Love Life


by Bobbie Ann Mason



Opal Lolls her recliner, wearing the Coors cap her niece Jenny brought her from Colorado. She fumbles for the remote.control paddle and fires a button. Her swollen knuckles hurt. On TV, a boy is dancing in the street. Some other boys dressed in black are banging guitars and drums. This is her favorite program. It is always on, night or day. The show is songs, with accompanying stories. It's the music channel. Opal never cared for storiesshe detests those soap operas her friends watch but these fascinate her. The colors and the costumes change and flow with the music, erratically, the way her mind does these days. Now the TV is playing a song in which all the boys are long.haired cops chasing a dangerous woman in a tweed cap and a checked shirt. The woman's pic.ture is in all their billfolds. They chase her through a cold.storage room filled with sides of beef. She hops on a motorcycle, and they set up a roadblock, but she jumps it with her motorcycle. Finally, she slips onto a train and glides away from them, waving a smiling goodbye.


On the table beside Opal is a Kleenex box, her glasses case, a glass of Coke with ice, and a cut.glass decanter of clear liquid that could be just water for the plants. Opal pours some of the liquid into the Coke and sips slowly. It tastes like peppermint candy, and it feels soothing. Her fingers tingle. She feels happy. Now that she is retired, she doesn't have to sneak into the teachers' lounge for a little swig from the jar in her pocketbook. She still dreams of algebra problems, complicated quadratic equations with shifting values and no solutions. Now kids are using alge.bra to program computers. The kids in the TV stories remind her of her students at Hopewell High. Old age could have a grandeur about it, she thinks now as the music surges through her, if only it weren't so scary. But she doesn't feel lonely, especially now that her sister Alice's girl, Jenny, has moved back here, to Kentucky. Jenny seems so confident, the way she sprawls on the couch, with that backpack she carries every.where. Alice was always so delicate and feminine, but Jenny is enough like Opal to be her own daughter. She has Opal's light, thin hair, her large shoulders and big bones and long legs. Jenny even has a way of laughing that reminds Opal of her own laughter, the boisterous scoff she always saved for certain company but never allowed herself in school. Now and then Jenny lets loose one of those laughs and Opal is pleased. It occurs to her that Jenny, who is already past thirty, has left behind a trail of men, like that girl in the song. Jenny has lived with a couple of men, here and there. Opal can't keep track of all of the men Jenny has mentioned. They have names like John and Skip and Michael. She's not in a hurry to get married, she says. She says she is going to buy a house trailer and live in the woods like a hermit. She's full of ideas, and she exaggerates. She uses the words "gorgeous," "adorable," and "wonderful" interchangeably and persistently.


Last night, Jenny was here, with her latest boyfriend, Randy New.comb. Opal remembers when he sat in the back row in her geometry class. He was an ordinary kid, not especially smart, and often late with his lessons. Now he has a real.estate agency and drives a Cadillac. Jenny kissed him in front of Opal and told him he was gorgeous. She said the placemats were gorgeous, too.


Jenny was asking to see those old quilts again. "Why do you hide away your nice things, Aunt Opal?" she said. Opal doesn't think they're that nice, and she doesn't want to have to look at them all the time. Opal showed Jenny and Randy Newcomb the double~wedding.ring quilt, the star quilt, and some of the crazy quilts, but she wouldn't show them the craziest onethe burial quilt, the one Jenny kept asking about. Did Jenny come back home just to hunt up that old rag? The thought makes Opal shudder.


The doorbell rings. Opal has to rearrange her comforter and maga.zines in order to get up. Her joints are stiff. She leaves the TV blaring a song she knows, with balloons and bombs in it.


At the door is Velma Shaw, who lives in the duplex next to Opal. She has just come home from her job at Shop World. "Have you gone out of you mind, Opal?" cries Velma. She has on a plum.colored print blouse and a plum skirt and a little green scarf with a gold pin holding it down. Velma shouts, "You can hear that racket clear across the street!"


.

"Rock and roll is never too loud," says Opal. This is a line from a song she has heard.


Opal releases one of her saved.up laughs, and Velma backs away. Velma is still trying to be sexy, in those little color.coordinated outfits she wears, but it is hopeless, Opal thinks with a smile. She closes the door and scoots back to her recliner.


