Fiction from Web Del Sol


Robert Olen Butler

(in altered form, from the novel They Whisper (Henry Holt & Co. 1994, Penguin Books 1995); first appeared in Harper’s, October 1993)

      This is what comes of reading the health sections of newspapers when you are past forty: memories that arrange themselves like this.
      One. Even before I knew there was another part of girls that would one day whisper to me, that would call me over and over, there was the machine in my uncle's shoe store and there was Karen Granger and she was on my mind all the time and I somehow knew that I had to get her to put her feet in the machine. My uncle's was the last shoe store in Wabash, Illinois, to put in an X-ray machine to check the fit, and as soon as it was ready, I went to Karen and brought her to the shop. She had on her black Mary Janes and white lace anklets and she went up on the step and put her feet in the slots and my heart was beating furiously as I stepped up beside her, for there were two view ports and together we looked at the bones in her feet. I lifted my arm and I put it around her, cupping her far shoulder in my hand. "Wiggle your toes," I said.
      She did, and to this day, though I am now forty-eight years old, there have been few moments in my life as intimate as the sight of Karen Granger's actual bones, her actual articulated bones with their shape visible to me, the shape that had been secret even when she stood barefoot in the grass of her front yard bossing me and giving me an excuse to keep my eyes cast down. She wiggled her toes in the green glow of the X-ray and she let me keep my arm around her and she began to hum softly.
      As I think of her now, it seems true, what I just said, that the intimacy of the moment with Karen Granger in 1955, in the tenth year of my life, was rarely matched in all the years since. And yet I did not think of her for decades. She did not begin to hum again in my head until yesterday and then she came with a newspaper article on X-rays and health and I let the paper fall from my hand by my canvas chair here on the beach at Puerto Vallarta, she came briefly with that and then, much more strongly, an hour later, with the smell of shoe leather in a shop in the hotel, the smell and a glimpse of the bare feet of a slim blond woman wearing a towel knotted at her hip slipping past me without a glance. I can't remember what song it was that Karen hummed as I pressed her against me, though trying to remember it distracted me in the Mexican shoe shop. I did not look again at the blond woman but fixed on the buckle of a sandal in my hand and I tried to make the humming shape itself into a tune.
      And now, of course, I understand that it's not the tune I really want to know. I want to know why she hummed. Did she know her bones were beautiful to me? Did she feel the same intimacy? Did she wait for me to ask to put my own feet in the machine? This is the thought that bothers me. I wish now, wish devoutly, that I had whispered to her, "My turn," and I had put my feet in the machine and she had seen my bones.

      Two. I went out of the hotel later yesterday afternoon and I put my room key in my pocket and I thought: I am married no longer. And down at the end of the long drive there was a pothole and a road crew had a cauldron mixing tar, and with the smell of tar she rode past me on her bike and she had long russet hair and she was barefoot and I was ten years old and I stood beneath the horse chestnut tree in my yard and watched her go by and it was early summer, school was out and all the summer lay ahead, and somewhere in the direction she was heading, a street was being resurfaced and the smell of tar was in the air and I ran to my bike and I raced after her, watching the lift of her hair behind her and she was willow thin and her bare heels rose and fell and rose and fell and the smell of tar grew stronger and she turned at the corner and I turned and ahead the street was slick black and at the far end the dump truck had just whooshed into emptiness and stopped in a cloud of gravel dust and I'd been thinking all along about how to overtake her, how to speak to her, and miraculously she stopped ahead and got off and nudged her kickstand down with the ball of her pretty foot and already I had the instinct from this moment of enchantment looking at her summer-bare feet to follow the line from her instep up her ankle up her leg to the sweet subtlety of her knee to her thigh and then to vague thoughts of things that were still as secret to me as the origin of the universe, and she was moving to the straight edge of fresh tar. I pedaled up and I stopped and I said, We're stuck. She turned to me and she had a thin face and her eyes were russet too and very large and she brushed a lock of her hair back from her cheek and she looked at me for what felt like a very long time, deciding something that I suddenly wished I had not encouraged, but then she smiled and in that smile the smell of tar was rendered sweet to me forever and she said, I wanted to stop. And she crouched beside the tar and she stretched out her hand and scooped a little dollop of it onto her fingers and without standing up, without making a show of it for me, without the slightest pause, she brought her hand to her face and took the tar into her mouth and began to chew it.
      I felt my eyes bug at this, but she was not looking and I quickly smoothed out my face and said, Is it good to chew? Yes, she said, and she rose and chewed for a time, concentrating on it as if she were trying to guess its vintage, and she did not ask me to join her and at the time I was grateful for that and I did not volunteer, though for a few days afterwards I was hard on myself for not doing this thing also, not showing my connection with her at once, and I blamed my aversion to licorice and what a dumb thing that would have been to lose this wonderful girl for the rest of my summer just because I hated licorice so much and I replayed the rest of that little scene over and over trying to rewrite its ending but it always went the same way, just as it really had. She chewed with calm contemplation for a long while and I stood and watched her without speaking, without moving, carefully subduing even my breath so as not to disturb her, and finally she stopped and lifted her hand to her mouth and took out the ball of tar and she held it up and I looked at it in wonder and it was slick and wet and it was the blackest thing I've ever seen and I thought of the inside of her mouth and then she tossed it away and moved silently to her bike and I knew I had missed a chance, I knew she'd been waiting for me to get off my bike and join her in this and when I did, she would have told me her name and would have asked me to ride with her and now I was lost as she lifted the kickstand on her bike with her bare foot and her toes were long and the nails were painted pink and she got onto her bike and at least I had the presence of mind to say, I'm Ira Holloway, what's your name? And she said, Karen Granger, and then without a pause she pedaled away.

      Three. That was when I first met her and, of course, I hadn't entirely lost my chance. We spent some time together that summer and I even took her to the X-ray machine and I put my arm around her. That was the first time I ever touched her, and I never touched her again. The summer was almost over and she moved away before school began and the last time I saw Karen Granger, she was riding her bike. Riding it the way many kids in our neighborhood did in 1955: following the truck around that sprayed for mosquitoes. Following in the cloud it gave off. It was soon after the sun was down and I was sitting on the front step of our house and I could smell the heavy scent of the poison and I could hear the hoarse whisper of the truck and I was ready to rise and go into the house and then I saw her. She was riding in the cloud of spray, following the truck. I could not see the russet of her hair and I could not see her eyes and she was barefoot, I think, but I could see nothing of the details of her feet. She was just a dark shape there, following some impulse in herself that I did not understand. And she turned her face to me as she passed and she waved at me and I came down off the porch and the cloud rolled softly over me and made me suddenly lightheaded and I turned away. And that was that.
      I do not know if Karen Granger's lungs now are whole, or if her blood is whole, or if her bones are whole. I only know that, as I sit on the beach at Puerto Vallarta and watch a parasailor glide out over the bay, in some less definable part of me, I am not.

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