"Sorolla," the woman beside him confided. Shed caught him off guard. He stiffened, and she added, in a measured, marveling voice, "Has anyone ever painted the Mediterranean like that?"
He turned to her and they exchanged a look.
"If youll tell me your son or daughters name, Ill do my best to help you."
He paused. He had a name to give, a name to give up, and in that single lucid interval he knew he should keep the name and take it home with him. He had a home. He had a daughter in college, with no desire to go abroad, who loved him.
"Michelle Williamson," he said, adding before the name could register, "you might not remember, she was only here for a month before she was killed, and thats been almost three years now."
Stunned, Madeline Pratt sat down behind her desk. "Of course I remember," she half-whispered.
"When she was little we called her Mick, sometimes Mickey Mouse," he went on, giving it all up, with a flat grudging vehemence in his voice he couldnt control, "but she probably hadnt been here long enough to get to the nickname stage."
Madeline Pratt lowered her eyes to her desk and shook her head. There was a single framed picture on her desk that he could only see the back of. He checked the urge to reach out and turn the picture toward him, but promised himself he would see it before he left this office. It was, he understood, a way of moving ahead, making these small daring promises to himself. He added, "But come to think of it, she would never tell you that nickname. We teased her with it, and she didnt like to be teased."
Madeline Pratt raised her head and said, "Im terribly sorry, Mr. Williamson. I dont know what to say to you."
Her eyes were moist. They were large in their sockets, the hollows beneath them were washed out. She looked utterly unresourceful. What was a woman like this doing running a program responsible for the safety of fifty students a year?
"Thats okay," he said. "Im sure you said it all to her mother when she came to bring the body back. I stayed home. I had no desire to come to Spain. Spain didnt interest me in the least."
"Yes, I remember your wife well. I was astonished at how well she bore up."
"My ex-wife," he corrected her. "Not many marriages will last after a thing like that."
"No," she allowed, but only to do him the courtesy.
He didnt want the courtesy. His ex-wife, Gail, would never do that, but he didnt want his ex-wife either. She sold real estate now and was enormously successful because she had a talent for disarming you with her honesty. It was a talent shed developed, a strategy: heres whats going to drive you crazy about this house, but heres where the balance tilts slightly in your favor. Shed kept a balance sheet on her marriage in a similar way until the balance tilted against him, against it.
Hed once loved her, her beauty and the freshness of her outlook, her mind, her very being, until that freshness had hardened into something brusque and hurtful. That was before their daughter had been killed. Gail had put on weight too, and in the name of that hardened freshness, she knew how to throw her weight around. After the divorce shed told their daughter that her father was a fool. No one could be such a romantic sap about a woman looking the way she looked now. No one shed want to be married to. Shed gotten a divorce, and had actually told their daughter that. Annie. Their surviving daughter.
Then he told Madeline Pratt what he did want. It brought a flinch to her face and a start to her eyes. "I want you to take me where it happened," he said. "I understand its not far from here. I want to stand there," he was more emphatic now, speaking from the unsounded depth of his desire, "where they killed her."
From House of the Deaf by Lamar Herrin, the complete text of chapter 1, pages 1-15. Copyright 2005 Lamar Herrin. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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