Chapter One: Friday, April 16th, 1993
Tall, big-boned Joyce DeLuca, HER RIDE IN THE darkness done, led Ghost to the barn. As she walked, the lead rope sagging behind her, a breeze stirred her long, light hair, fanned out beneath her riding hat, and the horse blew steam in the cool foothills air and shied as if sensing danger though Joyce knew no danger was near. The high-strung mare had been unusually skittish all morning, taut muscles quivering like drawn bow strings, and almost bolted once, Joyce short-reining her, gentling her with soft words. Steady, girl . . . What's got into you . . . ? Steady now. . . .
A difficult, exasperating animal, yet Joyce loved her for her unpredictability and for her color--a bluish gray set off by a black mane. Two summers ago, she had seen the mare for the first time, running with a herd across a New Mexican mesa below the reddish, sage-speckled slopes of the Mogollons. It was late afternoon, and a thunderstorm to the east raised a purple-black will as solid-looking as the mountains. The sunlight reflecting off the clouds had an eerie cast that made the blue roan look supernatural, like a spirit horse out of some Apache myth. The sight brought a tightness to Joyce's chest and she bought the horse on the spot from the outfitter who'd guided Alex and her on a week-long ride.
Under the barn's cave, she got out her hoof pick and curly brushes and reached to shackle a crosstie to Ghost's bridle. Suddenly, the pale mare spooked, backing hard and tossing her head so the lead rope swung like a whip and cracked Joyce an inch below her eye. Both eyes began to tear and she grabbed the lead high up and jerked it and kicked Ghost hard in the ribs.
The horse settled down immediately. It had been one of Ghost's unexplainable fits, over in a second. Instantly, Joyce's temper cooled and guilt overcame her. She wasn't sentimental about disciplining horses when they needed it, but that whack had been gratuitous and misdirected: had been a show of the anger that had been in her when she woke up before dawn and had stayed inkier, lodged like a bone, and not even an hour's hard riding enough to get it out.
"Sorry, girl," she said,patting the mare's neck. "Okay? Sorry."
She snapped the crossties, undid the cinch straps, and, enjoying the smells of old oiled leather and horse sweat, pulled the saddle off and laid it over a rail. Alex had given her the saddle for her thirty-fifth birthday, which was getting to be longer ago than she cared to remember.
Twenty minutes later, she had everything done--the mare curried and put in the stall, saddle and bridle stowed in the small tack room. Joyce could think of nothing else to delay her return to the house, and she started toward it with stiff strides that suggested a Civil War soldier marching toward an enemy battery.
She wished she could go to work as she was, in jodhpurs and boots. She wished she did not have to enter the big house of quarried stone where she would have to look at Alex's long, somber face and behave as if nothing were wrong. She did not want to give the sharp-eared, sharp-eyed Theresa the slightest evidence that she and Alex had been quarreling. Theresa had been with the DeLucas for years and had become Alex's surrogate mother since his own had died. If she thought there was trouble in the marriage she would speak to Alex with glances and well-timed silences calculated to inspire remorse and guilt. This unhappiness is what you get, Alejandro it's your punishment for breaking the laws of the Church.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud rustling and crashing among the tangled sycamore and cottonwood in the ravine that writhed through the DeLuca vineyards. The noise sounded like a large animal running. She paused and listened. The noise stopped A deer? Or something else? Maybe Ghost had heard or sniffed some menace human senses could not. As she looked into the ravine. where pools of night lingered in the low spots, an apprehensiveness rippled up her back and down her arms. Last week, the local paper reported that a cow had been killed by a marauding cougar on a high range in the Sierras, but Joyce couldn't imagine what would drive a mountain lion into this winemaking country, unless it had acquired a taste for zinfandel.
She stood still and alert for another few seconds, but heard nothing, saw nothing. Her gaze rising from the gully toward the regimented rows of vines on the hillsides, she blamed the noise on a flock of birds, a trick of the wind. Far off, crows or buzzards gyred like smoke above a hill topped by fir trees. She doubted they were eyeing a predator's kill; yet the possibility that something lethal lurked in this serene landscape seemed to darken its character. Even the Nines looked a little sinister, canes twisting like serpents over the trellis wires.
