Excerpt

“Love is the Sky”

Andre Dubus

December 3, 2018 
The following is from Andre Dubus' collection, The Cross Country Runner. The short stories and novellas in the collection navigate a wide range of issues and topics, from racial tension in the Navy, to a detective story homage, a Hispanic shortstop, and the unlikely pairing of an 11-year-old and a dangerous Vietnam vet. Andre Dubus wrote short stories and essays. He graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and taught creative writing at Bradford College.

but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough

–e. e. cummings

The November sun was distant and the sky hazy pale blue and, although it was not two o’clock yet and the Scottish Highlanders were still doing their pre-game show on the field, the afternoon seemed to be fading into evening. Curtis Boudreaux was not watching the Highlanders. He was fifty-four years old, short and bulky, and his brown topcoat tightened across his back and shoulders whenever he leaned forward to pour from his flask. His neck was large and seemed to be straining against his starched white collar, as if trying to burst free, and he did not look like a man who wore a necktie six days a week, though he was. His face was red and brown and had been for years, and a shock of his thick dry greying hair jutted out over his forehead. The sounds of drums and bagpipe music were somehow in his mind and he was breathing the cold late fall air, but he was sensuously conscious of little save the taste of bourbon (he was sipping it) and its pleasing heartburning descent from his throat to stomach.

Sitting as he was, his paunch pressed against his belt and protruded over it; that squeezing at his waist usually made him think of heart attacks, but now he was not aware of his constricted belly, nor even of his own mortality. He was watching the director of the all-girl Scottish Highlanders. The director stood on the sidelines, wearing a light grey suit and a dark unbuttoned topcoat and a bow tie; he had white hair and a thin white mustache and his pale face, Curtis thought, was the face of a man in pain. He was smiling at his girls on the field. Curtis was sitting beside Doctor Dwight Landry on the fifty yard line, bottom row, and Dwight had just told him the band director was dying of cancer.

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The Highlanders marched to the north end zone, where the university band was already waiting, then the crowd roared and Curtis looked across the field at the green-and-gold visiting team running out, single file; and he looked to his right and saw the home team coming from that end of the grandstand: white pants and red helmets and red jerseys with large white numerals, and they reminded him of power and strength, of hard men moving Westward. He looked away from them: leaned over and slipped the flask from his inside coat pocket and, holding the paper cup down between his ankles, he poured. When he straightened again he looked for the band director and found him standing at one end of the players’ bench, looking across the field at his Highlanders in the end zone, then moving backward until his legs touched the bench and, with his arms stretched down behind him, he eased himself downward and sat.

He didn’t sit long. The announcer asked the crowd to stand for the National Anthem and Curtis watched the director as he pushed up slowly from the bench, stood erectly, and removed his hat and placed it over his heart. From where Curtis stood, he looked over the director’s white head and past the red jerseys of the players, at the university band in solid red uniforms, their gold instruments shining and flashing, and at the Highlanders in plaid and red. Beyond them were the pale blue sky and cold sun. With his hand over his heart—quickened by more hours of drinking than he had done in years—Curtis felt that a bond far greater than blood joined him and the director and Dwight Landry. For just as Dwight knew of the fatal growth in the director’s stomach, he also knew of Curtis’s pain and had in fact prescribed the pint of bourbon which filled his flask.

He was watching the director of the all-girl Scottish Highlanders. The director stood on the sidelines, wearing a light grey suit and a dark unbuttoned topcoat and a bow tie; he had white hair and a thin white mustache and his pale face, Curtis thought, was the face of a man in pain.

Nearly two hours earlier, when Curtis called him to ask if he still had an extra ticket, Dwight had been kind enough to merely answer the question and not to ask why, on Dad’s Day, Curtis was not going to the game with his son. When Dwight picked him up at the motel Curtis had told him anyway, not wanting to but unable to stop himself, cursing angrily to keep from crying, and never once looking at Dwight behind the wheel of the Lincoln. Oh my God, Dwight had said, are you sure? Curtis had rolled down the window and thrown out his cigar and said: Sure as my own name—and Dwight had pulled in at a liquor store and looked down at the nearly empty fifth in Curtis’s hand and said: You better get refueled. It’ll be a long afternoon.

