The Marchand Woman
The Marchand Woman
When the telephone rang she made a face. She wound a towel around her wet hair and tucked the edges in and picked it up on the fifth ring.
It was Howard, his voice very low-like a phonograph running at the wrong speed. "I'm glad I caught you at home. I'll be there in twenty minutes. Wait for me. Has anybody called you?"
"At this hour of the morning?"
"Leave it off the hook till I get there. I don't want it coming from someone else."
"Must you be melodramatic?"
"Yes. Wait for me."
By the time the doorbell rang she had fitted into skirt and blouse and sandals; she was putting her face on. She had a look through the Judas glass and saw him lighting a cigarette on the doorstep.
He seemed to have faded a bit with age, like a photostatic copy of himself. She was surprised to realize how long it had been since she had seen him face-to-face; it had all been letters and the occasional telephone vitriol. The things they had said to each other-
She opened the door to him; he neither spoke nor entered but simply looked at her, his eyes swollen. It unnerved her. She cried with completely false affection, "Howard, darling, why is it I never see you any more?" But she kept her face blank to put the lie to it.
Howard held up a forestalling finger. She let him in; he turned half around, waiting for her to close the door, holding the cigarette in the manner of an actor preparing to turn toward the audience and deliver a curtain line. But still he didn't speak.
"Darling, you look simply marvelous." An awkward lie. "I love the distinguished way your hair's graying at the sides. It would do credit to an investment banker."
He seemed caught in dumfounded paralysis. She tried again, needling him with her saucy screw-you grin. "How's your ass anyway?"
"Well then." She pointed him with vague weariness toward a chair.
He went to it like an old man, wincing as he sat down. She watched him search the coffee table with childlike baffled concentration. Exasperated-"Good grief!"-she plunged into the kitchen, found him an ashtray in a drawer, dropped it on the table before him so that it rattled. Howard twisted the half-consumed cigarette into it, grinding it out savagely. He looked around the room like a fitful airline passenger anxious to memorize the locations of the fastest exits.
"It's Robert," he said.
"Of course it's Robert. I can't imagine anything else that would bring you here."
Perversely she drew herself up. "He's dead."
"No. He's not dead as far as I know. Sit down, Carole."
She was furious. "What's happened? You've done your level best to provoke cardiac arrest and there's nothing wrong with him? You've no right-"
"I didn't say there was nothing wrong with him. Well actually as far as I know there's nothing physically wrong with him." He plucked feebly at his pocket. "I happened to be here." Found another cigarette. "In Los Angeles I mean. Meetings with the Japanese." He had to use both hands to light it. "The office reached me at my hotel an hour ago." He inhaled, choked, coughed, recovered. "It's an unhappy coincidence, my being here just now. I'd rather have been in Washington-I think this would have been easier long-distance."
She realized he was groping not for a way to tell her but for a way to avoid telling her. He kept glancing at the telephone as if he expected it to reprieve him. It was so masochistically like him: Never face quick pain if it was possible to choose the long agony of not facing it.
She controlled herself. "What's happened to him?"
He gave her a reproachful look. It slid away; he brooded at the cigarette and his mouth worked ruefully.
She said, "There is, I have to assume, a crisis involving our son-yet you insist on keeping it back so that I can watch you squirm in your ow