Opal is Jenny's favorite aunt. Jenny likes the way Opal ties her hair in a ponytail with a ribbon. She wears muumuus and socks. She is tall and only a little thick in the middle. She told Jenny that middle.age spread was caused by the ribs expanding and that it doesn't matter what you eat. Opal kids around about "old Arthur"her arthritis, visiting her on damp days.


Jenny has been in town six months. She works at the courthouse, typing recordsmarriages, divorces, deaths, drunk~driving convictions. Frequently, the same names are on more than one list. Before she re.turned to Kentucky, Jenny was waitressing in Denver, but she was grow.ing restless again, and the idea of going home seized her. Her old rebel.lion against small.town conventions gave way to curiosity.


In the South, the shimmer of the heat seems to distort everything, like old glass with impurities in it. During her first two days there, she saw two people with artificial legs, a blind man, a man with hooks for hands, and a man without an arm. It seemed unreal. In a parking lot, a pit bull terrier in a Camaro attacked her from behind the closed window. He barked viciously, his nose stabbing the window. She stood in the parking lot, letting the pit bull attack, imagining herself in an arena, with a crowd watching. The South makes her nervous. Randy Newcomb told her she had just been away too long. "We're not as countrified down here now as people think," he said.


Jenny has been going with Randy for three months. The first night she went out with him, he took her to a fancy place that served shrimp flown in from New Orleans, and then to a little bar over in Hop.kinsville. They went with Kathy Steers, a friend from work, and Kathy's husband, Bob. Kathy and Bob weren't getting along and they carped at each other all evening. In the bar, an attractive, cheerful woman sang requests for tips, and her companion, a blind man, played the guitar. Her friends, and Jenny noticed the sharp creases in the men's jeans and imag.ined the women ironing them. When she mentioned it, Kathy said she took Bob's jeans to the laundromat to use the machine there that puts knifelike creases in them. The men in the bar had two kinds of women with them: innocent.looking women with pastel skirts and careful hair.dos, and hard.looking women without makeup, in T.shirts and jeans. )enny imagined that each type could be either a girlfriend or a wife. She felt odd. She was neither type. The singer sang "Happy Birthday" to a popular regular named Will Ed, and after the set she danced with him, while the jukebox took over. She had a limp, as though one leg were shorter than the other. The leg was stiff under her jeans, and when the woman danced Jenny could see that the leg was not real.


"There, but for the grace of God, go I, " Randy whispered to Jenny. He squeezed her hand, and his heavy turquoise ring dug into her knuckle.


"Those quilts would bring a good price at an estate auction," Randy says to Jenny as they leave her aunt's one evening and head for his real.estate office. They are in his burgundy Cadillac. "One of those star quilts used to bring twenty.hve dollars. Now it might run three hundred."


"My aunt doesn't think they're worth anything. She hides all her nice stuff, like she's ashamed of it. She's got beautiful dresser scarves and starched doilies she made years ago. But she's getting a little weird. All she does is watch MTV."


"I think she misses the kids," Randy says. Then he bursts out laugh.ing. "She used to put the fear of God in all her students! I never will forget the time she told me to stop watching so much television and read some books. It was like an order from God Almighty. I didn't dare not do what she said. I read Crime and Punishment. I never would have read it if she hadn't shamed me into it. But I appreciated that. I don't even re.member what Crime and Punishment was about, except there was an ax murderer in it."


"That was basically it," Jenny says. "He got caught. Crime and punishmentjust like any old TV show."


Randy touches some controls on the dashboard and Waylon Jen.nings starts singing. The sound system is remarkable. Everything Randy owns is quality. He has been looking for some land for Jenny to buya couple of acres of woodsbut so far nothing on his listings has met with his approval. He is concerned about zoning and power lines and fron.tage. All Jenny wants is a remote place where she can have a dog and grow some tomatoes. She knows that what she really needs is a better car, but she doesn't want to go anywhere.


Later, at Randy's office, Jenny studies the photos of houses on dis.play, while he talks on the telephone to someone about dividing up a sixty.acre farm into farmettes. His photograph is on several certificates on the wall. He has a full, well.fed face in the pictures, but he is thinner now and looks better. He has a boyish, endearing smile, like Dennis Quaid, Jenny's favorite actor. She likes Randy's smile. It seems so inno.cent, as though he would do anything in the world for someone he cared about. He doesn't really want to sell her any land. He says he is afraid she will get raped if she lives alone in the woods.


"I'm impressed," she says when he slams down the telephone. She points to his new regional award for the fastest.growing agency of the year.


