Novelette of 'What Color on the Moon' (1/2)
[Note: This is the full version of the extract I posted 'What Color on the Moon,' and even though I would put the entire novelette at the level of the older readers on apricotpie, it's less so this section, and more so the second half (and I have a note explaining why on that one). Blessings! :) Sarah]
"If anyone found me here they'd think I was from a Sunday school primer."
He crushed the lead of his pencil into the paper.
"'The simple country boy had aspirations of being a novelist. As he sat under the apple tree, attempting to write a romance, he realized he knows nothing about the topic, excepting his dreams.'"
Jed stood, unfolding himself and creaking out his back with his the flat of his hands. He stretched, twisting from side to side, and then looked at the sun infusing his neighbor's field with saffron. The shorn field glowed, and he felt that he was looking into a fluted glass of red and gold.
Corn fields and champagne.
"What he knows is that he needs life experience." He gave his journal a ragged shake. "The boy is almost twenty and he can't write anything except small towns and little sisters."
He split through the trees into a back clearing. It was the far meadow of Cooney’s farm.
Through the setting light a lowing gonged and a herd of cows came lumbering. Behind them, a girl in a dress was twirling a twig.
She halted and shaded her eyes with her hand: her fingers cast purple shadows.
So he ran until he could see that her twig was a spotted birch, and that her dress was a print of blackberries. Her hair was not permed, and it was pinned back under a soiled handkerchief. The handkerchief was the color of watered-down coffee.
Pops of grasshoppers pinged away from his feet. A cow swung its head at him, and he rested his palm on its flank and rubbed. The fur was warm and yeasty. The animal gave a snap of its tail, and stomped.
“Well, this is the best thing that’s happened to me all day,” Aggie said. Her skin was a mottled pink and her forehead was damp. She swished hard at the ground with her stick. “What are you doing way out here? You didn't walk all the way out. Or run.”
“I did walk."
"Why would you do that? That is not exactly an ambling Saturday stroll. It is back fields and boggy woods."
"I was just --”
He weighed honesty and dishonesty.
A crow flew over Aggie's head. It flapped to a nearby oak and settled on the limb. It shuddered its wings, like an old man twitching a jacket over his thin shoulders.
“I just had to walk and walk and to not stop. One of those days, you know. I could not stop if I wanted to. I had to keep going.” He was chagrined at the desperation in his own voice. But he suddenly wanted to spill everything, too. A yearning clenched his gut.
“Oh.” She smacked at the grass with her stick. “Is everything okay?”
“I guess so.”
“Ah!” she gave a sudden shriek. “Look at how red that is!” She pointed up, her fingers taut and ecstatic. “Listen to this, Jed. You'll like this. Did you know why the sun looks so red when it lowers in the sky?"
"No." He swallowed. "Why?"
"Because we are now seeing it through more of the atmosphere than when it is overhead! Think about it. Science is incredible. Absolutely gorgeous. Enlightening and gorgeous. -- Absolutely stunning!”
Her voice was full of that tone he recognized. It was the herald of thoughts that had been swelling up her head all day, with no one to spill them to, except a zombified father and twenty muddy Holsteins. It was her reaction to suddenly having a sentient listener.
"Tell me more. I don't get it," settling back into the reserve he kept for her when she needed to unlodge her logged mind.
“Let me see how I can explain this." She jumped onto a stump. It was lone in the meadow. "I think it is because the sun's rays go through more air molecules when it is lower in the sky. So the blue color gets scattered away, and only the red is left. It is incredible. It is a mirage!" She lifted her arms up and looked like a Druidian priestess, holding her birch aloft. The rays turned the stick ruby. "Jed, this is what makes me feel like the world is not concrete at all. Think of it. Our perception is based on the cones in our eyes and refracted light. Even in science, life is about a point of view and not absolute fact. The sun is not innately red. Or yellow! or even white for that matter. Color is so beautifully slippery.”
But his patience had unspun too early. He was staring at the stain on the tree-tangled horizon. His heart was tight; his fingers curled in.
“Agnes, I got into a fight before I came here,” he suddenly said.
"A fight." Gently. "And with whom?"
He knew she was ignoring his interruption, and he sputtered on. “My father. Just this afternoon.”
