He'd received a long letter from Joyce several days before and had pondered it from time to time trying to decide if it actually called for a response. "Let me borrow from the mouth of King Lear's Fool," she'd begun. "'Thou shall not have been old until thou hast been wise.'"
He often thought about Joyce; very often. And often with reference to Anita's actions and reactions to him. His boyhood research had once led him to believe that coitus gratifies both partners. But the behavior of prostitutes had changed his mind. They occasionally evinced low intensity pleasure: "Just hold onto me a little, honey"; or "Oh, you a nize fella"; or "You very good- okay Joe"; or "Hontouni arigatou gozaimashita, nai." Sometimes a prolonged hug. Often a smile. Only once did a prostitute allow him to initiate a kiss; but she broke the embrace. "I cain't let you do this, sweetdollie boy" she'd said. Afterwards, and although he did not fully understand, he did not press the apparent discourtesy upon other members of her profession. The orgasm, he'd sadly concluded, was the male's. Spiritual renewal, alone was the woman's gratification. But Anita proved true the boy's unconfounded wisdom.
And Anita led him to another revelation: being a source of pleasure yielded for him, an all- consuming, exclusively spiritual satisfaction, more fulfilling by far than his own orgasm. "Giving is the summum bonum of the love nest," he concluded.
His mind had never been so clear or nimble, nor his intellect so compliant an instrument of his will. Brand new ideas percolated from unknown depths of his being. And since he and Anita had been dating [her term], he'd begun his first systematic writing since he'd packed home his thesis.
Anita. He planned to marry her, if she'd have him. He'd get his Ph.D., after all. He'd probably dislike medicine, in the first place. He was a philosopher, after all. Or wanted to be. A philosopher's work was in the mind, not a place, and he could do it anywhere. For income, he'd farm. And imagine Poppa around a house full of grandchildren!
In the days before his grandparents returned, he'd spent most of his waking and many of his sleeping hours by Anita's side. He'd scarcely given her time for the most minimal chores.
Then on the morning of the third day, after he'd spent the night in her bed, and, the very moment she awoke had drawn her to him, she forced him away.
"Honey," she said, "I sensed something bottled up inside you. And I thought it would just sort of work itself loose. But Asa, two people can't just lay around clawing and clutching each other all day and all night.
"Besides," she giggled, "I'm starting my period." Whereupon she tweaked the end of his penis, bounded from the bed and disappeared into her bathroom.
He could hear her voice but couldn't quite make out what she was saying, over the running water. Poppa had constructed Anita's bathroom the year before Momma died. Asa recalled how he'd gone along for the ride to the parsonage one Saturday. Anita, wearing a bathrobe, was waiting by the downstairs bathroom for Gramma to come out. Poppa had said nothing, of course. But the following Monday, as Grampa related afterwards, Poppa arrived with a truckload of lumber and plumbing supplies. He'd appreciate it very much, Poppa said, if Mrs. Overfield would take the girl on over to Redbank in the Machine; go to Kelly's paint store; and let 'er pick out whatever colors suited her fancy. Mr. Kelly owed Poppa. The girl needed a place of her own to doll up in, Poppa'd insisted over Grampa's objections.
"I love this room," Anita said, reappearing in the doorway, naked, sprinkling tooth powder onto a toothbrush. Her rich pudendal mane immediately drew Asa's focus. "Your daddy is..." She turned to the sink and he did not catch the last word. He crawled to the foot of the bed and hung off the edge where he could see her. She'd bent down to the sink. "A differential curvature of continual carnality," he whispered to himself. He wanted to spring from the bed and make love, then and there, and would have except for her entreaty moments before.
She moved out of his line of sight and he heard the shower. In a moment, her head appeared in the doorway. "Want to wash my back, Asa?"
Afterward, as they dried off together in a single beach towel, she put her arms around his waist and nestled her pubis up against his. "What it is, Asa honey, is that we don't want to spoil it. Wanting and needing is two different things. It'll stay good and beautiful if we hold off 'til we just can't stand it no more. Then it won't ever get like washing the dishes or waxing the floor. It'll always be special. And it should always be special."
"I agree," he said. She turned around, and he dried her back. Reaching over her shoulders, he blotted beads of water from her breasts, pausing momentarily to kiss the nape of her neck. "What is your favorite word for it, Anita?"
