in memory of Scott N.
The night they made love the last time, then agreed to be friends, she lay on her back
listening to his breath slowing in the dark, to the eaves dripping into the rain gutters,
then to the cricket-song starting up outside her open window, felt the salt-wet cooling
between her breasts and thighs, dripping from her eyes, then pooling into the whorls of
her ears, till she felt she was underwater, diving.
Right before you, she whispered, I met another man.
His breathing stopped a moment and he touched her wrist on the damp sheets.
The lightning storm had passed over her house, wind gusts clattering acorns against her
roof shingles, blowing her quilt to their feet through the billowing curtains and window
screen, then blowing rain onto them both, naked in her bed. She stared up at the shadows
of branches like river deltas crossing and wavering on the dark ceiling.
He was a professor at SMU, she whispered. A marine biologist. A
little older than us, mid-forties, I think. Quiet and kind, like you.
She met him, she told him, one Saturday afternoon in late October this time two years
ago, riding her Trek on the bike trails around White Rock Lake. Shed passed him
sitting on the grass next to his touring bike leaning up against the levee to the old,
abandoned fish hatchery, its windows broken out and boarded up, its red bricks scrabbled
For some reason, she whispered, I stopped. Got off my bike.
She spread her quilt out under an oak sapling not far from him and ate the white grapes
from the baggy in her hip pack, then unwrapped a chalky triangle of cheese and unscrewed
the lid from a small black jar. She glanced at his ringless hand and the streak of gray at
his temples as he stared out at the white sails on the water.
Want some crackers and cheese? she said.
He looked at her the first time, a little startled, then looked behind a moment, then
turned back, seeing she was talking to him.
I dont know, he said.
Its water crackers and brie, she told him. Too fattening to eat alone. Ive
got a little Russian caviar, too. Not that I can afford it.
All right, he said, then sat next to her on the quilt shed spread out on the
Her motherd made her the quilt, she told him, for her birthday this time last
year. Her grandmotherd made quilts, too, but this had been her mothers first
and only quilt and itd taken her nine months to sew. He nodded, listening, as she
spread soft yellow cheese and black roe onto crackers for each of them, then talked awhile
about her mother and father, whod had her unexpectedly in their forties and both
died unexpectedly in their eighties, just a month apart, a few months before.
My mother died a week before my fortieth birthday, she told him. It was a week before I
turned my mothers age the year she gave birth to me in Baylor Hospital. I was a
surprise, she said. My parentsd tried for years and given up on having kids. It
was a surprise, she said, my mothers death, my fathers.
She took a bite of the dry white cracker, chewing, the warm brie buttery on her tongue.
The breeze off the lake was cool and the sun warmed her dark hair at the nape of her neck.
A red-wing blackbird warbled a lifeguards whistle, fluttering its wings in the
When I was a girl, she said, I used to hate caviar. Too salty. Too fishy. Too yucky.
Once, my father had a jar of salmon eggs from when hed gone fishing in Colorado. I
thought they were red hots and ate one. I was just three or four at the time. Maybe
thats why its taken me so long to come around. My parents werent exactly
richmy father sold sporting goods at Searsbut he bought my mother caviar like
roses, she loved it so much. Shed eat caviar on crackers and drink champagne and
claim to come from Russian royalty. Shed soak in a hot tub and scatter in handfuls
of bath oil beads. Then shed sneak off with my father to their bedroom for hours.
Its strange, she said. Before my mother died, I never cared much for caviar, but
now I crave it like chocolate.
Her face flushed from her flood of wordstoo much time too long aloneand she
shooed away a bluebottle fly that had landed on the lip of the jar, then screwed the lid
back on. She shook her head. God, I hope Im not talking too much. I dont know
why Im telling you all this.
He stared down at his open palms, and she waited for him to make an excuse to leave.
My parents are gone, too, he said. Gone a long time back, actually. He smiled. My
father used to bring my mother out here. To watch the submarine races.
She glanced at him and his eyes held hers.
You know, he said, to make love. All this was way out in the country then, right after
the war. Hard to believe that now. Everybody was doing it then, my father used to say.
They just didnt talk about it so much. He stared out at a Sunfish leaning out from
the wind as it tacked, a man and woman leaning back together at the gunnels to keep the
boat from tipping.
I used to bring my girlfriend out here, too, in my parents station wagon. Long
before they died. Long before she and I ever got engaged, then broke it off. We were
in high school then. Lake Highlands. Late sixties, early seventies. She got pregnant and
wanted the baby. I asked her to marry me, then changed my mind and had to the borrow money
from my parents to pay for the abortion. Took me two years to pay them back and she never
talked to me again after that. Moved off to Galveston to finish her senior year, then
married a shrimper. Had five kids, last I heard. Hard to believe, but our own kid
wouldve been in her twenties.
