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The desert was very bright, very hot, and the car growled and whined and left a trail of dust behind it on the highway. The car passed a sign that the driver, the man, read aloud.
"Bedlow 15," the man read.
"Are you wanting to stop there?" the woman asked, more accusatory than questioning.
"I think it’s a big long desert after that," he said. "If we go on we probably won’t find a motel until very late." He started to scratch his head and almost immediately he felt her brushing his shoulder with her hand.
"You’re flaring again," she said matter-of-factly. "It might be this dry climate." He knew they’d not been in this climate long enough to make his psoriasis flare, but he made no comment. He didn’t want to have to tell her why he thought his skin had gone crazy: He hadn’t spent this many consecutive days in the company of his wife for several years. Others called his problem "psoriasis." He called it an allergy to his wife.
Bedlow, Nevada, grew up on both sides of the east/west interstate highway. There were pyramids of tires in front of the gas stations, neon Coors signs in the restaurant windows. A handful of motels were bunched together on the far side of town. The motels looked desperate, as though the desert beyond tugged at their foundations while they just barely managed to hold on to the fringes of the highway. The man picked the one motel with more than two cars in its parking court. It had a lighted sign that said "FREE SATELITE TV," with satellite misspelled.
He carried the big suitcase and the camera bag into their room and the woman took the two smaller bags and her purse. She moved to the right side of the bed with her load and he went to the left. In a matter of minutes everything was sorted out and in its place.
The man sat on his side of the bed, pulled up his pant legs and pulled down his socks. His calves and ankles were mottled with psoriasis lesions, some the size of dimes, some the size of a hand, all inflamed and bright red beneath a coarse cover of silverish scale. The man ran his fingernails over these lesions and the scale flew off in violent commotions. For a moment he closed his eyes while he scratched. Such was the relief he felt at finally being able to scratch his calves.
His wife noticed his preoccupation. She opened her cosmetics case on the bed and removed a small box that was gift wrapped. She tapped the man on the shoulder. "Here," she said and gave him the small gift box.
"Happy anniversary," she said.
"I thought we weren’t going to exchange gifts."
"I know, but it’s our twenty-fifth and I wanted to be able to give you something on this day."
"I didn’t get anything for you."
"It doesn’t matter. You arranged this vacation."
"What is it?" He knew by the shape and heft of the small box that it was a ring.
"Open it and see."
It was a ring. A new gold band.
"Try it on," the woman said. "It’s two sizes larger than your old one, so it should fit."
The man slipped it on his ring finger. It fit snug over the knuckle, comfortably loose at the base of the finger. It had been some time since he permanently relegated its predecessor to an accessories box on his nightstand at home.
"It fits," he said and smiled.
"Your hands aren’t bad with sores yet," she said. "The ring looks nice."
The woman closed her cosmetics case and took it with her to the bathroom. "Find us a place to eat," she said on her way.
The man scratched his legs some more.
For travelers uninterested in the lure of FREE SATELITE TV, this motel provided an in-room copy of The Bedlow Gazette, the town's weekly newspaper. The man read this while his wife used the bathroom. He saw the name Ann Priestly next to "Editor-in-Chief" in the paper's masthead. It so happens he had co-edited his college weekly with a girl named Ann Priestly twenty-two years before. She had been a year ahead of him in school but was probably younger, because he was a veteran of the Viet Nam War and started college three years later.
The newspaper staff had been mostly female. Ann had been one of the least memorable. She had been unattractive and dull, but very effective as a co-editor. He remembered her as the one who got things done. Their desks butted together. He spent a year wishing she had been better looking.
It was September and the days in Bedlow, Nevada, were still long. At dusk the couple was eating fried chicken in a restaurant across the highway from their motel.
"Do you realize," the woman said, "that we have been married exactly one half of our lives?"
The man watched her build a pile of peas between the tines of her fork.
"We're fifty and we've been married twenty-five years. That's interesting," he said.
"There's something magical about it," she said. "It can only happen once in a life time. And of course it could not happen at the same time for two people who are different ages."
The man looked at his wife and raised a hand to his scalp. "Don’t scratch at the dinner table," she said. He patted his hair instead of scratching his scalp — as if there had been a distracting cowlick shouting for his attention.
