Gaylord spent a full hour in his bathroom patiently performing his toilet. There was within him a kind of warm luxuriance and it glowed about him. There's no one like Bob, he thought. The sound of his voice, the expression in his eyes, the way he walked, all made him feel that he had had a momentary glimpse into another world. Everyone else seemed intolerably dull, even contemptible.
The evening had settled swiftly and the sun had gone long ago. A cool little breeze had sprung through the open windows and struck his cheeks.
He wondered if Blake was thinking of him now, and he felt sure that he must be. No man could kiss like that and forget. The kiss if nothing else, he thought, would make him remember … draw him back to his arms in spite of himself.
He mumbled to himself as he searched for his favorite cologne, and on finding it, raised it against his cheek. It stung. He powdered his face again to erase the redness. Over each eyebrow he then ran a moist finger. I don't think I've got too much powder on, he pondered. He did look pale, but it was night and wouldn't show.
He was happy and spoke to his reflection. "You look okay, Gaylord Le Claire … I'm glad you noticed my complexion, Mr. Robert Blake … I'm glad I don't have any blackheads … you don't either … you've got the most beautiful face I've ever seen … yes you have too."
He turned out the light and stepped from the bathroom. Went to his dresser and stuck a clean handkerchief in his pocket. Then surveyed himself in the mirrored door.
A soft voice came from downstairs. Gaylord listened without moving, as if rooted to the spot. His mother was saying:
"Gay … Gaylord … Bob's here."
"I'll be right down."
He ran down the steps and crossed the deserted dining room. He saw Blake and for a second was embarrassed, tongue-tied and awkward. Also a little sorry he had used powder. Blake looked so brown and golden.
"Hi, Gay …" Blake said.
"Hi … sorry I wasn't down."
"Forget it … I've been trying to make a date with Mrs. Le Claire," Blake cried enthusiastically, "but she doesn't want to come along."
"I'm sure you two boys would just love for me to tag along with you, wouldn't you?" grinned Carol Le Claire. She turned her face from one to the other. "You know you shouldn't be going out on school nights, don't you? And Gaylord was out last night …"
Gaylord broke in quickly. "Now, Mother, you said I could go with Bob." Why did she say that about last night?
"I'm not saying you can't go dear … I just mean that both of you should be studying … won't be long before both of you will be graduating. You want to graduate, don't you?"
"We'll graduate, Mrs. Le Claire."
"I'm sure you will." She walked toward the door with them.
"Sure you don't want to come along?" said Blake.
"I'm sure, Robert … thanks … be careful boys. Don't drive too fast, and Gaylord, don't stay out too late."
"I won't, Mother."
"He's only a child, Robert, so get him home early."
"Oh, Mother," whispered Gaylord. His face was as scarlet as the roses on the coffee table.
"Don't worry, Mrs. Le Claire," Blake grinned. "I'll drive carefully and we'll be back early."
The two got into Blake's car and drove away.
When Carol Le Claire returned to the living room she was recalling yesterdays. I wish he was a baby again, she dreamed. It's been a long time since Gaylord's asked me to read to him. MY little boy, she mused. How he used to love those fairy tales … how much fun we used to have cutting out paper dolls … doesn't seem like he should be grown so soon … doesn't take long … they're children for such a short time, such a short time. Sometimes I'm afraid he isn't happy … I've tried so hard to understand him … at times I do … at other times he's beyond my reach. I don't think he's in love … I hope not … oh, I hope not … I'm glad he's gone with Robert. He's a good boy … Gaylord needs someone like him. Funny … Clay could never be his buddy. They just didn't seem to click with each other … and Clayton tried, too … tried real hard. Poor Clay … and he loves Gay so much … so much …
Daylight was gone and a breeze was creeping into the warmness of the summer air as Clayton Le Claire left the slow traffic of Cotton, Texas behind him and headed home. It was very seldom, lately, that he had stayed down town until eight o'clock. His tentative plan for just one game had been abandoned, partly because he was enjoying himself, even though he was losing.