A grasshopper buzzed out in an arc as he pulled up a long seed-head of Johnson grass at
the edge of the quilt. He chewed awhile at the lime end, staring out at the glittering
One winter, he said, right after she and I met, I drove my girlfriend out here and put
down the back seats. It was raining outside and cold, so we kept on our coats. Then just
as we were, you know . . . there was this flashlight through the fogged windows and we
were fumbling for our jeans. The cop rapped on the back window and shouted, You kids take
that somewhere else. So we did.
He looked back over his shoulder, then nodded up the levees green slope to the
fish hatchery. My friends used to take their girlfriends inside that place, he said. To
scare them. Broke out windows and took the girls down into the old spawning tanks, then
turned off their flashlights. I could never bring myself to do it. My girlfriend was so
fragile. Its what drew her to me, I guess. He chewed on the grass and looked at her
a long time without blinking, till she had to look away, then down at an acorn that had
fallen between her bare feet on the quilts bright-checkered pattern.
When the cop drove off, he said, I pulled my parents station wagon up the slope
and around back, there, under that big live oak, behind the hatchery. My girlfriend
followed me in the rain through a broken window. All we had was an old army blanket over
our heads and my fathers big flashlight.
He shook his head. All this was twenty-five years ago. Hard to believe. But if you and
I went inside there right now, it probably wouldnt be any different.
She smiled. Thanks, she said, but no thanks.
He laughed and tossed the seed-head back over his shoulder. Nothing inside there, he
said, but echoes and deep tanks and rusted pipes down to the water. He nodded to the ends
of the pipes welded shut at the chipped concrete quay along the muddy shore, rust bleeding
from the cracks, the exposed rebar. A white-haired black man had three cane poles leaning
out against the railing, their lines taut to their lead weights on the muddy bottom.
My father took me out here once when they let open the gates, he said. I was three or
four at the time. Thousands and thousands of bass and catfish fingerlings pouring out the
pipes like liquid silver. It set something off in me, I cant explain it. A year
later, I wanted to see it all again, but the Corps of Engineers had shut it all down,
Im not sure why.
My girlfriend went down the ladder first while I pointed the flashlight for her. She
held out her hands when she got to the bottom of the tank. Her palms were covered in rust,
I remember. I tossed her down the flashlight and the blanket, then stepped down the ladder
to the bottom, while she held the light on me. Then we spread the blanket out there and
made love for the first time till the flashlight went dead. We werent afraid,
though. We just stayed there in the dark and spent the whole night, our first together,
listening to the echoes of the rain and the waves coming up from the shore through the
hollow pipes. Talking about the life wed make together.
Ive gone on midnight dives off oil wells along the gulf coast, he said, dived off
the Keys and the Great Barrier Reef, but Ive never experienced anything like it.
Sounds strange, I know, but I dont think Ive ever been so happy.
He shook his head. Now, here I am telling you all this, and I dont even know your
Im the one who started it, she said.
Nodding, he stared out to a dredge-barge anchored on the far side of the lake, its
shovel scooping up tons of dripping black mud. He was quiet a long time.
Like all lakes, he told her, this ones filling up with sediment. In most places
now its only about three or four feet deep. Used to be thirty or forty in places.
He picked up the jar of caviar and peeled the label back at the corner.
The Black Seas dying, you know, he said. Russian royalty used to go there for
centuries for its curing waters. But now its going anoxic. Oxygen starved. Too many
nutrients. Thousands and thousands of tons of fertilizers and pesticides and human and
animal waste all flowing a thousand miles from the Danube. Mackerel and sturgeon
populations crashing. Overfishing. Big floating mats of algae and bacteria blocking out
the sun to the bottom. Dead water rising up, choking everything off.
He put the jar back down on the quilt.
Ten years, twenty max, he said, and no more Black Sea sturgeons. No more caviar. No
He took a bite of cracker.
Everythings so fragile, he said, shaking his head. Then he smiled at her and
laughed. God, this is all so cheerful, Im sorry.
He watched a single oak leaf drift down to her quilt, then glanced out at the bright
leaves floating along the muddy shore, the reflection of the bare branches in the water, a
scattering of acorns splashing the water in the wind. Then he stared out awhile at the
whitecaps on the choppy water.
