Lila cursed herself for getting talked into hosting a Career Day at the elementary school. Now, with two weeks to go, she had lined up only four speakers, a meager column even in her own voluminous, slanting script: the zealously Christian editor of the County Crier; a hard-of-hearing, government-subsidized soybean farmer; a breeder of Labrador retrievers; and Ricky Davis, owner of the McDonald’s franchise in West Point and brother-in-law to third-grade teacher Brenda Davis, who came up with the whole stupid idea of Career Day. Ricky Davis cleared a quarter million a year and Ms. Davis had just wanted to show him off.
Lila did not often let herself get talked into things, but she had been distracted by the effort that went into Ms. Davis’s typed memo (albeit on her kitten stationery) and had honestly thought their county could produce more careers than four. Now she had to scramble, perhaps look as far away as Tappahannock and Mechanicsville or even Richmond to find suitable speakers, a task that somewhat defeated the theme she had chosen and spelled out on the school marquee: Careers in the Community. But she didn’t want her students to think the only profitable job was running a McDonald’s, and besides, she was scheduled to talk about the results at an upcoming principals' conference. At their last meeting, it had been the only accomplishment she could think of on the topic of “outreach.” The other principals, in their jeans and sweaters and clog shoes, disheveled, happy women who let their children’s parents call them by their first names, names like Shirley and Marge, had nodded eagerly and encouraged her to share.
“Oughta ask Byron to come speak,” her father, Moe, said at their weekly dinner, cooked and served by Lila in his house, using recipes from Lila’s mother’s paperboard file box. Mentioning Byron’s name perked him up. “He could play his bass.”
Lila had shrugged. The children would have gone wild for that. Even his hair would give them a thrill, she was sure. “Not much of a career, if you ask me. Not much of a thing to put in front of children.”
Now she made a paltry list of other businesspeople nearby:
Feed & Supply Store owner?
Tire Shop guy?
Nowhere on that list was there a spot for “tour musician.”
Byron Charles was Lila’s last boyfriend, a man too handsome to stick around for long. They had dated, off and on, for five years, mostly in the summertime, when he was playing bass at local shows for Patti LaBelle and Lila had time to spend with him. Byron had dreadlocked hair he wore tied back, muscular arms under printed-silk shirts, and a smooth, soothing voice that sounded especially good on the telephone. They could talk for hours. He lived in Oxon Hill, Maryland.
He was not a regular kind of boyfriend, Lila allowed to her friend Donnelle when they first started seeing each other. He didn’t call her on weeknights, ever, and she didn’t have any of his things stored in her house. But then she was too tired for phone calls on weeknights, and she didn’t have closet space for anyone’s things but her own and her mother’s.
How about the grocery store? Donnelle asked. Has he ever gone with you to the grocery store? Donnelle had once told her she would prefer the old days, when you might have married someone distantly related, some sort of cousin. At least then you knew what you were getting, she said: that was the kind of romantic interest she took in men.
Once, Lila said. They had gone to the Food Lion in Tappahannock to get steaks for the grill.
He push a cart?
No, Lila remembered. He had not. Instead he gathered their things awkwardly in his arms, like he was going to run off with them, leaving her standing alone and embarrassed. She had grown panicked then, standing in the checkout line. She had been afraid of being deserted. That part she did not share with Donnelle.
His fingers, she said. They were strong from plucking the heavy bass strings, and it was nice to be touched by such strong fingers.
Outreach. A stupid, invented word, white and mealy and weak. Lila was forty, never married, the only child of an aging parent. Her teachers were paid the lowest wages in the state, and it showed in their teaching, which like their paychecks lacked vigor and energy and dignity. It showed in the students’ test scores, also low. It was a matter of time before the parents of her few gifted students figured things out for themselves and sprung for tuition at the country day school. It was always the slightly better-off parents whose kids did better; Lila watched for proof to the contrary but was mostly disappointed.