The man finished his meal and excused himself from their table. He needed to use the restroom, mostly to scratch. Down the hallway leading to the restrooms, out of sight from the dining area, he spied a pay phone with a slim telephone directory dangling on a chain. He looked up "Priestly, Ann" then called the number.
He didn't recognize the voice. "Is this Ann Priestly?"
"Is this THE Ann Priestly who used to edit The Weekly Prospector at Colorado State?"
"Why yes, I worked on The Weekly Prospector many years ago. Who's this?"
"Ann? I don't recognize your voice." He told her who he was and she sounded pleasantly surprised.
"Lilly and I are passing through," he said. "We're on vacation. I saw your name in the newspaper." He cut himself short, then quickly said, "Could I see you?"
"I can't leave my son," she said, "but why don't you two come over?"
"Well" he hesitated "Could it be later? Say around ten o'clock?"
At ten the man woke his wife to say he was going for a walk. She reminded him to take the key to their room.
Bedlow was laid out like a sutured incision: the cut was the highway, the sutures were the twenty or so four-block-long cross streets that bisect the highway. The man admired how difficult it would be to get lost in such a straight-forward place.
While he walked, he thought about Ann's having a boy. She hadn't said anything about a husband. He got the feeling it was just her and the boy now. The man felt relieved that somebody, sometime, had loved Ann Priestly. He’d been married a year by the time he went to college and he had been delighted to realize this made him more interesting to women peers. It would have been easy to cheat; that much was obvious. But he never did.
A little direct light on a post illuminated the number of Ann's house. The porch was a big one, as long as the front of the house, screened in and dark. Beyond the screen he saw light through a window. At the screen door he paused and scratched his scalp, then brushed his shoulders with his hands. He heard her call his name and laugh. She was sitting in the dark on the porch. He saw her when she stood up. She asked him through the screen, "Where's Lilly?" and he told her the truth.
By the time he was done saying Lilly didn't know about this visit, and that she was hopefully asleep in their motel room, Ann was facing him on the inside of the still-closed screen door. From his perspective she was a silhouette against the light coming from inside the house. Her hair was shoulder length; she was as thin as he remembered her; her clothes disguised whatever figure she might possess.
"You mean to tell me this is a clandestine visit?" she asked. He heard humor in the tone of her voice.
"I suppose it is," he said.
"Well, after all that wishful thinking those years ago, NOW you come around. Imagine that." She swung open the screen door and stood aside to let him in. "If we sit on the porch," she said, "we won't wake my boy."
The man followed her dark form to two weathered overstuffed chairs that sat cocked towards one another in the fall of light from the front room window. She took one and gestured him into the other. When she sat down in the dim light he could see her clear enough: Instantly remembrances grew sharper.
Ann squinted at the man. "You look different but I'm not sure why. You still have your hair."
"Which is a miracle," he said.
"And you never were what I'd call skinny."
"Maybe you're just older, huh?"
"That I am."
"No. I know what it is. You've lost that surprised look."
"What surprised look?"
"Didn't anybody ever tell you how you always looked surprised? You used to walk around the campus like someone who grew up in a cellar and just stepped into the daylight."
"It was that noticeable?"
"You were cute."
"I'm glad nobody told me. I also had a fragile ego. What about you? You don't look like you've aged that much."
She sniffed. "Damned allergies," she said. "I'm allergic to the desert."
"Lilly thinks I am, too."
"I have a skin condition that’s flaring pretty bad right now, but it’s not a desert allergy."
"My grandmother used to say that a skin condition was a sin sign. All the girls in my family were traumatized by the simultaneous occurrence of discovering orgasms and having acne."
The man laughed until he saw Ann looking nervously through the window. "I was drinking iced tea," she said and gestured towards a pitcher and two tumblers on a table in the shadows. "Would you care for some?"
She served the tea and sat back down with one leg cocked under her.
"You know what I do here," she said. "I want to hear all about what you've been up to."
It took the man only a few minutes to cover his post-college life. He told the story he smugly called his rise and fall, about the fast track up the business ladder, a tumultuous term at the top in New York City, and then his decision to abandon his career and return to the slower life.
"Professionally I have become a shadow of my former self," he said theatrically, "but life as a shadow does have interesting moments."
Ann Priestly said she stuck with journalism out of college; worked through a succession of reporting jobs on big city dailies; finally broke into management; and then made an odd turn.
