Winslow went numb with amazement. The voice was unmistakable, the shape of the head, the same, though the girl’s bashfulness came as a surprise. He supposed a national audience would make anyone a little nervous.
"How utterly depraved." Gail had slouched back in her chair and slung an arm over the back. "What will they be doing next? Animals?"
"Isn’t that what they’re doing?" Becca looked up from her fingernail, bored.
Winslow studied his ex-wife, then his daughter. Shouldn’t they, of all people, be able to understand, show some compassion? He knew the futility of inquiry. Indignation spurred him on to the next best thing.
"Well, the life certainly isn’t for everyone."
"The life?" Becca arched an eyebrow at him. "You sound experienced, Winslow."
"Your father’s only being provocative. He doesn’t realize he’s no longer selling cars." Gail said this with her eyes fixed on the television.
"I once heard a psychologist say a lot of women are envious of prostitutes." Winslow struggled to maintain coolness, unable to believe he was resorting to such a lie. "Apparently the allure’s not just for those who need the money."
"Oh, please." Becca rolled her eyes. "Like all women are whores at heart."
"I didn’t say that." For several seconds, everyone’s attention settled on the television.
Then, out of nowhere, a thin voice quavered under a matter-of-fact resolve: "I knew lots of gals who used to whore."
Heads turned in unison. Margaret Winslow had scooted onto her bed and propped herself against the headboard. Her mouth was a line of determination. "Plenty of gals," she asserted. "And some of them said they’d do it for half the money."
Winslow’s surprise turned to warmth at the sight of his daughter suddenly jolted out of her Cosmo-chic indifference. Margaret Winslow gazed brightly at the television set as though no one had spoken.
"You really should see about getting her meds adjusted, Joe."
The severity of his ex-wife’s whisper irritated Winslow. "Because she spoke more than two sentences?"
"You know what I mean. She’s talking nonsense."
"She might have known a whole brothel of hookers for all you know." He shook his head with the authority of a lion. "Maybe you should ease up on the self-image a bit." He sat basking in smugness, the vertex of an angle, his ex-wife and daughter’s enmity converging on him like death rays.
"You know, Joe," Gail began, "this is just one of the reasons–" She didn’t finish, just huffed, rose, and gave Margaret Winslow a kiss on the cheek good-bye. Becca followed suit, then shadowed her mother out of the room, punching the door closed. Television noise picked at the silence.
"Tight ass."
At first, Winslow frowned at the television; then he turned and gaped at his mother as though he were before an oracle.
Gazing absently at the television, she extended a hand to him. Winslow eased up and took it, sliding onto the edge of the bed.
"You’re a good boy even if you do support that moron Dewey," she said, patting his arm as though she understood.
For a length of time he could not gauge, Winslow sat next to his mother and stared at the shifting murmur of images on the television screen. She clung to his hand with what seemed a sense of urgency, as though it were the handrail of a staircase descending into the irrevocable darkening of her mind. Occasionally she would turn and look at him, a wistful glint straining from the pale blue horizon of her gaze. He imagined memories making terse gestures of farewell from the shadows then disappearing. He thought it perhaps not so bad. To lose one’s mind before the final descent–the terror of death a shimmering mirage dissolving into the delight of a butterfly meandering or a dandelion seed adrift. Gratitude seasoned his grief; and before long, Margaret Winslow fell asleep. He stood and gentled her down flat onto the bed–she stirring, folding her hands over her chest. The funereal appearance of her posture dawned on him slowly and dread thickened his throat. A memory shimmered briefly in his mind–Margaret Winslow as a younger woman, her limbs plump and supple and easily able to outrun death. "Oh, Mother," he muttered. And for a long while, he watched her sleep, then switched off the television and left.
He wandered out of Alton Manor feeling as though he had just reentered the earth’s atmosphere after a long space flight. He breathed deep of the jostling spring air, trying to order the sprawl of a lingering sadness. A row of dogwood trees in snowy bloom lined the far edge of the parking lot, their shadows long in the late afternoon sun. As he walked to his car, he remembered Melissa. It had certainly been she, there among the shadows of the studio set. She looked more like someone in the witness protection program than a vibrant teenager with her whole life ahead of her. It should have been someone like him obscured there–someone three times her age who would stalk a child through a shopping mall.