Her mother died of cancer of the breast and sometimes Lila felt that she was carrying the cancer around too, in her own full and heavy breasts. They ached. They had pangs, sharp stabbing pains as she sat at her desk or walked the halls with her stapler, fixing torn bulletin board borders. She had them checked by a doctor twice a year. Donnelle said this was from never having children; sometimes her breasts felt that way too.
Lila had graduated cum laude from the teachers college at Longwood, and had gotten her administrative degree from Mary Washington College after only a few years in the classroom. Her dream had been to move to Washington, D.C., and deal with tough high school kids, straightening them out with her own tough country smarts. She would move up the ladder from there. But that was not how things worked out. Her mother got sick and needed her nearby; then she died and Lila bought a house near the river and let her father fill every weekend with his own needs. There was no ladder to climb, not really, despite her beautiful suits, her timely paperwork, her careful and immaculate speech.
It was not so bad, her job. It was there whether test scores went up or down. The students had their challenges, even if they were not so exotic: parents who beat them, lice and general lack of hygiene, absent dads who skipped their child support, mothers with drug problems, though the main problem, Lila thought, was a lack of perspective, a failure of imagination. Each year they held a 4-H fair and a science fair, and each year the very same projects—alga blooms in Mason jars, bottle-fed baby goats, volcanoes made from baking soda and vinegar—were on display. Each grade had a field trip in spring, fixed so that no one saw the same thing twice: the volunteer fire station for kindergarten, the Indian reservation for first grade, the science museum in Richmond for second, and so on, farther and farther away from the school until the fifth grade took their class trip to Virginia Beach. Many of the children had never even been to Richmond except on field trips and they always squealed and made a ruckus going into the unfamiliar marine darkness of the Hampton Roads tunnel.
Lila’s home was a tidy brick rancher with an attached garage a little ways off the Mattaponi. There she had a closetful of apple and chalkboard-themed knickknacks given by parents and teachers. She had, from a child whose father was a taxidermist, a turkey-foot key holder whose claw gave you the finger. Its middle claw was where you hung your keys. It was the only gift Lila displayed.
What she missed most out of life was her mother. Byron had lost his mother, too. Lila thought this might bring them closer, but instead left a sort of wall between them, as if in their mutual understanding they couldn’t do the pretending necessary for love. No one will love you like your mother did, he told her sadly. Nobody’s never gonna love you like that again.
“It’s getting on time for Kings Dominion to open,” Moe said. Lila had stopped by to bring him his vitamins. He was waiting inside the doorway with his fingers hooked into his belt loops.
Kings Dominion, a treeless amusement park with an amphitheater next to its decaying safari village, was where the big R&B and country acts performed. The list of seasonal names and dates appeared on the marquee around opening weekend at the end of March each year.
“That’s enough of that,” she said.
“You should call him up,” Moe said. “I bet he’d be pleased. How many acts have you got lined up?”
“They’re not acts.”
“Talkers, then. How many?”
“Only four definite,” Lila said breezily. She reached into her shopping bag and brought out the amber jars of vitamins and directions handwritten on index cards. He scowled at them.
“You didn’t treat him well enough,” Moe said. “Your mother treated me like a king every day we were married.”
When Lila didn’t say anything back, he repeated, “You should call him.”
“I don’t think I have his number anymore,” Lila muttered. “Your forsythia needs pruning.” Moe belonged to the let-wild-things-be-wild school of thought. Lila liked a neat yard.
“But you do have his number,” Donnelle said, when Lila told her about it. Donnelle came over once a week for the Parker House rolls Lila got from the school cafeteria. They came frozen on a foil tray. She heated them in the toaster oven with butter brushed on top and they ate them with honey or ham by the dozen.
“I suppose I do,” Lila said. “So?”
“It’s been a while, but you look the same.”
“He could have a girlfriend.”
“Maybe you ought to look him up.”
“Maybe I will,” Donnelle said. “My birthday is coming.”
They laughed and popped more rolls in their mouths. It seemed to Lila that they dissolved on the tongue. The kitchen had a sweet, close, yeasty smell. From the bay window where they sat they could see warm sunset colors reflected on the Mattaponi’s surface. Lila liked to think of Donnelle as Toad to her Frog. The Frog and Toad books were her favorites and she often carried one around with her at school in case she had the opportunity to read to a class. See? she would say. It’s good to have a friend to talk to. Or, good friends always help each other out. Though it felt a little forced to her, she really did love Frog and Toad: their cozy homes, their steady friendship.
If she really thought about it, she was not much like Frog at all. Frog was always quietly right. He was self-contained; he didn’t gossip. He went barefoot and swam with no clothes on.
“You could do a talk, couldn’t you, Donnelle?” Donnelle owned half of a Slender Lady workout club in West Point and sold Avon products out of her house.
“Oh no,” Donnelle said. “You wouldn’t want me.”
Byron, once mentioned, began to seem more missing. Moe did not talk about him at their next dinner, but Lila could feel her father thinking about him. He would pause his slow chewing and smile to himself. What? Lila would ask sharply, and Moe would say, Nothing, still smiling a little. Stop that, she wanted to yell across the Formica table, never as clean as when she’d last left it. You let me do the remembering.
Byron knew the best places to go, even around here. He took her dancing at a black club in Ashland and to a restaurant she’d never heard of in Tappahannock. They had eaten oysters and drunk champagne on a screened-in gazebo overlooking the river. Once they even went to church, but just to stand outside near the gravestones and listen to the choir. Always, they wound up back at her place and for as long as he was there Lila kept the ringer off. Except for the times when his visits coincided with her weekly dinner with Moe, Byron kept her either in the bed or in the kitchen cooking when he visited. He sang her little songs and washed her back with scented soaps in her sunken Jacuzzi tub, which she’d had installed with the money her mother had left her. Admiring her house and her newish car, he said he liked a woman who worked for a living, like he was used to another kind. She had never visited his house, but he said it wasn’t as nice as hers. It needed a woman’s touch, he would say, and then he’d kiss her neck and there would be no more talk of that.
At around four o’clock on a Monday, after everyone at work had gone home, the county sheriff’s deputy called Lila at work. She was sitting at her desk, shoes off, massaging her insteps with a rolling contraption she'd ordered online. Moe had been picked up for driving without a license. Did she know that he had no license? That he had never had a license?
“No,” Lila said. She had no idea.
“Well, he doesn’t,” said the deputy, and waited, as if Lila were supposed to say something to atone for this.
“I asked him if he’d ever had one and he said no,” the deputy went on. “So I asked him why not, and he said he never went anywhere.
“So I said, ‘Looks to me like you’re headed somewhere,’ and do you know what your father says?”
Lila waited for him to continue.
“He says, ‘I’m not. I’m just going to Riley’s store.’” Then the deputy laughed until Lila interrupted him to ask what she needed to do, and he thought for a minute and said, “Nothing.” They’d called ahead to Riley’s store, and Riley had called his brother, an attorney for the state. He was arranging, as a favor, for Moe to take the driver’s exam at a DMV in Deltaville.
“So you see that your father has friends,” the deputy concluded.
“I suppose he does,” Lila said.
“Even me,” said the deputy. “I’m the one that called Riley.”
Lila thanked him for taking the time. He stalled for a while longer before halfway asking her out. He had seen her around and wanted to know if she had plans to go to the fire department’s pancake supper.
Lila told him she always went to the pancake supper, but only for a little while. She didn’t want to specify a time when she would be there. She was a busy woman.
Sometimes Lila pictured Byron at home. She imagined that he ate takeout every night and had an empty fridge and corners that needed sweeping, but for all she knew he had a full-time girlfriend cooking for him and keeping the house clean while he was away. For all she knew, though she hated to admit it, he was married. She’d been out with his band a few times and they never mentioned it, but wasn’t that the way with men? They never would have said a word.