Its funny, he said. Last week, I was picking out a salmon steak on ice in Safeway
and I saw this man leaning over his shopping cart and kissing his kid on the ear. It set
something off in me, I cant explain it. Something turned over inside me and I had
this ache and I had to lean against the glass case just to get my breath. Ive heard
of women having this need, this longing, this almost physical ache for a child. But never
in a man, never in me. Not until now. I dont know how to explain it.
Shed been quiet a long time, holding her arms against the chill of sunset, and
shed not known what to say.
Ive felt that ache, too, sometimes, shed wanted to tell him, then, looking
at him, feeling it then in that moment. But shed said nothing.
His neck and jaws had flushed a deep pink, the color of the leaves under the water and
the mackerel sky out over the Dallas skyline, the single, full-bellied cloud drifting out
over the lake.
He laughed and shook his head.
Now Im the one whos talking too much, hed told her. I dont know
why Im telling you all this.
The light hairs along her forearms and thighs had goose-pimpled in the cool damp air,
and she sat up in her bed to shut her window, muffling the cricketsong outside, the slow
dripping of the eaves. She pulled the quilt up from their feet to cover herself, and
him, sure hed fallen to sleep, no point in finishing her story. Then just as she
reached across to lay the quilt over him, he held her face in his hands and kissed her,
then said, Youre cold, and turned her over to her side away from him under the
quilt, spooning into her back, warming her, crossing his arms around her shoulders, then
cupping her breasts in his warm palms.
This quilt, he whispered into her hair, kissing her ear, this is the quilt your mother
She nodded in the dark.
Ive seen the grass stains, he said, but I didnt know. You never told me.
Never told me about your marine biologist. He touched her hair at her temple and smoothed
it back behind her ear. You and he, he whispered, you mustve made love on this
quilt, in the grass, in this bed, like us. She turned to face him, but he held her there
and said, No, no, its all right. Im sorry. I shoulntve said that.
Its none of my business.
No, she said, you dont understand. He and I never talked much after that. We just
met once more time to ride our bikes around the lake. That was it. That was all. And then
I met you.
Well, he whispered, it doesnt matter now, does it? Maybe its best this way.
You can go back to him now.
No, she said, facing him. No.
Look, he whispered, his breath warm on her face, Ive tried to be honest with you.
I like my life like it is. And I like my life with you in it. But I dont want anyone
else but you. By the time I turn sixty-five, I dont want to be worrying about a kid
just turning twenty. Im too old now and I dont have that kind of energy.
Sometimes people just want different things. Theres nothing wrong with that. If you
want more, its all right. I understand. I told you that. I told you.
No, she said. No. Thats not what Im talking about.
What, then? he said. What are you talking about?
She lay on her back again, quiet a long time, staring up at the branches fissuring on
the dark ceiling. Headlights flashed across the room as a car turned the street corner
outside, its tires hissing on the wet pavement.
The first time you and I went out, she whispered, the first time you rang my door bell
to pick me up the first time, the telephone rang. Almost in the same moment. It was him.
He said he wanted to talk. Nothing important, he said. He knew it was late notice, but
could we maybe get together for some coffee?
My dates at the door, I told him, then was angry at myself for blurting it out
like that. Ive made other plans. Can I call you tomorrow?
Sure, he said, no problem, and he hung up the phone.
I didnt think anything about it, but when I called him the next day he
didnt answer, and his answering machine was turned off. I called him again a few
more times the next week and then again that weekend. A woman answered the phone. I
didnt know if I should say anything and started to hang up. Then I asked her if he
was there. The woman didnt say anything for a long time. Then she told me he was
What? I said. What happened? Who is this?
I thought the womand hung up for a moment. Then she said she was his sister and
shed been the one to find him, in his bathtub. Hed slipped under the water and
shed found him that way. Hed struggled for years with depression, she said,
but it was still a surprise. His work made him sad.
Everything made him sad. He worried too much about things.
I didnt know what to tell her. I didnt even ask her about the funeral. I
just said I was sorry and hung up the phone. What else could I say?
She lay there in her bed, imagining him drawing himself a hot bath, swallowing handfuls
of round black pills with champagne, setting the empty bottles at the edge of the cold
ceramic tub and lying back, staring up at the plaster cracks on his bathroom ceiling,
slipping into sleep under the warm water, covering his mouth, his nose, his closed eyes.
An acorn popped against the roof and rolled into the rain gutter, and she felt
something turn over inside her, an ache so strong she pressed his palms between her
breasts just to get her breath.
He wiped her eyes with the heel of his palm, then held her.
Why? he asked her. Why didnt you tell me all this before?
I dont know, she said.
Then she felt herself slipping into sleep, heard for the first time the single cricket
under her bed, its bright, trilling whistle.