The kitchen smelled of coffee and the batter that Theresa, a bowl docked in the crook of one fleshy arm, was mixing by hand. She was dressed in a green sweat suit and tennis shoes, a costume that did not go with her heavyset figure, her lined face, with its look of reserve, her thick hair pulled into a stern, matronly bun. She would have looked more appropriate draped in the black of a nineteenth-century duenna.
"Well, hello there, Joyce." Thirty years in the United States had taught Theresa gringo informality, which suited Joyce having help troubled her prairie sense of democracy, and she could not have borne being addressed as Senora DeLuca.
"So, where will you go riding this morning?"
"I've already been," Joyce said, and took her hat off and fluffed her hair.
Theresa, not missing a beat with the wooden spoon, regarded her with narrowed eyes.
"You went riding in the dark?"
"I cannot believe you went riding around these hills in the dark. Alone."
There was a note of disapproval in her husky voice. Another point in Joyce's disfavor; more evidence that she was peculiar unsuited for Alejandro. Theresa's heart remained loyal to Elaine Alex's first wife. Elaine would not have done anything so foolishly daring as to ride a horse in the dark. She didn't ride at all. Joyce took a mug from the wall rack beside the stove and filled it from the ancient enameled pot Theresa insisted on using in place of the electric coffee-maker.
"Someday I'll tell you about the midnight ride of Sybil Luddington, another mad gringa. A revolutionary heroine. The lady Paul Revere."
To this capsule history lesson Theresa responded by raising her black eyebrows--a gesture of impenetrable meaning, or no meaning at all. Then, graceful and light on her feet, as plump women sometimes are, she glided swiftly accross the kitchen and put the bowl in the refrigerator. "What is that?"
"Ricotta and other things. Filling for tonight's lasagna."
"I went riding early because I've got to go in early and pick up my bilingual aide," Joyce said, annoyed that she felt compelled to offer a justification. "We're taking the class to Sutter's Mill. Teach them about the forty-niners and the Gold Rush, although I really don't think a bunch of Cambodian and Vietnamese kids are going to be much interested in that."
"Everyone is interested in finding gold."
"Verdad," Joyce said, and left.
She passed through the hall on her way to the bedroom, but paused under the archway to the living room, where Alex was reading the Wall Street Journal with the aid of his glasses, a magnifying glass, and a three-way light turned to its brightest. A breeze guttering down the chimney ruffled the remnants of yesterday's fire in the fireplace and breathed into the room, faintly, a scent of charred wood and ashes. It was a big, dim room with varnished beams and a lot of antique furniture that spoke of missions long gone to dust, of long-buried haciendados. What had made Joyce pause was the picture of age Alex presented there, his Ben Franklin glasses pushed down to the tip of his nose, the creases in his lugubrious face deepened by the shadows. Of course he was no kid-fifty-two this year--but she saw in him now a prefiguration of the old man he would become.
Sipping her coffee, she watched him as he moved the magnifying glass up and down the stock tables, pretending to be too absorbed to notice her. He took out a pocket calculator; made computations. Joyce knew what he was up to, besides ignoring her. He, too, was still upset about last nights quarrel and was seeking to calm himself with the cool arithmetic of profit and loss. Before he went into commercial real estate and became one of the more successful land speculators in central California, he'd found refuge from emotional turmoil by taking long walks through the vineyards first planted by his great-grandfather and nurtured by every generation of DeLucas since. But the vineyard was poetry, and Alex had no time for that anymore. Nowadays he preferred tile unambiguous facts oh the stock market. They told him where he stood, and he like to know where he stood. He did not like it when life got messy, when the unruly heart, whether he's own or someone else's, threatened tn subvert the odder of his days. His divorce had given him enough mess to last a lifetime. "How are we doing?" she asked.
Feigning surprise at the sound of her voice, he straightened his shoulders as he half-turned to face her, a question in his deep-set brown eyes. Joyce gestured at the Wall Street Journal.
"I meant that."
"Pharmaceuticals down, cyclicals up," he answered in his rich solemn baritone. A beam of sunlight slicing through one of the casement windows lifted the shadows from his face and erased its appearance of a premature old age. "In a nutshell, we're about eleven percent ahead for the year."
"Thanks for the report. I won't be at breakfast. Have to get in
"How was the ride?"
"Okay. Theresa thinks I'm a little loco for riding in the dark."
"Theresa," he said through a thin smile. "Old Mother Hubbard."
