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The Story of Arthur Truluv: A Novel
by Elizabeth Berg

The Story of Arthur Truluv

In the six months since the November day that his wife, Nola, was buried, Arthur Moses has been having lunch with her every day. He rides the bus to the cemetery and when he gets there, he takes his sweet time walking over to her plot: she will be there no matter when he arrives. She will be there and be there and be there.

Today he lingers near the headstone of Adelaide Marsh, two rows over from Nola, ten markers down. Adelaide was born April 3, 1897, died November 18, 1929. Arthur does the math, slowly. Thirty- two. Then he calculates again, because he thinks it would be wrong to stand near someone's grave thinking about how old they were the day they died and be off by a year. Or more. Math has always been difficult for Arthur, even on paper; he describes himself as numerically illiterate. Nola did the checkbook, but now he does. He tries, anyway; he gets out his giant- size calculator and pays a great deal of attention to what he's doing, he doesn't even keep the radio on, but more often than not he ends up with astronomically improbable sums. Sometimes he goes to the bank and they help him, but it's an embarrassment and an inconvenience. "We all have our gifts," Nola used to say, and she was right. Arthur's gift is working the land; he was a groundskeeper for the parks before he retired many years ago. He still keeps a nice rose garden in the front of his house; the vegetable garden in the back he has let go.

But yes, thirty- two is how old Adelaide Marsh was when she died. Not as heartbreakingly young as the children buried here, but certainly not yet old. In the middle, that's what she was. In the middle of raising her family (Beloved Mother on her tombstone) and then what? Death, of course, but how? Was it childbirth? He thinks that she was doing something in the service of her family, that she was healthy until the moment she died, and then succumbed to an accident or a sudden insult to the body. He also thinks she had bright red hair that she wore up, and tiny tendrils escaped to frame her face, which pleased both her and her husband. He feels he knows this.

It is happening more and more often, this kind of thing. It is happening more and more that when he stands beside a grave, his hat in his hand, part of a person's life story reaches him like the yeasty scent from the bakery he passes every day on his way to the bus stop. He stares at the slightly depressed earth over Adelaide's grave and here comes the pretty white lace dress she loved best, the inequality in the size of her eyes so light brown they were almost yellow. Tea-colored. It comes that her voice was high and clear, that she was shy to sing for her husband, but did so anyway. She did it at night, after they'd gone to bed; the night before she died, she lay in the darkness beside him and sang "Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time."

And now this: she had a small diamond ring that was her mother's engagement ring, and Adelaide wore it on a thin gold chain around her neck. It was too small for her finger, and besides, she wanted to keep it close to her heart. Her knuckles were reddened from bleach, her back bothered her from bending over the washtub to scrub her children clean, but she would let no one else do it; she loved the sight of them wet, their curly hair now plastered straight against their skulls, their cheeks pinkened by the warmth of the water; she loved the way she could hold them close for a long time, like babies, when they stepped out of the water and into her arms, into the blue towel she opened to them like a great bird spreading its wings. No. The towel was not blue. What color was it?

What color was it?

Nothing. That's it for today. Arthur puts his hat back on his head, tips it toward Adelaide Marsh's headstone, and moves along. Horace Newton. Estelle McNeil. Irene Sutter. Amos Hammer.

When he reaches Nola's grave, Arthur opens his fold- up chair and gingerly sits down. The legs of the chair sink a little way into the earth, and he steadies himself, making sure the thing won't move any more before he spreads his lunch out onto his lap. An egg salad sandwich he has today, real eggs and real mayonnaise, his doctor be damned. And a liberal sprinkling of salt, as long as he was at it.

Often his doctor can tell when he's been cheating, but not always. Once Arthur ate a whole apple pie covered with vanilla ice cream, and at his appointment the next day, his doctor said, "I'm pleased with your progress, Arthur; whatever you're doing, keep it up. You'll live to be one hundred."

Arthur is eighty- five years old. He guesses he does want to live to be one hundred, even without Nola. It's not the same without her, though. Not one thing is the same. Even something as simple as looking at a daffodil, as he is doing now— someone has planted double- flowered daffodils at the base of a nearby headstone. But seeing that daffodil with Nola gone is not the same, it's like he's seeing only part of it.