"Isn't that something? Three branch offices in a territory this sizeI can't complain. There's a lot of tumover in real estate now. People are never satisfied. You know that? That's the truth about human nature." He laughs. 'That's the secret of my success."


's been two years since Barbara divorced me," he says later, on the way to Jenny's apartment. "I can't say it hasn't been fun being free, but my kids are in college, and it's like starting over. I'm ready for a new life. The business has been so great, I couldn't really ask for more, but I've been thinkingDon't laugh, please, but what I was thinking was if you want to share it with me, I'll treat you good. I swear."


At a stoplight, he paws at her hand. On one comer is the Pepsi bottling plant, and across from it is the Broad Street House, a restaurant with an old.fashioned statue of a jockey out front. People are painting the black faces on those little statues white now, but this one has been painted bright green all over. lenny can't keep from laughing at it.


"I wasn't laughing at youhonest!" she says apologetically. "That statue always cracks me up."


"You don't have to give me an answer now."


"I don't know what to say."


"I can get us a real good deal on a house," he says. "I can get any house I've got listed. I can even get us a farmette, if you want trees so bad. You won't have to spend your money on a piece of land."


"I'll have to think about it." Randy scares her. She likes him, but there is something strange about his energy and optimism. Everyone around her seems to be bursting at the seams, like that pit bull terrier.


.

"I'll let you think on it," he says, pulling up to her apartment. "Life has been good to me. Business is good, and my kids didn't turn out to be dope fiends. That's about all you can hope for in this day and time."


Jenny is having lunch with Kathy Steers at the Broad Street House. The iced tea is mixed with white grape juice. It took Jenny a long time to identify the flavor, and the Broad S;treet House won't admit it's grape juice. Their iced tea is supposed to have a mystique about it, probably because they can't sell drinks in this dry county. In the daylight, the statue out front is the color of the Jolly Green Giant.


People confide in Jenny, but Jenny doesn't always tell things back. It's an unfair exchange, though it often goes unnoticed. She is curious, eager to hear other people's stories, and she asks more questions than is appropriate. Kathy's life is a tangle of deceptions. Kathy stayed with her husband, Bob, because he had opened his own body shop and she didn't want him to start out a new business with a rocky marriage, but she acknowledges now it was a mistake.


"What about Jimmy and Willette?" Jenny asks. Jimmy and Willette are the other characters in Kathy's story.


"That mess went on for months. When you started work at the of.fice, remember how nervous I was? I thought I was getting an ulcer." Kathy lights a cigarette and blows at the wall. "You see, I didn't know what Bob and Willette were up to, and they didn't know about me and Jimmy. That went on for two years before you came. And when it started to come apartI mean, we had hRII! I'd say things to Jimmy and then it would get back to Bob because Jimmy would tell Willette. It was an unreal circle. I was pregnant with Jason and you get real sensitive then. I thought Bob was screwing around on me, but it never dawned on me it was with Willette."


The fat waitress says, "Is everything all right?"


Kathy says, "No, but it's not your fault. Do you know what I'm going to do?" she asks Jenny.


"No, what?"


"I'm taking Jason and moving in with my sister. She has a sort of apartment upstairs. Bob can do what he wants to with the house. I've waited too long to do this, but it's time. My sister keeps the baby any' way, so why shouldn't I just live there?"


She puffs the cigarette again and levels her eyes at Jenny. "You know what I admire about you? You're so independent. You said what you think. When you started work at the oMce, I said to myself, 'I wish I could be like that.' I could tell you had been around. You've inspired me. That's how come I decided to move out."


Jenny plays with the lemon slice in the saucer holding her iced.tea glass. She picks a seed out of it. She can't bring herself to confide in Kathy about Randy Newcomb's offer. For some reason, she is embar.rassed by it.


"I haven't spoken to Willette since September third," says Kathy.


Kathy keeps talking, and Jenny listens, suspicious of her interest in Kathy's problems. She notices how Kathy is enjoying herself. Kathy is looking forward to leaving her husband the same way she must have enjoyed her fling with Jimmy, the way she is enjoying not speaking to Willette.


"Let's go out and get drunk tonight," Kathy says cheerfully. "Let's celebrate my decision."


"I can't. I'm going to see my aunt this evening. I have to take her some booze. She gives me money to buy her vodka and peppermint schnapps, and she tells me not to stop at the same liquor store too often. She says she doesn't want me to get a reputation for drinking! I have to go all the way to Hopkinsville to get it."