 

2

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In Curtis Boudreaux’s home in Baton Rouge, on the wall of what Martha called the library, there were four portraits of equal size. The first was his paternal grandfather who had been a doctor in a small town in Louisiana and had sired four daughters and two sons and was—as Curtis’s father told it—a caustic but loving patriarch whose children never properly returned that love until they were old enough to understand his manner. Perhaps because of that, Curtis’s father—whose portrait was next—had been a companion as well as a molder of character. He had been a building contractor and, when a heart attack killed him one summer afternoon on the clipped lawn of his house in Baton Rouge, he was wealthy. In memories made suddenly vivid by a couple of drinks or by leaving his house on black early mornings for a day of hunting or fishing, Curtis recalled his father as the man standing beside him in duck blinds or sitting at the opposite end of a skiff.

His own portrait was next, painted in 1940 when he was twenty-nine years old and had three daughters. That year he had placed an empty frame on the wall beside his portrait. It hung there for six years. He joined the Navy in January 1942, leaving Martha pregnant, and she had their fourth daughter while he was on a destroyer in the Pacific.

Then in 1946 she delivered a son. Curtis drove home from the hospital that night, removed the frame from the wall, told his daughters that Jack (named for Curtis’s father) was ugly as hell but boys weren’t supposed to be pretty anyway, and called some friends to come over for a stag celebration.

When Jack’s portrait was painted eighteen years later and hung where the empty frame had been, Curtis knew little more about his son than he had known when the boy was three hours old: he knew his height and weight. He knew some history too but he did not understand it.

Now Jack was in a college about a hundred miles from Baton Rouge and for the first six week-ends he had not come home. Then he surprised Curtis by asking him to the football game on Dad’s Day. The letter was addressed to Curtis only, not Mr. and Mrs., and it was mailed to Curtis’s office: a short letter, but in Jack’s voice—so much his voice that Curtis got up and crossed his carpeted office and closed the door and returned to his desk where he sat for a while, reading the letter again, holding it flat on the glass-topped desk. Then he answered it.

He wrote on a small sheet of paper. In its upper left hand corner was the name of the insurance company whose Louisiana branch he managed. A note from Curtis Boudreaux was written in script at the top of the paper, and Curtis’s picture was in the upper right hand corner. There was not much space for a letter.

Still, after the first easy and even spontaneous sentence—I’ll be very happy to come for Dad’s Day—Curtis paused. Then he wrote. I’ll come Friday night and—He looked at Jack’s picture on the desk, then at the large picture of Jefferson Davis on the knotty pine wall, and remembered bringing Jack to the office two years ago, when he was sixteen.

The one-story Jefferson Davis Building had been a month old then, and Curtis owned half of it. He and his employees occupied that half. He had shown Jack all of it and introduced him to young energetic agents who said afterward he was a nice kid and they reckoned he was a chip off the old block and would be selling any time now, and to the young secretaries who said he was cute and would break many a heart before he settled down. And Jack had smiled and said Glad to meet you and had walked quietly through the air-conditioned carpeted rooms and looked at the picture of Jefferson Davis and the slogans about success and ambition which hung in the corridor. He said it certainly was a nice building.

The letter was addressed to Curtis only, not Mr. and Mrs., and it was mailed to Curtis’s office: a short letter, but in Jack’s voice—so much his voice that Curtis got up and crossed his carpeted office and closed the door and returned to his desk where he sat for a while, reading the letter again, holding it flat on the glass-topped desk.

Then Curtis had taken him outside and down the sidewalk in the June heat, trying to recall his own childhood, wondering if he and his father had really been so close or if he just remembered it that way. But still he remembered not only doing things with his father but talking as well. Often he had gone to look at buildings under construction and he had drunk ice water from dippers hanging on sweating water cans and asked his father questions, not to be polite but because he wanted to know: why were steel rods laid in the ditches before cement foundations were poured, and why did men belong to unions and why couldn’t one man do all kinds of work and how much was a foreman paid. That was what he remembered and he knew it was true. He glanced at Jack walking beside him, his thin soft arms pink from the first sunburn of summer, his profiled face oblivious of Curtis, who suddenly felt as if for sixteen years he and Jack had been walking side by side, without a word. He said Let’s get some coffee and they went into a cafe and ordered it with doughnuts. The waitress was young and had on too much make-up so that she wasn’t really pretty, but she was friendly and Curtis called her Sunshine and winked at Jack, who smiled—either at the flirtation or the wink, and for a shameful moment Curtis was certain it was the wink. While they blew on their coffee and sipped it and ate doughnuts, Curtis explained to Jack that life insurance was more than just selling: it was service, and a good insurance agent was an extra member of a policy holder’s family.