During the drive home, anxiety coiled and thrashed inside his chest. He wondered how he had come to such a state–reviled by his own family. Alone. Now an association with a teenaged hooker. How much farther might he sink? He shuddered. But he had only been intrigued, had not done anything wrong. In fact, if only for the brief time he had been with her, he had kept Melissa from doing something reprehensible. The conflict see-sawed, reason ascending, then dipping under the burden of self-consciousness. The preoccupation left him inattentive to traffic and the changing lights. A honking horn sent him lurching through an intersection. At the same time, he did a double take at the rearview mirror. The woman, piloting an old model Chevrolet, looked remarkably like his mother. She appeared stern, determined, hanging within a few feet of his bumper. Heat spilled up over Winslow’s collar. Bewildered, he kept glancing back to the mirror until he nearly rear-ended the car in front of him. He drew a deep breath and expelled it slowly, then looked. The old woman was gone. He twisted around and scanned the traffic, but she was nowhere in sight. The rest of the drive was muted–the slow motion drift of dreams.
As soon as he entered his house, the flashing light of the answering machine caught his attention. "Did you catch it? Oprah?" There was a pause, the sound of chewing gum. "The secret identity stuff wasn’t my idea." Another pause. "See you around." Winslow was oddly unsurprised. Even the puzzle of how she had gotten his telephone number garnered only a moment of his attention. The beep following the brief silence was like the dotting of a perfectly written "i".
Hungry, he poured himself a glass of bourbon, shuffled to the back yard, and fired the grill. He returned to the kitchen to retrieve a large porterhouse, and the doorbell rang. He paused. For an instant, he imagined opening the door to Melissa, coy yet intent, leering seductively. The thought made him wince. Had he violated some hooker etiquette? Insulted her by declining sex, only to rouse her determination?
The doorbell went off again, and he scurried to the door and reluctantly opened it. Becca smiled cautiously.
"Fancy meeting me here," she said. "Not interrupting anything, I hope."
Relief buoyed Winslow as he stepped aside. "Not at all. I was just about to grill a steak. There’s enough for two." Then he remembered his daughter’s vegetarianism. "I could whip up a vegetable stew."
"Steak sounds great," she said, ambling toward the kitchen.
Winslow followed, curious. "So how long have you been off the veggie wagon?"
"I haven’t." Her pumps tapped a tired cadence, first on wood, then more brightly on Italian tile. "Steak just sounds really good." She slid onto a stool at the counter. "Got anything to drink?"
"I’ve got a bottle of pinot noir."
"Anything stronger?"
"Bourbon?" He hesitated, then fetched her a glass and poured nearly a double. She tossed it back, then savored the curve of the glass with her fingertips. She extended her arm for a refill.
He was now concerned. She had grown up eating meat, but he had never seen her throw back hard liquor.
"Is everything okay?"
"I had an abortion two days ago." Her eyes watered up, her back stiffened.
Shock gave way to an awkward concern, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. Her auburn page boy parenthesized her despair like the discursive ears of a worn-out rabbit. It reminded Winslow of a trip to the mountains when his daughter was only seven. The rhododendrons were in bloom, and Becca had been fascinated, not only by the beauty of the flowers, but as much by the plants’ droopy lobate leaves. "They’re like bunnies," she said. "Sad pretty bunnies."
Something propelled him forward, into a hug. His own daughter felt like a manikin. A poorly masked sniffle set his hand in motion, patting her back. She shifted and he withdrew.
"Are you all right?" he asked finally. "I mean, any complications?"
"No, I’m okay," she said, and her features imploded under the weight of a bewildering grief.
Winslow slid onto the stool next to her. All he could think to do was to pour them both another drink, the hard curve of the bottle in his hand like a doorknob in a dark room. Becca finally stopped crying, and Winslow got up and eased about preparing dinner.
After they ate, they shared another drink on the patio, the katydids insistent, the stars inevitable. The light from the living room shone through the sliding glass door, softly illuminating Becca’s solemn face. Their dinner conversation had been small, and now Winslow hoped and dreaded that she might start talking, really talking. He thought he ought to know the particulars of such a serious event in his daughter’s life. Yet the prospect of further indictment of his own life–the neglect, the misplacement of value–left him resentful that she had the power to evoke such longing and guilt in him. The insect sounds plumbed a hard silence. Nothing else.
He grew more and more fretful until, finally, he leapt up and hurried inside, returning with a CD player. He set it on the table and switched it on. Santana’s "Evil Ways" rolled back the quiet. He launched into a beat-driven wobble, shuffled over to her, and extended his hand. She took it reluctantly and eased out of her chair. Pouting soulfully, he exaggerated the arc and sway of his movements. She laughed and began to move, tentatively at first, then freely. He wrinkled his nose at her. She smiled. And with that, they abandoned themselves to the music.
For over an hour they danced, in between songs sipping whiskey, saying nothing, anticipating the next melody, the coming beat. Under the jeweled surveillance of the night sky, they danced like Dionysian celebrants refuged in a moment of ritualistic defiance of time’s ravages. When they were finally too tired and intoxicated to go on, they fell into each other’s arms laughing; and for a moment, possibility tickled Winslow’s brain, thrilling him with the illusion of redemption.
