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Selected Stories by Robert Moulthrop


  Mrs. Mellors
  Friends In Need

  Uncle Louis
  Elvis’s Dog, the One Named Moonbeam
  Olden Days

About the Author  

Friends In Need

After they left, they heard Jane turn the lock, a sudden violent set of metal into metal. Gerald stopped to listen for the sound her nails might make, clawing at the door. He thought the faint streak on the door, inside, might have been blood where she had scraped her fingers raw. But even listening intently, he heard only a radio voice from somewhere else down the apartment hallway.

Edith pulled him toward the elevator. “You can’t fix it,” she said. “Lawyers can’t always fix everything. Now it’s just a fact.”

“Yes,” he said. “But…”

The elevator motor hummed and stopped, changed key, then ground the door open. They stepped in.

“Push the button, E,” he said.

She reached out and put her finger on the lowest button, number empty, smudged by endless fingers. The doors sighed closed.

“Jane looked so…” he said. “I shouldn’t have hugged her. I could feel her get stiff. It was wrong to touch her.”

“She hates me more,” said Edith. “Grant’s dead and you’re alive.”

“At least she has that film review thing,” Gerald said. “And the kids.”

“Yes,” said Edith. “The film thing will keep her busy, occupied.”

“Well,” he said, “the kids will keep her busy too.”

“Children,” said Edith, “are a great responsibility.” The doors shuddered open, and the lobby came into view. “At least that’s what I’ve heard,” she said. “That’s what my friends say.”

He held the elevator door for her, then followed her across the lobby. They stood by the inside doors in the lobby, looking out at the cold.

“Let’s walk,” said Gerald. “It’s not so bad for November.”

“Yes,” said Edith. She frowned a little, thinking of the tears in the air in the apartment above them.

“You should take her to lunch,” she said. “It’s the least we can do. Maybe there’s a writing thing through one of your clients.”

“Energy companies, E,” he said. “Not too likely.”

“They need things,” she said. “Annual reports. Brochures. She can write. You could ask.”

She tightened the belt of her trench coat, pushed the door open, and walked straight into the wind.

new section

Jane was waiting outside the restaurant, standing with her back to the street, studying the posted menu. From across the street Gerald frowned at her unkempt hair and wondered why she was wearing an old trench coat, several sizes too large, that bulked around her. He thought of how she might look at him and hoped she wouldn’t turn around and catch him staring at her. He steeled himself against her, willed himself not to flinch, then strode across the street. As he came up to her, he reminded himself not to touch her arm.

“Hi, Jane,” he said quietly. She turned to face him, her eyes raking his face like talons, then she crossed her arms and pulled the coat more tightly around her.

“Let’s go in,” he said. “Okay?”

Inside, arranged alone with her at a table in the still-empty restaurant, he said, “I’m glad you found the time to come.” He looked around for a waiter, but they were all huddled sullenly by the kitchen door.

“I have plenty of time,” said Jane. Her arms were crossed again, and she ran her hands up and down the sleeves of the trench coat. She looked over at Gerald, then put her hands in her lap.

“It’s hot in here,” she said accusingly.

Gerald suddenly remembered seeing the coat pulled taut across Grant’s bulky shoulders. “You’re looking…” he started, then stopped. Every word was a land mine.

“I’m looking what?” she asked.

Gerald looked at her eyes. The color had vanished. He remembered her eyes as being green or blue, always a good feature of her plain, square face. Now her eyes seemed gray. He took a sugar cube, then another and another, and began to square them up between his knife and fork.

“You look well,” Jane said finally. Gerald looked up.

“Thank you,” he said. “Do you want a drink?” One of the waiters had finally appeared with menus.

“What do you think?” she asked. To him, the words sounded like rocks spaced carefully inside a vacuum. He picked up the sugar cubes and put them back in the bowl as she turned to the waiter.

“A double scotch on the rocks,” she said.

“White wine,” said Gerald.

“Right,” she said. “It’s good to be careful.”

“Would you care to order now?” asked the waiter. “Or shall I bring the drinks first?”

“I’ll have eggs,” said Jane. “Just scrambled. Or in an omelet. Eggs. On a plate.”

“I’ll have the veal piccata,” said Gerald, “with string beans. Are there string beans today, Mario?”

“Yes,” said the waiter.

“Then, yes, string beans,” said Gerald.

“How nice,” said Jane, “to be able to say yes to something.” She paused, looked at him across the table, and said, at the end of a sigh, “Yes,” holding onto the word.

A little later she said, “You know, I hated you last month. Now I don’t know. No, I take that back. I do know.” The drinks had come, and she sucked at hers, looking at him over the rim of her glass.

We might be lovers, he thought, having a noontime tryst. She might be spent from passion and look this way. He pictured himself in bed with her, between decorous sheets, her large pale breasts glowing lightly with perspiration, her body somehow smelling of lavender. Jane caught his eye. She knows, he thought.

“But I don’t anymore,” she said.

“What?” he said.

“Hate you,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “Why? I mean, why not?”

She paused and took another sip.

“Grant and I,” she said, then paused, took a breath, and began again. “Grant and I, all these years, we were still in love.”