She turned and put her arms around his neck. "Why, lovin', of course." She kissed him on the mouth.
After they dressed, she fixed him a farmer's breakfast with the scrambled eggs of just the consistency he had liked since boyhood. "What are we going to do when you Gramma and Grampa get back from San Francisco?" They couldn't "throw" their "wild- fit orgies" around here then. She tipped back her head and emitted operatic laughter. Asa agreed. Maybe she could slip off and meet him someplace and they could sneak out to his house after Raymond and his daddy went to work.
"No!" Asa declared. "Deception cannot be part of our...our relationship." This was precisely when he'd decided to woo her.
He realized, he said, that privacy and discretion were necessary. But he would come to the parsonage, openly, for her. Nor did he have in mind picking her up, having her and then depositing her like an empty milk can.
"You don't just want to screw me, do you?" She inserted a piece of buttered toast in his mouth.
He chewed and swallowed the offering. Then he leaned forward and kissed her. "I want to love you fully, Anita."
"You want to date me? Be my fella? You want me to be your girl?" Her eyes twinkled. "Miz Overfield'll have two conniptions." She snickered. "But she'll be afraid of your daddy."
"Afraid of my father?" Asa was confused.
"Your daddy can look right into a person and tell just exactly what's there. He'll know right away what we're up to. And he'll know it's good. And right. Good and right for one of his boys. And Miz Overfield'll know he knows. And she'll know he approves. The first chance he gets, he'll make sure she sees him pat me on the hand or ask you if you'd like to take his sedan so's I won't dirty my dress on the seat of your Chevy truck. And she'll know in her bones she don't dast tamper with Asa Zook's happiness.
"Funny, though, Asa." She rested the ball of her index finger just beneath the dimple on her cheek. "I never thought about Dr. Overfield objecting. You'd think he'd run me right out of here and wash his hands with you. He don't act like a preacher. Fire and hell and damnation, morning to night. Not Dr. Overfield. And you know what else, Asa. He'll approve. Deep down. And he'll get that look on his face like when I bake him a chocolate cake or rice pudding with those little gooseberries or when I get a apple pie crust just so."
"You love my grandfather, don't you?"
"Oh, yes. I came back to work here because of him. He asked me to when Biff was in the hospital at Camp Kilmer. Said I needed to be near people who loved and appreciated me. Imagine a man like him saying something sweet like that. It never seemed like a job to me. Just working around my own home and being near a man who loves you like you're his own daughter. Yes. Dr. Overfield will approve.
"Say," where would Asa like to take her on their first date? Movies? Picnic? Rides on the boardwalk? Dancing? He did not know how to dance, he insisted. "Nonsense. Everybody knows how. Comes natural, like walking." She'd show him how. And it was a lot of fun, too. Well then, in that case there was a dance pavilion along the coast he'd been curious about for some time.
"Oh, honey can we go tonight?" They could. And "Please wear your soldier suit. For me?" He kissed her and consented to that as well.
Asa moved the grease pan aside and crawled out from under the Chevy in order to hear what Raymond was trying to say to him.
"Take the Buick," Raymond urged. Asa couldn't ask a girl to ride in the cab of a beat up old pickup truck. Anyway, Millie's car needed a little exercise. "Take the Buick!"
Anita wore a sleeveless canary yellow linen dress, low- cut ventrally, and with virtually no back. A chocolate brown woolen rope served as a belt. Her shoes, identical in color to the rope, had soles three- quarters of an inch thick and [Asa inquired into the correct nomenclature] spiked heels. The delicate straps of the shoes called attention to the exponential curve each ankle described. A freshly coated big toenail peeked out from where the toe of the shoe should have been and seemed to be teasing up for him to get down on his hands and knees and kiss her feet. Which he would like to have done. Her fingernails bore the same polish as the provocative toes. Her lips, which matched the hue but not the shine of her nails, assumed a highly saturated red of low brilliance. "Murrey," he announced. "The shade of your lipstick," he added when she tipped her head inquiringly to one side. Murrey harmonized with her slight reddish brown sun tan, he observed. His observations seemed to please her. He'd have to say more such things to her, which would be quite easy. For his words described reality. Their referents were not inventions.