“Oh, no.” She stepped down. "Jed."
"It was terrible. It was just -" He wanted her to be able to picture it, like a visionary, without him having to cut any words. "So bad. I don't even know."
"Just that it happened at all. No one got hurt or anything."
"No, such things are jarring no matter what. Aren't they."
"Yeah." His heart curled into the softness she was offering.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
“Sunny went after Georgie, Dad went after Sunny, and I went after Dad.” He bent his head, his hair falling over his face, and he scrunched his hands through the blackness. Scruffed it up.
“Oh, I'm so sorry." She reached out, and her hand ran down the shell of muscle on his upper arm, and he felt shocked by the touch. "You’re so noble. You're the best brother that ever –”
“I don't know about --”
“No, think of it. Think of it, and take comfort in this. That could have happened without you there. But think – you were there and you stepped in to stop it. You stepped in and acknowledged the Right. You were a witness to that, and that is so necessary. It is the only freeing thing for a kid. When someone says, ‘No! This is wrong, and you don't deserve this!'"
"I told her that, too. I said, 'This is not fair, and it is not your fault.’"
"Parents are way too powerful otherwise. You see, the kids won’t question treatment and take the blame on themselves.”
“Any and all blame."
"So maybe you’re right. I'm glad I was there, though I'm not glad it unfolded like that."
"No one ever is."
"So -" He breathed out. "Yes. That puts my mind at ease. I agree with you. Thanks, Aggie.”
They had come to the pasture fence and the cows rumbled through the gate. Jed shut the rusty bolt for Aggie, who had turned her face up to the sky. Her skin was white, almost translucent, and it turned a peach-cream in the refracted light, all her blemishes washed away.
“Now, you know," she said softly, "the moon has no atmosphere,” like one in a trance.
"Yes," he laughed, "it's your turn now, Aggie. Go at it. Hard. Tell me everything sciency and luscious."
"Well, see, picture this. Imagine you and I were standing on the shore of the moon."
"A shore in the moon." His imagination tumbled. Now that his soul was cleared, he felt actively engaged; mentally aroused. Gears were whirring in the nautilus of his brain. "And would we see a sunset there?"
"Yes, but it would not be red at all.”
“Would it not? Tell me more." But before she could answer, he jumped up onto the bottom rung of the fence and said, "You know what. I don’t think it’s strange I came here at all. I wandered, but I must have known I was coming here."
"Your footsteps took you not by chance."
"Because your shoes are encoded with a homing device towards this locus."
"Well, all I know is that I seem to want to come here with every trouble I have. I feel so at ease. Relaxed. Peaceful here. It's like safe haven."
“You mean the farm."
"I mean -- yes."
"Or are we talking about the farm or me?”
“I like these cows.”
“I adore the cows.”
“But see!" he rolled over onto his back, leaning his elbows on the top rung of the fence, "I sometimes feel like things in my life have not happened until I have told you about them.”
"Really." She held up her stick before her like a birch sword.
"It is true." And he suddenly felt frustrated and exultant: both feelings born of the profundity of the admission. "It actually is."
She was slicing her birch sword through the air. Twirling her lash and decapitating the multiple heads of Queen Anne.
“Agnes," he laughed.
“You are a moonshine samurai.”
She stopped and planted her weapon before her in the ground. “I feel the same way about you, too, you know.” And her voice was infinitely tender. “You know that, right?”
“I know. Hey, say, what color would the sunset be on our moon shore?”
“I am guessing it would be colorless.”
"How very magical. No filters -- just undiluted light."
Jed ripped opened the icebox with a sticking sound of cracking ice, and took out a half-finished popsicle.
Mr. Spiram shuffled into the kitchen. He paused and looked at his son. Then he turned to the mail on the table. "Well." He picked up the stack and started sorting it, looking at the addresses. “I guess that was a sorry sort of thing today. Not the best sight."
“Yeah.” Jed's body was stiff and his voice, too. He flicked the frost off the head of the pop. He paid close attention to the clinging patterns of cherry and crystal.