The earth has begun softening because of spring. The earth is softening and the buds are all like tiny little pregnant women. Arthur wishes Nola were like spring; he wishes she would come back again and again. They wouldn't even have to be together; he just wants her presence on Earth. She could be a baby reborn into a family far away from here, he wouldn't even have to see her, ever; he would just like to know that she'd been put back where she belongs. Wherever she is now? That's the wrong place for Nola Corrine, the Beauty Queen.

Arthur hears a crow call, and looks around to find the bird. It's sitting on a headstone a few yards away, preening itself.

"Caw!" Arthur says back, taking conversation where he finds it, but the crow flies away.

Arthur straightens and regards the cloudless sky, a near- turquoise color today. He puts his hand to the back of his neck and squeezes it, it feels good to do that. He squeezes his neck and looks out over the acres and acres of graves, and nobody here but him. It makes him feel rich.

Arthur takes a bite of his sandwich. Then he gets off his chair and kneels before Nola's headstone, presses his hand against it and closes his eyes. He cries a little, and then he gets back into his chair and finishes his sandwich.

He is folding up his chair, getting ready to go when he sees a young woman sitting on the ground, her back against a tree. Spiky black hair, pale skin, big eyes. Jeans all ripped like the kids do, T- shirt that looks like it's on a hanger, the way it hangs on her. The girl ought to have a coat, or at least a sweater, it's not that warm. She ought to be in school.

He's seen her here before. She sits various places, never near any particular grave site. She never looks at him. She stares out ahead of herself, picking at her nails. That's all she does. Fourteen? Fifteen? He tries waving at her today, but when she sees him she puts her hand to her mouth, as though she's frightened. He thinks she's ready to run, and so he turns away.

Maddy was half asleep when she saw that old man look over at her and wave. When he did, her hand flew up to her mouth and he turned away, then shuffled off with his little fold- up chair. She hadn't meant to do that, make him think she was afraid. Things don't come out right. If she sees him again, she'll ask him who's in the grave. His wife, she imagines, though you can't be sure.

Maddy watches as the old man gets smaller in the distance. She sees him go to the bus stop outside the gate and stand still, staring straight ahead. He doesn't crane his neck, looking to see if the bus is coming. He wouldn't be one of those people who punch an elevator button over and over, Maddy thinks. He'd just wait.

She takes out her phone and snaps a close-up of a tuft of grass, a patch of bark. She loosens her shoelaces, steps out of her shoe, and photographs it lying on its side. She walks to a nearby grave and photographs the center of one of the lilies in the wilting bouquet placed over it, the gently arcing stamens, the upright pistil.

She looks at her watch: 1:40. She'll stay here until school is over, then go home. Tonight, she'll meet Anderson, after he's done working. Anderson is so handsome, he makes you vacant- headed. She met him at the Walmart, where he works in the stockroom. She was leaving the store and he was coming out of the bathroom and he smiled at her and asked if she was Katy Perry. As if. She smiled back. He was on his way to get a hot dog and he asked her to join him. She was scared to, but she did. They didn't talk much, but they agreed to meet later that night. Three months now. She knows some things about him: he was in the Army, he loves dogs, he plays guitar, a little. Once he brought her a gift: a pearl on a gold chain, which she never takes off.

She slides farther down on the tree she's leaning against and makes the space between her knees an aperture. All those graves. Click.

Most people find graveyards sad. She finds them comforting. She wishes her mother had been buried here, and not cremated. Once she heard a guy on the radio say that the cities of the dead are busy places, and it was one of those moments when it felt like a key to a lock. They are busy places.

Last time she saw Anderson, she tried to tell him that. They were at a nearly deserted McDonald's, and she spoke quietly. She told him about the old man she saw there all the time, about how he talked to dead people. She told him what the man on the radio had said. She told him she found it peaceful being in a cemetery with the dead. Beautiful, even. What did Anderson think?

"I think you're fucking weird," he said.

It made her go cold in the back. At first she sat motionless in the booth, watching him eat his fries. Then she said, "I know, right?" and barked out a kind of laugh. "Can I have one of your fries?" she asked, and he said, "If you want some, get some," and shoved a couple of dollars over at her.

But there was the necklace. And one time right after he met her, he sent her a little poem in the mail: Hope this little note will do / To tell you that I'm missing you. Another time he kissed her from the top of her head all the way to her toes. All in a long line, kiss, kiss, kiss. She had thought of it the next night at dinner and had had to hide a shiver. "Eat," her father had said. That was one of their chatty dinners, he talked to her. He said a word. Usually, they said nothing. Each had learned the peril of asking questions and getting answers that were essentially rebuffs. "How was work, Dad?" "Work is work." "How was school, Maddy?" "Meh." "Do you like this chicken?" "It's fine." "Want to watch Game of Thrones tonight?" "You can."

