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"The price is very reasonable," Francis said.
"If I have more money or less money things are about the same, I notice."
"You didn't feel you had to quote me a low price, for any reason?" Francis asked.
Jim looked at him.
"You know, it might be a little tense at my house. My son's girlfriend was on that plane. That's bad enough, but she's also pregnant, and he doesn't want to marry her."
A look of concern flickered over Jim's face. "You're full of surprises today," he said. He seemed to be debating continuing on his way or staying rooted to the spot. "Tell him not to," he said. "If he'll listen to your advice."
"I wanted to prepare you, because there might be a bit of tension in the air," Francis said.
"We'll just carry the furniture in. Leave," Jim said. "We're just the moving men."
"My wife sometimes deals with her anxiety by remaining rather aloof."
Jim nodded. "Not lookin' to make friends with your wife," he said.
"Five minutes?" Francis said.
"About," Jim said, turning and walking across the breakfast area's chaotic carpeting, which looked like shards from a broken kaleidoscope, the wild colors dusted with crumbs.
"Your friend Don," Francis said, coming up behind Jim. "Is he like a bad kid, sometimes? Does the wrong thing?"
"That's s.h.i.t-shootin' sure," Jim said. "But what can you do?"
"I don't know what to do about my son," Francis said. "Like you said-he's my son. He isn't very likely to listen to me."
Jim nodded. "Worth a try to stop him from marrying somebody he doesn't want to marry," he said. "Life doesn't hold a lot of happy surprises."
"That's exactly what I think," Francis said.
"Friends, family, they get you every time," Jim said.
With that, Francis felt sure that Jim had known about Don and the wallet, or at least he'd known that Don was capable of having hidden the dropped wallet so that he could return for it later. Otherwise, what would they have been talking about? Friends and family?
Francis took a deep breath and entered the oppressively gray-walled bedroom where Lucy lay facing the window. She had told his wife that she and Sheldon had been writing and talking to each other, and that they had decided to separate, but at the last minute she'd e-mailed him from j.a.pan and asked him to come to the airport. Then she had done a very bad thing: she had insisted, when she was finally allowed to leave J.F.K., that he wouldn't have cared if she had died. She wanted it both ways: to break up with him, and also to have him love her. Lucy told Francis that Sheldon had pointed that out, calmly but coldly, and when she would not let up he had stalked out of the house. So it hadn't been as simple as Bern had reported.
Still, he knew there was more. She did not look pregnant, but maybe she just wasn't showing yet. Or maybe she had done something about it.
"Lucy," he said, sitting down on the bed, "when I practiced law, I was often successful because I followed my instincts. I used to clear my head by closing my eyes and letting my mind drift until I admitted to myself what I knew. Lucy?"
"You and your wife have been very good to me. I don't know why your son holds you at a distance, but when I was here I was imitating him, for no good reason. I guess I was wary, because I've always been overwhelmed by my parents. My mother, in particular."
"Before we get off track," he said. "Because my mind does wander and I do get off track when I shouldn't. I quit practicing law before other people noticed that-good to quit when you're still on top. But my mind wandered somewhere recently and it came to me that you were pregnant."
She rolled toward him and stared, wide-eyed. Perhaps it was the background-the gray walls-that made her look unusually pale. "How could you know that?" she whispered.
"Do you want to know? Because of the bananas," he said. "Though it was Bern who noticed the banana skins."
"Oh my G.o.d," Lucy said. She rolled away, facing the window again.
"But she didn't put it together," he said. "I didn't either, at first. Maybe if you'd left out empty jars of marshmallow cream and pizza boxes, it would have been easier."
"Just bananas," she said.
"You know, and you hate me," she said.
"Hate you? Bern and I like you. It's our son whose behavior-even if you were mixed up, jet-lagged, scared to death... still. He should have been more understanding."
"Where is he?"
"I'm not clairvoyant," he said. "Sometimes I close my eyes and things come to me, but most times they don't."
"What are you going to do?" she said.
"Me? Would it be O.K. to ask what you're going to do?" He looked at her long, thin legs. Her flat belly. "Or what you've done?"
She sprang up suddenly. She said, "I'm afraid to tell him. I don't know if I missed him because I wanted to convince myself that I loved him, or whether I really do. My mother will kill me. She put me on birth-control pills when I was thirteen."
"You returned early because you have to deal with this," he said.
"He'll come back, and you two have to talk it over."
"Does your wife know?" she said.
"You didn't tell your wife?"
"I thought I was right, but I wasn't sure," he said. "In fact, if I'd been wrong, it would have taken me down a peg. It would have made me wonder whether something else I'd just recently figured out might not have been wrong, too."
"What might have been wrong?" she said.
"Oh, that someone stole my wallet, then decided to look like a hero by finding it."
"You knew the person who took it?" she asked. "Did you tell him that you knew?"
"Why would you a.s.sume it was a man?" he said.
It wasn't the time to play with her, she was in a bad way-she didn't realize that he was trying to tease her into examining her a.s.sumptions. He said, "No, because I couldn't prove it. But I more or less told his best friend, the one he wanted to impress, that I'd realized what was going on."
He put his hands on his knees, getting ready to stand. She shifted her weight onto her hip, following him with her eyes. "Do you know what I should do?" she asked, as he stood. "I don't have a lot of time."
He thought about it. "I'd think you'd want to talk this over with Sheldon, as soon as he shows up."
"Nothing tells you that he won't show up?"
He smiled. He'd impressed her too easily, when usually he understood very little. Common sense told him that his son-his lazy, spoiled son-would return to the family home, if only because there was nowhere else for him to go. Even now, he could sense Sheldon watching, the way ducks circled decoys, waiting for some instinctive sense that everything looked right, that it was safe to move in; fooled by the sentry heads (that would be Bern, sitting in her chair with her embroidery, her head c.o.c.ked in semi-disbelief at the way her life was turning out). The mallards would look harmonious, feeding as they bobbed on the water, much the way lawyers struck a pose to suggest how effortlessly they kept themselves afloat. Then the eye would travel to the oddly lovely egret, who just happened to have landed in his bed, having drifted in after a long flight. Francis smiled at his own conjecturing: who was really the writer in the family, he wondered. His son would keep himself apart a bit longer, making his calculations: Things in place? Feeding time? The most ordinary of things going on? The egret would verify the ordinary by interjecting something different. But then-to extend the metaphor-his son would be wrong, and he would fall into a trap, though not a deadly one: nothing worse than domesticity, nothing he couldn't escape. Francis thought that he, himself, might have left long before, when he first realized that he'd married a good woman, but not a woman he would die for, and that their only child was deeply flawed. Did he regret having stayed? No. He had never believed in the idea of perfection. Nor did he believe that he was owed a reward for staying: Jim's mallard would merely represent the receipt of something he had paid for.
It did not ever arrive, with or without its white towel, with or without its burnished coffin, and he did not pursue it. In two days' time, though, his son returned home.
About the Author.
Ann Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award collections and in John Updike's Best American Short Stories of the Century Best American Short Stories of the Century. In 2000, she received the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in the short story form. In 2005, she received the Rea Award for the Short Story. She and her husband, Lincoln Perry, live in Key West, Florida, and Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.
Also by Ann Beattie
Chilly Scenes of Winter
Secrets and Surprises
Falling in Place
The Burning House
Where You'll Find Me
What Was Mine
My Life, Starring Dara Falcon
The Doctor's House
Walks with Men