It’s close to three fifteen in the afternoon. Miss Laura asks him who discovered the Mississippi River. Quentin’s been daydreaming again, staring at the clock. “Ma’am?” he says. “Ma’am?” I raise my hand, ready with the answer, but Miss Laura calls on Henry, the class snitch and know-it-all. Quentin looks at Henry disdainfully. When he turns his head away, as if it would hurt him to have to pay attention to such a sniveling boy, he almost notices me. My heart races. After the bell has rung, I follow him to the gate of his once splendid house where his misfortunate brother waits, bellowing. Though I know the whole story, how it always ends, I also stand there and wait and wait.
His ancestors were governors and generals, Southern aristocrats. Mine were people of the plains, Nebraska, the Dakotas, hardworking farmers who failed at almost everything they did. The past to them was dust on the tongue or in the lungs. I’ve never been to Mississippi or Massachusetts. He died at twenty one, nearly fifty years before I was born, a suicide in the Charles River. As the rain sheers the smoke that pours from his family’s mansion’s chimney, I shiver and pull my collar up around my neck.
A wren flies out of the darkness and settles on a reed at the edge of the branch. Summer storm clouds lie on the horizon. Honeysuckle and wisteria saturate the air like sugar in water. Suppose I had no sense organs. Suppose I couldn’t see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Suppose I couldn’t speak, laugh, cry, or sing. Suppose I could only desire. Then I would be disguised like night. Hidden by the skirt of the magnolia, Quentin is spying on his sister, watching her and her boyfriend make love in the bushes. I’m spying on him. Finished with their thrashing and straightening their clothes, they stroll arm in arm down a woodland path. He leaves in the opposite direction. Feeling suddenly exposed, I also quit the secluded spot. The moon shines with a bright white burning light like a kerosene lamp when he hunts for possum or fishes late at night.
After I crap or pee, I scrub my hands like a doctor before surgery. When I clip my nails, I burn the cuttings. After a haircut, I ask the orderly for the locks swept from the floor. I torch them with a match. After baths, I scrape my skin with the dull edge of a knife. Like Quentin, I am half in love with water, half in love with flames.
Crouching among shrubs and ornamental plants, I wait. Another beau of his sister strolls by the fence, whistling and smelling of toilet water and pomade. I hear a window creaking, effortfully being opened. Tiny cannon balls explode into the air. The boyfriend curses under his breath and glances back at the house. Panting, the sister is running to him from a thicket of trees. Without saying a word, they hug and hurry off. All around the ground where the boyfriend had been standing lie chunks of coal. I pocket one like shrapnel and leave.
Looking for him in the woods, I stumble over a honeysuckle vine, tree roots, a rock that grips the earth with the strength of a boulder, over scattered large animal bones. I hide behind mulberry trees. Stripped to his drawers, he lies in the water, his long hair floating in the current like tresses. I can hear crickets and tree frogs watching me watch him. The perfumes of wild flowers mingling together drench my shirt like sweat. I can feel the water press against his two ears like two hands. I can feel my hands lifting his head.
He has broken his leg again. He walks back and forth, back and forth on the porch, practicing on his crutches. Glass in hand, his father observes him from a swing. He toasts him with a drink. His mother wipes a handkerchief across her brow. “Southern ladies,” his father says, “don’t sweat. They glisten.” His sister leans against a porch post, enfolding the simple one’s hands in her own. Holding a kite, the other brother kicks furiously against a rail as if against the steady rain. I hear a wolf whistle from the street. When I turn to find its source, I see no one. When I look back at the house, it and all its occupants have vanished.
He has a sister and two brothers. I have a sister and two brothers. But in desire things equal to the same thing are never equal to each other.
Covered with filth, he’s rushing back home from the hog wallow, his sister yelling and chasing after him. A frightened little girl escapes them both. They head for the branch, gleeful and laughing. I pursue them. Days later, I pursue them again when he takes a knife out of his pocket where they lie soaking in the water, side by side, staring up at the stars. As I approach closer, I step on a fallen tree limb, brittle and rotten. When it snaps under my foot, he drops the knife, startled. I check my watch. What time is it? What day?
He walks to the town square every morning. Each morning, I get a shave in a shop near the courthouse. Every morning, the same customer sits down in the chair after me, his skin tanned to bronze, darker than his khaki-colored silk shirt. His eyes are turquoise, flecked with black and rimmed with silver. He tells the barber about his exploits in Macao, Rio, Borneo, Marseilles. He never brags. He never boasts of the women he’s laid. Nor does he pretend not to notice how he’s being watched through the window and by me.
Near the bridge over the creek outside of town, behind a wall of cane, I hear love making. Her horse is tied to a tree. Quentin unties it, slaps its rump hard, and urges it home. When it refuses to leave, he mounts it himself and rides off, only once doubling back. When I wave my arms, he doesn’t see me. I hide in a different thicket, a tent of sheets, to masturbate.
A few days later, I crouch under the bridge, cooling my feet in the creek, my back curved like a troll’s. Quentin and his sister are arguing above me. Bits of bark drop into the water. I hear shots. The bark disappears, blown away. I peak through the cracks between the planks. He has fainted into the arms of his sister’s lover who had fired the pistol to end the disagreement between them with a display of lethal skill. When he comes to, he pounds his fist against the bridge rail. His sister’s lover pisses casually against my leg like a tree.