She checks her watch again, and gets up to find another place to sit.

When Arthur gets home, he pulls the mail from the box, brings it into the kitchen to sort through it, then tosses it all in the trash: junk mail. A waste of the vision he has left, going through it.

He pours himself a cup of cold coffee from the pot on the stove and sits at the kitchen table to drink it, his long legs crossed. He and Nola, they drank coffee all day long. He pauses mid- sip, wondering suddenly if that helped do her in; she had at one time been warned against an excess of caffeine.

He finishes the coffee and rinses out his cup, turns it upside down in the drainer. He uses the same tan- colored cup with the green stripe all the time: for coffee, for water, for his occasional nip of Jack Daniel's, even for his Metamucil. Nola liked variety in all things; he doesn't care, when it comes to dishes. Or clothes. Get the job done, that's all.

Here comes Gordon the cat, walking stiff- legged toward him but looking about for Nola. Still. "She's not here," Arthur tells him, and pats his lap, inviting the cat to jump up. Sometimes Gordon will come, but mostly he wanders off again. Arthur has heard that elephants grieve, seems like cats do, too. Houseplants, too, for that matter. Ironically, he has no luck with them. He looks over at the African violet on the windowsill. Past hope. Tomorrow, he'll throw it away. He says that every day, that he'll do it tomorrow. She had loved the ruffled petals. "Look," she'd told him, when she brought it home, and she'd put a finger under one of the blossoms like it was a chin.

After a dinner of canned stew that looks like dog food, he heads upstairs to the unevenly made bed. She'd be pleased he does that, makes the bed. Here's the big surprise: he's pleased, too. A man doesn't always make room in his life for appreciating certain things that seem to be under women's auspices, but there's a satisfaction in some of them. The toilet seat, though. Up. And there are other grim pleasures in doing things he didn't used to get to do. Cigar right at the kitchen table. Slim Jims for dinner. What he wants on TV, all the time.

He lies down and thinks about that young girl. He feels bad for having scared her. A wave, and she seemed horrified. Seems like he understands more about the dead than the living these days, but he thinks he understands a little about her. If he sees her again, he'll shout over, "Didn't mean to scare you!" Maybe she'll shout back, "I wasn't scared! I wasn't scared, get you!" The image of her sauntering over to him, her thumbs in her belt loops, looking to pass the time. They could talk. He could introduce her to a few of the folks underground— who he thinks they were— if she wouldn't think he was crazy. Maybe she wouldn't think he was crazy; from the looks of it, she has her own strange ways. He might ask her if it didn't hurt, that ring in her nose, hanging out the bottom like a booger.

Arthur sleeps so long the next morning that when he wakes up, it's time for lunch. He sits at the edge of the bed to write the alphabet in the air with his feet, as his doctor has told him to do, to help with the arthritis there. Damned if it doesn't work, too. He heads down to the kitchen. A draft is blowing in from under the door. It's cold and windy then. Odd for May, but who can count on the weather anymore? Never mind. He'll feed Gordon and go. A promise is a promise, even if it's only one you made to yourself.

When he looks in the drawer for the can opener, he doesn't see it. No one to blame it on; he's the only one here. He shifts around the contents of the drawer, then digs deeper, and from way in the back he pulls out Mr. and Mrs. Hamburger. Lord. She kept it. He stares at the molded plastic figurine, all perky beneath the grime: the long- lashed, pink- cheeked Mrs. Hamburger, wearing a red dress with yellow polka dots, Mr. Hamburger in his dark brown suit with a derby hat perched on his bun head. Great big black shoes like Mickey Mouse's for him, chunky red high heels for her. Mrs. Hamburger used to have real hoop earrings; they're gone now. The Hamburgers' skinny white arms— they look like fat pipe cleaners— are linked; they look ready to walk off the stand they're on.

Nineteen fifty- five? Nineteen fifty- six? It was after the Korean war, he knows. He remembers the night they got it, too hot to cook so they went out to the Tick- Tock Diner and he'd bought her that figurine on their way out. It had taken Nola a long time to decide between Mr. and Mrs. Hamburger and Mr. and Mrs. Hot Dog.

They'd had a fight before they left for dinner, he recalls now. They never did fight much, but that one was a doozy. He doesn't remember what it was about, but he sure remembers it. She was just screeching at him, he'd never heard that voice before, and the veins in her neck were standing out. He remembers thinking that he had never seen her look ugly, but he thought she looked ugly then. He doesn't like that he thought that about her, but what can you do? Everybody has thoughts that shame them. You can't control them coming in. But you don't have to let them all out. That's the crux of it. That's what made for civilization, what was left of it, anyway.

He puts the figurine at the center of the kitchen table and stands back to regard it, his hands on his hips. Nola and her figurines. Her little flowered plates and her stationery with birds and apple blossoms. She was a cornball, that one. But who didn't love her?

"Well. Miss Harris," Mr. Lyons, Maddy's English teacher, says when she walks into class. That's all he says, but Maddy knows the rest. He knows she skipped school yesterday; he knows she wasn't ill. He leans back in his chair and crosses his arms and watches as she takes her seat.

Mr. Lyons's first name is Royal. Maddy thinks that's hysterical. She wishes she could ask him what's up with that. Royal. He's got white hair and he's a little fat. Maddy likes people who are a little fat; it seems to her that they are approachable. He's a little fat and he's got awfully pale skin and the links of his wristwatch are twisted like bad teeth. He doesn't care about such things. He cares about words. He taught her one of her favorite words: hiraeth, a Welsh word that means a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that maybe never was; it means nostalgia and yearning and grief for lost places. He used the word in a story that he read aloud to the class, and when he looked up, his eyes were full of tears. Nobody made fun of him after class, which was a miracle. Nobody said anything to her, anyway. Not that they would. She's the girl who sits alone in the lunchroom, acting like her sandwich is fascinating. Or did. She skips lunch now.

She doesn't exactly know why kids don't like her. She's good-looking enough. She has a sense of humor. She's not dumb. She guesses it's because they can sense how much she needs them. They are like kids in a circle holding sticks, picking on the weak thing. It is in people, to be entertained by cruelty.

Maddy slides low in her desk so that Mr. Lyons won't call on her today. It's an unspoken agreement they have, another reason she likes him so much. She'd come to school every day if it were just Mr. Lyons. Once she stayed after class to show him a photo she took lying under a tree and looking up. Mr. Lyons told her the photo was really good in a no-bullshit way. "Do you have a title for it?" he asked. Maddy shrugged and said, " 'Framed Sky'?" and Mr. Lyons smiled and said, "Lovely."

Praise is hard for Maddy to hear; it makes her stomach tighten and blood rush to her head, it makes her overly aware of how tall she is. She'd listened to what Mr. Lyons said with no reaction beyond a quick thanks, but later that afternoon, when she was at home and lying on her bed, she looked at the photo again through his eyes. She looked at his comments this way and then that way. What he said could not be seen as anything but good. So . . . so there. She put the photo in the candy box she keeps at the back of her closet. It's a Whitman's Sampler box; her father told her that was her mother's favorite candy, one of the few things he'd shared about her. Maddy never knew her mother; she died in a car crash two weeks after Maddy was born. She'd been on the way to a doctor's appointment. Maddy's father had come home early from work to drive her, but Maddy had a cold and her mother didn't want to take her out. So she told Maddy's father to stay home with Maddy, she'd drive herself. Someone who ran a red light drove into her.

Maddy has a photo of her mother in the candy box. It's one she found stuck in the crevice of a bookshelf. She asked her father if she could have it and he stared at it for a long time, then gave it to Maddy. In the photo, Maddy's mother is leaning against a fence post somewhere out in the country, her arms crossed, smiling. She has a red scarf tied in her hair, and she's wearing jeans and a man's white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, untucked. "Where was she?" Maddy had asked her father, and her father had said, "With me." "What were you doing?" Maddy had asked, and her father'd said, "Picnic." Then he had walked away. Enough, he was saying. Her father will never talk much about her. Too hard.

Maddy looks like her mother: she has her dark hair, her wide blue eyes, her little cleft in the chin. What she wants to know is if she is like her mother.

Maddy writes poems and takes pictures. Lately, she takes pictures of little things and blows them up big so that she can really see them. In poems, she does the opposite: big things get made small so that she can see them. The interest in these things did not come from her father.