When she blinked, her eyelashes seemed to execute lecherous grabs at the surrounding air. A subliminal cue may pass via the gaze, he thought, perhaps a signal too quick for the conscious mind, a bleep from the primitive part of one soul to its complement in the other, signifying acceptance. 'Behold my ciliated splendor,' the spidery eyes seemed to say. Lashes such as hers give the potential viewer little choice but to behold.
Her hair cascaded from a sagittal part, reached her crown as a feathery ruff, covered the upper borders of her ears and angled down and back over the kissworthy nape of her neck to end where her supple back began. And she had on her pearls.
Which reminded him. "I've got something for you, Anita." He was digging into his pants pocket for a pair of opal earrings, but Anita turned away from the sink mirror, toward him and held up her hand as though halting traffic.
"I don't want it, honey. Not tonight. You've given me too many presents, already. It's just like lovin'. Too much too fast spoils it. Save them. Surprise me once in a while, little by little."
"You're an Aristotelian, Anita."
"You practice a maxim of Aristotle. 'Bend back towards the mean.' It's where the idea of moderation comes from."
"Smart fella that Aristotle."
"You seem to have invented the principle by yourself, Anita."
"Just common sense, honey, isn't it?" She went back to the mirror.
"Not all of us are gifted with common sense. Nor do all of us radiate beauty to everything we touch, as you do Anita." She looked at him again, her lips slowly parting. This was a preliminary signal he'd learned during the past glorious days of the onset of her horniness. He went to her. "Careful, dear" she whispered. He assumed that she did not want her lipstick smeared. Instead of kissing her mouth, he gently worked his muzzle into her armpit. Immediate disappointment! The mutton seemed at first not to be there. But his nose quickly discovered the secret source of her perfume. He had learned to treat her armpits less vigorously [she tickled his own to show him how it felt]. As he tenderly caressed with lips and nose, his olfaction began to parse an array of scents. The mutton was there, after all, only masked by the added sweetness. The nascent and added aromas complemented each other, he realized. He gave the beloved muff another kiss and backed out.
"I never saw anybody take such delight in lovin' like you do, Asa. I enjoy watching you more than I do getting my own pleasure." He opened her hand and kissed the palm. "You're some man, Asa Zook. You make me feel good just to be a woman. I've felt more alive these past few days than...than for a long time. How's come nobody ever latched onto a fella like you long before now?"
"It's you Anita. You are the true source of the joy we've experienced." He did not speak the rest of the thought: Only someone with your great capacity for life and love can overlook my flaws and compensate for my lacks.
Her smile vanished. It was as though she'd heard his silent words. She raised his right hand to her cheek. "You'd be too much man for anybody I know." Now her smile reappeared. "Look. We'd better get going before the both of us get all worked up. I don't want to miss my first date with my new fella." She went for her purse and sweater.
That Raymond sure was one wild devil, Anita said as Asa held the car door for her. After he got in, she eased close to him. Stroking the dashboard, she continued to talk. "Lot like Biff -- Raymond." She was glad to see the Buick finally getting used by somebody who took pleasure in living the way Biff used to. Asa started the powerful engine and backed down the driveway. Would Asa mind if she turned on the radio? Of course, he would not.
"Oh! That's Ray Eberle!" The song? "No silly. The singer." "Biff really liked his brother." Whose brother? "Ray Eberle's, dopey. Bob....He was quite a dancer, too." Bob? "No, Asaaa." Her husband, Biff. Asa hadn't known him very well, had he? "He was really something, my Biff. God rest his darling soul." She did not talk for several miles.
"Oh, there's Frank Sinatra," she responded to a new song. "He's I- talian." Her folks didn't care much for Italians. She sure didn't know why but she didn't either before she went to the Overfields. Of course, around Dr. Overfield you couldn't not like somebody because they were Italian. Or Spanish. Or Jewish.. Even colored. Especially colored. Her father was prejudiced against them. "And the Puerto Ricans, oh heavens. Called them..." she whispered in Asa's ear, "Spicks." Had Asa already gone off to Chicago when Dr. Overfield gave that sermon where, right smack in the middle, "He ups and starts singing that Sunday school song 'Jesus- loves- the- lit- tle- children'?" She continued singing, slightly off key, "'Red and yellow black and-white/ They are precious in his sight...'.
"Anyway, right in the middle, Dr. Overfield stops. 'Do you know what that little song of the children is trying to say to us?' Did we? You know how his voice can fill the whole church even when he talks soft. And he looks around, and right at you. And you know he's talking right into your heart. You can't not listen.
"Well, when he asked us that, there wasn't a whisper or a sneeze or a cough. 'All the people,' he says. 'Yes, all the people. Or none of the people.' And his voice boomed like it was God himself. I had goose pimples all over. 'All the people.' Were you home then?"
"Anyway. It isn't just the pulpit. It's how he is, Dr. Overfield. Your daddy, too. I'd be ashamed to carry prejudice in my heart around them. No! In the same world where they live." She snuggled against Asa's shoulder. "And you, too, Asa. Maybe even more than them. Even when you were a boy." Now she giggled. "Even when you used to walk around with that poker popping up in your pants every time I'd walk into the room." She snickered. "You know, Asa, I used to get horny just watching you."
"Horny? Really?" Horny!
"God your gramma'd have four fits, wouldn't she," Anita chuckled, "Talking sex and religion in the same breath."
"They belong together," Asa replied.
"Yes, they really do," she agreed. "Biff never said so in so many words, but I'm sure he felt exactly the same way." He was a true churchgoing man, Biff. In fact that's how come they met. But none of that sin stuff for Biff Larsell. No sirree! Otherwise, she'd have washed her hands of him right away. They'd planned on a large family. But they were just getting on their feet when he joined the army. "I wanted to get pregnant. But 'No,' Biff said. He didn't want to leave a wife strapped with children if he got killed. I almost talked him into it after we were in Texas a while. But something told him, 'No, Vernon Larsell. You don't dast.' And he put his foot down. Then he comes home in the middle of the afternoon one day looking white as a ghost. 'They're sending us to Europe,' he says. 'All non- essential service troops.' I shouldn't worry, though, he said, because the Germans was all but finished. All they wanted to do was let the combat veterans come home. War'd be over before he got trained and shipped out, he'd bet. You know, Asa, the army gave those poor fellas only two or three weeks of training. Some, like Biff, hardly knew how to shoot a gun.
"Well they rounded up thousands and thousands of Biff Larsells. 'Whole divisions of civilians in uniform,' he said to me his last night at Camp Shanks. But the Germans wasn't already licked at all.
"The next time I saw my poor Biff..." She began sobbing. "He was just a head stuck onto a useless body." She eased away from Asa. The leather seat wheezed as she continued her cry in silence.
After several minutes, Asa asked, "Will our relationship create guilt for you, Anita?"
She sniffed. Her purse snapped. She blew her nose. "No, Asa, honey. Biff wanted me to go on living. He knew he didn't have long. Said I should take the ten thousand dollars insurance and set up a nice business of some kind. Build a life for myself. Find happiness. Live the life he wouldn't be here to enjoy. That was the best remembrance he could ask for. Because..." She finished the sentence over a high pitched sob, "Because he loved me." She became silent again, and the vibrating seat told Asa that Anita cried.
Then suddenly the vibrating stopped, and Anita said, "In the Mood."
"Right here on the highway?"
"No, silly." She laughed and playfully slapped his arm. "The music on the radio. That's one of my favorite songs. 'In the Mood,' it's called." Now she kissed him firmly on the cheek. "Speaking of the highway..." was there any place where she could fix her face?
Fix her face? "Is something wrong with it, Anita?"
Her mascara had run, "Damnit," she knew she shouldn't have put that junk on in the first place. She needed a bathroom.
Asa checked a few passing landmarks. "There used to be a Gulf Station along here somewhere...There it is," he said.
He vaguely recognized the attendant, but the man seemed to know him quite well. "Asa bygood Zook," he said reaching in and shaking Asa's hand. "I'll be a sonofa...'Scuse me ma'am..." Yes, it was nice and clean and he'd run n' fetch the key for her right away. He returned on the run, held the car door for Anita and watched her walk to the restroom.