"Your aunt tickles me. She's a pistol."


The waitress clears away the dishes and slaps down dessert menus. They order chocolate pecan pie, the day's special.


"You know the worst part of this whole deal?" Kathy says. "It's the years it takes to get smart. But I'm going to make up for lost time. You can bet on that. And there's not a thing Bob can do about it."


Opal's house has a veranda. Jenny thinks that verandas seem to imply a history of some sortpeople in rocking chairs telling stories. But Opal doesn't tell any stories. It is exasperating, because Jenny wants to know about her aunt's past love life, but Opal won't reveal her secrets. They sit on the veranda and observe each other. They smile, and now and then roar with laughter over something ridiculous. In the bedroom, where she snoops after using the bathroom, Jenny notices the layers of old wall.paper in the closet, peeling back and spilling crumbs of gaudy ancient flower prints onto Opal's muumuus.


Downstairs, Opal asks, "Do you want some cake, Jenny?"


"Of course. I'm crazy about your cake, Aunt Opal."


"I didn't beat the egg whites long enough. Old Arthur's visiting again." Opal flexes her fingers and smiles. "That sounds like the curse. Girls used to say.they had the curse. Or they had a visitor." She looks down at her knuckles shyly. "Nowadays, of course, they just say what they mean."


The cake is deliciousan old.fashioned lemon chiffon made from scratch. Jenny's cooking ranges from English.muffin mini.pizzas to brown.ie mixes. After gorging on the cake, Jenny blurts out, "Aunt Opal, aren't you sorry you never got married? Tell the truth, now."


Opal laughs. "I was talking to Ella Mae Smith the other dayshe's a retired geography teacher?and she said, 'I've got twelve great.great.grandchildren, and when we get together I say, "Law me, look what I started!""' Opal mimics Ella Mae Smith, giving her a mindless, chirpy tone of voice. "Why, I'd have to use quadratic equations to count up all the people that woman has caused," she goes on. "All with a streak of her petty narrow.mindedness in them. I don't call that a contribution to the world." Opal laughs and sips from her glass of schnapps. "What about you, Jenny? Are you ever going to get married?"


"Marriage is outdated. I don't know anybody who's married and happy."


Opal names three schoolteachers she has known who have been married for decades.


"But are they really happy?"


"Oh, foot, Jenny! What you're saying is why are you not married and why are you not happy. What's wrong with little Randy Newcomb? Isn't that funny? I always think of him as little Randy."


"Show me those quilts again, Aunt Opal."


"I'll show you the crazies but not the one you keep after me about."


"O.K., show me the craziest"


Upstairs, her aunt lays crazy quilts on the bed. They are bright.colored patches of soft velvet and plaids and prints stitched together with silky embroidery. Several pieces have initials embroidered on them. The haphazard shapes make Jenny imagine odd, twisted lives repre.sented in these quilts.


She says, "Mom gave me a quilt once, but I didn't appreciate the value of it and I washed it until it fell apart."


"I'll give you one of these crazies when you stop moving around," Opal says. "You couldn't fit it in that backpack of yours." She polishes her glasses thoughtfully. "Do you know what those quilts mean to me?"


"No, what?"


.

"A lot of desperate old women ruining their eyes. Do you know what I think I'll do?"


"No, what?"


"I think I'll take up aerobic dancing. Or maybe I'll learn to ride a motorcycle. I try to be modern."


"You're funny, Aunt Opal. You're hilarious."


"Am I gorgeous, too?"


"Adorable," says Jenny.


After her niece leaves, Opal hums a tune and dances a stiff little jig. She nestles among her books and punches her remote.control paddle. Years ago, she was allowed to paddle students who misbehaved. She used a wooden paddle from a butter churn, with holes drilled in it. The holes made a satisfying sting. On TV, a 1950s convertible is out of gas. This is one of her favorites. It has an adorable couple in it. The girl is wearing bobby socks and saddle oxfords, and the boy has on a basketball jacket. They look the way children looked before the hippie element took over. But the boy begins growing cat whiskers and big cat ears, and then his face gets furry and leathery, while the girl screams bloody murder. Opal sips some peppermint and watches his face change. The red and gold of his basketball jacket are the Hopewell school colors. He chases the girl. Now he has grown long claws.