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“Jane? Are you there? Guess not. Anyway, it’s Edith. I’ve been meaning to call. Gerald said you had a nice lunch last week. Anyway, darling, we’re having some people over on the eighteenth, and we’d love it if you would come. Just a few people is all, just the usual. Of course you can bring someone; or just bring yourself. When you decide, call, if you like. Or just come, I mean, with or without the, uh, someone. I mean, just come, darling. Or not, of course.”

new section

Psycho,” said Jane. “You remember the way Psycho starts? Where they’re in bed? The camera starts outside above the city, what city is it? Omaha? Phoenix? Phoenix, it must be, because of the light, I remember light and heat, isn’t it? And then the camera goes down and down and finally, through the window, until there she is, Janet Leigh, getting dressed.”

“Nudity in the Fifties,” said Gerald. “That bra and slip seemed very sexy. Maybe they were.”

“Sixties,” said Jane. “Early sixties.” She looked at him. “Better than this?” she said. She lifted the sheet and looked through the linen light down the bed at their two bodies. The new air in the linen tent felt cool on her breasts. She reached down and touched him, watched his body respond, then lay back on the pillows, letting the sheet fall over his body as he turned to her.

“And then I’ll make some eggs,” she said.

new section

She brushed the toast crumbs off the table and into her hand, then spilled them onto the yellow egg yolk she had mashed, then moved around her plate.

“The money’s fine,” she said. “Everything’s okay. Really. You don’t need to worry. Nobody needs to worry. About a thing. More coffee?”

She watched him look into her eyes, then she looked away.

“Remember in To Catch A Thief,” she said, “when the mother, who was that? Someone British, didn’t even look like Grace Kelly, someone just a few years older, actually, Jessie Royce Landis, like Angela Lansbury playing Laurence Harvey’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate, anyway, when Grace Kelly’s mother puts out her cigarette in the egg yolk?”

“Sorry,” he said, “I don’t remember.”

She pushed her plate away. “No,” she said, “the money’s fine. I’m fine.”

She sat back suddenly and stared across the table at him, looking, watching, until he looked away.

“You’re fine too,” she said. “I can tell.”

He finally looked back at her.

“I guess,” she said, “you thought this little friendly fuck would do the trick, right? Just the thing to perk up the little widow, take her mind off her troubles, get those old juices flowing, put some color in those cheeks so pale and wan.”

She pulled her plate back, picked up her fork, and began to mash the egg yolk through the tines.

“A little fuck to ease the tension, help her sleep, get rid of those circles under her eyes. That’s what you thought, isn’t it?”

“That’s not fair,” he said.

“Yes it is,” said Jane. “Just like your fuck.”

new section

Jane shifted the phone, trying to get comfortable, trying to make sense of her daughter’s words. She squared the ashtray with the table again, lit another cigarette, then picked up the pen and began filling in the neat triangles she had drawn.

Her daughter’s voice on the phone was almost soothing, like the sound of summer insects in the calm of afternoon. She could picture her daughter, angled against the dormitory wall, unthinking fingers twirling her hair.

“Stacey,” said Jane, “just listen, sweetheart. I love the cottage too. So does your brother. I may not sell it. I just have to see is all.”

There were more words, but Jane concentrated on the paper, filling in spaces, triangle after triangle, watching the paper become darker and darker.

“The place doesn’t matter, honey,” she said. “Wherever we are together is the place.”

What a bleak little lie, thought Jane. Nothing is together anymore.

new section

Edith looked across the pool of lamplight at Gerald, sitting, focused on the crossword puzzle. Gerald looked up at her and smiled his short smile, his attention caught as she pushed her knitting down the needles, picked up the ball of yarn from her lap, then slowly plunged the needles deeply into and through the ball.

“I’m going to bed,” she said. “Coming?”

“Not just yet,” he said. “Little stuck here.”

She rose with her knitting bag. “This was nice,” she said. “Quiet evening together.”

“Alone,” he said.

“I wonder what’s wrong with Jane,” she said.

He looked up sharply. “Wrong?”

“Well, she didn’t come that Saturday, and she was funny on the phone this week. Not voluble. She used to, you know, talk, discuss.”

“Well, things are different now.”

“Well, of course they are. But people don’t really change,” she said. “Usually, they just get more like themselves. But Jane’s changed.”

Gerald thought about Jane reaching down to touch him, under the sheet, in the light afternoon.

“She even said she was thinking of selling the country house,” said Edith.

“Mmmm,” said Gerald, giving what he hoped was a brief, noncommittal nod. He stared down at the puzzle, hoping that his wife would take the hint and go to bed, but he knew she was standing by her chair, holding her bag of knitting. He wanted to look up at her but couldn’t.

He closed his eyes and saw Jane, sitting across the table in the late-afternoon light, the yellow gash of eggs glinting against the silver lines of her fork. When he heard Edith’s feet on the carpet moving slowly toward the bedroom, he opened his eyes. The puzzle swam into focus, and he began to fill in some of the remaining blank squares. But then he stopped. Because, at that moment, he found himself suddenly, for the first time in his life, not sure.

  © Robert Moulthrop, 2011

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