Lila didn’t like to watch Byron perform for a crowd. It just reminded her how he did not belong to her any more than anyone else. Patti LaBelle and her music, brassy and synthesized and insistent, swelling at the high notes, had a stronger claim to Byron than did Lila.
Lila went to only one of his Kings Dominion concerts, on a sweltering August afternoon in the year they first met. To enter the park she had to pass through metal detectors, which were set up specially for black acts. Park officials blamed the problem, the need for precautionary measures, on a “D.C. crowd” when Lila questioned them at the ticketing window. They said it apologetically, conspiratorially, as if Lila would understand. After passing through the temporary plastic gates into the bright unfiltered sunshine of International Street, Lila felt suddenly trapped and out of place, awkward in her slacks and blouse. She held her backstage pass in her hand, ladylike, instead of wearing it around her neck.
Teenagers in baseball caps and oversized sports jerseys thronged the Belgian waffle stand, the tissue-flower vendor, the cotton candy and kettle corn machines. Lila searched their faces for a former student, but they were unfamiliar. As usual, she was early. She could go to the amphitheater, but it wasn’t shaded and she hadn’t brought anything to read. It was possible, she supposed, to look for the trailer, but she’d rather that Byron look for her at the end.
It was nearing dusk when the concert started. The teenagers who had filled the park and caused the extra security measures sat respectfully on stone benches, waiting. Lila took her seat off to the side and craned her neck to see Byron’s tall, handsome shape.
“How y’all doin’ tonight?” Patti LaBelle asked, and everyone stood and cheered. She was wearing a shimmery gold pantsuit, big gold earrings like saucers. Lila narrowed her eyes at Ms. LaBelle; it seemed to her that Byron was following her around the stage with his eyes. You’re being ridiculous, she told herself. That’s his job. But then she could not help thinking mean thoughts about Patti LaBelle.
Surely that’s not her hair.
What black woman needs hair that color?
They played about a dozen songs—“If Only You Knew” and “Lady Marmalade,” “New Attitude,” “When You Talk about Love.” She stayed alert for people she knew and didn’t dance much during the show, though she loved to dance. The whole time she tried to catch Byron’s eye but failed. He would be looking at his hands on the bass strings or at the guitar player or the keyboardist or at Patti LaBelle.
To keep her mind occupied, Lila tried to count all the people associated with the band. There were ten people onstage performing, then there were the lighting people, and the roadies, even the drivers of the buses. How strange their lives must be, Lila thought, never staying in the same place long enough to unpack a suitcase. She wondered if it got boring, all the going and going, if it made travel for fun impossible. She wondered what their houses were like. Were they as glad to see a full refrigerator as Byron was? Maybe, Lila thought, all those men in the band had women here in the crowd somewhere, foolish women like her, waiting to cook for them and love them.
And then the concert was over. Lila moved against the tide of fans, her pass held aloft, toward the backstage area.
“Hey baby,” Byron said when he spotted her. He was slick with sweat but still smelled good, as always, when he went to hug her. She blushed as he held her chin and kissed her on the mouth. She was already thinking of what they would do when they got home. “What you want to eat?”
“I’ve got you something fixed at home already,” she’d said, which was code for let’s get out of here.
After that she mostly met him after shows, in the parking lot or at her house.
They didn’t see much of each other in the winter.
Moe was not keen on taking the driver’s test. “It’s a far way to go for somebody who never goes nowhere,” he told Lila. His car was seventeen years old and had only twenty-three thousand miles on it.
“Riley said he would drive,” Lila said. She had brought over a KFC dinner, which Moe pretended to be offended by even though he loved KFC. She felt morose because Career Day was in a week and a half and it seemed, at this point, too late to call Byron. A few more people had come through, a nurse and an occupational therapist and a high school basketball coach and gym teacher. The owner of the kitty litter factory across the river. The sheriff’s deputy, who promised to bring a suitcase of confiscated drugs and firearms to show.