"Ghost was a tad jumpy."
Alex squinted and raised a finger to his cheek.
"She give you that?"
"Yeah. Tossed her head. The lead rope . . . "
"Never know what she'll do. Sometimes I think we were had by that Marlboro man."
"We weren't had, okay? I know horseflesh. She's just temperamental."
"Or half a quart low."
"Something might have spooked her. You don't think that cougar . . . "
"Last one in this neck of the woods was shot by my great-granddad. 1887."
"I've got to get ready."
She went upstairs, showered, and put on her makeup and brushed her hair, alert for signs of gray. She had hoped for a signal that Alex was having second thoughts: a word, a gesture.
She took off her robe and backed away from the mirror so she could see her naked self from her hair down to her somewhat oversize feet. Her body had hardly changed since she was twenty-five, but that did not please her this morning. The woman staring back at her had the overexercised exercised look she had seen in obsessively active, middle-age females. Preserved, pickled were the words that came to her mind. Breasts never suckled out of shape by a greedy little mouth; flat, hard belly innocent of stretch marks; thighs sinewed from riding and hiking, unblemished by the burst blue veins that tattooed her mother's after she'd given birth to the second of her two huge baby daughters. joyce had weighed nine pounds at birth, her younger sister, Kristen, nine and a half. "Like shifting a watermelon," Joyce had once overheard her mother tell a friend, and that repulsive image--of her infant self as giant turd--had stayed with her all her life, sparing her anY unrealistic notions about the miracle of childbirth.
After Kristen was born, their mother had her tubes tied--no more squalling excrete for her--and didn't try to "get her figure back," as women said in those days. Joyce had felt shock and disgust one hot summer when she saw her mother stripped in the dressing room of a lake resort. I'm never never going to look like that, she'd thought then; now she found something to be admired and envied in her mother's loss of beauty, as a handsome hut untested young man might admire and envy a warrior's disfigurements. Was childbirth the fullest expression of womanhood? Was a woman who had never given birth the less for it, condemned to some eternal girlhood? What about all the women who could not get pregnant?
Fill me up, fill me, she'd cried the first time she and Alex made love. She heard herself crying it out again in her imagination, and saw herself, ass bearing down hard on the bed, he plunging into her fill me up and he does, sending ten million of the little bastards on a spawning run to batter her ovum's walls and one of them gets through fill me up, oh, do.
Then he was at the bedroom door, as if the fantasy had beckoned him. He started to come in and she told him to wait, she wasn't finished dressing.
"What the hell? This the Victorian age? A guy can't see his wife with her clothes off?"
She quickly put on khakis, sneakers, and a pullover, then opened the door.
"I've got the green light?" Alex mimicked a courtier's bow. "It's permitted to enter her ladyship's chambers?"
"I hate it when you try to be comic. You and comedy clash."
"I thought I was being ironic, not comical."
"Look up ironic in the dictionary. You'll see that you weren't
"Teacher. Mizzzz DeLuca . . . "
He moved through a cube of window light into a shadowed corner of the room, where he sat resting both arms royally on the arms of the chair.
"I think we need to talk."
"I really do have to get in early."
"Is this jaunt timed to the minute?"
"It's not a jaunt. It's a field trip." She took a chair in the corner opposite Alex, putting between them the desk where she wrote letters and corrected papers. "I suppose you want to talk about what we've talked about."
"I think the air needs clearing.
"Talked and talked and talked about and now you've settled it, so there really isn't anything to talk about, is there?"
He twisted around in his chair.
"I can't look at you, us sitting like this."
"I don't particularly want you to look at me."
"Oh, far Christ's sake . . . "
He rose, and passing again through the light that gilded the gray in his hair, sat on the edge of the bed, his big, awkward-looking hands clasped between his knees.
"Answer me one question. Do you want to have a baby or not?"
"Talked and talked and talked."
"You can't make up your mind. You've been saying that for months. Maybe yes, maybe no. To me, that means no."
"To me, that means I don't know. There are times when I want one, times I don't. Okay?"
"The times you do--why,4"
"I know what you're up to. I'll give you my reasons and you'll show me why they're unsound. Your little railroad track of Jesuitical logic."
"Franciscans. I was taught by Franciscans.