The big door swung open at the turn of his key. In the papered foyer a beautiful carved pedestal, surmounted by a mirror, stood to the right of the entrance, and at right angles to this was a large square opening. The polished marble surface of the pedestal was bare except for one beautiful piece of Dresden.
Carol heard the familiar sound of her husband's steps. On seeing him she said, "Clayton, where've you been?"
She looked beautiful glancing up from her knitting. Her short golden hair that had never known the steaming clamps of a curling iron, had been carefully groomed; her cheeks were slightly rouged and her lips had been brushed with a soft lipstick.
"Played a little poker with Sam and Walter," he said tossing his hat on a chair.
"I wish you'd tell me when you're not coming home for supper."
"I didn't know it was so late." He craned his back and kissed her on the forehead. "Mad at me?"
"I'm not mad but I do wish you'd call. I waited and waited," she said, still knitting on a pair of woolen socks. "Are you hungry? It's still on the table if you are."
"You're mad at me … aren't you?"
Carol's head came up and some of the irritation flashed back into her eyes. Clayton flashed a sudden grin. "No," she said, "I just wish you'd let me know, dear. I hate to have the table messed up."
"You look good enough to eat … I like you when you're mad. Not too mad … but just like now …" He gazed into her hazel eyes, looking up at him below long, sweeping lashes. "Give me a little kiss, and tell me you'll forgive me this time."
"Stop, Clayton. You'll mess my lipstick and I don't have time to …"
"Where ya going, honey?"
"Jane's coming by and we're going over to Mrs. Collins' for some bridge. She wanted you to come but I didn't know where you were or when you'd be back. I thought maybe you'd gone to the oil field. Don't you want to come with us?"
"Not tonight. I'm tired of cards and Monita's a lousy player. Always plays the wrong card and never knows how many trumps are out." He walked toward the kitchen and Carol followed. "Where's Gay," he asked.
"He's gone to Egan with Robert."
"I didn't want him to go. He's been running around too much at nights lately. You shouldn't have let him go to that dance last night. Especially on school nights."
"Why did you let him go then?"
"He wanted to so badly … and Robert's such a nice clean boy."
"Carol, he's growing up. I don't think he's running around too much." He poured himself a cup of coffee. "You can't keep him tied to your apron strings all his life. It's about time he got out with some boys for a change. This Blake boy seems like a fine boy. I'm glad he's taken up with Gay. Maybe he can interest Gay in some new sports … I don't like to see him sit around here like a love-sick girl. I want him to be happy and I'm afraid he's not now."
"Gay's such a child, really."
"Now that's where you're wrong Carol … He's going to …" He was interrupted by door chimes.
"That must be Jane." Carol left her husband and walked through the quiet living room where several lamps were still burning. She opened the front door.
"Are you ready, dear?"
"Come in a moment, Jane. I'll get my purse. Go see Clay, he's in the kitchen."
Jane Cervenka walked toward the kitchen. She was middle-aged, and the white collar on her dress was as neatly arranged as her coarse gray hair. She wore no makeup, still her plump cheeks glowed with a pale pink color.
"Well, how do you do, Mr. Le Claire," she said.
"Well, how do you do, Miss Cervenka. How about some stale coffee?"
She laughed. "No thanks, Mr. Smartie. Aren't you coming along?"
"Not tonight. I just got home from a poker game. I don't think I could stand the sight of a deck of cards."
"You must have lost, huh?" Jane chuckled.
"How'd you guess it?" he whispered like a boy who had swiped a piece of pie.
"Old maids are sort of clever at that. It's about the only thing they are clever about, though. You'd better come along."
"You two beautiful women run along. You'll have to count me out tonight. I'm going to bed. Hell, it's bed time now … why does Monita always start so damn late?"
Jane laughed. "You know her and her ideas."
"Yeah. I guess I do. Guess I'm just getting old."
"Yeah … you sure look it."
"I know it."
"Now don't start feeling sorry for yourself. You know you're still the best-looking guy in my life. If it wasn't for that wife of yours I'd try my luck in nabbing you. If I don't do some quick nabbing pretty soon, I'm going to be too darn old."