I sit on the grass, my back resting against an oak trunk. Cigar smoke fills the room. Dust and grime frost the windows. Quentin runs his hands repeatedly through his luxuriant hair. His father talks and talks. The room in which they sit looks like a nineteenth century set half hidden behind a scrim, the props temporary, the staging static and already dated. His father holds his head and rocks and rocks in his antique chair.
Quentin is standing on the platform waiting for the next train to Memphis, with connections to Chicago, New York, Boston. Two suitcases, buckled with polished brass, rest next to him. His suit is elegantly unfashionable and his well brushed hat is too old for his boyish face. A gold watch chain, long as a banker’s, catches the sun. As he jingles change in his pocket, its links flash like the flame of a fuse. His sister sits on a bench, her legs crossed like a man’s. Even when the train pulls into the station, they do not speak. I pace and pace, anxious for him to leave. They shake hands. She pecks his cheek and weeps. From my compartment, as the train departs, I see her gazing toward the surrey, but she walks off the platform in the opposite direction. He stands in the door to his compartment grinning madly, his teeth as perfect and white as his perfectly starched shirt.
It was raining yesterday in Cambridge. It is raining yesterday in Cambridge. Rain and more rain. He pulls up the window shade in his sitting room and stares down at the quad where a boy with curly yellow hair and violet eyes strolls across the walk boldly umbrellaless, wearing neither raincoat, jacket, nor hat, oblivious of the cold and wet. The blond boy stares back up at him just as his pinkish, pudgy roommate stumbles in. He blushes as if found out by both of us and jerks the shade down.
He never attends classes. As I cross a bridge from one direction, he is crossing it from the other. Beneath us, the boy with the violet eyes rows against the river’s current, his scull moving with the grace of a drifting reed. When Quentin leans over the bridge to call to the rower, he looks to me as unreal as a dream I have yet to dream.
I sneak in to explore his rooms. I fondle his books, his watch and chain, his shirts hanging in the closet, his notes from home, his crumpled papers in the wastebasket, his toothbrush, his soiled clothes in the hamper, his clean under drawers in the dresser, his pipe, his shoes. Today, I find a note announcing his sister’s wedding. Thumbing it, I deliberately rip one edge. Notice me.
After the wedding ceremony, in a room in their house turned into a dance floor, he dances a sentimental valse with his sister, more graceful than an officer about to return to war, more cavalier by far.
On the train back to school, I occupy the berth over his as we travel along the eastern bank of the Mississippi at twilight. Clouds sail between the night’s first stars. At the train’s approach, cranes and heron rise off their pilings and fly heavenward. Bats circle and swoop. The sunset narrows to a crack between the earth and the sky through which red light seeps like lava, then cools into obsidian. Even over the clacking of the train’s wheels on the track, I can hear his heart beat.
His watch lies on his dresser, its crystal broken, its hands ripped off. A spot of dried blood stains its face. The shower is running. I hide in a closet, letting its door stay slightly cracked. Drying his face with a towel, he walks into the room, then leaves it to return with a bottle of iodine. The cut on his finger has reopened. Except for the uncombed mop of his head, his slight body is hairless, only a shadowy thatch of black growing above his cock and balls. He opens a chest, steps into his under drawers, and slips on a shirt. When he nears the closet, I retreat into a corner, next to a trunk hidden by several suits. He’s humming a tune. Bells sound from a church tower far away. He looks back over his shoulder, suddenly afraid, as if he suspects he’s being stalked.
Just as he hands something to an old black man in town, he’s gone. As he exits a watch shop, I’m heading the wrong way. When he hops off the trolley, a bundle under his arm, he’s too fast for me. I ride one stop too far. When I get back to where I think he must be, he’s disappeared. I see boys fishing. After an hour of walking in circles, I return to the same spot. The boys are skinny dipping in a pond that looks bigger. A motorcar drives by. In it ride his roommate, the violet eyed boy, another friend, two young ladies, and an older woman, overdressed for such a day. From a hill, I see him strolling along a sidewalk with a little girl who’s holding something wrapped in paper. The road bends in several directions. By nightfall, when I’m riding the trolley west, he’s riding one east, a hand covering part of his face. When he twists toward me, I see his black eye. Across the aisle sits a woman wearing a hat with a broken feather. By the time I transfer to a trolley heading back to the college, it’s too late. When I knock on the door to his rooms, there’s no answer. There’s still no answer. He’s dead, of course, his impeccably dressed body, held down by weights, is being dragged by the river. His hat is floating toward the ocean. Yet a faint, barely detectable odor of gasoline, the sort used for cleaning clothes, lingers in the corridor. Equally vaporous, I linger there, too. Like a fool lover, hopeful despite all he knows, I stand there and wait and wait.
Peter Weltner was raised in North Carolina and graduated from Hamilton College and Indiana University. He taught at San Francisco State University for thirty six years. He has published five works of fiction: Beachside Entries/Specific Ghosts (short short stories), Identity and Difference (a novel), In a Time of Combat for the Angel (three short novels), The Risk of HIs Music (seven long stories), and How the Body Prays (a novel). His stories have appeared in several anthologies, including two O. Henry Collections (1993 and 1998). He lives a hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean.