckles stood under his skin like the bones of some other, larger animal.

  “So,” she said, pouring him a gin and tonic as requested, “what brings you out this way? As I recall, you rarely travel in the US. Didn’t you once tell me you had enough of America everywhere else in the world as it was?”

  “Yes, particularly that all-too-moveable feast, MacDonald’s,” he said with a grimace. “I thought I might as well give up and come to the source to make my formal surrender. You do have one of them here in town, don’t you?”

  They sat in the shadowy, cool living room and talked about Nathan and her kids with their grown-up lives, about Ricky’s recent travels in Nigeria, and about people they had known in common back east. America per se Ricky had never explored, but New York he had always accounted one of his favorite cities.

  He was not a handsome man, but oh how welcome she found his thin, homely face, with jaw and chin seeming to shrink back from the brash beak of his nose. He was a cartoon Englishman out of Ronald Searle, until you looked at his eyes. They were large — the irises an unfaded, startling blue — wide, candid eyes, as if unaffected by a lifetime of seeing what the wide world contained, best and worst.

  How would he react to the wall? No, no, too soon to be thinking of that.

  He had just said something chilly but true about her eldest son, Bill.

  “Heartless Ricky. Bill’s not a bad guy, just —” She shrugged helplessly. “Dull. He seems so intent on hurrying along toward more money, more fancy possessions. I like him, in small doses, but I keep wondering what happened to the kid I raised.”

  At that moment she saw what was wrong with Ricky. An explanation stared blindingly from the knobs of his knuckles, the steep angle of the jaw, and the creased and sunburnt neck; the delicate bowl-curve of the skull under his afterthought of weightless, colorless hair. The leather band of his watch had been replaced with an expanding metal one — or rather one that could contract to the shrunken circumference of his wrist.

  He was being consumed alive. Dorothea knew what it was that ate people that way. Oh no, she cried silently. Not Ricky. Oh no.

  “The kid you raised,” he was saying, “decided to become Bill, inexplicable as that decision may appear. These things will happen. How are you, Dorothea?”

  “Drying up,” she said briskly. “Moving a little slower, getting more and more absent-minded —”

  He hooted his too-loud, staccato guffaw. “Absent-minded! Bless you, Dorothea, you are as absent-minded as the Recording Angel.”

  “Aha,” she retorted. “Why do you think the Recording Angel writes everything down?” They laughed. “Damn,” she said, “they should have knighted you or something by now, Ricky. It’s long overdue.”

  “Oh, I agree,” he said. “Oh, absolutely.” He crossed his legs, hoisting one pointed knee over the other. “You may not realize this, Dorothea, but you’re looking at me exactly as I saw you look at Alice Boston that time we all stopped by to see her. Just before her kidneys finally killed her.”

  “Oh, Hell. Damn it, Ricky.” She wasn’t going to deny anything, and if she cried he might very well get up and go away in embarrassment. No option seemed to remain but anger. “Oh, damn it all to bloody Hell.”

  He sighed. “Well, yes; it’s the usual thing — not some unique affliction picked up in a wild byway of the world. Just cancer. Lungs. Smoking — I never could settle for a pipe. Anyway, most of the world still smokes cigarettes, and when in Rome…”

  “Are you — is it painful?”

  “High marks for that,” he said. “Most people are afraid to ask. It’s not bad, actually, now that I’ve left off the treatments. No point to any of that except to make the doctors feel better, is there? Not in a case like mine, at any rate. I have some pain medication with me for the rougher bits. They tell me that my stubbornness about treatment will hasten the end. I thought I’d better come see you while I still could.”

  He set down his glass on the ring-scarred table and added quietly, “So you see, I really ought to have written first. But I don’t do much reading or writing these days. The written word has lost its magic.”

  And suppose he had written, with or without an explanation of his situation, and suppose she had not answered, or had answered no?

  She said, “You’ll stay a while, I hope?”