Now at his desk he read the beginning of his sentence: I’ll come on Friday night and—He thought for a while longer then wrote: we can eat crawfish bisque and have a few drinks. Then he was about to ask if maybe Jack had plans for Friday night and, if so, to let him know and he would come Saturday in time for the game. But he did not. He wrote: Love, Daddy, and mailed it.

 

3

The college Jack was attending had integrated its dormitories for the first time that year and they allowed freshmen to live off campus if they wished. Three weeks after school started, Jack had explained this in a letter and asked for an increase in his allowance so he could move into an apartment with a friend. It wasn’t that he minded living with Negroes, he wrote, but he thought a nice apartment would be more conducive to studying. Curtis had mailed him a check immediately and said he was glad Jack was getting out.

It was a small low-roofed brick apartment on the corner of a street of large old houses and trees stripped by autumn. On the Friday evening before the game Curtis was sitting in the living room, drinking bourbon and water while Jack dressed in the bedroom. He reached over and turned down the stereo, which had been playing something classical and somber when he arrived, and now there was a piano without melody and a frenzied saxophone.

“Is your roommate going out with us?” he called.

“No.”

“Where did you say he was?”

“Supper, I guess.”

There was something about the way he said that, and Curtis squinted in a mock frown and looked around the room. Its order had surprised him when he first entered. He had expected dirty clothes on the floor and school books on the furniture and beer cans emptied a week ago. But everything was in place and, except for the one he was using, even the ash trays were clean.

He finished the drink and went to the kitchen for another. When he opened the refrigerator he was certain. There was a ham under waxed paper, and through the glass top of the vegetable bin he could see carrots and lettuce and tomatoes and—yes: even a head of cabbage—and behind the ham was a portion of apple pie, homemade if he had ever seen one, with strips of pastry laid on the brown sugared apples. He was grinning when he slid the ice tray from the freezer compartment.

The little bastard, he thought warmly, it only took him three weeks.

He mixed the drink and went to the bathroom and stood in the doorway and watched Jack knotting his tie at the mirror.

“Beats hell out of the seminary, don’t it?” he said.

“Beats hell out of the seminary,” Jack said, finishing his knot, then going past Curtis, into the bedroom. Curtis followed him. Except for the paperbacks on both bedside tables and a barbell on the floor, it could have been a motel room. Curtis looked slyly at the double bed and the books, thinking she must be a student—and of course she was, because Jack had always gone for the intellectual type—and he hoped this one was better looking and a bit more down to earth than the others.

“You and your buddy share the bed?” Curtis said.

Jack was getting a coat from the closet and he answered with his back turned:

“He sleeps on the couch.”

“Yeah, how’d you manage that?”

“Tough guy,” Jack said, facing him now and smiling as he flexed his right arm.

“I noticed. When did you start the weights?”

“A while back. Sharpens the mind, I think.”

Curtis finished the drink and they left. As Jack circled the front of the Cadillac to get in the other side, Curtis looked at his shoulders: they seemed broader and his chest thicker and his face was tanned.

Curtis squinted in a mock frown and looked around the room. Its order had surprised him when he first entered. He had expected dirty clothes on the floor and school books on the furniture and beer cans emptied a week ago. But everything was in place and, except for the one he was using, even the ash trays were clean.

Curtis drove to a seafood restaurant and they ordered drinks and oysters on the half shell and crawfish bisque. Halfway through his second drink, Curtis said:

“I saw the stuff in your refrigerator. Who does all the cooking?”

“My roommate’s a bit of a gourmet.”

“Gourmet, huh? He bake that pie?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Must be nice.”

After the oysters, while they were waiting for the bisque, Curtis went to the phone booth and called Dwight Landry.

“How you doing, pro?” he said.

“Pro, hell: I hadn’t broke eighty in a month. Who’s that? Boudreaux?”

“That’s me.”

“Making money all the time too. Look, you just the man—I got two tickets for the fifty tomorrow, front row. You want to make it?”