“I don’t know what happened. I just…” Mr. Spiram coughed. He knocked the pile of letters together and straightened the corners. “I don’t know.” He dropped the pile with a smack. The letters shifted when they fell. He let them lie. “I haven’t been the same since…"
"Well, I guess you've told me before you don't want to hear about it and I don't want to spout too much about it, either. But that’s never happened before.”
He put the pop in his mouth. “Shure. Sh’fine. I 'on't care.” The pop stuck to his lips so he wet it with his tongue.
“No, it’s not fine.” Mr. Spiram passed his hand with its silver wristwatch over his face.
Jed didn't want elaboration. He pulled the pop out of his mouth and walked out of the kitchen, saying, “No, really; I'm not bothered." He stopped in the dining room around the corner, and said, “The one you should talk to is Sunny.”
“I already have,” called Mr. Spiram back, eagerly. “I apologized to her this afternoon.”
“Good.” Jed swung around up the stairs.
“We made up. She’s swell now. Playing with her jacks.”
“I never want you to see what I’ve seen, Jed.”
It sounded irrelevant, but his son called back down, "I know."
"And that's never happened before. You do know that, right?" Mr. Spiram was coming to the landing of the stairs. "Right?"
"Right, sir," quickly closing his door.
Jed broke the wood down the center. He rubbed his brow with his knuckles and threw the halves into the wood pile. The logs landed with a dry, hollow, musical chink.
A wren sang in the hickory and wrung his ear.
And above his head, the words collided like typewritten bird pecks. A crescendo of brown song:
"He let her drive. The boy pulled her spidery arms up from under her pits, stretching her softly, and sat her on sharp knees. They were bony-knees: teenage boy knees, and she was almost tenuous. 'Hands on the wheel,' he said. 'You’re doing this all by yourself.'"
He nicked his ax into the stump. He pulled out a stub from his pocket. He crouched down, licked his pencil, and added another sentence into a journal:
"Then he put his thin thumbs lightly on the bottom of the wheel."
Jed tramped home across the orchard, through cidery ashes, thumping his shoes in sweet rot.
The back door opened with a squeak and he slid past the screen, which was half-blocked from a stack of crates. He grabbed a Winesap and rubbed it on the thigh of his jeans. He had his floppy journal under his arm. His father sat at the table, shirt sleeves rolled up over his impressive elbows.
Jed's arms were slimmer. He was like a hammer, and elegant as a Bach piece. But his father was a greasy locomotive: muscled and stocky. He was leaning over his newspaper, his hands resting in the air by his head, fingers twitching.
"Didn't stay out?" he asked, speaking to the stocks section.
"Too cold and I had to use the john."
"I picked the Pippins. And I put in the cows, just so you know." He stamped up the stairs.
Once in his room, he twisted his hands, rolling his wrists. Then he fell onto his bed.
Jed's bedroom was a corner room, and he shared it with two girls. His sisters slept on a mattress on the ground. His boots dangled off the footboard as he looked out of the window. The forest pushed against the house, giving the glass a claustrophobic view of flaky pines. He flipped ahead in his journal and started scrawling. His script was thick and tense.
"His father's hands flashed out and grabbed the girl by the collar, jerking her forward out of the pantry.
"'Do not touch her.' The son found that he had climbed onto the sofa cushions and had jumped over its back and he had his father up against the closet door in a clatter of two seconds and his sister was running like a hen between their bodies, ducking and sprinting to the stairs. He could hear her chattering sandal shoes on the wood and he raised his fist and pointed his finger between the fat of his father’s rib bones, his chest so big. His father seemed small and actually to shrink. 'Do not touch her. Don’t do it. Don’t prove that point. Don’t teach that. Don’t go that far.'
"His father's back hit the wall with a startling thump. He looked up, his face a mask of wrinkles and ugly violet shadows. He looked scared, as if his son had become someone else in his imagination. At that, the boy suddenly dropped his hand."
Sunny had walked in. Jed shut his notebook closed with a clap, and reached down to throw it underneath the bed. Then he came up and lay on his back. He put his arms under his head and crossed his legs. He knocked his boots together.
"Kid," he said, uncrossing his legs.
"Yeah, what is it?"
She was standing in front of the full-length, spotted mirror. Her belly was distended and nut-colored, and she was barefoot as a baby porpoise, wearing only jeans.
“Do you ever just think – I’m me?”