"Wow," what a boat Asa was driving. How was Elwood these days. Best boss he'd every had byjiminy. Asa did say fillerup? "Should have stayed working for him. Might of got myself deferred. But I had this wild hair in my ass about playing ball. Ended up drafted." But he guessed he shouldn't bitch too much. Spent the whole war in Newport News. Navy. Signalman. "Say that the missus?" Asa realized that Anita was wearing a wedding band. The attendant leered when Asa said Anita was not his wife. "Regular Don Juan wagon," he said and patted the fender of the Buick. Say that was one fine looking woman Asa was with. Asa assured him that Anita was a fine person.
"She was married to Biff Larsell."
"Well I'll be a sonofa...Used to work with him on the boats...You said was, Asa? She a divorcee?"
"Biff died of battle wounds."
"No! Goddamn! God, I'm sorry, Asa. Sorry as..."
"War is one of the worst of human tragedies."
"I meant for...for thinking the lady was out catting around on the old man."
"She was very much in love with Biff."
"Yeah, a real fine woman. Not like my ex-bitch. Fuck the pecker off anything with balls. Anything 'ceptin' me. Divorced her ass finally." Speaking of Biff, ("Boy could that guy ever hit!") did Asa remember Arnie Lock? The Jersey City shortstop? "Him and me was roommates. Drafted on the same day. But Arnie went into the air corps. Shot down over Cologne, Arnie. Nineteenth mission." He pointed around with his chin. This place and the restaurant he didn't have the capital for would have been "half his'n, -- Arnie's. Yeah, it's fuckin' shit sometimes." He cupped his mouth as Anita approached.
After the attendant went for change, Anita leaned over to whisper, "Asa, it's proper to introduce us."
When the man returned, Asa said. "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't remember your name." It was Hank Wagner. Asa introduced Mr. Wagner to Mrs. Larsell.
"Do you know this place, honey?" Anita inquired as they turned into the parking lot.
"Only its location, Anita," Asa replied. She'd never even heard of it, she said.
A jukebox was playing as they entered. Asa recognized the music from the ride, but had forgotten its title.
The enclosed landward section of the pavilion contained a bar and tables. The seaward section, with the dance floor, extended over the shore line. At high tide, which it was now, one could hear waves lapping the pylons. From a tent- like ceiling hung marine paraphernalia no longer needed and long since discarded by the sea or its people. "Oh, Asa! It's romantic here," Anita half squealed.
They took a table at the row nearest the dance floor. "May I order something for you I've wanted to buy for a long time, Anita?"
"Of course, honey."
When the waitress arrived, Asa ordered two glasses of beer.
Asa often thought of Joyce during his courtship of Anita; during intercoital hiatuses; or when his mind would wander from a movie; or when, "No I'm very sorry Anita, I'm not familiar with the song"; when "Heavens, Asa, that's your bingo number"; when, "no," he really didn't have a preference, sweet versus dry.
Love Anita? More with each day. Yet the more he loved Anita, the more he cherished Joyce.
Joyce. The thought of her evoked passions identical to those he felt for his newly revived work. It was her soul he loved. And with his intellect. He and Joyce were a thesis and an antithesis, an Hegelian synthesis: "two Riemannian manifolds of spirit, hers and mine;" he wrote in the Journal, "a tensor capacity and tensor density with the transcendental wherewithal to create a synthesis, an Existenz.. We are a duo- universe with no Aristotelian right to exist. We are a universe, possible only because of each other. Could we really draw back from even a single kiss? Not in the ideal. Not where Nature's laws assume truth. Nor shall I draw back. Not in the ideal."
He ran his hand over Joyce's letter. "I dare not risk seeing her now," he said to the smooth paper. Knowing what Anita has taught me of love, I could not resist my passion in Joyce's physical presence. And then I would dishonor both my loves.
Joyce's own sagacity carried the seed of a solution: "until thou hast been wise." He would have to seek out wisdom, become the philosopher of his boyhood dreams, hound his destiny until he became a true man, until he became worthy of pure friendship. Of pure love. Worthy of Joyce. "This is my promise." He raised Joyce's letter to his lips and kissed it. And then he filed it, unanswered.
Anita. He had totally forgotten the subjective experience she'd made possible, an experience that, for practical purposes, was brand new to him: happiness. His family seemed to know of it, doubtless from the way he'd hold her sweater or purse; from his reactions when she entered a room; from the many opportunities he took to turn in her direction and exchange smiles. And perhaps even from his behavior toward them. Asa was sure they approved.
