“It always looks better than I remember.”
“I might open this window a little,” he said. The boy was probably now at the headgate. He imagined the water boiling in the chute as the slide was raised, the smell of alfalfa and clover.
“If you’re hot you could always take off those heavy clothes.”
She was widening and closing her knees, the movement stirring the bubbles into islands.
He pushed the bottom sash up a couple of inches, watching the steam bleed out through the opening. “I’m okay.”
“I forgot,” she said. “I forgot we don’t do that anymore.” She leaned over the side for another sip, the water sheeting and finally beading across the blues, reds and yellows of the tattoo that covered her shoulders. Then she slipped back into the water, with her head gone under and her feet up against the tiles by the faucets.
When they were new to each other, right after Kenneth was born and Paul was the age Kenneth is now, they’d settle the older boy in his bed and skid the cradle into the hallway outside the bathroom door where they could hear the baby cooing and check on him if he wasn’t. She’d take him by the hand, leading him in to sit with her while she bathed, and they’d talk about how both boys might turn out, and what she imagined she’d do with her life, asking about his past but rarely speaking of her own. When they ran out of conversation, she opened her legs and let him watch as she languidly caressed herself, one hand slowly circling, the other fingers pressing against a nipple and finally squeezing the whole breast, then the other, and he unsnapped his shirt and lowered his pants and pulled at himself just as slowly, watching as she stiffened and rose against her hands, imagining them as his own.
Afterward he cleaned himself at the sink, gaping stolidly at the big, grateful, unmarried son of a bitch in the fogged mirror, still fumbling with his pants and shirt and feelings of mild indecency. He never once believed it would go on like this forever, thinking of it as a sort of prelude, but after two years it finally occurred to him that nothing more interesting was likely to happen, that their evenings together in the bathroom held no more significance for her than the occasional load of laundry she washed and dried. She was just helping out.
He still masturbates, alone at night in his bed, but not for the pleasure of it. Now he jacks off so he can sleep.
She rose up out of the water sputtering, smoothing her hair back, and drank from the glass again. “I’ll bet you’re wondering what the Guides are thinking,” she said.
“I wasn’t, but that’d be fine.”
She settled and closed her eyes, pinching her nose and then inhaling through the left nostril, clamping it shut, exhaling through the right. Back and forth. It’s a technique she’d spent some time trying to teach him, but it only left him feeling uncomfortably lightheaded.
She dropped her hand away, breathing in heavily. The bubbles were completely gone from the water’s surface and her breasts bobbed in front of her tucked chin. “They’re ready.”
“I guess I could hear something about Paul,” he said. “If they’re willing.”
Her face tightened in concentration, in seriousness, and he turned to see a raven outside the window, cawing from the branches of an apple tree.
“Family questions are the hardest,” she said.
The bird shifted black and silver in a shaft of sunlight, mottled where the leaves shadowed its shoulders, and she turned the faucet off with a foot without opening her eyes. There was just the sound of the overflow draining.
“This will be his last lifetime,” she said. “They say he’s filled with the immutable soul of the divine.”
“They actually said immutable?” He was wondering if Kenneth was done setting the dam above the knob in the east pasture, but didn’t feel he could just get up and go check. “What about Griff, then?”
The strain showed in her face. She spread a hand on her belly. “She’s not pregnant.”
“That isn’t what I was thinking about.” He leaned over and took another sip of tequila and put the glass back. He wanted to see if it was better the second time around. “I was only wondering if she and Paul might get married sometime.”
“They say it’s not yet determined.”
The steam was mostly cleared from the room.
“They say there’re obstacles for the female. That she’s caught in a muddied vibration. Don’t you want to ask about Kenneth?”
“I don’t worry about Kenneth.”
“You could ask the Guides about yourself if you wanted.”
“I don’t worry much about me, either.”
She scratched the inside of her left thigh and, bringing her leg up, her calf.
He stood from the toilet. “I need to help that boy with the water. I shouldn’t have let him out there by himself.”
She opened her eyes. “You used to ask about us. About you and me.”
“I already know something about that.”
Her hand still rested on her belly. “I always think about you, Barnum. When I’m gone I always do.”
“I believe you.” He was standing over her now, looking down at her hair floating in dark fans to the sides of her face.
“Our souls are entwined.” Her voice was even and patient, as though she was instructing a child. “They were even before we met. Can’t you feel it?”
At the window a pair of pale-blue butterflies now dipped, guttering in a slight breeze.
“No,” he said, “I can’t.”
She crossed her ankles, turning her legs out. “If we allowed ourselves the luxury of intimacy on this physical plane”-she swept her arm through the air to indicate the room, or the house, or the whole universe-“it would shatter our sacred union.”
“Is that what your Guides say?”
“It’s a fact my heart knows for certain.”
He looked down at his feet. They were pale and dirty and he meant to shower before he went to bed, in his small upstairs bathroom. “I just wonder sometimes why you bother to drive back here like you do.”
She sat straight up in the tub, shivering. “Would you close that window?”
“I come home because I miss you and Kenneth. And the ranch.” She started the hot water again, dropping some bath beads in under the stream. “It’s important to me to be from somewhere.”
When he didn’t say anything she looked up at him. She’d worked her face into a convincing expression of contrition, the kind that gets her a day’s extension on the grocery coupons she’s let expire.
“A thing’s always sweeter when you miss it.” She reached out and took his hand, pulling him toward her, guiding the hand to a breast, holding it there. “You can’t miss something if you have it all the time.”
He nodded, imagining how clumsy he must appear, hunched over, his knees angled into the porcelain rim of the tub, his free hand hanging uselessly at his side.
“Can you feel my heart?”
“Yes, I can.” He wasn’t sure he’d spoken aloud.
“I love you in my heart.” She smiled full tilt, and when he thought he might tip forward he drew his hand away, wiping it on his shirttail as he straightened. He stood watching as she finished the tequila, her head thrown back, her throat smooth as jade.
“Would you be a sweetheart and fix me another?” She extended the glass, a drift of new bubbles rolling back along her thighs. “Maybe two wedges of lime this time?”
“Have we got plenty?”
“I bought half a dozen.”
In the hallway he poured the remaining ice out of the glass into his mouth. Hearing her shut the water off again, he swallowed a trickle of melted ice, feeling as hollow as he had when he was just nineteen and his mother had left and he’d found his father sitting dead in the barn in his only suit, the pistol in his lap, his brains blown back against the upright stanchion and along the length of weathered lumber at the side of the stall. He felt he could understand how something like that might happen.
GRIFF ROLLED to the edge of the bed and sat blinking. She was gummy with sweat, logy, and it took a moment before she could straighten up into the half dark and reel through the clothing they’d left scattered across the floor and finally into the bathroom. She ran water in the sink until it turned icy, drawn up from the bottom of the well shaft, and held the insides of her wrists under the faucet. And then she drank.