He cocked his head. “All the time, baby.”
“I exist. Like. I am me.” She scanned her body with her little hands. “I am this. I am in here.” She looked around. “I am looking out of my eyes. And I am here in this room."
"I know. I feel that way a lot."
"But why? How am in this body? How am I alive? How am I here?”
“I don’t know.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed and leaned his elbows on his knees. “It blows me away." At that, he laughed loudly. And his laughter rose freely from his gut like an ageless ship unanchored.
She pulled her thumbs through the loops of her jeans and regarded him. She grinned so that her big front teeth showed. Sunshine from the window flared over her blonde bob and coruscated down her caramel cheek bones. “It is just strange.”
“I know, honey. But isn't it wonderful?”
She nodded, and then her gaze scanned the ceiling, the sun, the books, as if Jed, having affirmed her experience, no longer existed to her. Then she yelped,
“I’m going swing-vining!” and leaped -- long-legged, lean-shanked -- over the mattress on the floor.
As she banged out of the room, Jed laughed lushly again.
“You know, you and I never step out together.”
“What do you mean we never step out?” picking a sassafras leaf. “We're out right now.”
“We're out in the woods. I mean go to dances and to get sodas.”
“Oh. I don’t care for all that.”
“I doubt that. You go sometimes.”
“But I prefer --” he said, struggling to put words to his impassioned thoughts. “I mean, our friendship is the woods sort of friendship. The stove kind, the lake kind -- where we stay alone and talk. I don’t want everyone else around. I guess I'm possessive of you,” with a diluting laugh. “I want you and your mind all to myself.”
But she continued as if she had not heard him.
“An isolated friendship can’t survive. We only know each other through one-on-one experiences. People are very different in public, in social settings.”
He tossed the leaf away and put his hands into his pockets. He didn’t want to say, “I don’t care.”
“I think we should try to step out more. Broaden the horizons of our friendship. I’m afraid you’ll be tired of me one day.”
“No!” instantaneously, zealously. “Never, Aggie. Listen. We’ve been friends since we were sixteen, and have we ever run out of things to talk about?”
“So. See. There.”
“But our interactions aren’t well-rounded. I don’t want you to ever turn around and blame me for our fading-out because we didn’t give ourselves a variety of experiences. If you do, I’ll tell you I tried to make us do things. Host dinner parties and go skating.”
“I won’t ever reproach you with that. Because our fading-out will never happen.”
"Still, as a favor to me --"
“Why don’t you take me to the dance this Friday? At Hubbard’s farm.”
Writhed. His arm shot up and grasped a grape leaf; he yanked it and pulled it down with a bushy snap.
“What, am I too ugly for you?” Dimpling, she poked his shoulder.
“What? No! No.”
“Are you embarrassed of me? Am I too uncouth?”
“For goodness’ sake, Ag.”
“It’s alright if you feel that way.”
“Just tell me if you feel that way.”
"Dinner in the diner
Nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham an' eggs
The record player was squalling out "The Chattanooga Choo Choo", and Jed was sprawled on the armchair, upholstered with an offensive pattern of mauve flowers. His feet were over the arm and a book was held high above his head. The room was full of sisters.
"Jeepers. Can’t we shut that off soon?"
"Then how about 'A Sentimental Journey'?" picking up another record.
"But you love Doris Day."
"I do not."
"All boys do."
"I love..." he said, raising his eyebrows romantically, "Edna."
"Stockbridge?" whooped a sister.
"St. Vincent Millay."
"What! Who? There's no Millay here."
"He means the poet."
"Oh. Well. If you don't start stepping out soon, I fancy you won't be with anyone," airily.
"That's not true, Minnie!" said Sunny, burrowing her cheek in her brother’s hair. "Jed's going to marry a princess."
“And live in a castle?”
“For your information, Minnie –” he threw his book onto the ground and strung his hands over his eyes, “I am going with Aggie to the dance tomorrow night.”
“What other Aggie is there?”
“What?” lifting a finger over his eye. “Do you not approve of her?”
“I do. So long as she’s not your sweetheart.”
“Well, she’s not. We’re friends.”
“But ain't she in love with you?”
“I dunno,” he said. Then Jed felt a stab of conscience.
He picked up his book again, but the pulse of the poetry had become shallow as "A Little Bird" sizzled and popped out of the record player.
"A man can't read poetry here," slapping his book shut. He walked out into the night air where he could hear his soul think.
The stars were tight and ringing, and he felt he should have defended the privacy of Aggie's heart.
"Lying there by the fireplace," he heard the song through the parlor window, wavering out in gentler tones now, muted and altered. "A goldfish pond and a wishing well."
It was an orange tin of Murray's.
Jed hesitated, and then struck a match over the pomade. He held it there until the yellow waxiness dribbled into oil. He threw the match into the sink where it sizzled out. He slicked his fingers across the surface, and then rubbed the product between his palms briskly. He passed his hands over his head. He parted his hair to the side, and combed the blackness up and back.
"Ooh, lookit the buck," hee-hawed Virginia, sticking her head into the door.
"Shaddap," he said, flicking the towel at her face. She stuck her tongue out at him and disappeared. He pocketed the comb.
When picking up Aggie, he saw that she was wearing a white shirtwaist and a plaid skirt, and patent leather shoes. Her dirty handkerchief was gone and her hair looked as if a brush had been roughed through it, and two bobby pins were jabbed at crooked angles above her ears. Her shirt was untucked.
Jed pulled her arm through his. “Now we’re going to have a good time!"
Her body was vibrating under his elbow. "I'm bad. I know I'm going to be terrible at dancing! I have two knocking knees."
"You're going to be splendid," he said.
They got into the truck. He noticed that she had a film of dirt under some fingernails, and flaps of hangnails, which she began to gnaw once seated.
“Stop,” he said.
He put his hand over hers.
“Don’t be nervous.”
“I’m not. I’m just jittery.”
“We’ll have a good time.”
"I know... I'm just... when I get in a group with a lot of people..."
"I understand." He started the engine.
She jabbed her fingers into her hair. "But why? Why do I get like this, Jed?" She scrunched her hair vigorously. It made it worse, like a house sparrow's nest. Jed wanted to reach over and smooth it down, but he squeezed the steering wheel instead.
"You're fine. You're alright." He eased the truck down the bumpy lane.
"It's just... I get so anxious. I'm so stupid."
"Do you not want to go?"
"No, no; I do."
He slowed the truck. "Because I could almost imagine pulling over right now, and walking through that woods. The moon will rise soon."
"No. We need to go." She dropped her hands, slid them under her thighs, and sat on them. "You and I need to do this."
"Alright." He pressed the gas pedal. "It's up to you."
She rocked back and forth. "I just never know what to say. Or where to position myself. Or how to be. Or will people accept me -"
"Everyone loves you. Let me tell you why. You are kind. You are intelligent." He held her attention, so he set a net over his mind to catch his thoughts like soggy fish. "When other people talk, you focus on them with your whole soul. I've never seen someone so present. You have eyes that show your interest so intensely. And you receive what people say - you drink in their every word. It's obvious. And you are passionate about what you believe - it shows in every gesture. But not only that - you are hungry to know what others believe."
"That's right. I want to garner the world's opinions, take them in like a harvest, and sift them through to see if they're worthy of being added to my own."
"But you respect others' opinions, too."
"Unless they are stupid."
Jed twiddled on the wheel. "Well..."
"Oh, what they believe," said Aggie, "not the people themselves. Don't get your soft heart up in a knot. People aren't stupid, but they can believe very idiotic things."
When they arrived, Aggie detached herself from Jed's side and, with a smile on her face, took several large steps to the refreshment table, where she took the ladle right out of the punch bowl and wheezed an enormous glass of punch for herself, sloshing the liquid in. "You've got to have refreshments first," she said loudly to the person next to her, an old lady with sagging folds under her arms, shown clearly through her tight blue dress. The lady murmured something like,
"Yes, yes, dear, you must."
"You've got to wet the whistle, I always say!"
"That's right, pet," said the old lady while turning away. Jed quickly ran up to Aggie, who was slurping down her drink, head back, white throat bobbing.
"Let's jump right in," he said, taking her arm. "The next dance is starting."
"Well, just wait while I --" She turned to refill her glass, reaching her arms away from him.
"No, no, we're going to miss it, you goose."
"You dance by yourself, then. I don't mind." She grabbed the ladle. "I'll watch. I'll pick up some steps. I'll share sly secrets with sycophants on the sidelines about the sinister mass mentality of set dancing. Ooh, that was a slippery bit," she licked her lips. "Wasn't it. Salving our sorrowful singlehood." Then she gasped aloud. "Those. Those things. I haven't seen them since - my mother used to make them." She picked up a chocolate cheesecake cupcake with a maraschino cherry on top. "Jed, this is already turning into a marvelous night."
"Aggie, do you not want to dance?" he asked in a low voice.
"What makes you think that?" She licked her tongue right into the chocolate frosting, and popped her mouth on her thumb. "I'm just revving up the engine. Getting some sugar in my legs. Jitter-bug, jitter-bug." She started pattering her feet and holding up her cupcake.
"We're going to miss the beginning of the set. Come on; I don't want to leave you behind. Just one dance. I'll walk you through it; we will go to a slower line."
"I know how to dance, Jed. Don't be patronizing."
"I know. I know. You're an amazing dancer, but - they're starting."
"Oh, alright. Alright." She threw her cupcake in a crumpled-up napkin on the side of the table. "Bottoms up. Let's knock this one out. I can feel it in my bones: I'm going to be killer-diller."
"I know you will, too," he said, taking her arm tenderly. "You have natural grace."
"Find your partners! Quickly! Start in swing position."
Aggie and Jed stood near the open fireplace. She squared herself in front of him, with lively, dilated eyes. It was like the squaring of a soldier for war.
"Now -" said Jed, but before he could take her in his arms, she darted out her left hand and grabbed a chunk of his skin, right at his hip bone.
"Oompf," he said, curving inward, and then hid his reaction. He place his hand over hers gently, and declawed her. "Alright, here, girl." He guided her left hand up to his shoulder. "Rest on me right here."
"There. There; right."
"Now, do you know how to spin?"
"I know how to spin. I've been to these dances before, you know. I've just forgotten a bit. It will come back to me like magic."
"Like riding a bike."
"Soon as the music starts." She nipped out her own tune. Jed watched her turn inward: the transformation and separation. She folded her lips, half-creased her eyes, her furze of hair falling over her forehead. Tap, tap, went her shoe, without the music. Tap, tap. Hum-diddily hum.
Rib, rib. A caterwaul and -- "Sah-wing your partner!" It had begun. And before she could do anything, Jed hooked her into a swing that made her shriek. Then open-mouthed like a jack-o-lantern, and silent.
Aggie stumbled and fell onto a chair. She slid down and stuck her legs out wide and open, arms dangling almost to the floor.
"I know it," he said, sitting down and panting. He took up a bulletin paper on the seat next to her and fanned her. "You did so well."
She folded herself back up. "I did, didn't I? Oh, I knocked out those figures."
"So hard." Fanned.
"Just right down the middle. Like an ace. There is nothing but dancing in this world!"
"How about dancing on the moon?"
"There's no gravity there. You fool."
"Oh. Right. I just thought, under our colorless sunset --"
"Maybe atomic warfare is exactly what this country needs to shake us up out of our apathetic consciousness," said a bulky man.
Aggie twitched her body to the side, and Jed stopped flapping the paper. He could almost see an antennae flick out of her right ear, at the very flushed tip, turning towards the men who had sat down next to her.
Jed flapped the paper again, harder. "Say, how about the next one? I think we can improve on our dip."
"I'm going to sit this one out. Until I get my strength up." Yes, she was definitely listening to her neighbors.
"There's real life out there, in war. That's what we discovered, if anything, on the front. Soldiers know something the rest of the population don't."
"No, no." Even her head was turned away. "You go ahead. Ask one of those --" she flopped a hand, "fairy girls over there. Fairy-foppity. Flippity-fip."
"Like a sense of vitality. Like everything really matters, and yet nothing really matters."
"I think that's an absolutely disgusting philosophy on life."
Aggie had jerked her pointed knees directly into their conversation. The speaker looked up, startled and sleepy. But then his eyes scissored onto her.
"Oh, no," said Jed, and realized too late that he had said it aloud.