Carol came and stood by the kitchen door, carrying her purse. Jane grinned at her, then back at Le Claire. "Always my luck," she said. "Just about the time I get going the wife always enters. Why didn't you stay out for a few minutes more, Carol?"
Carol grinned at her best friend. "Seems like I came in just in the nick of time. I wish you'd stop trying to steal my husband, Jane Cervenka … especially right in my own house."
"He is kinda cute, don't you think so?"
"Now look, he's got enough bad ideas without you giving him any more. If he gets any more like he had tonight, you can have him."
"Fight over me gals … come on … fight."
"You're too willing and I wouldn't have a chance with this young female." They all laughed and then Jane asked, "By the way, where's my real honey?"
"He's gone," Carol sighed. "I think I'm losing him too. You try to steal my husband and Gay's getting so grown-up."
"Where'd he go?"
"He went to Egan."
"No, he and Robert Blake. I don't know if they went alone or not. I wanted to ask if they had dates but didn't."
"He's that football player, isn't he?"
"You know him," broke in Le Claire. "Fred Blake's son. You know Fred."
Jane nodded that she did. She had heard he was quite a ladies' man.
"He's such a nice-looking boy," put in Carol.
"Not as good-looking as Gay. That boy's really handsome." Jane turned to Le Claire. "Looks like you, Clay." She noticed Carol's forlorn look. "All right. He looks like you too."
"You'd better say that." Carol grinned. Then, with serious pride, she added, "He is handsome, isn't he, Jane?"
"He's sweet too. In fact, I'm afraid too much so for his own good."
"Oh … you know how these young girls are today. I just hope he doesn't get messed up in this love business. He's so serious."
"He won't … remember me. I'm his Dad and no girl ever broke my heart."
The gray-haired woman laughed loud. "Listen who's talking."
"It's not too late," grinned Carol, and she gave the brown cheek a soft but firm pat.
After a few more sentences of conversation the two women left the kitchen. Le Claire followed them to the front door. He said, "You gals have fun. Tell Monita I'm sorry I couldn't make it tonight."
"Bend down and I'll give you something," Carol said.
"Right here in public? Right here in front of this old maid? Carol Le Claire, you're a cute but wicked woman."
"And you love it," growled Jane. "Lucky dog. And where do you get that ‘old' stuff. That ‘old maid' stuff.
"Okay, flapper. You asked for it." He kissed her forehead.
She let out a deep sigh and whispered comically, "Thank you, kind sire … thank you very much."
No one could understand Clayton Le Claire's implacable determination to own more oil wells, get control of more land, buy one more lease, when he cared nothing for power and already had more income from producing wells than he could spend, or even comfortably manage without continuously driving himself. But if his associates could have seen the bare Louisiana house in which he was born and in which, at an early age, he had seen his mother die because there was no end to her slaving, and no money when she needed a doctor, the matter of Clayton Le Claire's desire for security would have been an enigma no longer. The fear and horror of poverty that had tortured him after his mother's death had sunk deep in his conscience and continued to run on and on like a current of exhaustless power. It was this that drove him out, increasing his leases and land holdings, each one paying in a flood of black gold into his already weighted hands.
After the two women had departed, he picked up the evening paper and sank into the chair Carol had occupied. On the end table were the unfinished socks. The bright wool held him.
The phone rang and Le Claire's vision was gone. If he had suddenly been hit on the head by a drill bit, the jar would hardly have been greater.
Guess that's Monita wanting to know what's keeping them, he thought. He picked up the phone, said, "Hello."
"May I speak to Gay, please."
The answer was so immediate, so young and virginal, he swallowed hard. "I'm sorry, Gaylord isn't here, who's calling?"
"Mr. Le Claire?"
"This is Joy. Joy Clay, remember me?"
"Joy, why of course. How are you, Joy? Haven't seen you for a long time. Why haven't you been around? I've missed you."
"I've been awfully busy." The voice was soft and low.
"Yah, I guess a pretty girl like you is kept busy."
She laughed. Then said, "Thanks, Mr. Le Claire. And just for that I'll come by and see you real soon." "You do exactly that. How's your mother and that mean old daddy of yours?"
"They're fine, thanks."
"Give them my'regards and I'll tell Gay you called."
"Oh, no." Her tone changed. "Don't tell him I called."
"No?" He was puzzled.
"It wasn't important. Don't tell him, please don't."
"I won't say a word if you don't want me to, honey."
"Thanks Mr. Le Claire … bye."
"Good-bye, Joy, and don't forget you promised to come by real soon."
"I won't forget … bye again."
He hung up the receiver and lit a cigarette. His feeling of wonderment was gone now. Suddenly he knew that she was deeply concerned, that she wanted almost desperately their conversation to remain a secret. He could have told her Gaylord was with Robert. Evidently she had thought he had gone out with another girl. This being the case, he was glad he had remained silent. Keep them guessing, he grinned. He can tell her himself, if he wants to. Think she kinda likes that boy of mine. He glanced with a humorous expression at the evening paper without opening it, and mumbled, "She likes that boy of mine … yeah … that's the way they act when they're in love. She's a sweet girl … I hope Gay does like her."
Joy Clay had always been friendly and respectful in her association with Gaylord, partly because she liked him, partly because she was sorry for him. But her pity was casual and the other—? Now, she didn't know. A week ago it was the same feeling she had for … oh … other boys. No, she had always liked him more than that. Idly, her hand went across the keyboard of her grand piano. She had never been bored, but this evening she considered herself the most unfortunate girl on earth.
There was a loud thump and the keys screamed discordantly at her. She ran from the room to her bedroom, stopped in front of her vanity. "Where is he?" Her lips formed the words to her but there was no sound. Her arched brows drew together and her face had an expression of almost tragic anxiety.
He can't be, she thought. He can't be with Thelma. She had never been jealous before in her life. Why should she be of that hussy … that slut!
A column of moonlight came through the thin slant-wise wooden blinds and reflected in the mirror. She went to the window, pulled back the criss-crossed curtains and looked at the moon. It looked so round and golden in the clear sky. But Joy could not think nor care nor see its beauty. Once more the old and loving thoughts, longings for Gaylord, which had ebbed when she had thought herself grown, revived. Now she remembered with aching clarity all the small separate things they used to do. How much fun it had been playing house, sewing doll-clothes. How gentle and kind he had always been. So thoughtful of her in everything he said and did. From that first day he had been that way. Her eyes swam, enchanted by the moon now, and the rage within her grew calm. She closed her lids and beheld not the Gaylord she used to know, but as he was today; the wave in his hair, the deep blue of his eyes, the smooth texture of his sunless skin, the shy timbre of his voice which gave her a real sense of physical pleasure. She remembered the small bump on his ear and wondered if it had always been there.
Words came drifting from the vision, alive and sweet, but other voices crowded his away. Gaylord silently sank into the dark background and she stood before herself a grown woman. He called to her from beyond, but she was too busy dancing with others; too happy with other arms around her small waist to answer his call. She was too busy dancing … dancing with a boy she had just met. A boy named Robert Blake.
She turned away from it and brushed her hand across her eyes, smearing the tears that were slowly beginning to drip down her velvet-like cheeks. In the mirror she noticed their roundness, the slight lift of the cheekbones, the clear complexion. She raised her eyebrows slightly and watched the tiny lines form in her smooth forehead. She wasn't sure she liked her brownish blond hair in a page boy. She wasn't sure it was just right for her. Blake had said he liked it. Gaylord had never said a word about it. Still she hadn't really been around him. But after all, she sat right behind him in their home room. He should have noticed. Everyone else did … darn him … she thought with dismay. Darn him … he must be blind.
Joy mulled wretchedly over her problems, but no solution came to her. She looked at her red finger nails. They're too bright, she thought. And began to peel off the polish.
She wished she had never seen Gaylord. If it hadn't been for Thelma White … I just wonder, she pondered, has he been out with her. He said he thought she was pretty. He's never even told me I was … I don't think he's even noticed my figure. Damn it … well, Bob thinks I'm pretty …
She looked in her mirror, noticing her breasts, small, pointed. She raised her skirt above her shapely legs. Not bad, she thought. She turned and thought the curve of her back good … her hips were about right. She looked at her flat stomach. Her hands came up to each side of her neck.