Even Gramma. At first, her turkey- skin jowls became negatively animate; but her resistance collapsed with the resignation of the hen who, seized by the spasm of a coming egg, surrenders to contractures far too powerful for her sphincters. Gods, love the old darling, Asa thought, her owlish eyes hinting at a suppressed twinkle for the new- found firmness with which he hugged her brittle shoulders and kissed her desiccated cheek. She'd always treated "the Girl" with respect, no doubt because of Grampa. But as Gramma accepted the new reality, her behavior with reference to Anita began to show genuine affection.
And Poppa. "Object?" He didn't verbalize his joy, but the music in his voice proclaimed it. "I wouldn't dare. It's your home as much as it is mine."
Raymond briefly puzzled over the matter. What about the age differential? But in virtually the next breath, he swept the air as though dispersing mosquitoes and "allowed as how" who in heck's business was it anyway? And she was one beautiful female, too. "Especially of late," he leered and poked an elbow into Asa's ribs. And her cooking! With food like that on the table everyday, they'd end up as heavy as some of the Pennsylvania relatives. Then Raymond draped a long muscular arm over Asa's shoulders, and tears filled his sky blue eyes. "I've never seen you happy before now, Asa." And he kissed Asa on the cheek.
Grampa also began with discourse on the age disparity, but pari passu seemed to talk himself out of his initial premise. Asa would have to forgive him for being a creature of tradition. And: "I am aware of joy in my home that is new. The love of youth is everywhere. And it blesses my own day."
But Grampa was more direct about Asa's education. Asa had let him read a completely revised and greatly expanded version of his old thesis, and "Pete Dicampo was truly impressed, especially with the new title, 'Metaphysics of Mercy.' I personally think it's brilliant."
Asa said that he would submit it as a doctoral dissertation. He had acquired more than double the credit hours for a Ph.D., and had taken both the French and German language exams before he left. He'd need only two trips to Chicago for examinations. The only real work ahead of him was polishing up the dissertation, which he'd have done by August.
Grampa continued: Wouldn't a medical or scientific degree afford more options than philosophy? There was, after all, the matter of income. How would Asa support a wife and, "I assume, children?" Asa planned to farm, initially. "You Zooks do enjoy your calluses," Grampa said. Asa went on to say that if his scholarly publications earned him a reputation, he might eventually find suitable academic employment in philosophy or mathematics. "Well!" Grampa slapped himself on the knees. He never ceased but to be astonished at the totality with which Asa saw and solved problems. Then he took Asa's right hand. "The Lord has granted one of my long- standing request: that I live to see peace in my grandson's face. Loretta would have..." Grampa never finished the sentence.
And courting Anita: "Having fun," as she phrased it. He taught her not only to drive but how to change a tire, start an engine on a dewy morning, where and what a dip stick was. In turn, she introduced him to a function for a truck bed he'd not envisaged, a priori. He taught her to swim; she taught him to roller skate. He showed her where to find wild flowers; she apprised him of the names of house plants. He taught her to row a boat, bait a hook, dig a clam; she taught him to prune a rose bush, recover a tulip bud, trim a begonia. He taught her to ride a horse, milk a cow, coax a reluctant hen from an egg; she taught him how to bake a pie, press a shirt, patch a sleeve. He named the trees in the woods; she identified fabrics in the dry goods store. He taught her to conserve drinking water on a hike; she taught him to stretch money at the grocer's. And she taught him how to dance. Well, at least how to hold her in his arms in the moonlight and sea breeze and sway to the tempo of soft music without the dread of crushing her ankle or dislocating her hip.
And he found that a good joke could make him laugh. She discovered that a beautiful sunset could make her cry.
And lovin'. She had been thoroughly correct about need versus want. He let her set the pace, deferred to her judgment of when the threshold had been crossed. Yet their individual desires seemed linked; when one went overboard the other followed as an anchor chain follows its anchor off the deck. Their technical skills increased. Her sense of adventure and intuitive grasp of practical application merged with his scientific curiosity and theoretical knowledge. They explored, experimented, invented, perfected. Each became a serious student of the other's actions and reactions. Knowledge of lovin' was indeed the lover's virtue.