Moe shook his head. “I don’t want to drive no one else’s car for my test. My car is the only car I know.”
Lila rolled her eyes. “They won’t make you take the driving part of the test, Daddy.”
“And what if they do?” he asked. “I don’t see why I need a license, when I’ve been driving safe in this county since I was fourteen. I drove a truck full of chickens for five years and I never lost a chicken.”
“If you don’t take the test,” Lila said, “you’ll owe a fine. And you won’t get to drive anymore.”
Moe frowned into his mashed potatoes, wet with butter and gravy. “I never go nowhere anyway.”
Lila started to get calls on Monday, the day of Moe’s test, at a little after noon. We’re about to leave now, the sheriff’s deputy said. His name was Ben. He would follow behind Moe to make sure he made it there all right.
“Okay,” Lila said.
“We’re in West Point now,” he said, an hour later. He was calling from his car. Lila could see how this was going.
By the time they reached the DMV, it was closed. Lila felt bad for the deputy. “I should have thought to warn you,” she said when he called to tell her about it, “how slowly he drives.”
Ben brushed off her apologies. It was a nice drive anyway, he said. Next time they would leave earlier.
Next time? Lila asked.
Sure, he said. He’s not gonna give up now, you think?
Lila felt him angling for a date and so she got off the phone. Ben was younger than she, and skinny and white and a policeman. That might have done for someone like one of the teachers at her school, someone who wore sweaters when it was warm out, who liked things safe and plain, but it would not do for her.
That Ben fellow, Moe said later. Nice but a little dim. He must have pulled him over four times to tell him to drive faster, or to keep off the shoulder. They might have made it without all the pulling over.
Lila and Byron had met at a flower show in Richmond. It was an annual thing, and she'd been walking aimlessly for about an hour when his pace fell into step with hers. They walked around and around the orchids without talking, sneaking sly glances and brushing hands and shoulders. The theme of the show that year was porches and all the displays were set up to look like front porches, with picket fences and porch swings overgrown with flowers. The convention center was dim and high-ceilinged, so the whole effect was like walking around a pretty neighborhood at night with a beau. It would have made a nice story about the magical beginning of a relationship, an old-fashioned courtship for modern times, except that they wound up that afternoon in a Howard Johnson motel. By then she could mostly tell how it was going to be. It only occurred to her later that Byron had gone to the flower show to pick up a woman like herself, and that made the advantage his; she had only gone to look at flowers.
The last time he called was before a big tour. They were going to all the cities in the Midwest: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit. He had sounded excited on the phone, and also slightly drunk. He would call her when he got back home, he said. There were dates booked at Kings Dominion in the spring; he would surely see her then.
Those dates came, and then they went. Lila didn’t go because he didn’t call. She was mean by June; she put letters of reprimand in six teachers’ files. Two quit, then came back the following September when they could find no other work.
Her mother had taught her to let the man call her, Lila explained to Donnelle.
She didn’t teach you to do some of those other things you do with men, Donnelle said. Did she?
“I told him you’d go out with him,” Moe said. “I told him Friday night.”
He had returned from Saluda the second time with a driver’s license and some nonsense about a date with the sheriff’s deputy. He’d shown Lila the license before he told her about the date. He looked both surprised and tired without his glasses; his height and weight were all wrong.
“I told them I never go nowhere without my glasses,” he was saying. He held the license in his hand and stared at it. “But they said I had to take them off because of the glare. Now it don’t even look like me.”
“You said I’d do what?” Lila asked. She breathed in slowly, set her bag down on the counter, picked it up again and hung it on the back of one of Moe’s chairs. She pressed her fingers against her eyelids.
“I said I thought you’d go out with him,” Moe said, pretending to look through some mail. “He went with me all that way. Plus when’s the last time you even went somewhere with a man?”
