Today’s piece is a new excerpt from The Hired Man, a novel in progress….
In 1946 Charlotte Mulroney was nineteen and bestowed with what his father had called “An impeccable conformation.” Del was twenty two and home from the war, a wounded veteran of the Pacific campaign in a new hat and denim trousers. His hip had not yet healed from the steel he took on Peleliu and so he walked with a cane and he woke in his bedroom dripping with nightsweats and shouting, frightening his parents, and still other times he dropped to the ground at loud noises. The long sliding squeal of brakes. A backfire. But when he limped into the bank that first morning, his footfalls and cane strikes an anapest echoing in the cavernous lobby of the First Sierra Savings and Loan, and he saw her working behind the wrought iron bars of the 19th century teller’s cage, her generous smile and the red wool sweater drawn across her chest, he knew that he would marry her with the same conviction that had told him he would survive the war, that he would heal from the wounds carried home from it, and that he would make his life horseback on the great American desert.
They had nothing in common. Her father ran a mercantile and she had always lived in town and what interest she showed in him initially might have been sympathy for his limp but it wasn’t sympathy he was after. She did not encourage his visits but still he found reasons to leave the ranch and he would make the long drive into town in his father’s Studebaker flatbed and if he had no money to deposit he would make a withdrawal instead. He would wait in her line even if the other tellers were open and when he finally reached the counter his hands would shake like a man with palsy. He knew that she noticed him shaking when he signed for his money and he was embarrassed but he also knew that all men fear and what finally distinguishes them is how they behave in spite of it. So he would shake in front of her and talk himself through it and his transactions went on like that through the spring until finally she surprised him.
“Aren’t you going to ask me to the circus?” she said.
He hadn’t known there was a circus.
“I’m tired of waiting on you,” she said.
It was a traveling show from Oregon and they had built their camp and pitched their candy-striped canvas tents in an onion field outside of town, and though the weather had been clear all week on the day he took her it was raining and the field had flooded and turned into a maddening slick. They parked on the paved road at the edge of the field and they were the only car present and they sat inside with the wipers banging back and forth and the engine running and looking out at the rain and the field and the tents and they could see the elephants standing on straw beds behind the rows of transport trucks and they looked happy to be out in it.
“It’s liable to leak pretty good in that tent,” Del said.
“I don’t care.”
“Probably stinks too.”
“That’s why they have clowns, she said. So you’ll forget about it.”
Del looked at her.
“I’m going in,” she said.
They sat on a section of old wooden bleacher in front of the one ring and the tent leaked at the seams and great sheets of water cascaded inside and the low end of the tent was flooded three inches or more. They bought a bag of peanuts roasted in the shell and it was dark inside where they sat huddled together and because the rain had kept the crowds away they had the circus almost to themselves. “You see,” she said, “This isn’t bad.” And it wasn’t. They watched the circus from their front row seat and they saw trick riders on whitewashed horses riding laps around the sandbagged ring and they laughed at the antics of a clown who exploded himself in a miniature wooden car and they watched the rain soaked elephants balance on their hind legs to blast a trumpet and Del was drawn into their eyes and did not like what he saw in them. They saw a tiger jumping through rings of fire and when the lions came out from behind a black curtain they were wretched and mangy and the portrait of defeat and that is when she took his hand for the first time and held it firmly in her own.
They sat through the show despite the chill that settled on them and when it was over the ringmaster himself walked over to them in jodphurs and tails and muddy boots and his top hat was soaked through to his scalp and he removed it and shook their hands with a formal bow and thanked them sincerely. If he was not a gypsy then he had the discerning eyes of a gypsy and he directed the weight of his thanks to Charlotte.
There was a clown waiting at the mouth of the tent and as Del led Charlotte out into the rain he raised an umbrella without any fabric between the spines and trailed along beside them. Del still walked with a cane against his injuries and so they splashed across the onion field until they came to the road where the car was parked and still the clown followed, his gigantic shoes fouled with mud and his makeup beginning to streak, his presence there a mute and awkward omen, and Del watched in the rearview as they drove away, leaving the clown standing in the road with the naked spines of his umbrella held up against the sky, crying in antic pantomime for the weather, or for their departure, or for some sad story as yet untold.