Mr. Lyons is talking about Hamlet. Maddy lets her mind wander. She already knows about Hamlet. They were given a week to read it and Maddy read it that night. To be, or not to be. Right. That is the question.

Arthur shuffles over to the stove and turns the heat on high under leftover beans. Then he walks back to the table and walks back to the stove. No shuffling. See, Nola?

He adds catsup to the beans, maple syrup, raw onion, Tabasco, and bacon bits from a jar, though they aren't bacon at all. He cuts a piece of cornbread, butters it, and lays it on the plate, and, when the beans are warm enough, dumps them over the bread. He opens a bottle of beer and sits down to eat.

Gordon jumps up on the table and stares fixedly at him. "Be my guest," Arthur says, moving the plate closer to the cat, so they can share. Gordon sits with his front paws lined up exactly even and eats daintily from one side of the plate. Then he stops abruptly, shakes his head like someone has sprinkled water on him, jumps off the table, and pads away, his tail held high in disdain. "You try cooking then," Arthur says, "you think it's so easy." Funny how an animal can hurt your feelings when you're all alone.

He thinks about maybe watching television later, but he can't much tolerate it anymore. What with the way people behave on there. He'll probably just take a walk around the block after dinner and hope Lucille Howard is not sitting out on her porch. If she's sitting on her porch, he's a dead man. Lucille taught fourth grade for many years, and she seems to think the world is her classroom. She's a bit didactic for Arthur's tastes, a little condescending. Odd, then, that at the thought of seeing her, his weary old heart accelerates. He supposes it could be an erratic beat, he gets them, but he'd prefer to call it something else. So much of everything is what you call it.

He wets his hair at the kitchen sink, then pulls his comb out of his pocket and holds up a pot for a mirror. The bones of his face protrude; he's gotten so skinny he could take a bath in a gun barrel. But good enough. Good enough.

The cat walks behind him as he makes his way to the door. "You coming?" he asks, holding the door open. Gordon is allowed out as long as it's light outside. He's proven his indifference to hunting, an anomaly Arthur appreciates. The cat doesn't move. "Just seeing me out?" Gordon looks up at Arthur, but keeps still. "I'll be back in half an hour," he says. People say cats don't care, but they do.

When Arthur passes Lucille's house, he keeps his gaze focused straight ahead. No point in inviting it. But she's sure enough out there, and he hears her calling him. "Arthur! Want to come and sit a bit?"

He hesitates, then turns and starts up her walk. Gives her a friendly smile, to boot. He wishes she wouldn't wear a wig, or at least not one that sits so crookedly on her head. It's a distraction. Sometimes he has to restrain himself from reaching over and giving it a little tug, then smacking her knee in a friendly way and saying, "There you go!" But why risk humiliating her?

Arthur thinks that, above all, aging means the abandonment of criticism and the taking on of compassionate acceptance. He sees that as a good trade. And anyway, Lucille makes those snickerdoodles, and she always packs some up for him to take home, and he eats them in bed, which is another thing he can do now, oh, sorrowful gifts.

"Sit right there," Lucille says, indicating the wicker chair Arthur always chooses when he visits with her.

He settles down among the floral pillows: one behind him, one on either side of him, one on his lap. It's an undignified and unmanly way to sit, but what can you do? Arthur will never understand what seems to be a woman's need for so many pillows. Nola had it, too. They had to dig their way into bed every night.

"Now!" Lucille says. There is an air of satisfaction in her voice that makes him wary.

"Isn't this nice!" she says.

He nods. "Yes. Thank you."

"My grandniece is pregnant, I just found out," Lucille says.

"Oh, is that so?"

"Yes, and do you know, she's forty years old!"

Arthur doesn't know what to say to this. Congratulations? Uh- oh?

"These young people, these days," Lucille says. "They just . . . Well, I just don't understand them."

In his lower gut, Arthur feels a rumbling, sudden and acute. He shifts in his chair.

Lucille's eyes dart over and she says, "Oh, I don't mean to complain. No older generation understands the younger generation, isn't that true? But don't let's complain. Let's endeavor to be grateful and pleasant. Unlike them."

And now the pain becomes more acute. What in the hell did he eat?

He rises, warily. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave," he says. "Thanks for . . . Thanks for the visit."

His voice is pinched with his efforts to keep control. "But you've only just gotten here!" Lucille says, and— oh, no, look, there are tears trembling in her eyes, magnified by her glasses.