“I’m going with Jack. For Dad’s Day. That is, if he don’t spend all afternoon engaging in indoor sport.”

“That right?”

“I don’t know, Dwight. I tell you, these kids catch on fast.”

Then he chuckled and asked Dwight to bring his wife to Baton Rouge for the week-end of the Tulane-L.S.U. game. Dwight said that was a fine plan and he would come a day early so they could play golf and they talked about it until Curtis said he had to go eat his bisque.

“You tell Jack to be careful,” Dwight said. “I got more maternity cases than I can handle now.”

“I’ll tell him, pro. I’m beginning to see why he didn’t become a priest.”

When he walked back to the table he was grinning at Jack, who two years earlier had announced that he was going to be a priest. And though Curtis had been greatly disappointed at having produced a celibate son, he had not objected. He had remembered his own father’s refusal to interfere in his children’s affairs; he had reminded himself that it was a blessing to have a son become a priest; and, most of all, he had tried to make a final gesture. Perhaps Jack would remember him as an understanding father. Then after nine months in the seminary Jack had a nervous breakdown and came home. For a while Curtis had been concerned about his health, but soon he was only relieved and hopeful.

Curtis finished his bisque and said:

“You still going to be a psychiatrist?”

“Yes.”

“Long time in school. Course you’ll make good money once you get out—” He paused, thinking maybe he wouldn’t say it after all, but he had drunk too much and he said it, with a bitterness he had not intended: “But your man Johnson got elected. Maybe by the time you start practice he’ll have psychiatry socialized too.”

Jack blushed and, holding a crawfish with two fingers, he dug the stuffing out with his spoon.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said.

“Well, those letters you wrote—and they were good mature letters—but I think you’re misinformed on some of the issues.”

“Not the big one. There’s this ROTC colonel—”

“You in the ROTC?”

“No, but Ed and I were chatting with him and some of his Bircher minions—”

“Who’s Ed?”

“My roommate.”

“Oh?” Curtis said, and unwrapped a cigar and offered one to Jack, who shook his head and lit a cigarette. “Okay, but look—there’s no use talking politics. You’re young and away from home and thinking for yourself, and that’s healthy. I never fought politics with my daddy, but that was ‘cause I didn’t know anything. I was too busy trying to drink all the bars dry and get in the gals’ britches.”

He leaned back, grinning around his cigar, and watched Jack draining his coffee cup. Then he drank his own and they left.

On the sidewalk a group of students, perhaps five couples, walked past Curtis and Jack and turned into a bar. Past their heads and shoulders and through the open door, Curtis saw that the bar was dark and crowded with young people and he heard jukebox music. He slapped Jack’s shoulder lightly, not as spontaneously as he had wanted to.

“Want to go in?” he said.

“It’s not the most peaceful place in the world.”

“Hell, I might wear out but I won’t rust. I don’t need peace—and I’m not talking about Goldwater, either.”

He laughed and took Jack’s elbow and guided him to the door. They found a small booth and sat opposite each other and ordered bourbon and water. Beside them, about three feet away, the couples they had followed in were sitting at a round table. Jack nodded to them and a girl smiled and two boys lifted their hands, briefly and quietly.

“Friends of yours?” Curtis said.

“Not really.”

Curtis watched a girl with long blonde hair sitting between two boys at the table, moving her body to the music as she talked. She noticed Curtis and he grinned and winked and she looked surprised; then she turned away. Curtis glanced at Jack, but apparently he had not seen. He looked at the girl again: she was still turned, profiled to him, accepting a light from a tall boy with a crewcut. Curtis sipped his drink and watched her with paternal fondness. She was only a child and she had thought he was an old lecher making a pass. She could have been one of his own daughters.

All his married life Curtis had thought being a father necessarily meant having a son. He had felt that his four daughters were sweet little people whom he should praise and watch lovingly as they grew. His only real concern had been with their virginity, and when the last girl married he had assumed that each daughter, as she held his arm and strode up the aisle to the waiting priest and groom, had been innocent.

You didn’t worry about that with boys, as long as they were careful: you worried about what sort of men they would be. And now—well, now he looked proudly at Jack, thinking they had never done anything together, but that didn’t count anyway: what really mattered was a successful psychiatrist in Baton Rouge or New Orleans maybe and some knot-headed grandsons (her children? no: boys outgrew those girls) and he said loudly, over the music:

“Did you join a fraternity?”