Lila just stood there, seething.
“Now don’t get all excited,” Moe said. “It’s just a date. He’s taking you to Outback. You like Outback.
“You can’t go being lonely all your life,” he said.
“This is barbaric,” she finally sputtered before grabbing her bag and marching out the door. She tripped on the step but kept her pace all the way to her car and did not turn around once to see her father standing there.
Ben called to confirm on Wednesday. He didn’t have her phone number at home so he called her at work, leaving a message with the secretary while she was on the other line.
“He’s cute,” the secretary squealed, setting the message down on her desk and smiling. Ben had come in the week before for an unnecessary meeting he'd scheduled about Career Day, and all the office staff had ogled him in his deputy's uniform. Lila rolled her eyes. She might as well get it over with, she thought. There were worse things than being taken out to dinner on a Friday night. She’d have to listen to some boring law enforcement stories and suffer his flattery, but it was true that he’d helped her out with Moe. She would explain that she just wasn’t looking for a relationship. She had her work to think about, her career.
On the night of their date she was surprised to see him pull up in an Acura sedan. She thought all men like him drove pickups in their off time. She didn’t invite him inside.
“You’ve got a great place here,” he said as they left her driveway. “Brick house, riverfront property, right near the boat landing.” He whistled.
“I’ve lived there for ten years,” Lila said. She didn’t want him thinking she’d paid the house’s current value. In the past few years everything near the water had doubled in price; now you’d be lucky to get something near Moe’s place for what Lila paid.
“Smart,” he said. “Me, I don’t own. I rent.”
“Oh?” Lila said. It didn’t surprise her; he probably made about as much as one of her teachers.
“I like to be free,” he said. “I like to travel. How about you?”
“Travel?” Lila said. She looked at the side of his face. He was wearing polarized sunglasses but she could see now that he was younger than she even guessed, maybe thirty? Smooth skin, just a couple of smile lines, a tiny bit of stubble. He had the kind of skin that flushed easily. Pink. He was skinny but he had good shoulders. “I guess I like it as much as anybody. I don’t have as much time as I’d like.”
“Time?” he said. “Don’t you have summers off?”
“Not really,” she said. “I do get more time off than most people.”
“Man,” he said, stopping at the light at Central Garage. “I’ve been to Amsterdam and Paris. Last year I went on this tour to Laos and Cambodia and Thailand. You ever been anywhere like that, Lila?”
No, she allowed. She had not.
“You gotta go,” he said. The light turned green and he crossed the intersection instead of turning onto 360, the way she always went. “You gotta see the way the people live there. It’s just different. I’m telling you, growing up, I never thought I’d go places like that. I thought the Eiffel Tower looked just like the one they’ve got in Doswell.”
“You grew up near here?”
“Yep,” he said. “Proud product of the King William County school system. You don’t mind if I take the scenic route, do you?”
She said she didn’t mind.
Over their fried-onion appetizer, Ben told her about some of his favorite meals: a picnic of bread and sausage on the Champs de Mars, coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves eaten standing on a sidewalk in Bangkok. He couldn’t believe that a woman like Lila had never even been to Paris. Lila didn’t ask him how he afforded his trips or with whom he shared them or when he’d graduated from King William, what he’d done after that. She didn’t want her surprise to show so she focused on the food, deconstructing the anemone-like onion with a knife and fork, nodding. The lamps cast a warm yellow light on the fake rough-hewn table. Finally she asked him where he’d gotten the travel bug: Was it a teacher or a relative? A book?
He shook his head. He couldn’t narrow it down to one thing, he said. He said he just started with that first tour of Europe—he’d had a girlfriend who wanted to go—and after that it became a habit.
“A habit,” Lila repeated. “And the girlfriend?”
“She’s married now,” he said.
“So you go alone?”