  He looked away past her at the patio. “I would like to, very much. Actually, I was hoping you’d ask me to. You have no idea how — constrained it all is, how frightened and solicitous most people become when they know. And I find, very damned inconveniently, that I no longer take the pleasure I once did in the anonymity of hotels. All those days and nights in tents and inns and the homes of strangers…one would think I would be content to finish in the same style. But I’m not.

  “Not,” he amended hastily, “that I mean to hang myself round your neck right the way through this. I just need a stopping place for a bit, and then I’m off again. And if anything should…come up, anything I can’t manage, I’ve found out about a place near here; you know the sort of thing, these hospices run by various nursing orders where they take in the odd infidel for the last act — ever hopeful, I suppose.”

  She had to smile. “As a matter of fact, the local one’s a lay operation, with clergy attached. It’s not as casual as all that to sign on with them. But my doctor’s on their staff, and if they’re not overloaded I’m sure she can get you into the program. They’re very good, the hospice people. Someone will come around while you’re here and keep an eye on you and prescribe whatever medication you might need —”

  He look alarmed. “I wouldn’t want to cause any sort of disruption — strangers traipsing in and out of the place —”

  “Don’t worry,” she said. “They’re very flexible, and the point is to make an arrangement that suits you and keeps you comfortable. Beyond that — well, truly, Ricky, if I thought there’d be problems with your staying here — and I mean staying for as long as you want to — I’d say so.”

  He cocked his head, and his look measured her. “I doubt it,” he drawled, “but as I’m more or less in extremis, I’ll take you at your word and damned gratefully at that.”

  She got up, putting aside her own drink. “Come on, let’s go get your luggage. The guest bedroom may be a little dusty, but I’m sure everything’s in working order. You can settle in right now — nap, shower, stare out the window, go for a walk, sit and gossip — whatever you like.”

  “All of the above, in due course,” he said, “but the nap first. I find that I tire ridiculously easily these days.”

  The house felt different with Ricky in it. Visitors always made a difference, and he more than most. Of course she was nervous about having him here under the circumstances, and of course she would never say so. Thank God he had had the sense to understand tha
t and ride right over it.

  He would have no cause to regret coming here, either, she told herself vehemently. Should the written word beckon again, he would find this a comfortable place to work. He had made himself a modest but sturdy reputation with the travel and topical pieces he had written, for more than twenty-five years, from odd corners of the earth. Perhaps this was his last odd corner. Perhaps he would write something splendid here. Damn it, she hoped so.

  There must be some carry-over of her own contentment. If it was not sharable, especially under these circumstances, what was the good of it?


  She thrashed to the surface with a groan and opened her eyes wide, washing out the images of her dream with light.

  She saw her room, her ordinary room: rugs on the floor, stacks of books on the table, bathrobe slung over the back of the chair. “It’s all right,” she croaked.

  Ricky stood in her doorway, head craned anxiously forward. “You’re sure?” he said.

  She groaned again. “Shit. No. Yes. It’s not all right. Insomnia would be better than this.”

  “May I —?”

  She hauled herself upright on the bed, stuffing the pillows behind her back. “Come in, please. God, it’s good to have human company! Would you hand me my robe? What in the world is the matter with me, anyway?”

  He crossed to the deep sill of the window and sat, pulling his own faded flannel robe closer around his throat. “What were you dreaming of?”

  Another dream, another goddamn dream. Her mind felt empty and flat. “A bunch of people, a mob, roaring through a street, I think. Blood, too. Somebody watching, from a window. It’s not enough to write down, even.” She gestured toward the ring-binder on the dresser. “I’ve got a couple of them down in there already. Or rather, the same one, I think, but changed a little each time. There’s always the mob, though, and this person watching. Nasty stuff.” A shuddering yawn gripped her for a moment. She rubbed her eyes. “Nathan used to try to get me to write down my dreams. He said you could learn a lot about yourself that way. I never thought I’d actually try it, but I don’t know any other way to approach this — whatever’s going on with me.” She squinted at him from between puffy lids. “I wonder if it could be tied up with finishing —”