"I'm pretty," she said. "Lots prettier than Thelma … damn him … I'm a good-looking woman and he's still a baby … let Thelma have him … I don't care … I've got Bob."
Turning again to the moon, she could not shake off the feeling of melancholy. She had never been this way and she found little pleasure in brooding over herself. This was the first time she had ever told herself she was pretty. She had always considered herself just another girl, but now she wanted to be more than just another girl She wanted to be loved and loved and loved by Gaylord.
She stood by the window dreaming … it was moonlight on a lake again and a soft breeze blew across the waveless surface, caressing her cheeks. She was there in Robert Blake's arms … Robert Blake … how he reminded her of Gaylord now. Even with the added weight and deeper colored skin, he was like him. Alike? Oh … no. Gaylord had never taken her in his arms the way Blake did now. Had never whispered the words into her ear that Blake whispered. She closed her eyes and remembered Blake's kiss.
Blake had kissed her passionately, that first night on the lake, and after several dates she had allowed him to kiss her neck, almost down to her breasts. She remembered the emotions, the thrill when he had placed her hand on his lap … discovering his body. She had wanted to draw away but her fingers had remained. She remembered the throbbing underneath the sticky wool. It was like a magnet holding her hand.
The nipples of her breast became hard remembering his hand sliding underneath her dress. It was as if it was there now, all moist and warm on her naked flesh. And again the moon became a blur.
She had wanted him as badly as he had wanted her. Had wanted to throw her arms around him and draw him close … wanted to feel his kisses … his hands cupping her breasts.
I can't, she had thought miserably. What kind of a girl am I? I'm me, Joy Clay … I can't allow myself to do this … I can't. Her head had been enveloped in a fog. She had gotten dizzy, but not too much so. She had known she had to do something right away or …
"Don't Bob," she had said. "Let's don't … please."
"Please, Joy," he had whispered.
"No … no … Bob." He had caught her face in his hand and forced another kiss. His other hand held something warm against her leg. Joy had wrenched herself away from him.
"I'll stop," Blake had whispered helplessly after she had slapped him.
"I'd like to Bob … but I can't."
And now she wondered what would have happened if she had allowed Blake to possess her. He was so kind and understanding. She was as bad as he … she had wanted him too … Now she wished she had.
"I wish I had let him!" she cried. Every sense and emotion had heightened to an almost painful intensity. She dropped the curtain savagely, almost tearing its thin fabric.
"Damn moon," she gritted the words between her teeth and flung herself on the bed.
She stared about her and wondered if Gaylord had ever been out with Thelma White. She gave a frightened little sob and bit her lips. Thelma wouldn't fight back … she knew that.
Joy lay there thinking, her fine nostrils flaring with her breathing. Her face very white, her eyes behind their sooty lashes, enormous in her small face. She was seeing Gaylord over Thelma's naked body. Her small fingers clutched tight, opened, and then clutched again. She thought about what Thelma had said. But it wasn't the kind of thing that it did any good to think about. If she kept on brooding over it, she would go mad, start crying again. She didn't want to do that. Gaylord hadn't asked for a date tonight, but she kept on hoping. Maybe he would call … maybe he would forget Thelma … maybe …
It was her mother's voice. Her heart leaped with excitement. It was Gaylord. He did call and she had just gotten herself upset for nothing. He was coming over. She wanted to break into wild laughter, and for a mad second, wondered what dress he would like best. She'd wear one that he would be sure to notice.
"Joy? Are you asleep?"
"No, Mother," she almost shouted.
"Mary Jane's here."
Mary Jane? Suddenly and forcibly, a hard stab shot through her, and she looked deflated, diminished. In the distance she heard a witch cackle, laughing at her dream and at her.
She turned about wearily. "I'll be there in a minute, Mary Jane." She almost cried. She felt enclosed in ice; rubbed her eyes. Mary Jane's here, she whispered to herself. Oh hell …
She gave a little laugh and left her room.