“Pretty much,” he said. Their steaks arrived. Ben tucked into his with the energy of a teenager, and Lila felt herself thinking about other things. She flushed, looked at her plate.
“But you always come back,” she said.
“Sure I do. I live here.”
Lila had never kissed a white man before. She didn’t know what she expected—a different taste, like vanilla cookies? A movie-scene softness and slowness? But kissing Ben in her driveway was the same as kissing any man she’d ever chosen to kiss; she just closed her eyes like always, let it take her where it was going to take her.
Ben was quick and eager, leaning over to her side of the car. He cradled her neck with his hand and made little appreciative noises: mmm, mmm. She ran her fingers through his short, straw-dry hair. It was a good thing she had a long driveway, bamboo and cedar planted all around her property line for privacy. The moon was high overhead. The crushed oyster shells shone white in the driveway like something out of a fairy tale, crunched softly under their feet as they made their way toward Lila’s house.
Monday morning Lila had to push her good mood down, ignore the secretary’s questions and sly looks. She gave herself distasteful tasks to keep her mind off Friday night, to keep herself from thinking about him. She cleaned out her in-box, started to work on her summer school budget. The day passed slowly.
Right as school let out she left for the party store in Doswell, where she would buy paper napkins and plates for the refreshments she planned to serve at Career Day. While she was there she would check out Kings Dominion’s marquee.
The trip was a straight shot thirty-five miles down Route 30, a road populated mainly by truckers hauling timber and, in the wintertime, hunters in pickups looking for empty woods and fields. You passed through Central Garage, with its three gas stations and its loitering teens—the big brothers and sisters of her students—then there was hardly a turnoff until you passed Route 1, the old-fashioned way to Washington, D.C. Route 30 to Route 1, that was the way Ben had driven them Friday night to Outback Steakhouse. It was the same way her mother had driven Lila on their annual trip to the Smithsonian. They would stop to eat in Fredericksburg, always at the same place, where they split a sandwich and drank iced tea. Lila remembered that Cita had worn gloves, even though they were going out of fashion by then. It was something Cita’s mother had taught her.
Cita was only fifty-seven when she died. The illness was short, just a few months, and terrible. Lila had to throw away all the sheets and towels, even some of the rugs, when it was over. She got the metal hospital bed out in a hurry, arranged the funeral herself and to her mother’s exact specifications: the flowers, the hymns, everything. The worst part was that she had been alone; Moe left for his sister’s when the chemo started and Cita couldn’t so much as hold her head up or get to the bathroom. He didn’t take any of his things, not even the car. Just up and left. Hitchhiked, Lila guessed.
He’ll be back, her mother told her. He couldn’t watch your birth either.
Lila called her aunt Rose and told her to bring him back. She had a job, she said, and he was retired and he was her daddy, and Cita’s husband besides. Rose was truly country—more so than Moe—and she just hemmed and hawed. Some mens is built one way, and some mens is built another, she said. Moe Perkins never could stand the sight of blood.
He came back for the funeral and never left the two counties, King William or King and Queen, again. He was older when he came back, and Lila was too. She forgave him because her mother told her to. But when Rose got sick with diabetes and had to have her feet cut off Lila didn’t go. She didn’t even send a casserole.
She had wanted to tell all of these things to Byron, especially the part about her aunt and about the metal bed. It had always seemed like there was time for getting serious.
After Route 1 the landscape changed abruptly—it grew hilly and pastured, with fields of horses lined by freshly painted white fences. Then, to spoil the view, there were the signs of Kings Dominion: the stilled metal roller coasters, so much taller and more unnatural-looking than the old wooden ones; the squat, blue Eiffel Tower, only ten stories high and topped with its graceless, bubble-shaped observation deck.
It was a gray day; the sky matched the cracked asphalt of the empty parking lot where Lila pulled in. She read the dingy marquee list three times, her mouth drawn in a tight line.