The boy is dancing energetically with a bunch of ghouls who have escaped from their coffins. Then Vincent Price starts talking in the background. The girl is very frightened. The ghouls are so old and ugly. That's how kids see us, Opal thinks. She loves this story. She even loves the creditsscary music by Elmer Bernstein. This is a story with a meaning. It suggests all the feelings of terror and horror that must be hidden inside young people. And inside, deep down, there really are monsters. An old person waits, a nearly dead body that can still dance.


Opal pours another drink. She feels relaxed, her joints loose like a dancer's now.


Jenny is so nosy. Her questions are so blunt. Did Opal ever have a crush on a student? Only once or twice. She was in her twenties then, and it seemed scandalous. Nothing happenedjust daydreams. When she was thirty, she had another attachment to a boy, and it seemed all right then, but it was worse again at thirty~hve, when another pretty boy stayed after class to talk. After that, she kept her distance.


.

But Opal is not wholly without experience. There have been men, over the years, though nothing like the casual affairs 1enny has had. Opal remembers a certain motel room in Nashville. She was only forty. The man drove a gray Chrysler Imperial. When she was telling about him to a friend, who was swom to secrecy, she called him "Imperial," in a joking way. She went with him because she knew he would take her somewhere, in such a fine car, and they would sleep together. She always remembered how clean and empty the room was, how devoid of history and association. In the mirror, she saw a scared woman with a pasty face and a shrimpy little man who needed a shave. In the moming he went out somewhere and brought back coffee and orange juice. They had bought some doughnuts at the new doughnut shop in town before they left. While he was out, she made up the bed and put her things in her bag, to make it as neat as if she had never been there. She was fully dressed when he resumed, with her garter belt and stockings on, and when they finished the doughnuts she cleaned up all the paper and the cups and wiped the crumbs from the table by the bed. He said, "Come with me and I'll take you to Idaho." "Why Idaho?" she wanted to know, but his answer was vague. Idaho sounded cold, and she didn't want to tell him how she disliked his scratchy whiskers and the hard, powdery doughnuts. It seemed unkind of her, but if he had been nicer.looking, without such a demanding dark beard, she might have gone with him to Idaho in that shining Imperial. She hadn't even given him a chance, she thought later. She had been so scared. If anyone from school had seen her at that motel, she could have lost her job. "I need a woman," he had said. "A woman like you."


On a hot Saturday aftemoon, with rain threatening, Jenny sits under a tent on a folding chair while Randy auctions off four hundred acres of woods on Lake Barkley. He had a road bulldozed into the property, and he divided it up into lots. The lakefront lots are going for as much as two thousand an acre, and the others are bringing up to a thousand. Randy has several assistants with him, and there is even a concession stand, offering hot dogs and cold drinks.


In the middle of the auction, they wait for a thundershower to pass. Sitting in her folding chair under a canopy reminds Jenny of graveside services. As soon as the rain slacks up, the auction continues. In his cowboy hat and blue blazer, Randy struts around with a microphone as proudly as a banty rooster. With his folksy chatter, he knows exactly how to work the crowd. "Y'all get yourselves a cold drink and relax now and just imagine the fishing you'll do in this dreamland. This land is good for vacation, second home, investmentheck, you can just park here in your camper and live. It's going to be paradise when that marina gets built on the lake there and we get some lots cleared."


The four.hundred.acre tract looks like a wilderness. Jenny loves the way the sun splashes on the water after the rain, and the way it comes through the trees, hitting the flickering leaves like lights on a disco ball. A marina here seems farfetched. She could pitch a tent here until she could afford to buy a used trailer. She could swim at dawn, the way she did on a camping trip out West, long ago. All of a sudden, she finds herself bidding on a lot. The bidding passes four hundred, and she sails on, bidding against a man from Missouri who tells the people around him that he's looking for a place to retire.


"Sold to the young lady with the backpack, " Randy says when she bids six hundred. He gives her a crestfallen look, and she feels embarrassed.


As she waits for Randy to wind up his business after the auction, Jenny locates her acre from the map of the plots of land. It is along a gravel road and marked off with stakes tied with hot~pink survey tape. It is a small section of the woodsher block on the quilt, she thinks. These are her trees. The vines and underbrush are thick and spotted with raindrops. She notices a windfall leaning on a maple, like a lover dying in its arms. Maples are strong, she thinks, but she feels like getting an ax and chopping that windfall down, to save the maple. In the dis.tance, the whining of a speedboat cuts into the day.