Anita read the News daily, bought a copy of every romance and movie magazine on the rack and liked any novel "that makes me cry or wet my pants." Asa did not tamper with her tastes. She made no attempt to influence his reading. Never did she compete for attention with his work.
Anita found nothing compelling about the parts of a tractor distributor. Asa soon tired of shopping. Anita yawned at the geography of the heavens on a star- spangled night. Asa read or napped when it was time for one of her radio shows. What not to embark upon jointly, he learned by observation, and she seemed to know innately. He knew that she would quickly suffocate in the ideal realms so vital to his existence. And the here- and- now realism essential to her happiness would soon have stiffened his soul. Their love existed in a domain of overlap. They were not a confluence where one life becomes the other. Their union would be a juxtaposition; their lives a contiguity; their logic linear. They were not a thesis and an antithesis in search of a unifying fixed point. They'd not form a continuum. Asa understood all that. But he loved her all the more.
Asa took Anita to a Hungarian restaurant, Biff's favorite place she'd mentioned early on. It was where she'd known love and joy before. And Asa had carefully saved it for this night.. Only the light from the table candles illuminated the dining room.
Asa quietly watched Anita pore over the menu (she always selected their meals but insisted he order). He tried to construct a new sentence he thought would especially please her: "You give personal meaning to this gentle light," he said. "And the light carries your loveliness into a grateful evening."
She peered over the menu. "I like that, Asa. I'll remember it for the rest of my life."
A violinist entered from the kitchen door and began to play. Anita leaned across the table and whispered, "It's Gypsy music. He knows we're lovers and will come over here soon." Just audibly, she added "You're supposed to tip him a dollar or two when he's done."
The waiter arrived. Asa ordered the goulash Anita had chosen, and he asked the waiter to select an appropriate wine for their meal. After the waiter left, Anita's violinist hypothesis proved true. She held Asa's gaze during the soft music. Asa gave the musician a twenty dollar bill. The man bowed from the waist, moved to another table, but from time to time turned in their direction as he played.
"That was sweet, honey. Real sweet, " Anita said. "You see. What did I tell you. One look at us and the whole world knows we're in love."
During the meal, Anita spoke of an unhappy childhood and volunteered facts about herself she hadn't mentioned before. Asa hadn't known, had he, how she'd first come to be with the Overfields? She got pregnant when she was fourteen. Had to drop out of school and go off to have the baby. It was a darling little boy. Her father made her give him up for adoption. Afterwards, she couldn't eat or sleep. Even after they brought her home, she cried from morning till night and sometimes couldn't even get out of bed the whole day long. Her mother got scared and went to see Dr. Overfield. He came to visit. Anita was afraid when he walked in that he'd start praying and talking about sin and making her feel worse than she already felt. She wanted to up and die right then and there. "He set down on the edge of my bed and said a short prayer. Then he had me say the Lord's Prayer along with him. 'Uh-oh! Here it comes,' I thought when he got to 'Amen.'
"He asked me if I ever wondered what Jesus really stood for. Did I know Jesus was really God's love? The Lord's gift of love to all of us? Did I know Jesus loves all God's children? 'Especially pretty girls, like you Anita,' Dr. Overfield said. And he leaned over and he kissed me on my forehead. And that was the first time in my whole life I ever felt pretty. Really pretty, I mean. Then Dr. Overfield said love was what made the Lord's world beautiful. And I should think of myself as a little part of Jesuses love. Was my baby part of Jesuses love, too? I asked. 'Yes, definitely,' Dr. Overfield said. 'You helped give the world another small part of Jesus. But the bud needs care to become the flower,' he said. I was too young to give my baby what it needed to grow up proper. I should think of its absence from my life as my sacrifice to the love and beauty of the world. I began to feel a little hungry, I said. Mom ran quick and got a bowl of tomato soup. And do you know what Dr. Overfield did? An important man like him? He sat there beside me and fed me that whole bowl of soup."
"He was imitating Jesus," Asa offered.
"Then Dr. Overfield looked at Mom and said Missus Overfield needed a girl at the parsonage. Mom went and got my father. He came in and listened and said it was a good idea. It would keep me off the streets." Anita paused as the waiter picked up their plates and took Asa's order of a Benedictine for her and black coffee for himself.
"You were real little then, Asa. Raymond wasn't even born yet. I was scared at first. But your momma sort of took me under her wing. She'd come by regular and show me things. And I don't mean just how to cook and sew and clean. Oh, she was something, your momma. I wanted to be just like her, too. Stopped shaving my legs and underarms. Didn't even wear makeup again till Biff asked me to. I wanted to be just like her. Especially inside. And she knew exactly how I felt. 'You're the little sister I always wanted,' she said. She taught me things about being a woman, things my Mom probably didn't know and Miz Overfield would have been too ashamed to talk about, if she knew in the first place. Lovin' is a good thing, your momma told me. If it's really lovin' and not just using your body to punish yourself or somebody else. The sin thing was in the minds of evil- minded people, not in the hearts of the true lovers. She'd had only one man in her life. But that was the custom when she was growing up. Her husband taught her what being a loved woman really meant. After that, it was too bad for all the other fellas because by then 'I belonged to my Elwood,' she said. I should know, though, that going to bed with a man wasn't the same as lovin'. And I should stay away from cruel and shallow kind. Lovin' gave a woman more powerful pleasure than it gave a man, if he was really making love, and not just using her instead of his hand. Even with a good man, though, I'd have to watch myself. I couldn't go around having a baby every year. She taught me how to protect myself. And when to get pregnant when the right time came.
"When I knew I was in love with Biff, and wanted to date him steady, I told him about my baby. I really wasn't thinking about marrying him, just going steady with a clear conscience. You see, I kind of had a secret crush on Mister Zook. Of course, I'd of died before I'd of touched Loretta's man. Anyway, Biff wanted to help me get my baby back. That was even before he proposed. Can you imagine that? Of course, I said we couldn't do that to the baby or the other people.
"Well I fell in love with Biff Larsell right then and there. Because he seemed to be like...like your daddy. Funny, I thought at the time. Because they looked and talked so different. 'Why am I in love with Biff?' I asked myself over and over. I really didn't know why till after we were married and I got a chance to see how he treated everybody with respect and kindness. He knew he was a real man. He was strong enough to be gentle, my Biff. 'Just like Mister Zook,' I used to think.
"And people used to come alive when Biff was around. He made them feel good about themselves. And did he ever know how to have fun." She looked around the room and gestured for Asa to order another Benedictine.
"You know how to extract joy from the world, too, Anita." Asa sipped his now cool coffee. "And how to add it back ten fold." He waited for her to resume. When she did not, Asa said, "I brought you here tonight for a very special reason, Anita."
"I know why you brought me here, Asa." She placed a hand over his and eased the tips of her fingers under his cuff. "And I knew you were saving this place special because of how I felt about Biff. Honey, I love you. Maybe even more than I loved Biff. You've made me happy again. Happier than I've ever been in my whole life."
"Could you be happy as my wife?"
"For a while. But lovin' is one thing; married is another. If you're really married. Like Biff and me was. Like Loretta and Mister Zook." She raised the back of his hand to her lips. "You're my fella. And I'm your girl. You love me. And I love you. You make me feel alive. And I know I've made you happy. But I don't fit into your life. And you don't fit into mine. Not forever. When the time'd come to say good- bye -- and it would -- and we couldn't turn and go our own ways, we'd live to see joy turn to sorrow. We'd never hate each other, Asa. Not us. I know that. And I think we'll always love each other. But honey, neither of us can take the very best the other has to give. And one day we won't be young any more. And the beauty we could have made in this world would be all locked up inside us like a body in a coffin. Asa, I couldn't bear watching that happen to you."
She stopped talking as though yielding to him. Tears formed on the edges of his eyelids, and his throat contracted. "Have I hurt you, lamb?" she asked. She gripped his fingers.
"No, Anita, you have not hurt me. My tears are from the surge of an unanticipated emotion, from a discovery I've just made about you. I see more beauty than I'd recognized until now." She pursed her lips in the gesture of a kiss. He loved her more than at any time before. And he would love her for the rest of his life. Then his Deep Brain whispered: Asa Zook, her love restored your soul. Transform her gift to you into the work of a lifetime. Asa stood, walked around the table, bent down, closed his eyes and pressed his lips against the soft part of Anita's cheek..
Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved. May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.
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