He courted her through the summer months and he called her Bonnie and she called him Clyde and they would drive together through the desert roads too fast in his father’s truck and they would stop at the end of some dirt trail and shoot tin cans with a Nambu pistol he’d taken from a Japanese officer and they made cheap picnics in the rocks and invented great capers they would pull together. In their talks they robbed banks in Reno and Carson City and they bought new cars with the money and made their way east, stashing money in desert ghost towns such as Botwick and Swansea, before crossing through into Utah and Colorado and eventually turning north. They dreamed of a cabin hideout in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, because she loved the sound of it, and they would winter there until the spring when they could break out of the deep snow and rain anew. They were famous fugitives by then and their parents were stolid but ashamed and so they would write long letters begging forgiveness on stationary pilfered from swank hotels. It was fun for them to talk this way and it was a secret life they shared and when their dates were over Del would drive her home, Charlotte snug beside him on the seat and them rolling slowly through the desert, the windows down for those summer evenings when the air is warm and the tempered light draws the subtle color from the hard land and the smell of the sage is most pungent.
Del had gone to work for his father in the failing enterprise, what work he could do with his wounds still mending, and when they finished shipping cattle in the fall he announced his intention to marry. It was cold outside and they had just finished their dinner and the first snows were coming down from the north and they had built a fire in the wood stove and the house was tight and warm. His father smoked a pipe and after a meal he would sit at the head of the table tamping tobacco in the bowl and when he was ready to smoke he would drag his chair to the front door and crack it to clear the air.
“I’m going to town in the morning,” Del said.
His father was losing the ranch and it was the thing they all knew and nobody discussed. Del thought it was because he could not shake whatever he’d left behind in Missouri, as though he carried the ancient sins of a border state etched into him and there was a resigned and indignant laziness in him and it was also true he preferred a life of martyrdom. He’d taken to whisky and the habit showed up in reflexive crudity. he smoked his pipe and blew the bluish air through the crack in the door and said, “Well, after all that running around you done I hope you at least took her for a test drive.”
Del had thought to box his father’s ears just then but his mother raised her hand from the table and closed her eyes in a patient but suffering plea for peace and Del did not say another word. In the morning he broke ice in the horse troughs with a sledgehammer and fed out the penitent cows and then took his father’s truck without asking.
When he made the highway it was sheeted with black ice and so he drove slowly through the empty miles, rehearsing to himself and watching great chevrons of snow geese rafting southward overhead. It took him an hour to make town and when he finally arrived he rolled up across the street from the bank and killed the motor. He took deep breaths to settle himself but he could feel his heartbeat in his ears. He stared at the front doors of the bank for a full five minutes, as if expecting her to dash out with her arms open. He reached into his pocket then pulled out an old blue handkerchief and tied it up over his nose in the manner of a Hollywood bank robber. He checked his visage in the rearview mirror for the appropriate level of menace and then pulled his hat brim tight over his eyes. He stepped out into the street. It was still early but the bank was open and there were people about their business despite the chill and they eyed him curiously as he crossed the street. He took one stop onto the sidewalk and lost his footing on the ice, falling awkwardly onto his side where he lay tangled in the duster. “Goddammit,” he said, flailing against the duster and struggling to right himself. He rolled to his stomach and then stood up straight and brushed the rocksalt from his clothes. He tested his hip and then took a deep breath and walked up the stairs and through the tall oak doors into the bank where the raw winter light was pouring in through cathedral windows and splashing across the walls and the customers and employees alike watched him in puzzlement as he strode up to Charlotte’s cage. She had her back turned and had not yet seen him. He stood looking through to her and he could feel the room watching him as he pulled a folded envelope from his pocket and slid it carefully under the bars like a demand note. And if he was shaking no one could see it under the soiled duster and he watched her as she finally turned and took notice of him standing there and was startled. She flinched and eyed him warily and perhaps aghast and then she took up the envelope from the marble counter and slowly opened it. He watched. He could feel the bodies crowding in behind him as though to tackle him hard to the floor and he felt mildly faint as she drew out the note and read the proposal he had written there, and when she’d read it through she raised both hands high above her head as though in fact surrendering, the little note fluttering to the ground like a feather at her side, and then she smiled through the iron bars and arced one eyebrow in a gesture of enduring and intense conviction and said quietly and perfectly, “Yes.”