Aggie blazed, "I mean, it's a correct philosophy in one sense. That life is too serious to take too seriously. But to believe you can only come to that conclusion through war, and atomic global war at that -- really? -- I think that's just repulsive and reprehensible."
"And are you going to tell us how to come to the conclusion?"
"Well, there are many ways to come to it," said Jed quickly, "that sense of being alive." He creased and unfolded his paper. "And I know that war is actually one of them, because, see, my father was in France, and when he came back, he seemed so much more aware of things. He talked about things he never talked about before. He also has gotten really laid-back about things he used to be tense about. Like he's let go of his hold on life in some ways, but in good ways. I don't know."
His paper was disintegrating fast. Jed hardly knew what he was saying, and nobody was looking at him.
"Art," fired Aggie.
"Oh, you're one of those," said the man.
"Yes, I'm one of those people that believes that there are ways to expand our human potential other than mass murder. Aren't I strange!"
"Aggie. You're not strange." Jed's voice was low and tense, as if talking to only her. "But you have to remember they've been places we haven't."
"So I'm barred from having an opinion on the topic? On whether I think we should descend into atomic warfare just to stimulate us into living more intensely? When a ****ing painting or novel can do the exact same thing."
"The tongue on her," said the man.
"Sure, be a nursery maid," said Aggie. "Oh, the tongue on me. Oh, the fact that my heart actually blisters when I hear men like you talk. Men that would like to see this world go up in smoke because they're actually sick of all they saw and they can't express that in reality their hearts have died. They haven't become more vital, more alive. Their hearts have died."
"Oh, fudge, Aggie," said Jed.
"Is she codding us?"
"Or not their heart, but their hope," Aggie modified. "They all went out, bold as boys and young and strong, with a sense they were saving the world, and came back broken, knowing how infinitesimal we really are. Helpless and hopeless and can't do anything, except swim in the chaos and make the best of it. You should have just read a book. You would have come to the same conclusion."
"-- She means you in a universal sense," said Jed. "We've had this discussion a lot of times before, and we were talking in a very general sense."
"And if you wanted to feel alive, you should also have just picked up a novel. Or stood at least five minutes before a painting. Or listened to a Beethoven sonata. Those don't give answers but they help us know the questions and to live the questions beautifully."
Jed was rolling the corner of his paper fitfully. The edge was near disintegration. A girl in a powder blue dress squirmed past them, her skirt rustling lusciously against their knees.
"See, I think art is a --"
"Hey cookie, are you rationed?"
"Sorry, buster; all filled up."
"-- a plane on which we meet each other on equal terms, open to compassion --"
And a woman in a slinky silk, dangling a cigarette between her fingers:
"I want the next with you, sugar."
"Then you'll just have to wait till I've caught my breath." She perched herself on his knee. Her silk was yellow. "Won't you."
"Yeah, you'll need your breath."
"-- and it's a response to the world from our very gut."
"From our guts!" zinged the woman, parting her raspberry lips.
"This little lady is giving her opinion on the war," said the man.
"No, no. Not only my opinion. I'm sharing my opinion, but I want to hear yours, too. And yours, and even yours. Oh, please. This is what I love. This is the beauty of mankind, spilling our souls and sharing our thoughts. Don't you agree?"
"Sure, baby girl," said the woman.
"And I especially want your opinion afterwards, because you're female, and I think you could weigh in in a particular way."
Jed stood. "It would be amazing to finish this and hear all that," he said, "except that the waltz is starting right now. And you know you promised me a waltz."
"Then you were imagining things, my birch king, because we never talked about a waltz."
"Well, I promised myself that I would dance a waltz with you. It's beautiful. It's really special. Please, don't stand me up."
Then the eyes of the woman in the yellow silk flicked up at him. Her eyes were hazel, fuzzed with green. He felt as if they raked him to say, "Nobleman."
"Aggie," he repeated in a low voice to her.
But the tone failed to beguile her. She waved her hand at him. "Go and find one of those wallflowers. They need it. Ask someone else to dance. Or try the cheesecake. Art really contains potent potential for social change. It strikes iron fear into the hearts of those in power. And it's the first thing to be suppressed whenever there is --"
So he walked away.