"I found an opportunity to be editor-in-chief of a small-town weekly in Kansas," she said. "And I took it. That was about five years ago. Since then I've had three more editor-in-chief jobs on small-town weeklies. I've been with the Gazette for nine months."
They were silent and sipped tea for a moment at the end of Ann's story. Then suddenly there was a sound in the doorway to the house. It was an almost inhuman sound: a kind of cry, maybe a word in the making. It startled both of them.
"Oh Berry!" Ann said.
The man turned and saw the child inside the door.
Berry stood in his soiled pj's, clutching a blanket in one hand, the other hand splayed open against the screen in the door. Berry was a Down syndrome child, probably around ten or eleven years old. Ann Priestly sighed. She stepped around the man towards the door. "I think we have a mess to take care of here," she said. "You might as well come in. I'll be a minute cleaning him up and then he won't go to sleep again as long as you're here. We'll all be comfortable in the front room."
It was the house of a poor, single parent. The decor was nomadic. Anything of value was small, easily packed or lugged; all the furniture was old, second hand, probably bought in Bedlow and destined to be sold there again. The walls were sparsely appointed. The man found a few photographs interesting: Ann, younger than her college days with an older man, both on skis, his arm over her shoulder, she smiling broadly; they looked related, like father and daughter or uncle and niece. Ann, older than her college days, perhaps just a few years ago, in the center of a group of nine people standing on the front steps of a building; Ann holds a tabloid open for the camera to read, which it can't, but the significance is clear anyway: Ann's first editor-in-chief job on a small-town weekly. Ann, pregnant, stands next to a tall, skinny, youthful fellow with wild hair and a sneer-like smile. The man was studying this photo when Ann and Berry returned to the room.
"I would introduce you to Stubby," Ann said with no acrimony as she moved her eyes to the picture he had been studying, "but I haven't the slightest idea where he is."
Berry was wearing a clean pair of pajamas and looked polished. He was studying his mother's hand in his, and drooling slightly. Ann tugged him towards the divan and gestured the man into an overstuffed chair opposite.
"Would it be better if I left now?" the man asked before he sat down. She motioned him to sit and then she stretched Berry out on the divan with his head in her lap. He clung to her hand, pulled it around in front of him so he could continue to stare at it. Periodically he would glance up at the man and his expression gave no clue as to what he saw or might be thinking.
"I met Stubby about twelve years ago," Ann said. "We got married six months later and Berry was born six months after that. Stubby left before I was out of the hospital."
"I'm sorry," the man said.
Ann laughed. "I'm sure we've been better off because the jerk high-tailed it."
"But it's been tough, I'm sure."
Ann looked at the man. "It has required an attitude adjustment."
A moment later Ann said, "What will Lilly do if she wakes up and you're not there?"
"She'll check the clock, roll over and go back to sleep. Are you happy here, Ann?"
She paused and shifted beneath the boy. "Relative to where? Berry and I have come closer to the necessary compromises here than anyplace else so far." She gathered a breath and went on. "Children like Berry perturb others. Children like Berry and parents like me get pushed into institutional solutions. If you don't buy that — and after awhile I just couldn't buy that — you leave and go somewhere else."
"But how do you manage?"
"You mean without the institutions? We make do."
"But he requires special care, doesn't he?"
"Care? Yeah. Care, devotion, compassion, appreciation, love. Not so different from you or me, eh?" Her lips trembled and then she looked away. "But I know what you mean and yes, I can't just drop Berry off at the nearest day care when I go to work in the morning. There's a woman in town who takes him for a few hours a day. She works with him."
"Forgive me for being so ignorant, or tell me if you don't want to talk about this, but can he get better?"
"Better? You mean like in cured?" Her bitterness hung in the air for a moment and then collapsed with her exhalation. "It's pretty certain that he's not going to win a Pulitzer Prize or become President, but he does learn."
Just then Berry slipped out from under Ann’s arm and landed gracefully on the carpet. He stared at the man’s shoes for a moment, quickly crawled across the three feet that separated them. He touched the man, not on the shoe, but on his ankle. The man instantly realized his socks had dropped during the walk, his pant legs had rode up when he sat down, and Berry was fascinated by the psoriasis.
Berry held up the finger that had been touching the man. "Oh," Ann said, "You’re bleeding. He wants you to see that you’re bleeding."
The man pulled up his socks without looking at his ankle. "It’s that skin condition I mentioned," he said. "The lesions itch and, when I scratch them too much, they’ll bleed a little."