"I forgot about something," Arthur says.

"What?" Lucille demands.

"Oh . . . long story." He really has to get to a bathroom.

He moves cautiously toward the steps.

Lucille rises up to walk beside him, her hands kneading each other, and he detects a faint scent of vanilla. "Well, I just hope I didn't offend you. We're neighbors, Arthur, and we're the only old ones left on the block and I just invite you over to pass the time and I made some orange blossom butter cookies for you and— "

"Another time," Arthur says, and hotfoots it over to his house. He reaches the bathroom just in time. He sits on the john and lets go and here comes Gordon to sit on the threshold, his tail wrapped around him. Now there's a friend.

When Arthur's finished, he washes up and then stands there for a minute, doing a kind of internal surveillance, relishing the expansive relief that comes after recovery from illness, however short its duration. He's okay then.

So. He goes into the living room to lift the blinds and looks over at Lucille's porch. Gone in. Well, it would be foolish to go back now. He's sorry for hurting her feelings, but it would be foolish to go back now. The blue of the sky has faded and the thin clouds are ash- colored. The first stars will be out soon. It comes to him that Nola once asked, "What if the souls of the dead become stars that can always watch over everyone?" That was right before she died, and Arthur answered in a way he still regrets. He kissed her hand— so light, by then, a kind of husk of a hand— and said, "We don't know anything." He doesn't know why he said that that it's basically true. But he wishes he had answered more eloquently. He wishes he'd have said something to make her think that in the great unknown there was one constant: everything would be all right. He thinks that's basically true, too.

He opens the back door and Gordon slips out. "Hey!" Arthur calls. "Get in here!"

The cat's gone. There's a worry. A man Arthur met on his walk the other day said he had seen a coyote walking along the sidewalk, pretty as you please, and Gordon is old now. How old? Arthur slowly calculates. Fifteen! How did that happen? Fifteen!

"Gordon!" he calls. A movement in the bushes and then Gordon darts out and runs to the driveway, where he lies on his back regarding Arthur.

"Come here," Arthur says, patting his leg.


"Come here!" Arthur says. And then, rolling his eyes and lowering his voice to a near whisper, "Come, kitty, kitty."


One last thing he can try. He goes into the house and gets Gordon's bag of treats. He carries it outside and shakes it. Gordon runs away.

Arthur lets the air out of his cheeks. If he ever gets another pet it will be a dog. Nola picked out Gordon at the shelter when the kitten was barely six weeks old. "Look at him!" she kept saying, on the ride home. Arthur wasn't sure what he was supposed to look at, but he knew better than to ask. Gordon— unnamed at that point, though Nola had suggested Precious, which of course Arthur had to put the kibosh on— was just a white kitten with a brown tail. But each time Nola told him to look, he looked over and said, with a kind of false proprietary pride, "Yup!" You would have thought they were driving the baby they never could have home from the hospital.

Arthur goes inside, but leaves the door propped open. He'll get into his pajamas and brush his teeth and wash his face and his glasses, then check again. If the cat doesn't come back then, well, he's on his own. Bon appétit, coyote.

Arthur finishes his preparations, then comes back downstairs. No sign of Gordon. He calls him once more, then closes and locks the door and heads upstairs. He opens the book he's reading, but he can't concentrate. He snaps out the light, lies down, and stares out into the blackness. When he feels a thud on the bed, he jumps and cries out, much to his shame. You'd think a bat had dropped from the ceiling. But it's only Gordon, the devil.

"Where were you?" Arthur asks. Gordon comes closer, curls up next to him, and starts purring.

"You think I'm going to pet you now?" Arthur asks. "After what you put me through?"

But he does pet him. And then he sits up and snaps the light back on and reads a few pages from his Western before he goes to sleep, a feeling like an inflated balloon in his chest, the cat curled in his lap. Little mercies.

At midnight, Maddy calls Anderson. She keeps her voice low, so her father won't hear. Anderson answers sleepily, and Maddy instantly regrets herself. But what can she do now except plunge in?

"Hey," she says, but her voice is too girly, so she lowers it to say, "What are you doing?"

"I'm fucking sleeping," Anderson says. "Duh."

"Well, I'm sorry to wake you but you said you were going to call tonight, so . . ."

"Did I? Sorry. But I just saw you, right? And I . . . got busy."

Doing what? she wants to ask, but best not to push. He did apologize.