They meet afterward at Randy's van, his mobile real.estate office, with a little shingled roof raised in the center to look rustic. It looks like an outhouse on wheels. A painted message on the side says, "REALITY iS REAL ESTATE. As Randy plows through the mud on the new road, Jenny apologizes. Buying the lot was like laughing at the statue at the wrong momentsomething he would take the wrong way, an insult to his attentions.


"I can't reach you," he says. "You say you want to live out in the wilderness and grow your own vegetables, but you act like you're some.where in outer space. You can't grow vegetables in outer space. You can't even grow them in the woods unless you clear some ground."


"I'm looking for a place to land."


.

"What do I have to do to get through to you?"


"I don't know. I need more time."


He turns onto the highway, patterned with muddy tire tracks from the cars at the auction. "I said I'd wait, so I guess I'll have to," he says, flashing his Dennis Quaid smile. "You take as long as you want to, then. I reamed my lesson with Barbara. You've got to be understanding with the women. That's the key to a successful relationship." Frowning, he slams his hand on the steering wheel. "That's what they tell me, anyhow."


Jenny is having coffee with Opal. She arrived unexpectedly. It's very early. She looks as though she has been up all night.


"Please show me your quilts," Jenny says. "I don't mean your crazy quilts. I want to see that special quilt. Mom said it had the family tree."


Opal spills coffee in her saucer. "What is wrong with young people today?" she asks.


"I want to know why it's called a burial quilt," Jenny says. "Are you planning to be buried in it?"


Opal wishes she had a shot of peppermint in her coffee. It sounds like a delicious idea. She starts toward the den with the coffee cup rat' tling in its saucer, and she splatters drops on the rug. Never mind it now, she thinks, turning back.


"It's just a family history," she says.


"Why's it called a burial quilt?" Jenny asks.


Jenny's face is pale. She has blue pouches under her eyes and blue eye shadow on her eyelids.


"See that closet in the hall?" Opal says. "Get a chair and we'll get the quilt down."


Jenny stands on a kitchen chair and removes the quilt from beneath several others. It's wrapped in blue plastic and Jenny hugs it closely as she steps down with it.


They spread it out on the couch, and the blue plastic floats off somewhere. Jenny looks like someone in love as she gazes at the quilt. "It's gorgeous," she murmurs. "How beautiful."


"Shoot!" says Opal. "It's ugly as homemade sin."


Jenny runs her fingers over the rough textures of the quilt. The quilt is dark and somber. The backing is a heavy gray gabardine, and the nine.inch.square blocks are pieced of smaller blocks of varying shades of gray and brown and black. They are wools, apparently made from men's win.ter suits. On each block is an appliqued off~white tombstonea comical shape, like Casper the ghost. Each tombstone has a name and date on it.


Jenny recognizes some of the names. Myrtle Williams. Voris Will.iams. Thelma Lee Freeman. The oldest gravestone is "Eulalee Freeman 1857~1900." The shape of the quilt is irregular, a rectangle with a clumsy foot sticking out from one corner. The quilt is knotted with yarn, and the edging is open, for more blocks to be added.


"Eulalee's daughter started it," says Opal. "But that thing has been carried through this family like a plague. Did you ever see such horrible old dark colorsl I pieced on it some when I was younger, but it was too depressing. I think some of the kinfolks must have died without a square, so there may be several to catch up on."


"I'll do it," says Jenny. "I could learn to quilt."


"Traditionally, the quilt stops when the family name stops," Opal says. "And since my parents didn't have a boy, that was the end of the Freeman line on this particular branch of the tree. So the last old maids finish the quilt." She lets out a wild cackle. "Theoretically, a quilt like this could keep going till doomsday."


"Do you care if I have this quilt?" asks Jenny.


"What would you do with it? It's too ugly to put on a bed and too morbid to work on."


"I think it's kind of neat," says Jenny. She strokes the rough tweed. Already it is starting to decay, and it has moth holes. Jenny feels tears start to drip down her face.


"Don't you go putting my name on that thing," her aunt says.


Jenny has taken the quilt to her apartment. She explained that she is going to study the family tree, or that she is going to finish the quilt. If she's smart, Opal thinks, she will let Randy Newcomb auction it off. The way )enny took it, cramming it into the blue plastic, was like snatching something that was free. Opal feels relieved, as though she has pushed the burden of that ratty old quilt onto her niece. All those miser' able, cranky women, straining their eyes, stitching on those dark scraps of material.