"What is this condition?" Ann reached down and tugged Berry back to her.
Ann gazed expressionless for a moment until Berry was resettled under her arm. "I’ve used that word in Scrabble, I think. Doesn’t it begin with a ‘P’?"
The man nodded and said, "Editor Ann. Correct as usual."
To change the subject the man asked, "Do you ever think about getting married again?"
She laughed quietly. "I'd be some catch, wouldn't I? Of course I think about it. I'm an incurable romantic and I think constantly about being married." She harrumphed lightly and added, "But I'd settle for an occasional lover."
Their eyes connected. "What about you?" she asked. "Have you ever thought about being married?"
"Of course," he said, pretending to ignore the jab, and paused before responding. "But I'd settle for an occasional lover."
They both laughed, but it was a quick nervous laugh, and it worried Berry. He shot panicky glances back and forth between his mother and the stranger.
They were quiet while Berry settled down.
"I hate to be a domestic," Ann said, "but are you any good with tools?"
The man shrugged and she explained. "The headboard on Berry's bed is about to fall off. He shakes it and I think all the screw holes have been stripped. Any night now the thing's going to fall apart."
He told her he would be happy to take a look, and he meant it.
Ann carried Berry from the living room to the kitchen, where she pointed to the tool box that the man picked up. Then she led them to the one bedroom in the house. Two twin beds were set parallel, no more than three feet from each other. Berry's was stripped, the sheets had been removed probably when she changed his pajamas, blankets were piled at the foot.
Ann sat down on the edge of her bed and maneuvered the boy to lay him down, again with his head in her lap. He had resumed clutching her hand between his.
The man studied the problem with Berry's headboard and determined it could be fixed. "I can move the headboard a half an inch to the right or left of center and bore new holes for the screws. Is that okay?"
Ann stifled a giggle and said, "We'll manage fine if Berry's headboard is slightly off center."
Berry and Ann were his audience while the man worked. In ten minutes he was done and in that time the boy went to sleep.
Ann was able to slide herself out from under Berry without waking him. The man was able to get himself and the tools out of the bedroom without making noise. Ann closed the door very quietly behind them and led them back to the kitchen.
The man rubbed the sweat from his hands onto his pants. He noticed the first signs of psoriasis lesions on the insides of his wrists. "I should go now, before he wakes."
Ann stepped closer to him. "He'll sleep solid now. I could make more tea."
She was standing so close to him that she had to look up, and her eyes darted back and forth to read his face.
The silence did not last long. The man said, "No. I should be going."
She blinked. Her head lowered and her eyes looked away.
On the porch she took his hands in hers. The light coming from the door put her in silhouette and made her face invisible. The man raised her hands and kissed them. He could not think of anything to say, so he leaned forward to kiss her on the forehead, but instead his lips grazed the bridge of her nose and they both giggled.
"I’m not going to get your skin condition that starts with a ‘P’, am I?" she whispered. Then she hooked a hand behind his neck and pulled him to her and kissed him in earnest.
"Next you're going to tell me you always wanted to do that," the man said.
"Don't flatter yourself," she said, amused and in control.
The man backed into the outer screen door, which creaked open. They let go of each other.
"If Lilly ever finds out about this," Ann said, "please do give her my best."
The man blew her another kiss before he turned and walked away.
In the motel's parking lot, the man stopped and breathed deeply several times. Inside, Lilly slept soundly. He removed his clothes in silence and became aware that he needed a shower. In the bathroom mirror a choir of psoriasis lesions shouted at him. They were staked out on his arms, chest, belly; hiding in the small of his back and on the backs of his thighs. Some were covered with silverish flakes, all were flaming angrily. He refused to scratch any of them, knowing in a moment the hot water would ease the itch. How badly would a glimpse of him this way, he wondered, have terrified Berry? He refused to muse over Ann’s possible reactions.
In bed, the woman was on her side, back to the man. He gently stretched his arm over her and used the hand sporting the new wedding ring to cup her breast as he nestled against her, spoon-fashion. He felt her moving slightly, uncomplainingly beside him and under his arm. He whispered gently, close to her ear, "Are you awake?"
Ann Priestly took a glass of iced herb tea with her to the porch where the desert seemed to be waiting for her on the other side of the screen. Before she settled in her overstuffed chair, she sneezed.