"The guest room’s all made up," he said.
Becca just hugged him again before going inside.
Early the next morning, he woke up to find her already gone. The bed in the guest room had not even been turned down, the bedspread bearing the impression of a body curled onto its side in a sort of fading question mark.
He shuffled through the motions of making coffee and drank cup after cup while sitting on the patio, wondering what he might have done differently. As the sun rose and clarified the day, his thinking became, if not similarly clearer, at least more resolute. He went to his answering machine and listened again to the message from Melissa. How had she found him? And why? He wondered if she had phoned all her previous Johns to see if they had watched Oprah. He gradually convinced himself that knowing the answers to these questions might provide some valuable insight–into what, he wasn’t sure. One thing at a time. He showered and shaved, then waited until he was sure the mall would be open.
By ten thirty he was sitting on a bench in front of a Starbuck’s with another cup of coffee. Absent the throng of people that would converge on the place later in the day, the mall was cavernous in its dormancy. The meager echo of occasional footsteps, or the clamor of a shop’s gate ratcheting open, dissolved into the vastness like the pre-mass piddling in a cathedral. He couldn’t recall the last time he had been in a church. Religion had always been problematic for him–the subjugation of the will. Faith. He had always taken care of business himself. Who else? There had been times in Vietnam, though, when he actually prayed. But when the shooting was over, the cool river of rationalization flowed freely. Who wouldn’t pray with mortar rounds dropping out of the sky like coconuts in a hurricane? Besides, he concluded, what kind of God would create a world in which children had to sell themselves?
The coffee shop’s milk steamer abruptly scolded the quiet, reminding him that morning and an empty mall were not the most favorable working conditions for a young prostitute. He couldn’t imagine a teenager rising that early on a Saturday no matter how much money there was to be made.
Then she appeared, a hundred feet or so away, strolling toward the hub where three concourses converged and sunlight strained through a translucent dome overhead. At first, he thought he was seeing things and nearly pulled out his glasses. Her glen plaid skirt, white blouse, and black vest were, he supposed, costumery–props aimed at exciting fantasies of schoolgirl sex. As she moved through the cottony light, he squirmed under the weight of condemnation–of himself, of her, of everything around him. Then all at once, she paused and looked his way. The sight nearly took Winslow’s breath away. She seemed to glow, the iridescence of her hair like a mantle of some rare shimmering cloth. For a brief moment, she stood looking toward him. He sat frozen, uncertain whether she saw him or not. Then, like a dream image fading out of consciousness, she continued through the light and disappeared around a corner. Despite the realization that he had no real reason for coming to find the girl, Winslow leapt to his feet and hurried after her.
He rounded the corner and nearly collided with a woman’s double baby stroller, the two infants frowning up at him. Melissa was nowhere in sight. He loped hesitantly on past the shops, peering urgently into each one, alternately searching the concourse ahead of him.
After circuiting the entire mall, he stood back in front of the Starbuck’s. He was reluctant to concede that he had mistaken another girl for Melissa. He had been so sure. Had he hallucinated her? He finally convinced himself that there would have been no point to his approaching her even if it had been she. His bewilderment slowly dissipated; and in his indecision over what to do next, he was suddenly overtaken by an impulse that warmed him with self-satisfaction: he would buy his mother a birthday gift after all.
What did it matter if it was a day late?
Once again, he made his way through the mall in search of something appropriate. As he passed an electronics store, he recalled how much his mother had once enjoyed big band music. He reproached himself for not remembering this before and went inside. It took him little time to find a CD player that was suitable, even less to find a record store and choose several CDs he was sure his mother would like.
His stride was oiled with self-congratulation as he exited the store, blithely wondering if he should search for a card to include with his mother’s present. He would never decide, for both his mind and his feet came to an abrupt halt at the sight of Melissa gliding down the middle of the concourse in front of him. Dumbstruck, he watched as she made her way to what he gradually realized was her destination. A man sat angled across a bench, one leg slung over the other, engrossed in a newspaper. He looked to be in his mid-forties, and the sheen of his flax-colored hair swaggering about his head in neatly cut waves suggested the indifference of robust wealth. A plum silk shirt and khaki slacks seemed to emanate from the deep evenness of his tan. Melissa sat down on the opposite end of the bench, settled in straight and prim, and tugged down the hem of her skirt. The man’s newspaper descended like a curtain.
For an instant, Winslow considered intervening–pulling some stunt like masquerading as Melissa’s father, feigning surprise at running into her. His weight shifted; but in that miniscule slice of eternity before he could step forward, it occurred to him that he already had a daughter. He turned instead and headed for the mall exit, his arms numb to the burden of his gifts, his heart aching at the unexplored mystery of his life.
The End