Malcolm had to see it.
So they took a detour and stopped and gazed up at it and felt puny.
Who built it? Malcolm asked.
I don’t know. The city, I guess.
I don’t know, she said. It makes people feel good to build somethin big. Makes people feel like they’re makin progress, I reckon.
Progress toward what?
It don’t matter. Up higher or down deeper or out farther. As long as you’re movin, it don’t matter much where you’re goin or what’s chasin you. That’s why they call it progress. It keeps goin of its own accord.
Do they still build things like this?
Not much, I don’t guess.
Is that cause there ain’t no progress anymore?
What you talkin about? There’s still progress. It just ain’t in iron man statues anymore.
Where is it then?
Lots of places. Like inside you.
Sure. In the history of the planet, there ain’t never been a kid like you before. A kid who’s seen the things you seen. A kid who fought the same fights you fought. You’re a new thing altogether. A brand-new thing.
He scratched an itch on his nose and thought about that. Then he looked up again at the iron man.
Anyway, he said, I like it. It ain’t never gonna die.
He was right. He made her take the detour, and he made her stop and look up at it, and then everything after happened the way it happened, and there’s nothing she can do to go back and change it—but he was right about the iron man. It was a powerful sight and spoke of ingenuity and human pride and the deathless specter of evolution—a thing of mightiness that cast its shadow far out past the road, and beyond that to the fertile plains of America. A country of foolishness and wonderment and capital and perversity. Feeling like God at supper in the sky, horizons pink and blue, a frontier blasted through with breath and industry, like God himself could suffocate on the beauty of the place, could curl up and die at beholdin his own creation, all the razor reds of the West and the broke-down South always on a lean, elegantlike, the coyote howl and the cannibal kudzu and the dusty windows that ain’t seen a rag of cleaning since—
Hey, James Grierson says. Where’d you go?
She realizes she hasn’t said anything for a long time. There are some things she doesn’t like to think about because thinking about them takes up every part of her mind and body.
Huh? she says.
I asked you about the boy. What happened to him?
He ain’t with me anymore.
James Grierson and his pale skin and his dark eyes. He is different now than he was before. He could swim in circles in the air.
To shut him up, she leans over and kisses him hard on the lips. The bottle between them falls to the ground, and she can taste his breath and it tastes like her own breath, and he takes her head in his hands and kisses her like he would consume her if he could.
She kisses him hard for a while, and it’s like the two of them are wolves nipping at each other.
She lifts her body and swings it over to straddle him on the bench. Then she reaches down and unzips his pants.
Hey, he says, pulling away from her kisses. Wait. We can’t—you’re—
It’s okay, she says, feeling the wetness from his lips on her neck. I can’t have babies.
She reaches down and takes it in her hand—it’s hot like it’s been cooked all through—and she presses herself down hard on his leg.
But, wait, he says again. It’s not right. I’m twenty-five and you’re—
Hush up, she says. Just do it. I’m done thinkin. Just come on and do it.
She covers his mouth with her own and reaches under the taffeta dress and pulls aside her underwear and lifts up and sets herself down on top of him, and her knees begin to ache on the wooden slats of the bench, but the thing inside her is a living thing and she likes the way her body holds on to it—and she likes to think about what it feels like to him, that part of her that makes her a girl. And the word stutters through her head, girl girl girl girl—and she believes it, she knows it to be true—dang if she doesn’t believe it right in her stomach and her toes and her very teeth.
THE NEXT day she wakes while the sun is still low in the sky. She goes to the window and looks out over the smooth driveway and the canyon, that long cut in the earth, and the flat painted sky beyond.
She opens the connecting door into the next room and sees the bulky shape tangled in the sheets and blankets of the bed. Both pillows are on the floor, and one hand is resting on the nightstand where it has knocked over the alarm clock.
You’re a paragon of helplessness, ain’t you, dummy?
She rights the alarm clock and tries to pull the sheets up over the sleeping figure. But when she does, the blankets come untucked and expose his feet. So she goes to the other side of the bed and tries to cover his feet back up, but she can only find a triangle end of the blanket, and it doesn’t seem long enough to do anything with. Finally she drops the blanket altogether and stands looking down at him with her hands on her hips.
It’s a good thing we found you this place, dummy. One thing’s for sure, a mama I am not.
Coming down the stairs she can hear music in the parlor. Mrs. Grierson is sitting in a chair with a high fan-shaped back, listening to records and knitting something long and baby blue.
You’re up bright and early, Mrs. Grierson says.
I don’t sleep much.
You’re a busybody like me.
Guess I am.
She sits with Mrs. Grierson and changes the records for her when they get to the end. She has never seen a record player before, except in movies, and she likes how delicate the mechanism is. The music is joyful and quick and has a lot of different horns, and it sounds like something that a room full of people wearing skirts and sweaters would be dancing to.
There is a formal breakfast later in the morning, with biscuits and jam and coffee, and all the Griersons sitting around the table, Richard and his mother trying to make pleasant conversation, James looking at Temple only when she is not looking at him. She can see it out of the corner of her eye.
After breakfast, she takes some biscuits on a plate up to the room adjoining hers, and Maisie helps her with the slow bear of a man—getting him up and feeding him and dressing him. Maisie is good with him and talks to him like he’s a 220-pound baby, and he seems to respond to her voice.
Then she finds she has nothing to do. Mrs. Grierson is playing solitaire in the parlor, and Richard is practicing the same song on the piano over and over with no variation that her ear can tell, and James is nowhere to be seen. She wonders how people can live this kind of life—trapped inside a house with windows everywhere showing you where else you could be.