“No.”

Curtis looked at the couples beside them. He had done it again. Before leaving Baton Rouge that day he had resolved to avoid two subjects: politics and fraternities. The first had been mentioned too often in Jack’s letters, especially in the last week before election, and the second had not been mentioned at all.

“Oh, I was rushed,” Jack said, “but I refused to even attend rush parties. It’s all so phony.”

The two boys flanking the blonde were staring coldly at Curtis. He swallowed from his drink and relit his cigar. By God, had she told them he was making a pass? He had a horrifying image of the boys picking a fight with him, and Jack shamed but having to defend him anyway.

“Hey,” he said, “how did you get so tan in November?”

Jack lit a cigarette before answering quietly:

“A heat lamp.”

“A heat lamp? How come?”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to admit it’s nothing but vanity.”

Curtis chuckled and said warmly:

“Hell, I know what you mean. I used to spend more time in front of the mirror than my sisters.”

When the last girl married he had assumed that each daughter, as she held his arm and strode up the aisle to the waiting priest and groom, had been innocent. You didn’t worry about that with boys, as long as they were careful: you worried about what sort of men they would be.

“I have to get rid of some booze,” Jack said, and slid out of the booth and went to the men’s room, walking gracefully around the dancers on the floor: couples facing each other, their bodies twitching and somehow jerking smoothly. Curtis grinned and shook his head. Then he looked at the blonde again and the boys beside her. They were across the table and he did not want to raise his voice, so he reached out and touched the shoulder of a boy sitting with his back turned. The boy looked around and Curtis signalled to the waitress and said:

“Let me buy you kids a round.”

The boy said nothing. He was looking angrily at Curtis’s hand on his shoulder, and Curtis withdrew it and looked across the table at the blonde. She stared back scornfully, and the boy Curtis had touched said:

“No thanks, buddy. We’re integrated.”

“Integrated?”

All the young faces were quietly watching him. Only the blonde’s face changed: as his eyes met hers she grinned and bit her lip.

“That’s right,” the boy said. “Girls and boys at this table.”

He was already turning his back on Curtis when he said:

“Stick to your friend there.”

And Curtis pulled back, recoiled, then sat with his shoulders hunched forward and clutched his glass, trembling furiously, and after a while he saw Jack coming around the dancing couples again, gliding like a halfback past the jerking buttocks of a girl.

“Funny way to dance,” Curtis said when Jack sat down.

“Sublimation,” Jack said.

They finished their drinks and left and Curtis felt the couples watching him as he walked to the door.

 

4

He did not tell Jack. He drove silently, thinking he had been afraid of shaming Jack if someone accused him of making a pass at a girl—but that was nothing: those kids had thought he was a queer. Never, never in his life—why, Goddammit, never. He had been approached a few times in bars when he was Jack’s age and even now the memory of those persistent voices disgusted him. When he was twenty years old he had hit one: had just slipped off the bar stool and swung in outrage and revulsion, and the man had backed away, a handkerchief pressed against his bleeding nose, petulantly cursing as he left the bar and Curtis’s life.

The little sonsobitches—

Then he stopped at Jack’s apartment. There was a light inside, and Curtis’s heart quickened and his throat went dry just as if he were a boy again, about to meet his blind date. But Jack was saying:

“I’ve got the tickets. Why don’t you just pick me up for early lunch and—”

“Hold on. Can’t a man get a nightcap?”

“Well—”

Curtis turned off the ignition and slid out of the car, saying:

“Hell, it’s early yet.”

While he waited for Jack to get out of the car and come to the sidewalk he had time to unwrap a cigar and light it. As they walked up the sidewalk to the front steps Curtis straightened his tie. On the steps he paused and took Jack’s arm.

“Listen, Son. Don’t worry about me telling your mother. I could see a girl’s touch in that apartment from a mile off.”

Jack was looking at the door. Then he opened it and walked in and Curtis followed, having only in that instant decided exactly what was the best thing to do: he would just be his old natural self, just shake her hand and sit down for a short drink and make some talk then get up and tell them well, I’ll see you kids tomorrow and go back to the motel.

He stopped at Jack’s apartment. There was a light inside, and Curtis’s heart quickened and his throat went dry just as if he were a boy again, about to meet his blind date.