All country and Christian acts. No Patti LaBelle. Maybe they lost the lease on their metal detectors, Lila thought. She closed her eyes and thought about Byron’s long dreads, their smell and feel against her face. I kissed a white man Friday night, you damn fool. I brought him into my bed on our first date. She wished she could tell him. She knew he slept with plenty of white women.
The next morning, soaping up in her Jacuzzi tub while she sipped coffee in the doorway, Ben had said she was different. He grinned like a puppy dog, splashed water everywhere. She didn’t take any crap off people; he liked that. She was independent and smart.
And fast, she thought. You probably like that too.
She gave him cold cereal and coffee and kicked him out around ten. Don’t go getting any ideas, she said, standing there with her arms crossed. She was wearing a silk kimono, her hair was loose and shining. In the hall mirror she was surprised by her looks; she was what some people call beautiful.
And what ideas would that be? He had bent to kiss her cheek before he left.
She sat staring at the marquee for a long time, hands on the steering wheel, as if she could will someone to come change it. Far off, she could see a single test car slowly climbing one of the coasters. How long are you gonna stay lonely? she asked herself.
Just cause you’re alone, her mama always told her when she was little and had no one to play with, that doesn’t mean you have to be lonely.
It was a chilly, damp spring. She’d told Ben not to call her. She was so busy, she said, getting ready for this Career Day.
“Opportunity,” Ricky Davis was saying to the gymnasium of students. He was speaking into a microphone, pacing inside a large, imaginary rectangle. He let the word hang there for a minute. “Opportunity comes knocking, you’ve got to answer the door.”
Lila could feel the gym teacher looking nervously at Ricky Davis’s cowboy boots. His rectangle extended beyond the brown paper cover taped over the gym floor. She held a cup of coffee in her hand and stood behind where he was speaking, at her own podium. To the side was a table with all the other guests seated in a row: the Labrador breeder, the newspaper editor, the nurse in her uniform, the occupational therapist, an auto mechanic, the high school basketball coach, the owner of the kitty litter plant, Ben with his suitcase full of contraband. The soybean farmer’s rheumatism was acting up and he couldn’t come.
Ben looked over at her. He gave her a long stare, a smile in the corners of his mouth.
Lila shifted her gaze to the audience of listless but well-behaved students all slumped in the bleachers.
“It doesn’t knock twice!” Ricky Davis was shouting now. Ms. Davis sat rapt in the first row, her feet planted neatly on the floor. He must have thought they needed a motivational speaker; so far the mechanics of buying and operating a fast-food franchise had not come up.
Lila would interrupt him momentarily to guide him with questions, which she jotted quickly on her notepad. Did you have to go to school first? What degree did you take? Do you have any partners? What are the challenges of operating a fast-food franchise?
She took a sip of coffee and it scalded her tongue. It was bad coffee anyway, burned and oily-tasting, ordered from the Fas Mart along with a few dozen doughnuts. They looked pale and unappetizing on their white plates. That morning Moe had called her to tell her he was going to Saluda and did she want anything? Saluda, she’d said. What’s in Saluda?
I don’t know, Moe said. That’s the point.
Now that he had his license, he was driving more places. He said there was more to see than he thought.
“Don’t let it pass you by!” Ricky Davis fairly screamed.
The scald would be there for days, Lila thought, as rough as sandpaper in her mouth. She glanced at her watch; Moe was probably halfway to Saluda now. Byron was on the road, she felt sure of it. In a few months, Ben said, he was off to Alaska for a week to see the humpback whales. He was working nights as a security guard to save up. Maybe next time she could ask Ben to talk to her students about one of his trips. He could bring photographs, they could have a slide show. They could see rice fields and houseboats, whales cresting the cold Pacific waters. They could see the real Eiffel Tower.
She bent down to her microphone to ask her questions, but the words came out wrong.
“What road?” she said, too loudly.
Ricky Davis turned to her, startled, and looked ready to answer her question before she apologized and began again, working from the list.