Women in Wells
The certainty clings to his smile from the minute she opens the door. They stare at each other recognizing bits that have faded and others that have taken shape over the years. She makes some indecipherable gesture with her eyes, breaking the connection, and laughs, "You're too good to be true. They'll be home soon, I think. I'll wait with you."
He comes in, thankfully unable to think up an excuse not to. She puts on a record and never invites him to sit down. She asks if he wants something to drink. He nods and when she leaves the room he sits down. Everything around him is older now and the same. He remembers playing here as a child, with these brothers who are due back any minute. These brothers and this sister of theirs, haven't changed the house at all since their grandparents died. He breathes in the smell of mothballs. The scent comes from all sides.
When she returns, the glass looks dusty, and he sets it on a coaster, already in place. The soul music on the turntable hustles a circus into her muscles and he sits watching her dance, watching the glimmer of her watch-face can-can around the room.
It's taken him a moment to figure it out, but this girl reminds him of someone. She reminds him of that woman in the well when he was a child, just up the road. That woman he told no one about, who'd spoken to him calmly, who'd seemed, not happy, but certain of her place all the way down there; that woman who'd just stopped speaking to him one day, and no flashlight could shine far enough down to see if she had gotten free or if she was just being quiet, and he couldn't tell anyone she'd stopped talking to him because they'd wonder why he never tried to help her out. This girl who answered the door? Who said just a few words as she let him in? This girl whom he's known forever, but not for a while? The voice this girl grew into, is the voice of that woman in the well.
All the while this girl is dancing, trying not to color so exactly between the lines, slapping the walls every once in a while. She is wondering, beneath the beat, if this man won't get up and join her, what could he possibly be thinking about her while she willows and swipes around the room?
The music slows and she calms herself and sits in the rocking chair. This man, here. Her brothers, nowhere. This girl can't be still and because she can't be still? She begins to whip her tongue around her mouth, counting her teeth: 28. Wasn't she supposed to have 32? The number 32 sticks out in her mind.
He watches her, a lump moving around under her jaw-skin, and thinks about how he still sees her as a girl, but she is surely beyond that. Surely puberty has wrenched its way through her system and, by now, established well-worn patterns. She is still lithe, pale-looking, girl-like. They both have evidence in their minds of the other being younger.
He wants to hear that voice again, but now he's stuck in his mouth wondering what else can be said. For years his pride has named itself plainly around pretty girls, but with this one, each thing he thinks to say seems it would come out a high-handed sermon delivered from beneath a cartoon mask. He distracts himself with the newspaper from last Sunday lying on the coffee table. He leafs through to the crossword and fills in a few squares. He looks up at her and finds her eyes, a pleiad of sirens, curious and caroling. He never saw the woman in the well, but he knows this is how her eyes looked up at the silhouette of him against the daylight. Disconcerted, he reads her the next crossword clue: "River in which the heroine of The Scamps of London drowns?" This girl? She hums her elegiac response, lowly, "The Thames."
He escapes the wide openness of the room by disappearing behind the crossword again, eager to hide his excitement at hearing her voice. Yes, that was it. He was sure, now. It was full and vacant in the same ways the voice of the woman in the well was. How funnily life was able to fold on itself.
She tucks her feet up into the chair with her, happy to have company, but wasting the opportunity to make legendary decisions. She peels her nails and thinks of where her brothers might be. Until this guest had arrived, she'd repeated a mantra from nowhere, again and again, out loud at first, until it wouldn't stop itself even in the silence: "To become abandoned, you've only to extinct the others." These aphorisms had been showing up for months now. She watches the window, sure her brothers will pucker into focus at any moment.
The man will shift on the couch, squeaking against the plastic cover, and pretend to look at the newspaper while he threads her voice through his head. The girl will rip off her nails one by one and the same sentence will travel quietly into and out of her mouth. She will salivate and swallow it whole.
These two will be in this room together for hours, and what originally felt like a solitary stubbornness, slowly, will show itself to be spineless. The brothers will arrive back, with apologies, the girl will retreat, and the visitor will never admit what he's heard.
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