She starts to ask him about his day but things have gotten to such a bad place. So she asks in what she hopes is a jaunty, playful way, "Want me to sneak out and meet you?"

"I don't know, Maddy," he says, and the distance in his voice terrifies her.

"I learned a new trick," she says, and he laughs and says, "Oh yeah? What trick is that?"

"It's a surprise."

He's quiet, and she says, "Meet me at the corner. We'll go somewhere. I'll do it to you in the car."

He sighs. "I gotta work in the morning. We need to make it fast, okay? Nothing after."

"Okay," she says. "I'll be out there in fifteen minutes. Come and get me."

She hangs up and contemplates what to wear. Something easy to slip off. This is exciting. It is, isn't it? She like she's in a television show. But now she needs to think of a trick.

She takes off her pajamas and pulls on a T-shirt. No bra. Jeans, no underpants. Then she uses her phone to google Variations on oral sex, female to male.

When it's time, she raises her bedroom window, climbs out into the foundation shrubbery, and crouches down, listening, making sure she has not awakened her father. No; she hears nothing. She walks to the corner to wait. She stands there seven minutes, she counts every second with a despairing kind of dread, but then here come his headlights and the car pulls up next to her. His arm is hanging out through the open window and the smoke from his cigarette is rising up and it's so sexy, it's so right, he's so manly, nothing like the dumb boys in her school, whose idea of a good time is trying to slam locker doors on each other's hands.

She wets her lips, runs to the passenger side, and leaps in. He nods but says nothing, just drives off to a forest preserve a couple of miles away. He pulls into one of the parking spaces, cuts the engine, and turns to face her.

"Hey," he says, and he rubs at the corner of one eye. The gesture is endearing to her, somehow, and she leans over to kiss him. But he pulls away, saying, "I gotta get back soon, I gotta get up early. So, you know. What's up?"

"What's up?" she says.

"Yeah, what's the trick?"

"Oh," she says. "Well, so . . . Want me to show you?"

"Yeah." No need for her to get undressed after all. No time.

She puts her hand to his crotch, unbuttons his jeans, and carefully pulls the zipper down. Apparently there's this little place back there where you can rub when you do it. Apparently they love that. Awkwardly, she gets on her knees on the floor in front of him.

He leans his head back, closes his eyes. Tosses his cigarette out the window. She looks at his handsome face, then begins.

Afterward, she says, "So . . . ?"

"Yeah, it was great. Thanks."

Thanks? "You're welcome," she says. She moves back to her side of the seat.

"Listen, Maddy," he says, looking down, and her insides jump at the sight of his long lashes, the planes of his cheekbones, the way his hair falls into his face.

He looks at her to say, "I gotta tell you. I think we need to cut back on seeing each other."

She freezes. Cannot speak. Does not breathe.

"Okay? I mean, I'm busy at work, and I'm trying . . . you know, I'm trying to do some other stuff."

"What stuff? Something I can help with? I could help you."

"No, it's nothing. . . ." He looks out the side window, then back at her. "Aw, Maddy, I can't lie to you. You're a good kid. You're a pretty girl, we had some good times, right? But you . . . Okay, I'm just going to say it right out because I respect you, okay? Like, I'm not going to lie to you. I found someone. . . . She's more my age, okay?"

"Who is it?" Maddy has no idea why she has asked this question. Or how. She doesn't want to hear a single word about whoever this person might be.

"She works at the store, we run into each other a lot."

We. It burns. Maddy presses her lips together tightly. Must not cry. Really must not cry.

He laughs. "At first we hated each other. It's really funny, it's like a sitcom, right? We like really hated each other. This one time she came into— "

"It's okay," Maddy says. "I don't want to hear any more."

"Aw, come here," he says softly, and some force moves her closer to him. Where else can she go?

"Hey. I got something for you." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small jewelry box.

Oh, my god. This was a joke! The other girl, that was a joke! Because look, he's going to propose! And she will say yes, she will say, Just take me to your apartment and we'll start living together right now. She stares at the box, her heart galloping in her chest. To be out of her house, away from her father, who is like constant bad weather. To wake up excited for the day ahead! To feel seen and appreciated! Maddy feels she wears a mask behind which is a wondrous kaleidoscope. Look through here: she knows things; turn the wheel: she can do things. She can sing, she's a good dancer, she can curl her tongue on demand, every dog and cat on the street comes up to her, she's an amazingly fast reader. Now she can show someone everything: her heart, her humor, her loyalty!