"Your Franciscan logic, then. Anyway, who cares what my reasons are? You know you don't want one. You don't want to be tossing a football to little junior with a pacemaker in your heart. You don't walls to go to a high school graduation and be mistaken for a grandparent." He let out a breath. She looked out the window, which squared a picture of vineyards and walnut groves and the barn and the winery below the hill where Alex dry-farmed the century-old vines that made their zinfandel classico. The gravel road she used as a bridle path ran alongside the hill, disappeared, reappeared atop another hill farther on, disappeared again, and then all she could see were foothills, splashed with purple lupine and California poppy as they mounted toward the high Sierra, its white peaks towering over all.
"What's that old saying about lupine?"
"That you'll find gold under where it grows."
"I love this place," she said quietly. "I don't want to leave here. Not ever."
"That's how I've always felt about it."
"But it isn't mine. None of it. Not this house, not those vineyards. None of it belongs to me. It never will."
"What are you talking about?"
She turned to him.
"I'm kind of a visitor here, aren't I?"
"Visitor? You're my wife . .
"You said it a couple of minutes ago. I'm living in this house. It isn't mine the way it was Elaine's. Still is, in some ways."
"Hon, what's the . . . Have you forgotten, I transferred title to the house. . . . She doesn't . . . "
He paused and pulled his brows together, in the same way Joyce had seen her students do when stumped by a test. She looked at her watch and stood up.
"I really have to go.
"I wanted to clear the air. Still seems pretty foggy to me."
"Okay. There is no good reason for that operation. I don't want you to go through with it. I insist you don't. If you do, I'll probably hate you for it. How's the fog now?"
He looked at her gravely, then got to his feet and paced the room, the vague odor of ashes trailing after him.
"You're not saying that you'd leave?" he asked, as if that were beyond imagining.
"Theresa would love that. By her lights we're living in sin. Who else would love it? Your kids. They still think you would have gone crawling back to Mama if I hadn't come along. Think of all the people I'd make happy."
It thrilled her to see that she'd wounded him, and then she felt the way she had after she kicked the mare.
"All I want is for us to go on like we have," he said. "That's the whole reason I've been thinking about doing this."
"What are you afraid elf? That I'd go off the pill without telling you? If you want, I'll use a diaphragm too, and insist you wear a condom she said wickedly. "Just in case, one of the little sneaks found a way through all that armor; I'd load up on spermicide. Turn myself into a reproductive death-trap . . . "
"Damnit, Joyce, we discussed this . . . "
"We did not discuss a damn thing and that's the whole point. You told me what you decided to do. That's your idea of a discussion. Julius goddamned Caesar."
"Who said anything about deciding? I said I was considering it, all right? Con-sid-er-iNg."
"You've made up your mind. Doll,t kid me. I could see it in your face. That look you get. Like this." She stuck out her chin and drew her lips into a tight, upside-down U. "Like those old pictures of J. Edgar Hoover."
He gave her his back and stood silhouetted by the sunlight flowing through the window. "A kid would ruin it everything we've had together."
"All that operation would tell me is that you don't trust me."
He turned around.
"It's accidents I'm afraid of. Its me I don't trust."
This was new to Joyce.
"That means what exactly?"
"I don't want it ruined, that's all, and it would be.
"It's not like you to be enigmatic."
"The hips to Tuscany, the weekends in San Francisco. All that. I don't want all that ruined."
What has 'all that.'" she said with rising anger, "got to do with not trusting, yourself?"
"You've got to get going and so do I. Zoning board has a ten o'clock hearing. They're going to rule on the variance for that--"
"So that's it?" she interrupted.
He put his hands in his back pockets and shrugged and the brief, jerky movement of his shoulders somehow made her despise him. She went to the closet and put on her suede jacket, another of his birthday presents. Her thirty-sixth. Or was it the thirty-seventh?
In other words, now that you've decided you don't want to talk about it anymore, we're through talking about it."
"You said you were in in a hurry."
"Fine. Let's not talk about it ever again." She smiled brightly, "And I promise I won't hate you too terribly long. So you can go ahead with it, and since it's foolproof you want, darling, you might tell the doctor to cut your balls off while he's at it."
He leaned backward, as if she'd slapped him. Before he could retaliate, she left the house and walked quickly down the flagstone path toward the garage, her feet stirring the cherry blossoms that lay along it. The birds far off still circled, dark specks against the bright, untextured sky.
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