For a long time, )enny wouldn't tell why she was crying, and when she started to tell, Opal was uncomfortable, afraid she'd be required to tell something comparable of her own, but as she listened she found herself caught up in Jenny's story. Jenny said it was a man. That was always the case, Opal thought. It was five years earlier. A man Jenny knew in a place by the sea. Opal imagined seagulls, pretty sand. There were no palm trees. It was up North. The young man worked with Jenny in a restaurant with glass walls facing the ocean. They waited on tables and collected enough tips to take a trip together near the end of the summer. Jenny made it sound like an idyllic time, waiting on tables by the sea. She started crying again when she told about the trip, but the trip sounded nice. Opal listened hungrily, imagining the young man, thinking that he would have had handsome, smooth cheeks, and hair that fell attractively over his forehead. He would have had good man.ners, being a waiter. lenny and the man, whose name was Jim, flew to Denver, Colorado, and they rented a car and drove around out West. They visited the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and other places Opal had heard about. They grilled salmon on the beach, on another ocean. They camped out in the redwoods, trees so big they hid the sky. Jenny described all these scenes, and the man sounded like a good man. His brother had died in Vietnam and he felt guilty that he had been the one spared, because his brother was a swimmer and could have gone to the Olympics. 1im wasn't athletic. He had a bad knee and hammertoes. He slept fitfully in the tent, and Jenny said soothing things to him, and she cared about him, but by the time they had curved northward and over to Yellowstone the trip was becoming unpleasant. The romance wore off. She loved him, but she couldn't deal with his needs. One of the last nights they spent together, it rained all night long. He told her not to touch the tent material, because somehow the pressure of a hnger on the nylon would make it start to leak at that spot. Lying there in the rain, Jenny couldn't resist touching a spot where water was collecting in a little sag in the top of the tent. The drip started then, and it grew worse, until they got so wet they had to get in the car. Not long afterward, when they ran short of money, they parted. Jenny got a job in Denver. She never saw him again.


Opal listened eagerly to the details about grilling the fish together, about the zip.together sleeping bags and setting up the tent and washing themselves in the cold stream. But when Jenny brought the story up to the present, Opal was not prepared. She felt she had been dunked in the cold water and left gasping. Jenny said she had heard a couple of times through a mutual friend that Jim had spent some time in Mexico. And then, she said, this week she had begun thinking about him, because of all the trees at the lake, and she had an overwhelming desire to see him again. She had been unfair, she knew now. She telephoned the friend, who had worked with them in the restaurant by the sea. He hadn't known where to locate her, he said, and so he couldn't tell her that Jim had been killed in Colorado over a year ago. His four.wheel.drive had plunged off a mountain curve.


"I feel some trick has been played on me. It seems so unreal." Jenny tugged at the old quilt, and her eyes darkened. "I was in Colorado, and I didn't even know he was there. If I still knew him, I would know how to mourn, but now I don't know how. And it was over a year ago. So I don't know what to feel."


"Don't look back, hoe," Opal said, hugging her niece closely. But she was shaking, and Jenny shook with her.


Opal makes herself a snack, thinking it will pick up her strength. She is very tired. On the tray, she places an apple and a paring knife and some milk and cookies. She touches the remote.control button, and the pie' ture blossoms. She was wise to buy a large TV, the one listed as the best in the consumer magazine. The color needs a little adjustment, though. She eases up the volume and starts peeling the apple. She has a little bump on one knuckle. In the old days, people would take the family Bible and bust a cyst like that with it. Just slam it hard.


On the screen, a Scoutmaster is telling a story to some Boy Scouts around a campfire. The campfire is only a fireplace, with electric logs. Opal loses track of time, and the songs flow together. A woman is Iying on her stomach on a car hood in a desert full of gas pumps. TV sets crash. Smoke emerges from an eyeball. A page of sky turns like a page in a book. Then, at a desk in a classroom, a cocky blond kid with a pack of cigarettes rolled in the sleeve of his T.shirt is singing about a sexy girl with a tattoo on her back who is sitting on a commode and smoking a cigarette. In the classroom, all the kids are gyrating and snapping their fingers to wild music. The teacher at the blackboard with her white hair in a bun looks disapproving, but the kids in the class don't know what's on her mind. The teacher is thinking about how, when the bell rings, she will hit the road to Nashville.

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