"Take it," Anderson says, pushing the box toward her.

She takes it, her hand shaking, and opens it to find a pearl solitaire necklace, identical to the one he gave her before.

"A token of my appreciation," he says, as though he were dressed in a tux and bowing before her. "Do you like it?"

She reaches beneath the neckline of her T- shirt to pull out her necklace and shows it to him.

"Oh," he says. "Shit."

She starts to get out of the car and he grabs her arm. "What are you doing?"

She says nothing, tries to wrestle her arm free, and he holds on tighter. It hurts. She turns toward him and slaps his face. It startles both of them, he lets go, and she gets out of the car, leaving the door open. Let him shut it. She starts running away.

"Maddy!" he says. "What in the hell are you doing? Get in the car, I'll give you a ride home. For Christ's sake, get in the car!"

She keeps running, faster.

"Maddy! It's not safe!" She hears him slam the passenger door and the car starts coming toward her. She runs into the woods.

"Maddy!" she hears. And then she hears the car driving off.

She comes out of the woods and there is no sign of him. She waits for a minute to see if he will come back, but he doesn't.

Maybe fifty feet away, just at the periphery of the woods, she notices a doe watching her, and she becomes flooded with an elemental sense of shame. She stares back at the animal, its wide and patient eyes, its stillness. For a long time, neither moves. Then, "Mom?" Maddy whispers.

When she was little, Maddy used to watch Mister Rogers on TV. Her father would set her up on the sofa with animal crackers and juice and disappear into the bedroom or the basement, where he could be alone. Maddy would watch the little train and the puppets and the regular visitors to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. She would listen to the soothing voice of a man she wished her father were like. One day Mister Rogers stared out from the screen as though he were talking right to her. "Look for the helpers," he advised. "If you look for the helpers, you'll know that there's hope." She'd started when she heard that, then held perfectly still. She wouldn't have been surprised if Mister Rogers had reached out his hand through the screen. She has never forgotten that day, that feeling of being offered some sort of lifeline.

Maddy feels her mother sometimes as a glow in her brain, as a knock at her heart, as a whisper she can't quite hear. And then there are times when she thinks her mother takes on the form of something else, like this doe, appearing from out of the woods to stand by her, if only from a distance. Maddy sees this as wordless reassurance, as fulfillment of the promise that Mister Rogers made, and it does offer her hope, though that hope is not nearly as bright as it used to be. That hope has gotten tired.

Maddy swallows, holds up a hand. "Bye," she says, and starts walking.

When she gets home, she climbs noiselessly through the window and, once inside, turns on her desk lamp. Her father is sitting on the edge of her bed. "Where have you been?" he asks.

There is nothing left in her. She is not afraid.

"I snuck out to meet a boy." Her father nods. He stares at her standing there, her arms crossed, her heart shattered.

Then, "Come here," he says, and pats the bed beside him. Maddy moves to the place he's indicated and sits staring straight ahead.

Her father clears his throat. He puts his hand over Maddy's, and Maddy's stomach clenches. Her natural response to his rare attempts at affection is to stiffen or move away from him. Because these attempts are not felt as warm. Rather they are felt as foreign and intrusive, and as reminders of what was almost always missing and, at least at first, acutely longed for. Over the years, she has built a little fort against wanting any of that from him anymore. It is too late now. The fort is impenetrable. She is safe inside it.

"Look," her father says. "I know I'm not . . . I know it might not seem so, but I love you. Please don't ever do that again. I was scared, you scared me. Will you promise me never to do that again? That's not the way. Boys don't respect girls who do that. Okay?"

No shit. "Okay," she says, and takes her hand away.

"Don't do it ever again." He looks over at her, starts to speak again, then doesn't. "Good night." He rises, tiredly, it seems to her, tired beyond the lateness of the hour, and, at the threshold, turns around to face her. "Do you want to talk about anything?"

She shakes her head no.

"I'm going grocery shopping tomorrow. Do you need anything?"


"Are you sure?"

"I said no!"

He hesitates, then again says, "Good night."

"Good night." They are beautiful words, she thinks. Good. Night.

She gets under her covers without undressing. She will not think of him. What did she expect? She will not think of him. She will think of good. And night.

In the morning, she will take the bus to school and then she will not go to school but instead will walk over to the cemetery. To be with her people.

Excerpted from The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg. Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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