Then he was inside, blinking at a short middle-aged man wearing a tieless white dress shirt and slacks, rising from the chair where he had been reading. The man was looking at Jack, his eyes puzzled—and afraid; Curtis saw that—then he smiled and extended his hand as Jack said:

“Daddy, this is Ed Gabbert.”

The cuff of Ed Gabbert’s sleeve was rolled up twice, his wrist was veined and hairless, and his hand was small. Curtis saw that. Jack was saying: “And this is my father.” Ed Gabbert’s shoulders were narrow and sloping and his face was large and the skin red where he shaved and his eyes were scared again. Curtis saw that too. But he did not take Ed Gabbert’s hand.

“He teaches psych,” Jack said, and started for the kitchen. “I’ll fix some—”

“Jack!” Curtis cried, and Jack turned, his mouth still open, his tan face paling, and Curtis crossed the room and started to grab Jack’s lapels but didn’t: he let his hands fall to his sides.

“Those kids at that table,” he said. “They took me for a queer.”

Behind him, Curtis heard the front door shut.

“He left?”

Jack nodded. Then Curtis turned fast and went to the easy chair and dropped in it and, looking at his hands, he said:

“Fix me that Goddamn drink.”

He did not think of anything at all. Then he heard the ice tray sliding from the freezing compartment and water running and cubes dropping into the sink, and in a voice he hadn’t heard coming from his own throat in a long time—two years ago when he had told his last daughter and her groom goodbye, just before they left under tossed rice and laughter and, before that, when he had phoned Martha from his father’s house and said: Honey, Daddy just died—he said:

“They got a cure for it.”

Ice cubes dropped into the glass—one, then another—and after a pause the faucet ran again.

“I can afford it, no matter how long it takes.”

Then he heard Jack coming and he looked down at the rug and as Jack’s shoes and trousers came into his vision he reached up for the drink. When his fingers touched Jack’s he quickly took the glass. Finally he lifted his face to drink. Jack was standing in the kitchen doorway, his back turned.

“You could even go to a different state.”

Jack turned and leaned his forehead against the doorjamb. Then he began to cry and Curtis had put down the glass and got up from the chair and was going to him when Jack said:

“I told you to come Saturday.”

Curtis stopped.

“What?”

“Why didn’t you come Saturday! I told you to come Saturday! I wanted you to come but why couldn’t you have—”

“You want to be a queer!”

Jack was crying hard and rubbing his forehead against the doorjamb.

Jack? Is that what you want?

He waited, swaying, his right arm moving back and forth at his side.

“Do you want to be a queer?”

Then he was moving forward and he grabbed Jack’s shoulder, the wool bunched in his hand and his fingers squeezing bone, and he jerked and spun Jack around, cocking his right arm. But he did not swing. He released the bone and wool and slowly backed to the door.

“How long you been that way?” he said, still backing.

Jack’s head was lowered, his chin covering his tie knot; he had stopped crying and he was sniffling and wiping his eyes. Curtis reached the door.

“I’ll keep sending money,” he said. “Even if he’s got enough for—” He waved his hand at the furniture and books and stereo. “He’s old. He’s old enough to—”

He opened the door.

“Don’t you come home,” he said. “Don’t you ever come home again.”

He left Jack standing at the kitchen door, his head lowered, one hand wiping his eyes, the other tugging at the bottom of his coat.

 

5

So on that fading afternoon of sun and color Curtis sat drunk beside Dwight Landry and at half-time, when the Scottish Highlanders marched on the field again, he watched the director smiling at his girls on the field and pacing gingerly up and down the sidelines, as if cancer were something you must not jar. And maybe it was. Curtis didn’t know.

“The poor bastard,” he said.

He sipped from his paper cup and watched the Highlanders moving about like people hurrying across a downtown intersection, then they emerged into a square formation, facing him. They began to play.

“Maybe I was too hard on him,” Curtis said.

In seconds, as Dwight’s hand came to his shoulder and squeezed it, he groped back through time. But he could not remember being severe. He had tried to do everything properly: had disciplined as his own father had, fairly and calmly.

“You’ll go crazy, you keep trying to figure it out,” Dwight said.

“They say it’s the father.”

“It don’t have to be anybody.”

Then Dwight was clapping and the crowd behind them was and Curtis did too. The Highlanders were marching off the field, coming straight toward Curtis and stepping onto the cinder track at the fifty-yard line, and turning right. The director smiled and spoke to them as they passed. Then he followed them to the end of the grandstand.

“Look, pro. Look, I’ll tell you: I always knew he was a sissy. But I swear to God I never pushed him. I never even said a word.”

“Take it easy, Boudreaux. It wasn’t you.”

The second half started and, standing for the kick-off and buttoning his topcoat which he had opened to get his flask, Curtis resolved to be quiet for the rest of the game. He pretended to watch it and he cheered or groaned or stood when Dwight did. Then in the fourth quarter Dwight said:

“That’s me.”

“Huh?”

“The P.A. I got a call.”

And he was gone, up the concrete steps. Curtis blinked at the speeding and bumping colors on the field, red-and-white and green-and-gold, and realized that he did not even know the score. It seemed that only enough time passed for him to realize that before he was looking up at Dwight’s panting worried face framed by the cold sky.

“He’s gone, Dwight. It’s all over, old pro. He’s—”

“Look. I got to run. You okay?”

“You know me, pro.”

“If I’m not back you get a cab to the house. Okay?”

He was gone again. On the field the colors moved and exploded and fell and Curtis was thinking he could get a cab and go to Jack’s apartment and sit in the easy chair and say: Well, Son, I guess I must have done something, I guess no matter how hard I tried I got off on the wrong track. No. He would not go inside. He would merely stand at the door and say: Son, I was kind of hasty last night. I hope you’ll forget about it. It’s your home and at Thanksgiving I want you to—That wasn’t it either. He would go in, whether Gabbert was there or not, and when they offered him a drink he would say: Now, I can’t stay but a minute. I got to drop by Dwight Landry’s for a while. I went to the game, it was—Then he stopped trying.

The horn was loud in his ears and the crowd was roaring behind him and, near midfield, the colors slowed and became men again and they clustered and moved off the field. The roaring changed: voices moving forward and past him as people climbed the rail and dropped to the ground and joined the players on the field. Curtis climbed the rail too: straddled it for a steadying moment and saw himself at home—tonight if he could get sober enough to drive—and he would take Martha to the living room, knowing he shouldn’t but having to anyway, and set her down and get a fire going and say: He’s gone, Martha; I told him not to come home again. Then he saw himself dead: lying fully clothed on their bedroom floor, the old heart having finally stopped (and sitting on the rail he thought it was heating faster and skipping too) and Martha would find him there, lying on his back with his arms outstretched and his head tilted back and, if by that time she still knew where Jack was, she would call him home. Then he swung a leg over and dropped to the ground, falling to his knees on the cold earth.

On the field the colors moved and exploded and fell and Curtis was thinking he could get a cab and go to Jack’s apartment and sit in the easy chair and say: Well, Son, I guess I must have done something, I guess no matter how hard I tried I got off on the wrong track.

He was on the cinder track. Girls were all around him, their shoulders and breasts and backs gently bumping him: pink cheeks and parted red lips under black caps, long blonde and black and brown hair falling to shoulders of red jackets, and he moved with them and their laughing voices onto the field.

Then there was a man: white hair and his face even paler when it was only two feet away and a trim white mustache following the downward line of his upper lip, and Curtis grabbed his arm. It was shrunken and dying. The director began to smile and his mustache spread straight over his lips and Curtis looked at his brown questioning eyes and said:

“Wasted.”

He waved his arm at the girls in kilts moving around them and the director’s smile ceased, his mustache drooping again, and his eyes shifted to Curtis’s hand on his arm as Curtis spoke louder, over the girls’ soprano voices:

“You poor bastard. You poor—”

“Leave me alone.

He tried to jerk his arm free, but Curtis held it, and the director’s hand closed on Curtis’s wrist and pulled. Then Curtis released him.

“Get away from me,” the director said, and turned and walked quickly through his girls and started across the field. He did not look back. When he was past the girls and the crowd, into the open, he slowed and walked with his hands in the pockets of his topcoat, his head lowered. Curtis stood watching him, the Highlanders skirting and jostling past him, until a policeman took his elbow and roughly led him off the field.

__________________________________

From The Cross Country Runner: Collected Short Stories and Novellas. Used with permission of David R. Godine. Copyright © 2018 by Andre Dubus.




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